The Books Interview: Thomas Penn

Your book Winter King is about the "dawn of Tudor England". Why are we obsessed with the Tudors?

We associate the Tudor period with two figures in particular: Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Both of them are larger than life. Henry VIII was so monstrous, he captures the imagination in such a way that he tends to eclipse others.

Personalities aside, this is a period of English history that is totally defining. When Henry VII takes the throne in 1485, England is a feudal kingdom. By 1603, it's on the way to becoming a nation state.

What first interested you about Henry VII?

The way he rules. The way he produces what is in fact a very curious and anomalous form of government.

Henry emerges in the book as an almost Machiavellian figure.

You can map Henry VII as a ruler right on to Machiavelli's ideal prince. He has a great will to power and a great sense of realpolitik, both of which are Machiavellian characteristics.

The way he constructs his government is reactive, in that he is looking for mechanisms of control the whole time. One of the things he alights on is the usefulness of financial bonds. These were used at every level of society. They were used as legally binding instruments; they were used incommerce. And kings used them as a way of guaranteeing good behaviour.

Would it be accurate to say that Henry VII is the first modern king?

Yes, absolutely. He is more recognisable to us, in the way that he used capital to rule, than the medieval kings, who usually wielded power at the point of a lance.

Henry was self-fashioned. We associate this idea of the "new man", the constructed self, with the 16th century, but it was happening throughout the 15th century, too. Henry, Earl of Richmond, who became Henry VII, is an expression of that. It's all about self-fashioning.

Look at the way heraldry works: it's about creating lineages.

You did a PhD in history before working in publishing. Were you ever tempted to pursue an academic career?

No. What I wanted to do was to write books that would be rigorous, that would be contributions to knowledge, in the way that academic books should be - but I didn't want to feel I had to display all the workings. I was very keen for the book to be read by people who wouldn't come to it with vast knowledge of the 15th century. I wanted to write narrative.

Did you have any models for that kind of narrative history?

It is impossible to mention the early Tudor period without mentioning David Starkey, who is a great teller of a tale. He has done so much to popularise this kind of history. Charles Nicholl, on a different level, is a terrific writer. His book on Christopher Marlowe, The Reckoning, is wonderfully readable.

And then there are people like Helen Castor and Tom Holland, who are expert at turning a great body of knowledge into something very accessible.

Why does narrative history continue to sell in such large quantities, do you think?

It's one of the phenomenal publishing success stories. I think it's a question of identity, of how we interpret our past. How do we interpret where we come from, how do we interpret the present by means of the past? I think people are perennially fascinated by that.

But isn't discussion of the question of identity fraught today?

Yes. Over the next two or three years, with the referendum on Scottish independence, things are going to crystallise a great deal. Whether this is going to lead to more people buying books about the Tudors and trying to rediscover their Englishness, I couldn't say.

I saw an advert the other day for the "Olympics in Great Britain" and, lo and behold, there was a big picture of fat old Henry VIII on it. But he had nothing to do with Britain; he was English. Sooner or later, this country will start having to define itself in positive terms as English, rather than British.

Thomas Penn's "Winter King: the Dawn of Tudor England" is newly published by Allen Lane (£20)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The next great depression