Ian Mortimer


The Fears of Henry IV
About writing the book

I began work on The Fears of Henry IV in the late spring of 2005. I had just revised my PhD for publication by the Royal Historical Society and felt I had said all I needed to say about early modern social history for the time being. I was thoroughly looking forward to a return both to writing biography and discussing the late middle ages. Only slowly did it dawn on me what I had let myself in for.

We hardly know anything about Henry IV. He is the least biographied post-Conquest crowned king. He is also arguably the most maligned, for dozens of writers have taken the traditional view of Henry and painted him as the man who usurped the throne from dear, misunderstood Richard II. Even his date of birth remained unknown, as did that of his eldest son. But in marked contrast to how little is widely known, there is a veritable mountain of source material, much of it untouched by a biographer's hand.

Methods had moved on from the days when I had researched The Greatest Traitor and The Perfect King. Back then I had spent hours in Exeter University Library transcribing as much material as I could by hand or photocopying it, and borrowing books (on Inter Library Loan where these were impossible to view locally). Occasionally I would buy a book but for financial reasons my preference was to borrow volumes wherever possible. For The Perfect King I paid a highly competent researcher, Dr Paul Dryburgh (who had recently done his PhD at Bristol University on Roger Mortimer), to gather as much data as he could from Edward III's household accounts. I supplemented his work by taking digital photographs of the other documents I might require in the National Archives, on a piecemeal basis. By the time I started research on Henry IV, the technological revolution had shifted up a gear.

For a start, there were many more academic articles available to download at home, saving a drive into town. In addition, the online marketplace in second hand books had massively increased. But ways of accessing unique and rare material had changed the most. Developments had taken place at The National Archives so now it was possible to film a large series of documents systematically, and to store each image under its archival reference number on a laptop. Nothing piecemeal about this approach: I copied all of Henry's accounts and the Charter Rolls' witness lists, etc. It amounted to as much text as it would have taken me two years to transcribe. True, I would have learnt a lot more if I had written it all out by hand, but the book would have taken much longer to research and the advance for writing the book would have run out long before I started writing the narrative. Besides, my photographs could all be relied upon as exact whereas notes are sometimes unreliable. For this reason, the use of digital cameras in The National Archives has to be the greatest single boost to British historical scholarship since the opening of the Public Record Office in the early nineteenth century.

More material was thus available than ever before. But that made things harder, not easier. It raised a number of further historical problems that scholars had not as yet addressed fully but which I could not ignore. The first of these was the question of the succession. Was Henry IV really Richard's heir in 1399? And what about before that? Had he not been second-in-line (after his father) since Edward III's settlement of 1376? The second problem was Richard II's death. I was lying in bed one night, thinking about something I had often said with regard to Roger Mortimer and Edward II's death. If you are writing the biography of a potential murderer, you have to say whether you think he did the deed or not. To shy away from judgement in such matters is intellectually weak and historically pointless. You cannot claim that it is 'erring on the side of caution' to say you do not know the truth; it is merely erring on the side of ignorance. That night I realised that the mountain I had shifted in determining the weaknesses in the evidence for the death of Edward II was not a one-off. What was good for Roger Mortimer was good for Henry IV too. It was important to pay as much attention to Richard's potential murder as I had done to Edward II's. I didn't get much sleep that night, nor for the rest of the week. Or the week after that. It was quite a shock to realise, halfway through the book, that I was dealing with a man who was not just possibly a murderer but definitely was one.

I like writing about battles, and I wanted to make a special thing of Shrewsbury, which was by far Henry's most significant battle. So, the day came. I had been preparing for the moment for at least a week. I had all my sources on hand, pages marked. I had read them all, and decided what I wanted to draw out of each one. In my narrative, Henry took his draught of wine, and I took a swig of whisky. As Henry faced his enemy on that terrifying battlefield, I listened to the 'Dies Irae' from Verdi's Requiem again, as I had done for Crécy and Poitiers, and started to imagine what it must have been like to be there. The images came, the vision, my knowledge of Henry's life to date and the evidence for the battle itself provided me with the impetus to write. I started typing, excitedly. I wrote three or four thousand words on the progress of the battle. And at the end I read over what I had done with deep satisfaction. It was the best description of a battle I had yet achieved. I was elated. And in my elation I did not realise that, when prompted to save my work, I was actually being asked to save my notes with the same name as the section on the battle. In clkicking 'yes' I lost, irretrievably, all my work, with no prospect of recovery.

I knew instantly what I had done. I was so angry. I stomped downstairs and flung the backdoor open, kicking at things, hitting walls with my fist. You cannot just go back and do the same thing again. It takes time, preparation and most of all the spark of excitement which lies at the heart of originality. You cannot recapture your first moment of seeing the battle and describe it again in the same way. It will have no force, no sense of discovery. Had this been Edward III's life, it would not have been that bad, for another battle would have been along in five minutes. But this was Henry IV, and Shrewsbury was the big one. I had blown it. It was more than a week before I could begin to prepare to go through the whole build-up to write about that battle again.

In the end, The Fears of Henry IV took more than seventeen months to write (not including revising, editing, indexing and picture research). There were many reasons for the delay, and my loss of the battle of Shrewsbury was not the main one. Political, social and other historical responsibilities bore heavily on me. I decided to spend more time with my family at weekends. The necessity of taking several historical questions to levels of research and analysis well beyond that currently available in print were the most significant delaying factors. And ultimately that mountain of research and reading just never went away. I was juggling electronic images of accounts and chronicles and photocopied articles to the last.

This book taught me more than either of my earlier books about the value of approaching the past itself directly, and using the evidence judiciously, as opposed to concentrating on the evidence. Indeed, far from being a window into the past, I learned how the evidence can act as a distorting lens, greatly narrowing our vision, or even as a total barrier. The revelation that the art of history is not so much the analysis of evidence as striving for something beyond the evidence was perhaps the most important thing I had yet learnt about writing history. By comparison, what I was taught at my schools and universities was essentially a process: the analysis of evidence and the development of an argument. It was not understanding human behaviour in different times. It was not about reaching for eternal truths or common elements of humanity across the years. Writing this book made it possible for me to say much more through the medium of history than I ever could before.