Sunday, February 9, 2014

VIII by Harriet Mary Castor

This is a dark re-imagining of the story of young Henry VIII, who comes to the throne of England at the age of seventeen. As a young man, Henry was considered virtuous, a devout Catholic, well educated and a skilled warrior. But as his reign progressed, Henry increasingly resorted to murder as a way to remove anyone who stood in his way. He is famously remembered for having six wives, two of whom he had beheaded. What happened to create such a tyrant? Author Harriet Castor offers a new imagining on a very old story.

VIII opens with six year old Henry (Hal) being awoken in the early dawn, roughly taken from his bed in Eltham and placed upon his mother's horse in the courtyard. Hal learns that he, along with his mother and her entourage are fleeing to the Tower of London, to safety from the attacking rebels, who are in league with the Pretender, Perkin Warbeck, the man who claims to be his mother's lost brother (Richard) and therefore king.

England has barely survived years of civil war between the two ruling houses of the Tudors. Known as the War of the Roses, a reference to the emblems of the houses of York and Lancaster which fought for the right to rule the country, this war has almost destroyed England. Hal's father, Henry Tudor, after years in exile in France, returned to England to fight. Henry emerged victorious, acceding to the throne and in an attempt to unite England, married Elizabeth of York, the daughter of Edward IV. King Henry VII and Elizabeth have had six children at the time the novel opens, but only Henry who is 6 years old, and his two older siblings, Margaret (Meg) and Arthur have survived.

In the Tower, Hal begins experiencing visions of a blonde haired boy in black velvet, first in a trunk containing his clothing, then in a cubby closet in a long abandoned room. While hidden in the closet he witnesses an encounter between his mother and a priest who brings her prophecies from the city.When Henry overhears the prophecies he decides that one of these prophecies, "York will be king and your glory will down the ages..." refers to him and indicates that he will someday be King of England as he is the true Duke of York. How this will be Hal cannot know, because his older brother Arthur is being groomed to be king of England.

Four years later, when Hal is ten, and Arthur is fifteen, King Henry VII attempts to negotiate a treaty between England and Spain. To secure this and further legitimize his rule he is determined to arrange a marriage between Arthur and Princess Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of  Spanish king, Ferdinand. A tournament and banquet is being held in Westminster Hall, which Hal desperately wishes to participate in. When he outshines Arthur, his father later tells him that he must never do this again and that his purpose is to stay out of Arthur's way and that Arthur will "be the first great king of the golden age of peace..." Henry tells his youngest son that he must be very careful, lest Arthur have him killed. Hal is the "spare", the son that doesn't matter.

Catherine and Arthur are married, but months later, Arthur succumbs to a fever, leaving Hal as the sole heir to the throne. However, if Hal thought this fact would turn his father's favour towards him, he could not be more wrong. Henry VII decides to have Hal marry Catherine, but a special dispensation from the pope will be required since her marriage to Hal's brother is considered to have made Catherine his sister. After the death of his mother, and once Hal has been summoned to court by his father, Hal and Catherine's betrothal is secured. Hal is thirteen years old.

Catherine and Hal are married when he becomes king at the age of seventeen. She is twenty-three. Their first child, a boy, lives a mere fifty-two days. A second baby, Mary survives but is not the boy heir, Henry so deeply desires. With the death, stillbirth or miscarriage of almost every pregnancy, Hal who is now twenty-six years of age, becomes increasingly distraught over the lack of a male heir. Until one day he notices the sister of one of his friends, the youthful, dark haired Anne Boleyn.

As Hal's attraction grows, and his fears about a male heir continue, Hal reaches an important conclusion. Hal concludes that his marriage is invalid and therefore not blessed by God and that he must put aside Catherine. He decides that he will have Wolsey petition the pope for an annulment so he can marry Anne. The future of his royal dynasty and the country depend upon his marrying Anne.

The author has chosen to focus primarily on Henry's early life, his early years as King of England, his happy marriage to Catherine and the three years he was married to Anne Boleyn. Subsequent wives and the remainder of his rule, including the death of Wolsey, the beheading of Anne and Cromwell are dealt with in less detail.

Castor has chosen to tell Henry's story from the perspective that his change from the loyal, kind, devoutly Catholic young king to a cruel, manipulative tyrant was due to disturbing apparitions that haunted him with increasing frequency. The apparition mirrors Henry in age, appearing as a young boy when he first sees him and as a older, decaying man when he is in his final years. The person he sees mirrors his own inner torment and Henry soon comes to realize that he looks just like him.

Although the development and portrayal of characters in this novel are well done, they are not necessarily historically accurate depending upon which sources one refers to regarding Henry VIII whom the author nicknames Hal in the novel.

While Castor manages to capture the goodness, intelligence,spirituality and athleticism of young Henry, the focus is more on the presentation of Hal as a boy struggling with his inner demons - a tormented boy, convinced of his superiority and divinity, who believes he is destined to rule England. Even when Hal is in line for the throne, his father shows him little affection and continues to believe he is unfit for rule. But Henry is convinced he will not only be king, he will be a glorious king destined to rule over all of Europe.

Catherine is accurately portrayed as Hal's faithful, quiet wife, a devout Catholic with an inner strength that is demonstrated when Hal decides to abandon her. She stoically suffers the humiliation of being put aside, and of being deprived of visits by her only surviving child, Mary. When Hal comes to her to tell her what he plans to do, she tells him she has seen how he has been suffering lately. She is compassionate towards him, but also refuses to co-operate with him in a scheme she knows to be sinful.

Anne Boleyn is cleverly portrayed as the vain and mercenary young woman history records her as being, determined to be queen at any cost. Anne is correctly portrayed as the architect of Henry's break with Rome. Wolsey is the faithful churchman and statesman, who did Hal's bidding for years, horrified at his suggestion to annul his marriage and marry Anne.

If anything Harriet Castor's unique treatment of Henry VIII will lead young readers to further explore this British monarch and the time in which he lived. This is a fascinating novel of historical fiction that incorporates a touch of the paranormal. Castor has included the family tree of Henry VIII which is very useful for readers who find themselves repeatedly referring to it. The cover and title are well done and will certainly lead readers to check out this novel.

For further investigation into the life of Henry VIII, watch the historical documentary, Henry VIII: Mind of a Tyrant which was narrated by TV presenter and historian, Dr. David Starkey. Starkey incorporates many primary documents into his presentation, focusing on Henry the king rather than on his wives. The documentary which ran in 2009 consists of five parts, Part 1 Prince (1485 - 1509) is shown below.

Henry VIII Mind of a Tyrant

For further information on Henry VIII check out the National Archives website.

Book Details:
VIII by H.M Castor
New York: Simon & Schuster BFYR 2013
415 pp.

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