Henry VIII: The Heart and the Crown by Alison Weir: Rich in historical detail, intrigue, passion and cruelty - book review -
It’s a warning that the ambitious young king will carry with him down the years and echo through a turbulent reign in which the man once hailed as a saviour prince becomes a symbol of monarchical tyranny and spawns one of the most compelling and notorious slices of English history.
After the outstanding success of her groundbreaking Six Tudor Queens sequence of novels, author and historian Alison Weir returns with the second book of her thrilling Tudor Rose trilogy charting three generations of the Tudor dynasty.
It’s a fittingly spectacular and enthralling story which began with Elizabeth of York: The Last White Rose – the tumultuous tale of the first Tudor queen – and now moves into the author’s most ambitious project yet... the captivating and utterly compelling story of her brilliant, passionate and ruthless son Henry who changed England and the established Church forever.
Henry VIII: The Heart and the Crown was always going to be Weir’s most challenging novel yet but after penning six books from the point of view of Henry’s six wives, this consummate author decided it was ‘time Henry VIII had a say in a novel all to himself.’
Written entirely from Henry’s viewpoint, Weir has employed her vast historical knowledge to filter the many political and religious controversies of the day and focus on both the man and the issues which exercised the early 16th century, and Henry in particular.
And it is through her in-depth research, spellbinding storytelling talents, gift for authenticity, and a tantalising slice of artistic licence, that we enjoy a stunning portrait of Henry as we have never before seen him... human, flawed, charismatic, dogged by what he sees as his failures, and now very much the star of his own story.
When his brother and Tudor heir, Prince Arthur, died aged fifteen in 1502, eleven-year-old second son, Prince Henry (Harry), suddenly had it all. Even though he had grown up dreaming of knights and chivalry, Harry was not born to rule and was always resentful of the future glory mapped out for his older brother.
Now he is the Prince of Wales, heir to the throne and betrothed to Katherine of Aragon, his brother’s enchanting Spanish widow, a woman he gave his heart to when he welcomed her to London and escorted her to her marriage to Arthur at St Paul’s Cathedral. Although five-and-a-half years older than Harry, Katherine seems to him to be ‘a princess out of a legend’ and will make a ‘perfect queen like his mother.’
The loss of his mother in childbirth when Harry was aged twelve hit him hard... he had loved, revered and adored her. She had been everything a queen should be... ‘beautiful, kind, fruitful, charitable, open-handed and devout’ and it was her Plantagenet blood that made him heir to the rightful royal line of England.
When Harry takes the throne, he already knows that treason, the most serious of crimes, must always be ‘punished harshly, for the example and terror of others.’ This was the one thing on which he and his father were agreed and the new king has no intention of suffering the ‘insecurities’ that bedevilled his father’s reign. He would ‘overawe and subjugate his noble subjects so that they never dared to turn against him.’
At over six feet tall, majestic and strong, with fair skin and auburn hair, Harry is the embodiment of kingship, the fount of honour and patronage, the inheritor of an overflowing treasury thanks to his miserly father, and can ‘make or break men as it pleased him.’
Some say he is the handsomest prince they have ever seen and reinforcing that perception is courtier Thomas Wolsey, smooth, reliable and deferential, always at his elbow, full of energy and brilliance, and willing to do his master’s bidding. If he wants something done, Wolsey is the man to ask.
But as Harry’s power and influence grows, so begins a lifelong battle between head and heart, love and duty. He rules by divine right, yet his prayers for a son go unanswered. As his father long ago reminded him, the great future of the Tudor dynasty depends on an heir and the crown weighs heavy on a king with all but his one true desire. Sometimes kings have to make unpalatable choices...
Renowned for his command of power, and celebrated for his intellect and physical prowess, Henry presided over one of the most magnificent, but dangerous, courts in Renaissance Europe and Weir’s superbly nuanced and entirely plausible portrait of an unforgettable king is set against the cultural, social and political background of his glittering court where a cast of ambitious, scheming men and women vied for his pleasures and rewards.
Weir firmly believes that Henry’s chequered matrimonial history was partly shaped by his desperate desire to beget a male heir, and the loss of his mother who personified the late medieval idea of queenship and acted as the benchmark against which he judged his wives.
In her author’s note, she tells us that Henry’s story reflects the extent to which his passions and emotions drove him and which, at times, were in conflict with the ‘political man’ who lived in an age when the will and pleasure of the King held sway over all his subjects because ‘the will of God worked through the monarch.’
The aim of Henry VIII: The Heart and the Crown was to give insights into the mind of an autocratic, vain, intellectual, brutal and yet wildly romantic king who changed the face and institutions of England and whose memory is still vividly alive five centuries after he lived.
And it is the very human, fallible side of the turbulent, complex Henry that Weir brings to vibrant and credible life with aplomb and empathy, giving a fresh and enlightening perspective of the prince who wasn’t born to be king, but became the king that everyone remembers.
So often labelled a monster, Henry is finally allowed to tell his own moving, intensely personal and enlightening story – a tale of struggle, disappointment and pain packed with the powerful, principal players of the Tudor court and rich in historical detail, intrigue, passion and cruelty.
Immersive, enthralling and unforgettable, this series turns real history into a stage... a magnificent showcase where we connect to the past, witness events unfold against a breathtakingly authentic backdrop, and see the world through the eyes and ears of the people who shaped the future.
(Headline Review, hardback, £25 )