Great Harry 
by Carolly Erickson.
Dent, 428 pp., £8.50, July 1980, 0 460 04366 8
Show More
Show More

It is legitimate to ask whether there is a need for another full-length biography of Henry VIII. In 1968, Professor Scarisbrick’s great work dramatically revised our thinking about the bloat King. Three years later appeared Lacey Baldwin Smith’s rich and racy study of the King’s character, taken from the viewpoint of old age and subtitled ‘The Mask of Royalty’: here Tudor history and modern psychology made slightly strange but nevertheless exciting bedfellows. Both books are of lasting interest – not least because both have that happy combination of scholarship and ease which makes rereading them a positive pleasure. Nevertheless, the answer to the aforesaid legitimate question must be yes. There can be no state planning over biographies of major figures: here if nowhere else a free-market economy reigns. Even if there is no scholarly gap – and in the case of Henry VIII there is not – there is absolutely nothing wrong with the famous military pair beloved of publishers, General Reader and Major Biography, getting together yet again on the subject.

Carolly Erickson’s study Great Harry does not therefore have to justify its existence. In her Preface, Dr Erickson carefully lays down both her aims and her methods. Her principal aim is ‘the retelling of Henry’s personal story ... a life of a man rather than a life of a King’. Her principal method is to construct from the Calendars of Spanish, Venetian and Milanese state papers, and the Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, ‘a composite image of the King from these slivers of his reality’.

Dr Erickson has certainly done her research in the Calendars with every evidence of care, the girth of it matching that of her royal subject, and she appends a comprehensive bibliography, making it clear that she has also studied all the latest Tudor scholarly articles. The trouble is that she has been far too modest in the use of her own research. Throughout this long and scrupulously detailed book, Dr Erickson simply will not come to any conclusions about her subject which might fill the reader with excitement, as some unexpected insight is revealed for the first time. Unless an author has the ability to wave that magic wand which brings to life the dolls in the toy-shop, the most fascinating historical characters confront us merely as lay figures with staring painted eyes – and a heap of colourful clothes.

Of colourful clothes and bed-hangings and carpets and tapestries and horses and tournaments and court scenes and military manoeuvres and mistresses and minions, and above all food, and whatever else in the 16th century was colourful, including in their own special way colourful fleas and bed-bugs, there is an abundance in Dr Erickson’s chronicle (all of it, of course, authentic colour). As a result, the reader will imbibe a great deal of interesting information about the social life of the period – on the nature of court ceremonial, on jousting, meat-carving, running an army in the field: all of it described in an agreeable manner. But, ironically, amid all this pageantry, the figure of the king who created it remains unexamined and therefore lifeless. At times I was reminded by Dr Erickson’s style of such modern studies of royalty as Anthony Holden’s life of the Prince of Wales and Robert Lacey’s study of the present Queen, Majesty. The point about these books is that they are rather jolly. They may not tell you anything earth-shaking that you did not know before, since their main message is that the Prince of Wales/Queen is alive and well and, on the one hand, just like us and, on the other, absolutely different: but they are well-written and full of minor but enjoyable gossip. And they are colourful. Messrs Holden and Lacey, however, are writing in the lifetime of their subjects, and, quite apart from the obvious pressures upon them, they suffer from the lack of that inner knowledge which only emerges when the subject is dead. Dr Erickson, with over four hundred years between her and the libel lawyers, and every private paper at her disposal, could have afforded to be bolder. Statements of the obvious – ‘Each servant knew exactly where his or her duties began and ended, and if those limits were not observed, conflicts arose’ – or pieces of Time Magazine-ese – ‘The torchlit presence chamber of Hampton Court had never been more resplendently decked than on the night of January 2 1527,’ at the start of a chapter on Cardinal Wolsey – might then have been avoided in favour of judgment and analysis.

At best, Dr Erickson knows exactly the kind of detail which does animate the dummy. From the 1530s onwards, for example, the wardrobe accounts show payments to tailors for letting out the King’s doublets and jackets. The King’s exact measurements are certainly of true, not passing interest. One learns that his amazing increase in weight took place, in effect, within five years. In 1536, when the King was 45, his chest was 45 inches and his waist 37 – measurements only a little larger than those he had at the age of 33. In 1541, his chest had grown to 57 inches and his waist to 54!

The description of poor Henry’s impotence towards Anne of Cleves is vividly done. His intentions were absolutely of the best. He told Cromwell that despite the fearful let-down of the Holbein portrait, he did not propose to allow disappointment to get the better of him, although ‘if it were not to satisfy the world and my realm, I would not do that I must do this day for none earthly thing.’ Alas, patriotism was not enough. Night after night Henry was compelled to leave Anne ‘as good a maid as he found her’. She, too, commands sympathy, but then it was no bad thing to have a marriage to Bluebeard annulled.

We strike a good passage once Henry has turned into ‘the English Nero’. One unlooked-for side-effect of Henry’s policy of killing off the great and nobly born all round him was the catastrophic dwindling of the ranks of the Knights of the Garter. It was really very irritating for the King, who had a particular attachment to St George’s Day, from which he calculated his regnal years and on which he celebrated his royal birthday. By 1540, the annual assembly was a miserable affair – with the ghosts of the numerous slaughtered Banquos hovering in the shadows.

There was trouble with the record too. Should the offending names be blotted out, as they might be in a modern totalitarian state, given that so many of them had been executed or imprisoned for treason? At least the King knew his mind on that one: he directed that in each case ‘Vah Proditor!’ (Oh Traitor) should be written in the margin.

There is nice portrait of Catherine Parr, the Queen not out at close of play; in her company, wrote a contemporary, ‘every day was a Sunday’; one is again reminded of the royal family today, and of its most popular member, another Queen Dowager. Charles Brandon is the subject of a further good character sketch, and his importance in the reign is understood. The tarnishing of Whitehall towards the end of the reign is well conveyed. With that, the King’s life draws to its close, and the book – the chronicle – is over. There is no conclusion, and given Dr Erickson’s style, there could be none. It remains sad to see such erudition and enthusiasm going to waste.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences