The King is Dead by Suzannah Lipscomb

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The King is Dead by Suzannah Lipscomb

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Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: King Henry VIII's last will and testament left explicit instructions for the royal succession and in particular the government and constitution during the reign of his nine-year-old successor Edward, as well as provisions for the disposal of his personal possessions. Many of these were overturned by the powerful councillors who ruled the country during the boy king's brief reign. This is not only a lively and thorough history of Henry's last few months and the aftermath, but also a magnificently illustrated and designed book which is a pleasure to handle.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: November 2015
Publisher: Head of Zeus
ISBN: 978-1784081928

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Shortly before his death in January 1547, King Henry VIII's last will and testament was read, stamped and sealed. It has remained one of the most intriguing and contested documents in British history. This book examines it from every angle, and analyses the background against the last days of the King's life and the events which followed.

As his colourful marital history demonstrated, securing the succession at a time of fierce religious division weighed heavily on his mind, and increasingly so as he became older. Aged fifty-five, grossly overweight, and troubled for some time by a running sore on his leg, during the last few weeks of his life he suspected that his time was not long. Even so, a couple of clauses in the will suggested that - ever the optimist - he still hoped his sixth wife, Catherine (given as Kateryn throughout in the book), would yet bear him a son, and that he was prepared for the possibility of marrying yet again and having still more children. (Whether he feared that she, like Jane Seymour, might die in childbirth, or whether he anticipated that something else might leave him free to take a seventh Queen, is left to the imagination). Until then, he designated his nine-year-old son Edward as the lawful heir, followed by his daughters Mary and Elizabeth in turn, even though they had at that time been deprived of their titles of Princess as well as their legitimacy. But he knew that leaving his crown to a boy who would be surrounded by powerful and ambitious nobles would be no guarantee of a stable future for the kingdom, or indeed his children, and he was anxious to leave some expression of his intentions which he hoped if not expected would be honoured.

Henry's will was very different to those which had been left by his predecessors on the English throne. Whereas they had devoted much attention to apportioning estates, and making provision for their souls, his was largely dedicated to determining the succession and perpetuation of the Tudor dynasty. It also made provision for the fulfilling of bequests, the arrangement of offices and the distribution of titles. He was evidently determined to leave all possible loose ends tied up.

An early chapter provides us with a brief overview of the King's reign, but the majority of the book deals with the King's twilight days, death and aftermath. Nevertheless his will had limited legal force, and depended solely on the thoughts and more particularly ambitions of those who wielded the power after he was gone. As he might have foreseen, in a kingdom teeming with men who were as autocratic as he himself had been, it was liable to be overturned. The Duke of Somerset, King Edward's Protector and King in all but name, proceeded to rule as he thought fit. As Dr Lipscomb notes, 'seldom can a monarch of such terrible power have been so quickly forgotten', when within two months of his death, the careful plans he had made for the future of the constitution had been discarded, and the confidence he had placed in his councillors been utterly misplaced. Although his intentions regarding the royal succession to his daughters in turn would be respected, his plans for his young son's minority and efforts to curb the absolutism of his former councillors were dashed. When King Edward was dying six years later, he adopted his father's approach to the succession; what one monarch had given, another could take away. Anxious not to bequeath the throne to his Catholic half-sister Mary, he nominated Lady Jane Grey as his immediate successor. As history would prove all too speedily and brutally, his will was likewise disregarded.

Following the main text of the book, separate appendices contain a transcription of King Henry's will as it exists in the National Archives at Kew, a list of the executors and regency council who he had named in the document, and an inventory of all his named possessions, including jewellery, clothes, games and toys, and musical instruments.

I should note that if my review gives you the impression that this is a dry volume of legal Tudor history, nothing could be further from the truth. Dr Lipscomb's style and account of the era is lively and thoroughly readable, and moreover the book is beautifully presented. An exquisite jacket design is matched inside by page after page of first-class illustrations, including portraits and contemporary documents, all printed on high quality paper. Author, publisher and designers have spared no effort in producing a volume which is a pleasure to read, look at and handle.

For an excellent overview of the dynasty, may we recommend Tudor: The Family Story by Leanda de Lisle; for an account of the end of King Henry's first marriage, The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story by Catherine Fletcher, or for the next King and his reign, Edward VI: The Lost King of England by Chris Skidmore.

Buy The King is Dead by Suzannah Lipscomb at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The King is Dead by Suzannah Lipscomb at

Buy The King is Dead by Suzannah Lipscomb at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The King is Dead by Suzannah Lipscomb at


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