Me and My Time Machine

As someone who writes about history, the question comes up from time to time – if you had the chance, when in the past would you travel back to? For me, it depends on my time machine.

I'm British, of course I choose this one.
I’m British, of course I choose this one.

If I could travel back as an invisible observer, safe from the consequences of what was happening around me, then I’d probably travel back to the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322. I’ve spent a lot of time studying that battle, and I’d be fascinated to see it, but there’s no way I’d want to participate in such a pointless waste of life.

Look, another guy got disembowelled!
Look, another guy got disembowelled!

If I could travel back and take part but not change time then I’d want to go somewhere interesting but not too uncomfortable. Maybe Leonardo da Vinci’s workshop, a coffee house in enlightenment London, or the Paris student quarter in the leadup to the protests of 1968.

I bet Leonardo had a plan for a time machine.
I bet Leonardo had a plan for a time machine.

If I could change the past… That feels too big. What if I went back and changed something that stopped me and my friends from existing? What if I trod on a butterfly and as a result George R R Martin never wrote Game of Thrones? What if I accidentally burned down the police box that inspired Doctor Who?

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Some risks are too big to take.

Henry VIII Gets Jiggy: Capturing a Real Person in Fiction

I’m endlessly amazed by the different ways that we can see the same person. Whether it’s a friend, a colleague, or a celebrity, we’ll all view them in a slightly different light. That’s particularly obvious when the person is a historical figure, and one significant enough to have been made into fiction.

The Sex Lives of Henry VIII

Take King Henry VIII of England. More specifically, take the intimate life of Henry VIII, a man whose divorce birthed the Church of England and the international Anglican communion. What motivated Henry to get down with a series of eligible ladies is important historically. This isn’t just one man getting jiggy, this is a monarch re-writing the rules of church and state so that…

Well, possibly just so that he could get jiggy.

Check out the embroidery on that guy.
Check out the embroidery on that guy.

Wolf Hall: Powerful Passions

The TV adaptation of Wolf Hall shows Henry as a man driven by fierce romantic passions. Sure, he wants to put his genitals in places he maybe shouldn’t, but the fate of a nation isn’t decided by the fact that the king has wood.

This is Henry as a fierce romantic and man of complex depths. His motives get tangled up in his head, and no-one is going to call his subconscious on its bullshit. His intentions are very personal and emotional, but you couldn’t call them shallow.

Hands up who wants to be where that sword is.
Hands up who wants to be where that sword is.

The Tudors: Horny Henry

Then there’s another recent TV depiction – The Tudors. I’m only a couple of episodes in, but this seems like a very different take on Henry’s bedroom antics. Here he’s a total horn dog. If a pretty lady crosses his path, odds are he’ll be showing her his mighty weapon later. And if she’s not available, he’ll give one of her servants a trip on the royal roller coaster instead.

Yes, there are real emotions at stake here too. But fundamentally, Henry is portrayed as a man driven by his man parts, not his subconscious.

Picture from Henry's Tinder profile, courtesy of Hans Holbein
Swipe left or swipe right? Henry’s profile picture, courtesy of Hans Holbein

How About a Classic Henry?

There are all sorts of other historical interpretations of Henry’s love life. It’s possible to see his marital antics as entirely driven by stately concerns. After all, his lack of a male heir put the country at risk of foreign domination or civil war once he died. You could argue that his was a noble and well-intentioned sex life. Boning for the greater good.

So What?

So what’s the lesson here?

Both as writers and as readers, it’s worth being aware that even very specific areas of a person’s life are open to interpretation. As I discussed in a recent article for Re:Fiction,  it’s worth knowing what the different interpretations are and what they exist for. Wolf Hall Henry is a literary fiction character, designed to explore the depths of the human soul. The Tudors Henry is history for a mass audience, exciting and accessible. Political penis Henry is Henry for patriotic historians, who want to see noble intentions behind the important moments in British history.In looking at Henry’s romantic shenanigans through this kaleidoscope of fractured images, we see a lot of different pieces of the truth, without ever learning all of it. And when we write about him, we have to choose which aspects to explore.

In looking at Henry’s romantic shenanigans through this kaleidoscope of fractured images, we see a lot of different pieces of the truth, without ever learning all of it. And when we write about him, we have to choose which aspects to explore.

We’ll never understand the whole of Henry, or of anyone else. These are just pieces of who they are.

History All Around Us

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More old-style awesomeness from Otley, from last year’s town carnival.

I recently discovered that the street I live on is named after the owner of a Victorian iron works, which used to be at the end of the road. Now when I see that name it evokes a whole host of associations, reminding me of the printing press production industry that was once here in Otley, of an earlier era in the life of the town. That’s one of the great things about history – it’s always around us, often in the little details, and it doesn’t have to be big to make life a little more interesting.