ask me--as I often ask myself--why I am so fascinated by Henry
VIII, and no doubt there will be those who want to know why
I have written another book about him. There's no doubt that
Henry is a perennially charismatic figure--he was larger than
life in every sense, he married six times, he led England
through a religious revolution, and he elevated kingship to
a high art--but I have always felt that there was more to
him than this. All too often, Henry VIII is portrayed as a
caricature, a fat, overindulgent tyrant who cut off heads
at will and chased women with equal fervor.
this new book, I wanted to get as close to the real Henry
as possible and strip away all the myths about him that have
built up over the centuries. All too often his story is told
from the perspective of his wives or his ministers, but I
wished to see events from Henry's perspective. As a result,
I have perhaps arrived at a more sympathetic view of him than
most historians, yet if this helps my readers to see Henry
as a realistic figure rather than the popular caricature of
legend, then I will consider my work well done.
VIII: The King and His Court, is not just a biography
of the King. During the last two decades, a great deal of
research has been done on his court, which was the most magnificent
ever seen in England; and through this research, which has
made available to the general historian a wealth of unpublished
sources, new perspectives on Henry VIII have been gained.
Until now, most biographies of him have been political, and
those few that were rather more personal focused chiefly on
the King himself. My brief has been to set the personal life
of Henry against the background of his court, drawing on the
recent research and embellishing it in every direction. What
interests me--and, I suspect, many of my readers--are the
fascinating details of everyday life, both descriptive and
anecdotal, that bring into sharp focus a world long gone.
This book is packed with them. Woven into a cohesive whole,
these details reveal a startlingly clear picture of what life
must have been like at court in Henry VIII's day.
I set out to write was to have descriptive, analytical, and
narrative elements, and was to be a new portrayal of a subject
about which many people no doubt felt there was little more
to be said. It was never my intention to be controversial.
Yet during the course of my research I came across one of
Henry's own letters in which I discovered startling information
that sheds new light on the fate of Anne Boleyn and demolishes
one of the most accepted theories as to why she was executed.
It also explains why Henry was able to put to death the woman
he had, almost literally, moved Heaven and Earth to marry.
Such a discovery was exciting and challenging, and provided
answers to many of the questions surrounding Anne's fall.
I realize, however, that some readers may find my conclusions
most interesting to me is that no other writer seems to have
picked up on this information. I first read Henry's letter
in a recent biography of Anne Boleyn, and was amazed to find
that the author, a respected historian, did not comment on
it. But there is no doubt in my mind as to its significance.
this book about Henry VIII, therefore, has involved using
newly available material and reinterpreting known sources.
Yet how far can we rely on these sources? Every historian
knows that some sources are untrustworthy, and those for the
reign of Henry VIII are frequently informed by religious bias.
Some were written as propaganda, some with an ulterior motive,
some were based on misinformation, and some were either attempts
at character assassination or plain whitewash jobs! It is
always important to look for corroborating evidence and to
assess the prejudices of the writer and his/her nearness to
events. I have been dealing with Tudor sources for 36 years
now, and am very familiar with many of them, but one can never
afford to be too complacent. The important thing is to read
the sources properly and think seriously about their meaning.
Misinterpretation is all too easy. That said, it is important
to remember that these events occurred over four centuries
ago: two historians, given the same facts, might come up with
completely different interpretations and, in the absence of
evidence to the contrary, both would be valid. I usually base
my conclusions on a balance of probabilities, after having
examined as many facts as I can discover.
VIII: The King and His Court was a mammoth task. There
is so much information available that it would be impossible
to include it all. I have in fact used just a quarter of my
research for the book. Deciding what is to be included and
what is not is often very difficult, but with a subject like
this it is all too easy--and pleasurable--to follow lines
of research that are not strictly part of the brief. Yet I
never feel that my research is wasted, because the advantage
of having a knowledge of so much background material lends
added authority to what I finally write in the text.
not sound very disciplined with research, but I am very strict
with myself when it comes to planning a book like this. It
took me two months to prepare a written plan that extended
to every last detail, and in each instance I asked myself
if, firstly, each piece of information was relevant to the
subject and, secondly, whether it would enrich the book as
a whole. As to length, I have to confess that the book is
nearly twice as long as it was meant to be, and I can only
express my heartfelt gratitude to my publishers for agreeing
with me that I could not have done justice to the subject
in a shorter work.
no easy task to write a personal biography of a Tudor King,
or an account of his court, because in the sixteenth century
a monarch ruled as well as reigned, and politics were an essential
part of the life of the King and the court. Whilst making
this clear, I have touched on politics only where necessary.
What I have done is to focus on the lives and personalities
of Henry's courtiers, from his queens down to the lowliest
scullion, and interwoven them into the narrative. I have also
described many of the dramatic events of the reign, emphasizing
how they affected the King and the life of the court.
came to writing about Henry VIII's six wives, I constantly
bore in mind the fact that I had already written a book about
them, and tried to avoid repetition. The details that were
repeated were those that were relevant to the new text. I
have also had occasion to revise some of my conclusions in
the earlier book, in the light of new research, although I
hasten to assure those who have read and enjoyed The Six
Wives of Henry VIII that I still stand by most of what
I have written in it; if you read this new book, you will
see where my views have been revised, and why.
current climate, in which the monarchy is no longer very fashionable,
I am pleased to see that there remains an abiding interest
in the Kings and Queens of the past. Perhaps it is because
their lives were in such contrast to ours: they lived by rigid
social and religious rules and mores, whereas we perceive
morality as being relative, and being true to ourselves as
being more important than social conformity. They dressed
according to a strict code governed by status and modesty,
whereas for us dress is a matter of self-expression. They
lived in an age when class and rank were all-important, while
in our egalitarian age we like to think of these things as
anachronisms. And lastly, to the Tudors the concept of sexual
equality as unknown and against divine and natural law; to
us, it is virtually an article of faith. It is therefore fascinating
to us, from our modern vantage point, to look back across
the centuries and discover how people behaved within constraints
that would be utterly alien to most of us.
if power is sexy, then the near-absolute power wielded by
a King such as Henry VIII is utterly irresistible, especially
when we see beyond the obese, aggressive despot of Holbein's
portraits to the golden, muscular youth who exuded charm and
sex appeal, and who excelled at everything he did. That charisma
is still perceptible today, even across the lapse of centuries.
We are also compellingly fascinated by the fact that, until
he became obsessed with privacy, a King like Henry lived his
life largely in the public eye--he was never alone or unattended,
even when performing his most intimate functions. Yet this
diminished him in no way: such was the mystique of royalty
that he remained a figure of awe and ever-increasing majesty
to all around him. No sovereign before or since has ever held
such authority in England, neither has any had such a larger-than-life
personality. For these things alone, Henry VIII makes a wonderful
subject for a biography, but the real man--as I hope you will
discover through reading this book--is even more fascinating.