The history of Britain, as any fule kno, begins in 1066 and stretches in a long, complicated, but strangely unbroken zigzag from Will the Conq to Liz the Second. Apart from kings’n’queens and a million battles, a few Things happened, such as Magna Carta or The Gunpowder Plot. Mr. Richards, our history teacher, made us learn all the dates well before we’d actually got there in the history book, so even though we were still on Richard II, we knew, for example, that Admiral Byng was shot for the loss of Minorca in 1757.
Other Things that happened were the South Sea Bubble (1720), a strange aquatic phenomenon involving a huge dome somewhere near Tahiti, and the Black Hole of Calcutta (1756), an uncovered manhole into which people fell and then spent the rest of their lives in a sewer. Although the peasants would sometimes revolt, there was no one in history apart from kings’n’queens, who generally did a couple of Things and fought a dozen battles before being murdered. One exception was Henry VII, who didn’t do much apart from end the War of the Roses, have Henry VIII (who did a lot) and be a Tudor. Kings’n’queens were either Good or Bad, and Henry VII was definitely Good, if a little boring.
Now, I’ve just finished Winter King by Thomas Penn. I’ve mentioned before that I didn’t expect to finish before 2018, so slow was my progress and so complicated the story. Here’s a representative passage: Philip of Burgundy’s unexpected death in September 1506 had got him thinking again about Catherine’s older sister Juana, whose pale, isolated beauty he had admired at Richmond the previous year, and who was now Philip’s widow. In recent years Henry had of course been pursuing Philip’s sister, Margaret of Savoy – rich, Hapsburg, and aunt to Philip and Juana’s son Charles of Castile, who was due to be betrothed to Henry’s daughter Mary. Well, after a while I stopped trying to figure out who was who and just went, “Yeah, OK,” like you do when you’re watching Mulholland Drive. And so, helped by a couple of plane flights, I managed not only to finish it but enjoy it. I’ve forgotten most of it already, but the lasting impression is of having to revise my view: Henry VII, apparently, was not just shifty, paranoid and avaricious, but a pioneer in the art of political spin. Now, if that makes you think of a recent British Prime Minister, you’re being very unfair. Because Henry, after all, didn’t take Britain into war. Tony Blair did.