Henry VIII is one of the most notorious kings who ever ruled England. He had six wives, two of which were executed, three legitimate children who would change England forever, and he decided to break from Rome and create his own church. Henry was such a larger than life figure, yet when it comes to historical fiction, he tends to play a smaller part in books about his six wives and is often portrayed as a villain. Henry doesn’t get to have his own voice, in historical fiction, on some of the most important parts in his life, so Margaret George decided to give him one in her book, “The Autobiography of Henry VIII: With Notes by His Fool, Will Somers,” to explain what could have been going on in his mind during these pivotal moments.
What makes Margaret George’s book unique is the addition of Will Somers, Henry’s fool, who acts as a commentator, and in some cases, acts as the voice of reason after the fact. Will Somers explains some of the most complex issues during Henry’s reign, including what it meant to be king:
To be a King is to be un-ordinary, extraordinary: because we will have it so, we demand it, as we demand our carpenters make smooth-sliding drawers. Much of Henry’s behaviour is incomprehensible if judged as the actions of an ordinary man; as King, it appears in a different light. If a man is consciously trying to be an ideal King, an outsize King, then all the more so. And there can be no wavering, no half-measures. One must be King every instant, while retiring to the privy stool as well as in state audiences. There is no respite: the mask of royalty must gradually supplant the ordinary man, as sugar syrup replaces the natural flavors in candied fruit and flowers. They retain their original outward appearance, but inside are altogether changed in substance. Harry bore this burden easily, and wore his regality with a splendid conviction. What this cost him as a man becomes apparent as one reads on in his journal. (George, 105).
George’s book begins with a conversation between Will Somers and Catherine Knollys about the actual journal and why he was giving it to Catherine. Henry begins his “autobiography” with his childhood and his relationship with his siblings, especially his brother Arthur, his father Henry VII, and his mother Elizabeth of York. It was interesting to see how Henry might have viewed his relationship with his family, most importantly with his “miserly” father Henry VII. I really do not agree with this view of Henry VII myself, but I think how Henry was portrayed as the second son was very fascinating.
The main part of this book and Henry’s life was his marriages. Starting off with his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, George explores how Henry fell in love with each woman he called, at one point or another, his wife and queen and ultimately each woman’s different fate. What was interesting was that George seemed to play with the myths that surrounded the women in Henry’s life, like Anne Boleyn having a sixth finger and that she was a witch (which are not true at all). The part that surprised me the most about this book was how much he grieved over love lost, especially with Jane Seymour. It showed a softer side to Henry and gave him more of a humanistic element to his story.
Aside for marital and familial elements of Henry’s life, George also explores the religious issues of his reign, as well as Henry’s government. We see how relationships with the Catholic Church sours and how it really affects him as a man. We see how long time friends of Henry’s quickly turn to enemies and how his relationships with other monarchs ebb and flow.
Overall Margaret George gives us a full and complete story of Henry VIII’s life while being entertaining and intriguing. I read this book several years back and I thoroughly enjoyed it and I found myself enjoying it even to this day. George was able to bring Henry VIII and his court to life in a way that made you feel like this “journal” could have been real. If you want a fun, long read about King Henry VIII, I highly suggest you read, “The Autobiography of Henry VIII” by Margaret George.