“he had heard people predict that, in the future, the whole world would talk of him”
Henry VIII: The Heart & The Crown, by Alison Weir, is the second book in the author’s Tudor Rose Trilogy – I review the first, which focuses on Henry’s mother, Elizabeth of York, here. After a short prologue, this latest release opens just after the death of Elizabeth, who young Henry loved dearly. He had not mourned the passing of his elder brother. Raised in separate households, Henry had been jealous of the preferential treatment Arthur was granted as heir to the throne. He also coveted his brother’s new wife, Katherine, believing himself in love with her. Throughout his life Henry was driven to act incautiously due to lusts that he regarded as love, despite often being short lived. Once sexually sated he would question why he had been so enchanted by someone he would invariably come to view as just another woman.
Henry may have loved his mother – an ideal Queen in his eyes for her regal bearing and procreative abilities – but he resented his father. When the man died, making Henry the King while still a teenager, he relished the freedoms made available. Feeling adored by the common people, he set about making his court a lavish and fun filled institution, with himself the centre of attention and a generous benefactor. Indulged and feted by all, Henry grew high on the power and prestige of his position. Despite the pomp and grandeur, he often acted in ways that were highly unregal.
It was interesting to read of the life of this younger Henry – as he was before Anne Boleyn arrived on the scene. He may have been vain, conceited and often jealous of others – a spoilt child – but he was also a King eager to be admired for his accomplishments and demeanour. Katherine was his brood mare, suffering eight pregnancies with only one child surviving beyond infancy. Despite her loyalty, he could not cope when her body changed due to these travails. He took mistresses, berating his wife when she complained.
The interminable wait to marry Anne is well conveyed but made for tedious reading due to the repetitive nature of attempts to persuade the Pope to annul Henry’s marriage to Katherine, or to find another way to take Anne as his wife and Queen. When they finally get together anyway, the pace picks up but the King’s day to day life remains much the same. Alongside his own aging body, his temper shortens and he shows little wisdom in the decisions he makes. Anne does not prove herself worth the deaths and destruction she cost, either in pleasing Henry as Queen or providing the required male heir.
“In his worst moments, he suspected that it was a crown, rather than himself, she coveted”
I was curious to find out more about Henry’s health and found this article of interest (yes, of course I go to Google when reading a book and have questions). I also learned that ‘This king was responsible for more deaths than any monarch before or since’ – quite the legacy given royal history. According to Weir’s story, many of these deaths were carried out due to fabricated evidence, as courtiers vied for power and influence.
I felt a degree of sympathy for the wealthy ladies of the time. For all their finery and grandeur, they spent many years pregnant – large families being desired as so many children died. As any who have been in this expectant state will be aware, the reward may make it worthwhile but the experience is rarely pleasant – what a life to have to live.
One of the big questions I pondered as this tale progressed was why, despite the number of wives he took and their ability to conceive, Henry could not beget more healthy children. I came across this article which suggests the lifestyle choices of the King may have been a contributing factor. Naturally, he never thought to blame himself other than as being punished by the god he feared. It is interesting to note how little he worried about breaking biblical commandments and teachings that did not relate to marriage and procreation.
Henry appeared to learn nothing from his mistakes. He recognised that his noble ‘advisors’ were only out to improve their own positions yet still put to death any they accused of going against their King. Whatever the greed and cruelty of Wolsey and then Cromwell, they appear to have served him to the best of their abilities.
Henry’s life with his final four wives goes by swiftly here, although once again there is repetition in the telling. He gets his wife pregnant. He awaits the much anticipated birth. He is disappointed and blames the grieving mother. In his free time he finds sport in killing animals. He is forever building or refurbishing palaces. He buys costly clothes and jewels. He entertains foreign dignitaries. He sends any he is jealous of, or suspects is working against his wishes, to their deaths.
Having read Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series, this was a summation from a different perspective. The story it tells offers little that is new but does draw down the focus of how power corrupts, and how those who believe they are above other men will likely be blind to the possibility that it is they who are truly the fools.
What we have here is well written historical fiction in that it makes for easy reading, even if the repetition at times lost my engagement. Perhaps I am simply weary of senselessly entitled kings.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.