Reviewed by: Tracy Borman
Author: Robert Hutchinson
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Price (RRP): £20
Robert Hutchinson has gained a reputation for engaging and accessible prose based upon impressive scholarly research, and this latest book (his fifth on the Tudor period) does not disappoint.
Young Henry is really a prequel, given that Hutchinson’s first book about the monarch, which appeared in 2005, explored the king’s last years.
It is perhaps a little surprising that this latest book was not published two years ago, when the 500th anniversary of Henry’s accession sparked a great deal of interest in the early part of his reign. The question is, how does Young Henry differ from those books (notably Starkey’s Henry: Virtuous Prince) which did appear then?
For a start, it provides a compelling new analysis of the influences that shaped Henry VIII’s childhood, and considers the motives that would drive both his personal and political life as king. In so doing, Hutchinson adds a vital human dimension that is often lacking in the more conventional political histories of Henry’s reign and brings the future king’s personality vividly to life, with all of its brilliantly contrasting and capricious elements.
The book begins with the accession of Henry’s father, the wily and rapacious Henry VII. Hutchinson effectively highlights just how fragile were the foundations upon which the mighty Tudor dynasty was built.
Not only was Henry VII’s claim to the throne dubious in the extreme (a fact that would plague his descendants for many years to come), but the high rate of mortality among his offspring meant that by April 1502, he had just one male heir: the future Henry VIII.
The lack of male heirs – which Hutchinson describes as “a thin line of poison” – would become an obsession for the younger Henry, dictating many of his policies and all of his marriages.
Henry’s transformation from ‘spare heir’ to ‘king in waiting’ upon the death of his elder brother Arthur is well charted, as is his eventual succession in 1509, just shy of his 18th birthday.
The narrative then becomes more familiar: the ‘golden years’ of Henry’s early reign, when this ‘Renaissance Prince’ was the intellectual equal of Erasmus and displayed equal prowess on the tournament field. And, of course, the beginning of his long and colourful marital history: from the happy and carefree early days of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, to his passionate, all-consuming courtship with Anne Boleyn.
The story ends – rather abruptly – when the latter gives birth to Elizabeth in 1533. Quite whether Henry, then 42, could still be described as ‘young’ is a matter for debate.
Although Hutchinson brilliantly evokes the drama and intrigue of Henry VIII’s early life and reign, expertly weaving in the choicest of contemporary quotes, his tendency to employ poetic licence weakens the credibility of an otherwise impeccably researched account. Thus we have a description of Henry VII’s “lean, fine-featured face lit by the bright candlelight”, or the clerk who wrote the letters announcing the birth of Elizabeth I “sighing” as he added two ‘s’s to the word “prince”.
Likewise, the author occasionally gives too much certainty to unproven facts, notably when and where Henry married Anne Boleyn. Another weakness is the use of modern phrases, such as when Erasmus is described as having an “attack of writer’s block”, or the young Henry is left bemused by the “pure gobbledygook” of the ceremony of his knighthood.
Rather than making the historical narrative more accessible, these phrases jolt the reader out of the Henrician world that Hutchinson otherwise so deftly creates.
Tracy Borman is author of Elizabeth’s Women (Vintage, 2010) and King’s Mistress, Queen’s Servant (Vintage, 2010)