Amberley author Robert Hutchinson sheds some light on the Tudors
The Tudors ruled for almost 120 years and, 500 years on, they still fascinate. Author Robert Hutchinson, based in his 1540s cottage in Amberley, is illuminating them for the current generation. Words by Terry Timblick
Henry VIII always had problems with women. That is the unsurprising but still tantalising opening line to the new slice of the saga, Young Henry – The Glorious, Dazzling Promise of Henry VIII, which eventually concludes ominously: “To achieve his heart’s overpowering desire, the executions had now to begin.”This particular journey has seen author Robert Hutchinson delving through contemporary documents in the National Archives in Kew, the British Library and private collections in stately homes including Hatfield House and Wilton House – some with very dusty corners indeed. But all part of his wide-flung research to reveal the unsurpassed glory that shone through the early years of Henry’s reign. With good reason he was the first English king to demand use of the title “majesty”.“Once I’ve got my theme for a book about these ambitious, calculating ancestors of ours I’m on the scent,” says Bob who lives in the ancient village of Amberley with its 900-year-old castle. “My book on Elizabeth’s spymaster FrancisThomas Walsingham, for example, took me to the National Gallery where I sat and studied his portrait for hours.“Such character assessment and fact-finding is the peak of the whole creative process – the thrill of discovery. Some of the documents have scarcely ever seen the light of day, hence the almost reverential gloved handling.”His latest Tudor book follows House of Treason – the Rise and Fall of a Tudor Dynasty, which resounds with Sussex intrigue, ambition and highly contrasting outcomes. It is almost parish pump local, chronicling the down-the-road-at-Arundel Howard family, the Dukes of Norfolk. As self-styled “kingmakers”, especially in the 16th century, they meddled in politics and power and sometimes got their fingers burnt and heads removed.Just skimming the book’s dramatis personae gives a flavour of the family’s dodgy judgment or ill fortune…Sir Edward Howard, killed during reckless attack on French galley.Lord Edmund Howard, wastrel, died naturally (a rarity!).Henry Howard, arrested on trumped-up charges of treason; executed.Thomas Howard (4th Duke), planned to marry Mary Queen of Scots; executed for treason.Philip Howard, condemned to death for allegedly arranging Mass praying for success of the Armada; not executed but died in Tower of London.Some of us have at least sketchy notions about Amberley Castle (now a hotel), being home to bishops of Chichester in the Middle Ages; Chesworth House in Horsham being the home of Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s wife No.5 (beheaded) and that prestigious estates such as Cowdray could be ruined almost overnight by royals and their high-living retinues dropping in.But Bob developed a much sharper taste for researching those oh-so-colourful Tudors, after a distinguished career in Fleet Street.As a journalist in the Seventies and early Eighties he built up enough kudos for an OBE in 2008 (for services to the media) by his probably unrivalled front page splash ability at dealing with security-obsessed Ministry of Defence mandarins.He recalls: “There was much cat and mouse manoeuvring between newshounds like me and the Sir Humphrey Applebys of Whitehall, especially when the news was being made thousands of miles away in the Falklands.”Nowadays, his focus is fixed at a more comfortable five-hundred years’ range: piecing together “new” scattered details of the fabulous Tudors. The super-sleuth adds: “Those were licentious times, perfect for the News of the World had it been around. With his often outrageous lifestyle, Henry was prey to all kinds of ill health, so some time there’ll be a book on ‘Inside the Body of Henry VIII’. Definitely a voyage of discovery! “Next up is a book on the Spanish Armada. Research will take me to Spain, Portugal and Ireland. The whole creative process usually equates to a year per book.”Avid delineator of the past though he is, Bob makes time for the present and future. He’s been a doughty parish councillor, grateful that his professional Whitehall skirmishes of the Yes, Minister variety equipped him to deal with most forms of officialdom.He is chuffed that Amberley, uniquely positioned between the Downs and the often-flooded Wildbrooks, has its village-owned general shop and, sharing with nearby village Slindon, runs a community bus four times a week.“It all comes from being a close, friendly, caring village,” he says. “Paying for these services, and having thousands of visitors strolling through Amberley – not least when the gardens are open every other year – is part of the acceptable price of living in such a beautiful place.”His fellow researcher (wife Sally) and dog (Fleur) seem to nod agreement.
Young Henry – The Glorious, Dazzling Promise of Henry VIII is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at �20.The other books in the series are Last Days of Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s Spy Master, and Thomas Cromwell.