“If you think you know Henry VIII, think again”: 5 minutes with Tracy Borman
Ahead of our 2019 History Weekends in Chester and Winchester, we caught up with historian Tracy Borman to find out what to expect from her talks on the Stuarts and the most famous Tudor, Henry VIII…
What can audiences look forward to in your 2019 talks?
I will be bringing the Stuarts to Chester and the Tudors to Winchester. The early Stuart period is the setting for my new historical fiction trilogy, and my talk will be based on the second book, The Devil’s Slave (2019), which takes place just after the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Given that I’m a Tudor historian, the fact that I’ve based my novels in the Stuart period is probably tantamount to treason. But I have become completely fascinated by this dark and turbulent time in our history, when the witch hunts brought terror to every corner of the kingdom and plots swirled endlessly about the throne. I’ll be telling festival-goers the real history that inspired my fictional portrayal.
To seek forgiveness for turning my back on the Tudors in Chester, I’ll be giving a talk at Winchester all about the most famous of them. My latest non-fiction book, Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him, tells the story of this extraordinary monarch through the eyes of his male companions, servants, rivals and family members. Henry has gone down in history because of his six wives, but a completely different perspective emerges when we look at his relationships with men – some bad, some mad, but none quite as dangerous to know as the famous king himself.
Why are you so fascinated by this topic?
My fascination with the English witch hunts began more than 20 years ago when I taught the subject at Hull University. I went on to write a non-fiction account many years later (Witches: James I and the English Witch Hunts) which in turn provided the inspiration for my novel. The research was so vivid – and at times disturbing – that I was keen to dramatise it in order to convey the terror of what it must have been like to live in those times.
As for Henry VIII, although I have studied the Tudors for almost 30 years, this is the first time that I’ve tackled the big man head on. He has featured in my books, of course, but I never felt able to write a full biography of him until I found something genuinely new to say. Looking at this much-married monarch from the perspective of the men – not the wives – gave me the perfect opportunity.
Tell us something that might surprise or shock us about this area of history…
The transition from the Tudor to the Stuart monarchy in England ushered in a period of great turbulence in which the seeds of discord were sowed for centuries to come. I was fascinated by the personality of James I, our first Stuart king. There had been widespread rejoicing when he became king upon the death of Elizabeth I in 1603: at last the natural order of things had been restored and a man was on the throne of England after 50 years of female rule. But when James arrived to claim his new kingdom, he wasn’t quite what we were expecting. I can’t help but think that it served us right!
If you think you know Henry VIII, think again…
As for my non-fiction, if you think you know Henry VIII, think again. That’s a bold statement to make, but it really rang true for me as I researched his relationships with the numerous men who shaped him into our most famous king: from his controlling father, Henry VII, to his hell-raising companions such as Charles Brandon and Francis Bryan, and from trusted advisers such as Thomas Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell to his international rivals, Francis I and Charles V. Seeing Henry through their eyes gave me a whole new understanding – and, I have to say, sympathy – for the king who has all too often been depicted as a one-dimensional monster.
Where is your favourite historical place to visit?
There are so many! Working at Hampton Court and the Tower of London spoils me, I guess, but I still experience a real thrill by visiting lesser known historical gems such as Longford Castle, a stunning Elizabethan mansion close to Salisbury (and the setting for my novel). I also can’t fail to mention Lincoln Cathedral. It’s in my native city so I’ve been there countless times, but even after all these years it still takes my breath away.
Which history book made the most impact on you?
It’s almost impossible to choose just one. But Alison Weir’s Henry VIII: King and Court (2008) is one of the most seminal books of the period.
Which area of history would you like to see made into a film or television series?
The early Stuart court. Yes, yes, I know – I would say that. But it genuinely has it all: dramatic plots (there’s none more dramatic than the Gunpowder Plot); dastardly villains (Robert Cecil and even King James himself); intriguers (James’s wife, Anne of Denmark, was not all she seemed) and romance (you’ll have to read my novel to find out more!).
Tracy Borman is a best-selling author, historian and broadcaster. She will be speaking about the turbulent world of the early Stuart court at our 2019 History Weekend in Chester, and on the men who helped to shape the life of Henry VIII at our 2019 History Weekend in Winchester. Find out more about our History Weekends here.