Henry VIII, by Jasper Ridley. New York: Viking. Illustrated. 473 pp. $24.95. Henry VIII is perhaps the most familiar of British monarchs, thanks to widely reproduced portraits, popular nursery rhymes, songs, and, of course, dramas (from Shakespeare's and Fletcher's ``Henry VIII'' to the television and cinematic versions of our own time). His legendary popularity seems largely attributable to his having had six wives, making him the subject of constant speculation.
It is, therefore, most surprising to learn from his latest biographer that in the 438 years since Henry's death, there have been (in all languages!) only 19 biographies, compared with 79 of Mary, Queen of Scots; 102 of Cromwell; 117 of Lincoln; and 188 of Napoleon. After reading ``Henry VIII: The Politics of Tyranny,'' one may well conclude that this dearth of biographies is because the legend of the fat, boisterous monarch who successfully defied the Pope and ran through wives at a rate equaled by few commoners and fewer kings is a good deal more attractive than the grim realities of his nearly 40 years on the throne.
Author of many biographical studies, most recently, ``Statesman and Saint,'' a dual biography of Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas More, Jasper Ridley is a vigorous practitioner of his art. He is also very much the master of his subject and its various ramifications, be they canon law or economics. His grasp of the complexities of 16th-century England is so firm that he is able to guide the reader through the political and personal maze of Henry's court and life, illuminating the details while keeping his (and
our) attention fixed on the larger questions and problems. His trenchant, at times pungent, prose makes this an extraordinarily vivid biography, in which the characters and the issues stand out, always sharply and subtly etched.
Mr. Ridley gave up his practice as a lawyer to become a full-time biographer. His legal training and experience are evident in his approach to his subject. His opinions are extremely strong, energizing his work, and, as in his comparison of Henry and his court with Stalin and his Politburo, are sometimes as insightful as they are striking. In place of Henry, the hot-blooded prince surrounded by cunning courtiers, Ridley presents a manipulative monarch who knew how to make his advisers take the blame for
his own unpopular decisions. Ridley sees in this popular tyrant a prototype for modern dictators.
On the other hand, Ridley has not merely chosen to prosecute the case against Henry, but also to serve as judge and jury. Too often, he spoils the excellent case he has made by rubbing the reader's nose in the unsavory facts he has just described.
Even the reader who has been thoroughly convinced of Henry's heinousness will perhaps begin to develop at least a sneaking sympathy with him, after Mr. Ridley has overinterpreted an action that is self-evidently reprehensible, shed doubt on a seemingly innocuous gesture, or made yet another reference to the king's ``cruel, piggy eyes.'' At times, ``Henry VIII: The Politics of Tyranny'' reads like an indictment-cum-judgment rather than a MDBRbiography.
Though Ridley is an admirably engaged biographer, full of insight into Henry's monarchy, he finally lacks the fundamental sympathy that is usually found between the best biographers and their subjects. His relentless concentration on the unpleasant aspects of Henry's conduct and policy makes the book at times unpalatable. More important, this adversarial attitude prevents the book from properly presenting the achievements of Henry's reign, spotlighting instead the admittedly terrible price at whic h these were purchased.