“The Six Wives of Henry VIII is one of the world’s great stories: indeed, it contains a whole world of literature within itself. It is more far-fetched than any soap opera; as sexy and violent as any tabloid; and darker and more disturbing than the legend of Bluebeard. It is both a great love story and a supreme political thriller.”
David Starkey in Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII. Starkey didn’t call his book The Six Wives of Henry VIII, because when he published it in 2003 two contenders with that title were still in print, by Alison Weir (1991) and Antonia Fraser (1992). Starkey’s is by far the best.
I’ve just watched his Channel 4 series (available on iTunes), which preceded the book. It used Starkey on screen as narrator and (mostly) non-speaking actors. I was enthralled by a story which I had forgotten. I could not have told you anything about the last four wives. The younger Henry looked superbly unpleasant, the older Henry like our disgruntled ex-Home Secretary Charles Clarke.
Starkey concentrates on marriages and miscarriages, executions and betrayals and leaves out most of the wider politics. Unlike some television historians, he tries to tell a comprehensible story within a constrained medium. He’s precise and lucid. He cuts ruthlessly. Speaks ruthlessly.
I prefer him to Schama, who, it seems to me, brings too much modern attitude and baggage into whatever he says. Starkey is the successor of Rowse as national historian laureate of the Tudors. Cross old queen expounds Tudors to large audience. Which sounds like a Times crossword clue. But Rowse never did television, though he was born in the same year as Kenneth Clark.
Toynbee refused to enter the stuffy closet of English history after finishing Greats. Some of my contemporaries, having done English history at school and then all over again at Oxford went on to study what as postgraduates? The Henrician reformation. Again. The Elizabethan parliaments. The rise, or not, of the English gentry. The history of administration. Reform and reformation. Continuity and change. Policy and police. Parliaments and patronage.
There had to be alliteration. “Do something else and then rediscover your Tudors” would have been better advice. Toynbee’s idea of withdrawal and return suggests itself. But they went straight back into it at the age of 22. Didn’t they want to venture out at all or take a breath? Starkey, at Cambridge, took a direct course into the field of the Henrician court, but at least he finally earned some money. Those academic contemporaries of mine make me think of Steve Jobs’s remark about Bill Gates: “He’d be a broader guy if he’d dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger.”