When is a non-fiction book completely fabulous and unputdownable? Ironically, when it reads like a work of fiction. So it is with Ian Mortimer’s engaging and exciting biographical work on Henry Bolingbroke, The Fears of Henry IV: The Life of England’s Self-Made King who was a son of John of Gaunt, cousin to Richard II, and who was mostly known as a usurper and murderer. He’s also, it turns out, one of the most under-rated kings in British history.
Mortimer begins by informing the reader that good ol’ Will Shakespeare has a lot to answer for. The reason he states this is because contemporary impressions and understanding of Henry IV are mainly drawn from the bard’s portrait of the man across a few plays. As a consequence, the man and king we “know” is largely a distortion drawn not for historical purposes so much as political and dramatic ones. Stating his case, Mortimer sets about trying to set this inaccurate portrait straight.
While each of the chapters has as an epigraph a quote from Shakespeare, the content is rigorously researched using the few extant documents available from the period – many of which are financial records of Henry’s court, all of which leave a terrific and interesting trail (at one stage, Mortimer knows where Henry is because of the toilet paper – cloth –he’s ordered to be at his residence! He literally follows his leavings) for us to follow. He also draws upon French and other documents about the period, analysing their biases or possible inaccuracies in the process. Finally, he also uses contemporary historians, emphasising where they may have misread or misinterpreted a fact or hit the nail on the head. In other words, this is a thoroughly researched book that also contains fascinating appendices, an extensive bibliography and from which a few academic journal articles arose as well.
Commencing in Henry’s childhood and creating a context for his later antagonism with Richard, Mortimer describes the cousins’ early years and is at pains to point out their differences: Richard was quiet, aware of the throne he was to inherit, greatly coddled, not an intellectual and certainly not a fighter. By contrast, Henry, as the eldest son of John of Gaunt, was well educated, privileged, a fine warrior (he was one of the youngest nobles ever to enter a jousting ring – fourteen!), travelled a great deal and was a deeply pious man who believed in the Holy Trinity with a passion.
What may have started out as familiarity, bred through ties of kinship, later became contempt, possibly fuelled through frustration, jealousy, fear and loathing – on both parts. I’m simplifying something here that is complex and which Mortimer explains and explores with the finesse and erudition of a forensic psychologist, profiling with expertise these two very dissimilar men.
Mortimer is at pains to show how Richard’s fears, cruelty and insecurities bred a particular type of response, not simply among his courtiers, but from political allies and enemies, as well as the king himself, and how these also led to Henry becoming and acting a particular way. He doesn’t judge or condone, but he does unpack the diverse approaches of the two men, the way they interact with others and how they understand their roles as men, leaders, friends and sons.
It’s these differences, physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual that set these men apart in every way and which lead to the huge schism that later divides England along the lines of Richard’s supporters and Henry’s.
Without going into too much detail for those who don’t know the story, Richard’s reign and Henry’s actions and reactions under it are explored – the battles, the pilgrimages, the attempt at crusades, the longing for public acknowledgement, the rewards, riches and punishments – all of which were delivered at the seeming changeable whim of an insecure and nasty king.
When, in 1399, Henry returns to England and takes the throne, it’s to a land confused about what’s happened, torn asunder by petty rivalries and jealousies and on the cusp of common – not rule – but legislature. It’s into this that Henry, a man never raised to be king, steps and takes the reigns of power. Wielding them as best he can it’s inevitable that he makes mistakes and earns the enmity of those who don’t seem to give him a chance. But, if there’s one thing Mortimer makes clear, it’s that Henry Bolingbroke, despite treachery, many, many assassination attempts, a treasury forever in gross debt, foreign countries plotting, scheming and changing sides, and a constant movement to dethrone him in other ways, survives.
While not remembered for performing any great deeds, nor leaving behind any churches or buildings of state (the only memorial to Henry IV is a statue on the east end of Battlefield Church at Shrewsbury), Mortimer proves that Henry was indeed a self-made king – someone who grew into the role and who did the best he could against formidable odds.
Tall, handsome, smart and deeply committed to his wives and children, Henry was a loyal man who nonetheless understood justice, even when it came at a high cost. Terribly ill from his late thirties on, he ruled against the odds in all sorts of ways. Reading his story, I felt like I was plunged into an action-adventure on minute, a political thriller the next, a romance with medical overtones after that. Marvellously told, rich and exciting, Mortimer is such a talent. He literally brings history and the people who made it to life on the page.
An outstanding book for those who love a good read, for the voracious history buff, and for anyone wanting to shed light on England’s past and thus present by looking at the lesser-known figures and their contributions – great and small, I cannot recommend it highly enough.