Review Blog

Jan 31 2019

Henry VIII and the men who made him by Tracy Borman

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Hodder and Stoughton, 2018. ISBN 9781473649897.
(Age: Senior secondary - Adult) Recommended. Tracey Borman has created a powerful story of the life and times of Henry VIII, King of England from 1509 to 1547, reflecting the value of both the historical authenticity and the collection of writings, legal and other documents, from which Borman draws her historical narrative. Supported throughout by numerous references, this novel describes Henry's interactions with the men, and to a lesser extent the women (who were really considered to be tools to producing the necessary male heir), using historical records, and photographs of paintings of Henry and other people important to the narrative. Additionally, we are able to grasp the significance of the works of the writers who have studied and documented Henry's life, particularly in the references to the effects of the religious upheaval at that time. As would be expected, the story is based deeply on the times and revolutionary ideas of the Reformation in England and Borman has created a strong sense of that period: the political, social and religious events that brought about such great religious and social change during Henry's lifetime.
We read how Henry was always determined to have his way, but when thwarted, would exact violent punishment as his revenge, most often almost immediately accomplished by killing the perpetrator, or incarcerating those who displeased him. Reading this book in the modern world, and knowing that so many had been 'removed' when they upset Henry, or interfered with his plans, it seems to be remarkable that anyone was prepared to work for him, and certainly that anyone was prepared to challenge him. While Borman details how some of the damned would plead their innocence, or implore forgiveness, even up to the day of, or preceding, their 'removal', we gather that there was almost never any chance of remission. For the men who did not do as he demanded, or his wives, who were removed because they failed to produce the male heir he wanted, or he had grown tired of them, he found no reason why they should not be punished with death. Indeed, Henry's cold and dispassionate slaughtering of those who did not do, or produce, what he wanted, is the most abiding theme throughout this magnificently researched tome.
Plunged into Borman's vibrant world of political intrigue, we see the rivalry of the men who surrounded Henry, the reactions to and change in beliefs of the new religion, and the growing antipathy, in England, to the unsettling events of the rejection of the previously dominant European-based Roman Catholic Church. Interestingly, it is difficult to keep in mind that this narrative is based on truth, its accuracy detailed in Borman's extensive bibliography, her references, notes and index, all of which take up over sixty pages.
Captivating, commanding and beautifully written, this novel will leave the reader with a sense of horror that this man could see himself as above all human codes of decency in his ruling of a country by birthright, and in his pursuit of an heir. Borman's portrayal appears to interpret his responses, choices, actions and interactions with others as driven by his determination to wield his power, as he becomes the man who destroys those who displease or disobey him. In fact, men whom he liked seem to have suffered the same fate of needing to be killed when their actions displeased him or when they failed to do what he demanded, even though he appeared to be slightly saddened by this fact. This novel would be a fine study for senior English history students and a compelling read for anyone who is interested in this era.
Elizabeth Bondar

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