Southworth’s unstated intention in Monarch and Conspirators is to provide a narrative of sixteenth century England for young people by focusing on the life of King Henry VIII and his three children: Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I. The biography’s unifying theme is the struggle for dynastic survival of the Tudor monarchy. The focus on the personal life of Henry VIII is particularly appropriate for young American readers, who are not familiar with the period and have not mastered the rhyme that English children learn to keep Henry’s wives in order: “divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived.”
Historians have debated the value of biography as a way to understand an age, but in the case of Henry VIII, it seems particularly appropriate. Henry appeared larger than life to his contemporaries, and he remains so to the modern reader. Whether he actually made all the decisions for which he is remembered, he was always a force to be reckoned with by those who acted in his name. Southworth recounts several telling examples of Henry’s deliberately changing his mind to keep his ministers guess-ing and therefore keeping them obedient to his wishes.
Like many biographers, Southworth’s sympathies clearly lie with his subject. As a result, he tends to place the blame on others for actions that did not reflect favorably on the king. According to the author, it was Cardinal Thomas Wolsey’s personal jealousy of Edward Stafford, the third duke of Buckingham, that led to the duke’s execution, not Henry’s vanity at...
(The entire section is 640 words.)