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Henry VIII: King and Court Paperback – 18 Sep 2008
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Henry VIII (1491-1547) casts a long shadow over English royalty and biography alike. In Henry VIII: King and Court, Alison Weir takes on this forbidding reputation to produce an admirably detailed, if somewhat cumbersome, biography of a king who married six times and presided over England's cataclysmic split with Roman Catholicism. Weir's main task is to overturn the "caricature" of Henry "as a man who thought of nothing but chasing the ladies, and who threw chicken bones over his shoulder". This seems a rather obvious characterisation to challenge, but Weir proceeds to amass an extraordinary wealth of detail about Henry's cultivated court, from its learning, architecture and political machinations, to how many people handled Henry's bedsheets and the food that his horses ate. The early sections get bogged down in too much detail, and detract from the political drama of Henry's growing estrangement from his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, and his fateful marriage to Anne Boleyn in 1532. The second section is much more convincing in tracing how "the young, idealist humanist with liberal ideas about kingship was giving way to a selfish, dogmatic tyrant", as Henry dispenses with Wolsey, Sir Thomas More, Anne and then Cromwell, and the court increasingly sinks into factionalism and intrigue.
Weir's biography is a lively recreation of the everyday life of Henry, his court and what he called his "ill-conditioned wives", but it neglects the wider European dimensions of Henry's reign, and sweeps over many crucial aspects of the split with Rome. Detailed and scholarly, Henry VIII: King and Court provides a strangely colourless portrait of the most colourful of English monarchs. --Jerry Brotton --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
"A glittering evocation of the Tudor Court, its splendour as well as its vulgarity...a responsive, rounded portrait" (Daily Telegraph)
"A compelling, readable account of the life and times of the king who put England firmly on the map of power politics... Good history books ought to change the way we look at ourselves and our nation's past. Henry VIII: King and Court is one such book" (Lisa Jardine Literary Review)
"Weir provides immense satisfaction. She writes in a pacy, vivid style, engaging the heart as well as the mind" (Amanda Foreman Independent)
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The first third of the book is not really a biography of Henry, but an in-depth study of the court, the palaces, and the world in which Henry lived. This section was the weakest part, and for me, the least interesting. The section is far too detailed - an endless list of buildings, names, court positions etc. I agree this aspect of the period is important to study, but it was overdone.
Once we get into the biographical aspect of Henry VIII, the book improves drastically. Weir has produced a good, but not comprehensive, study of Henry as monarch and man, and the personalities of the reign (More, Cromwell, Wolsey, Fisher etc) come to life. Disappointingly, the biography is not as detailed as it could be - especially concerning the important events of the reign. I would have liked more analysis, even narrative, of the Pilgrimage of Grace; and a study of the technicalities of the canon law of Henry's divorce (or annulment) from Catherine of Aragon. Nevertheless, the book is readable and gives a good overview of the politics and factionalism at court and abroad. I did learn, however, that Anne Boleyn was likely to be pregnant at the time of her execution. This surprised me, given Henry's desperation for a son. However, given the offical reason for Anne's execution (adultery amongst other things), it would have been foolish to allow the child to be born - there would have been doubts over its paternity and possibly lead to a succession dispute.
Weir provides plenty of footnotes (at the back of the book) and sources, both secondary and primary, which is an added bonus, and there are two sections of illustrations. However, as other have noted, the genealogical table is very simplified. It is entitled "The Tudors and their Rivals" but it only shows some of Henry's Yorkist cousins (the Courtenays and Poles), whilst omitting other possible alternatives for the throne, such as the De la Poles and Staffords. The Tudor descent from Edward III, via the Beauforts, is not shown, indeed, Edward III isn't even on it.
However, in summary, I can recommend the book, as a good introduction, to anybody interested in Henry VIII, the Tudors and the Henrician court.
But into this rich heady brew Weir also throws the complete administrative breakdown of Henry's court, giving us a mind- numbing account of Tudor Human Resources, including the hapless, appropriately named Groom of the Stool who dressed the King and saw to his lavatorial needs.
Throughout the book Weir keeps us up to scratch with Henry's mania for accumulating property - the layout and development of his palaces. In addition, she also details the various staff changes, promotions, demotions and, of course, executions.
Weir provides astute, well-researched snapshots of Henry's entire coterie, from his playmates and companions, through to his mistresses and their families, his advisors, chancellors and churchmen. Everyone is placed in context so that their motivations and actions can be fully understood. So you are getting many biographies for the price of one, especially of people like Thomas More, or Henry's two sisters Margaret (who mothered the Stuart dynasty) and Mary (whose second marriage to Charles Brandon produced the unfortunate Lady Jane Grey, her granddaughter).
One interesting character is Henry Fitzroy, Henry VII's illegitimate son by Bessie Blount. This chap was evidence that the King could produce a male child, if not a legitimate heir, and he was created Earl of Richmond. The poet Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, was a childhood friend of Fitzroy.
The book starts as a loose retailing of topical details, but the biographical framework starts to impose itself, with a strictly chronological account of Henry's reign. His celebrated matrimonial career is presented from HIS viewpoint for a change, although that does not lessen his monstrousness. He loved tilting and tournaments - that leg injury was a sporting injury. Most of his best friends seem to have been chosen for their skill in breaking lances...!
So if you want to know more about the Courtenays, the Boleyns, Norfolks and Suffolks, the Seymours, the Parrs, this is your book. In spades! Weir does it well.
Only one reservation - after the comprehensive genealogies of her "Wars of the Roses," the family trees in this book are insufficient for the ground covered. We really need the background for his wives as well as Henry's own genealogy. (Both trees can be found in the opening pages of the hardback edition of Antonia Fraser's "Six Wives of Henry VIII". They may be in Weir's "Six Wives", too, but are harder to read, being in italic script.)
Otherwise - excellent.
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