Henry VIII : the quest for fame – John Guy

I mentioned the Penguin Monarchs series a little while ago & I’ve now read one of them – John Guy’s biography of Henry VIII, subtitled The quest for fame.

The books themselves are lovely. Small, pocket-sized hardbacks; white boards with a paper wrap around half-size jacket. Guy is a well-known writer & historian of the Tudor period. I enjoyed his biographies of Mary, Queen of Scots, My Heart Is My Own, & his last book, The Children of Henry VIII, so I was looking forward to this book. I was also interested in how he would write a biography of such a larger than life figure as Henry in just 100pp. Actually, I think that’s going to be a challenge for most of the authors in this series.

John Guy tackles the task by focusing on one aspect of Henry’s character while also managing to tell a coherent story mentioning the vital signposts of his life & reign. Henry VIII was consumed by his desire to be a chivalric champion

Henry was never meant to be king. He was brought up in his mother’s household & was very close to her. A fascinating manuscript illustration was discovered only a few years ago which may show young Henry weeping for his mother’s death. Henry’s father, Henry VII, famously usurped the throne by defeating the last Yorkist king, Richard III, at Bosworth in 1485 & his marriage to Elizabeth of York was meant to bring together the two warring factions. The Tudor kings may have spent the next fifty years pursuing the last Yorkist claimants but, by & large, their reigns were peaceful. Rather than foreign invasions, the desire for a male heir to continue the dynasty would become a focus of the reign of every Tudor monarch.

Henry VII’s eldest son, Arthur, died at the age of just 15 which meant that young Henry, his father’s only surviving son, became the heir. Henry VII’s grief at the death of Elizabeth of York in 1503, just a year after Arthur’s death, changed his character. His health declined, he became suspicious & almost paranoid in his desire to protect Henry from any evil influences. When his father died in 1509, Henry was just eighteen & he was determined from the first to make his mark in European politics. He had a full treasury & a boundless belief in his own ideas. He was determined to go his own way & attempted to do this by marrying his brother’s widow, Katherine of Aragon, in an attempt to forge an alliance with her father, Ferdinand of Spain. He tried, at various times, to ally himself with Francis I of France, Ferdinand’s successor, Charles V & the various Popes in Rome. He tried to annex Scotland, whether through conquest in war against his nephew, James V, or through marriage alliance through the proposed marriage of his son, Edward with the baby Mary, Queen of Scots in the 1540s. None of his foreign wars were very successful & his loving, respectful relationship with the Papacy came to an end when he wanted to divorce Katherine & marry Anne Boleyn in his desperate search for a male heir.

John Guy is very good at elucidating Henry’s character. Henry was eager to impress those he respected & admired, from Archduke Philip, who was shipwrecked in England in 1506 & dazzled the teenage Henry with his abilities as a jouster & all-round sportsman to Francis I & Pope Julius II. Henry also showed a remarkable ability to believe whatever was most convenient for himself, from choosing the passages in the Bible that supported his contention that his marriage to Katherine was invalid (while ignoring others that said the opposite) to his refusal to see those he had dismissed from his favour, from his wives to his most trusted courtiers & servants. Once they had disappointed or betrayed him, he never saw them again. It was as if he had deleted them from his memory, out of sight, out of mind. It was on to the next wife who would surely give him the son he craved, or the next minister who would carry out his grand plans. He is at his worst in the mid 1530s when he persecuted Thomas More, Bishop Fisher & the Carthusian monks for their refusal to accept the break with Rome.

I also enjoyed Guy’s discussion of the way that Henry created his own image through his acquisitions of art & property. He became enormously wealthy through the Dissolution of the Monasteries, part of his break with Rome & the establishment of a new Church of England with Henry himself as the head. He commissioned tapestries woven with gold thread depicting the stories of King David (he loved the story of David so much that he eventually had nine sets of tapestries depicting the story) & Solomon. The quality of the work rivalled anything owned by the Pope. He patronised Hans Holbein, who produced a new style of portraiture at Henry’s Court. Holbein’s image of the king, standing full square & staring us straight in the eye, is still the image most of us see when we think of Henry.

Henry’s last years were dominated by his own ill health, both physical & mental. He never recovered from a fall from his horse in the early 1530s which resulted in an ulcer on his leg that refused to heal. His paranoia grew as he aged & his temper grew more uncertain. His last wife, Katherine Parr, narrowly escaped arrest when she disputed religion with Henry. He was about to have her arrested for heretical views, encouraged by the conservative elements at Court. Fortunately she was warned in time & convinced Henry that she had only wanted to divert his mind from the pain of his leg with her arguments & that she would, of course, be guided by him in everything. It’s hard to be sure whether Henry was serious about arresting Katherine or was he just trying to frighten her into obedience? It must have been a terrifying experience to be at Henry’s Court in those final years.

Henry VIII : the quest for fame is an excellent introduction to Henry’s life. There’s also a lot to enjoy if you’ve read other biographies of Henry as John Guy brings a new perspective to his portrait of the most famous monarch in England’s history.

Next up is Stephen Alford’s biography of Henry’s son, Edward VI. Just as it’s a difficult task to write a short biography of a king like Henry VIII, it will be interesting to see what Alford does with a boy who became king at the age of nine & was dead at sixteen.

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