Thursday, September 03, 2009

Henry, Virtuous Prince

A book that could handle the strapline A Portrait of the Tyrant as a Young Man..when he was perhaps a bit more of an artist.

In a radio interview earlier in the year, I heard its author observe that:
"Had Henry died in 1529 he would have been forgotten, just another tedious late medieval king who tried to be Henry V."

And perhaps the worst thing that could be said about part one of Starkey's biography of the man he sees as the plus-sized axis of English history, is that it is very much the story of that king; appropriately unremarkable in places to the point of being a tad humdrum. Not the Henry VIII Part I that a less circumspect Shakespeare might have penned.

But Starkey makes no apology for refusing to read Henry backwards from what he was to become, and thus clearing himself of the unforgiveable academic sin of "whiggishness". (To be honest, you might not find this link especially illuminating). And so we have to content ourselves with this patchily intriguing account of a future tyrant's tutelage...

The second son of Henry VII, remote heir of Lancaster and king by virtue of his unlikely victory on Bosworth field, Henry junior was an auxilliary element of the solution his father had fashioned to a fifty-year-old problem: the cousins' war, known to us today as the war of the roses.

He was born in Greenwich — then known by its latin name placentia (pleasure) — and brought up at nearby Eltham palace, favourite home of his Yorkist grandfather Edward IV, whom he is said to have much resembled. His mother was Elizabeth of York, Edward's daughter with the beauteous Elizabeth Woodville and thus sister to the princes in the tower. It was she, Starkey suggests, who taught Henry how to read and write. Unlike his elder brother Arthur Henry was to pass his boyhood — García Márquez-style — in a household made up almost exclusively of strong-willed women, something which may account for his later tendency to marry for love...on several occasions.

In the early days Henry's piety was of the conventional late-medieval kind, but his formative association with the likes of Moore, Erasmus and Mountjoy would produce an unusually latinate monarch and one uniquely in touch with the new compositional style. The Reformation in England could not have developed in the way it did if this had not been the case, Starkey insists.

This poetical, musical and undoubtedly learned young prince was destined, once elevated to the throne, to become the greatest disappointment of his mentors' lives. As Starkey puts it, perhaps anticipating that contemporary history will quickly supply the necessary irony, "It was not the first time that the advent of a young, able, good looking and charismatic leader had provoked an outbreak of messianic joy. Nor would it be the last."

Henry VII survived numerous attempts to reverse out the Tudor takeover. One Yorkist pretender, defeated at the battle of Stoke in 1486 was, in what Starkey describes as an act of "ironic mercy"condemned to spend the rest of his life working in the royal kitchens. Something of a "fiscal terrorist" the young Henry's father was never to achieve genuine mass popularity and indeed was never 'one of us' as far as the English nobility were concerned.

He had invested his second son at a very young age as a knight and Duke of York in order to counter the pretensions of Perkin Warbeck (then posing at a distance as the missing Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York) and seemed inclined to tolerate Henry's laddish counterside which found a natural outlet in the tournament.

Jousting was then the almost exclusive preserve of disruptive, ne'er-do-well knights with distinctively Yorkist sympathies. Henry inserted himself into this potentially insurgent subculture of high-status hoodlums with relish. While his father yet lived he would be prevented from taking part in full-on jousts, but soon after replacing him on the throne was, along with his then wing man William Compton, competing incognito as a 'stranger knight' in manner familiar to readers of medieval romance.

Around this time in his life there occurred a couple of stand-out incidents. Firstly the adroit counter-coup effected at the time of his father's death.

Such was the unprecedented level of privacy that Henry VII had established at court that the fact of his expiry could be covered-up for several days, allowing Henry and his closest advisors to dispense with the dead king's least likeable cronies and to shore up their position before anyone else got a whiff of dynastic weakness. Starkey also provides a vivid commentary of Henry VII's funeral at Westminster Abbey, outlining how there were in effect two kings in England up until the moment that the coffin was ritually divested of all its royal and knightly insignia and lowered into the tomb.

The other notable circumstance was a misadventure presaging future upheavals. Catherine of Aragon, youngest child of Reyes Catolicos Ferdinand and Isabella and the Spanish infanta who had apparently shagged Henry's older brother Arthur to death, would eventually be passed on to him after being declared technically unblemished for the purposes of international and well as marital relations.

Catherine's first pregnancy with her second husband was to conclude prematurely with a miscarriage, but her physician misinterpreted her persistently swollen belly as another child in the uterus and the Queen was to retire into a ritual confinement, a PR mis-step which would ultimately cause considerable embarrassment to all concerned, and put her husband into a sustained filth.

Part 2 will no doubt feature all the juicy stuff of legend. I am still of the suspicion though that Henry VIII, unlike say the Henry V of Juliet Barker's Agincourt, is somehow a lesser figure than his myth would have us believe.

Starkey however has no doubt of his enduring importance: "He is my Cleopatra," he confessed in that same radio interview. The king who Charles Dickens famously described as "a spot of blood and grease on the history of England" was, he avers, the real driving force behind the burst of creativity which would follow in his daughter's reign (Shalespeare et al.) and the first to visualise the British Isles as a single political unit.

A bit of an old-school Tory himself, Starkey tends to liken Henry VIII's momentous rejection of the Roman Catholic church as an early expression of euro-scepticism, where the issue of the king's divorce is recast as a debate about whether the Vatican has the authority to decide on matters of significant national importance such as the Tudor succession.

Anyway, with the sequel yet to be published Starkey took on the complete story with his Channel 4 series earlier in the summer and it is to this that I shall now turn...

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