Book Review: Henry VIII, The Heart and The Crown

“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.


Book Review: Elizabeth of York, The Last White Rose

last white rose

Elizabeth of York, The Last White Rose, is the first book in a new trilogy by historian Alison Weir. It is a novel rather than a biography, thereby enabling the author to fill in gaps between known facts about the woman who became the first Tudor Queen. Elizabeth was the eldest child of King Edward IV of the royal House of York. The simmering rivalry between his kinsfolk, and those of the royal House of Lancaster, festered throughout his reign. It did not help that Edward’s wife, Elizabeth Wydeville, exerted her considerable influence to promote members of her family to positions of power, leading to resentment among those from more established aristocratic families who regarded them as upstarts.

The first half of the book covers the time before young Elizabeth’s marriage, aged nineteen, to King Henry VII. She and her siblings enjoyed the opulent surroundings of the many palaces her father kept, although suffered periods of imprisonment, albeit in comfortable surroundings, when Edward’s position was challenged or defeated. When Richard III took the throne and Elizabeth’s brothers were taken to the tower the family had to make difficult decisions to ensure survival. The disappearance of these two young princes cast a shadow over her remaining years.

Although a political marriage, following Richard’s defeat at the Battle of Bosworth, Elizabeth and Henry are portrayed as having as happy a marriage as could be hoped for at the time. The country remained unstable, with numerous uprisings to contend with, but the Queen supported her husband, mostly accepting that her own claims to the throne could not be pursued further. A female monarch was unlikely to find the support necessary to rule effectively in late medieval England. As she reflected, had she been a boy she would likely have been killed by rivals.

Elizabeth bore seven children, although several of these died in childhood. When not defending his kingdom from usurpers, Henry put much time and effort into negotiating advantageous marriages for his offspring. He regarded these as a means to secure peace as well as economic benefits.

The story being told offers a window into the day to day life of a Queen during a turbulent period in English history. Elizabeth was expected to give birth to her children and then immediately hand them over to others for care and education. The fine food and clothes she enjoyed were as much for show as her pleasure. Henry wished to be seen as a ruler equal to those much admired in other realms.

The author undoubtedly writes well, although I did find this offering a tad repetitive. It is a lengthy book and key events in the Queen’s life have little to differentiate them. Kings must travel forth to quell dissent. Wives give birth and mourn their children’s deaths. There is little trust, even between siblings, understandable given rivalries and favouritism.

The family tree provided at the front of the book was a necessary reference given so many names were repeated across generations. It was interesting to read of the various palaces and other grand houses visited on the royal progresses, and to work out which still existed or what had replaced them. Having read Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series, I enjoyed learning more about Henry VIII’s parents. Clearly, they lived through a time when it was dangerous to claim the throne of England.

A worthwhile addition to the author’s fictionalised covering of Tudor royals and the personal lives they led. I look forward to reading the rest of this new series to see what fresh perspective can be offered on already well covered personages.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: In the Shadow of Queens

shadow of queens

“Fiction offers the scope to develop ideas that have no place in a history book, but which can help to illuminate motives and emotions.”

In the Shadow of Queens, by Alison Weir, is a collection of fourteen short stories, most of which were released in digital format to accompany the author’s Six Tudor Queens series. Brought together here in a beautifully bound book, they offer further insights into the lives of the aristocracy, and those who served them, during the increasingly turbulent reign of Henry VIII and beyond.

After an introduction by the author, the collection opens with what turned out to be my favourite story. The voice is that of a young Arthur, the heir to the Tudor throne, whose untimely death led to his brother, Henry, taking on both Arthur’s wife and the role he had been so diligently prepared for. Arthur was raised apart from his parents and siblings, in a castle near the Welsh borders where he was to learn the arts of kingship. Although mostly fond of those charged with his care and education, it proved a lonely existence. Weir skilfully captures the voice of a child trying hard to please but still too young to fully grasp the political aspects of his father’s ambitions.

“Arthur did his best to look suitably impressed, but getting married meant nothing to him and it was ages and ages away in the future. He just hoped that, when she came to England, Catalina would share his interest in King Arthur and St George and toy soldiers.”

Quite a number of the stories that follow focus on young women who served the ladies of the royal court. Most came from wealthy families and were expected to remain chaste but also attract a suitable husband. I found the risks they took frustrating to read as again and again a young lady, aware of the cost to her reputation, permitted her admirer access to her body. Of course, such desires are natural, but all around, at this time, were men and women punished horrifically for indulging in such behaviour, or even abetting it.

Despite covering each Queen’s life in detail within the original series, some of these stories delve into additional aspects of their lives (why were they not included in the individual and lengthy fictionalised biographies?). Anne Boleyn’s sojourn with a French suitor would have been more interesting had it been less repetitive – she takes increasingly bold risks that appear foolish in her attempt to retain her beloved’s interest. Given the rabid court gossip, I pondered how Henry remained unaware of this history of hers – she had so many detractors when he became smitten.

The Princess of Scotland started well, offering an alternative setting around the life led there, but became more of the same when its subject entered the English court. Her behaviour, again, was bound to bring down trouble. She knew she was now a chattel of the King.

The stories featuring servants added welcome variety, although if their employers fell out of favour they too could be drawn into the ensuing maelstrom. It was a dangerous time to have anything to do with anyone the King may notice and therefore blame, as yet another of his wives fell.

Several names appear repeatedly, their lives rarely running smoothly. Children run the gauntlet of ambitious parents. Those who serve must travel wherever sent. I enjoyed the story of the painter required to teach The Princess of Cleves English, although would personally have preferred it to end earlier.

It will come as no surprise to readers that there are many, many deaths. Some of these are natural, particularly following childbirth, while others are punishment for behaviour. Coming back to the risks some took, for love or ambition, it grew harder to conjure sympathy.

I enjoyed the author’s take on what happened to Katherine Parr’s baby daughter. This tale offered a window into the world of children raised away from their families, within the households of supposed benefactors. The precarious situation female children could face if without a financial settlement provided interest.

A couple of the stories include a contemporary setting. These worked well. The final tale in the collection reveals the appalling treatment of Katherine Parr’s dead body through the ages. There is a degree of dark humour as those harbouring a lofty curiosity in history seek the kudos of viewing a rare artefact, and then cannot resist taking a damaging souvenir. Each believes they are better, more respectful, than their predecessors then behave in the same selfish way (I do not include the author, who has written herself in, here).

There are ghosts aplenty alongside descriptions of grand buildings, many of which still exist albeit in a redesigned or derelict state. Perhaps it is their longevity that makes the history of the wealthy so much easier to interrogate than that of the majority of the population.

This may be the weakest book by Weir I have read but that is not to say it is bad, although it did drag in places. I suspect the stories worked better when released as shorts alongside the books they were written to accompany. Nevertheless, they complete what has been a fascinating series.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline Review.

My reviews of The Six Tudor Queens Series:

Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen

Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession

Jane Seymour, The Haunted Queen

Anna of Kleve, Queen of Secrets

Katheryn Howard, The Tainted Queen

Katherine Parr, The Sixth Wife

Book Review: Bring Up the Bodies


Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel, is the second book in a proposed trilogy exploring the life of Thomas Cromwell and his relationships with his contemporaries in the court of Henry VIII (the first in this series is Wolf Hall which I review here). In this part of the story the author covers the machinations which led to the trial and beheading of Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, in order to allow the king to marry Jane Seymour.

Although written with the same assurance and impressive attention to detail I nevertheless found this book less compelling than its predecessor. It is hard to be critical of a work of such high, literary quality; I only do so because I compare it to Wolf Hall and find less to commend. The background to the characters and their relationships have already been covered. These few months of history have been dramatised so extensively elsewhere that there is little new to learn.

What the reader does get is further insight into why Cromwell chose to bring down certain courtiers and not others. He was loyal to his friends and ruthless towards his enemies. His prodigious memory ensured that he did not forget any slight towards himself or those who had helped him in his unprecedented rise within a powerful court reserved for the aristocracy. Cromwell earned his place by ensuring that, when the King required an outcome, he would provide. He gained his own personal revenges along the way.

“He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.”

Cromwell plays a long game, his plans and intrigues reminding me of a game of chess. He can never be sure of his opponents next move but, having studied them carefully over many years, he makes informed guesses and adjusts his strategies accordingly. Much of what he thinks is kept hidden behind his austere facade, calm bearing and growing reputation. He knows that there are many who would wish to bring him down and carefully cultivates those whose loyalty he will one day call upon. Everything is held to account.

This is a deftly written and still fascinating narration from a master story teller. That I did not enjoy reading it quite as much as I did Wolf Hall should not detract from my view that it is an exceptional, historical biography which vividly portrays the politics and passions of the time. Hilary Mantel well deserves the many accolades she has received. I look forward to reading the conclusion to this trilogy when it is published.


Book Review: Wolf Hall


Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, is the first book in a proposed trilogy which explores the life of Thomas Cromwell and his relationships with his contemporaries in the court of Henry VIII. Much has, of course, been written about the Tudors, especially those who came and went during the reign of this much married monarch. The main plot holds few surprises yet the author weaves an engrossing tale around these key events. This is a compelling and fast moving story which takes the reader into the heart of the powerhouses of Britain at that time. It is a reminder that social changes have complex settings.

Thomas Cromwell was noteworthy because he was low born yet rose to become the king’s key advisor in an age when the aristocracy guarded their power with an iron fist. Cromwell’s prodigious memory and attention to detail, alongside his political astuteness, enabled him to ride the changing tides of favour and fortune which brought so many others down. He bought and sold secrets with adroitness, a shadowy figure amongst peacocks. He valued knowledge and looked after his own.

The story is a fascinating biographical fiction but it is the quality of the prose which sets the book apart. Well known names are given life, the period is evoked with precision but also feeling. Cromwell’s inner thoughts offer explanations as to why notable events occurred as they did.

As Cromwell mulls over events, calculating odds on emerging players, he keeps much hidden from the reader, as he does from all those who surround him. In rare moments he will recognise in himself certain of his less admirable characteristics. How often do we all rewrite even our own memories?

Despite being over six hundred pages long the plot moves along apace and the writing flows. Use of language and imagery are exquisite. I am wary of Booker Prize winning novels as I have, in the past, found some to provide turgid reading; to be scholarly more than enjoyable. This is a readers book, an immersive and captivating story presented in an accessible, potent voice.