This political history of Henry IV by Chris Given-Wilson came my way at just the right time. After enjoying historical fiction The King’s Sister by Anne O’Brien (about Henry’s sister, Elizabeth) I was thrilled at the chance to read about some of the real history that inspired it.
The first half of the book looks at Henry as the heir to his powerful father, John of Gaunt – Duke of Lancaster (the 4th son of Edward III). Henry grew up in a time where the House of Lancaster was regaining the power and prestige it had formerly had. Henry enjoyed a good education, a successful marriage, wealth and hands on experience travelling Europe: jousting, crusading, courting foreign dignitaries and he even made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He was shaping up to be a model knight and lord (and possible king). However the family’s re-ascendency and Henry’s success made for an uneasy relationship with his cousin, Richard II, that culminated in his banishment in 1398 and the denial of his inheritance in 1399.
I actually found the second half of the book, Henry as king, less gripping. This is not the author or books fault, but because Henry didn’t really seem to deliver on the promise he’d shown. While Richard II had been a deeply unpopular king, Henry was to find people don’t like usurpers either. To give him his due, he was a fair king who listened and worked with the Commons and Lords. Yet he still suffered with mismanagement, a lack of resources and overspending. His reign was also plagued with rebellions in Wales and Ireland, incursions by the French into Guyenne and Calais, and the Scots raiding the northern borders. The latter half of his reign also saw him suffer terrible health that eventually ended in a slow, painful death in 1413.
The author discusses how he chose to focus on Henry IV because he is a rather forgotten king – other than being the usurper of Richard II and father of the Agincourt hero Henry V, what do most people know about him? I can honestly say before reading this, I knew nothing more. I learnt a lot from this book and I came to appreciate more the longstanding feud between Lancaster and York. The author also warns the reader, so I will too, that this book is a political history; not a personal history. This didn’t bother me because it is surprising how much personality and character you can draw from letters, meetings, taxes, loans, laws and decrees. However if you are less acquainted with reading non-fiction this might not be the best place to start.
I thought this political history of Henry IV was a detailed, informative and interesting read – it has wetted my appetite to read more non-fiction and novels from this time period. Good read.
Thank you to the publishers for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.
Have you read this? Any recommendations for books about Henry IV?