Review – Henry VIII: Reformer and Tyrant by Derek Wilson

This book is supposed to be a biography of King Henry VIII. Wilson claims that based on fascinating new source material, he built up a portrait of King Henry. I was only too eager to read this book, as I had not read any Henry biography for a while now.

However, I am amazed that someone should desire to write an entire book on a subject he dislikes to such a level that he goes all out to endow that person with negative ‘thoughts’ we never can prove he had and to twist actions related to him in a way to make him appear bad, when he never did any such thing.

In spite of its being well-written, I could not enjoy the book much because of the half-truths and mistakes in it. Wilson seems to have had an agenda with this book, and that agenda is to give a biased portrayal of the chosen subject. When one has to go root around for mistakes and read through the biases on practically every page, the book is a novel, not a non-fiction, in my opinion.

For instance, Wilson claims that Henry tried to appropriate funds that his grandmother had set aside for endowing the St. John’s College in Cambridge. It was only by Bishop Fisher’s opposition that the endowment was retained. This is not true. Margaret Beaufort certainly intended to make provisions for such a project, but she never actually included it in her will, which would in legal terms, make all claims invalid. This can be checked either in Letters & Papers, Foreign & Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 3 or at The colleges and halls: St. John’s’, A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3: The City and University of Cambridge

She had not, however, at the time of her death on 29 June 1509 made provision in her written testament for carrying out her intentions, a circumstance which gave rise to ‘much ground for cavil’.

Fisher was being called upon ‘to shew cause whi we shulde keape the Kinges inheritance from hym to the valow of CCCC li yerly’. In the end ‘we warre more straitlie handelide and so long delaide and weriede and fatigate that we must nedes lett the londe go’. In other words, King Henry VIII, as the Lady Margaret’s heir-at-law, resumed his inheritance—an act which gave rise to a hardy legend in the College that he had robbed it of properties which his grandmother had designed for its endowment.

In fact, of course, the Lady Margaret had no such intention. The College had a claim only upon the revenues accruing from her lands and then only up to the point when it had been built, endowed, and equipped.

In spite of her will having no reference to this, Henry donated 1200 pounds towards this college, and Fisher managed to procure the rest of the funds elsewhere.

Another absolute claim that took my breath away was that Henry was indifferent and hostile to monasticism and pilgrimages even at the start of his reign when it is known that he went to several pilgrimages during his reign, and without any outside pressure. Add to it that he could read the thoughts of young Henry and we have a magician in the disguise of a historian who knew for sure that Henry was ‘jealous’ of his elder brother enough and would have proved a bad subject and a traitor if Arthur had lived.

He also contradicts himself at several points. So Henry was an ‘enthusiastic sportsman’, but at the same time the only means of winning he had was by others “letting him win”. While we all know Henry liked his to win (who doesn’t?), and also did not like to be thwarted, there is absolutely no evidence that he had to prove his prowess on the tiltyard by making others let him win. As to Wilson’s assertion that Henry always had to win even at cards and dice, the King’s own privy accounts prove him wrong. There are plenty of entries where Henry lost, and lost … and lost, sometimes to the tune of hundreds of pounds. The author also claims psychohistory must be looked upon with suspicion, and then actively proceeds to psychoanalyse Henry (and others) throughout the book.

The frequent comparisons to modern practices also grated on me. A lady astride on a horse dressed splendidly may in principle be similar to a much undressed one selling cars today, but to my way of thinking, there is no place for such comparisons in a good biography of a man who lived 500 years ago, unless you think you are talking to an idiot audience.

In addition to all the half-truths there were many glaring mistakes in the book. Catherine of Aragon had not spent 8.5 years in England when Henry became king; she was there for 7.5 years.  It was not Warham who was poisoned, but Fisher. That the theory of divine right of kings was not formulated for another century, as claimed by Wilson, and is an anachronism. The reason Charles I got torpedoed was because he believed in the traditional divine right of kings; he did not invent the concept. It was the norm during Henry VIII’s time. And for some reason, Thomas More got clubbed in as a Boleyn supporter in one of the chapters.

Henry is not the only one on whom venom is poured endlessly in this book. Norfolk is called ‘a loose bundle of hatred and hubris held together by only the weakest fronds of political competence and creative ideas’. I should refuse to take anyone seriously who has this to say about a man who died in his bed of old age. Wilson also buys into the age-old myth that the Boleyn father was interested only in personal advancement. Jane Boleyn is ‘spiteful’ and Thomas More is a ‘petty tyrant’.  I seem to have been wrong earlier that Wilson was not balanced; he is more or less equally vituperative about everyone!

There is so much more to go on and on with, but I find myself unable to do so as the review will then read like a book in itself. I would not recommend this book to anyone seriously interested in historical facts.  The author has obviously researched his subject matter, but either he has chosen not to delve deeper into it to find the truth or he deliberately twisted facts to reach a pre-conclusion. Twice, he mentions that Jane Boleyn had a reason for eagerly assisting the downfall of Anne and Cromwell. But this also appears to be just another manifestation of hate, because there are absolutely no facts forthcoming supporting these assertions.

However, there were certain things I really liked about this book as well. This book is very readable, and while I saw some people grumbling about grammatical errors, they were not such to detract from any enjoyment of reading.  Wilson has covered a vast area and talks about the reformation and had an entire section on Tyndale, and I appreciate that. However, he fails to give a complete account with both sides of the equation. I also found his psychoanalysis of the 1536 portrait of Henry VIII very interesting. Another thing I really liked about this book is that it covers in detail some of the military adventures of the reign.

This book is proof that not all pop historians are qualified to write history books.  I give 1 star for the readability factor, which was the saving grace and because it would be mean to give it the zero it deserves. If this was a novel, and not a non-fiction biography of a real person who actually existed, I might have given it 4.

To conclude, I will use one of Wilson’s very own phrases, “Henry lacked the advantage of detailed historical analysis.” This may or may not apply to Henry, but it is perfectly applicable to the author.

My rating: 1/5

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6 thoughts on “Review – Henry VIII: Reformer and Tyrant by Derek Wilson

  1. I’ve recently started reading a 1926 book on Henry VIII as I find historical analysis fascinating in context of the time in which was written. Additionally, I would have been interested in this new book as the school I attended was founded by M Beaufort and thus is a subject matter dear to my heart. The moment a supposed historian lays claim to knowing the mental state of an historical figure without primary source evidence (diaries of that person or those close to him/her) I go cold. Speculation has it’s place in analysis and synthesis but needs to handled carefully and without judgement. This blog is excellent and serves as a warning to all historical non fiction writers. Get it right, because there’s always somebody out there who as more than you!

    • I agree with you. Calling people names is not a historian’s job. One might excuse a few mistakes or emotional outbursts once in a while, though why would anyone read a book like this?

      Margaret Beaufort originally was not inclined towards this college, but Fisher persuaded her. But before she could make it legal, she died. Then when Henry VIII came to the throne, Fisher claimed the amount as his right and there was a bit of a confusion then, but it was proved that Henry owed Fisher nothing. The amount required was about 2500 pounds of which Henry gave him 1200 straight and asked him to find the rest of the funding elsewhere. Henry hardly comes off looking bad in this.

  2. Wow, I will not be reading that book! Thoms More a Boleyn supporter HA! That would be enough to make me put the book down. Kudos to you for plowing through. I probably would have found a fire pit to toss it in.

  3. Great analysis on a subject in which a bunch of fervent, non-critical Boleyn lovers and/or Henry haters are bound to disagree with you. Well done.

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