I have been pondering that age-old question:
Which English monarch do you fancy the most?
Sadly a lot of them are ruled out by hair. William the Conqueror, for example, might be up your street if you like people that conquer things, but you would have to put up with his Playmobil head. His son, William Rufus, was apparently a fiery, handsome character, but he and his courtiers liked to shave off the front of their hair and grow the rest down to their waists. Which sounds lovely. Charles II might have had a chance, being all ‘merrie’ and probably a bit of a laugh, but he lived in the time of wigs and so spent a lot of time looking like a spaniel.
My historical crush is this guy:
It hasn’t always been this way. There I was, thinking I’d have to put up with merrie spaniel Charles, when I read VIII by H.M. Castor. Suddenly I was mooning about over Henry (not literally. Although if it would help me be wife no. 7…), putting him in my list of book boyfriends and going on imaginary dates with him.
This fabulous guestpost by H.M. Castoris about Henry’s charismatic side – a side often neglected in portrayals of him – and how she studied another charismatic ‘King’ to get an insight into what Hal (as he is in the book) was like in his younger, funner days.
VIII is one of the books I’ve been raving like a madwoman about this year. It is a gripping psychological portrait that turns a well-known story – the six wives, waiting for a son, breaking from the Rome – on its head by telling it from Henry’s point of view. The tagline, ‘Think you know Henry VIII?’, is an apt one because you end the book with a wholly different view of Henry from the round, beardy wife-beheader.
Now I will stop wittering and you can enjoy this BRILLIANT post. Maybe at the end you’ll love him tender, too…
by H.M. Castor
When I was writing VIII I thought hard about charisma. Because Henry VIII had it. In bucketloads. But it’s hard to winkle any evidence out of the portraits of the time.
Nope. I’m not getting it.
Hmm… well, there’s a sense of power here. And that brings an aura with it, certainly. But I’m looking at the face. I’m looking for personal, stand-out-from-the-crowd magnetism. And I’m not getting that. I’m getting something like a determined pudding with a beard.
The written sources, on the other hand, leave you in no doubt. When Henry became king, at the tender age of 17, word spread quickly round Europe that England had the most glamorous ruler in Christendom. He was built like a storybook hero, being over 6ft tall, with the fitness and strength of a martial arts fanatic (which, in fact, is precisely what he was). While he was still heir to the throne, a Spanish ambassador wrote, “There is no finer youth in the world than the Prince of Wales. He is already taller than his father, and his limbs are of gigantic size,” (we’re talking muscular, here, rather than freakish).
But it wasn’t just the physique that impressed. Young King Henry had a beautiful pink-and-white complexion, and his skin glowed prettily through his fine shirt after an athletic game of tennis (I kid you not, this is described by an eyewitness). He was so fair of face he could have made a stunning woman had he not been so manly and, to top it all, he had an “extraordinary and almost divine character”. So said Lord Mountjoy in a private letter to an illustrious friend of his, one Erasmus. Mountjoy added of the young monarch, “what a hero he now shows himself”.
Yes, I know they had to say nice things about the king. But this kind of breathless admiration – even amongst people used to dishing out the flattery – was unusual. Men and women alike clearly found Henry pretty entrancing. We’re definitely talking charisma. In – as I mentioned – bucketloads.
As a culture, we’re fairly familiar with the idea of Henry as paranoid, volatile and (is it fair to say?) not much of a laugh. I’m thinking of Jonathan Rhys Meyers in The Tudors, here, but many other (more rotund and less good-looking) variations on this theme have hit our screens over the years.
However, in seeing Henry this way we’re seeing his personality only as it was from his late thirties onwards. And because he became king at 17, he enjoyed twenty years of kinging before that stage. Twenty very important years. Twenty charismatic years.
What did the Henry of that early period look like? What was it like to be around him? What did – specifically – his charisma look like? In order to write VIII, I had to find out. And so I looked around for contemporary, or near-contemporary, comparisons.
Wow, that has serious wattage.
Now, consider that Henry liked to have fun – despite Rhys Meyers et al, we know this to be true. Unlike his father, who personally & meticulously went through and initialled all the account books, Henry didn’t like to spend time on government business or paperwork. He hated writing letters, even. What he liked, most particularly, was to hang out with a gang of sports-mad, game-for-a-laugh blokes – his gang of mates – who had a tendency to treat him so familiarly, so much as one of the lads, that Cardinal Wolsey eventually made official moves to restrain them.
Henry’s gang were the blokes with whom he jousted (the extreme sport of the day), played music, gambled, went hunting and shooting, and – yes – messed about. He loved to get the whole team dressed up in disguise and play flirtatious tricks on the ladies of the court (including his wife). In winter he wasn’t above a good hard game of snowballs… we know this because in the young Earl of Devon’s financial accounts for 1519 (when Henry was 27 and had been king for 10 yrs), there is the following entry: “25 Jan. To a lad at Charleton, for lending his cap to my lord when the King and his lords threw snowballs, 4d.”.
Considering all this, I began thinking about Elvis… Elvis permanently had a gang of male friends round him. He loved practical jokes. He would have funfairs opened in the middle of the night, just for him and his friends.
I got hold of a biography of Elvis – a fantastic, two-volume biography by Peter Guralnick (Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love, published by Abacus). I saw more and more intriguing parallels in the stories of these two young men from very different times and cultures who had both been thrust into the limelight, given enormous power, and had both become the focus of almost unimaginable levels of adulation. For both of them, moreover, their success and the accompanying isolation had a psychological fall-out with which they manifestly struggled to cope.
Guralnick’s sympathetic and moving biography reveals Elvis as a shy boy, who becomes an emotional, sentimental, and in many ways vulnerable & needy young man. Sometimes he covered his fears with boastfulness and, even as a young star, could be controlling: “you didn’t just say no to Elvis Presley… the boy was very persuasive and very determined and very accustomed to getting his own way.”
In reporting the comments of one of Elvis’s gang of male friends, Guralnick describes a manipulative tendency in Elvis which echoes the suspicious games Henry played at his faction-ridden court: “Elvis promoted conflict just to keep himself amused. He’d ostracize one of them for weeks at a time over an imagined slight, he’d fantasize that “there was a Judas among us… and he’d play one of us against another. This always happened when he heard that one of the guys had said something about him.””
Those around Elvis had to get used to his moods – learn when to horse around with him and when to tread carefully. Girlfriends were treated with great courtesy, but had to toe a strictly demarcated line to avoid provoking Elvis’s jealousy; Guralnicks says of a girlfriend, “she learned to keep her mouth shut …whenever anyone else was around, she saw the others subjected to the same whims and flashes of temperament, and she learned that “there were definitely rules. You had to play by the rules. The more you knew, the longer you lasted.””
He was a young man who embodied power – and who also happened to be very good-looking and talented. Never alone, he was surrounded by people who laughed at his jokes, tried to anticipate his every whim and who vied to be noticed by him. To be close to him was the ultimate opportunity to gain power, money, influence, glory and fame.
I’m talking about Henry now, but… well, I hope you see my point.
In becoming king at 17, Henry became the closest thing there was to a god on earth (at the time it was believed that being anointed with holy oil at the coronation ceremony infused the monarch with God’s grace – his very flesh became, in that sense, divine). Given that he was already thought an unusually handsome and charismatic youth, the addition of this ultimate power and celebrity of kingship had an effect that is perhaps hard to imagine.
Hard… but maybe not altogether impossible. Take, I beg you, a moment to watch this (to me quite extraordinary) clip from Elvis’s 1968 comeback TV show and try him out, in your mind, as Henry: