Book Review: “Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him” by Tracy Borman

40642324The story of the reign of King Henry VIII has been told mainly through his numerous marriages and through the lives of his children. Although his immediate family was a big part of his legacy, there is much more to his story than his tempestuous relationships. There were also his legal, religious, and military exploits. The ones who were with Henry when he made these decisions were the men who were loyal to him, his counselors and companions. Their tales are often told separately, until now. Tracy Borman has decided to masterfully combine their tales to explore the life of their infamous king in her latest biography, “Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him”. 

I have read plenty of books about Henry VIII’s wives and his children, but I haven’t read many books about the legendary man himself. I wanted a biography that explored the decisions he made in his life and the men who helped him along the way. That is exactly what Borman delivered in this biography that is bountiful with the information that it provides. 

Like any good biography, Borman begins by exploring Henry VIII’s birth and childhood. This is actually a significant time in his life and in the development of the future king of England. Growing up as the second son, Henry VIII was not destined to be king, but when his older brother Arthur tragically passed away, everything changed and Henry was thrust into a life of training to become king. He was constantly living in the shadow of his father and once he became king, he tried to outshine Henry VII.

Once he became king, Henry surrounded himself with men, both of royal birth and humble origins, to help run England. Some of the men that Borman included are Charles Brandon, Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Francis Bryan, Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Cranmer, Thomas Wroithesley, and Thomas Howard. Relatively familiar names for those who have studied the Tudors before and understand the significance of their roles in the Tudor court. However, Borman also includes the stories of men who did their best work on the sidelines, like the painters, diplomats, members of his inner circle, and doctors who saw all of Henry’s triumphs and failures. 

By highlighting the men that Borman did, she gives her audience a fresh perspective on such an infamous figure in history. He was a complex figure who could change his mind at a drop of the hat. These men knew how to navigate the dangerous situations that they were thrust into in order to make sure that their master’s orders were carried out. Of course, some went above the call of duty and others lost their lives to achieve their goals. 

This was the first book that I have read by Tracy Borman and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Her writing style was so engaging that I did not want this book to end. I thought I knew a lot about Henry VIII and his men, but “Henry VIII and the Men who Made Him” still provided new facts that surprised me. If you want to read a biography about Henry VIII that gives a fresh and innovative look into his life, I highly recommend you read this book. 

Sir Thomas More and His Controversial History

When we think of Richard III and the Wars of the Roses, most of us will first think of Sir Thomas More and his “The History of King Richard III”. It is probably one of the most controversial sources about the Wars of the Roses out there and yet historians still use it. The question is why is there such an attraction to this book and why did Thomas More write it? It is my hope with this article to shed some light on this book, on More and what his possible intentions were when he wrote this book. I will be breaking this article into two parts; who Sir Thomas More was and what the book says. It is important to understand More’s background if we are to have any hope in understanding “The History of  King Richard III”. I will only be writing about More’s life up until the time he wrote this book because his later life under Henry VIII and his execution really do not explain the purpose of why More wrote this book.

Sir Thomas More: The Man

So who was Sir Thomas More and why should he matter? Robert Whittington in 1520 says:

More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning; I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? As time requireth a man of marvellous mirth and pastimes; and sometimes of  as sad gravity; a man for all season. (Murphy, 1)

Thomas More was born on February 7, 1478 (Ackroyd, 6) to John More and Agnes Graunger. More’s childhood saw the transition from Edward IV as king  to Richard III and finally to Henry VII. He attended school for a while at St. Anthony’s and then went on to become a page for John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, a man that More deeply admired and who would appear in his History as a wise man. ( Ackroyd, 35)

After working for John Morton, More studied for a little bit at Oxford University. It was at Oxford where he was able to engage in humanism which is studying classic literature through the study of  the languages of antiquity and once that was mastered, using rhetoric to debate certain topics. (Johnson, 34-35) Humanism would come to shape the writings of More and his friend Erasmus of Rotterdam, who’s translation of the New Testament would go against the Vulgate, questioning the authority of the papacy, and influence those like Luther, even those Erasmus was a devout Catholic. ( Elton, 113). To put it another way, “Humanists were concerned with integrating, not separating, the human and the Christian.” (Murphy, 7)

More left Oxford without obtaining a degree and went to New Inn and later he was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn in London in 1496. Inns were not what we considered inns today; they were where men who interested in law went to study. ( Ackroyd, 53). He was sixteen at the time. Peter Ackroyd explains how More was able to balance both his religious studies with his study of law:

Religion and law were not to be considered separately; they implied one another. That is why law was considered to be perfect in itself, undamaged by the bad judgments of individual practitioners; the same argument, on the merits of the Mass as opposed to the virtue of the priest who offered it, was at the heart of Catholic eucharistic belief. That is why the law was also considered to permanent; it was what was known to be true, withstanding change or decay. (Ackroyd, 63).

This must be understood in order to understand More. To him, using religious terms to describe political events was just another part of daily life. Another part of his daily life was his family; in 1505, he married Jane Colt and they had four children: Margaret, Elizabeth, Cecily, and John.(Murphy, vii). Four years later, in 1509, Henry VIII became king of England and in 1510, More was made Under- Sheriff of London and was elected into Parliament. (Murphy, vii). Three years later, More wrote his “The History of King Richard III”, but he never finished it. (More, 3).  

More’s “The History of King Richard III”

Many argue that More wrote his “ The History of King Richard III” for propaganda of the Tudor Dynasty, especially for Henry VII, however Ackroyd points out something very interesting about their relationship:

It has often been suggested that, at a later date, More professed hostility towards the financial exactions which Henry VII tried to levy upon London. There is no evidence of any open dispute but certainly, at the time of the accession of his so, More composed a sharp attack upon the dead king. (Ackroyd, 84)

If this is the case then what was More’s intentions in writing this book? Before we try to  answer that question, we have to explore the text itself.

“The History of King Richard III” by Sir Thomas More is roughly less than a hundred pages in length. Relatively short for such a controversial text. It should be noted that this text is considered a “history” in the loosest possible sense. In fact, More wasn’t using recent histories from his time to formulate his own history, but being the humanist that he was,  he used histories from Sallust and Tacitus as examples. ( Ackroyd, 161). Another difference from a typical history is that More relies on oral sources for his history. ( Ackroyd, 161). Anyone who studies history knows that oral sources are not always the most reliable source because words can be misconstrued.

More doesn’t start his history of Richard III with say his birth; instead he starts his book with the death of Edward IV. He describes Edward as  “a goodly personage, and very princely to be hold: of heart courageous…” (More, 4). More then goes on to describe the protector of Edward’s children, Richard III, obviously starting with his physical appearances first (More, 8) and then describes who he was as:

…Close and secret, a deep dissimuler, lowly of countenance, arrogant of the heart, outwardly coumpinable where he inwardly hated, not letting to kiss whom he thought to kill; dispiteous and cruel, not for evil will alway, but often for ambition…. Friend and foe was ,such what indifferent….(More, 9)

Not the most courteous way to describe the brother of a king who would be a king himself, but as Sylvester notes, it is not because Richard was a Yorkist king but because he was a “dissimulating tyrant”(More, xv). Now Richard was not Edward’s choice as protector, in fact it was the Queen’s brother Sir Anthony Woodville, “a right honorable man, as valiant of hand as politic in counsel”(More, 15). However, Richard did not like this suggestion and so he had Lord Rivers and his men sent to prison and then later beheaded for “treason”. (More, 21).

Of course in Sir Thomas More’s book, there are no dates, which makes it difficult to pinpoint when these events exactly happened or if they happened at all, including the speeches that More included such as those of the Duke of Buckingham who is trying to convince the former Queen Elizabeth Woodville to hand over her other son to Richard.( More, 29-33). Likewise when Elizabeth refuses to give up her son (More, 35-39) and then later when she reluctantly agrees to do so (More, 41-42). These are very iconic speeches in this book that are full of passion and heartbreak.

So why would More included these either factual or fictitious speeches? Peter Ackroyd gives us an interesting insight into that question:

It is significant, too, that the most elaborate passages of More’s narrative are conceived as speeches; the merits of sanctuary for the royal children are the subject of long debate, for example, while the right of Richard to be king is explained in a number of orations. ‘The History of Richard III’ can be understood, then, as a lesson in the arts of disputation and rhetorical debate similar to those in which More engaged as a schoolboy and a scholar….In his grammatical work More was instructing those who might well be chosen to administer the government of the state: grammar was part of rhetoric, and rhetoric was part of public duty. (Ackroyd, 162-163).

This book is not just a “history” but it is also a lesson in rhetoric for those in government. More may have been a fan of reading history, but his true love was humanism and government, in which rhetoric and grammar were immensely important. It is that love of humanism and government that we see throughout the entire book.

More goes on with Richard’s case on why he should be king. After Richard gets rid of his traitorous former friend Lord Hastings (More, 49-54), he moves on to the important part of his argument; that his brother Edward was already married to a Mistress Shore before he married Elizabeth Woodville.(More, 55-58). Since his brother was already married, that meant that any children that he had with Elizabeth Woodville would be considered bastards, including the young king Edward V. This was damning enough but Richard wanted to make sure that it had legal backing he made a document, that declared the children of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville bastards. (More, 60-61). Richard also asks for Dr. Shaa to preach a sermon against Edward’s children with Elizabeth and the Duke of Buckingham giving his speech on how great Richard is (More, 70-76). This leads to the epic conclusion where Richard “reluctantly” takes the throne since he is the obvious choice to take crown since his brother’s heirs were declared bastards. Richard III has become King of England.

But there is one more piece to the puzzle. What happened to the young king and his brother? More leaves us questioning what happened to them because he speaks of rumors of  John Green, Sir Robert Brackenbury, the Constable of the Tower, Sir James Tyrell and John Dighton being ordered by Richard III to kill the brothers.(More, 85-90). One has to wonder if this is a credible theory or just rhetoric since More only heard this theory and the fact that there is no written evidence. More does not go into any more detail about this and “ends” the book with Bishop Morton trying to convince Richard III to lead the country with wisdom. (Ackroyd, 35). This is a very unusual ending for someone who is supposed to be writing the book as propaganda for the Tudor dynasty.

Conclusion

So knowing that More was writing this as more of an exercise on humanism and did not finish this book, how should we approach “The History of King Richard III”? I don’t believe that we should merely toss it out. It was not propaganda for the Tudor dynasty since it was written in 1513, before More’s political career really took off. The speeches can be seen as examples of rhetoric. There are some historical facts like the death of Lord Hastings and Lord Rivers, Elizabeth Woodville handing over her son to Richard, and legal document as well as Dr. Shaa’s sermon. Those match up with other sources. As for Mistress Shore and the murder of the princes of the tower, it’s a bit harder to prove since we do not have actual paper evidence to support either theory.

Overall I think More’s history should be understood as a take on history from a humanistic lens. It’s an important piece to read because some of the facts in this piece are in fact true and it gives us an interesting view into what a Tudor scholar thought about those who came immediately before the Tudors. “The History of King Richard III” by Sir Thomas More is a fascinating read for anyone who is interested in the Wars of the Roses, a darker view on Richard III, or on how humanism could be applied in a written sense. I  highly recommend that you read this book.

Want to Learn More about More? (Sources)

Ackroyd, Peter, and Diarmaid MacCulloch. The Life of Thomas More. London: Folio Society, 2017.

Elton, G. R. England Under the Tudors. London: Methuen, 1956.

Johnson, Paul. The Renaissance: A Short History. Bridgewater, NJ: Distributed by Paw Prints/Baker & Taylor, 2008.

More, Thomas. The History of King Richard III. Edited by Richard S. Sylvester. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976.

Murphy, Anne. Thomas More. Liguori, MO: Triumph Books, 1997.

 

“Whitewashing” History: Good Idea or Something to be Avoided?

Herodotus, the father of the study of history, once said that the study of history was used “to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements both of our own and of other peoples.”(Herodotus, 41). As we study the past, we tend to make our own opinions about what we study and the people who made these “achievements” possible. Unfortunately, there is a trend within the study of history of making historical figures look either perfect (whitewashing) or pure evil (what I will refer to as blackening). So since these are trends in history, are they good or bad?

 

There are those in Tudor history who have been either whitewashed or blackened throughout time; Henry VII, Henry VIII, Mary I, Elizabeth I, and  the most famous example of this is Richard III. We will use Richard III as an example on how “white washing” and “blackening” works.

 

A lot of people nowadays, specifically the Richard III Society, believe that Richard III had his name tarnished by men like Thomas More and Edward Hall. Thomas More is labeled as the man who ruined Richard’s reputation by stating that Richard was “malicious, wrathful, envious, and from afore his birth, ever forward”( Sylvester, 8). However, More was not the only one who blackened Richard’s name as we see with a quote from Hall:

Behold yonder Richard, tyrant worse than Nero, for he has not only murdered his nephew, bastardized his noble brothers and defamed the womb of his virtuous mother, but also employed all the means he could invent to carnally know his own niece under the pretence of a cloaked matrimony….(Dockray, 139).

 

If you read both of these accounts, you can see where the Richard III Society is coming from, yet they argue for a more whitewashed version of Richard III, that he was a victim of propaganda against him. They acknowledge the virtues and ignore the faults; the Tudor historians, it can be argued, do the exact opposite. So where’s the truth? I believe that a contemporary of Horace Walpole named William Hutton, an English poet and historian puts this discussion of Richard’s character into perspective:

 

Richard the Third, of all the English monarchs, bears the greatest contrariety of character….Some few have conferred on him almost angelic excellence, have clouded his errors and blazoned every virtue that could adorn a man. Others, as if only extremes could prevail, present him in the blackest dye; his thoughts were evil, and that continually, and his actions diabolical; the most degraded mind inhabited the most deformed body… (Dockray, 149).

 

Hutton is pointing out that Richard is either all good or all bad, according historians. This seems to be a common theme with historians about any historical figure. Henry VII is either described by Polydore Vergil in his book “Angelica Historia” as “shrewd and prudent”(Ellis, 226) or as Jack Lander writes, “an inexperienced political adventurer; an almost pathetic, rootless exile, in whom the powerful and rich could repose little, if any, confidence.”(Dockray, 176).

 

And it’s not just these two figures in Tudor history that  are seen as being either “white washed” or “blackened”. Henry VIII is viewed as the king who had six wives and the king who split from the Catholic Church, but we don’t see his intellectual side. Mary I is known as “Bloody Mary” for burning Protestants, but we never really understand why she was so strong in her faith. We think of Elizabeth I as a glorious  virgin ruler but we forget about how cruel she could be towards those who were around her. Thomas “The Admiral” Seymour is viewed as a villain who only wanted power, but is there more to his story?

 

These were complex people and yet we see them through either a “white washed” or “blackened” lense. This is the danger of this movement. We don’t see these people as “human” but rather almost like fictional heroes or villains. That’s just the thing. We have to realize that these people were humans and that they were flawed. They have elements of both good and evil inside of them. No one is perfect, yet we tend to think of historical figures at perfect.

 

As historians, amateur or professional, we have a responsibility to show both sides of a historical figure, the good and the bad. Sure we all have our favorite people to study in history and we want to think the best about them but we also have to tell the truth about them. What’s the point about studying the past if we only report about one side of the story? We read about our favorite people from multiple historians and multiple sources to find out what they were really like.

 

We don’t want others to label us so why do we label historical figures? We are humans, just like the kings and queens of the past, so why can’t we see their vices and virtues? Why do we “whitewash” or “blacken” human beings who lived hundreds of years ago?

 

If we “whitewash” or “blacken” a historical figure, we don’t get to see what made them who they are. We don’t see both the mistakes and the triumphs; we only see one or the other. “Whitewashing” and “blackening” history are ideas that should be avoided because we don’t see the full story of the people who came before us. If we let these ideas continue, we lose part of history. We have to tell both sides, the good and the bad because that is what makes us human. We are not perfect and neither were those who came before us.

 

Sources

 

Dockray, Keith. William Shakespeare, the Wars of the Roses and the Historians.      Charleston, SC: Tempus Publishing INC, 2002.

Ellis, Sir Henry. Three Books of Polydre Vergil’s English History, Compromising the Reigns of Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III. London: Camden Society, 1844.

Herodotus. Herodotus: The Histories. New York: Penguin, 1954.

Sylvester, Richard S. St. Thomas More: The History of King Richard III and Selections from the English and Latin Poems. London: Yale University Press, 1976.

 

Book Review: “So Great a Prince: The Accession of Henry VIII 1509” by Lauren Johnson

51xezQP1DTL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_There are some books that leave a very good impression on you. Books that even when you stop reading it and move to another, you keep thinking about it. For me, this is one of those books. “So Great a Prince: The Accession of Henry VIII 1509” by Lauren Johnson is a page turner, but not because of the main character Henry VIII, but because Johnson writes about how the average citizen was affected by the accession of Henry VIII.

 

Johnson breaks down the book into chapters based off of important days and times for medieval society: Lady Day, Easter, St. George’s Day, May, Midsummer, Lammas, All Saints and All Souls, Christmas, Plough Day, and Shrove. Unlike our modern calendar, Lady Day was the start of the new year which was on March 25th and for this book, its theme was new beginnings with the death of Henry VII.

 

Each chapter in this book not only has a specific day or time, but it has a theme such as religion, education, death/ illness and the judicial system. Johnson is able to give a new perspective on this time with the amount of research she had done to make this book possible. She tells the stories of the King and his court but she also tells the stories of the common person. Common people like Alice Middleton, the wife of a mercer who would later marry Thomas More, and John Rastell who was a coroner, had his own legal practice and a printer.

 

In this book, Johnson reminds us that 1509 may have been a big deal for the Tudor monarchy, but for the common people, it was just another year. Johnson makes this perfectly clear by saying:

 

Through the eyes of those who lived through it, we can experience the wealth of a world that was vibrant, vivid and exciting, where London streets fluttered with cloth-of-gold to welcome a new king, the shrines of Canterbury Cathedral groaned under the weight of precious stones and vast pageants played out the ideals and fears of communities across the country. A world of peace and of danger. Of prosperity and plague. A world that would be swept away during the course of its young king’s reign. (page 3)

 

Johnson is able to masterfully give us a snapshot into the world of the young king. I found myself  so enthralled by this book. I felt like Johnson wrote this book in such a way that it feels like you could walk the streets of London during 1509. We all know the facts about this time from the perspective of the monarchy, but the monarchy was only one piece to the puzzle that is this time. This book was so educational and entertaining at the same time. Johnson is a new historian, but she is making a big impact with this book. If you really want to understand the world that the Tudors lived in from the commoner to the king, this is a definite must-read. It will be a book you want to read again and again.