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The historical depiction of Nero, Roman Emperor in the early first century, is that of an extravagant and cultured ruler with a ruthless streak, often committing acts that bordered on tyranny. John Matusiak’s reference to Henry VIII as ‘England’s Nero’ in the title of his biography sets out from the start the author’s opinion of this much-debated sixteenth century king.
Matusiak opens his work Henry VIII; The Life and Times of England’s Nero, by History Press with the following quote, said to be Aristotle’s words to Alexander the Great and later quoted to the future Henry VIII by his tutor John Skelton;

“You have vanquished your enemies, you have gained many kingdoms, you have subdued many empires… but all the same you have neglected to control, or have been unable to govern, the small domain of your mind and body”

Once again, the conclusion of Matusiak on his subject is evident from the outset. Nonetheless his book’s claim to be a new look at an old topic certainly holds true once the content is ingested. This isn’t just another ‘by-number’s’ look at Henry VIII.
Matusiak’s explores the mind of Henry whilst attempting to explain the king’s disastrous decline from Renaissance prince to chaotic tyrant. In effect Matusiak’s work almost reads like a psychological evaluation of Henry without allowing his work to become tedious. This is evident from such passages as the following, discussing Henry’s disorganised reformation attempts throughout the latter part of his reign;

“…the King’s religious thinking in these years grew out of and epitomised his egocentricity and arbitrariness, as well as the ultimately unsystematic nature of his thinking”.

Matusiak maintains an intriguingly erudite and captivating narrative throughout the work, keeping the attention whilst accomplishing something which has become difficult in recent times – to make the subject of Henry VIII and his life and times appear fresh. One subject that Matusiak’s glosses over but doesn’t obsess on is the various wives of Henry. We learn what we need to know and how they affected Henry, but we do not become bogged down in needless narrative on Anne Boleyn et al.

It must be noted that the author does not paint a positive portrayal of the man throughout the work, exposing Henry’s flaws, weaknesses and fears in what is overall a cold and ruthless analysis. This, Matusiak argues, just supports the theory that Henry was a mere man, and not the mythical figure that has become a cliché in recent memory. Indeed it is to Matusiak’s credit that whilst he doesn’t seek to glorify Henry, he also ensures he doesn’t demonise him. This book is a portrait of a real man with real issues, worries and concerns and how these personal issues found themselves manifested in matters of state.

Matusiak’s overall conclusion on Henry seems to be that, for all the fluff that exists around the subject, Henry was simply a bad king, undeserving of mythological status. He was indecisive, he was egotistical and he was selfish. Was Henry ‘unfit for power’ as Matusiak puts it? After reading this work, it’s difficult to disagree. A recommended piece of work.

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