What makes a tyrant? Henry VIII ruled with such self aggrandising despotism that his legacy was religious conflict, political isolation, debt and inflation, thousands killed in a foolhardy war against France and continuing war with Scotland. What happened to Prince Hal, the boy considered a ‘model of virtue’?
With more contemporary tyrants we can find clues to their later behaviour in their childhoods – Hitler was regularly beaten by his father, Saddam Hussein by his stepfather. A psychoanalytic interpretation posits that a brutal upbringing that demands obedience can result in suppressed fantasies of revenge that may later be acted out by the adult – the powerlessness and despair of the abused child is reversed as the adult in turn becomes a tyrant.
In her original and convincing account of Henry as a child, H M Castor (who consulted a psychotherapist and a Jungian analyst while writing this book) makes an excellent fist of presenting a sensitive and intelligent boy who, as the spare not the heir, tries in vain to win his father Henry VII’s interest and approval. But even such triumphs as winning a fight with the broadsword against an older boy end in humiliation when his father beats him for showing off and upstaging his brother Arthur. Hal’s mother, Elizabeth of York whose brothers were the murdered princes in the tower, is loving to her second son but she cannot protect him from his father’s cruelty and she has, as Castor hints, her own deep anxieties and fears – Hal witnesses her sleepwalking in the Tower of London.
Burdened not just by childhood humiliations, Hal has also taken to heart a prophecy that he believes applies to him – he will become the ‘blessed ruler’ whose ‘glory will live down the ages’ and, once king, his actions cannot therefore be questioned, least of all by himself. The only dissenter is a mysterious boy whom only Hal can see…
Told in the first person in short, energetically written chapters, this novel of turbulent times bristles with atmosphere and tension. Castor’s passion for all things Tudor translates here into engrossing accounts of archery and jousting techniques as young Hal acquires these skills as well as the effortless incorporation of the detail of Tudor clothing, artefacts and food. As this is a children’s book, the sexual side of Henry’s appetite is not dwelt upon. While no dates are given, the narrative moves briskly through the major events of Henry VIII’s life which are encapsulated in vignette-like scenes. Some previous knowledge of Henry’s reign would perhaps help young readers get the most from the story.
So who is H M Castor? As Harriet Castor, she has many titles to her credit and what we can now see as a kind of apprenticeship helps to account for the confident immediacy of this well-plotted, atmospheric novel with its original psychological perspective. From H M Castor (shades of J K Rowling), we can no doubt expect more historical novels as stunning and engrossing as this one.