Henry VIII: King and Court/Henry VIII: The King and His Court (2001)



"A compelling, readable account… A meticulous, accurate compilation of source materials, which will serve as essential reading for students of the Tudor period for a long time to come… Good history books ought to change the way we look at ourselves and our nation`s past. [Weir`s] Henry VIII is one such book." (Lisa Jardine, The Literary Review)

"Weir tells the story grippingly and convincingly." (The Sunday Times, Paperback Pick of the Week) 

"Alison Weir brings to her fascinatingly detailed study the kind of historical acumen and accessible prose style that distinguished her Elizabeth the Queen…The delight here is in the detail…We certainly understand [Henry] more by the end of this mammoth study." (Publishing News)

"A very fine book, full of detail… A splendid volume on a detestable subject." (Frank McLynn, The Independent on Sunday)

"A glittering evocation of the Tudor court… Weir`s finest achievement is her quiet, convincing overturning of this cliché Henry VIII… He was one of us. It is that poignant truth that Weir brings colourfully to life." (The Daily Telegraph)

"A marked success." (The Sunday Times)

"The great virtue of Alison Weir`s fascinating book lies not so much in the history as in the small details of life at court." (The Express on Sunday)

"Enthralling." (Waterstones Books Quarterly)

"Alison Weir's new biography is brilliant. This is a book that doesn`t just tell you what happened, it tells you what it was like while it was happening." (Writing Magazine)

"Alison Weir's rich tapestry is superb in painting a picture of all facets of Henry`s reign." (Cumberland News)

"Alison Weir`s sparkling biography….builds up a splendid picture… Absolutely brilliant." (Focus)

"The minutiae is fascinating... This is A-level history meets Eastenders: a wonderful insight into the life and loves of a fascinating king. Outstanding reading for historian and non-historian alike." (Yorkshire Evening Press)

"Weir has succeeded in making this most cartoonish of English kings into a living, breathing entity." (The Bookseller)

"This well-written and illuminating book abounds (in details). It makes absorbing reading. All this Alison Weir recounts with authority and befitting verve." (Christopher Hibbert, The Mail on Sunday)

"A masterly piece of historical biography." (The Bookseller)

"This is not only a superb biography, but an amazing insight into the life of the court… Alison Weir has brought the Tudor era to life." (The Bookseller)

"A scrumptious portrait with fascinating detail." (Bournemouth Daily Echo)

"Thoroughly researched and entertaining, filled with delicious details and provocative argument." (Kirkus Reviews, starred review)

"There's no better way to study the King. A new perspective on one of England's most mythologised rulers." (The Atlanta Journal/Chicago Tribune

"Forget the Henry VIII portrayed by Charles Laughton: this is a king carefully researched. When I've finished it, it will be sorely missed." (Nanette Newman, Woman's Journal)

"This book had a huge impact on me when it was published and has become my Henry Bible ever since." (Tracy Borman)

Random House UK Newsletter, 2001, sent out to readers to coincide with publication.

No one was more amazed than I at the success of Eleanor of Aquitaine. I had wanted to write  about  her  for  so  long, but never realised that the subject would strike such a chord with so many people. During the promotional tours I had the pleasure of meeting many fellow enthusiasts, and I should like to thank all those who wrote to me with fascinating information and even sent me photographs of places connected with Eleanor.
   It has been a wonderful but frantically busy year, filled with writing, research and events, and - to my surprise - I have completed another book, Henry VIII: King and Court, which is to be published this June. I am drawn inexorably back to the sixteenth century, and the charismatic personalities who inhabited it, and I have found absorbing satisfaction in writing a personal history of Henry VIII set against the background of his court, about which so much excellent research has been done in recent years.
   This is perhaps the most sympathetic portrait of Henry in a long time, for it has been my aim to reveal the man behind the caricature and demolish some popular misconceptions. Inevitably, my new research has led me to revise some of the conclusions I had drawn in my earlier book, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, and I was astonished to discover, in a letter written by Henry himself, explosive information that casts light on the reason for Anne Boleyn's fall, information that demolishes the theory that Henry got rid of Anne because she failed to bear him a son. Surprisingly, no historian seems to have noticed the significance of this letter. So what is this explosive evidence, I hear you asking? Well, you'll just have to read the book!
   Not only is Henry VIII: King and Court a project very dear to me, but it is undoubtedly the most handsome book I have ever published. The extensive plate section, in full colour, contains a number of little-known portraits and a selection of fascinating images of the period, all chosen to bring both Henry and his court to life.
   To coincide with publication, I will be undertaking a promotional tour, and I look forward to seeing many of you at the events that have been scheduled - it is always a great pleasure to meet fellow enthusiasts. A writer's existence is of necessity largely solitary, so it is wonderful to be 'let out' every so often to mingle with those who share my interest in history. This time around, there will be many opportunities for questions, discussions and book signings.
   One talk that I give quite frequently, usually for schools, libraries and writers' groups, is on how I research and write books, and it occurred to me that readers of this Newsletter might be interested in this.
   The first thing I tell my listeners is to write about something you know, and make sure you will be able to do sufficient research. You may be confident, but you need to know your own limitations: it was recently suggested that I write a book on Lucrezia Borgia, but as most contemporary sources are in Italy and written in Italian (which I don't speak), it's not a very realistic proposition, much as the subject might appeal to me.
   I would never employ a researcher. Aside from seeing it published - and that's a thrill that never diminishes - doing my own research is perhaps the most rewarding aspect of writing a book. I've said before that it is like detective work, unearthing facts, piecing them together, reconciling conflicting accounts, and weaving every snippet of information into a convincing whole. Sometimes, just one tiny fact can influence the entire thrust of the book. A researcher who was not as familiar with the period and the sources might miss this entirely, or fail to follow up leads that might appear significant only to the author. There's a certain amount of lateral thinking involved.
   I research first from contemporary sources. Fortunately, for the Tudor period, many are in print and easily accessible, while those that remain in manuscript form are often extensively quoted in secondary sources. I tend to use secondary sources as a guide to what other historians think. It is important to consult a broad variety of sources in order to gain the widest possible perspective on the subject. A word of warning here: no matter how well you think you've researched a book, someone will always write to you with a vital fact you didn't come across!
   Much of my research is written up in chronological order. Every piece of information I acquire is entered under the relevant date heading. I have further file sections headed 'People', 'Places', 'Portraits', 'Genealogies', 'Bibliography' and specific subjects such as 'Music at court' or 'Food'. For Henry VIII: King and Court, there were many such sections covering every aspect of court life, as well as the chronological entries, and deciding where everything was going to go in the finished book was a highly complex task and involved preparing a 40-page plan, which took two months to put together.
   I cannot overstress the importance of routine and self-discipline when it comes to writing a book. Ideally, I have three writing sessions a day, bounded by school runs: morning, from about llam to 1pm, afternoon, from 2pm to 3pm, and evening, from 7pm to 9pm. However, the busier I get, with constant telephone calls, events, writing articles, lunches (all in the line of duty!) and the demands of two busy teenagers, the harder it is to keep to these disciplines, so I count myself lucky if I do two sessions a day. When I'm really working flat out to meet a deadline, my wonderfully supportive family take over household duties, and I work virtually uninterrupted, even through weekends. For any author, commitment is vital, but with me, it's no great virtue - I'm passionate about history, I love what I do, and I was doing it as a hobby for twenty-two years before I got into print. I consider myself very privileged indeed to be able to enjoy a career writing history books.
   Because I'm so strict with myself about routine, I know that it takes me about six months to actually write a book. For six years until 1997, I ran a school, and I was still able to complete a book to this schedule (don't ask how!). I aim to type a minimum of five pages a day, which means twenty-five pages a week and a hundred each month. Over six months, that's a 500-page book with notes and references, a bibliography and family trees and possibly maps (both of which I draw myself), with a time margin for holidays and possible illness (help!)
   I type up the book myself, and my highly efficient secretary makes several copies of it and occasionally points out errors. I usually start a chapter with my own written resume of events, then add material as I trawl through my sources. I never choose a heading until a chapter is finished, and usually I pick a contemporary quote from the text that sums up the main theme of the chapter.
   Then comes the wonderful moment when I can deliver the manuscript and relax. Wonderful because the pressure is off, but sad also, because it means I have to part company with a subject to which I have inevitably grown close: I actually shed tears when I killed off Elizabeth I. I not only write books, I really live them, and perhaps that's what gives them an appeal for readers.
   You might imagine that, after delivering a manuscript, I put my feet up, and you'd be right, but I only have a break for a week or so because I'm bursting with enthusiasm to start the next project, and am eager to start researching again. This has its problems: after two or three months, my edited manuscript lands on my desk, and 1 have to leave the new research in which I am already totally immersed to deal with it; I then have to check printed proofs, assist with picture research and prepare an index. This all happens twice because my books are published in the USA also, and it can keep me from my research for up to two months. However, it is vitally important to get things absolutely right prior to publication.
   Choosing the illustrations for the jacket and plate section is always an enjoyable task, particularly when you have an enthusiastic team working with you, as I do. I initially choose the illustrations, and the picture researcher tracks them down and obtains permissions. Sometimes we have to compromise when a picture is not available, but I'm happy to say that this hasn't happened very often. Usually I'm delighted that in many cases my choice of less well-known pictures has been included. When all the transparencies of the pictures are collated, I write the captions for them. The publishers commission the jacket design, but I am consulted at every step of the way: for Henry Vlll: King and Court, I was given a choice of twelve different designs, all of them so good that it was hard to choose between them. I think you'll agree that the one we decided upon is really stunning.
   Sometimes I find myself working in one way or another on three books at once. In 1999, I was promoting the paperback of Elizabeth the Queen, editing Eleanor of Aquitaine, and researching Henry VIII: King and Court, all at the same time. This requires one's brain to make swift cultural leaps, and if those who attended my talks were perhaps on occasions confused, you will now understand why.
   Promotional events are nearly always enjoyable, but not without scary moments. In 1999, while promoting Elizabeth the Queen, I was to be interviewed live 'down the line' from Broadcasting House in London by BBC Radio in Bristol. To my horror, I heard the presenter announce that for the next half hour we would be discussing Lancaster and York (which had just been reissued in paperback), a book I had not looked at in four years. I'm not normally nervous doing live radio, but my mind went completely blank, and I was mouthing at my publicist, who sat in the studio with me but could not hear what was being said on the headset, 'Wrong book!' She dashed out and rang the producer, but it was too late, and the interview went ahead. Fortunately, the presenter had done his homework well, and his intelligent questions prompted me to remember much of what I had written. Afterwards, when we were off air, I told him that we had discussed the wrong book, but he gallantly said he would never have known.
   To conclude this newsletter, I should like to extend my heartfelt thanks to all the people who buy my books, and to those who take the trouble to write to me. I am often touched by your letters, and keep them all. However, having read the above, you will no doubt appreciate that I no longer have time to answer them all in detail, much as I would like to do so, and that I am no longer able to research detailed queries. Sometimes someone writes querying a fact in one of my books; to answer this might involve trawling through hundreds of pages of old research files, which are stored in my loft, or searching for library books that I might have consulted up to thirty years before. All this is very time consuming, and where once I would have tried to deal with such queries, I can no longer do so due to the pressure of work. Rest assured though, that I do take them all seriously, even if I do not always agree with the writer's contention. Your comments are always valued.

Random House UK Newsletter, 2002

I am delighted that Random House  has decided to publish a third Newsletter to coincide with the paperback publication of Henry VIII: King and Court. I have been overwhelmed by the response to this book, and touched by the many letters that readers have taken the trouble to write to me. During the publicity events that followed publication in June, I have had the privilege of meeting many of you and it has been a great pleasure to encounter so many fellow enthusiasts.  A writer's life is of necessity a somewhat solitary one, so it is very enjoyable for a gregarious person like myself to be able to get out and meet people of like mind and interests. I am very much looking forward to the events that will mark the publication of the paperback in April.
   For the past eighteen months, I have been researching my next book, Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley, which is due to be published in spring 2003. In the last Newsletter, I gave readers a foretaste of my treatment of this most famous of royal murder mysteries, and I should now - without giving too much away - like to update you on progress, since my research is completed and I am actually writing the book.
    The subject of Mary Stewart's involvement in the murder of her husband, Lord Darnley, in 1567 at Kirk o' Field in Edinburgh, has always been a controversial one. When I was researching Elizabeth the Queen, it seemed clear, from the evidence I was looking at, that Mary was an accessory before the fact. However, my subject was Elizabeth I and my deadline did not permit me to spend more time than was necessary on uncovering all the evidence relating to Darnley's murder, which was only a minor episode in the book. What was important to the plot was that people believed in Mary's guilt, not whether she was actually guilty or not. But the subject continued to intrigue me, and later I decided to write a book about it. I didn't quite realise then what I was taking on!
   One of the main problems is that most of the evidence against Mary comes from hostile sources or from powerful people who knew it was in their interests to blacken her reputation. Another difficulty lies in interpreting the motives of the principal players, who are variously stated to have acted on principle in the interests of the state, or out of criminal self-interest. The matter is so complex that it would be possible to write two equally valid books about Mary, both based on contemporary evidence, one finding her innocent and the other finding her guilty. At one stage, my task seemed impossible.
   When, over a decade ago, I wrote about another famous historical murder mystery in The Princes in the Tower, I realised that there were four key elements to this kind of research: the first, and most important, is to know and evaluate the source material; the second is to collate that material into strict chronological order - it's amazing what emerges when you do this; the third is to study the characters and movements of all the people relevant to the story; and the fourth is to separate opinions, speculation and supposition from hard facts: do this, and you will be suprised at what you are left with. These disciplines worked well with The Princes in the Tower, and they have again worked well with Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Murder of Darnley. Yet, given the complexity of the vast range of material on Mary, compared with the relative scarcity of sources on the Princes, this book has proved a much greater challenge.
   At the end of my research, I had amassed thousands of pieces of evidence, all collated in broadly chronological order. Normally I would be able to write the book from this very rough draft structure, but in the case of Mary it would have been impossible because of the wealth of conflicting evidence. So I numbered each source and collated them all into a detailed plan, much the same as I had done for Henry VIII: King and Court, for which I also had a vast amount of source material. Yet whereas the plan for Henry numbered forty pages, for it was a relatively straightforward book once the structure had been decided upon, the plan for Mary has run to 103 pages, and took two months to complete. The hard work was worth it, however, because I now have a solution to this age-old mystery, and it is one that reconciles all the conflicting facts.
   This may sound rather boastful, given that this controversy has raged for centuries. However, many writers in the past did not have the advantage of access to all the source material, and a great number were influenced by religious or moral bias. During the later twentieth century, relatively few works on Mary appeared. Antonia Fraser's Mary, Queen of Scots (1969) remains the standard biography, but may be over-sympathetic in its approach to its subject. This was counterbalanced in 1988 by Jenny Wormald's savage indictment of Mary in A Study in Failure, which perhaps over-stated its case. I am writing, not a biography, but an account and analysis of the events leading up to and following on from what happened at Kirk o' Field, and I am taking, I hope, an entirely objective viewpoint, relying on only the best contemporary evidence. However, I have no doubt that, whatever conclusion I reach, it won't please everyone, for, like The Princes in the Tower, this is a subject that arouses high feelings. I hope, nevertheless, that even those who disagree with my conclusions will conclude that I have done my best to weigh up the evidence conscientiously and to be fair in my assessment of Mary's role in what proved to be the pivotal event of her life.
   As well as working on this book, I have been acting as the historical adviser to the producers and scriptwriter of Granada's forthcoming television drama series on Henry VIII, starring Ray Winstone, which will be filmed later this year. The BBC have also taken an option on my book on Eleanor of Aquitaine with a view to making a drama series based on it. At present they are looking for a scriptwriter.
   You will hopefully be as delighted as I am that I have recently signed a new contract with Random House for three more books: the first will be about Isabelle the 'She Wolf of France, wife of Edward II, the second about the women in Charles II's life, and the third about Lucrezia Borgia. These are subjects I have long waited to write about, and I am very excited at the prospect of embarking on them.
   Having read the above, those of you who have kindly written to me in the past year will hopefully realise why I can no longer reply in
full to your letters. Some of you have become regular correspondents over the years, which I have much appreciated, but now cannot reciprocate in the manner I would wish - I do hope you understand why. Many readers sent me Christmas cards and even photographs last year, for which I thank you most sincerely; it was so thoughtful of you to remember me.
   Lack of time and the pressure of meeting deadlines have made it impossible for me to deal with the many requests for research or further information that I receive. Occasionally a reader has written querying something that appears in my books; once upon a time, I could have spent ages going through books and old research files in order to answer such queries, but I just do not have the time nowadays. Rest assured, however, that I do take your comments and criticisms seriously, although perhaps not in the case of the lady who wrote to say she did not agree with me about Richard III and had binned my book, then added, 'Don't bother to reply' (!) Needless to say, I did. Fortunately, most of the letters I receive are really heartening and encouraging, and I am most grateful for them. Believe me, I keep them all. Once again, I am grateful for the opportunity that this Newsletter gives me to express my thanks to you for buying my books and for giving me such support over the years.


Rejected U.K. and U.S. jackets.

Scholars throughout the last few decades have undertaken a vast amount of research on Henry VIII and his court, and it is now clear that many of our earlier perceptions of both must be revised. Henry was a complex personality of many talents and there is so much surviving source material for his reign that we know even the most intimate details of his personal life. Furthermore, this man of exquisite taste and a grand sense of majesty established the most magnificent court ever seen in England. No English sovereign ever owned as many houses as Henry, or spent so lavishly on a lifestyle deliberately calculated to enhance his own prestige. Few monarchs have been surrounded by so many talented and charismatic personalities. And few have ever been so controversial.
   In an age of personal monarchy the court was at the hub of royal government, but this is not a political history of the reign: my brief has been to record the events that help build up a picture of the life and ethos of the King and his court. Henry VIII's ministers and wives naturally played a large part in the life of that court.
   My aim in this book has been to draw together a multitude of strands of research in order to develop a picture of the real Henry VIII, his personal life throughout his reign, the court he created and the people who influenced and served him.
This is not just an account of Henry's court and reign, but a book packed with anecdotal evidence that brings to life this most colourful period of English history and the larger-than-life character who dominated it.
   I have also attempted to describe and analyse the cultural and social development of the English court, and to this end have included every aspect of court life: the ceremonial and pageantry, state occasions, entertainments, sports, poetry and drama, art, music, religious observances, sexual and political intrigues, banquets and feasts, dress, transport, household organisation and administration, finance, hygiene, and even pets!
   The Tudor court, however, was primarily the place where a host of persons, great and lowly, gathered about the King; therefore one of my chief aims has been to weave the lives of queens, princes, princesses, lords, ladies, privy councillors, knights, gentlemen, artists, craftsmen and servants in the rich tapestry of court life, intrigue and vicious faction fights.
   I hope the book will convey to those who read it the same pleasure and sense of affinity with its subject that it afforded me while I was researching and writing it, and that they will be able to make that great leap of imagination across the centuries and arrive at an understanding of the subject, and that, for them, Henry VIII and his court will come to life.
    My aim in this book has been to draw together a multitude of strands of research in order to develop a picture of the real Henry VIII, his personal life throughout his reign, the court he created and the people who influenced and served him.

Tracy Borman has chosen Henry VIII: King and Court for BBC History magazine's Classic Book feature (April 2020).

Living History, 7, October 2003

Everyone has heard of Henry VIII-the bloated tyrant who executed his wives and had a row with the Pope. But is that a realistic portrait of the King? Alison Weir gets under the skin of Henry and explains what he was really like.

For most people Henry VIII stands four-square in their minds as the image created by Hans Holbein: the all-powerful monarch and the epit­ome of manly autocracy.  For some, Henry is the caricature created by Charles Laughton in the 1933 film 'The Private Life of Henry VIII', a buffoon who chucked chicken bones over his shoulder and whose chief mission in life was chopping and changing wives.
   The real Henry, of course, was nothing like Laughton's portrayal, and Holbein's masterful propagandist image has successfully blotted out any earlier perceptions of the more youthful and idealistic king. Yet it is these two images that still hold sway over public opinion, despite the
efforts of historians to paint a more realistic pic­ture of this most famous of English kings.
   To the populist mind, Henry is a fat, lecher­ous tyrant. Yet the evidence shows that, for most of his life, he was a well-proportioned, hand­some man, who only became grossly overweight in the decade before his premature death at 55. He may have been a tyrant in the colloquial sense, but he acted within the law, or the laws he created. Until infirmity overtook him, he was indeed lecherous, but he was also discreet and prudish about sexual matters, so the evidence for his affairs is at best fragmentary. As for throwing chicken bones over his shoul­der, that would have been unthinkable to a man with such fastidious manners as Henry.
   Henry started his reign as an idealist, but he ended it a suspicious cynic. He is most famous, however, for having had six wives. What is shocking to modern eyes is that he beheaded two of those wives - Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, the two he apparently loved the most passionately. Yet, given the appalling and detailed evidence against them that was laid before him, and the apparent risk to his person, he had no choice, as the law then stood, but to sanction the ultimate penalty. Historical research has shown that Anne Boleyn at least may have been innocent, but that would not have been apparent to Henry at the time.

It must be remembered that the King was usual­ly a courteous and loving husband. Even Anne of Cleaves, who smelt so badly that Henry could not bear to go near her, was wished a courtly 'goodnight sweetheart' at bedtime. His view of himself as a chivalrous knight certainly influ­enced his treatment of his wives, yet he was essentially a chauvinistic traditionalist who expected obedience and could be crushingly curt when his queens stepped out of line. For all that, there is no record of him physically chas­tising them, even though wife beating was considered perfectly acceptable at the time.
   Henry probably regarded marital relations as being primarily for the begetting of sons. It was doubtless for this reason that he invariably strayed from the marriage bed when his wives were pregnant.
   "Who does not tremble when he considers how to deal with his wife?" Henry wrote in 1521. "For not only is he bound to love her, but so to live with her that he may return her to God pure and without stain." Thus sex with Henry must, for his wives at least, have been a somewhat staid affair.
   Of course, Henry regard­ed his queens, like everyone else, as being far beneath him. As far as he was concerned, they were honoured by his favour. He had a firm concept of the divinity of his calling as an anointed sovereign, which was further rein­forced by his becoming Supreme Head of the Church of England in 1534. Consequently, any transgression against him was liable to be inter­preted as treason, which in Henry's day was regarded as the most terrible of all crimes. Nor would he allow himself to be contaminated by any contact with traitors. He was never involved in arrests, nor present at an execution. Yet, con­trary to some popular perceptions, Henry had such respect for the hierarchy of rank that he invariably commuted the dreadful sentence of hanging, drawing and quartering to beheading for aristocrats, and he would never permit a peer of the realm to be tortured.
   Not for nothing was Henry known as 'the English Nero', although estimates of the numbers who perished at his order have probably been grossly overstated. In his later years, he often showed favour to those whom he meant to destroy - notably the northern rebel, Robert Aske, and Thomas Cromwell, who was created Earl of Essex just prior to his arrest in 1540; and the king also enjoyed the discomfiture of those, such as Archbishop Cranmer and Katherine Parr, who had been accused by others, but whom he had no inten­tion of prosecuting. Henry could cer­tainly be ruthless and cruel, but he was no worse than several other princes of his time. After 1534 he became more sanctimonious than ever. God, he said, knew the righteousness of his heart and therefore prospered his affairs.

Despite this divinesupport, fate dealt Henry a cruel hand in one crucial respect - he had the bad luck to marry a woman who could not give him a male heir. All Katherine of Aragon's sons died in infancy. In 1527, when Katherine was past the menopause and Henry had been in love with Anne Boleyn for more than a year, he applied to the Pope for an annulment of his 18-year-old marriage, which he claimed was unlawful according to canon law. There were precedents, and there should have been no difficulties, yet the Pope was in thrall to Katherine's nephew, the powerful Holy Roman Emperor, and put off giving an answer to Henry's reasonable request for seven years, in the process reinforcing the King's growing con­viction that the Holy See was sacrificing reli­gious principles in the interests of political expe­diency.
   During the long and deeply frustrating years of the 'Great Matter', as it came to be known, Henry gradually changed from being a dutiful son of the church who had defended it against heresies of Luther (and been rewarded with the title Defender of the Faith), into a reli­gious renegade and revolutionary who, unable to take any more, broke with Rome and denied the authority of the Pope.
"Spared the years of frustration, Henry's idealism might have survived and he would not have gone down in history as a tyrannical Bluebeard."

At the same time, during those years of gruelling negotiations, with his goal always just out of reach and the succession still not assured, Henry suffered immense frustration on a personal level, as he refrained from bedding Anne Boleyn. After seven long years they finally slept together, only for a shocked Henry to discov­er that she was no virgin, but had in fact learned dubious sexual practices during her youth in France.
   After Anne was executed in 1536, Henry married the very different Jane Seymour on the rebound, yet his joy at being presented by her with the longed-for son was tempered by grief at her death in childbirth. There is no doubt that his mourning was genuine; it is significant that it was after Jane's death that he began to put on weight, gaining 17 inches around the waist in three years. This was due to overeating and enforced inactivity, as problems with his ulcerated legs worsened, causing him attacks of excruciating pain and rendering him increasingly immobile.
   Although Henry married three more times, none of his later wives bore him children. His courtiers tried to manipulate the prematurely ageing King through these marriages, yet it was Henry him­self, on each occasion, who chose to tie the nup­tial knot, which begs the question: why, after so many matrimonial disasters, did he keep ven­turing into wedlock? It has been suggested that he was merely looking for love, but this is an over-simplification. His fourth marriage, to Anne of Cleves, was made for political reasons, and to provide the King with a second son. After it failed, Henry fell in love with Katherine Howard, but was soon expressing disappoint­ment that she had not become pregnant. In his final marriage, with Katherine Parr, he still hoping for another heir.

Was Henry a good king? He was certainly a strong and courageous one. He steered his realm through a religious revolution, laid down the foundations of the modern state, and immea­surably enhanced the influence of Parliament. He established the most magnificent court in English history, and patronised the arts to good advantage. In an age that valued magnificence in its monarchs, he was the Renaissance prince par excellence. Yet he wasted his substantial pat­rimony on costly and useless wars, devalued the coinage and vandalised England's monastic her­itage. Subsequent generations came to see him as a 'merciless prince', and was not until recent­ly that historians began arriving at a fairer assess­ment of the man whom Dickens referred to in A Child's History of England as 'a blot of grease and blood upon the history of England'.
Indeed, it is now possible to feel sympathy for Henry, who started his reign amid golden opin­ions and had all the auguries in his favour, yet who was singularly unfavoured by Providence.
   Had Katherine of Aragon borne Henry the son he so desired and needed, the Great Matter could never have happened and the Reformation would not have taken place. Spared the terrible years of frustration, Henrys idealism might have survived and he would not have gone down in history as a tyrannical Bluebeard with six wives.
  Researching Henry's personal life in depth gave me a fascinating insight into this complex man. It was not just the ritual that surrounded
his every daily act, but the little glimpses of the private man. When Henry died, an inventory of all his goods was made, which makes fascinating reading. Of particular interest was the discovery that in cupboards in his private chambers there was a jumble of dog leads, maps, tennis balls and geometrical instru­ments. Through such seemingly trivial details, I felt that I came very close to knowing the real Henry VIII, a man who, although he lived more than 450 years ago, was just as human as you or I.

The state portraits painted by Hans Molbein in the 1530s were a deliberate propaganda ploy to underline the authority of the King, and the classic image of Henry that they depicted - feet firmly apart, hand on dagger, gaze bent on the viewer - was so powerful that those who saw it were 'abashed and annihilated'. This image was so widely disseminated, and remains so famous today that it has almost entirely obliterated any concept of the eager young ruler Henry once was. The autocrat of the Reformation has taken precedence over the real man: a statesman, scholar, world-class sportsman and athlete, expert horseman, published author, theologian, technical expert, builder, composer, musician, connoisseur and patron of the arts, military commander, gourmet, mathematician, and aesthete. Hardly the Philistine some imagine.
   There is a portrait of the 18-year-old King at the time of his accession (now in the Berger Collection at Denver), in which he is only just recognisable as the later icon: he is slim and clean shaven with long auburn hair. It is a striking picture, but when I suggested to my publishers that it grace the jacket of my book Henry VIII: King and Court, they declined on the grounds that no one would know it was Henry. Yet it is images like this early one that give us a fascinating insight into what Henry was like before life got to him, before the youthful, idealistic courtly knight turned into a tyrannical monster who inspired fear and hatred in many of his subjects.
1    Hampton Court Palace, Surrey.  This is the most complete survival of one of Henry's palaces, and gives the visitor an idea of their original splendour and layout.            
2   The Tower of London.  Henry's armour is on display. Two of his wives were beheaded and buried here.
3   Windsor Castle, Berkshire. Hardly anything remains from Henry's time in the state apartments, but he completed St George's Chapel and is buried in the choir with Jane Seymour.                                            
4   Eltham Palace, London. Henry spent much of his childhood here, and the great hall he knew still stands.
5   Dover Castle, Kent.  Henry stayed at Dover frequently. In the rooms he occupied an exhibition shows the preparations for his sojourn in 1539.
6   Hever Castle, Kent. Henry probably courted Anne Boleyn here. There are many Tudor royal portraits and waxworks depicting Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.
7   Leeds Castle, Kent. This medieval castle was converted by Henry VIII into a palace.
8   Compton Wynyates, Warwickshire. This is the beautiful 16th-century home of Henry's courtier friend, Sir William Compton, and it was visited by Henry during the early years of his reign.
9   The Vyne, Basingstoke, Hampshire. The home of another of Henry's friends, Sir William Sandys. The King visited three times and it is now   owned by the National Trust. It has exquisite early-Tudor stained glass depicting Henry and Katherine of Aragon.
10  Carew Manor, Beddington, Surrey. Now a school (but open at weekends), this was once the home of Sir Nicholas Carew, Henry's jousting partner, who was executed for treason in 1539. Henry visited Jane Seymour here days before Anne Boleyn's execution and married her soon afterwards.

From the Windsor, Slough and Eton Express, August 2000:

Alison Weir has a big suprise up her sleeve when she publishes her next book, taking her back to the subject of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.
She believes she has uncovered proof that Henry's ill-fated second wife was expecting his child when she was beheaded, a revolutionary notion. Alison says: 'There is a contemporary letter in which Henry hints strongly that an heir may be on the way. No-one has picked up on it before, the general belief was that Anne and Henry were alienated well before her death but I think everything was all right up to a week before. But Thomas Cromwell knew his future depended on ousting Anne and her supporters. By presenting Henry with 'evidence' of infidelity he achieved his aims in one fell swoop, it happened quickly and she never had a chance.' [misquoted]
   The new book is bound to cause a stir as it suggests that England's history could have been very different if Anne's enemies had not destroyed her. If she had produced a male heir there would have been no Elizabeth I and the Tudor line might have continued for many more years than it did. We will have to wait until next year for it to hit the shops but it is bound to add to Alison's already illustrious reputation.

(In The Lady in the Tower (2009) I distanced myself from this theory.)

From the Slough and Windsor Informer, June 2001:

The bulky figure of King Henry VIII has dominated British history since his death in 1547. But if his biggest political coup was to destroy the power of the Pope in this country for ever and launch the religious reformation, it is still those six wives that identify him in the common memory. Historian Alison Weir was making no apologies for returning to the subject of the great King when she visited Methvens
Booksellers in Peascod Street, Windsor, to promote her new  book. Henry VIII King and Court is Alison's second blockbuster in a year. Last summer she came to Methvens to promote her book about Henry II's fascinating wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine.
   Her new book about Henry VIII contains a fascinating piece of scholarly insight, Alison believes she has uncovered proof that the ill-fated Anne Boleyn was expecting the king's child at the time she was beheaded. Alison said: "There is a contemporary letter in which Henry hints strongly than an heir may be on the way. No-one has picked up on it before, the general belief was that Anne and Henry were alienated well before her death but I think everything was all right up to a week before.
   "Thomas Cromwell (Henry's right hand man of the time) knew his future depended on ousting Anne and her supporters.  By presenting Henry with 'evidence' of infidelity he achieved his aims in one fell swoop, it happened quickly and she never had a chance."
   The history of England could have been very different.  If Anne had produced a male heir there would have been no Elizabethan age and
no Stuart or Hanoverian line. As for Cromwell, fate and the axeman caught up with him.
   Alison's fascination with history began when when she read a book about Anne's predecessor, Katherine of Aragon, and was so fascinated she started researching the period for fun, fitting it in with careers as a civil servant and principal of a school for children with learning difficulties.  This was close to her heart as her son has learning difficulties. Since her first book was published in 1989 she has written about the Princes in the tower, Elizabeth I and the Wars of the Roses.

From The Independent on Sunday, May 2001:

YESTERDAY, in the tiny chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, within the ancient walls of the Tower of London, a basket )f red roses was laid on the grave of Anne Boleyn. The anonymous tribute, laid every year, marks the anniversary of her death in 1536, the victim of murderous power play and a show trial at the court of Henry VIII. Anne faced 22 trumped-up accusations, including charges of adultery and incest with her own brother.
Now, 500 years after her birth, new research is offering an extraordinary insight into her downfall. On the day she lost her head to the executioner's broadsword, Anne Boleyn, the mother of Elizabeth I, was pregnant with the child who could have changed the entire course of English history. Until now, Anne's death has been blamed on Henry's desire for Jane Seymour, who became his third wife, on the desper­ate search for a son and heir, or on the Machiavellian nature of the Tudor court.
   But a new book by the Tudor historian Alison Weir tells another story. Henry VIII: King and Court, published by Jonathan Cape, contends that the King knew of Anne's pregnancy, but was falsely convinced by his scheming Master Secretary, Thomas Cromwell, that the child was not his - and ordered her ex­ecution.
   "For me, this was a cata­clysmic discovery," said Ms Weir. "Historians have debat­ed it furiously for hundreds of years, but nobody ever knew the real reason for Anne's death before. The evidence strongly suggests that Anne had conceived another child by the end of February 1536. Had the child been allowed to live, and had it been a son, the Reformation might have taken a very different course.
   "It is staggering to think how different things would be. Arguably, there would have been no Armada, no Gunpowder Plot, no Civil War, and without the Stuart suc­cession perhaps no estab­lishment of constitutional government as we know it. We might still have a Tudor dy­nasty reigning over us today."
   Ms Weir's argument is cen­tred on a letter which Henry VIII wrote to his ambassador in Rome, Richard Pate, on 25 April 1536, implying that "our most dear and entirely beloved wife the Queen" was once more expecting a child. Henry specifically referred to "the likelihood and appearance that God will send us heirs male".
   Weir argues that Cromwell, a shrewd courtier, deadly enemy of Anne, and hungry for power himself, quickly crushed the King's hopes of the birth of a son in order to safeguard his own position.
   "There was little doubt that Anne was pregnant," said Ms Weir, "but the succession question had become a crisis, Henry was quite a suggestible man, and Cromwell, a brilliant lawyer and tactician, was able to manufacture a convincing case against the child's paternity.
   "Henry couldn't afford to take the risk. He was in a highly emotional state and would rather destroy both her and the child than risk corrupting the royal succession, which was considered absolutely sa­cred, with bastardy. This child could not be allowed to live. There are bound to be some historians who dispute this, but the theory fits into every other fact have amassed."
   Dr David Starkey is one of the sceptics. The celebrity historian, who is currently working on a book and televi­sion series entitled The Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII for Channel 4, said: "There are many details about the death of Anne Boleyn which will probably remain unlocked. However, it is over­whelmingly likely that preg­nancy would have protected Anne, not destroyed her. Anne was very clever, sexy, and a bit too strident. Her tech­niques often shocked and broke 16th-century conventions of what a Queen should be like. She certainly overplayed her hand. The King's mind was obviously oscillating violently at this time, and the charges against Anne were absolutely savage - but there are absolute mysteries about her case that can never be solved."
   Professor John Guy of St Andrews University, the author of Tudor England, one of the most respected texts on this period, was more eager to discuss Ms Weir's claims.
   "Henry was certainly a monster by 1536," he said. "People he thought were his friends had gone against him. It made him absolutely determined to have no loose ends. I am sceptical of this argument, but Cromwell did want to get rid of Anne. And never derestimate Henry's belief mat God spoke directly to him. Anne Boleyn was one of the most important women in British history. This claim will arouse controversy in the historical community. It's an in­teresting argument, but much more evidence will be needed for it to be proven fully."

A Conversation with Alison Weir, author of HENRY VIII: The King and His Court
USA, 2001

Some rare early portraits of Henry VIII

When did you first become interested in history?
In 1965, when I was fourteen, I read my first adult novel; it was an historical novel about Katherine of Aragon, and I could not put it down. When I finished it, I had to find out the true facts behind the story and if people really carried on like that in those days. So I began to read proper history books, and found that they did! It was a short step from doing research to writing my own books, and by the age of fifteen I had completed a three-volume compendium of facts on the Tudors as well as a biography of Anne Boleyn, and had begun to compile genealogical information for a dictionary of kings and queens which would, more than two decades later, be the basis of my first published book, Britain's Royal Families.
   At school, up to the age of sixteen, I found history boring, for we were studying the Industrial Revolution, which was all about Acts, Trade Unions and the factory system, and I wanted to know about people, because it is people who make history. My teachers were unaware that I was spending all my free periods and lunch-breaks researching my own history projects in the school library. I did pass my GCE exam, but was told my grade was not good enough to study history at an advanced level. This was a great disappointment as the subject for the advanced course was the Tudors and Stuarts, something about which I already knew a great deal. I would love to think that the teachers who excluded me have seen my published work.
When did you begin to write professionally?
During the early 1970s, after attending teacher training college with a view to teaching history, I spent four years researching and writing a book about Henry VIII's wives, but this was rejected by publishers on the grounds that it was too long - something of an understatement, since it filled 1,024 manuscript pages typed on both sides and without double spacing. In 1991 a much revised and edited version of this manuscript was published as my second book, The Six Wives of Henry VIII.
   In 1981,1 wrote a biography of Jane Seymour, which was rejected by Weidenfeld and Nicholson as being - wait for it - too short. The publishers, however, put me in touch with my present firm of literary agents who, in the course of a conversation about which subject I should write about, rejected my suggestion of a book about Lady Diana Spencer (who became Princess of Wales that year) on the grounds that people would soon lose interest in her! Instead, it was agreed that I should write a biography of Isabella of France, wife of Edward II, but this was never finished because the births, very close together, of my children intervened in 1982 and 1984 and I had very little time for writing.
   In 1987, it occurred to me that my dictionary of genealogical details of British royalty - which I had revised eight times over twenty-two years - might be of interest to others, so I rearranged the contents once more, into chronological order. Britain's Royal Families became my first published book, in 1989, from The Bodley Head, and the rest of the story is - dare I say it? - history!
How do you go about writing your books?
I research from contemporary sources as far as possible; fortunately, many of those for the periods I have written about are in print. I use secondary sources to see what views historians take on my chosen subjects, but in the end I make up my own mind, basing my conclusions as far as possible on contemporary evidence.
   I transcribe my information into chronological order, under date headings, so that when I have finished my research, I have a very rough draft of the book. This method has the curious advantage of highlighting discrepancies and often new interpretations of events, chronological patterns, and unexpected facts emerge.  Anyone who has read The Princes in the Tower will know how startlingly well this method of research worked for that particular book.
How would you describe your role as an historian?
I am not a revisionist historian. I do not start with a theory and then try to fit the facts around it. I draw my conclusions from the known facts. As my research progresses, I gain some idea of the viewpoint I will take, but I am always ready to alter it if need be. You have to consider the known facts in detail and avoid supposition in order to get as near to the truth as possible. You must not only take into account what is written about someone or something, but who wrote it, since many sources are biased, prejudiced, or unreliable. Where possible, I verify my facts from reliable sources only, and if the only source is suspect, I say so.
What is your aim in writing history?
I want to bring history and its characters to life by including as much personal detail as possible, by inferring new ideas from the known facts, and by researching the political and social background so thoroughly that my subjects are set in an authentic context. Many people have told me that my books read like novels. Perhaps this is because, when I write, I feel I am really there, so strong is my feeling for my subject. On occasion, I have been so moved by the events I have been describing that I have felt like crying. The old adage that truth is stranger than fiction is more than true for me, and if (as a couple of recent
reviewers have complained) it is old-fashioned to recount history as a rattling good story - which in many ways it is - then I am happy to be thought outdated.
When you were researching and writing about Henry VIII, did you come to like him?
Surprisingly enough, yes! Actually, I've liked him for a long time. I've always felt that he has been greatly misjudged and perceived as a caricature of his real self. Therefore this book is a sympathetic study that looks at events from the King's viewpoint. For example, most historians have focused on Anne Boleyn during the days leading up to her execution. I've focused on Henry.
   I think, when it comes to historical characters, you have to judge them by the values of their own time, not ours. Henry was no tyrant, as Richard III was; only in his last years did he become the fat, diseased autocrat of popular perception. In fact, I wanted to use a little-known portrait of the young Henry (above, right), painted when he was 18, slim and long haired, on the jacket, but my publishers felt - probably quite correctly - that no one would know who it was! Yet my aim was to present to my readers a different view of Henry: the real Henry, whom I had come to know very well through my researches.
What is your opinion of screen portrayals of Henry VIII?
I suppose the enduring image is that created by Charles Laughton in Alexander Korda's 'The Private Life of Henry VIII' (1933), but it's the classic caricature, and very far removed from the real Henry. A far better portrayal is that by Keith Michell in the BBC drama series 'The Six Wives of Henry VIII' (1969), followed by a film of the same name. Here is a pretty authentic Henry: an acting tour de force and a delight to watch! Robert Shaw's portrayal in 'A Man for All Seasons' (1966) was very different but equally convincing.
Did you uncover anything new while you were researching the book?
Yes, quite unexpectedly. I certainly didn't set out to be controversial, but I discovered a letter written by Henry VIII that places a whole new construction on the reasons for Anne Boleyn's fall. This evidence makes sense of something that historians have puzzled over for centuries: why Henry could have consented to the destruction of a woman he had so greatly desired and loved.
Was Henry VIII the lecher of legend?
Possibly, although if he was, he was very discreet about it. For this reason, we have only fragments of information about his sex life, but I've uncovered enough of them to make me revise the opinion I arrived at in my earlier book, The Six Wives of Henry VIII.
One historian has famously described Henry VTII as "that great puppet." Do you agree with this assessment?
Not at all. Henry was certainly suggestible and sometimes swayed by the opinions of others, but the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that for the most part he remained firmly in control. In fact, he was the one usually doing the manipulating. Given his grasp of affairs, his powerful intellect, encyclopaedic memory, and efficient communications network, it was not easy for any man to rule him. He was the King, and he never let anyone forget it.

by Alison Weir
From Heroes and Villains (National Portrait Gallery, 2003, sold in aid of the Gallery's Development Fund)

Most people have the wrong image of Henry VIII. They see him as a bluebeard who changed wives and chopped off heads with gleeful alacrity, or as a puppet ruler manipulated by others. Often they think he was like the caricature played by Charles Laughton, who threw chicken bones over his shoulder and lived in a Hollywood-style version of Merrie England. Furthermore, the propagandist images of the mature King, which derive from Holbein, and of which this portrait is an example, have become so famous that they have overlaid all other conceptions of the younger, less embittered and tyrannical monarch.
   The real Henry was a complex man, and his fascination lies in his sheer power, his all-round versatility, his intelligence, his idealism, his courtliness, his courage and his undoubted sex-appeal. He was as much a victim of circumstance as his unhappy wives. Fate dealt him several unkind hands, not the least of which was his first wife's failure to produce an heir. Had she done so, Anne Boleyn would have had to be content to remain the King's mistress, and there would have been no break with Rome. It was frustration that made Henry the so-called monster he later became: frustration at the Pope's long drawn out and politically led prevarication over what was undoubtedly a reasonable request for an annulment, and frustration at Anne Boleyn's refusal to sleep with him for six long years. Soon afterwards came Anne's perceived betrayal and Jane Seymour's death in childbirth, followed by a decade of worsening ill-health and increasing pain. It is quite possible to feel sorry for Henry in his several predicaments, and had Providence been kinder to him, his finer qualities would have survived into later life.

From Human Jungle, The Times, March 2003:


I was 19 when 'The Six Wives of Henry VIII' came on TV. I was very romantic in my approach to history when I was young, and I thought the series was wonderful. It was the high drama that appealed to me. I'd been studying history, especially the Tudors, since I was 14 and the series brought the whole period to life for me. Keith Michell played Henry VIII and was brilliant; he had all the presence that Henry needs to have, and a wonderful, high-pitched voice, just like
Henry is said to have had. And, most importantly, everything was done authentically. The costumes were ornate - huge effort must have been put in to them - and the script wasn't all prim and proper; there was a coarseness to the speech where necessary. All that was important to me: I was terrifically concerned that they get everything right.
   I watched the series again on video recently and was amazed at hbw, well it's held up, In fact I was struck by how much better 'Six Wives' is than comparable programmes today. In particular I noticed how good the script is from a historical point of view: genuine source materials were used to write the dialogue, and the historical facts are woven into the drama seamlessly, which I know is not easy to do.
   Although the series seemed terribly exciting to me aged 19, it's actually pretty slow-paced, and, I think, too serious and too meaty to make it to screens today. Watching it again made me realise how much more programme makers used to expect of the public. It's a shame; I think if you dumb down, as we tend to do now, then people switch off.
   Only the sets let the production down a bit; but I still felt that all the romance of the period was captured. And I remembered just how much the series influenced me at the time. Immediately after watching it at 19, I started to collate the material that eventually became my book, The Six Wives of Henry VIII.
(Interview by David Mattin)

Waterstone's Books magazine, Summer 2001

Henry VIII is so often portrayed as the caricature King of modern myth. But who is the real Henry? asks ALISON WEIR. 

Illustration: Portrait Of Henry As A Modern Man ~ Ian Pollock

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 fervour. In writing Henry VIII: King and Court 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 mistresses, but I wished to see events from Henry's viewpoint. As a result, I have perhaps arrived at a more sympathetic view of him than most historians, yet if this helps readers to see Henry as a realistic figure rather than the popular caricature of legend, then I will consider my work well done.

Henry VIII: King and 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 that that were rather more personal focused chiefly on the king himself. My brief has been to set the personal life of Henry VIII against the background of his court, drawing on the recent research and embellishing it in every direction. What interest 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. 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 most of the 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 realise, however, that some readers may find my conclusions provocative. 

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 attempts at character assassination. It is always important to look for corroborating evidence and to assess the prejudices of the writer and his nearness to events. I have been dealing with Tudor sources for 36 years now, and I am 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.

It is no easy task to write a personal biography of a Tudor king or an account of his court, because in the 16th 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 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, emphasising how they affected the king and the life of the court.

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 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 theTudors the concept of sexual equality was 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 behave 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 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 biography, but the real man is even more fascinating.

Above: Publicity for Alison Weir's event at the Tower Arts Centre, Winchester, 2001

(Yorkshire Evening Press, 2001)

Alison Weir's new book casts Henry VIII in a different light, 

SCHOLARLY history books singularly failed to interest Alison Weir. It was an altogether more racy genre that inspired her passion for the past.   
   "I read a cheap historical novel," she reveals, while perched on a sofa at York Waterstone's. I was off sick from school and it entranced me. I think it was the sex in the book. I hadn't read anything like that before. Now you would probably think it very tame." It certainly contrasted with the standard historical text books. "Nothing they taught me at school turned me on to history. I was bored stiff by history lessons."
   The novel was about Katherine of Aragon, and launched her interest in Tudor times and the monarchy. Later she began studying the medieval period too. The Tudor dynasties led lives "full of high drama", she said. And this was "a sumptuous period, with unusual dramas happening in magnificent palaces".
   Quite by accident, Weir had stumbled on something so fulfilling that she devoted hours of her spare time to it. Over many years, while working as a civil servant and bringing up two children in Surrey, she amassed a wealth of research. Publishers turned down each synopsis she put forward for a history book. Then she decided to compile her research into a reference guide to the monarchy. Britain's Royal Families was first published in 1989.
   That opened the door. During the Nineties, she published The Six Wives of Henry VIII, The Princes in the Tower, The Wars of the Roses, The Children of Henry VIII, The Life of Elizabeth I and Eleanor of Aquitaine. 
   Weir's style, combining thorough historical research with a colourful and pacy gift for storytelling, has endeared her to countless readers.
   In her latest book, Henry VIII: King And Court, Weir examines the whole breadth of life at court, from the monarch and his courtiers to the king's laundress. She is keen to challenge the Charles Laughton movie stereotype of Henry VTII, complete with boorish imagery of him flinging chicken bones into the fire. She has attempted to bring out his cultured, sensitive side.
   Her interest in Britain's Royal Family comes right up to the present day. "Their lives are quite colourful," she says of the Windsors. "But much of the tabloid tittle-tattle will be worthless to future historians as it is unsubstantiated." She feels the monarchy is still relevant today. "I do think it's a good thing we have got a constitutional monarchy. It's a benign government. The Queen is a figurehead who can be respected for her long experience and who doesn't take the blame when things go wrong."
   Weir doesn't take the future of the institution for granted, however. "I feel the Government is dumbing down the monarchy to try to sideline it."

EXPATS POST, April 2015

My interest in Tudor England stretches back over five decades and more than twenty books, and I know there are many others with a passion for the period. So I thought it would be fun to give some hints and ideas for hosting the perfect Tudor dinner party. I did just that, some years ago, one Christmas Eve, and my family agreed that it was a fascinating and enjoyable evening. Before starting any preparations, I did some research, and the books that I found most helpful were these: All the King’s Cooks: The Tudor Kitchens of King Henry VIII at Hampton Court Palace by Peter Brears (London, 1999); Food and Feast in Tudor England by Alison Sim (Stroud, 1997); The Art of Dining: A History of Cooking and Eating by Sara Paston-Williams (The National Trust, 1993) and, for the recipes I used, The Tudor Kitchens Cookery Book, Hampton Court Palace by Roz Denny (undated).    
The first thing to consider is the setting. We don’t all live at Hampton Court – worse luck – and most of us don’t have a great hall, but many have dining rooms, or dining parlours, as they would have been known, and you can add atmosphere by the setting of the table and using candles for lighting. Spread a white linen or damask cloth on the table. You may like to strew fresh herbs or petals along the table, or in the centre. Place pewter or silver bowls of salt at intervals. 
Each place setting should have the following, although you may wish to adapt it to suit the preferences of modern diners: a pewter or silver dinner plate, with a knife and spoon next to it on the right – add a fork if you must, but their use was a luxury in Tudor times (when people speared food with a knife and ate it with the fingers of the other hand, using the spoon for runny dishes) - and a white napkin to the left, folded around two white bread rolls – ‘manchet’, or white, bread, was considered to be the best, and was therefore served to the upper classes. If you bake the rolls yourself, make a cross in the middle. On the right of each dinner plate place a goblet for wine. Wine is served from flagons or ewers placed in the centre of the table, each covered with a cloth.
Food was served in two or three courses, and there were several dishes at each, like a Chinese or Tapas meal today. Each dish would have been served as a ‘mess’ – with portions sufficient for four brought in serving dishes to the table. Sauces were often served in separate dishes. Sweet and savoury courses were served at the same time, but you may – as I did – prefer to keep to a more modern meal structure, with a starter, main course and pudding. Hard cheeses and wine can be served with sweet dishes.  If you have a sideboard or console table, convert it into a Tudor buffet by draping it with silk or damask (scarves or runners will work for this) and arranging on it any silver you have, as well as extra wine cups or glasses – we’ll assume that this is a wealthy Tudor household and that you can afford glass!   
In Tudor times hosts and guests were seated in strict order of rank, but in this more egalitarian age it’s best to seat guests wherever you or they wish.
Napkins were worn, not in the lap, but across the left shoulder or arm. Food was served with great ceremony, being carried to the table in procession. You might like to record a trumpet fanfare to signal the arrival of each course.  As the food is brought in, you announce, ‘By your leave, masters!’ and everyone stands, sitting down when the dishes are placed on the table. Grace is then said, in Latin. I used the Christchurch Grace, from Oxford: 'Nos, miseri homines et egeni, pro cibis, quos nobis ad corporis subsidium benigne es largitus, tibi, Deus Omnipotens, Pater Cælestis, gratias reverenter agimus; simul obsecrantes, ut iis sobrie, modeste atque grate utamur, per Jesum Christum Dominum Nostrum, Amen.' (This translates as: 'We unhappy and unworthy people do give Thee most reverent thanks, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for the victuals which Thou hast bestowed on us for the sustenance of the body, at the same time beseeching Thee that we may use them soberly, modestly and gratefully. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.')
If a joint of meat is served, the host carves – it was the mark of a gentleman to know how to do so. Gentlemen guests should help their ladies to the choicest portions of food before serving themselves.  For drinks, serve the kind of wines that were enjoyed – and drunk young – in Tudor England: sweet wines from Anjou (Henry VIII’s favourite) or red and white wines from Bordeaux or the Rhine. Ale and beer can also be served. Water was not drunk at table. After each course of a Tudor feast a subtlety – a sculpted confection of sugar – was carried in impress the guests, but at a dinner party it is probably better to serve it with the dessert course. Unless you are skilled at sugar sculpture, or know where to get one made, it may be better to go for an elaborate cake. During the meal, you might like to have a CD of Tudor music playing quietly in the background, as if a consort of musicians was present.
For my Christmas Eve meal, I served dishes that involved a fair amount of preparation. To start there was a whole fresh salmon, a fish that was popular in Tudor times. Having laid it on greased foil on a baking tray, I stuffed it with some butter mixed with ground mace and salt, and spread the rest over the outer skin, sprinkled it with whole cloves and covered it with more foil. I baked the fish until the flesh was pale pink, placed it on a large platter, and garnished it with whole stewed prunes, currants, lemon wedges and dill.
In Tudor kitchens they would have roasted a pig whole, but for the main course I bought a leg of pork from my local butcher – boned shoulder will do as well - and trimmed away any fat or gristle. I then stuffed it with a mixture of breadcrumbs, chopped rosemary, raisins, two egg yolks, 100ml of cream, nutmeg, ground mace and seasoning, and trussed up the joint with string. While it was roasting I mixed more breadcrumbs with 100ml of cream, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, saffron and seasoning. Half an hour before the joint was finished, I removed it from the oven and coated it with this mixture, then returned it until it was done. I left it to stand before carving, to allow it to set, and reserved the strained juices for the sauce. I made up the meat juices to the amount needed with stock and water, then added a large grated apple, cider vinegar, parsley, sage, sugar, salt and pepper. I brought it to be boil, then simmered until the apple was soft and stirred in a lump of butter for richness. The meat was carved at table and the sauce was served separately. I also offered ‘a dish of peas’ – which the Tudors would have eaten as a dish in itself, not a vegetable on the side – and a dish of carrots. There were – of course – no potatoes, which prompted a protest from my husband! Instead, I served thick slices of brown bread.
I made two sweet dishes: wardens, or pears, in red wine, which were absolutely delicious, and marchpane. The day before the dinner I peeled the pears, left on the stalks, and boiled the fruit for 15 minutes in heated red wine in which sugar had been dissolved. I then removed the fruit and placed it in preserving jars. I added to the wine some ‘sack’ (sherry), more sugar, honey, cinnamon and ginger, then boiled it, simmered it for 5 minutes, then poured it over the pears, sealing the jars shut. The next day I poured off the wine syrup into a jug, placed the pears – now ruby red - in a serving dish, then poured the syrup over them. I added bayleaves as garnish and served the pears with thick whipped cream. You can make marchpane – a popular Tudor treat – by following any recipe for shortbread and adding rosewater. Use cutters to make shapes, and glaze with icing and edible gold food colouring. My marchpane disappeared very quickly!  
Although the meal had been labour-intensive – and brought home to me how hard people had had to work to prepare food from scratch in the sixteenth century - everyone said it was wonderful, with excellent flavours and aromas. Certainly it gave us a taste of Tudor England!
There was no tea or coffee in Tudor times, so after the meal I suggest you serve guests warmed spiced wine – ‘hippocras’ – and wafers or candied and dried fruits. 
What should you wear for your Tudor dinner party? You could go the whole hog and hire a costume – you could even come in character, and suggest that your guests do so, and remain in role for the evening. Or you could just wear a plain velvet evening dress with some Tudor-style jewellery. 
If you are planning a Tudor dinner party, I do urge you to get the books I recommended above, as they are packed with recipes and information on table etiquette. Above all, have fun. There will be so many talking points that all the preparation will have been worthwhile.    
‘O Lord, which giv'st thy creatures for our food,
Herbs, beasts, birds, fish, and other gifts of thine,
Bless thee thy gifts, that they may do us good,
And we may live, to praise thy name divine.
And when the time is come this life to end:
Vouchsafe our souls to heaven may ascend.’
                                    (An Elizabethan Grace)


In 1990, when I was writing my book on Henry VIII’s wives, I collated information on the King’s health problems, as follows:

In 1528, when he was 37, Henry VIII fell from his horse and injured his leg.

In 1536 he had another fall from his horse, causing further injury to the same leg. In the opinion of several historians, this seems to have led to osteomylelitis. An abscess formed, and never healed. Osteomyelitus is an infection of the bone by an organism introduced as a result of injury, or via the bloodstream. An abscess may be formed by a surface infection, but fatal blood poisoning may result from infection to the bone marrow.

In 1538 the abscess closed up, and there was a build-up of pus over a period of two weeks. The King was in agony, unable to speak and black in the face. His doctors eventually lanced the abscess and eased the pain.

In 1544 the King was suffering intermittent attacks of agonising pain from his leg, and was so weak he could hardly stand. He had grown very obese – in 1540 he measured 54” around the waist.

In 1545 he had a "burning fever" for several days, which affected his leg, and again suffered ‘agonising pain’.

Late in 1545 he suffered an unspecified ‘attack’, which laid him low for a time. He was thought to be dying, but recovered. Some historians think that the vein in his leg had become thrombosed. Thrombosis is the formation of a plug by coagulation of blood or by depositions from it, resulting from injury to the endolethial cells lining the walls of the vascular system. The clots are deposited on the injured wall, and serve as nuclei for further deposits. They obstruct the circulation, and may even close blood vessels; they also result in necrosis of the surrounding tissues. Septic thrombi may cause local abscesses, and may give rise to empyema (pus). Frequently, by movement of blood, or by disturbing body movements, the thrombus (or pieces of it) become detached, forming emboli; the carriage of these in the bloodstream is termed embolism. Embolism may also be due to occlusion of air, resulting from exposure of a wound.

Throughout the years 1536 to 1546, the King's leg gave him continual trouble and caused increasing infirmity. The abscess was open and oozing pus for much of this time, it  seems, and had to be dressed. It would have smelt badly. By 1545/6 Henry could hardly walk and was carried around in a specially made chair.
In January 1547 Henry died after a gradual decline over a period of weeks. An embolus blocking the pulmonary artery will cause sudden death. Some historians think that what killed Henry VIII was probably a clot detaching itself from the thrombosed vein in his leg and causing a pulmonary embolism. It does seem likely that Henry VIII developed osteomyelitis as a result of the injuries to his leg, and later developed a thrombosis in that leg; and that he was killed by a pulmonary embolism. 
I showed this information, and my lay conclusions, to a Harley Street consultant, who agreed with what I had written. ‘The point about the leg is that the first fall in 1528 probably gave him a hairline fracture which would have been painful, but was probably not then diagnosed as a fracture. It would have been cured by rest. Osteomyelitis could indeed have settled in on the site of this, and in time could have developed a chronic 'cold' abscess - though the correct term for this would be ‘sinus'. Any condition like this would, of course, be exacer­bated by the patient being overweight, and Henry may indeed have had fits of burning infection that would have caused fever. It seems quite possible he could have developed a thrombosis in the leg as well, and was killed by a pulmonary embolism, but both of these things could have happened whether he had the condition in his leg or not, quite independently. The fact that he was fairly immobile and overweight would have been enough to cause them on their own!’

Alison Weir's somewhat one-sided pitch for a series of monarchy debates (she would have preferred to speak for Elizabeth I, but Sarah Gristwood had got a book out...)

One recent biographer has noted that Henry VIII changed the heart, mind and face of Britain more than anything between the coming of the Normans and the factory age. In 1509, the year of his accession, a Venetian predicted, with amazing accuracy: `For the future, the whole world will talk of him.` Later in his reign, another Italian visitor to England declared that Henry `excelled all who ever wore a crown`. And writing in 1547, the year of the King`s death, a contemporary wrote that Henry `was undoubtedly the rarest man that lived in his time. I know not where in all the histories I have read to find one king equal to him.`
  To his contemporaries, Henry VIII was a great man, a legend in his own lifetime. In the reigns of his children, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, all of whom revered his memory, that legend became embedded in the national consciousness, and `Great Harry` was especially lauded for having rescued the English Church from the tyranny of Rome. Today, historians recognise that his reign contributed an extraordinary legacy – modern Britain.
  Henry was responsible for the Reformation in England, and having successfully defied the Pope, founded the Church of England with himself as its Supreme Head. He steered his realm courageously through a religious revolution, and in the process, he subordinated the clergy to the secular State. Henry dissolved the monasteries in England, which were in decline, unpopular and perceived as being worldly and corrupt. He was the first English King to authorise the translation of the Bible into English, and under his auspices, the laity were able lawfully to read the Scriptures in the vernacular for the first time; inspired by these reforms, Henry`s Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer wrote his eloquent liturgy, a great gift to the English Church. And as a further consequence of Henry`s reforms, Protestantism was able to gain its powerful purchase on the English-speaking world.
  Henry promoted parliamentary government; his reign saw a major growth in the importance of Parliament. Parliamentary representation was extended, and the privileges of both Houses expanded and encouraged. The revolutionary effect of the Act of Restraint of Appeals of 1533 was to make law itself, or the King in Parliament, the supreme authority in England. Statute and Common Law were recognised as being superior to other types of law, and parliamentary law became the basis of the new monarchy, and later of constitutional monarchy and democracy itself.
  Henry immeasurably enhanced the standing of the monarchy, and in so doing helped create a new sense of national identity. That same Act of Restraint of Appeals stressed the sovereign authority of the English state, its preamble majestically proclaiming: `This realm of England is an Empire, governed by one Supreme Head and King, having the dignity and royal estate of the imperial crown.` As King, the first English King to style himself Your Majesty, Henry, who believed passionately in the greatness of his realm, became the emblem, the focus and the bond of national unity.
  This King, a stickler for efficiency, overhauled and remodelled the machinery of the state. Its fiscal arm was extended. His taxation schemes were progressive and efficient by continental standards, and presaged the beginning of modern financial bureaucracy. The governmental system was centralised and unified; Wales was incorporated into the regular system of English local administration, and Henry established himself as King of Ireland; his work in Ireland re-laid the foundations of English rule.
Henry was able to implement all these things because he had a talent for recruiting awesomely able, clever and energetic advisors, notably
  Cardinal Wolsey and, more importantly, Thomas Cromwell. He chose these men on ability rather than rank.
Henry was the principle founder of the English navy. The fleet of warships he built was the first standing military force of its time, and the basis for Britain`s future dominance of the seas. Without his work, Elizabeth`s victory over the Spanish Armada and the development of the English colonies would never have been possible.
  Henry patronised the arts to lasting effect. He was largely responsible for the introduction of Renaissance art, sculpture, architecture and literature into England. He commissioned the first English portrait miniatures, and through his patronage of the great painter Hans Holbein, he popularised the art of portraiture, in particular instituting the state portrait.
  Henry was one of the greatest builders in English history. Not only did he build or remodel seventy palaces and houses of his own, he also erected an impressive string of fortresses along the south coast, and founded and endowed Trinity College, Oxford. He also endowed colleges at Cambridge.
  Henry created the most magnificent court in English history, setting a pattern that would endure for centuries. He was also one of the greatest royal collectors.
  As a man, Henry was an impressive all-rounder, a true child of the Renaissance – a gentleman in the knightly, chivalric sense, an intellectual who read St Thomas Aquinas for pleasure, an expert linguist, a humanist, an astronomer, a world-class sportsman, a competent musician and composer, an accomplished horseman, and a knowledgeable theologian. He could turn his hand to anything from designing weapons to mathematics or technology, from making up medicines to drawing maps or brick-making.
  But Henry`s true greatness lay in his practical aptitude, his acute political perception, and in the self restraint, yes, that enabled him to confine within limits acceptable to his people an insatiable appetite for power. His remarkable political insight, strength of will and subtle intellect equipped him to utilise all the forces and resources that tended towards strong government at that time. In so doing, he saved England from religious and dynastic civil war, suppressing rebellion and maintaining stability throughout his reign. He conditioned the nobility into serving, and identifying with, the Crown, rather than their own interests. He elevated England`s status in Europe, where he consistently helped to maintain a balance of power between his rivals, Francis I and France, and the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.
  Henry VIII began his reign in a mediaeval kingdom; he ended it in what was effectively a modern state. As David Starkey has pointed out, we are still living in the England of Henry VIII. That is the measure of the King`s achievement, and why I think he deserves to be recognised as England`s greatest monarch.


Your Royal Highnesses, my lords, ladies and gentlemen: I should like to introduce Alison Weir, who is one of our most popular Tudor historians, with eleven best-selling non-fiction books to her credit, as well as a recent historical novel on Lady Jane Grey. This month, she publishes a biography of a famous ancestress of the Tudors, Katherine Swynford, the mistress and later wife of John of Gaunt. It‘s a poignant love story, set against the rich tapestry of the age of chivalry.
  Good evening Alison. We have been brought together tonight by our shared interest in real tennis, and Alison has written extensively about Hampton Court‘s most famous player, King Henry VIII. Alison, what was he like?
Most people have in their head an image of Charles Laughton as Henry VIII, chopping and changing wives with gleeful alacrity, throwing chicken legs over his shoulder and generally behaving like some fat buffoon. That‘s the caricature, and unfortunately it‘s the perception of Henry that many people still have. In real life, the young King was a tall, athletic man of many talents, gifted with an acute intellect, oozing charm, and with a reputation as a world-class sportsman.

He was the King, so that would follow. Surely no one would dare beat him? Wouldn‘t they have feared being sent to the Tower?
Not really. Henry‘s accounts record quite a few sums he lost when gambling on the outcome of his sporting activities. So when he did do well, which was often, the praise he received – allowing for a degree of flattery – was probably genuine.
   Yet there were clearly occasions when Henry did think he should be the winner – although perhaps the issue wasn‘t always the game in question. In 1526, when he was pursuing the elusive Anne Boleyn, the poet Thomas Wyatt was also chasing after her, and had stolen a locket from her, which he openly wore as a kind of trophy. Not to be outdone, the King took one of her rings as a keepsake. Soon afterwards, Henry was playing bowls with Wyatt and other courtiers, and a dispute arose as to whose bowl was in front.
   ‘I tell thee, it is mine!‘ Henry cried, pointing with the hand on which Anne‘s ring was prominently displayed. Seeing it, Wyatt asked for leave to measure the distance between the bowls, and provocatively took out Anne‘s locket, using the chain as a measure. ‘I hope it will be mine!‘ he said – and he wasn‘t talking about winning the game. Henry was furious and stalked off, muttering, ‘It may be so, but then I am deceived.‘ It wasn`t long afterwards that Wyatt backed off and left the field clear for Henry.

Aside from bowls, which sports did Henry excel at?
Jousting, riding, dressage, hunting, hawking, fishing, bowls, quoits and tennis. He was – and I quote - ‘extremely fond of tennis‘.

Was he professionally trained?
Yes, probably by professional players employed by his father, Henry VII. Henry himself retained a tennis coach, known as the Keeper of Tennis Plays. According to a Venetian ambassador who watched the King in action, ‘it was the prettiest thing in the world to see him play, his fair skin glowing through a shirt of the finest texture‘.

Did he wear any special tennis clothes?
Yes. He would strip down to his shirt and slops – the Tudor name for drawers – and put on special soft shoes. After the game, he would don a ‘tennis coat‘ of black or blue velvet, which he wore to stop himself from catching a chill. That suggests to me that he played very energetically and came off the court perspiring. It was quite an aggressive game.

In Henry‘s day, of course, racquets were a recent invention.
Indeed. Until around 1500, players had caught the ball in a gloved hand – hence the name jeu de palme (game of the hand), as real tennis was known in medieval France, where it originated.
   Besides coaching the King and others, the Keeper of Tennis Plays was responsible for maintaining the King‘s courts, for scoring, and for stringing racquets with sheep-gut.
   The balls were made of leather, stuffed with dog hair, and Henry‘s were made for him by the Ironworkers Company in London. One was found embedded in the roof timbers of Westminster Hall in the 1920s – so clearly that stately hall was once used as a tennis court – and another was found in the 1960s on the site of the King‘s tennis court at Whitehall Palace.

Did Henry have many tennis courts?
Yes, he built quite a few, including one here at Hampton Court – not the one we see today, which is Jacobean. When the King wasn‘t playing, the courtiers were allowed to hire the courts for 2s6d – or £37.50 in modern values – per day. Of course, there were those who grumbled that tennis was ‘dangerous for the body and for the purse‘.

So tennis was an aristocratic game?
Yes, the rules were sufficiently complicated to ensure that only educated men could play it, and Parliament even passed a law restricting the playing of tennis to the upper classes only, within the privacy of their estates. Castiglione, the Italian author of The Courtier, recommended tennis as a ‘noble exercise‘ because it gave courtiers the opportunity to display their physical dexterity and nimbleness. In Italy, there had been a revival of the classical interest in physical fitness for its own sake, and tennis was seen as a healthy activity.

Did Henry ever take part in any dangerous sports?
Well, as a young King he was fond of practising archery in the galleries of his palaces – his councillors had something to say about that, because of the danger it posed to others and to the fabric of the buildings and the furnishings. But there were more serious incidents.
   On one occasion, the King`s horse stumbled at a hedge and threw him head-first into a stream. Stuck in the mud, he would have drowned had not a passing yokel pulled him out.
   Again, in 1524, when jousting with the Duke of Suffolk, his brother-in-law, he forgot to lower his visor, and charged full-tilt at the advancing Duke with his face exposed. Suffolk had a heavy helm on and could not see this, nor hear the spectators roaring, `Hold! Hold!` It was a miracle that as the two riders crashed into each other, Suffolk`s lance shattered against Henry`s helmet. The headaches that the King suffered in later life may have resulted from the blow to the forehead that he sustained. But at the time he happily ran six more courses just to prove that he was unhurt, `which was a great joy and comfort to his subjects`, we are told. As for the badly shaken Suffolk, he resolved never to joust with the King again.

Is it true that Henry played football?
Until recently, no one would have believed it, because football was then regarded as a lower-class game, and was much frowned upon because it was often violent and attracted a rough element. Moreover, it was felt that the common people ought to be spending their leisure hours practising archery, which would be to the nation`s profit in time of war.
   But recently, a record has been unearthed, in Henry`s accounts, of payment for a pair of football boots or shoes for the King, so it is almost certain that this extraordinary man did play football. It would have been in character: he was always game for a wrestling match, and once, just for sport, he even tried his hand at labouring, sawing blocks of wood and fashioning cobblestones with steel hammers. Not for nothing did his subjects love him for his common touch.

Alison, it`s been fascinating talking to you, and hearing about Henry VIII as a tennis player and sportsman, an aspect of him about which many people know very little. Thank you for coming and sharing your knowledge with us tonight.

I wrote a chapter, "Christmas ar the Court of Henry VIII" for The Book of Light, published at Christmas 1998 by Waterstones/Random House, in aid of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture.

HENRY VIII ON FILM by Alison Weir, 2007

Henry VIII and his six wives have been the subjects of at least three of my books, and have often been portrayed on screen.
   The earliest film about the King was 'Henry VIII', a silent movie made in 1911 and based on William Shakespeare`s play. In the title role was the Victorian actor-director Arthur Bourchier. An earlier short film portraying Henry, 'When Knighthood was in Flower' (1908), starring the young D. W. Griffith and telling the love story of Henry`s sister Mary and Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, had been suspended due to tensions between Griffiths and the director, Wallace McCutcheon. It was finally made in 1922, in black-and-white, with Lyn Harding as the King. In 1937, Harding, by then the veteran of several historical films, made another (albeit brief) appearance as Henry VIII in the French film, 'Perles de la Couronne' (internationally released as 'Pearls of the Crown'), which traces the story of seven matched pearls through the sixteenth century. There was one other silent film featuring Henry VIII, the German 'Anna Boleyn' (1920), also titled' Anne Boleyn' or 'Deception'. The Swiss actor Emil Jannings played the King in this rather tedious melodrama.
   The first major film about Henry VIII was Alexander Korda`s 'The Private Life of Henry VIII' (1933), starring Charles Laughton, which is still regarded by many as the classic film about Henry VIII. It was a landmark in British cinema – no production had yet been as lavish. Laughton, who won an Oscar for his role, personified a popular perception of Henry, playing him as a bluff, gluttonous, womanising but dangerous buffoon. The film begins with the execution of Anne Boleyn (an authentically costumed Merle Oberon) and ends with a comical portrayal of the ailing King suffering the nagging of a brisk Katherine Parr. In between, a disproportionate amount of time is devoted to the illicit love affair between an astonishingly mature-looking and sophisticated Katherine Howard (Binnie Barnes) and Thomas Culpeper (Robert Donat). Laughton`s real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester, provided comical relief as Anne of Cleves.
   The film was enormously popular and influential, but it was Korda`s interpretation of Merrie England and could be described as the celluloid equivalent of a narrative painting of the romantic era, reflecting the preoccupations and fashions of its own time rather than the genuine realities of Tudor history. Laughton`s portrayal of the King is a caricature, but it was such a powerful one that it still influences the way some people see Henry VIII today. For them, he will always be a fat tyrant in a too-short-skirted doublet throwing chicken bones over his shoulder. It`s a far cry from the real Henry.
   Four years later, in 1937, Erroll Flynn starred as Miles Hendon in Hollywood`s lavish production of Mark Twain`s novel, 'The Prince and the Pauper'; playing Henry was a distinguished actor of noble bearing, Montagu Love, giving perhaps his best-known and greatest performance.
   In 1953, in the Walt Disney film, 'The Sword and the Rose', Henry VIII was again presented as a bluff, larger-than-life egotist, albeit a more gentlemanly one this time, by James Robertson Justice. The film recounted, with hopeless inaccuracy, the love affair between Henry`s sister Mary (Glynis Johns) and Charles Brandon, and is best forgotten.
   One of the greatest ever screen portrayals of Henry featured in Fred Zinneman`s outstanding film about Sir Thomas More, the Oscar-winning 'A Man For All Seasons' (1966), based on Robert Bolt`s masterly and challenging stage play. Robert Shaw played a younger, slimmer Henry (many film makers never take into account the fact that the King only became overweight in the last decade of his life), obsessed with his need for a male heir and his conviction that his marriage to Katherine of Aragon is invalid. He is no caricature, but an attractive, intelligent man whose every whim has hitherto been gratified, and who cannot now deal with any opposition to his views – a man whose finer self is at war with his baser needs.
   Katherine of Aragon does not appear in the film, but Vanessa Redgrave makes a fleeting, non-speaking appearance as an incredibly lifelike and flirtatious Anne Boleyn, enticing her lustful husband at their marriage celebrations. Historically, their wedding took place in secret, so the scene is fictional, but it serves to show Henry seeking in vain for More among the guests, and is thus a good example of credible dramatic licence.
   Robert Shaw`s role was disappointingly reprised by Martin Chamberlain in a 1988 television version of 'A Man For All Seasons', with Charlton Heston giving a very creditable performance as Thomas More, a role he had played on stage at the Chichester Festival Theatre. Heston himself acted the part of an ageing and fairly convincing Henry VIII in the 1977 film version of 'The Prince and the Pauper', which starred Mark Lester, looking much too grown-up in his dual role as Edward VI and Tom Canty, the beggar boy with whom the young King changes places with disastrous consequences.
   Richard Burton played Henry VIII with great authority and passion in Charles Jarrott`s lavish film of Maxwell Anderson`s stage play, 'Anne of the Thousand Days' (1969), which also starred a vivacious and spirited Genvieve Bujold as Anne Boleyn and a cast of stalwarts including Anthony Quayle as Cardinal Wolsey and Michael Hordern as Sir Thomas Boleyn. Visually stunning, with gorgeous if inaccurate costumes, magnificent music and authentic locations, including Penshurst Place and Anne`s former home, Hever Castle, the film presented Hollywood`s romanticised version of Tudor history. Thus Katherine of Aragon (Irene Papas) is depicted as a black-haired, black-browed lady of Spanish appearance, when in fact she was golden-haired with delicate features – a misrepresentation that continues to dog portrayals of Katherine to this day. We also see Henry visiting Anne Boleyn when she was a prisoner in the Tower of London, and not only eavesdropping on her trial, but intervening to question her and her co-accused, Mark Smeaton. Yet much of the film is well done, one does gain from it a sense of the period and the characters, and the story it tells is essentially a true one, with Bujold demonstrating great conviction as Anne Boleyn.
   For me, as a historian, the finest and most accurate portrayal of Henry VIII was that by Keith Michell in the BBC TV series of six plays, 'The Six Wives of Henry VIII' (1970). This outstanding production was noteworthy for many things, not the least of which was its worthy attempt to recreate authentic costumes, the product of a year`s work by the designer, John Bloomfield; many would be displayed at Hampton Court and other historic settings for a long time afterwards. The series also boasted exceptional performances by a fine cast, accurate contemporary settings – given that it would be beyond the budget of any TV company to fully recreate the splendours of the Tudor court – and evocative period music by the late David Munrow and the Early Music Consort of London. Everything was based on sound research and original source material. Allowing for a degree of dramatic licence, the series achieved a level of authenticity that has never been surpassed. Michell`s performance was nothing short of heroic, for in the course of the nine hours that the series lasted, he had to age from seventeen to a prematurely old fifty-five, and to metamorphose from a slim, athletic and idealistic youth to an obese, infirm and suspicious despot. Clever make-up, wigs and costumes helped, but the actor had clearly researched his subject well, for he even reproduced Henry`s reportedly high-pitched voice. On screen, he was Henry VIII, displaying myriad facets of that monarch`s complex character. Audiences came to care profoundly for the King, even though they might condemn him. Authenticity, accuracy and simplicity were the watchwords for this fine series.
   Playing opposite Michell, as the King`s wives, were a golden-haired Annette Crosbie as a dignified and immovable Katherine of Aragon, Dorothy Tutin as the seductive but insecure Anne Boleyn, Anne Stallybrass as a very gentle Jane Seymour, Elvi Hale as a wise and cunning Anne of Cleves, Angela Pleasence as foolish Katherine Howard and Rosalie Crutchley as a rather sad Katherine Parr. The Jane Seymour episode won the Prix Italia for television drama for its touching portrayal of the relationship between Jane and Henry. Indeed, the series won several awards and was screened in thirty-one countries.
   In the wake of the success of 'The Six Wives of Henry VIII' came the hilarious and lavishly produced film 'Carry On Henry', with Sidney James as a very amorous Henry VIII entangling himself with two wives (Joan Sims and Barbara Windsor) not recorded in the history books!
   Keith Michell brilliantly reprised his role as the King in the feature film 'Henry VIII and His Six Wives' (1972). In this superb and again well-researched production, which focused on the King rather than his wives, and generally on events not featured in the TV plays, different actresses played Henry`s unfortunate spouses: Frances Cuka was Katherine of Aragon, Charlotte Rampling a particularly sexy Anne Boleyn, Jane Asher a Jane Seymour modelled on Anne Stallybrass`s portrayal, the Dutch actress Jenny Bos an unprepossessing and comical Anne of Cleves, a young Lynne Frederick as the prettiest and most convincing Katherine Howard ever, and Barbara Leigh-Hunt as a reluctant Katherine Parr.
   Many years later, Keith Michell again played Henry VIII in a BBC drama series of 'The Prince and the Pauper', while in 2000, Alan Bates gave one of the best-ever cameos of the ageing King in a new film version of that book.  
   In 1979, John Stride acted the role of Henry opposite Claire Bloom as Katherine of Aragon in the BBC Shakespeare production of 'Henry VIII'.
   In 2003, Eastenders star Ray Winstone was a popular choice to play Henry VIII in a new Granada TV series of the same name. The series was a commercial success but a historical disaster, with a long catalogue of inaccuracies too numerous to list in full here. Henry's palaces resemble the sets for Erroll Flynn`s 'Robin Hood' rather than the sumptuous interiors of Tudor England. The costumes could be placed anywhere – or not at all, in some cases – within a period of sixty years, and the fact that Helena Bonham Carter (Anne Boleyn) was six months pregnant at the time of filming caused visible problems for the designer and lends a certain confusion to the plot. Execrable sets and costumes apart, Bonham Carter achieved some success in her role.
   In 2003, Jared Harris (son of actor Richard) played a very charismatic and sexy Henry VIII in the BBC TV production of Philippa Gregory`s novel, 'The Other Boleyn Girl'. Jodhi May was a very young-looking Anne and Natascha McElhone a very beautiful Mary Boleyn, but the production suffers from a too-contemporary visual approach, with Anne and Mary apparently recording video diaries straight to camera, and from an inaccurate portrayal of Mary Boleyn and the Tudor court. Currently, this book is being filmed for the big screen, with dark-haired Eric Bana, the star of the popular 1990s Australian comedy series Eric, as Henry VIII, and Scarlett Johanssen as Mary.  
   The latest screen Henry VIII, at the time of writing, is Jonathan Rhys Myers in the American TV series 'The Tudors' (2007). Rhys Myers is a good actor, and strikingly handsome, but he bears no resemblance to the young Henry VIII, having cropped black hair where Henry`s was long and red, and being an overt womaniser where the real Henry was prudish and discreet. The series suffers from being hopelessly sexed-up for the screen and romanticised, and from expensive but jarringly inaccurate costumes and howling anachronisms such as a radiator on set. Why is Henry shown with bare arms so often, or wrestling naked with the King of France? Such a scene is not only gratuitous but preposterous. The flood of complaints about inaccuracies that the BBC is currently receiving is indicative of people`s strong views on authenticity, but sadly the days seem to have long gone when film makers paid attention to such minor details.
   I should like to end by quoting from the exhibition catalogue of the costumes from the 1971 BBC TV series, which mentions `the need to be historically accurate in what is recognised as an extremely well-documented period familiar to most people`. This could equally apply to every other aspect of that production, or for that matter any other historical drama, be it on the big screen, the small screen or the stage. I can only lament how far things have slid since then.

The Sunday Times, July 2008

Do historical manglings matter? Should this sort of mock-Tudor TV be bulldozed in favour of traditional academic rigour? Michael Hirst, the show's creator, makes no bones about it: he wants to have his chicken legs and toss them over his shoulder at the same time. He admits he was "com­missioned to write an enter­tainment, a soap opera, and not history", yet in doing so he freely plunders the lives of his­toric figures.
   Opinions among serious historians are strikingly divided over this approach. Some are horrified; others say bring it on - the Thomas More, the merrier, they reckon.
   Among those defending the bastion of fact is the historian Alison Weir, author of Henry VIII: King and Court, The Lady Elizabeth and numerous other works.   
   "My feeling is that his­torical dramas are really badly done these days," she says. "Both people who know about history and those who don't are being sold short because of the inaccuracies. In some cases it is sloppiness and in others it is deliber­ate. The shows may get the rat­ings and the makers think they are a success. But the ratings don't tell you what people think: most are horrified."
   Weir, who gives regular talks on history, has found her audiences so annoyed by the lib­erties taken by film and televi­sion that she has written new chapters to two of her books on the portrayal of historical fig­ures in modern culture. What galls her and many others is that real history is shot through with plentiful drama without the need for fiction­al additions. "History is incredi­ble. Look at Henry VIII: here's a king who married six times, with two wives executed. You can't get much more far­-fetched than that," she says. "Lady Jane Grey [great-granddaughter of Henry VII] was a 17-year-old girl who was beheaded. She was queen for nine days. Why do we have to have representations that so distort history?"
   Katherine of Aragon, for example, is perpetually present­ed in dramas as a dark, Spanish beauty; in reality she had golden hair. Even when the historian David Starkey present­ed his admired documentary series on Henry's wives, he couldn't stop producers mak­ing Katherine dark-haired. Poor old Henry also gets a rough time at the hands of dramatists, Weir says. While he was a Renaissance prince who took advantage of the opportunities open to him, he was not simply the lecherous glutton of many portrayals. In many ways, according to Weir, he was prudish and discreet about his private life.
   "We know of two examples of people making a dirty joke to the king, and in one case he lost his temper and in the other he blushed," Weir says. "He wouldn't have that land of lewd talk at his court. He wanted to promote himself as a virtuous prince."
   Weir blames the actor Charles Laughton for our stereo-typical image of Henry. Laughton played the king in the 1933 film 'The Private Life of Henry VIII' and homed in on him as a dangerous woman-iser. The image has stuck.

UK Netyear, 1998

Welcome to the UK NetYear Masterclasses. We are pleased to welcome His Majesty Henry VIII as portrayed by Alison Weir
UK NetYear asks: Did you live in the Tower of London and what was it like.....was it very cold?

Henry VIII: I lived in the Tower of London occasionally as a child, and I spent the night before my coronation there as was customary, but the Tower is one of the older palaces and most of mine are newer and finer. My favourite is Greenwich Palace where I was born. I am also very fond of Hampton Court, which was given to me by Cardinal Wolsey, and I like many of my other sixty houses, most of which are hunting lodges. Another favourite is Nonsuch in Ewell, Surrey - a very small palace built in the French Renaissance style.
Miss Sewell's class asks: How do you travel around the country and how long does it take you?
Henry VIII: I travel mainly on horseback, being an excellent horseman, and every year in the late summer, I go on an annual progress through parts of my kingdom. When you consider the size of my court and the baggage train, up to two thousand people, you will not be surprised to hear that we cover only ten miles each day.
UK NetYear asks: How many courses do you eat at Royal banquets, what is your favourite food?
Henry VIII: My favourite foods are Jerusalem artichokes and quince marmalade, which the ladies of my court love to make for me. The number of courses at feasts varies, it could be between four and six, with up to ten dishes per course. I would just like to say that I do not throw chicken legs over my shoulder, but observe a very strict code of table manners. I am a very fastidious man.
UK NetYear asks: Which of your wives was your favourite?
Henry VIII: Jane Seymour was my favourite wife - she bore me a son and for that I revere her memory. Some say that I was more passionately in love with Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, but both of them betrayed me and I regard neither as true wives; in fact I consider myself as only having had two wives, Jane Seymour and Katherine Parr.
UK NetYear asks: Why is it so important to have a son?
Henry VHI: It is important to have a son, as in England we hadn't had any good experience of having a female ruler. It is my belief that it is against nature and the law of God for a woman to hold dominion over men. How could a woman lead armies?
UK NetYear asks: Why did you have to behead your wives?
Henry VIII: I beheaded two of my wives because they committed treason. Anne Boleyn was found guilty of plotting my death and also of adultery with five men! After that I passed a law declaring it high treason for a queen to commit adultery. Katherine Howard was found guilty of adultery and rightly paid the penalty.
UK NetYear asks: Do you think it is fair to change laws to suit yourself?
Henry VIII: Of course it is fair! The King has to meet the needs of his people as best he can, and protect the common weal of the realm. Anyone who offends good order in society has to pay the penalty and be punished severely, and a crime against the King is a crime against good order. The King is appointed by God to rule and his judgement is divinely inspired.
St Pauls School asks: What was the role of the Church throughout your reign? And why did you dissolve the monasteries?
Henry VIII: At the beginning of my reign, England was a Roman Catholic country showing spiritual allegiance to the Pope. I myself was always a true son of the Church, and for my defence of it against the Protestant Martin Luther I was awarded the title Defender of the Faith. When, however, I asked the Pope to confirm that my marriage to Katherine of Aragon was invalid and he refused to agree, I began to realise that there were a lot of abuses within the Catholic Church. Because the Pope would not agree to my reasonable suit, I severed the Church of England from that of Rome and had myself proclaimed its Supreme Head and Governor. The clergy apologised for showing loyalty to the Bishop of Rome and were pardoned of payment of a large fine. I dissolved the monasteries because many were hotbeds of popery and vice, and I felt that their wealth would be better used in the royal coffers. By selling off monastic land to my nobles, I won their support for my religious reforms. My Church of England holds much the same beliefs as the Roman Catholic Church. I was never a Protestant.
St Clares School asks: If you are so fastidious why are you so fat?
Henry VII: I am big because I ate too much after Jane Seymour's death. I was always a big man, 6ft 4ins in height. After Jane went, I was lonely and no longer so agile as in my youth because of an abscess in my leg. Therefore I ate far too much, and by the time I married Katherine Howard when I was 49, my girth measured 54 inches.
UK NetYear asks: What treatment have you had for your ulcerated legs?                                                                                  /
Henry VIII: There isn't a lot of treatment available to me. My physicians have done their best with ointments, and blood letting to let out the evil humours in my body, but mostly all they can do is bind up the wound. I regret to say that it stinks. Once or twice they have had to lance the abscess, which was agonising, but it never heals.
Steve asks: Do you think that your daughter Elizabeth made a good Queen?
Henry VIII: Yes, I have to concede that she made an excellent Queen - against all my expectations. Not as fearsome as I was, and of course, being a woman, she had to face the dilemma posed by whom she should marry. Naturally she could not claim military glory for herself, but she fortunately she had many great soldiers and sailors to fulfil that duty for her.
UK NetYear asks: Did you take much interest in raising your children?
Henry VIII: Yes I was a careful and loving father, unless of course, their mothers were in disgrace. I took great pleasure in showing off my children to the court and praising their intelligence. I took a great interest in providing the best education possible. When my beloved son, Edward, was born, I gave strict instructions for the observance of hygiene in his household, and visited him in his nursery every few months. I also arranged for regular reports on his progress be sent to my secretary, Thomas Cromwell.
UK NetYear asks: Do you think you were a good king and were you happy? What would you have done differently if you had the opportunity?
Henry VIII: I was a good king overall, with good intentions, but a victim of circumstances. If I had my time again, I would never have married Katherine of Aragon because it became clear later that God did not approve of this union and withheld a son. I should have listened to Wolsey and married a French princess. Had I had a son earlier in my reign many of the later conflicts and crises would not have occurred. I would have been much happier if I had had this security, and would certainly never have become entangled with Anne Boleyn, nor would I have executed that good man Sir Thomas More, or that good servant Cromwell.

Thank you for watching this fascinating Masterclass with Henry VIII. And many thanks to Henry VIII, played by historian and author, Alison Weir.

Alison Weir's review of Hans Holbein: Portrait of an Unknown Man by Derek Wilson, 1996 (full original text)

This book is well overdue. For too long scholars have dismissed Hans Holbein as an artist who lacked a spiritual outlook, but Derek Wilson, by a process of painstakingly reconstructing the master's life from the sparse evidence in contemporary records and the more subtle clues contained in his work, and by meticulous research into the turbulent world Holbein inhabited, and the lives of those with whom he came into contact, has brilliantly redressed the balance. Never again will we regard Hans Holbein simply as Henry VIII's court painter.
   Hans was born in Augsburg, Germany, in 1497, the son of an artist, Holbein the Elder. Wilson vividly describes the Germany of Holbein's youth - a land
undergoing great cultural and religious changes - and traces his early career in Basel up to 1516, when his portrait of Burgomaster Jakob Meyer earned him renown. Yet his versatile talent embraced many fields: we hear of him executing a painted table and other furniture, decorating a house in Lucerne with murals, designing stained glass, banners, jewellery, altarpieces and frescoes, as well as painting religious subjects, a genre which dominated his early work.                            
  What emerges from the masterpieces that survive from this period is Holbein's overriding concern to portray the truth. In his religious art we can discern the transition from traditional medieval piety to the more realistic themes preferred by scholars of the New Learning and those who clamoured for the reform of an increasingly corrupt Church. Holbein's work betrays a growing awareness of religious conflict, proving him to be a man who thought deeply about spiritual values and who was influenced by humanist thinkers such as Erasmus and Zwingli.
   Holbein belonged to no particular school of painting. His works betray some Italian influence, and show evidence of his admiration for Mantegna, who 'combined loving attention to detail with the calm dispassion of the intellectual'. The same could be said of Holbein himself. In 1523, after carrying out a variety of lesser commissions, Holbein at last painted Erasmus, whom he met through his friend, the jurist Bonifacius Amerbach, whose closely observed detailed portraithe had completed in 1519. Erasmus rather grudgingly referred to Hans as 'a not unskilful artist', but he commissioned several other portraits from him, and their association was to last a decade and lead to greater things.
   Holbein was still turning out a vast quantity of religious art, including several studies of the Madonna and Child, a Last Supper for a church in Basel (of which only the centre panel survives) and in 1522 a series of illustrations for Martin Luther's German translation of the New Testament. These last show a novel realism in religious art: in one, as Christ is nailed to the Cross, He is gagged to stifle His screams.
   This same realism is apparent in Holbein's stark painting of Christ in the Tomb (1521), which shows a decaying body. 'No other picture expresses eloquently the faith of the Reformation,' states Wilson, and he imagines Holbein saying: 'Grasp this, and the miracle of the Resurrection will strike you with full force.'
   A preoccupation with death had long been prevalent in western art, and between 1524-26 Holbein executed a series of woodcuts entitled 'The Dance of
Death', probably not a commissioned work. Instead we have 'a window into the artist's world, showing him to be 'one of the greatest satirists of all time, combining observation, understanding and passion'. These works were subversive and controversial, and were not publishe until 1538; Holbein's name did not appear, and it it doubtful if he earned any money from them.
   In 1526, as a result of an outbreak of iconoclastic unrest in Basel, Holbein stopped painting traditional religious subjects. His last work in the genre was probably his finest: the Darmstadt Madonna, commissioned.for the private chapel of Jakob Meyer, a Catholic who clung to the old ways. There are several disturbing details in this painting, which Wilson describes with fascinating insight. All hint at the prevailing mood of religious conflict. Holbein's model for the Madonna was Magdalena Offenburg, whom he also painted as Venus and as Lais, a Greek courtesan; Wilson surmises - probably correctly - that she was the artist's mistress. He already had a wife, Elsbeth Schmid, but although he never failed in his financial responsibilities to her, evidence suggests that they were never particularly close.
   Thanks to his many talents, Holbein was never out of work, but he was not exploiting his gift to the full, and in 1526 he decided to visit England in search of wealthy patrons. London was then a centre of culture, famous throughout Europe, and Henry VIII, a great_patron of the arts, was eager to attract talented craftsmen, even sending agents abroad to seek them out, in order to enhance the splendour of a dynasty whose tenure of the throne was not very secure; despite having been married since 1509 to Katherine of Aragon, Henry had no son to succeed him.
   It was Erasmus who suggested that Holbein go to London, and who apparently sent him with a letter of introduction to the already legendary scholar and statesman, Sir Thomas More. More enjoyed the friendship of the King, and any artist he patronised could hope for great things. More found Holbein 'a wonderful artist', and set him to work on family portraits and a large-scale family group - 'a landmark in Northern painting' - that is now lost and is known to us only through Holbein's preliminary drawing and later copies by other artists. Wilson's discussion of the mysteries surrounding these family group portraits makes riveting reading.
   Holbein first met Henry VIII in 1527, when he was commissioned to paint murals at Greenwich Palace. Wilson gives us tantalising details of these and other works, such as a portrait of Dame Alice More, which have long since disappeared. In More's house at Chelsea, Holbein concentrated on portraiture, producing likenesses of people in More's circle. There was no great tradition of portrait painting in England, but Holbein started a trend among the rich and famous that is still with us today. He began with Sir Henry Guildford, who was controller of the royal household, and before long other courtiers were queuing up to have their likenesses preserved for posterity.
   In 1527 Henry VIII applied to the Pope for an annulment of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. His overriding concen was to remarry and produce a male heir, but many believed that his chief motive was lust for Katherine's maid-of-honour, Anne Boleyn. Thus began the six-year struggle with the Pope that would end with the severance of the Church of England from the authority of Rome. My only criticism of this book concerns Wilson's interpretation of Henry VIII's marital affairs, which is at times too simplistic, but this is an irrelevance when compared to the wealth of scholarship that informs the rest of the narrative.
   By 1528 Holbein had attracted the attention and patronage of members of Anne Boleyn' s fashionable set, but he was obliged to return to Basel as his leave permit was due to expire. He found at hemc a baby daughter he had never seen, and a wife and son who must have seemed like strangers to him.
Nevertheless, he bought a substantial house and lived in comparative -obscurity for more than three years. A portrait of his wife and children painted at this time gives an impression of 'overwhelming sadness' with its 'stark, cruel honesty'. Frau Holbein later sold it; obviously she had no sentimental reasons for keeping it
   Throughout these years Holbein was executing commissions from local worthies, but the religious mood in Germany was becoming uglier and restrictive. In 1532 he learned that his old patron More had been appointed Lord Chancellor of England, and rumour had it that Anne Boleyn was about to become queen. Seeing an 'undreamed-of opportunity', Holbein returned to England, only to find the Reformation in full flight there as well. Wilson is particularly good at describing the religious background in London, no less than in Basel.
   Then disaster struck. More, finding he could not agree with the King, resigned the Great Seal and fell from favour. This could have spelled disaster for Holbein, but he was immediately taken up by Anne Boleyn and her circle, and by the rising ministerial star, Thomas Cromwell. Thus he continued to paint that series of court portraits for which he has become famous. Wilson brilliantly weaves the threads of a random selection of sitters into a cohesive tapestry by virtue of wide-ranging research that fleshes out these long-dead celebrities and sets them in their historical context. For me, this is the most compelling aspect of the book.
   Under the patronage of Anne Boleyn, who became queen in 1533, Holbein prospered; his magnificent showpiece painting 'The Ambassadors' dates from this period. This, more than any other, 'places Holbein accurately within the power politics of his times'. He was a master of the art of symbolism, in which this picture is rich, and Wilson offers a convincing theory about the sinister anamorphosis that has puzzled scholars for centuries.
   As well as working for Queen Anne, there is fascinating evidence that Holbein was part of Thomas Cromwell's network of spies and secret agents. As an artist, welcome in the homes of the great, he was ideally placed to fulfil this role. And when Anne Boleyn fell from favour and was executed for treason in 1536, it was Cromwell who rescued Holbein from the consequences of having been associated with her, and recommended his appointment as King's Painter. What secured it for him may have been his superb portrait of Henry VIII (now in the Thyssen collection) - 'an image of power, splendour and egocentricity' - and perhaps its companion-portrait of Jane Seymour. These were followed by the magnificent Whitehall Privy Chamber mural depicting the Tudor dynasty - 'a
masterpiece of spatial illusion' that was destroyed by fire, along with many other works by Holbein, when the palace burned down in 1698.
   Then Holbein executed the series of masterly royal portraits for which he is justly renowned - Christina of Denmark, Anne of Cleves and Henry's longed-for heir, Prince Edward - and Wilson has a tale to tell about each. But when Cromwell went to the block in 1540, Holbein lost Henry's favour and never fully regained it, although be remained King's Painter until his death in 1543. By then he had, it seems, gone out of fashion, yet there is no evidence that his skill had in any way diminished.
   I must now confess that Holbein has for the last thirty years been my favourite artist of all time, and that I was prepared to be critical of any biography that did him less than justice or demolished any of my own theories about his work and his sitters. But I am very impressed by Derek Wilson's book, which is highly readable and should justly become the standard work on the subject. There is, of course, a certain irony to its subtitle, for here, without doubt, is the most accurate and vivid portrayal to date of Hans Holbein - no longer an unknown man, but revealed to us for the first time as a creative genius who was also a 'thinking, feeling man' whose sense of theology found an outlet 'in brushpaint'.

EUSTACHE CHAPUYS: Alison Weir's review of the biography, Inside The Tudor Court, by Lauren Mackay (2014)


A biography and reappraisal of Eustache Chapuys, the Imperial ambassador at the court of Henry VIII from 1529 to 1545, was long overdue, and I was delighted when Lauren Mackay published Inside the Tudor Court, a fascinating new history based on the ambassador's original reports and despatches of Chapuys. Lauren kindly asked me to launch her book for her, and I was very happy to do so.
   I know Lauren to be an enthusiastic and rigorous historian and consultant, with her own electronic publishing company. I followed her book's progress over the two years since we met at the Boleyn Festival at Blickling Hall, and I was impressed by her passion and dedication. Having completed an MA in History, she is currently researching her PhD on Thomas and George Boleyn, Anne Boleyn's father and brother, who will be the subject of her next book – a study that, will be a valuable addition to the scholarship of the Tudor period. I await it eagerly.
   But now we are fortunate in having to hand Lauren’s ground-breaking biography of Chapuys. Why Chapuys? Well, because he is a key source for Henry VIII’s reign, and his reports and despatches have been instrumental in shaping our modern interpretations of Henry and his six wives. He knew Henry and all his queens, and his writings were packed with colourful anecdotes, salacious gossip, and personal and insightful observations of the key players at court, thus offering the single most continuous portrait of the central decades of Henry's reign.
   Starting with Chapuys' arrival in England at a crucial stage in Henry VIII's divorce from Katherine of Aragon, Lauren’s book progresses through the reigns of each of Henry's queens. Chapuys tirelessly defended Katherine and her daughter, Mary Tudor, the future Mary I. He remained as ambassador through the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn, and reported on each and every one of Henry's subsequent wives - Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, and Katharine Parr - as well as that most intriguing of ministers, Thomas Cromwell. He retired in 1545, close to the end of Henry VIII's reign. David Starkey has pointed out that Chapuys deserves to be taken seriously because he always cites his sources. We know where we are with him.
   Yet Chapuys has become controversial in recent years. His reputation is inextricably linked with that of Anne Boleyn, It is hard to credit that an English queen could become a modern celebrity nearly five centuries after her death, but in recent years, Anne Boleyn has become the subject of `a fast-growing cult`. Legions of historical novelists have fed this fascination, historians – including me – have endlessly debated every aspect of her life, and film makers have eagerly cashed in on the public`s seemingly insatiable appetite for all things Anne. From the anonymous person who, every year, on the anniversary of Anne`s execution, arranges for flowers to be placed on her supposed grave in the Tower of London, to the `Anne Boleyn lovers` who regularly post on Yahoo Group sites that amount to Anne Boleyn fan clubs, the posthumous charisma of this most controversial of queens intrigues and fascinates. Indeed, any criticism of her can meet with howls of derision.
   But Chapuys strongly disapproved of her, and history has placed him in diametrical opposition. In recent years he has been called a rabid Catholic, a sinister misogynist, a gossip monger, a troublemaker, and a liar. It has been said that his English was poor or that he was not as close to events as he claimed to be. He has been accused of, and derided for, spreading lies and myths about Anne, and dismissed as a man who was scared of a powerful woman. Many believe that he helped to engineer her downfall. Lauren has a more balanced view.
   Considering the debates currently circulating about Chapuys and Anne we might be forgiven for thinking that he thought and wrote of nothing else. But his reports transcend the spectacle of Henry’s marital dramas. On a basic level, Chapuys’ opposition to one woman has attenuated his vital meticulous records and sharp observations. His Anne is flawed, ambitious, insecure, rash, intelligent, bold, and at times spiteful. In other words, she is human.
   Chapuys has also been accused of always referring to Anne as ‘the Concubine’. By going back to the original dispatches, Lauren has discovered that , although some translations do contain the phrase, in several instances they have been mistranslated. He did on occasion refer to Anne as the King’s mistress, or the Lady, but these terms do not carry the same degree of hostility.  Lauren’s book explores this myth further, and attempts to separate what is true and what has become accepted as fact.
   This fascinating new history provides a fresh perspective on Henry VIII, his wives, his court, and the Tudor period in general. It is a thoroughly researched portrait of the central decades of Henry VIII's reign. One reviewer has said that ‘What emerges is a complex diplomatic picture of a lively and clever man who defies the stereotypes perpetuated in some history books, to shine as he takes centre stage. Lauren Mackay is successful in depicting the nature of the ambassadorial role in all its elements, from the need to flatter the King, balanced with Chapuys’ natural sympathies for Catherine’s plight, the practical problems of waiting for weeks for an audience, and coping when his salary wasn’t paid or his house burned down. This is the real Chapuys for once, not the vessel of myth and misinterpretation.’
   Lauren has expressed the hope that her biography is Chapuys for a new generation.  I would say that it is a superb, sound, engagingly written and much-needed study of a controversial player at the Tudor court, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.


I’m most grateful to Dr Tom Parry, a consultant anaesthetist of Oxford, for his professional opinion on the cause of Henry VIII’s death.
In my book, Henry VIII: King and Court, I suggested that this was from a pulmonary embolus secondary to a leg injury. But Dr Parry says that the description I gave of the King’s last two weeks does not tally with this. He writes: ‘A pulmonary embolus, if massive, would classically cause sudden death, or else repeated attacks of chest pain and shortness of breath, possibly with the coughing up of blood, culminating in death. The ulcer on his leg sounds much more like chronic osteomyelitis which could last for years, with repeated and very painful attacks, and culminating in multi-organ failure from long term sepsis.
‘Chronic osteomyelitis is a bone infection that has lasted for more than a month. It can be caused by bacteria spreading from elsewhere, such as an infected tooth, via the blood stream (commoner in children) or from bacteria infecting bone directly from nearby, such as an injury involving broken skin and contamination. If Henry’s leg injury involved a fracture, even a minor one such as to the fibula, with damage to the skin, then this could very well have caused osteomyelitis. This would manifest itself as an abscess over the infected area which would break down and discharge the pus it contains, causing fever and severe pain. This would then heal over, but the bacteria would remain in the bone, and in a year or so another abscess would form and the cycle would be repeated. More and more bone would be involved over time and the patient would become progressively more unwell. This is now rare in Britain, but I have seen it in rural South Africa and the history the patient gave was very like Henry’s as described by you.’
Dr Parry’s diagnosis does indeed tally strikingly with the historical record. In response to the theory that a bone had splintered in Henry's leg as a result of a riding accident, and that shards of bone worked their way periodically to the surface, causing those intermittent attacks of severe pain, Dr Parry sought the opinion of a senior orthopaedic surgeon, who agreed with him that ‘splinters would not behave in this way, and that osteomyelitis was very likely’. 

The story about Henry VIII being saved from a boar at Sutton Coldfield by a local girl archer comes from Royal England: A Historical Gazetteer by Alan and Veronic Palmer (Methuen, 1983). The tale is a traditional one that does not appear in contemporary sources, nor is it mentioned in the Victoria County History of Warwickshire, a standard source for local history. King Henry is said to have been charged by a wild boar while hunting with Bishop Vesey in Sutton Chase. He was saved by an unseen archer, who shot an arrow through the vboar's heart. The archer turned out to be a young and beautiful woman, whose family had been dispossessed of their property, and in gratitude, the King ordered the restitution of their lands and presented the woman with the device of the Tudor Rose, which would henceforth, until 1974, be the emblem of Sutton Coldfield, her native town. Pursuant to this, Henry did, on 16th December 1528, grant a charter incorporating the Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield.

From the Daily Mail, 2007:
Alison Weir, historian and author of The Six Wives of Henry VIII, compared the T.V. series The Tudors to a 'Hollywood fairytale'. She added: 'Henry had red hair, not black hair as this actor has, and some of the scenes are just plain gratuitous. Henry was a very discreet king; he would not have indulged openly in womanising. While he may have liked the ladies, he would never have been so indiscreet - that is why there is so little evidence of his affairs. The truth is interesting enough so why try to glamourise it?' She said viewers would be sold short, however limited their knowledge of the period.

Thanks to reader Gregory Holyoake for pointing out that Henry VIII was not the first English monarch to use the style 'your Majesty' - it was Richard II, according to his biographer, Nigel Saul. The style fell into disuse in the fifteenth century, however, before being revived by Henry.

In the book, I state that Henry VIII was proclaimed king on 22nd April, St George's Day. This is an error: St George's Day is on 23rd April. It should have read 'the day before'.

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