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I first encountered John Guy through his wonderful biography of Thomas Becket and I give him the credit for re-awakening my interest in reading history after a lengthy gap. As well as being a first-rate historian, he has the true skill of the storyteller, managing to turn his thorough and extensive research into an accessible and enjoyable read for the non-academic. In this book he tackles the subject of Henry VIII’s struggle to produce an heir who could ensure the continuance of his dynasty. This is very much a personal history of the children, though because of their positions as potential heirs, there is also much about the politics of the time, particularly the religious machinations of this divided family.
Guy goes into considerable depth about the children’s early years telling us who was given charge of their upbringing and education. He describes the differences in education of the males, Edward and Henry Fitzroy, to the females, Mary and Elizabeth; showing that the boys were trained in those skills which were deemed necessary in a king, such as the ability to give public speeches, while the girls were restricted to moral and religious works, on the basis laid down by the scholar Vives that a woman should hear and speak only ‘what pertains to the fear of God’. However, he also produces some evidence to show that the girls’ friends and supporters may have found ways to supplement these restrictions.
Guy also shows Henry’s inconsistent treatment of his children, first humiliating Mary by raising the prospect of the illegitimate Fitzroy as heir, then by making her play second fiddle to Elizabeth during Anne Boleyn’s short reign. The declaration of both his daughters as illegitimate, his treatment of their mothers and the way he brought them in and out of favour depending on who was Queen at the time impacted heavily on both, as did his will declaring that they could only marry with the agreement of the counsellors he appointed before his death. But with the early death of Fitzroy, Henry was eventually forced to accept the rights of both his daughters to be in the line of succession in the event that Edward should die childless.
Although most of the book is about the children’s early years, Guy finishes with a fairly quick romp through each reign, again concentrating more on the personal than the political except where they were intertwined. He points out that Henry’s tragedy remains that, for all his efforts to secure his dynasty, none of his children produced heirs, so that on the death of Elizabeth in 1603 the Tudor era came to an end.
As always with Guy’s books, this one is very well written and a pleasure to read. There may not be much new here but the format Guy has chosen lets us see the family dynamics more than biographies of the individuals usually do. I felt the adult years were somewhat rushed and really only there to take the book to a conclusion, and I felt Guy surprisingly let Elizabeth off the hook very easily on the subject of the suppression of the Catholics during her reign (for more of which I recommend John Cooper’s biography of Walsingham, The Queen’s Agent). But I enjoyed the detailed look at the childhood of these major figures in English history and heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in the Tudor period.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher via NetGalley.