on 28 December 2007
For many of us, Henry IV is the king who deposed Richard II, fathered Henry V and features in three of Shakespeare's historical plays. He reigned as King of England from 1399 to 1413 and while the significant events of his reign are documented in history, the man himself largely remains in the shadows.
In this book, Ian Mortimer sets out to bring Henry IV out of the shadows by providing both context and perspective for his actions. Mortimer's research and energetic writing do shed light, but it is not quite enough to infuse Henry IV with personality and life. The people around Henry IV largely remain in the shadows and it is their perspectives that would enable us to get a clearer picture of the man who was the king.
Ian Mortimer has provided comprehensive notes and a wealth of information in his select bibliography. This book is a wonderful starting point for those who want to know more about the life and times of Henry IV. I hope that at some stage someone will write a book that will be able to shed more life on the man himself.
Was Henry IV a usurper or a saviour? Ian Mortimer has a view, and while I largely agree with him I'm not entirely convinced. Yet.
This is a very well written and comprehensive biography of this King, who is little studied these days, probably less so than any other late Medieval King. The author paints a picture of Henry which is at variance with the image of him as a usurper of the rightful ruler, Richard II (an image particularly favoured, for obvious reasons, by the Yorkists later in the fifteenth century). Richard was undoubtedly a tyrant in almost a modern totalitarian sense, in that he wanted to eliminate any and all criticism of his rule, redefining it all as treason. His final overthrow in 1399 was very understandable, though Henry's starving him to death seems unnecessarily cruel.
Henry wanted to rule in a much more positive and consensual way, but was faced by near constant rebellion, caused in large part by lack of funds leading to unpopular taxation. At the same time, Parliament was becoming more powerful and self confident and Henry could never feel totally safe, now that he himself had broken a precedent by deposing his predecessor, showing that such a previously pretty unthinkable action could indeed be taken. He survived by adapting to changing situations and being more flexible than Richard. His final years racked by painful illness, his reputation was rapidly overshadowed by that of his son and heir, the victor of Agincourt. This book provides a much needed reassessment of this neglected ruler. 5/5
on 10 July 2011
I immensely enjoyed reading this book! The life of Henry of Bolingbroke was eventful to say the least. At its most interesting before he 'usurped' the throne, troubled and tortured after he became king. Unlike Mortimer's epic Edward III, this book was highly readable and certainly a page turner. What added to my enjoyment was the parallel life of Richard II, explored, again a king whose life has not been written about by many historians.
on 6 August 2007
The medieval period has a reputation for being as dark as the age that preceded it, so I was almost reluctant to read this book, but I'm glad I made the effort to pick it up. This is Shakespeare's king, but not as countless actors have played him. Ian Mortimer uses biography as a powerful tool to investigate the relationship between Richard (Henry's predecessor) and Henry - from Henry's point of view. Henry's taking the throne is often taken as the root of the Wars of the Roses, and the author shows how Richard changed his mind about his heir several times. Having become king, Henry had to sweep away almost a century of English royal practices to ensure he had a hereditary right to the throne, and although Richard did indeed make the Yorkists the heirs to the throne, they themselves initially gave in to Henry. This casts a long shadow over the rest of 15th-century history. Mortimer's great strength is that he does not rehash accepted views but has embarked on a thorough re-evaluation of the information contained within the contemporary evidence, and a logical examination of its contradictions and implication. This is not revisionism for the sake of it, but an essential analysis of the available evidence. This might sound like medieval political history at its driest: not in this book. The full horror of the tyranny of Richard II's final years in power contrasts with the chivalric fervour of Henry's early life. As the sole grandson of Edward III and the first duke of Lancaster, he was one of the foremost warriors of the 14th century, and possibly the greatest tournament fighter the English royal family ever produced. The description of the battle of Shrewbury gives a real insider's view of what it was like to be involved in one of these battles. Bloody conflict, subtle political manoeuvring and up-to-date historical analysis - this book has it all.
Most people know little of Henry IV beyond his character in Shakespeare's history plays. He no doubt suffers in comparison to his far more glorious son, Henry V, but to compare the two is to do Henry IV a real injustice. There could never have been an Agincourt had it not been for Henry IV.
Consider that Henry was born the son of a duke, was disregarded and victimized by his cousin Richard II, and finally exiled through no fault of his own. In less than a year he returned to England from exile, accomplished the almost bloodless deposition of a tyrannical King, aided and abetted by Parliament, the people and the nobility, and established his own rule as King. He then survived a great number of rebellions and assassination attempts, conflicts with Wales, Scotland and France, financial and religious crises, and finally died safe in his own bed, his kingdom at peace, and the crown passing unopposed to his eldest son. By anyone's standards that ought to constitute a remarkable reign, and yet because of the martial exploits of Henry V, Henry IV has been largely passed over and ignored.
Ian Mortimer is one of the finest historical writers writing today, and I'm very glad he has been one of the few writers to tackle a life of Henry IV. I've thoroughly enjoyed all of his books - he has a real skill in bringing history to life with drama and flair. He manages to make his subjects come to life whilst never losing sight of the historical truth, as far as it can be known. Henry IV has waited a long time for history to do him justice, and this biography doesn't disappoint.
on 28 September 2009
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book as I have enjoyed all Ian Mortimer's books. He really brings history to life in a readable way. Lots of details about the times, the places and the personalities without getting bogged down by academic trivia. This not a text book but popular and accessible history for everyone.I found myself liking Henry IV as a person. You can't say that about many English Kings. He came over as a honest, decent, sensible person, very much the product of his age but with an attractive personality that would fit any age.This was a man found himself in a impossible situation being exiled and disinherited by his unpredictable cousin. What was he to do? If he were to lie down and take it quietly he would therefore abandon not only his own family but the English nation to the tyranny of Richard II. If he were to fight back he would place himself in a decidedly doubtful legal situation. If he lost he would be branded a traitor and more than likely lose his own life. If he won how was he deal with his royal cousin who had proved himself so treacherous in the past? Henry made his choices and, I think, made the best of a bad deal.Yes, Richard was the crowned and anointed king but he had proved himself to be such a disaster as a ruler that most of his contemporaries, even the most law-abiding, were prepared to see him overthrown. It's a dramatic story about a fascinating and important part of our English history. Mortimer tells it well. My only complaint - the title! It makes Henry sound like a timid monarch.Whatever else Henry IV was he definitely was not fearful but a courageous man fighting against difficult odds and , most of the time, overcoming them.
I must have been reading another book to the other reviewers because I think this history book moves with the pace and energy of a good novel. Ian Mortimer is such a good historian that this is a book one finds hard to put down. His subject is Henry IV - not his exciting and battle-hungry grandfather (Edward III), and not his equally renowned and brave son (Henry V), of Agincourt fame. This is the one who seized the crown from his cousin Richard II (who was the son of Edward III's eldest son, The Black Prince). Henry Bolingbroke of Lancaster was the son of Edward III's younger son, John of Gaunt. Richard, who was crowned at the age of 13, grew up to become a petty tyrant, concerned only with his own importance, afraid of his own shadow and deeply suspicious and jealous of his younger cousin Henry. Richard was taught from an early age that he would be king of all he surveyed. He proved to be disastrous in the role, ignoring the unrest and lawlessness on his kingdom's borders and concerned only to subjugate everyone to his will. Henry and Richard grew up in adjacent households but there could never have been two such different princes. Henry was handsome, clever, talented, a brave fighter of numerous battles, a renowned jouster, witty and deeply spiritual. Shakespeare, of course, is to blame for the misrepresentations that come down to us, but to be fair to him, he could not present the truth because Henry IV's seizure of the throne, could never be acceptable to the Elizabethans whose politics were every bit as unstable in Shakespeare's time. It's only the modern world that can see the extraordinary courage and daring of young Henry.
Ian Mortimer has pulled together what can be known about the reign of Henry IV and discusses his role in instituting and strengthening the rule of law through parliament in England up to his death in 1413. The personalities, not just of the two kings, but many of the principal actors, are assessed, but all as part of the amazing story of Henry's accession and reign. Henry did not have an easy time of it and towards the end he fell seriously ill. But throughout he acted with pragmatic care for the royal house's succession and the country in general. He emerges as an unsung hero, from the nightmare of his early years under Richard II. The story has a hero and a villain, and one is in no doubt by the end of this fascinating book, that justice of a kind was done. Putting oneself in the medieval mindset is made wonderfully easy with this revealing narrative.
on 13 November 2011
Ian Mortimer in his brilliant biography of King Henry IV (1399-1413) uses that Shakespearian phrase as the chapter heading for his summary of one of the least-remembered English monarchs. . Basically the book falls into three sections: seven chapters on what might be called the `age of dynamism' (1367-98); five chapter on the `age of uncertainty' (1398-1404); seven chapters on `the age of weakness' (1404-13); with a final summary chapter, seven appendices and the usual bibliography, notes and index to be expected in an authoritative work on History. Through all that the author, based on a command of detail and through a highly readable style, guides the reader.
Henry, son of John of Gaunt and so heir to the richest inheritance in England, was born on 15 April 1367 at Bolingbroke. In his youth he appears to have been denied a suitable role in the government of his contemporary and sovereign, Richard II (1377-99). He acquired an international reputation in jousts, took part in two crusading expeditions in eastern Europe and made an amazing journey from Lithuania to the Holy Land. However, perhaps due to fear or anxiety, he only took on a minor role in that topsy-turvy struggle for control which marked Richard's reign. In the end Richard appeared to triumph and, having expelled Henry from the realm in 1398, confiscated the exile's inheritance before taking himself off to Ireland. The stage was left open for Henry Bolingbroke but would he seize it? His previous life might have suggested not but Mortimer argues the young hero, as he was to so many in England, really had little choice. He landed in England with a few followers and the King's regime collapsed like a house of cards.
Here we get to when Henry `and Greatness were compelled to kiss'. He could have simply recovered his inheritance and, either continued his previous life-style or assumed the mantle of his father as the `guide' (albeit unwelcome) of the King. However, others had taken on that role in 1387 and failed - just as his ancestor had failed to control Edward II (1307-27). Mortimer argues such a role for Henry would have been impossible. So he was left with the choice of `usurpation'. Even then choice could not be avoided. He might have taken the crown and kept Richard shut away safely. The impossibility of that option is demonstrated by Mortimer's excellent analysis of the attempts over the next decade to `restore' Richard, even though his dead body had been displayed in 1400 . Or Henry could both supplant and kill his cousin. Richard died in February in 1400, not with the brutality described in some rumours but by starvation. By his own volition or on the orders of Henry? Historians are divided on this - especially when considering the `unusual' mental makeup of the deposed King. I was surprised Mortimer accepts that starvation was by Henry's command. Was it this which meant that Henry and Greatness would but kiss and not blend? Mortimer appears to think so. At this point I should add I had just finished the biography of Richard by Nigel Saul and I was amazed how two historians could produce a kaleidoscope of probabilities by revealing different episodes and opinions relating to their own subjects.. This is a controversial period and comparing the two accounts enhanced the impact of both. Incidentally, both historians employ Shakespeare and the reader cannot fail to recognise what a long shadow the Bard casts over the study of the 14th and 15th centuries.
Immediately, Henry was faced by a series of conspiracies and rebellions to prove `uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.'. At first he was successful, culminating in the destruction of Percy power at Shrewsbury in 1403. But he increasingly lost his drive as illness undermined his ability to extort proper finance from Parliament or concentrate forces enough to destroy Owen Glendower or the Earl of Northumberland. In some ways his problems were brought on by that idealistic flourish produced by the rush of success in 1399: in other ways it was simply that problematical situations, such as the growing cost of war, had outgrown the ability of medieval royal finances and government to deal with them. Mortimer adds another touch. Henry IV in his Will on 21 January 1409 entrusts to God `my sinful soul which has never been worthy to be [a] man'. Throughout the biography it is stressed how much the King was devoted to the Trinity and possessed a deep religious belief - even though he executed one archbishop and several other ecclesiastical dignitaries for treason. That belief brought about guilt for the death of the King and the harsh decisions he made to retain control. Could that have been a factor in the mysterious illness which plagued the King throughout the last decade of his life? There is insufficient evidence to provide an answer. However, that illness produced another problem which Henry's own actions had precipitated. He had entrusted his eldest son (later to be Henry V and long enshrined in English imagination as the Shakespearian Prince Hal) with military and administrative responsibility from his early teenage years; the prince's brothers were given similar burdens. As the King's health declined so they together, or more often as rivals, clamoured for more control. Were they simply behaving as Henry himself would have acted if he'd chosen in 1399 to follow the path of his father, John of Gaunt? Incidentally, Mortimer suggests Henry's health may have been undermined by the battering in the jousts his body had experienced over the years. I'd never considered that before.
The one negative point regarding the book is that the margins could be wider and are almost destroyed by tight binding. In a shop I might have rejected the book on those grounds. In that case I would have missed one of the best biographies I've read.
One final word. The full title of Ian Mortimer's excellent biography is: `The Fears of Henry IV - The Life of England's Self-Made King'. That says it all.
on 13 February 2011
Mortimer ought to have left Shakespeare out of this account. The history plays are based on Holinshed's 16th century chronicles, not on Ian Mortimer's 21st century biography. I have read the chronicles, and Shakespeare is quite true to them. His deviations are not unprecedented either, such as Prince Hal defeating Hotspur at Shrewsbury - that was done by Daniel first.
Also, there are times when the contrasts between Henry and Richard seem to be: brave and accomplished/weak and insecure. That said, this is not a history of Richard, or of his times, but of Henry of Lancaster and his life. The portrait painted by the facts alone - a pilgrim, a knight, a crusader, a prince feted by the courts of Europe - let alone by the detail of Mortimer's narrative, makes the usual tale of 'usurper Bolingbroke' rather more complex, and the man himself easier to understand.
The depths to which Henry sunk as king, therefore, feel even more tragic. History is full of dashed hopes and promises. This is an especial case. However, when certain details are considered - ill health, constant rebellion, hostile parliamentarians, French and celtic invasions, an empty exchequer - then the final point, that Henry died an unvanquished King, despite the odds, is powerfully made, and makes him a figure to be admired, not damned. This final point is likely to make some feel uncomfortable, desirous as they will be to cling to the idea of Henry as an accursed usurper.
I, however, am convinced by Mortimer's case for Henry - though not his case against Shakespeare.
on 30 June 2015
Henry Bolingbroke, having deposed and possibly murdered his predecessor and cousin, the psychopathic and increasingly arbitrary and tyrannical Richard II, did indeed ascend the throne with good intentions. He promised good government, low taxation, justice and mercy and was initially welcomed by the vast majority of his subjects; however he was soon faced with the hostility of the Welsh, Scots and French, rebellions, assassinations attempts, claims that Richard was still alive and attempts to control or depose him. Later in life he suffered from increasingly debilitating ill health, the nature of which is unclear. He weathered all these storms, making mistakes of course, but died at the early age of 45. He had the misfortune to be compared with two hero kings - Edward III and his son Henry V - but who knows how he would have fared had he lived longer.
It is therefore curious that Henry has been ignored by the biographers; for example, the Yale (originally Methuen) series of royal biographies has very few gaps but Henry is one. Dr Ian Mortimer has finally produced a very readable and well researched and referenced biography of the King. In his introduction he mentions that there are several books that discuss the reign but not the man; in other words the characters - who after all make history - move though the reign like chess pieces. Of course there is another extreme of historical biography which is all about the character but gives no information about the historical background; this book does not fall into this category.
There are genealogical tables - essential particularly for this period of history - but they are tucked away after the bibliography rather than the usual place right at the beginning. It would have been helpful also to include a map or two. These are minor points however as this is a first rate volume.