Henry VIII: The King and His Court, by Alison Weir

Prolific historian/novelist Alison Weir has placed most of her focus on the Tudors in her writing. Henry VIII and his wives have received her particular attention. This book is slightly off from the more salacious spotlight on the marriages. They receive mention but are not the book’s core. This book revolves around the court of Henry VIII: the costs, the entourages and hangers-on, the internecine fights for the king’s attention, and, yes, the wives.

Henry VIII is frequently given a negative perspective by historians and in popular culture. Some of that is earned. He was known for furious outbursts with nearly every courtier was often influenced by those who did not have his best interests at heart. Weir does nothing to dispel that reputation, but she does want the reader to see a more three-dimensional figure. Henry VIII was also a genius who, despite delegating the operation of the kingdom so that he could hunt and dance, was still thoroughly aware of what was happening in his kingdom. He was firm in countermanding decisions by ministers like Thomas Cromwell, corresponded with people both inside and outside England, and read widely. Despite his temper he was also sensitive enough to be known to cry over some events and deaths.

Perhaps what marked his reign as much as anything, however, was his willingness to spend money. He inherited a fortune from his thrifty father as well as regular income from tax collections. Weir does in-depth tallies, with conversions to current figures (such as 40 shillings equaling 600 pounds in today’s currency), on the costs of the meals, the pageants, the jousts, the clothing, the castles, and feeding an entourage of hundreds of ranked individuals along with as many of their servants as they could sneak in. Even costs for flowers to Anne Boleyn are included along with her expenditures on shoes.

Weir is enough of a dramatic writer that the figures never overtake the narrative and there is plenty of time spent on the intrigues and oddities of court, such as the power held by Henry’s “Groom of the Stool” who was to keep Henry company while he sat on the toilet and hand him a flannel cloth so his majesty (Henry was the first to use the term) could cleanse his backside. It was one of the most powerful positions in the kingdom.

The somewhat narrow topic allows Weir to be concise while still covering a reign of over 35 years. From his coronation as a handsome 6′ 2″ youth of 18 to his painful and bloated death in his mid-50s there are dozens of stories small and large that she manages to cover through the narrative.