I came to this book with quite a store of Henry knowledge – I promise not all of it comes from The Tudors, but this has been a great excuse to dig out the series again and enjoy Henry Cavill in leather trousers. In my previous home I had the alcoves each side of my fireplace turned into bookshelves and one side was all books on the Tudor period. A mix of novels and non-fiction it covered all the usual authors: David Starkey, Phillipa Gregory, Lucy Worsley, Alison Weir and many more. I have read each of Weir’s six wives series and her other novels on Elizabeth I and Lady Jane Grey. Her last novel was based on Elizabeth of York, Henry’s mother and daughter of Edward IV. All of them have been that brilliant mix of sound background research and an ability to get inside the characters and bring them to life. However, you don’t have to read any of her earlier work to enjoy this book, I’m just a Tudor Nerd! I wondered how Henry would fare, given that her previous books have shown great empathy for the position women found themselves in at the Tudor Court, especially where that ill treatment was at Henry’s hands. Interestingly, I read this alongside Prince Harry’s autobiography Spare, something that fascinated me given that Henry VIII’s story is largely influenced by that dynamic of ‘heir and spare.’ Henry is the man who was never intended to be king. Only the death of his brother Arthur, Prince of Wales, opened the way for a king who seemed almost meant to be. How could this well-built, ornately dressed and powerful man of the Holbein portrait not have been the King? It seems strange to think he was probably destined to be Duke of York and of much lesser importance than the huge presence he still is in our royal history. Did I see parallels between the man whose Twitter followers call Good King Harry and this similarly red-haired Tudor spare? Only a few!
I thought what Weir did really well was put Henry’s controversial and bloody reign into context. It’s easy to forget where Henry comes from and how violent and treacherous the route to the Crown was prior to his birth. As Weir explains, Henry’s maternal grandfather was Edward IV, a man who took the crown in the years of fighting between the York and Lancaster royal houses, known as the Wars of the Roses after the county emblems of the white and the red rose. However, it was also known as the Cousin’s Wars and to put that in a modern context it’s as if Princes Harry and William fought for the crown against Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie. It took a concerted effort by Henry’s grandmothers Margaret Beaufort and her rival Elizabeth Woodville to bring both houses together with a royal marriage and the new emblem of the Tudor Rose. Margaret was Henry VII’s mother and fought hard for her son to claim his crown, which he eventually did on the battlefield against Richard III. Elizabeth was Edward IV wife and despite losing both her sons, the rightful heirs to the throne who are believed to have been murdered in the Tower of London, she encouraged her daughter Elizabeth of York to make a political marriage to Henry Tudor, the new King. The emblem of their arranged marriage was a red rose for Lancaster with a white centre for York. These became known as the Tudor Rose and can be seen in many Tudor palaces and churches like York Minster. The country had endured years of in-fighting, from huge battles to hidden murders such as Edward IV and Richard, then Duke of York, allegedly murdering their brother by drowning him in a barrel of malmsey. Henry’s parents brought some stability to the country, despite Henry VII’s constant paranoia about usurpers and the lost Princes from the tower reappearing. If we imagine all of this followed by the death of Henry’s elder brother Arthur who died without heirs, it’s possible to see some of pressure upon the young king’s shoulders. Considering the paranoia he witnessed in his own father and his grandmother Margaret who drilled it into Henry that the only way to keep the crown secure was to have heirs, we can see the seeds of Henry’s own obsessions, paranoia and hatred of betrayal.
Often we only see the later King Henry on television and in fiction, because those latter years of his reign from meeting Anne Boleyn onwards are so dramatic. It’s easy to forget that Henry ruled and lived happily with his first wife and Arthur’s widow Catherine of Aragon from 1509 until he met Anne Boleyn in 1525, although he remained married to Catherine until 1533. There are only fourteen years between his marriage to Anne until his own death in 1547, in which he married, divorced or beheaded four more wives. I loved how Weir captures the earlier and often ignored years of Henry’s reign because we see something of the great prince that all of Europe were talking about. A tall, handsome and robust young man in direct contrast to his brother Arthur, he was also a great horseman and a competitive jouster. He was often reprimanded for missing lessons in order to go hunting or practising in the tilt yard with his companions, usually Charles Brandon. Yet he wasn’t just an imposing physical presence, Henry was very intelligent in that he spoke French and understood Latin and was even taught by the philosopher Erasmus. He could compose music and was an elegant dancer, with a definite eye for the ladies of the court. Even his early happy years with Catherine were littered with affairs, the most famous being Anne’s sister Mary Boleyn and Bessie Blount, both of whom were rumoured to have the King’s illegitimate children. It was interesting to read about Henry’s role in welcoming Catherine as Arthur’s bride and how much he admired her from a very young age. After Arthur’s death he was adamant he wanted to marry Catherine, with a dispensation sought from the Pope for their union. Henry’s father seemed reluctant to solemnise the match, despite a betrothal ceremony taking place. I have read elsewhere that the King had considered Catherine for himself and it was only when the King died that their marriage took place, in fact it was one of the first things Henry did as King. He may not have been faithful physically but there was a constancy in Henry’s feelings for Catherine, he admired her greatly and felt she would be a fitting queen for him.
Weir also shows how different Henry’s court was from his father’s. Henry VII had faults, but he was contemplative, careful when making decisions and had financially secured their reign after finding a depleted treasury due to years of war. Henry wanted to be a generous King, known to keep a a celebratory and ostentatious court. He undertook building new palaces, promoting art and culture, keeping a generous table and was determined to use some of the money saved by his father to take Calais and become King of France once more. He wanted to excel in all things, but this extravagance was also a sign of things to come, developing from generous young King to a petulant and spoiled man with a body ruined by greed, excess and risk taking. The most damaging risk being his jousting accident, where he was knocked out cold for some time and sustained a leg wound that never healed, caused intense pain and smelled terrible due to infection. I have often wondered whether it was possible that he sustained a head injury in this accident, because it does seem to be a turning point in his life, after which he made several questionable decisions. He decreed that his courtiers should acknowledge and accept his relationship with Anne Boleyn as well as his plan to make her Queen. His insistence on this point led to a relationship breakdown with one of his most trusted advisors, Sir Thomas More. The day he executed More was also a point of no return, I believe it haunted him for the rest of his life that he’d killed a good man, a man of God.
Weir made me look at Henry’s early life with more empathy than I have before. She brings to life the childhood loss of his mother (another event in common with our Prince Harry) and the huge impact it had. He remembers her softness and her gentle voice, a memory he needs when his father is preoccupied with duty. Henry has to grow up early, but little reminders of his mum pop up everywhere, especially her smell. I felt he could have been a different man if she had lived. There are some warning signs of the tyrant he becomes, because he’s jealous of Arthur from a young age. Arthur keeps his own court in Wales and Henry would love to have his own court, his own income and a bit of Arthur’s power, not to mention wanting Arthur’s bride from when she first arrived in the country. When all of it becomes his I did wonder whether there was a bit of survivor’s guilt. His father’s paranoia about losing the crown and his over-protectiveness after the death of his first son, mean he keeps Henry from carousing in bars with his friends and preserves some of his reputation for marriage. Weir shows us the weight of that history and expectation on the young prince’s shoulders. It’s something Henry is constantly pushing against, so that when he does unexpectedly become King he is determined to make changes. He has a tendency to promote men who are self-made, above the usual courtiers or advisors of his father’s. He relies on Cardinal Wolsey and after that he promotes Thomas Cromwell, a commoner and son of a blacksmith. The men who advised his father are old now and have known Henry his whole life, they’re aware of a recklessness in the young King that needs reigning in. Newly made men show the deference Henry expects as a King, but being younger and perhaps more aware of the way the world is changing they also allow him to take risks. We also see Henry’s own paranoia emerging when he and Catherine start to lose children, most particularly his two month old son. I felt like I understood Henry better after reading this novel and it was interesting to see some thoughts I’d had about Henry’s personality and behaviour placed in context. I didn’t like him more, but I did feel sorry for him in parts especially in his difficult relationship with his father. Weir provides possible reasons for the cruel and changeable behaviour that made Henry the most famous King in our history. I felt completely immersed in his psyche but also the whole Tudor court because Weir breathes life into a story we all know something about, turning historical caricatures into real people. Their problems also seem less far-fetched given Royal headlines over the last few years, although this spare ended up with the crown.
Many thanks to Headline Review and Caitlin Raynor for my proof copy of this novel and to Anne at Random Things Tours for my place on the blog tour and your support.
Meet the Author
Alison Weird is a bestselling historical novelist of Tudor fiction, and the leading female historian in the UK. She has published more than thirty books, including many leading works of non-fiction and has sold over three million copies worldwide. Her novels include the Tudor Rose trilogy which spans three generations of history’s most iconic family – The Tudors, and the highly acclaimed Six Tudor Queens series about the wives of Henry VIII, all of which were Sunday Times bestsellers. Alison is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and an honorary life patron of Historic Royal Palaces.