Magazine article The Spectator

Shakespeare Got It Wrong

Magazine article The Spectator

Shakespeare Got It Wrong

Article excerpt

THE FEARS OF HENRY IV : THE LIFE OF ENGLAND'S SELF-MADE KING by Ian Mortimer Cape, £18.99, pp. 478, ISBN 9780224073004 £15.19 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Henry IV, in Ian Mortimer's graceless (and sense-defying) words, is 'the least biographied English king to have been crowned since the Conquest'. No longer.

Here is a full and richly detailed life. Not a deal more would need to be said were it not that Mortimer has invited us to look upon his book as representative of a new species of biographical history.

In his introduction Mortimer argues against the traditional view that a lack of documentary evidence (chiefly letters) places limits on medieval biography. His book is intended to demonstrate that not only is a 'personality-based' biography of Henry possible, but that biography is the most important approach to the past. Only biography can uncover 'why this had happened, or that had not happened'. It can do this, however, only if historians throw academic caution to the winds and eschew 'judgmental' biography, Mortimer's example of which is K. B. McFarlane's chapters on Henry IV in his Lancastrian Kings and Lollard Knights (1972). McFarlane's chapters are 'too objective' because 'linked to a philosophy of history as a judgmental process -- seeing Henry in the context of his peers', whereas Mortimer's biography is 'a sympathetic one (seeing his peers through Henry's eyes)'.

Historians' distrust of biography is rooted in the biographer's need to place historical events in the background while his subject struts his hour upstage. Mortimer drizzles cool water on 'life and times' biographies which spend too much time on the 'rustling leaves' of the period, rather than concentrating on the 'roots, trunk and branches' of the protagonist's personality. Mortimer himself gives the political events of the time at least as much space as Henry's personality. He is not so foolish as to believe that everything can be seen through Henry's eyes; even so, those events are seen chiefly as they touched Henry's interest. That makes for a romantic biography. What sort of history is it?

To write 'sympathetic' biography, when records of personal life are skimpy, requires, as Mortimer puts it, 'looking for hints'. He admits the poverty of documentary evidence about Henry: down to his accession the only source is his account books. Mortimer does well to extract as much as he does from those accounts (they are, for instance, the basis for his convincing debunking of the longheld view that Henry and Richard were on friendly terms in the 1390s). The trouble is that very nearly everything that Mortimer writes about Henry's thoughts, motives, feelings, reactions to political events down to his accession is conjecture and surmise. It is often shrewd, but it is still surmise. The prose abounds in 'probablys' and 'must haves'. Historians have to exercise their imagination quite enough when there is evidence to consider, without having to do so when there is none.

So Mortimer conjectures a boyhood antipathy between Richard and Henry.

He asks us to 'imagine' Richard II in his minority, rummaging in the Tower among chronicles for accounts of the deposed Edward II and, finding one, 'closing the book and holding it tightly, having recognised a royal martyr in the man who had sought to maintain the integrity of the royal will above all his magnates, including Lancaster'. …

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