This is a kind of "I Claudius" for Henry VIII - a first person account of his life, told as he approaches the end of his reign. However, it has a much more personal perspective: while Claudius spends a lot of time filling you in on what was going on in the world, Henry concentrates on his own private motivations and experiences. There's also a lot more dialogue in Henry than there was in Claudius, which makes it a bit harder to sustain the belief that this is an account that is written many years after the events concerned.
The author apparently wanted to give Henry the chance to put his own side of the story: I didn't have more than a cursory knowledge of his reign before reading this so don't have a feel for how history judges him, but he does seem a fairly sympathetic character here, and presents plausible reasons for his behaviour. For example, it seems that the accepted view of Anne Boleyn's fall from grace is that it was rooted in Henry's frustration at her inability to provide a son, but in the book Henry sincerely believes she is guilty of witchcraft and adultery, and doesn't regard the capital charges against her as trumped up.
Although the stuff about the wives was interesting, I found the book quite heavy going: it was long (over 900 pages) and there were a lot of names to keep track of. Also, because the focus was on his personal life, the book didn't explain enough about the issues relating to the break with the Pope and the dissolution of the monasteries. I think I understand that situation a bit better now, but I'd expected a lot more detail. Henry had spent his youth studying religion and had, until his brother's death, not been expecting to reign as King, and so his reasons for breaking with the Roman church were not solely down to his disagreements over divorce, etc.. But there wasn't very much in the book to cover the theological arguments and so I don't feel a lot wiser about what exactly went on.
In summary, a bit too long, and not really interesting enough, considering the story it had to tell. But reading the book has inspired me to do some other reading though, and it helps bring to life the websites etc. which give a more traditional reading to the events of his reign.
Completed : 29-Mar-2004