Henry VIII is, with the possible exception of his daughter, Elizabeth I, the most familiar personality in English history. Every school child in the United States as well as Britain is aware of his amorous propensities and multiple marriages and the more gruesome aspects of his reign: the beheading of two wives and the dispatching, often in the most grisly manner, of other assumed enemies of the crown, both great and lowly. The Tudor monarch has been the subject of two popular films, The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and Young Bess (1953), in both of which he was portrayed by Charles Laughton. Indeed Laughton, an actor of great talent who portrayed myriad roles, became popularly identified with Henry because of his forceful characterization. More recently, Henry was the subject of a highly popular and historically accurate television production structured around his six marriages. A youthful Henry was played with great skill by Robert Shaw in the film which treated the career of Sir Thomas More, A Man for All Seasons (1966). It is not hard to understand Henry VIII’s popularity as a theatrical sujbect. Henry was figuratively and literally larger than life. A giant of a man, he was famed in his youth for his handsomeness, his athletic prowess, and his superb intellect. He was the ideal of his age, the Renaissance. During his middle years he was embroiled in a disastrous love affair with and eventual marriage to Anne Boleyn which was instrumental in the royal introduction of the Reformation into England. This was followed by a series of essentially unsatisfactory marriages, growing court intrigue, and religious, social, and economic unrest, until in his later years Henry had become a corpulent, ill, suspicious figure increasingly removed from and despised by his subjects.
Surprisingly, there are few biographies of Henry VIII, at least few that attempt to evaluate him as a personality. There are two important studies, Albert F. Pollard’s classic, Henry VIII (1905, new edition 1951), and J. J. Scarisbrick’s Henry VIII (1968), but they are primarily devoted to the significant political features of Henry’s reign rather than the man himself. There is, of course, a mass of material dealing with the period in general or with special aspects or personalities of Henry’s reign, much of which has appeared within the past decade. About the only study of Henry that has gained general attention and acceptance, however, is Francis Hackett’s Henry the Eighth: A Personal History (1929), a highly romanticized work that essentially created the modern image of Henry VIII. A good, popular biography of the important and colorful figure, therefore, is needed, and Carolly Erickson has produced it.
Erickson holds a doctorate in medieval history from Columbia University. A former college professor, Erickson now pursues a career as a full-time writer and has established herself as a specialist in Tudor biography, having recently also published a biography of Henry’s oldest daughter, Mary Tudor, titled Bloody Mary (1978). She is also the author of three additional books, The Records of Medieval Europe, Civilization and Society in the West, and The Medieval Vision. She has also written articles for scholarly and popular publications. Great Harry is testimony of her painstaking research and to her considerable descriptive talents.
Erickson’s goal in writing this book is a modest one. “This is a retelling of Henry’s personal story, and as such it is more the life of a man than of a king.” This is to be a popular history and, as such, “it makes no attempt to arrive at a fresh assessment of the reign, nor to detail the political accomplishments of Henry or his ministers.” Erickson has taken as her inspiration for evaluating Henry’s character a brief passage written by the eminent Tudor historian, Garrett Mattingly, in his biography of Henry’s first queen, Catherine of Aragon (1941). In describing Henry, Mattingly noted “’the inwardness of that majestic childishness, that absurd mixture of naïveté and cunning, boldness and poltroonery, vindictive cruelty and wayward almost irresistible charm.’” Erickson’s portrayal of Henry conforms closely to this description.
Although the author has organized her book chronologically rather than thematically, one can identify three major phases, or themes, of Henry’s life. One was his childhood and early adulthood when his father, Henry VII, was busy securing legitimacy for his dynasty. Another was “the King’s great matter,” namely the attempt to dissolve his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and the resulting break with Rome and the beginning of the English Reformation. A third was his complex foreign policy that involved England in a series of wars on the Continent and in Scotland. Initially successful, Henry’s foreign policy ultimately proved disastrous to the English economy and society and to the reputation of the monarch. It is only through an analysis and understanding of each of these phases of Henry’s life that one can appreciate how he devolved from the handsome, charming, and gregarious young prince and king to the suspicious, murderous, monstrous old ruler. It is also by understanding the impact of these forces upon English society that the reader can comprehend the magnitude of Henry’s growing unpopularity with his subjects.
The British historian, S. T. Bindoff, in his Tudor England (1950), has cogently expressed the central concern of...
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