Whether the image is an actual contemporary portrait by Hans Holbein, a film portrayal such as by Charles Laughton in 1933, television appearances by actors such as Keith Michell in the 1970s or more recently Jonathan Rhys Meyers in the current BBC 2 series “The Tudors”, many amateur students of British history would claim to have an awareness of the reign of Henry VIII and a picture in their minds of Henry, the man. Henry’s reign forms a favourite component on many a school syllabus or course of study. “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived” is probably one of the most frequently uttered mnemonics by secondary school pupils trying to recall the sequence of Henry VIII’s six wives.
Such awareness tends to the totally superficial. Five hundred years after the accession of the monarch whose impact on the course of history was to be so profound – but utterly unpredictable at the start of his reign – we have witnessed a number of events which have sought to extend our knowledge of this crucial and fascinating period of our history. The recent exhibition at the British Library “Henry VIII: Man and Monarch” and the publication of “Henry : Virtuous Prince” by David Starkey – the overlapping material creates a most forceful impression – provide the student of Tudor history with an immensely rich source of material to help us understand this turning point in the development of our nation.
“Henry: Virtuous Prince” is the first of a two part biography. In simple chronology it covers a period of barely twenty years: from Henry’s birth on 28 June 1491, his boyhood as the second son – the “spare” – of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, his elevation to become Prince of Wales after the death of his elder brother Arthur, his accession to the throne, his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, the coronation on 24th June 1509, concluding with the death of the baby Prince Henry on 23rd February 1511. This book is however so much more than the narrative of Henry’s early life. It skilfully places Henry’s early years within the context of the period. The conclusion of the Wars of the Roses in all its complexity, the security of the Crown against a backdrop of claims of pretenders, the significance of both international relationships and domestic jealousies all help the reader fully to comprehend the significance of what is to come. For this part of the biography also hints at some aspects of Henry’s character which we expect to see develop at a later stage. We are also introduced to many of the figures who have roles to play as the story unfolds, for example Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell.
David Starkey has achieved what only the ablest writers of history can achieve. His book is both a scholarly historical analysis – and a first rate story. Whilst the research behind the text is clearly exhaustive, the bibliographical cross-referencing is impressively detailed and the authority of his commentary undoubted, Starkey’s narrative style, quite frequently conversational, on occasions gives the impression of the sound of narrator Starkey’s own voice, coming from the wings whilst the action unfold on stage before us. On many occasions he hints very strongly at his own interpretation of events, at others he openly invites us, the readers, to draw our own.
The result is that this is a hugely enjoyable, readable volume. It moves at pace, rather more familiar to the readers of historical “whodunits” than heavier tomes. It leaves the reader feeling well informed, delightfully entertained and impatient for the companion volume.
This is a first rate biography and wholeheartedly recommended. Not to be missed!
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