‘How many more books can there be about Henry VIII?’ lamented a well-known seventeenth century historian. ‘I mean, whatever next…Henry VIII’s toenail?’
Admittedly, this remark was made as part of a speech to promote his new book about a Stuart monarch, so his flippant remark may have been aimed at trying to persuade people to look beyond the Tudors for once. But he did have a point. Henry VIII has been the subject of more books, dramas, films and documentaries than any other monarch in British history. Yet still we have an insatiable desire to find out more.
As joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces, I see thousands of visitors flock to Hampton Court every year. Much as we try to show them the other (larger) side of the palace – Wren’s magnificent Baroque masterpiece commissioned by William III and Mary II in the late seventeenth century – they aren’t interested. They are here for Henry, and Henry alone.
In part, our fascination with this most famous of kings is understandable. He married six times, told the Pope where to go, oversaw one of the most seismic religious and political revolutions in our history, and created the foundation of our national identity. No wonder that we can’t get enough of him.
I have been a Tudor historian for over twenty years, but until recently I have skirted around Henry – mentioning him in the context of his daughter Elizabeth, exploring the life he led behind closed doors, that sort of thing. But I had never dared to tackle a full biography. Surely there are too many of those?
But then a thought occurred to me. Yes, Henry has been written about endlessly, but almost always in the context of his wives. Surely there is another side to the story? Exploring the men in Henry VIII’s life reveals a dazzling and eclectic cast of characters: relations, servants, ministers, rivals, confidants and companions. Some were ‘mad’ (Sir Francis Bryan, the so-called ‘Vicar of Hell’), some ‘bad’ (the arch-schemer, Stephen Gardiner), but none as ‘dangerous to know’ as Henry VIII himself. There are also the men whose stories have, until now, remained in the shadows: Sir William Butts, Henry’s favourite physician, Will Somer, his fool, and Sir Thomas Cawarden, who superintended some of the most spectacular entertainments of the later reign, reminding Henry of his glorious younger days. It is these men who helped to shape the character, opinions and image of their king, and whose influence – sometimes visible, sometimes hidden – lay behind the Tudor throne.
By the end of my research, I felt like I had met Henry for the first time. I can’t wait to introduce Chalke Valley History Festival goers to him on 26 June!
Tracy Borman’s book, Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him, was published by Hodder & Stoughton last year.
Tracy Borman is joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces and Chief Executive of the Heritage Education Trust. She studied and taught history at the University of Hull and was awarded a PhD in 1997. Tracy is the author of a number of highly acclaimed books including The Private Lives of the Tudors: Uncovering the Secrets of Britain’s Greatest Dynasty, Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant, and Witches: A Tale of Sorcery, Scandal and Seduction. Tracy is also a regular broadcaster and public speaker, giving talks on her books across the UK and abroad.