Will Kinmount: Is David Starkey the reincarnation of Henry VIII?





[Will Kinmount writes for the Telegraph.]

The more you read about David Starkey and his latest subject, Henry VIII, the more you start to wonder: are they related? Is there some kind of morphic resonance between biographer and subject? Could reincarnation be at work here? Because in so many ways, David Starkey could actually be Henry VIII.

Consider the similarities. While researching his new book and Channel 4 TV series on the Tudor king – all neatly timed to coincide with next month's 500th anniversary of Henry VIII's accession to the English throne aged just 17 – Starkey uncovered documents showing the so-called "virtuous prince" had effectively been raised by women.

"It's the most important thing I learned," he explains. "He wasn't like a typical royal prince at all, not masculinised, not sent away. He was close to his mother, physically brought up with his sisters in a household dominated by women until he's well into his teens."

As it happens, Starkey was also raised by his mother. Born in Kendal in 1945 to a poor working-class family, it was mum who ran the household and took charge of her son's upbringing. Young David was frail. He was famously born with two club feet – fixed before he was four – and contracted polio as a boy. After a breakdown at secondary school, mother took him to a boarding house in Southport for six months to recover. Curiously, Starkey's book is intense in describing Henry's pain at his mother's death, but hasn't discussed how he felt about his own mum passing.

"It's a subject I prefer not to talk about," his voice changes, breaking slightly. But it's clear from the way you write about Henry that you understand his pain, I venture. He pauses, gathering himself. "Oh yes, I was older but she still died comparatively young, she died barely 70. And I was 32. It was very horrible…" He coughs, pauses, closes his eyes then drops his voice to a whisper. "Very horrible." Then he snaps back into the room, smiles briefly and adds, in his familiar, firm tone: "The idea of the death à la [Jade] Goody is not one I'm sympathetic to, I'm afraid."

The comparisons between Henry and David don't stop with filial relations. Starkey enjoys describing in exquisite detail how a three-and-a-half-year-old Henry rode a horse and observed the rituals of knighthood. There is, I point out, a story about Starkey at the same age explaining a complicated recipe to a neighbour. "Well, you can't compare the two," he shakes his head. "Henry's doing something physical."

But it's the same precocious approach… "Yes, it's the precocious observing child," he nods. "That's something we share. I think certainly, like Henry, I had this. Obviously, Henry didn't go gay – I'm not carrying the vision that far – but that sense of what a feminised upbringing does to you is very important. It's not necessarily love of women; it's a particular approach to human relations. Henry's a big strong boy and a natural athlete. I was neither of those things. That obviously takes him off in a different direction, but there's a certain neediness to our human relations. It's an openness which of course if it is repudiated or injured can turn to something much nastier."

Starkey, of course, is the nation's favourite Tudor expert. "When David was at Cambridge, he had the choice between studying the Tudors or studying the 18th century," Starkey's partner James tells me as he shows me around their immaculate Queen Anne house in a small village just outside Canterbury. The rooms are filled with elegantly carved wooden-backed furniture and stacked bookshelves, with the odd concession to the 21st century like a plasma screen TV beside the fireplace and state-of-the-art modernist kitchen. "He's always really lived as an 18th century gentleman, so I think studying that era as well would have been just a little too much for him," James laughs.

It's proved a smart career move, if nothing else. Books and TV series on Elizabeth and Henry VIII's wives have built on his reputation as 'Dr Rude', a sort of highbrow Simon Cowell, earned from years meting out insults on Radio 4's Moral Maze. Now he's wealthy and famous, he has fulfilled a childhood vow to his hard-working mother that no one associated with him would have to scrub floors again.

Henry, of course, had his own fierce reputation although, Starkey argues, he spent the first half of his life as a fun-loving prince with a keen interest in music, poetry, mathematics and astronomy. How did the kid from Kendal become Dr Rude and Henry go on to terrify anyone who came into contact with him?..


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