Review: The Children of Henry VIII, By John Guy

An heir-raising account of Tudor England

Henry VIII fathered four children who lived beyond infancy – that he knew about and recognised, anyway. Each was born to a different mother. The famous trio who went on to be monarchs were Mary Tudor, daughter of Catherine of Aragon; Elizabeth, born to the hapless Anne Boleyn; and Edward VI, son of Jane Seymour. The fourth was Henry Fitzroy, the son of Henry's mistress Elizabeth Blount. Both boys died in their teens.

All of Henry VIII's children were themselves childless, which John Guy regards as their real tragedy given "all their father's valiant attempts to produce legitimate heirs who would perpetuate the dynasty". Henry's children also led blighted lives because of the inevitable tensions between them and the long shadows cast, in three cases, by "the disturbing or untimely ends of their respective mothers".

Guy's succinct book takes the reader chronologically and briskly through familiar history from a slightly unusual perspective. That includes letters to and from Henry and his children, who all seem to have adored him, and the serious dangers faced by Elizabeth during Mary's reign of hysterical (almost literally, given the false pregnancies) terror, and the on-off sisterly relationship between the two of them. Edward, on the other hand, could and did love his older sisters rather more comfortably, while Fitzroy was regarded as a threat because there is evidence that, before Edward's birth, Henry seriously considered making Fitzroy the heir ahead of his legitimate sisters on the grounds of his sex. Henry declared that he loved the boy "like his own soul".

Guy, whose prose is commendably readable, has a real gift for bringing Tudor history to life for 21st-century readers, happily using terms such as "press release", "smoke and mirrors", "wiggle room" and "think tank". He is also very good on incidentals such as the education of Henry's children, Henry's timeless anxiety about issues such as Fitzroy's preference for hunting over lessons, and what we can learn from the old-fashioned cursive or fashionable Italic handwriting of the children. Mary, he contends, probably did not, contrary to popular belief, know much Italian and even her Spanish was less than fluent.

This excellent book deals with politics both domestic – sympathy for the beleaguered Cardinal Wolsey during the secession from Rome, for example – and international, where relevant. It also includes some appealing, homely images. I love the idea of Mary Tudor and Katherine Parr, the former only four years younger than the latter, bonding over clothes as women always have. Also touching is the unusual portrait of Elizabeth (courtesy of Sotheby's Picture Library) as she probably really was in 1560 – round-faced and plain – rather than stylised and elegant for her public.

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