Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him
by Tracy Borman
Expected Publication Date: January 8, 2019, by Atlantic Monthly Press
From Goodreads: Henry VIII is best known in history for his tempestuous marriages and the fates of his six wives. However, as acclaimed historian Tracy Borman makes clear in her illuminating new chronicle of Henry’s life, his reign and reputation were hugely influenced by the men who surrounded and interacted with him as companions and confidants, servants and ministers, and occasionally as rivals–many of whom have been underplayed in previous biographies. These relationships offer a fresh, often surprising perspective on the legendary king, revealing the contradictions in his beliefs, behavior, and character in a nuanced light. They show him capable of fierce but seldom abiding loyalty, of raising men up only to destroy them later. He loved to be attended by boisterous young men, the likes of his intimate friend Charles Brandon, who shared his passion for sport, but could also be diverted by men of intellect, culture, and wit, as his longstanding interplay with Cardinal Wolsey and his reluctant abandonment of Thomas More attest. Eager to escape the shadow of his father, Henry VII, he was often trusting and easily led by male attendants and advisors early in his reign (his coronation was just shy of his 18th birthday in 1509); in time, though, he matured into a profoundly suspicious and paranoid king whose ruthlessness would be ever more apparent, as Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk and uncle to two of Henry’s wives, discovered to his great discomfort, and as Eustace Chapuys, the ambassador of Charles V of Spain, often reported.
Recounting the great Tudor’s life and signal moments through the lens of his male relationships, Tracy Borman’s new biography reveals Henry’s personality in all its multi-faceted, contradictory glory, and sheds fresh light on his reign for anyone fascinated by the Tudor era and its legacy.
Divorced, beheaded, died.
Divorced, beheaded, survived.
This oft-repeated rhyme is what many first think of when the name of Henry VIII is mentioned. Thanks to their impact, the conflicts between Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon, and Anne Boleyn is probably the most famous segment of English history outside of World War II. New biographies and novels centered upon one or more of the six wives of Henry VIII come out every year, and each of those queens– particularly Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn– has developed a small but passionate fandom. We view Henry VIII through the lens of his wives, but there was more to the glamorous, yet dangerous, court of this capricious king who changed England so profoundly.
If you don’t know much about the court of King Henry VIII, then names like Charles Bradon, Duke of Suffolk, Cardinal Wolsey, and Thomas Cromwell won’t mean anything to you, but their influence on the king cannot be understated. In her new biography, Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him, Tracy Borman sheds a light on these men and others in order to provide a more rounded view of Henry VIII.
The book begins during the reign of Henry VII, the first Tudor king who was desperate to legitimize his line, as his claim to the throne was dubious at best and there were many nobles who had nearly as much claim as he did. Young Henry was the spare heir for the first years of his life and was largely left in his mother’s care and that of tutors, who provided the first influences on the young prince. Upon the death of his older brother, Arthur, young Henry’s status rose immediately, and his companions changed radically, too. The story passes quickly through Henry’s childhood, and once he ascends to the throne, we begin to see the rise of such court officials as Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell. Borman details how these two men learned to handle Henry VIII’s changeable nature and navigate the treacherous waters of the Tudor court until they, born as commoners, rose in turn to become some of the most powerful and wealthy men in England. We also see the rise and fall of Thomas More and Stephen Gardiner and discover how a previously unknown church official named Thomas Cranmer helped change the course of England’s future. And winding through nearly all of Henry VIII’s life, his friendship with Charles Brandon threads through it as Brandon’s status rises and falls and rises again, depending upon Henry VIII’s moods and Brandon’s actions.
These are not comprehensive biographies of these men. This book serves as a sort of survey overlooking Henry VIII’s life and times, and many lesser names pass in and out of the narrative without seeming to have much impact upon it. But we get a clear sense of how men like Cardinal Wolsey manipulated the king when he was young, and how an aging Henry turned into a moody tyrant who was easily influenced by whoever flattered him the best. We also see how these men worked behind the scenes to bring about Henry VIII’s marriages and divorces, and how their own fortunes could rise and fall if they allied themselves with the wrong woman at the wrong time. As a longtime fan of Tudor history, I was fascinated by this book. While I was already familiar with these men and what they did, Borman’s decision to focus on their stories rather than looking at them through the lens of Henry VIII’s wives brought new life to historical details I wasn’t completely familiar with.
If you are just starting to look into Tudor history, I would probably not recommend Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him, simply because these men are not as familiar to modern readers as Henry VIII’s wives. In that case, I would recommend something like Antonia Fraser’s Six Wives of Henry VIII or Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. But for readers who are already familiar with the essential details of the Tudor court and wish to know more, I would definitely recommend this book. It is full of excellent details about the lives of the men who are often pushed to the side in favor of sexier stories about, say, Anne Boleyn or Katherine Howard. These men are fascinating in their own right, and their influence upon Henry VII was every bit as important as his wives.
Thank you to NetGally and Atlantic Monthly Press for providing me a free digital copy in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion in any way.