Is Dr. David Starkey Channelling Henry VIII?

  April 30, 2009 at 4:40 pm by

Dr. David Starkey

Click the image to see the article at The Daily Telegraph

A recent article in The Times made some interesting observations about Dr. David Starkey and the object of his affections, King Henry VIII. The historian and the king share several characteristics, some of which Dr. Starkey addressed.

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog entry about Starkey’s analysis of the king’s handwriting and that of his mother and a sister. While doing research Starkey observed that Henry VIII had grown up, rather unusually, in a household dominated by women when he was the less important “spare to the throne.” “It’s the most important thing I learned,” he explains. “He wasn’t like a typical royal prince at all, not masculinised, not sent away. He was close to his mother, physically brought up with his sisters in a household dominated by women until he’s well into his teens.”

Not unlike the king, Starkey’s upbringing was dominated by his mother. Born in 1945 to a poor family, Starkey had an awful childhood. He was born with two club feet, which had to be operated upon before he was age four, and then contracted polio. The relationship between mother and son, as with the Tudors, was intense, and the death of the mother was a traumatic event for both king and historian. Starkey is reluctant to discuss personal pain and says “The idea of the death á  la [Jade] Goody is not one I’m sympathetic to, I’m afraid.” You get the feeling that this is man who is more comfortable cultivating the famed British stiff upper lip.

Both men were also precocious. Toddler Henry rode a horse and observed the rituals of knighthood. Toddler David was able to tell a neighbor a complicated recipe. “Yes, it’s the precocious observing child. That’s something we share. I think certainly, like Henry, I had this. Obviously, Henry didn’t go gay – I’m not carrying the vision that far – but that sense of what a feminised upbringing does to you is very important. It’s not necessarily love of women; it’s a particular approach to human relations. Henry’s a big strong boy and a natural athlete. I was neither of those things. That obviously takes him off in a different direction, but there’s a certain neediness to our human relations. It’s an openness which of course if it is repudiated or injured can turn to something much nastier.”

That’s an interesting interpretation of Henry. Henry was, simply, a needy and clingy king who could turn evil when he thought he was ill-treated by those he loved. “Henry loved women; he literally could not live without them. It does seem to me that there are only two reasons to get married six times. One is that you treat women utterly unseriously. The other is that you treat them too seriously. I think Henry is the latter.”

Henry VIII as a young man

For most of us, Henry is the grossly overweight titan depicted by Holbein, but Starkey is able to strip away the years. Part of the reason he worked on the new TV documentary is to look at the young Henry. “I think, as a young man, Henry is immensely likeable. He’s a natural star. When he goes into a room, partly because he’s royal, partly because he’s very big, everyone pays attention. He has this ability, like so many successful people in that world” – a little like Diana, I suppose – “to break convention. At one court ball, he throws his gown off. That’s the equivalent of stripping nowadays.” Would we ever see the current Prince of Wales stripping? I don’t think so (perhaps the current Prince Henry).

Despite his recent criticism of the overemphasis by women historians on the wives, Starkey’s own career began with a study of Anne Boleyn and then expanded to his other wives and daughters. “If you read my Six Wives book, I almost deliberately exclude him. It really is like the layers of an onion, as indeed was trying to get to the king in real life: you go through room after room and apartment after apartment until finally, in the middle, there he is.”

I think that’s rather a backwards way to view the Tudors, not unlike the way that the Windsors have been studied in the post-Diana age. Diana without the Prince of Wales was merely an English aristocrat of no importance; add in the power, prestige and wealth of the Prince of Wales, and Diana became a star.

For more about Dr. Starkey, see this article in the Daily Telegraph.

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