Friday, May 17, 2013

The Children of Henry VIII by John Guy

The Children of Henry VIII by John Guy is the biography of the four known children of Henry VII, three of whom would eventually take the throne.  Most people know of the three who ruled:  Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I; the fourth was a son, Henry Fitzroy, who died before the king and was not likely to ever take the throne because he was not legitimate.  The book offers a mostly superficial look at the individual lives of these four children. 

For anyone unfamiliar with the Tudor history, this book is either a blessing, bypassing many details and bringing only the most relevant events on the page.  Guy has a clear theme throughout the book, emphasizing the drive to protect the Tudor dynasty by producing a legitimate and viable heir.  Edward VI was very young when his father died and did not live long enough, after he became king, to marry and produce an heir.  Mary, although married, was unable to conceive and died childless.  Elizabeth refused to marry and with her died the dynasty.  By putting so much emphasis on this one small facet of each of the children’s personalities, the author is reductive in his approach which is how this book can cover such a significant time in England’s history in so few pages.  Elizabeth’s entire reign consumes fewer pages than Edward’s or Mary’s chapters although she reigned four times longer than the two of them combined. 

Because he is sparse in content, I don’t know if a reader utterly unfamiliar with the history of the period would not find some of the names mentioned a bit confusing.  However, by not over indulging in giving a lot of the history and interplay of politics throughout Europe, it may very well be that this book, because of its sharp focus, is the perfect book for a Tudor novice.  It is well researched and short enough to be read in a day or two.

That Guy’s own biases come through in his writing is evident in his easy dismissal of anything said in praise of the children, especially Elizabeth, while completely accepting any criticism made by the contemporaries.  He suggests that tutors praised the children’s intelligence out of personal vanity while not questioning an ambassador’s harsher criticism.  If there are two sides to every story and the truth lies somewhere in between, the author has clearly chosen sides and is less interested in what may or may not be true.  For me, this was its weakest point.  Biographers often interpret history and are too often guilty of slanting what they say to align with their own beliefs.  I don’t know that I have ever been so aware of a biased approach before but I’ll certainly be reading future biographies more closely after reading this one.

In the end, I liked this book but did not, could not, love it.  I wanted more and am glad there are other books out there about Henry VII’s off-spring to sate that curiosity.

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