Alison Weir’s biography/history of the Tudor court was next up on my list of Weir non-fiction (I haven’t decided yet if I’ll continue with her two novels). Henry VIII: The King and His Court does not disappoint. It is a meticulously researched and detailed historiography but still has an easy-to-read style; Weir keeps even the mundane interesting.
Now, I read a few reviews that complained because too much of the book was about other people of the period rather than solely about King Henry VIII. In rebuttal I’d like to point out the secondary title which reads “The King and His Court” and indicates that the contents of Weir’s book will go far beyond the male-heir-obsessed Tudor king. The extensive detail Weir provides for the people and environment surrounding her primary subject is indeed a specialty. With this book we not only get an extensive biography of Henry VIII, but also detail regarding his father’s reign (particularly the influence of Henry VIII’s paternal grandmother, Lady Margaret Beaufort), specific detail of the households and professional activities of the major political players, particularly Wolsey, Cromwell, and Cranmer, and very detailed accounts of life at the Tudor Court. This is detail I am particularly interested in because, as a way of life, it does seem particularly strange to me, a 21st century, self-sufficient woman. The way the households were structured, both the King’s side and Queen’s side, the types of books purchased, gifts that were given and received, which ambassadors were at court, which factions were in ascendance, and so on are all topics which seem glossed over in the rush to teach a “History” full of dates and lurid facts. It’s pretty common knowledge that the Court dressed and entertained lavishly but Weir breaks down what types of clothing were worn, where the cloth came from, who made the clothes, what food was common, how it was served, who did the serving, who devised the entertainment, and how much it all cost (converted into modern values it is a truly staggering sum). All of this detail goes a long way toward determining how Henry VIII was influenced – both as a child and as an adult – and how that impacted on his marital relationships.
The only complaint I can voice about the book is the selection and arrangement of the paintings, murals, and drawings included in the two sections of color plates. Weir does specifically mention certain paintings, object d’art, and residences (and goes into detail, particularly with respect to Holbein) as she moves through Henry VIII’s reign and a number of these extant items are included in the color plates. However, the arrangement of these plates is deplorable; they don’t follow the chronological order of the book causing the reader to flip back and forth to find a painting or refresh the memory. For example, the dynastic mural with Henry VIII, Henry VII, Elizabeth of York, and Jane Seymour was commissioned in 1537 from Hans Holbein and this is described in the later half of the book but the image (of the copy made in the 17thc before the mural was lost) is included in the first group of plates; similarly a page with miniatures of all six wives occurs in the first group of plates but the majority of their history, Katherine of Aragon excepted, occurs in the latter half of the book. It got a bit irritating after a while (for information’s sake, this website has a fantastic collection of Tudor portraiture from the entire dynasty).
My next Weir: The Six Wives of Henry VIII