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Henry VIII: The King and His Court

Henry VIII (1491-1547) casts a long shadow over English royalty and biography alike. In Henry VIII: King and Court, Alison Weir takes on this forbidding reputation to produce an admirably detailed, if somewhat cumbersome, biography of a king who married six times and presided over England's cataclysmic split with Roman Catholicism. Weir's main task is to overturn the "caricature" of Henry "as a man who thought of nothing but chasing the ladies, and who threw chicken bones over his shoulder". This seems a rather obvious characterisation to challenge, but Weir proceeds to amass an extraordinary wealth of detail about Henry's cultivated court, from its learning, architecture and political machinations, to how many people handled Henry's bedsheets and the food that his horses ate. The early sections get bogged down in too much detail, and detract from the political drama of Henry's growing estrangement from his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, and his fateful marriage to Anne Boleyn in 1532. The second section is much more convincing in tracing how "the young, idealist humanist with liberal ideas about kingship was giving way to a selfish, dogmatic tyrant", as Henry dispenses with Wolsey, Sir Thomas More, Anne and then Cromwell, and the court increasingly sinks into factionalism and intrigue.

Weir's biography is a lively recreation of the everyday life of Henry, his court and what he called his "ill-conditioned wives", but it neglects the wider European dimensions of Henry's reign, and sweeps over many crucial aspects of the split with Rome. Detailed and scholarly, Henry VIII: King and Court provides a strangely colourless portrait of the most colourful of English monarchs. --Jerry Brotton

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