Thursday, 7 March 2013

The Autobiography of Henry VIII

Previously, when I’ve written about books, I’ve focused more often on an author, than a specific work.

Today, for a change, I’ll write about just one book:

The Autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George

The full title is The Autobiography of Henry VIII, With Notes by His Fool, Will Somers.
As you may have gathered, it isn’t a real autobiography by England’s infamous monarch! However, it’s written in the style of an autobiography, from Henry VIII’s point of view, with the occasional interjection from Will, King Henry’s court jester.
The book begins during the reign of Mary I, with correspondence between Will Somers and Catherine Carey Knollys. Following on from this, the tale goes back to Henry VIII’s early years, from which it progresses to his death.

Obviously I can’t bang on too much about the content of this book, since that would spoil the storyline (though anyone can look up the life of Henry VIII and find everything out!)

In the first part of this book in particular, Henry is depicted as quite a naive man, which highlights the fact that he was never properly groomed to be a king and had to learn a lot as he went along. I found this an interesting slant on Henry VIII’s character, since all too often he is depicted only as an obese, belligerent tyrant.

On an historical level, I learnt a lot from this book! For example, I didn’t know that Henry wasn’t first in line for the throne. Nor did I know the specifics of the monarch’s reasons for being rid of his wives (excepting Jane Seymour, in which case death is pretty self-explanatory). I also wasn’t aware of how many children were born of King Henry and Katherine of Aragon, many of whom died soon after birth or were stillborn.

The book contains all the usual things you learn in history lessons: Henry VIII had six wives, was responsible for the creation of the Church of England, had many people executed, grew quite obese and had a ship called the Mary Rose, which sank. (This is pretty much the extent of my schooling when it comes to his reign!)

In addition to these, this book contains many more events and factoids relating to the life and reign of Henry VIII: his progress to the north, his going to war with France and that Calais was part of England, among other things.
Being a novel in the form of an autobiography, the book gives a lot of detail about Henry’s meeting his wives and his relationships with those around him. We see how his thoughts on people change, sometimes based on tiny actions or words. Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell, Thomas More and others--we see their fall from favour, dreaded yet inevitable. More’s death in particular was interesting to read, since in the book Henry seemed very reluctant to allow it (More was executed for treason).

According to the notes in the front of the book, it took Margaret George “fifteen years, about three hundred books of background reading, three visits to England and France, and five handwritten drafts for her answer to the question: what was Henry really like?”
Major kudos to the author for doing so much hard work! I feel that this level of background research suggests we can trust the content of the book.
Of course, there will be flights of fancy within the story (I’m somewhat disappointed at the lack of author’s notes to explain which parts were guessed/made up) but Margaret George has painted a truly vibrant picture of life in the Tudor court, and the workings of Henry VIII’s mind.

At over 900 pages this is a pretty hefty book, but is well worth the read.
If you like history and have interest in a good story, I highly recommend picking up this book!

I now feel compelled to find out more about Anne of Cleves. The book portrayed her as a woman poorly educated but quietly intelligent! I am intrigued!

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