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Sunday, 9 January 2011

Henry: Virtuous Prince by David Starkey

Having all but forgotten I was reading this book in the excitement of Christmas and New Year, I finally finished Henry: Virtuous Prince by David Starkey on Friday.  I say finally not because it is an arduous read, only because I can be an incredibly slow reader sometimes!  David Starkey has a very definite style to his writing, partly influenced I suspect by his academic and inquisitive nature.  This is particularly noticeable I felt, by Starkey's use of probing questions at the end of many paragraphs and chapters.

On his marriage to his brother's widow, Catherine of Aragon:
"Did Henry supress his doubts?  Had he forgotten them?  Did he even utter them in the first place?  Or were his views invented, or at least glossed, by a hostile councillor?  We do not know"

On Elizabeth of York's third time of seeking refuge in the Tower of London:
"Now she was a refugee in the tower again.  Would it be the sanctuary next?  Or worse?  And what of Henry?  Was he to follow in the footsteps of Richard of Shrewsbury for one last, terrible time?"
Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk

Of course, these are valid questions as much of this period of history is unknown, or clouded by propaganda and the mists of time, but it is one of those quirks of style that, once you notice it, can become quite tiring.

I find it quite difficult reading books about 'older' history, partly because so much is unknown, or based on supposition and deduction, but also because of names.  It's challenging to keep tabs on everyone when they all have so many different names.

Take, for example, Thomas Howard.  That's Thomas Howard, son of Thomas Howard and father of Thomas Howard.  The Thomas Howard I am referring to is the one who married Anne of York (one of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville's daughters).  He was also the third Duke of Norfolk and third Earl of Surrey, as well as Lord High Admiral, Lord High Treasurer and Earl Marshall at various times in his political career.  So perhaps you see my problem?  Or perhaps not?  I am sure those with greater knowledge of Tudor history have by now got their heads around this issue, but I am afraid I am still struggling!  Thankfully, Dr Starkey does provide a family tree, but of course there are all those characters that are not 'family' who figure in the story.

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein (1537)
All this aside, I did enjoy this book especially as I was lucky enough to go to one of the talks Dr Starkey gave at the British Library as part of his curatorship of the Henry exhibition last year.  He spoke about the influences on the young Henry and how events in his life changed him from the dashing and chivalric hero of his early life, to the tyrannical and power-crazed monarch immortalised by the famous Hans Holbein portrait.  What is apparent was that the young Henry was not raised to be King - his brother Arthur was nurtured as the future King whilst Henry was left to be raised along with his sisters.  The young Henry was fun, sporty, virile and charming.  He surrounded himself with friends and those of like mind.  And he was used to getting his own way and being adored.

Henry VIII continues to fascinate and I am sure we will never tire of his story.  Certainly as long as academics like David Starkey continue to investigate and speculate over motives and reasons the story will never feel it is finished being told.  I am certainly looking forward to the next installment 'Henry: Model of a Tyrant" due for publication later this year.

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