REVIEW: Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him, Tracy Borman

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Henry VIII is well known for his tumultuous relationships with women, and he is often defined by his many marriages. But what do we see if we take a different look? When we see Henry through the men in his life, a new perspective on this famous king emerges... Henry's relationships with the men who surrounded him reveal much about his beliefs, behaviour and character. They show him to be capable of fierce, but seldom abiding loyalty; of raising men only to destroy them later. He loved to be attended and entertained by boisterous young men who shared his passion for sport, but at other times he was more diverted by men of intellect, culture and wit. Often trusting and easily led by his male attendants and advisers during the early years of his reign, he matured into a profoundly suspicious and paranoid king whose favour could be suddenly withdrawn, as many of his later servants found to their cost. His cruelty and ruthlessness would become ever more apparent as his reign progressed, but the tenderness that he displayed towards those he trusted proves that he was never the one-dimensional monster that he is often portrayed as.

Tracy Borman’s examination of Henry VIII and the impact that the men surrounding him had on his actions and his characters is an interesting idea: thoughts about Henry VIII almost inevitably always head in the direction of his six wives but, even in cases like Anne Boleyn, the strictly patriarchal structure of the day meant that these women had little agency and the chess pieces of the medieval court were instead being moved by the women’s male supporters.
And, Henry VIII was definitely a chess piece.
Reckless, fickle, spoilt - the more I learn about the man, the more I despise him, even when considering him only in the context of the time period in which he lived - he was pushed and pulled by his own whims and the whims that those around him had planted in his mind.
More religious reform, less religious reform.
More wars, less wars.
Same wife, different wife.
His mind changed hour by hour and, when considering the strong personalities (and the stronger ambitions) of those around him, it is not difficult to understand why he catapulted himself through a do-si-do of conflicting religious reforms and six marriages.
The problem is that, 99.9% of these changes in temperament were not caused by a hive mind or a council of his favourites, but two specific men in his inner circle: namely, Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell. Chief manipulators of the King in their time, villains in the view of the British public and a majority of the aristocracy, these two men cast a dark shadow that manages to obscure the rest of Henry VIII’s favourites.
And, therefore, aside from figures like Charles Brandon and Thomas Cranmer (who could be termed as rather like background characters), the rest just fade into little more than nothingness; occasionally mentioned, but often neglected.
I think that Tracy Borman wanted to do too much and, by attempting to expel insights on ALL of the King’s men, the book lacked any sort of focus that could have come from streamlining the book. It could have very easily just been a book about Henry VIII’s relationship with Wolsey and Cromwell.
Ultimately, it would have achieved far more and, let’s be honest, I don’t even think you would have to cut much out of it.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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