Henry: Virtuous Prince

Peter Gwyn finds little evidence and much speculation in David Starkey's latest offering

January 15, 2009

This book should never have been written, or rather since everyone is entitled to write what book they like, it should never have been published. The reason for being so categorical is this. As the author of what is still the outstanding book on Henry VIII declared some 40 years ago: "We know very little about his early life." The only thing that has changed since J.J. Scarisbrick wrote these words is that the author of the book under review has become our leading living historian and, even more importantly, a leading television celebrity. No doubt this, and the fact that 2009 will mark the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII's accession to the throne, has had something to do with the book's appearance. It is billed as the first of a two-volume life of Henry VIII, which is perhaps the oddest thing about the enterprise: it ends in 1511, leaving 36 very crowded years to be packed into the second volume, years for which there is a considerable amount of evidence.

Arguably to write some 370 pages on "very little" is quite a feat in itself, but what should be made clear is that contrary to what the blurb says, there is nothing "radical" about David Starkey's presentation of the young Henry as a very impressive figure. As I myself have written: "the young Henry's ability to charm, almost to mesmerise all those he came into contact with, is vitally important in capturing the mood of the early years of his reign", and I do not know of any historian who has taken a contrary view.

So what Starkey presents is a very familiar story, to which he tries to attach some spin of his own. He makes a lot of the fact that Henry was not brought up in the household of his elder brother, Arthur, but it would have been much odder if he had been. He was supposedly very close to his mother, Elizabeth of York. It is possible, although given the way in which royal children were brought up, surrounded as they were by their own household servants, not very likely. Scarisbrick rather tentatively suggested that Henry's paternal grandmother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, might have had some influence on him, a suggestion that at least had a little more credibility in that she was around for rather longer. She died just after his coronation when he had just turned 18. His mother died when he was 11. The truth is that there is little evidence for either proposition, which may be the reason why Starkey's "insight", although presented (as all his insights are) with much flourish of trumpets, is never followed up. The consequences of his mother's influence on him are never explained, but perhaps we will have to wait for the next volume for that.

Another person who, according to Starkey, had a great influence on Henry was Philip the Fair, who on the way to make good his claim to the throne of Castile had been forced by bad weather to make a stay of some three months in England, when Henry was 14. What apparently most impressed was Philip's tennis playing, this because it was proof that Philip "did", while Henry's father, who did not take to the court, "just talked". It is a rather odd comment to make anyway. It is also entirely speculative, as is the suggestion that Henry's obsession with sport, and in particular jousting, derived from his admiration of Philip. I suppose that it is just possible, but since Henry was surrounded by young men who were equally obsessed, it hardly seems a necessary ingredient.

One of the problems of Starkey's approach to evidence is that what starts as speculation ends up as a fact. A good example is his treatment of the decision in 1487 to "strip Elizabeth Woodville of her recently regranted dower lands", Elizabeth being Henry VII's mother-in-law. These were given to her daughter, Henry VII's queen, while Elizabeth retired on a pension to Bermondsey Abbey. The reason for thinking that the decision may have been forced upon her is that Yorkist conspiracies were afoot, but as a very serious biographer of Henry VII, S.B. Chrimes, has written, there is no actual evidence that this was the case - it was not unusual for aristocratic ladies to retire to a nunnery - and there is some evidence to suggest that her son-in-law continued to hold her in some affection. Still Starkey is perfectly entitled to raise the question of why she did so. The difficulty arises only when, commenting on her death, he refers without any qualification to her "discontented retirement". But if she had chosen to retire she was presumably not at all discontented. The result is that the whole edifice is a pack of cards: a speculation becomes a fact, which then leads to another speculation, and so on and so forth.

Another example of Starkey's worrying use of evidence is his treatment of the rise to influence of Thomas Wolsey. He decides in a rather arbitrary way to rely on the Anglica Historia of Polydore Vergil, a contemporary of Wolsey's known to be hostile to him. This fact, as Starkey points out, does not stop it from being important evidence, but it is not the only evidence on the subject, and for the most part the other evidence is ignored.

Use of evidence has never been Starkey's strong point. Exciting ideas and theatrical presentation are more to his liking. Here the ideas, as already mentioned, are not quite as exciting as he makes them out to be. As for the prose style, I leave that to readers to make up their own minds. For me his overuse of the rhetorical question, usually coming in bursts of three, was, contrary to what it was intended to do - pick up the pace, and keep one turning the pages? - something of a turn-off. Overwritten and overhyped, as "a culmination of a lifetime's research", this book can only be considered a great disappointment, and does not promise at all well for the second volume.

Henry: Virtuous Prince

By David Starkey

Harper Press

400pp £25.00

ISBN 9780007247714

Published 1 October 2008

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