When Henry Eight Me.

Matthew Shardlake

I would never consider myself a student of history. To be perfectly honest, it bored me to tears. I blame the way it was taught when I went to school, and my abject laziness in following on with some research on my own.

When I studied history for my Leaving Certificate, I read directly from textbooks and relied on my memory to get me though the exam. I don’t recall what mark I achieved, but I passed it. My teacher didn’t interact with the class in any way; he read directly from textbooks and relied on his memory to get him through the class. Spot the comparison?

I knew a lot of interesting stuff happened down through the years but none of it made a blind bit of difference to me. It was all just names and dates. That’s how it was taught. Like most of my generation I learned about history from TV and movies; neither of which could be considered as reliable sources. My first memory of King Henry VIII was when he was played by Charles Laughton. He was a fat fool who had an eye for the ladies, and enjoyed lopping the heads from people who didn’t agree with him. As you do.Dissolution, by C.J. Sansom

Recently I’ve been reading books outside of my comfort zone. Gone for the moment are detective thrillers, sci-fi fantasies. In their place I’ve been reading historical fiction. Enter C.J. Sansom‘s brilliant series of mysteries set in Tudor times and featuring one of the most sympathetic and unique creations I’ve ever had the pleasure to read: Matthew Shardlake.

Shardlake is a lawyer under the patronage of Lord Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII’s chief political adviser. He is a hunchback and as such suffers more than his fair share of bullying and intimidation. At the start of the first novel, Dissolution, he is a religious reformer, very much on the side of the king and Cromwell. He has no sympathy for greedy monks and agrees with Henry’s plan to dissolve all the monasteries in England. He investigates a murder in one such monastery (okay, maybe there is an element of detective fiction here, but bear with me) and as the case progresses, Shardlake’s philosophy changes and he finds himself at odds with his employers. I’m reading the fourth book in the series, Revelation, and the more I dig into Shardlake’s world, the more I want to know about Henry VIII, Cromwell, Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer and each of Henry’s six wives.

King Henry VIII

So today I bought a biography of perhaps the most famous king of England: Henry VIII, King and Court, by Alison Weir. The point I’m making is (and I’m sure all of you would agree with me), if you want to learn about history, there are many ways to go about it. But for me, it was a case of engaging with something I wouldn’t normally touch. Historical fiction is my new cause celebre. Through the medium of literature, I am now embarking on a historical journey that will take me the rest of my life to enjoy.

Last week I finished reading a book about World War II, called Hitler’s Peace, written by Philip Kerr. That book reinforced my desire to learn more about Nazi Germany, and the insidious ways Hitler and his cronies went about trying to win the war. And then I had a thought (as I sometimes do) – what kind of books will historical fiction writers of tomorrow write about today?

15 responses to “When Henry Eight Me.

  1. Curse you for adding books to my must read list. ))

  2. Sansom has a very elegant but readable style, and he peppers his novels with real and imagined characters. It’s the imagined characters that make this series a must read. Shardlake himself, his assistant Jack Barak, and the Moor Dr. Guy Malton.

    PS: I felt sorry for Cromwell.

  3. I’ll take you at your word, and read some Sansom. It sounds great, but then again, I’m already a fan of historical fiction. If you are interested in “Henri Huitième,” I HIGHLY RECOMMEND “The Autobiography of King Henry VIII,” written by Margaret George (I think I remember right. The book’s downstairs, and I’m too lazy right now to go downstairs and check it out!) Sorry! 😦 It includes notes and comments by Henry’s Fool, Will Somers, and you can learn tons of history while being highly entertained! It is a huge volume, but moves along quite quickly and is very absorbing. I read it when I came out years ago, but now that you have reminded me of it, I’m going to read it again! Thanks! Here’s a link to the page on Amazon, where they also allow you to read the first few pages – to whet your appetite!


    If you decide to read it, let me know – I’ll be interested in what you think. Margaret George has also written many other “Autobiographies” of historical people. I also read her book on Mary, Queen of Scots. It was good, but nearly as absorbing.

    Now that it looks like I’m going to have to have a full-arm cast put on my right arm, to protect the ulna from dislocation (It will replace the short arm cast I’ve had on for 3 weeks since my thumb fusion surgery. These days I’m a walking train wreck!), I will be much more reading, and much less computering and blog-writing. You might not be getting many comments from me, but I’ll be reading a lot,and will comment as able. Maybe this will force me to be less long-winded! BUT, I’m learning some voice-recognition software built into my computer – I might be even MORE loose-lipped!

    Thanks for the great post! TTFN!

  4. WHOOPS! I’m still heterosexual, the last time I checked, so strike that line “when I came out,” and replace it with “when it came out!” 😀

  5. Learning about history through Historical Fiction = Bliss. I also enjoy reading Biographies and Autobiographies of Historical Figures (Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Agatha Christie, Mark Twain, etc.)

    So much more interesting than dry facts and figures. Enjoy the journey through the “pages” of time. 🙂

    At the moment, I’m reading about Merlin, leading up to the crowning of King Arthur ~ the vehicle: Mary Stewart & The Hollow Hills.

    Paula ~ HEAL!!! We want you back.

  6. *cheers* YAY another history convert!! Woohoo!!!!!! *does happy dance*

  7. I have a confession to make…

    I LOVE history!!!

    Always have. I had an excellent teacher who interacted with the class, made history come alive!! We even ‘re-inacted’ a historic battle between North and South once.

    I’ve always thought King Henry VIII was my sort of guy. Yeah, he killed his wives and many others who didn’t agree with him but – the fact that he was so insistent on having a male heir (enough so to make him marry 6 times) proves his tenacity.

    That, or his need to have some…
    And, let’s not forget, he did father one of the most successful Queens EVER!! (Elizabeth, people, not Mary)

    Glad you have discovered history. At the moment, I’m reading ‘Year of Wonders’ by Geraldine Brooks.
    It’s based in 1666, the year of the plague in England. It’s quite good actually!


  8. Bit of a bar steward, Henry. I think Sansom has him down to a tee, that moment on Henry’s progress where he ruins any reputation Shardlake might have had. Acerbic, arrogant dictator. But very, very colourful.
    I agree about the rest of your life. Once this passion sets in it never really leaves us.

    • It was at that moment in Sovereign that I wanted to reach through the pages and hug Shardlake and punch Henry’s lights out…then scarper back to the safety of my room in case he threw me into the Tower.

  9. I recently stumbled across the new cable Henry VIII show “The Tudors” I thought I would love it but instead was rather scandalized. Shows what a prude I must be.

    @nrhatch – Mary Stewart is one of my faves!

  10. My major in university was history and really enjoyed my classes. I love historical novels. Edward Rutherford is one of my favorite authors. You might add two of his books to your list: “London” and “Sarum.”

  11. Pingback: Welcome to The World of Robinson Stone | The World of Robinson Stone

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