‘Biography’, contended the Tudor historian Geoffrey Elton, ‘is a poor way of writing history’. He believed that ‘no individual has ever dominated his age to the point where it becomes sensible to write its history purely around him’. Elton’s conviction is evidently not shared by Allen Lane, which has launched a series of short biographies of English monarchs (and, in the person of Oliver Cromwell, one quasi-monarch). When complete, it will comprise forty-five volumes and span more than a millennium, beginning with King Athelstan in the tenth century and ending in our own time with Elizabeth II.
Even if one agrees with the general sentiment, there is a good case for exempting monarchs from Elton’s censure. Kings are no ordinary beings. They possess, as Ernst Kantorowicz observed, two bodies, a body natural and a body politic, united in one person. The separation of public and private spheres, the privilege of the common citizen, does not apply to them. The lives of monarchs, at least in times past, defined their ages: states were constituted in their names; governments were formed when they succeeded and dissolved when they died; time was measured by the length of their reigns; the futures of nations were settled in their beds. Occasionally, as in the case of Charles I (whose life forms the subject of one of the first five instalments in this series), the very institution of monarchy hinged on the fate of the king.
Yet the apparent suitability of monarchs as subjects for biographical study raises a problem of its own, at least with respect to this series. If it can be difficult to capture the life of any individual in a hundred or so pages, how much harder still to condense into that space the life of a state as well. The task is all the more formidable when dealing with a monarch upon whose name centuries of myth, adulation or odium have accreted. It is a challenge that the authors of this first batch of biographies, in the fashion of portrait miniaturists practising different styles, approach in a variety of ways.
No English king or queen has suffered more from retrospective caricature than Henry VIII, alternatively tyrant–murderer and renaissance prince, nationalist bigot and revolutionary patriot. Yet John Guy’s Henry VIII: The Quest for Fame steers skilfully around the rocks of commonplace and cliché. Guy takes a traditional approach, placing his subject at the heart of political, international and religious affairs and arguing that through the constant shifts of policy, favour and diplomacy ran a golden thread: the king’s desire for glory. It is a thesis with which the king’s contemporaries would have concurred. In a premonition of Henry’s adult preoccupation, Erasmus penned a verse for the young prince likening him to Alexander the Great and urging him to seek renown in the arts and literature instead of war and conquest.
Guy covers in long strides the standard milestones of Henry’s life: the mollycoddled upbringing, the cockfights with France, the torturous divorce from Katherine of Aragon, the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell (perhaps predictably, he throws in a reference to Wolf Hall, home of the Seymour family), the spoliation of the monasteries and the decline into obesity and paranoia. This familiar narrative is crosshatched with details, particularities and ironies, many of which will be unknown even to seasoned scholars of the period. Guy tells, for example, how Henry VIII attempted to rewrite the Sixth Commandment in the aftermath of the Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536 to exempt princes from its strictures, and how the same year he and Anne Boleyn donned yellow satin when news of Katherine of Aragon’s death reached court to indicate their indifference. When judged by his own standards, Guy concludes, Henry’s reign can be considered a success: by defying the pope, magnifying the authority of the crown and founding a national church, he achieved the immortal fame he had craved from childhood. Yet in spite of these achievements, Henry emerges from Guy’s subtle and even-handed study still bearing the sheen of vulgarity that his posturing, undiscriminating patronage and impulsive decision-making set upon him.
Stephen Alford’s challenge, in his life of Henry’s successor, Edward VI: The Last Boy King, is the opposite of Guy’s. If Henry’s outrageous antics have propelled him into folklore, the son for whom he overturned a millennium of religious practice has struggled to escape his father’s shadow. It is perhaps no accident that Alford dwells for several pages on Holbein’s portrait of the one-year-old Prince Edward, with its conscious echoes of the same artist’s paintings of Henry VIII.
Alford places the person of Edward – who died in 1553 at the age of fifteen – at the forefront of his study, making extensive use of the chilly journal that the young king kept for much of his reign. He provides a good account of Edward’s education, which was designed to produce a ‘philosopher prince’, and of the various entertainments that were organised to occupy and distract him. However, Alford’s concentration on Edward’s personal development comes at the cost of context. The king’s relations with the ministers who acted in his name receive only glancing attention. Religion – a matter so hotly contested in Edward’s reign and a subject with which the king was precociously engaged – is strangely absent. The liveliness of Edward’s court is at times also exaggerated: a rambunctious nursery it may have been, but real political power was gathered elsewhere.
In Charles I: An Abbreviated Life, Mark Kishlansky offers another approach to the art of biographical primer – that of unashamed acclamation. Given that Charles I’s reign ended with the most conspicuous mark of failure any monarch could possibly receive, it is no easy assignment. Yet Kishlansky is not shy in cataloguing Charles’s qualities: his manners and uxoriousness, his wit and honesty, his artistic sensibility and his loyalty to allies. Certainly, Charles’s personal dignity cannot be questioned. But when set in a different light, some of these characteristics might be given less flattering names.
A more serious problem is Kishlansky’s insistence that misfortune, rather than miscalculation, was the principal cause of Charles’s undoing. The fiasco of the Ile de Ré expedition of 1627 against France, which ended in a massacre of English soldiers and the disgrace of the Duke of Buckingham, would, he claims, never have happened but for a ‘freak shift of the winds’. In Kishlansky’s view, Charles was also unlucky in his enemies. At various points during the civil wars of 1639–49, he argues, Charles was willing to make concessions to his enemies. Yet at each moment he was faced with opponents who were either too stubborn or too divided among themselves to agree terms. When, on occasions, he was guilty of misjudgement, his fault was to be too ready to compromise. Such, at least, was his error in 1639, when, with superior forces at his disposal, he might have defeated the Scottish Covenanters. It is a novel argument, earnestly propounded. But the format does not offer Kishlansky the space to unravel the various negotiations between king, Parliament and Scots in enough detail to make his case convincingly.
The gradual emergence of ‘constitutional’ monarchy in Britain in the two centuries following Charles I’s death might have brought a royal retreat from the political frontline but, as David Cannadine’s urbane biography of George V shows, it did not necessitate disengagement from public life. George V: The Unexpected King presents an unflattering profile of the man himself: ‘obsessed by uniforms and decorations, protocol and etiquette, timing and punctuality; … he was impatient with nuance and complexity, and he mistrusted imagination and intuition’. Yet Cannadine makes a persuasive claim for this stolid and conservative king being the architect of the ‘welfare monarchy’ with which we are now so familiar. The collapse of the great European empires during the First World War, Cannadine argues, prompted George V to reposition the crown away from the great cousinhood of international royalty and towards the nation as a means of securing its survival. He substituted the surname Windsor for Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and promoted direct engagement with his subjects through appearances at sporting events, public weddings for his children, charitable endeavours, investitures and the Christmas Day address to the nation.
Cannadine’s penetrating portrait of George V is a reminder that monarchy, even in a democratic age, merits serious attention. It is not matched by Philip Ziegler’s somewhat one-dimensional life of George V’s second son, George VI: The Dutiful King. Ziegler is old enough to recall George’s early radio broadcasts in the 1930s and writes touchingly about the king’s struggle to overcome his stammer. However, his evident admiration for this monarch at times prevents him from engaging critically with his life. George VI, as Ziegler shows, struggled to shake off the influence of his forbidding father; his reign – after the calamitous interlude of Edward VIII – marked a restoration of the status quo ante. Yet too often, the cautiousness that marked George’s behaviour as king infects Ziegler’s prose. In place of analysis of the king’s motives and objectives are courtly phrases that reveal little. We hear, for instance, that Elizabeth Bowes Lyon played a part of ‘inestimable importance’ in her husband’s life and that George ‘enormously appreciated’ Ernest Bevin’s sense of humour. The book is also marred by unexplained incongruities. At one point, Ziegler writes that the publicity-shy George VI had little appetite for the ceremonies of the coronation. Yet in the next paragraph he contends that the king was desperate to emulate this event with a still more lavish Indian durbar.
In the absence of a great founding myth or a totemic national moment, English history, for better or worse, continues to be defined in terms of its kings and queens. They remain staples of the school syllabus, the stage and the screen. Despite the variable success of these offerings, Allen Lane has surely discovered El Dorado – the fantasy of every monarch from time immemorial – with this series.