Henry The VIII
Alison Weir
History | Ballantine | Hardcover | May 2001 | $28.00 | 0-345-43659-8


People 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.

In writing 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.

My new book, HENRY 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ever seen in England; and through this research, which has made available to the general historian a wealth of unpublished sources, new perspectives on Henry VIII have been gained.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.

The book 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 provocative.

What is 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.

Writing 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.

Researching HENRY 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.

I might 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.

It is 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.

When it 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.

In the 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.

Furthermore, 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.


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