Behind-the-scenes secrets of the men who had the greatest influence on one of England’s greatest monarchs are set to be shared for the first time at Raworths Harrogate Literature Festival.
Tracy Borman, expert historian and chief curator for the Historic Royal Palaces, will be delving into the chapters of her forthcoming book, Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him. Tracy, who studied and taught history at the University of Hull, is currently on an extensive talking tour, but she managed to find time to answer these six questions on her beloved Tudors:
- In an age of social media and reality TV, how do we inspire today’s school pupils to study history not just at A-level and beyond, but at GCSE level too?
I’m a firm believer in the power of screen adaptations as a means of bringing history to life and inspiring people of all ages – even (or especially) those who thought history was boring. There’s a great deal of debate among historians as to the value of historical drama and fiction, with some claiming that it can be inaccurate and misleading. But my view is that as a way in to history, it is one of the best there is. Even if on-screen dramas or historical novels don’t always stay true to the facts, they inspire people to find out what really happened. This works for historians as well as students: my non-fiction biography of Thomas Cromwell was inspired by Wolf Hall. I wanted to know how true to life Hilary Mantel’s dazzling portrayal of this erstwhile villain really was.
- What is it about the Tudors – and in particular Henry VIII – that appeals to you the most?
The Tudors are larger than life – Henry above all, of course. They ushered in an age of such drama, intrigue, discovery and revolution that it changed the shape of England forever. Some of the most notable events and characters in our long history were drawn from this period: the Reformation, the Armada, Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh…and of course the monarchs themselves. Henry VIII is arguably the most famous of them, largely because of his marital history. When it comes to the Tudors, it really is a case of truth being stranger than fiction.
- For your latest book, Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him, how challenging was it to research the various characters?
Some of the characters, such as the three Thomases – Wolsey, Cromwell and More – are already well known so there was a lot of material to go on. But it was the lesser-known men who fascinated me more – and whose influence on Henry was just as great. Men such as his favourite doctor, William Butts, who as well as being a gifted physician was also a religious radical who shaped his royal master’s own views. I also loved researching Will Somer, Henry’s “fool”, who became one of his closest confidantes. It was a challenge to find out about these more obscure characters, but the sources are there – and have often been overlooked. Seeing Henry through the eyes of men such as these gave me a completely different perspective on our most famous king.
- If you could spend an hour in the company of any Tudor monarch, who would it be and what two questions would you ask of him or her?
Ooh, so hard to choose! I have always been a huge admirer of Elizabeth I, but I think it would have to be her father. I would ask Henry VIII which of his men he regretted losing the most…and whether he really believed he was a better king than his father, as he liked to boast.
- As joint chief curator for the Historic Royal Palaces, which is the one you like to spend the most time in and why?
We’re not supposed to have favourites, but if pushed I would have to say Hampton Court. I’m based there most of the time, which is pretty much a dream job for a Tudor historian. I often have to pinch myself that I really am working in Henry VIII’s palace – or rather the one that he took from Cardinal Wolsey! But the Tower of London is a very close second. I have spent the most time there this year filming the Channel 5 documentary Inside the Tower of London. As well as being enormous fun (writing secret letters in invisible ink, Tudor-style, was a particularly memorable occasion), this took me to parts of the Tower that I didn’t even know existed. The Tower also has a special place in my heart because it’s where I got married four years ago.
- Is there another book in the pipeline, and if so are you able to share any details with us?
I have just completed the final instalment of my fiction trilogy, based in the court of James I. As a Tudor historian, it felt tantamount to treason to set my first novels in the Stuart period, but it was such a dark and dangerous time, with plots swirling endlessly around the throne. The first instalment, The King’s Witch, was published in 2018 and the second, The Devil’s Slave, earlier this year. There are still plenty of adventures in store for my heroine in the third!