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HENRY IV, Parts 1 and 2 are, to
me, the most convincing of Shakespeare’s history plays. The others are certainly great pageants in which the central character moves inexorably to victory or tragedy. But these two embody the shifting nature of real politics, in which events veer about through rumour, uncertainty, rashness, and betrayal.
Almost all the history plays are parables about the ills that come from usurpation. Shakespeare’s Henry IV thinks he may seize the throne with impunity. Instead he encounters enmity from his barons, rebellion from his eldest son, and finally disease in his body. He becomes an increasingly shadowy figure, while that son, Prince Hal, grows brighter on the path to his triumphs as Henry V.
Some of this matches the historical truth. The four usurpers of the period 1399-1485 all had difficulty in establishing their regimes. But Professor Given-Wilson’s excellent study shows that Henry was a substantial and powerful figure before and after he came to the throne, and even when his health deteriorated. In youth, he took a forceful part in the politics of Richard II’s reign. He was esteemed in Europe as a warrior; reached Jerusalem on pilgrimage; and went on crusade in the Baltic. He seized the throne and held it against the Percies, Scots, and Welsh.
There is more than a whiff of Henry VIII about Henry IV. He executed Richard Scrope, the Archbishop of York, for treason, and got away with it — unlike Henry II with Becket. He taught bishops to tread more warily where the crown was concerned. He executed nearly a dozen friars for sedition, and allowed the first two burnings of Lollard dissenters, so beginning the melancholy series of such punishments that lasted till the 17th century.
Like the later Henry, he could read Latin, was a patron of music, and collected books. He, too, established his dynasty on the throne, and for almost as long.
Professor Given-Wilson’s very substantial biography brings Henry IV out of the shadows. It is as good a study of an English king as one could desire: deeply researched, admirably comprehensive, well considered, and competently told. Without neglecting the details that the story requires, the narrative never falters, and the pace is compelling throughout.
Just as Shakespeare’s plays tell us as much about England as about monarchy, so this book also recreates the world in which Henry lived: its court, nobility, great clergy, parliaments, wars, and local affairs. Looking at the face on his monument in Canterbury Cathedral, “stern and pudgy”, and possibly based on a death mask, we can feel we know him better than before.
Dr Nicholas Orme is Emeritus Professor of History, Exeter University