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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

“Great Harry: The Extravagant Life of Henry VIII”, by Carolly Erickson


428 pages, Summit Books, ISBN-13: 978-0671400170

Great Harry: The Extravagant Life of Henry VIII is as thorough a book on Hal the Eighth as you're likely to come across. In her Preface, Dr. Erickson declares that her principal aim is “the retelling of Henry’s personal story…a life of a man rather than a life of a King”. Her principal method is to construct from the Calendars of Spanish, Venetian and Milanese state papers, and the Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, “a composite image of the King from these slivers of his reality”. By this method I learned a great deal about his very young life that is rarely mentioned in other biographies, such as how his father (Henry VII) kept him a virtual prisoner by not allowing anyone to be near Henry without his knowledge. By the age of 13 he is being instructed in government (how much influence does this have over the rearing of Henry’s own son and heir, Edward?)

Henry VIII is a fascinating character who cannot be easily pigeonholed, but in Erickson’s work, he remains unexamined and, therefore, lifeless. Dr. Erickson, with over four hundred years between her and the libel lawyers and every private paper at her disposal, could have afforded to be bolder in her work; instead, we have statements of the obvious – “Each servant knew exactly where his or her duties began and ended, and if those limits were not observed, conflicts arose” – or pieces of vapidness – “The torch-lit presence chamber of Hampton Court had never been more resplendently decked than on the night of January 2 1527”. At best, Dr. Erickson seems to know exactly the kind of minor details we in the 21st Century find most interesting. For instance, From the 1530s onwards the wardrobe accounts show payments to tailors for letting out the King’s doublets and jackets, and we learn that his amazing increase in weight took place, in effect, within five years: in 1536 (when Henry was 45), his chest was 45 inches and his waist 37, measurements only a little larger than those he had at the age of 33, but by 1541 his chest had grown to 57 inches and his waist to 54. Henry should have lain off the ding-dongs.

One excellent passage describes the unlooked-for side-effect of Henry’s policy of killing off the great and nobly born all around him was the catastrophic dwindling of the ranks of the Knights of the Garter. It was really very irritating for the King, who had a particular attachment to St. George’s Day (from which he calculated his years on the throne and on which he celebrated his royal birthday) that by 1540 the annual assembly was a miserable affair, with the ghosts of the so many slaughtered knights hovering in the shadows. Sadly – and rather surprisingly for a female author – very little is mentioned about his wives who must have been strong motivators in his life. They are alluded to but little is said of them.

There is nice portrait of Catherine Parr, the only of Henry’s Queens to outlive him (in her company, wrote a contemporary, “every day was a Sunday”); Charles Brandon is the subject of a further good character sketch, and his importance in the reign is understood; the tarnishing of Whitehall towards the end of the reign is well conveyed…and with that, the King’s life draws to its close, and the book is over. There is no conclusion, and it remains sad to see such erudition and enthusiasm going to waste.

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