The idea for writing The Children of Henry VIII appealed to me mainly because I’d got fed up with people from tv companies or guides in stately homes trying to tell me that Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn came to visit X or Y places as a family, with baby Elizabeth in one or other of their arms. In reality, Henry VIII always followed the protocol laid down in the Royal Book as this had been revised and updated by his grandmother Margaret Beaufort in 1493, which meant that all his four children were brought up in nurseries set apart from where their parents were living, often many miles apart.
The Children of Henry VIII, by John Guy
The family were together only on a handful of occasions in Henry’s entire reign, and none of his children spent much time alone with either him or their respective mothers. I wanted to include Henry Fitzroy, the king’s illegitimate son, who tends to be written out of history, since he was a crucial part of the story in the earlier years. But I particularly wanted to shed light on the difficult personal relationships between the squabbling siblings, who of course all had different mothers, since I thought this might improve our understanding of the period as a whole. Until I started to write this book, I hadn’t fully appreciated the degree of jealousy, mutual distrust and sibling rivalry between the children, or how far their childhood experiences shaped their characters and subsequent lives.
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For me, archival treasure does not mean the great historical scoop, although it is no doubt very satisfying if it happens. The true value lies in the accumulation of personal detail which illuminates a period. My first great lesson came in 1991 in the Archives Nationales in Paris. I was working at the time on a book which I wrote with my wife, Artemis Cooper, called Paris After the Liberation 1944-1949. After months of frustration, I had finally received permission from the Ministry of the Interior to examine the files of the French security service, the DST, for 1944 and 1945.
Among all the papers packed in the dust-impregnated ‘cartons’, a short paragraph caught my imagination. It was a police report on arrests in the summer of 1945. A German woman, a farmer’s wife, had been found in Paris among French deportees returned from camps in Germany. It transpired that she had had an illicit affair with a French prisoner of war assigned to their farm in Germany while her husband was on the Eastern Front. She had fallen so much in love with this enemy of her country that she had followed him to Paris, having somehow smuggled herself onto a train returning concentration camp victims. That was all the detail provided.
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Over the last year I have watched helplessly as dozens of Mali’s most ancient monuments have been damaged or destroyed as Ansar Dine supporting militia have pushed further and further south from their strongholds on the edge of the Sahara Desert. So it was with more than a little relief that I watched the recent liberation of Timbuktu by French and West African forces. But that relief turned quickly to shock as news reports showed the liberating forces uncovering what appeared to be the deliberate destruction of some of the irreplaceable archives ancient and libraries of Timbuktu.
As I watched the news reports, I was taken back to my last visit to the great city…
The alleyway had been worn into a series of deep smooth sculpted ruts making it almost impossible to negotiate for the uninitiated without absolute concentration.
It is only in recent years that I have come to realise what has driven me to spend significant chunks of my adult life travelling, searching out archives and libraries across Africa, hunting down local historians and visiting small and remote museums. Whether I have been engaged in concrete research or not, I have always sought out manuscripts whether held in state archives or small family collections.
Over decades I have fed my fetish in the basements of multi-national corporations, in the stores of village churches and mosques, at battlefields, in goldmines and in the backrooms of small corner shops. And I have learned that history is important in Africa for all the reasons one might imagine – but perhaps more than anywhere else I have travelled, I have become aware of the past forming a vivid and palpable presence in people’s lives.
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D-Day, 6 June 1944, the turning point of the Second World War, was a victory of arms, a heroic feat of military strategy and raw courage. But it was also a triumph for a different kind of skill: it was an astonishing feat of paperwork.
Operation Fortitude, which protected and enabled the invasion, and the Double Cross system, which specialized in turning German spies into double agents, deceived the Nazis into believing that the Allies would attack at Calais and Norway rather than Normandy. It was the most sophisticated and successful deception operation ever carried out, ensuring that Hitler kept an entire army awaiting a fake invasion, saving thousands of lives, and securing an Allied victory at the most critical juncture in the war.
The Double Cross system depended on a filing and archive system that was vast, complex and meticulous. It is not too much to say that without the extraordinary record-keeping system devised by the spy-runners, the great D-Day deception might have failed, and the history of the 20th century would have been very different.
The great British talent for keeping and maintaining records played a vital, but largely unacknowledged role in winning the Second World War. Most of the wartime files relating to the Double Cross deception, once top secret, have now been released to The National Archives. That material has formed the evidential basis for my last three books: Agent Zigzag, Operation Mincemeat and Double Cross. Each of these books tells a story extracted from the wartime files. Indeed, without this huge trove of documents, these books could not have been written.
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