Henry VIII

This is a good introduction to a complex monarch, says Eric Ives

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Reviewed by: Eric Ives
Author: Derek Wilson
Publisher: Robinson
Price (RRP): £8.99 (paperback)

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“it is impossible to draw his picture well who hath several countenances”. So Edward Herbert described his frustration when writing the first major biography of Henry VIII. The countenance most widely recognised today is the one by Holbein, but Wilson starts his new biography by asserting that this portrait is nothing but “a magnificent piece of propaganda”.

In its place he sets out to apply the research of recent scholars who have assembled evidence of Henry’s insecurity and his dependence on others. Yet Henry the magnificent always threatens to make a comeback because the reality is that Holbein’s Henry genuinely reflected an element in the king’s personality and what was expected of him. Wilson accepts this and asks: “So who was the real Henry?” His persuasive answer is that egotism was the reconciling principle of Henry’s life – both parasite and autocrat.

For the newcomer, the book offers a good introduction to the problems of understanding our most notorious monarch. The scholarship is sound, though there are some slips. The credit for a “hearty love to virtuous sciences” belongs not to John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, but to his son.

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From time to time readers are offered personal interpretations but always so as to invite reflection. I, for one, would not agree Henry was bewildered by religious divisions and suffered “the anguished incomprehension of a pragmatist confronted by stubborn idealism”. Certainly notions of Henry charting a middle way between the pope and Luther “is anachronistic nonsense”, but there was substance in Henry’s self-image of the reformer who established “true religion”, in whose “reign God’s teachings received their rightful reverence”. The problem for his successors was that this ‘true’ religion expressed Henry’s egotism and died with him.