Aiming at the goal rather than the sidelines is the best way to go.
Publisher: Harper Perennial (Harper Collins)
First Published: 2008
Date Reviewed: 29th December 2011
Starkey presents to his readers the youthful Henry VIII – a man totally at odds with the tyrant he would become – in the first part of a process to show us the two very different people who came to be one king.
Starkey is a very learned man, and he quite obviously knows Henry VIII like the back of his hand. He has a talent for humour and his research is of great worth. The problem is that he has written a book the contents of which are more suited to a speculative essay. The way he has come up with elements that are ideas is no good for a book that is supposed to be factual. It is fascinating, granted, but the work is by and large pure speculation. Starkey does not base many of his ideas on evidence – which is a must when writing history – and when he does reference the work of someone else the details of the source are not thorough.
There are far too many probablys, maybes, likelys – so instead of a good account of Henry’s youth we have a lot of guesswork. And anybody can write a book on their ideas, especially if, like Starkey, they don’t feel the need to provide some sort of evidence.
Similarly, like with Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, there will be many people not already well read about Henry VIII (or, in Gregory’s case, Anne Boleyn) and they will likely consider Starkey’s work true without question. While Starkey may not be vicious towards his subject, unlike Gregory, it just does not bode well. And there is the rather awkward subtle inclusion of the fact that he supports the idea of Richard III killing the princes in the tower and presents these opinions as facts.
But the more pressing thing about this book is that it does not follow in the path set out in the introduction. In the introduction Starkey says that the book is solely about Henry and that any references to other people will only be employed if they serve the purpose of explaining further the character of the second Tudor monarch. Yet the vast majority of the book chronicles the lives and ancestry of Henry VII and Henry VIII’s friends, in a way that does not link back enough to the development of the man himself. Small passages provide ideas, but they are strictly ideas as has already been discussed, and it would seem that Starkey forgot, very soon into the proceedings, that his book was supposed to be about Henry VIII. Indeed this book would be more appropriately titled Henry VIII And His Court. To use a word made infamous by Starkey, he probably got put off by Alison Weir having already written such a title.
Starkey needs to remember that he cannot simply write whatever he wants. He has a duty to both his subjects and readers, and while in regards to the former his speculations may have been accepted with mirth, for the latter that duty has been forsaken for indulgence.
And considering that readers cannot provide indulgences, and neither could Henry’s Papacy-hating Anglican church, Starkey should think again before pursuing his next inquiry with the same tactic.
February 4, 2012, 8:25 pm
I enjoy reading about the Tudors but based on your review I think I’ll avoid this book. I agree that it’s annoying when a non-fiction book relies too much on speculation and personal opinion. And I wish authors would stop stating as fact that Richard III killed the princes in the tower!
Charlie: Yes, as much as I used to believe that Richard did it, it can never be inferred to as widely accepted unless more evidence comes to light.
February 22, 2012, 3:45 am
He just broke away from the Catholic Chuch to be able to divorce and marry Anne Boleyn. His church was pretty much the same as Catholic except the king was head of the church