Henry IV by Christopher Given-Wilson

henry ivThe Lancastrian Usurper…

😀 😀 😀 😀

My existing knowledge of Henry IV amounted to the assumption that he probably came somewhere between Henry III and Henry V. So I hoped that this biography, part of the Yale University Press English Monarchs series, would fill a pretty big hole. And, with a large degree of success, it does.

In the introduction, Christopher Given-Wilson makes it clear that the book is a political biography of the man rather than a history of the period, though obviously the two are intertwined. Most of the book is a fairly linear account of Henry’s life, starting with an explanation of the growth of Lancastrian wealth and power under his father, John of Gaunt. While political life in England was more centred on the monarchy than in many other countries, he gives a very clear picture of the factionalism and rivalries between some of the major landowners, and how the major players would build their own ‘affinities’ – paid knightly retainers who would fight for their overlord when required. I gathered from the notes that these affinities are a field of special expertise for Given-Wilson, and I found his detailed insights into this aspect fascinating.

Henry’s forays to the Crusades gave him the opportunity to win a reputation as a knightly hero, while Richard II was making himself increasingly unpopular at home. Even before this, Henry had been heavily involved with others in trying to curtail what some saw as Richard’s misuse of power, so when the opportunity arose, Richard sent him off into exile. But when John of Gaunt died and Richard attempted a land-grab of Lancastrian property, Henry returned and, largely with popular support, usurped the throne.

Henry of Bolingbroke, flanked by the lords spiritual and temporal, claims the throne in 1399. From a contemporary manuscript, British Library, Harleian Collection, via Wikipedia
Henry of Bolingbroke, flanked by the lords spiritual and temporal, claims the throne in 1399. From a contemporary manuscript, British Library, Harleian Collection, via Wikipedia

For me, this section was considerably more interesting than the account of Henry’s time as King. Given-Wilson goes into immense detail on subjects such as finances, tax-raising and the cost of foreign ventures. Necessary in an academic book, but I’m afraid much of it made for rather dry reading, and often used terminology unfamiliar to me without explaining it clearly enough.

I was more interested in learning about the various wars and skirmishes going on around Henry’s borders, with Welsh, Scots and Irish all causing problems, not to mention the ongoing struggle for Henry to maintain his claim to the title of King of France. Given-Wilson explains well the lead up to the Hotspur rebellions and their aftermath, and I also felt that I got some insight into the background to Henry V’s later adventures in France. But again, I found parts of these sections confusing as so many names came and went (and, as is always a problem, people frequently changed their names as they inherited titles or rose through the ranks of the aristocracy) leaving me frankly bewildered on occasion as to who was on whose side.

In the final few chapters of the book, Given-Wilson changes from a linear narrative to concentrating on one aspect of Henry’s life or character at a time – for example, personality and image, wars and tactics, lawlessness among the gentry (which Given-Wilson calls by my favourite new phrase – “fur-collar crime”), etc. For me, these worked better than the earlier chapters in finally making me feel that I was beginning to understand the man behind the history. Given-Wilson concludes that Henry IV was more relevant than history sometimes suggests, and puts the blame firmly on Shakespeare for creating an inaccurate picture of him. Certainly the picture Given-Wilson paints in this book suggests Henry was more or less forced into usurpation by Richard’s desire to smash Lancastrian power.

Chris Given-Wilson is emeritus professor of medieval history, University of St. Andrews, and author of nine books on medieval history.
Chris Given-Wilson is emeritus professor of medieval history, University of St. Andrews, and author of nine books on medieval history.

With any biography or history, the author has to decide what audience he is addressing. Given-Wilson is clearly aiming at people with some pre-existing knowledge of the period – i.e., not me. That’s not to say I didn’t glean a lot from the book. But I also found many times that I was at something of a loss. For example, I’m sure that way back in the Dark Ages when I was at school, some poor history teacher probably explained the Great Schism to me, and possibly even Lollardy. But I fear the brain-cells where I stored that information must have been recycled somewhere along the way. (It’s interesting to speculate what might have over-written them – I’m guessing it’s my in-depth knowledge of the history of the various incarnations of the USS Enterprise…) I am certainly not criticising Given-Wilson’s decision not to explain the background to some of the things that impacted on Henry’s reign, but it does mean that I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this one for the casual reader or total newcomer to the period.

However, it’s well-written and thoroughly researched and, assuming one has the necessary background knowledge, gives a clear, well laid-out and informatively detailed account of Henry’s life and reign.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

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60 thoughts on “Henry IV by Christopher Given-Wilson

  1. This sounds absolutely fascinating, FictionFan. I don’t know enough about that time period, and it is interesting to get some perspective on what was going on politically besides what happened at the palace. It’s often those stories that lend a lot of richness to what we learn about the various rulers. I know what you mean, too, about that delicate balancing act between reaching one’s audience and providing a lot of information. It’s tricky at times. Still, that said, though, this sounds really interesting and informative.

    • Yes, I always prefer when biographies are set into their wider context – it helps explain why the person developed as they did. It is difficult with biographies – too much background and you bore people who know about the period, too little and you lose the newcomer. Given-Wilson got it about right for the audience he was aiming for, I think – it’s not his fault I’ve forgotten what little I ever knew… 😉

    • You’re better than me – I’ve never even seen or read the plays. I really intended to watch them while I was reading this – I even own DVDs of them – but still can’t seem to get around to it…

  2. I’m with you on this one, FF. An in-depth history isn’t exactly my idea of casual weekend reading! It sounds fairly interesting if you like that sort of thing, though, and I imagine it provides respected background into the times and travails of the period. I think I’ll watch March Madness college basketball this weekend instead!!

  3. Aha! The Crusades. Let’s go! With Richard, of course. I’d ride on a horse behind him, I’m thinking. And behind Philip. This would be fun, I’m thinking further. Let’s do it!

    Is that an oil painting of the author?

    • Who’s Philip? Let’s! But I don’t want to wear chainmail – too rough. I shall wear a beautiful green robe, and ride side-saddle… *frowns warningly* I’ll still be a mighty warrioress though!

      *laughs* I so nearly said “Oh, no, he’s no oil painting” but realised that would be much ruder than I meant! What I meant was it looks like a photo that’s been… er… what’s the word… paintingified!

      • He was the French dude that went along. Got in a fight with Richard, see. Do I have to wear chainmail? I”d rather go in cargo pants and a t-shirt, please. And have a dirt bike. No horse, double-see.

        Haha. I’m so confused about it all, right now and the sudden. I think I’d like one done of me.

        • No, no, no – your dirt bike would be too noisy. Scare my horse, see? And I imagine riding side saddle will be hard enough! You must have a silent mode of transport – if you’re against horses, you can have a spacehopper…

          Ah, any picture of the Professor would be a fine portrait!

          • A spacehopper sounds cool. I’ll take one of those. Are you sure you want a sweaty horse? Eww. Maybe you should get a spacehopper, too. And you’ll have to wear chainmail. No dress, see.

            A scary portrait, you mean. And scary.

            • *laughs* Do you think the enemy might find us not completely intimidating if we turn up on spacehoppers? Especially if the chainmail bursts them at the crucial moment and we sink ungracefully to the ground…

              Oh, yes, of course! That’s what I meant! *chuckles*

            • Well, I’m not sure what a spacehopper looks like…! I hope it looks vicious and mean and whatnot. Oh no, no, no, FEF! No chainmail, see. None at all.

              *nods* Much better! *eyes FEF*

            • Tchah! I even posted a pic of one! Don’t you memorise all my posts?!? You should! I might start setting tests… Round, orange, bouncy, with horns. No chainmail and no robe?!? Do you want me to catch my death of cold, sir?? *knits warm Lady Godiva wig*

              *chuckles again*

            • You mean the bouncy ball! Goodness. I’m not riding on one of those!!! Dadblameit. I’ll take my bike, please. And you can have one, too, if you need one. You get cargo pants and a t-shirt. Nothing more. And maybe a beanie, if you want one.

            • Well, OK, if you insist! But I can’t help feeling we’ll be at a height disadvantage when the jousting begins – we’ll only be able to reach up to their knees! And I’m not sure a beanie is going to be much protection against their flails…

  4. What I like, SO MUCH is that you read these for us, allowing those of us desirous of entertainment in non-fiction, to quietly turn elsewhere.

    Wasn’t The Great Schism what happened when you stole the last of the quality dark chocolate before I could get my paws on it, to do the self-same thing?

    I guess that was ‘chocolate-box crime’, a far more heinous offence than fur-collar crime, in my book.

    Anyway, the author has a jolly name, and many bad jokes spring to mind (I’m SO shallow) Given-Wilson, we ended up with Callaghan, for starters

    Okay, okay, I WAS just leaving, no need to shove my coat at me…….

    • Yes, the problem of taking these from NG is that you can’t ‘look inside’ first – it’s hard to get a feel for what audience the author is pitching at…

      Haha! I think that would be much more serious! I’m pretty sure that would cause a bigger war than the Hundred Years one! I do love fur-collar crime – I wish I could think of opportunities to use it in day-to-day life – if only we could get the bankers wearing fur… faux, of course!

      Haha! You’re on a roll today! I think it’s unfair to hold the man responsible for Callaghan though – though he was one of the more cuddly of our recent PMs…

  5. I enjoyed this – it’s a hard balancing act getting these biographies right and it sounds like one for people like me who are researching the period for a novel and need the tiny stuff. Which we then don’t use. The Great Schism – who in their right mind ever thought kids needed to learn about that! The Given-Wilson joke is a cracker, Lady Fanciful I salute you.

    • It is – and it’s a matter of finding the right audience. One of the problems about taking a book from NetGalley is that you don’t have anything more than the blurb to go on, and it doesn’t often make it clear enough whether the book is for casual or more advanced readers. And it’s certainly not the author’s fault if the reader lacks the necessary background knowledge. I can see why it would be a great one for research though – and it’s an interesting period of history. Except for that Great Schism – I suspect it bored me even when I was at school… 😉

  6. Fur-collar crime – love it! It does sound like a book that was slightly more for the academic / textbook market than the general one but the odd footnote explaining big things wouldn’t have come amiss! I can vaguely remember the Lollard stuff but not the Great Schism!

    • Great phrase, isn’t it? I wish I could find an opportunity to use it in real life – if only our politicians would go back to wearing robes! Yes, there was a particular phrase he kept using about taxes that I didn’t have a clue about and could find nothing in the notes to explain it, and I’m way too lazy to start googling things. In fact, I’m too lazy to even want to look at notes – poor man! I’m an awful audience… 😉

    • Verrrrrrrrrry long! I think it took me nearly as long to read as Henry reigned for! But I did find it very readable except for the parts where it got a bit bogged down in taxes and such-like, and lots of it was very interesting. Hope you enjoy it!

  7. I suppose I’m not the intended read as well… I was waiting for some April Fool’s Day spoof read! (It’s ten in the morning here and I’ve already been subjected to many jests… I’ve chosen to surround myself with tricksters.) 🙂

  8. I am one of those sad people who love reading biographies of kings, queens and those who could have been Royal so this sounds like one for me. Great, honest, review.

    • Thank you! Me too – and worse, I even enjoy biographies of politicians! This one is interesting and was about a period I really knew nothing about – if you do get a chance to read it, I hope you enjoy it! 🙂

  9. I think I will pass on this one. I tried to figure out once how all the Royalty was connected and who came after whom and quickly gave up. I am ok with staying ignorant on this topic. Kudos to you, though, for working your way through this book.

    • Ha! I know exactly what you mean – thank goodness they have numbers or I’d never even know who came before whom! But the habit of all having the same name doesn’t help – Scotland had six James’s practically one after the other. How’s a girl supposed to differentiate? 😉

  10. This sounds interesting. I don’t know a lot about Henry IV, although I have recently read a novel about his wife, Joanna of Navarre (The Queen’s Choice by Anne O’Brien). I find it easier to absorb facts and information through fiction rather than non-fiction, but I would still like to read a biography of Henry to fill in the gaps in my knowledge.

    • I like to read historical fiction too, especially if it’s well researched. And I think I do remember stuff better if I read it as fiction – factual books have a terrible tendency of fading really quickly from my mind, leaving me not much better informed than when I started! This one had a little about Henry’s Queens in it, and refreshingly for English royalty he seems to have been a reasonably caring and faithful husband. Hope you enjoy it if you do get a chance to read it. 🙂

  11. Sounds fascinating but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to sustain myself through an actual biography. The only reason I might read it is to test Shakespeare’s factual accuracy

    • I really intended to watch the Shakespeare plays quickly before all my new-found knowledge evaporates – as sadly it quickly will! Certainly Given-Wilson felt they’d contributed to the view of Henry IV through the centuries – not that I personally had much of a view of him at all, to be honest… 😉

  12. “Frankly bewildered on occasion as to who was on whose side” – just about sums up about three hundred years of English history. And as for the Great Schism, it’s like the Irish Question – only three men understood it, but one was mad, one was dead and the other wasn’t saying! Great review of a highly confusing period.

    • Haha! In my case maybe 600! Yes, I have a feeling I used to see any school discussion of the Great Schism as a quick nap-time – much the same effect as it had on me this time round, in fact!

  13. Wow, as I read reviews I thinks of things I want to add as a comment. I was going to ask about the audience, as I have lots of gaps in my knowledge because they try to give us the two second lesson of all of history when we are in high school. In fact, when I was a senior, the teacher would simply put in a video every. single. day. BUT! You already answered my question! Nice job thinking of us readers 😀

    • Yes, I’m afraid what little history I learned in school has long since faded from what I laughingly call my memory. I love reading history but I must admit the heavy academic stuff is too much like hard work. There’s so much variety now in history writing though – loads of books aimed at the more general, amateur reader, so I think part of the review has to be letting people know who the book is aimed at…

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