2018 has been the busiest year of my writing career so far. The reason is that not only has it seen the completion (and, shortly publication) of my new non-fiction book, but also the launch of my first novel.
Writing fiction was a journey of discovery for me. I read historical novels all the time and had often dreamed of penning one myself, but didn’t think I would ever have the chance. Then a few years ago, inspired by the research I carried out for my non-fiction book, Witches, an account of James I and the English witch hunts, I began developing an idea. It was batted to and fro between my agent and I for a couple of years, until it was eventually in a fit state to show to a fiction editor. I was overjoyed (and not a little apprehensive!) when he agreed to take it on.
It took another couple of years to craft the story into the finished novel that was published by Hodder in June, and I learned a huge amount along the way. Although it is still history, writing a novel is a very different discipline to non-fiction. I had to learn to ‘show not tell’, to interweave period details into dialogue, rather than writing them verbatim as I would in a non-fiction account. Given that so much of my heroine’s history is unknown to us, I also had to employ a great deal of imagination – and straying from the facts is not something that comes naturally to a historian! But I hope the result brings one of the most turbulent events in British history to life.
Given that I am first and foremost a Tudor historian, the fact that I chose the Stuart period as the subject of my debut novel is tantamount to treason. But I hope I will secure a pardon on the basis that my new non-fiction book is about the most famous Tudor of them all: Henry VIII. I have studied Henry for many years now and had come to what I realise was the arrogant conclusion that I knew pretty much everything there is to know about this much-married monarch. Like many historians, though, I had been blinded by the – admittedly dramatic – story of the six wives. But in researching my biography of Thomas Cromwell a few years ago, I began to wonder if there was another side to the story.
I soon realised that it was the men in Henry’s life, far more than the wives, who wielded the greatest influence. They also reveal an entirely different Henry from the one we know and love: one who is at once vulnerable, loyal and generous, as well as fickle, changeable and at times utterly ruthless.
Although Henry was raised in a predominantly female household, the overbearing, often suffocating, presence of his father Henry VII dominated his early years. The sudden death of his elder brother Arthur at the age of just fifteen propelled Henry into the limelight and, once king, he gathered around him a coterie of high-spirited young men to keep him entertained. During the course of his thirty-seven-year reign, he would attract some of the brightest minds of the sixteenth century: from powerful and ambitious advisers such as Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell to the renowned scholars Thomas More and Desiderius Erasmus, and the arrogant, ruthless members of the aristocracy, such as the dukes of Buckingham and Norfolk.
In Henry’s private domain, meanwhile, such as the ‘secret chambers’ that he built at Hampton Court towards the end of his reign, he was attended by an array of different men: servants, barbers, physicians, fools and other lesser known characters whose job it was to attend to the King’s every need, to entertain him and to listen to his confidences.
Exploring the men in Henry VIII’s life reveals a dazzling and eclectic cast of characters: relations, servants, ministers, rivals, confidants and companions. Some were ‘mad’ (Sir Francis Bryan, the so-called ‘Vicar of Hell’), some ‘bad’ (the arch-schemer, Stephen Gardiner), but none as ‘dangerous to know’ as Henry VIII himself. There are also the men whose stories have, until now, remained in the shadows: Sir William Butts, Henry’s favourite physician, Will Somer, his fool, and Sir Thomas Cawarden, who superintended some of the most spectacular entertainments of the later reign, reminding Henry of his glorious younger days. It is these men who helped to shape the character, opinions and image of their king, and whose influence – sometimes visible, sometimes hidden – lay behind the Tudor throne.
Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him will be published by Hodder on 1 November. The day before that is the deadline for my next novel – the sequel to The King’s Witch. Is it easy to switch between fiction and non-fiction? I struggled a bit at first but I’m gradually getting used to it. Indeed, there are distinct advantages. For example, my non-fiction research sometimes sparks ideas and material for my novels, and if ever I reach one of those frustrating gaps in the sources whilst researching non-fiction, I take solace from the fact that I can exercise my imagination to fill any such gaps in the fiction! I have come to love both genres so I feel incredibly lucky to be writing them side by side. It is a huge plus that Hodder is my publisher for both. It wouldn’t be nearly as much fun otherwise!