The Children of Henry VIII – John Guy

John Guy has written a beautifully succinct account of the lives of Henry VIII’s children – Edward, Mary, Elizabeth & his illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy. There have been so many books written about the Tudors & I’ve read so many of them that another book about the family seemed a little redundant. However, I loved John Guy’s award winning biography of Mary, Queen of Scots, My Heart Is My Own, which I read in my pre-blog days. I also have A Daughter’s Love, the story of Thomas More & his daughter, Margaret, on the tbr shelves, so I decided that any book by John Guy was worth my attention.

It’s a well-known story. Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509 on the death of his father, Henry VII, the victor of Bosworth. The Tudors were still a new dynasty & Henry was determined that England would not be plunged back into the civil wars that plagued the 15th century. He had married Catherine of Aragon, the Spanish princess who was the widow of his brother, Arthur. Catherine bore Henry many children but only a daughter, Mary, survived childhood. Henry had many mistresses & may have fathered several illegitimate children. He only acknowledged one, Henry Fitzroy, born to Elizabeth Blount. Henry seems to have been genuinely fond of Fitzroy & he made him Duke of Richmond, giving his his own household in the north of England. His status was almost equal to that of Mary, his legitimate daughter. Mary, though, was a girl & Henry didn’t believe that a woman could rule alone.

Catherine’s failure to bear a son was an urgent problem. Henry may have considered legitimizing Fitzroy – after all, his own claim to the throne came through the illegitimate Beaufort line – but he longed for a legitimate heir, acknowledged by all. Anne Boleyn’s refusal to become Henry’s mistress & her promise that she would bear Henry a son if they were married, precipitated the crisis known as the King’s Great Matter – the annulment of his marriage to Catherine. The proceedings dragged on for years as Henry’s desire to marry Anne led to the Reformation & the break with Rome. Eventually, Henry & Anne were married although the longed for child, born in September 1533, was a girl, Elizabeth. Anne still retained her hold on Henry’s affections although he began to look elsewhere for his pleasures. Anne’s downfall began with the death of her great rival, Catherine of Aragon in January 1536. Anne miscarried a child soon after & the baby had been a boy. Henry’s ominous words, “It seems that God will not give me male children” signalled the beginning of the end for Anne. Within four months, she was dead, executed at the Tower along with five men accused of being her lovers.

Henry had been courting Jane Seymour for some time before Anne’s downfall. Jane was the opposite to Anne in every way. Meek instead of confident; modest instead of bold, Jane was coached by her family to be the perfect candidate for Henry’s next wife. They were married just days after Anne’s execution & Jane succeeded in giving Henry his long awaited heir when Edward was born in 1537. Unfortunately Jane died just days later. However, Henry had his heir & when he died in 1547, Edward succeeded him at the age of only nine.

One of the strengths of this book is the description of the relationships of the three children with each other (Fitzroy died young). Mary was displaced when Anne Boleyn was in the ascendant & she always resented Elizabeth as a consequence. Mary refused to acknowledge her father as head of the Church or to acknowledge the illegitimacy of her mother’s marriage. As punishment, she was forced to live in the same household with Elizabeth who was now the acknowledged heir. When Anne Boleyn fell, Elizabeth was also made illegitimate & both girls removed from the line of succession.

Mary & Elizabeth always accepted Edward as heir to the throne & both had a loving relationship with him. Edward & Elizabeth were especially close, near in age & both brought up in the Protestant religion. Mary’s Catholicism became a barrier between her & Edward as he & his advisers sought to consolidate the break with Rome. This policy culminated in Edward’s Devise for the Succession, in which he removed both Mary & Elizabeth from the succession & appointed his Protestant cousin, Lady Jane Grey, as his heir. Mary & her supporters were ready when Edward died in 1553 & Queen Jane’s reign lasted only a few days. Elizabeth very publicly arrived to support her half-sister at her triumphant entry into London & at her coronation but the spiky relationship between the two women would dominate Mary’s reign.

Mary & Elizabeth were rivals from the start. Mary’s desire to take the English Church back to Rome was out of step with her people’s desires especially when she started burning heretics at the stake. Her marriage to a foreign prince, Philip of Spain, was unpopular, & her failure to have an heir meant that her legacy looked increasingly shaky. Elizabeth was lucky to survive Mary’s reign. Seen as the saviour of Protestant hopes, Elizabeth was the focus of several attempted revolts against Mary’s rule. She was clever enough to avoid any direct involvement with rebels although she spent several anxious months in the Tower. She also managed to avoid marrying any of the candidates put forward by Mary & Philip in a bid to sideline her. Eventually, on her deathbed, Mary had to acknowledge Elizabeth as her heir, knowing that her first act would be to dismantle the religious settlement she had been determined to implement.

Elizabeth learnt many lessons from Mary’s mistakes. Her reign was characterized by her desire to reach a moderate religious settlement without “making windows into men’s souls“. She refused to marry either a foreign prince or one of her own subjects & she refused to name an heir, knowing from bitter experience how men look to the rising sun if they’re dissatisfied with the current monarch.

The Children of Henry VIII is a richly detailed story told with real flair & concision. John Guy has told a complex story with an enormous cast of characters in just over 200pp (in my ebook edition). It makes me wonder why any history needs to be longer.

I read The Children of Henry VIII courtesy of NetGalley.

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