Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Question from Sandra - "The Autobiography of Henry VIII"

In the book "The Autobioghaphy of Henry VIII" by Margaret George, his fool Will Somers says that he stole Henry's journal when he died, and upon Will's death he sent it to Catherine Carey to reveal who her real father was.

Is there any proof that Henry VIII really had a journal? And has any letters between Will and Catherine ever been confirmed?

I know there is alot of fiction out there, it does make for great entertainment, but I like to know the real truth.


You ALL are great, thanks for your help.

3 comments:

Foose said...

Most historians agree that Henry VIII hated writing letters. I can't imagine he'd enjoy writing a diary, either. There's no evidence he kept one, although his son Edward did have a diary (although it's not at all the gushy journal of personal feelings that the word "diary" might lead you to expect; it's more of an impersonal record of what happened in Parliament that day, with the occasional dry report of his Seymour relatives' executions).

There have been a lot of novelists creating supposed diaries and secret diaries and private journals, etc., of famous figures -- it's a literary device that allows them to imagine their subject's interior life and "what really happened." Margaret George's book is definitely fiction.

It would be hard for a royal person of that period to keep a secret diary. There was minimal concept of privacy for anyone, and royal people always had staff in attendance, even for the lavatory, so if Henry got up at midnight to scratch away at a secret diary that exposed his true feelings about various wives and courtiers and rival kings, someone would have known about it. He was a secretive person. "If my cap knew my counsel, I would throw it in the fire," he allegedly told George Cavendish, the chronicler.

I've also read (I can't remember where) that writing was largely regarded as a separate function from reading at that time, and one usually delegated to professionals, the secretaries. It might have been why Henry hated writing -- if you're accustomed to just scrawling your name at the bottom of a letter or document composed by others, taking up the pen yourself (avoiding blots, the torture of spelling, sanding the letter) becomes a chore. He did write to Anne Boleyn in his own hand, which suggests his regard for her was truly exceptional.

PhD Historian said...

You are very correct Foose: reading and writing were very separate functions in the Tudor era. So much so that they were taught separately. From what modern scholars of literacy have been able to determine, it seems highly probable that prior to the 18th century far more people could read than could write. That may be difficult for us to imagine today, when reading and writing are usually learned simultaneously. But there is a physiological basis for it: the two skills are processed by totally separate parts of the brain and in very different ways. There was also an economic basis for teaching the skills separately. A single book, though very costly, could be used by many students of reading, and could be loaned between various friends and families. Thus it was not "used up" by the learning process. Individual pens and pieces of paper, also very expensive, were not as easily utilized by large numbers of students of writing. Quill pens wore out and had to be replaced often, and paper once written on could not be erased and re-used. Thus pen and paper had a much shorter "lifespan" than books, requiring a much greater outlay of money for supplies to learn to write. And while there were methods for learning to write other than using pen and paper, many of those other methods also required frequent replacement of supplies as they were used up in the learning process. It was much cheaper, in short, to learn to read than it was to learn to write.

And yes, it was fairly rare for anyone, whether royal, noble, or gentry, to write their own letters and documents. Even very personal letters were often dictated to secretaries if the "writer" could afford them. It was sometimes a subtle mark of status to be able to afford to have someone else do your letter writing for you.

Diary-keeping did not come into practice until after the Tudor period. Edward VI's book was actually titled "Chronicle," in imitation of the medieval practice of recording what happened on what day, and it is indeed, as you note, very dry, impersonal, and emotionless. Even when the term "diary" is used in the Tudor period, its meaning is more akin to the modern UK definition of the word (a dry, emotionless schedule or recording of daily events) rather than the common US definition (an emotional outpouring of hopes, fears, etc associated with personal daily experiences). Edward's "Chronicle" is available in print in several modern editions if anyone wants to see what a "diary"/chronicle of that period might look like. Others exist, beginning in the late-Elizbethan period, most famously the "Diary of Grace Mildmay." But that too is
not so much a "diary" in the modern US sense as a recording of how many times Grace prayed or attended religious services each day, and a personal archive of recipes and home remedies.

Henry VIII is not known to have kept even a chronicle-type "diary," and none has survived.

You are again correct, Foose, about novelists producing fictional "diaries" as a literary device. Though the "novel" came into its own only in the late 18th century, writers were by then using fictional "diaries" and collections of letters as a way to tell an entertaining story. Two famous examples come to mind. One is "The Tablette Booke of Lady Mary Keyes," first published in the 19th century but purported to be a "newly discovered" manuscript diary kept by Jane Grey's youngest sister. The other is a collection of letters (an "epistolary novel") again supposedly "discovered" in the 1790s but claimed as having been written in the 1550s by Jane Grey and a group of her correspondents and confidants. Both are patently utter fiction,as is Margaret George's book.

GarethR said...

I can add nothing to what Foose and Ph.D. student have said. Only on the subject of a correspondence between Will Somers and Catherine Carey (later Catherine Knollys.) The correspondence in Margaret George's novel is based on the presupposition that Catherine was Henry VIII's natural daughter from his affair with Mary Boleyn and thus entitled to her father's memoirs. This is a dubious assertion and the idea that she was Henry's has only be vigorously promoted by one or two historians in the last generation and by several novellists.