Hay & a certain Henry… by H.M. Castor

This year will be my first-ever visit to Hay, and I just can’t wait. Every year I have read about the festival, seen pictures of it in the newspaper, and wished I was there… A field full of book events, next to a town full of bookshops – surely this is my idea of heaven? Add regular supplies of cake and I certainly can’t imagine anything nicer…

For I am, it has to be said, a book addict. My chaotic house is testament to the fact that I would always rather be reading than tidying, washing up or giving a wall a new lick of paint – and the state of me is testament to the fact that if my hand’s hovering between a book and an ironing board, it’s really only going to go one way (and you can guess which of those things misses out). My youngest child is currently involved in a school project where the aim is to ‘catch people reading’ and bring the photos in to class (the challenge might rather be to catch me not reading…). I was particularly delighted when we spotted a picture of Henry VIII with an open book in his hand in the British Library collection.

Why was I so delighted? Well, Henry’s a bit of an obsession of mine. I’ve written a novel about him, called VIII, and that’s what I’m coming to Hay this year to talk about. My image of Henry, though, is a bit different from the one in that manuscript illustration. You see, I’m especially interested in Henry when he was young: he was a fearsome warrior, a terrifically talented martial artist… he was tall, handsome, courageous, intelligent and reputedly unusually virtuous too. In short, he had it all. And when he came to the throne at just seventeen, he was so much the image of a storybook hero that people at the time hailed his accession as the beginning of a golden age.

So, what went wrong? What happened to turn this hero into the paranoid, wife-beheading monster of his last years? It’s often said, ‘Henry needed a son’ or ‘he was tired of his first wife’… but turning into an English Bluebeard is a pretty extreme reaction to those problems – problems that were, after all, faced by other kings of the time, without the same result. Just what was going on in Henry’s head as he made that journey into darkness? That’s the question at the heart of VIII, and at the heart of my fascination with Henry. For me, Henry’s story is a gripping and twisted psychological tale, and it has – surprising as it sounds – much in common with the story of how Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars films turns to the ‘dark side’ and becomes Darth Vader. Ambition, insecurity and a driving sense of destiny play their part. So does the warping effect of power on even the most idealistic nature.

I’ll be talking at Hay along with the author William Osborne, and it’ll be intriguing to compare Henry’s journey with some of the themes of his World War II novel Hitler’s Angel. Very different time periods – but we’ve both written historical novels with a twist of psychological thriller. So can we find common ground? Come and talk power, paranoia, secrets and courage with us on Thursday June 7 at 1pm!

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