The Fears of Henry IV: The Life of England's Self-Made King by Ian Mortimer

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The Fears of Henry IV: The Life of England's Self-Made King by Ian Mortimer

Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A life of King Henry IV, regarded by some as a scheming usurper and others as the saviour of the kingdom after he deposed his tyrannical cousin King Richard II in 1399
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: July 2008
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-1844135295

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Kings of England, at least those prior to King Henry VIII, seem on the whole a shadowy crowd. They come half-alive through our knowledge of occasional legends, battles fought (and preferably won), and characterisations in Shakespeare's plays, yet still seem oddly remote and two-dimensional.

Mortimer's sympathetic yet not uncritical portrait of Henry IV goes a long way towards rectifying this. Henry Bolingbroke, as he is otherwise sometimes known, was indeed a self-made King in that he grew up in the shadow of his cousin and exact contemporary, the inept Richard II. The inadequate and hapless Richard had no military talent, and no children to inherit the throne after he was gone. By the age of thirty Henry, a father as well as a husband, was a jousting champion, had led an army, been on a crusade, and travelled to Jerusalem. He was also something of an intellectual, being intellectual, bookish and musical; it seems that he purchased the first recorder (i.e. the musical instrument) and maybe the world's first portable clock.

The first few chapters paint an exciting if ultimately rather sad picture of Richard's increasingly tyrannical rule, with political betrayals and executions a-plenty. Henry himself was banished from the kingdom at one stage, though whether driven to rebel against his cousin out of self-advancement, self-preservation or for the good of the kingdom is open to question. This book demonstrates that there was an element of all three in that, though Richard was clearly on a collision course with those around him. If Henry had not deposed him, someone else would probably have done so soon afterwards.

Needless to say, some questioned what they regarded as Henry's usurpation, although the author rejects this view. He suggests that Henry was a more astute King than his predecessor, preferring to negotiate with his enemies rather than resort to imprisonment if not summary execution first. That he found it necessary not only (probably) to order the death of the previous King, but also of an Archbishop, maybe did his cause little good. Yet he won each of three battles, the most famous being that of Shrewsbury in 1403, in which he took part, defeated the Welsh rebel leader Owen Glendower, and survived several rebellions as well as attempts on his life.

His last years were plagued by ill-health, notably an unpleasant skin disease which was for a long time thought to be a form of leprosy but more probably psoriasis. Though he often had cause to fear for his throne and his life, at least he managed to die of natural causes, even though his illness made that death a painful one, and bequeath a secure throne to his son. By the way, the picturesque story of his son and heir trying on the crown for a lark while poor old pater (only in his mid-40s) was on his deathbed in 1413, I am glad to read, is firmly dismissed as mere froth.

The book concludes with seven appendixes, looking in detail at such matters as his exact date of birth and the tangled royal succession between 1386 and 1399. As a read, I'd say it verges on the scholarly. Without some prior knowledge of medieval England, it would probably be heavy going. Nevertheless, I suspect that biographies of medieval English sovereigns come little better than this.

Our thanks to Vintage/ Random House Group for sending a copy to Bookbag for review.

For other equally worthwhile biographies of medieval monarchs, you might like to read A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain by Marc Morris, or The Princes In The Tower by Alison Weir.

Buy The Fears of Henry IV: The Life of England's Self-Made King by Ian Mortimer at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Fears of Henry IV: The Life of England's Self-Made King by Ian Mortimer at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Fears of Henry IV: The Life of England's Self-Made King by Ian Mortimer at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Fears of Henry IV: The Life of England's Self-Made King by Ian Mortimer at Amazon.com.


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