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The Horribly Famous series is a collection of biographies about the larger than life characters in history and they didn't come much larger than Henry VIII (certainly in his later years when he acquired a 56 inch waist and was so huge he had to be hauled upstairs in a hoist). In this irreverent, entertaining and informative guide, Henry's eventful life is explored fully. Not only will readers learn how Henry changed from "pin up prince" to "blubber mountain" but also how he went from being a hugely popular monarch, much loved by his subjects, to a bloodthirsty tyrant who was hated and feared by all. You can learn about his favourite sports, his war record, his split with Rome and of course all about his six wives.
The information is presented in a variety of engaging ways, which are sure to hold the reader's attention. Cartoons and jokes are in abundance and the focus is on recreating the atmosphere of the period rather than bombarding the reader with too many dates and complicated time lines. Henry's Family Album introduces you to some of his seriously strange ancestors as well as revealing key moments of his childhood. I was amused to learn that in 1504 when 13 year old Henry became Prince of Wales, he was presented with his horoscope in Latin. It predicted that he would be a devout churchman and a father of many sons. (Hmmm.)
Henry's Secret Diary is a fictional account of the King's innermost thoughts at key times in his life, from childhood through to when he was lying on his death bed. It is all very tongue-in-cheek, but provides the flavour of what it meant to be a king in Tudor times, God's representative on earth who could do pretty much what he liked. In one entry Henry describes a day of boar hunting, eating, dancing and gambling. The final entry for the day reads - "12 midnight. Crawl into bed. Another hard day governing my kingdom over."
In keeping with the theory that children prefer their history with the more grisly bits left in, How to Die Nicely is a guide to chopping block etiquette, presented by the King's executioner. Public executions were a big occasion in Henry's time and it was important for a gentleman or lady to "die a good death" and put on a decent show for the crowd. We learn that it was important to make a speech and there are some suggestions about what you might say. You should also have your tip ready. Most importantly, says the executioner, "for Heaven's sake, keep your head still." Some of the most prominent victims of Henry's regime give their side of the story in a selection of monologues entitled, For The Chop -- which perhaps would be more aptly described as Talking Heads. Thomas More states crossly - "Henry had me executed. That's gratitude for you! After all the meals he'd eaten at my house." If you thought the chopping block was nasty, there are also some gruesome details of other Tudor punishments. Let's just say that if you were going to be burnt at the stake and hoped for a quick death, you wouldn't want a rainy day. I don't feel that the book ever crosses the line into bad taste, however. In my experience, children are more likely to share what they've learned when it is something on the gory side, so this book certainly encourages discussion with peers, parents and teachers.
Like most people, my favourite topic in relation to Henry is his six wives. Lots of fascinating facts about these women are provided in the form of spoof newspaper reports from The Tudor Tatler. I particularly loved the headline reporting the death of Anne Boleyn, which is - "Henry Ditches the Witch." The article on Anne of Cleves also amused me, with its headline, "Henry Turns Nag out to Graze", a reference to Henry thinking poor Anne looked like a horse. This is a very inventive way to tell the story and make the details more accessible to and more dramatic for young readers. I particularly like the combination of quotes in italics (historically accurate quotes, such as Henry's blunt opinion, "I like her not" when he first saw Anne of Cleves) and fictional contributions, such as Anne of Cleves' friends saying, "her hobbies are needlework and talking to her mother." Children might be encouraged to write their own newspaper reports or diary entries, which helps them to become familiar with different writing styles, exploring things from different perspectives, using third person and first person narratives, etc. My daughter loved the newspaper reports and they helped her to connect with the mood of the period and empathise with the different personalities, more so than if she was simply reading an account that came across like a lecture.
In addition you can check out Tudor fashion with a labelled diagram of 'Henry VIII King of the Catwalk' and you can test your Tudor manners with a quiz to see if you've got what it takes to survive life at Henry's court. The Hooligan's Guide to Reforming a Monastery presents a light-hearted look at Henry's shameful looting to line his own coffers. It's hard to believe this was the man once described by Dutch humanist and top thinker, Erasmus, as the most moral king he'd ever met, whose court was "a model of Christian society." A Tale of Four Toms is a useful guide for those who get the likes of Thomas Wolsey, Thomas More and Thomas Cramner mixed up. "Throughout his life Henry relied heavily on men called Tom," we are told, as their role in the royal divorce is outlined. There is also an entry from a Diary of a Yorkshire Rebel - "under arrest, tha knows" which, for all its dim-witted Yorkshire man stereotyping strikes a serious tone about Henry VIII's merciless stance in relation to his enemies.
By the end of this book, the reader will have acquired a good grasp of the main aspects of the reign of King Henry VIII and can attempt to assess his contribution as a king. Was he a hero or monster? The End of Term Report, 1509-1547 may help you to decide. It records Henry's progress in a range of subjects. For example, 'Religion - devious. Architecture - destructive. Economics - disastrous.' (His achievements in art, music and languages are more commendable, however!) The author makes the point that Henry's behaviour must be considered in the context of 16th century standards, which is an essential thing to remember when studying any period of history. The author does not seek to present any right or wrong answers, but leads the reader to analyse Henry's contribution to history, weighing up the different factors and coming to their own conclusions.
This is an enjoyable book which is packed full of historical facts and amusing Henry trivia, an excellent book for children to read alongside more serious history books or for anyone who just wants to brush up on their knowledge of a colourful era. It is written in a chatty, conversational tone, which puts the reader at ease and is less intimidating than many formal text books.
Horribly Famous: Henry VIII and his Wicked Wives can be obtained new from Amazon for £5.30 with cheaper copies available from sellers.