Our July guest is another History Boy, John Guy, whose latest book is The Children of Henry Vlll.
John Guy is an award-winning historian, accomplished broadcaster and Fellow of Clare College, University of Cambridge. His previous books include the highly acclaimed Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel, Victim, A Daughter’s Love: Thomas and Margaret More and My Heart is My Own: the Life of Mary Queen of Scots, which won the Whitbread Biography Award, the Marsh Biography Award and was a Finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle (USA) Biography/Autobiography of the Year Award. He is the author of the bestselling textbooks, The Tudors: A Very Short Introduction and Tudor England. He has presented and contributed to numerous documentaries for BBC2 and Channel 4, including Timewatch, as well as appearing frequently on BBC Radio’s flagship culture programmes. He also writes and reviews for national newspapers and magazines, including The Sunday Times, The Literary Review and History Today.
Welcome, John, and thank you for agreeing to answer my questions.
MH: Given that what most people know about Henry was his obsession with fathering a legitimate male heir and that it led to his multiple marriages and the split with Rome, it’s rather remarkable that no-one seems to have written a book on quite this subject before. Were you surprised to find this gap?
JG: Yes and no. You probably don’t see the gap until you realize it’s there. I’d written a double biography of Thomas More and his eldest daughter Margaret some years ago and quite a bit of that is about Margaret’s education and the uses to which she put it. BBC 4 televised this material in 2011 for the documentary ‘A Renaissance Education: the Schooling of Margaret More’ which got good viewing ratings, so I knew that people were interested in this sort of topic. And when I’m in Cambridge, I share an office with Elizabeth Foyster, who writes on the history of childhood from the 17th to the 19th centuries. This prompted me to think that looking at the upbringing and early experiences of Henry VIII’s children might be interesting. I knew from writing biographies of Thomas Becket and Mary, Queen of Scots, how important the early lives of people are in shaping who they later become. And I knew from the outset that Henry Fitzroy, the King’s illegitimate son, should be part of the story. He’s usually sidelined, but for a while it was entirely possible that – in the absence of a legitimate male heir – he could have been designated by Henry VIII as his successor. So when Oxford University Press came to me and asked me if I’d write something on Tudor history for a wide readership and from an unconventional angle, I knew at once what the topic would be.
MH: What new information about Henry’s children have you found for the book?
JG: Quite a lot of the incidental detail on purchases and staffing for the children’s households and who was where and when is new, because over the years I’d stumbled into what remains of their original household lists and accounts of expenditure in the National Archives. For example, I’d transcribed most of the unpublished costume accounts for Henry’s elder daughter, Mary, very carefully some years ago, so I knew a lot about her tastes in dress. The information (actually it’s heavily condensed in this book) on the gifts Mary gave to Margaret Douglas, Henry VIII’s niece, is new. I discovered that Elizabeth had a mysterious tutor called John Picton, probably secured on the quiet by Kat Ashley some years before William Grindal was appointed by the King to be her first official schoolmaster. I was also lucky enough to be allowed to make reference to some of the newly-discovered letters of the young Elizabeth that Alan Bryson has found and is currently editing for publication: two of them put her religion as a 15-year-old into a much sharper focus than anything I’ve seen before. But such details apart, what I think is new and exciting about the book is that it’s about the inter-relationships between all four of the children, rather than just a set of snapshots of their individual early lives – and it’s that approach which is the book’s raison d’être.
MH: One doesn’t see much written about Henry Fitzroy, the King’s illegitimate son with Elizabeth Blount, so it was fascinating to discover a bit more about him. Was this new material or has it just been overlooked by previous historians?
JG: Actually there’s a very good recent life of Henry Fitzroy called Bastard Prince: Henry VIII’s Lost Son by Beverley Murphy, and you’ll see it cited quite a bit in my notes and references. Murphy drew my attention in particular to the various reports from Fitzroy’s disillusioned schoolmasters, which I was able to follow up either in the National Archives or in the Letters and Papers of Henry VIII and they turned out to be crammed with marvellous material. The account of Fitzroy’s funeral from the Duke of Norfolk’s letter to Thomas Cromwell I’d already fished out of the State Papers, and then went to view Fitzroy’s remarkable tomb, which was originally at Thetford Priory, but is now at St Michael’s Church at Framlingham in Suffolk. I gather that staff from the University of Leicester in conjunction with the Space Research Centre and colleagues from Oxford and Yale are currently making high-powered infra-red images of the tomb and its contents, so maybe more information will become available shortly.
MH: I must look out for that! You can’t really write about the children without getting into a lot of other areas. You have packed a tremendous amount into a short book; how did you decide what to leave out?
JG: Yes, Oxford University Press wanted a short book, so I faced lots of tough choices about what to put and what to leave out. In fact, my method here was very simple. I put in anything I thought central to the story, and left out those details or episodes that I thought might be fascinating in their own right, but would hold the story up. I wanted the book to flow and draw readers in, so I was naturally delighted when a well-known literary critic emailed me to say that “the book flows beautifully while immediately grasping my attention: which is quite an achievement when dealing with the most over-exposed family in the British mass media after the Archers!”
MH: I was very struck by your references to Henry’s being probably positive for the Kell antigen, which would explain why he never had more than one child that survived into adulthood with any wife or mistress. It’s a very convincing theory of Catrina Banks Whitley and Kyra Kramer. Do you think they were also on to something when they considered the King had McCleod syndrome, explaining his physical and mental deterioration in later life?
JG: This article appeared in the Historical Journal in 2010 and as soon as I read it, I found their theory arresting that Henry VIII was positive for the blood group antigen known as Kell (whereas 90% of Caucasian populations are Kell negative). The evidence Whitley and Kramer provide on the number of miscarriages and stillbirths, and on their birth-order relationships to live births, are consistent with their theory. I’m far less persuaded by their hypothesis that the King suffered from the rare genetic disorder known as the McLeod syndrome. That’s mainly because Whitley and Kramer didn’t consider other medical conditions that might explain the same data (e.g. obesity-mediated type 2 diabetes). The McLeod syndrome argument is used to explain the apparent deterioration in Henry’s personality in his later years. But you find that Henry’s personality changes at a different date depending on which historian you’re reading! Robert Hutchinson opts for 1531, whereas Jack Scarisbrick went for 1529, the year he thought the King’s first divorce suit turned nasty. Other historians advanced the date to 1527 when new material on Henry’s divorce difficulties came to light. Milo Keynes, a retired senior medical consultant at Addenbrooke’s Hospital at Cambridge, plumped for 1528. Susannah Lipscombe has more recently gone for 1536. This sort of speculation is always intriguing and can be worth pursuing, but isn’t a satisfactory basis from which to construct a medical diagnosis.
MH: We can’t really say the Tudors are having a revival, because they never seem to go out of fashion. As well as your book there is a new Life of Henry Vlll out this year, two Lives of Katherine of Aragon just out, the opening of the Mary Rose museum in Portsmouth, the BBC TV series of programmes on the Tudor Court (you featured yourself in at least one of them!), etc. etc. To what do you attribute this continuing fascination with the period?
JG: It’s the stories and the personalities – it’s as simple as that. They’re stranger and more compelling than fiction, and you couldn’t make them up!
MH: Do you think the extensive portraiture helps fuel our interest in the Tudors?
JG: Undoubtedly that’s also true. Putting faces to the names can make a big difference. Although we’re finding it increasingly difficult to track down new portrait discoveries, work on iconography often enables unknown sitters to be identified. And the “Making Art in Tudor Britain” project at the National Portrait Gallery, financially supported by the Mercers’ Company and other leading donors and charities, is using some of the latest scientific techniques to uncover the working practices of Tudor artists besides examining the layers beneath the paint surfaces to discover hidden images.
MH: Do you ever indulge in “What ifs”? What would have been the most intriguing alternative history – if Henry Fitzroy had lived? If Mary had had a surviving child? If Elizabeth had married?
JG: Of course – I’ve recently been using just this approach to counter some of the more vigorously concerted attempts in the USA to make gender studies exclusively the future of Tudor history. Yes, gender issues are very important and in The Children of Henry VIII I’ve aimed to tease out some of the more intriguing implications of the King’s views on female monarchy and carry them forward beyond Edward VI’s “Device for the Succession” and John Knox’s arguments that females were “unfit” to rule in The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. However, the mid-Tudor succession crisis is not explicable purely in terms of gender or Edward VI’s minority, because the ideological battles triggered by the European Reformation played an equal and often greater part in the story. Anyone worried about this should ask a basic counterfactual question. “What if” Edward VI, the Protestant boy-king, had lived and been gay, so refusing to marry? Would his Protestant privy councillors really have sat back and done nothing about excluding the claim of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, or petitioning the king to marry and settle the succession purely because Edward was male? Or would they have continued to do everything they could to make sure of a Protestant succession?
MH: Do you have a favourite child of Henry Vlll?
JG: It would have to be Elizabeth. I’m not sure whether I’d like to have her as the proverbial dinner-party guest, but I admire her for her resilience and ability to understand and manage power.
MH: Tell us something about your new edition of The Tudors: a Very Short Introduction, which is coming out in August.
JG: The new edition has been much expanded and rewritten to match new developments in research and understanding since the first edition appeared in 1984. Whereas before, socio-economic history and political and religious events were considered in separate chapters, they are fully reintegrated in this new edition. More attention is given to the “stirs” and revolts of the 1550s and to the post-Armada years. More space is given to the problems of minority and female rule and to the wider “British” dimension of Tudor history, i.e. Scotland and Ireland. The brief reign of Jane Grey is taken seriously in this edition. Before (in line with the scholarly consensus then) it was dismissed as a failed coup d’état and an aberration and not as Edward VI’s own “succession settlement” and one with a considerable afterlife. Finally, a new chapter on “Material Culture and the Arts” in the long Tudor century is included.
MH: We gather you are writing a big book about the last years of Elizabeth l; can you tell us when to expect that? It seems that David Starkey never wrote the second half of his history of Elizabeth, so there is a definite gap there.
JG: I’ll finish it around the middle of next year, and it will be published some time in 2015. You’re right, it really is on the later years, mainly after the Armada. When it opens, Elizabeth is already past the menopause. There’s no point in her privy councillors trying to marry her off any more to settle the succession, because she can’t have children. For her, it’s a moment of liberation. Now she can be her own woman as never before. And she’s determined to take more control of what’s happening around her. She’s not always successful, but she’s certainly making the effort to assert her control. The downside for her is that these are the years of the long war with Spain and she’s also forced to confront her own ageing.
Thank you, John; that was fascinating.