Posts

Why do we still care about Henry VIII?

‘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

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.

 

Tracy will be speaking at Chalke Valley History Festival about Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him on Wednesday, 26th June 2019. Tickets are available here.

 

🎧 THE KING’S WITCH: JAMES I AND THE GUNPOWDER PLOT

Audio from Chalke Valley History Festival 2018.
In this talk, inspired by her debut novel partially set at nearby Longford Castle, Festival favourite Tracy Borman takes us into the turbulent world of the early Stuart court, where King James I waged a war on witches and Catholics alike. It was not long before a dark campaign to destroy both King and Parliament gathered pace, culminating in the Gunpowder Plot.

🎬 5 Minutes With…Tracy Borman

Tudor historian, Tracy Borman talks to CVHF volunteer and history student, Eleonor Watson about her latest novel,. The Kings Witch, why she decided to start writing historical fiction and what her job entails as chief curator at the Royal Palaces.

5 Minutes with… Tracy Borman from Chalke Valley History Trust on Vimeo.

Histrionics 2017

For many, our history panel show is the highlight of the Festival. This video was taken at CVHF 2017 when we had Charlie Higson in the chair and John Sessions, Tracy Borman, Andy Zaltzman and Dan Snow on the panel.


Our ever-popular history panel show returns on Friday, 29th June 2018 with Fast Show comedian and author Charlie Higson as quizmaster. Returning team captains John Sessions and Dan Snow will be joined by Helen Castor and, for the first time, Al Murray. Sixty minutes of quickfire historical humour with new rounds and challenges for the teams. Tickets can be purchased here.

The King’s Witch

I always look forward to the Chalke Valley History Festival, but this year will be even more special because I will be talking about The King’s Witch, my debut novel, which is set just a stone’s throw away at Longford Castle.

Situated on the banks of the River Avon close to Salisbury, Longford is one of the finest examples of the Elizabethan prodigy houses.  It was built by Sir Thomas Gorges and his wife Helena, a favourite of the Virgin Queen, and was the inspiration for Philip Sidney’s ‘Castle of Amphialeus’ in his famous work, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia.  Thomas and Helena were very happily married and had eight children.  It is the third of these, Frances, who is the heroine of my novel.

Little is known about the real Frances, which in many respects makes her an ideal subject for a novel.  Her life spanned one of the most dramatic periods in our history: from the glory days of Elizabeth I to the execution of Charles I.  No wonder I needed three books to tell it!  The King’s Witch is the first in the trilogy and begins with Elizabeth’s death before exploring the turbulent early years of James I’s reign, culminating in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

This was a dangerous time to be alive.  The new Stuart king was cut from a very different cloth to his Tudor predecessor.  Intolerant and dogmatic, he had no intention of upholding Elizabeth’s policy of not ‘making windows into men’s souls’.  It was soon obvious that he was going to stamp his extreme brand of Protestantism onto the English people, which spelt danger for any subject who still clung to the old Catholic faith.

James also brought with him the violent persecution of suspected witches that had seen thousands of innocent women put to the flames in Scotland.  A woman had only to be unmarried, poor, or be practised at healing to be under suspicion, and an accusation alone was enough to bring her to trial – as Frances, a skilled healer, discovers to her cost.

For all the king’s puritanical views, however, the court over which he presided was shockingly decadent.  In place of the cultural vibrancy and strict morality that had defined the Elizabethan court was drunkenness, depravity and excess in every form.  Little wonder that James’s new subjects soon harked back to the ‘Golden Age’ of Elizabeth and began nurturing a dangerous resentment against their new king.

As a dark campaign to destroy both King and Parliament gathers pace, culminating in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, Frances is surrounded by danger, finding happiness only with the king’s precocious young daughter, and with Tom Wintour, the one courtier she feels she can trust.  But is he all that he seems?

The novel was inspired by the research I carried out for my non-fiction book, Witches, an account of James I and the English witch hunts.  It has taken several years to craft my initial sketch of a story into the finished novel that will be published this June, and I learned a huge amount along the way.  Although it is still history, writing a novel is a very different discipline to non-fiction.  I had to learn to ‘show not tell’, to interweave period details into dialogue, rather than writing them verbatim as I would in a non-fiction account.  Given that so much of Frances’s history is unknown to us, I also had to employ a great deal of imagination – and straying from the facts is not something that comes naturally to a historian!

But I hope the result brings one of the most turbulent events in British history to life, and – though this is tantamount to treason – to entice us to look beyond the Tudor period.  I cannot wait to tell the Chalke Valley audience all about it on 27 June.


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. She is the author of a number of highly acclaimed books, including Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant, Matilda: Wife of the Conqueror, First Queen of England, Elizabeth’s Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen and Witches: A Tale of Sorcery, Scandal and Seduction. She is also a regular broadcaster and public speaker, giving talks on her books across the UK and abroad.

Tickets to Tracy’s talk at CVHF on Wednesday 27th June are available here.