Book Review: HENRY IV by Chris Given-Wilson

Genre: Non-fiction History
Age Range: Adult
Star Rating: 3 stars
Series: Yale English Monarchs


Henry IV (1399–1413), the son of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, seized the English throne at the age of thirty-two from his cousin Richard II and held it until his death, aged forty-five, when he was succeeded by his son, Henry V. This comprehensive and nuanced biography restores to his rightful place a king often overlooked in favor of his illustrious progeny.

Henry faced the usual problems of usurpers: foreign wars, rebellions, and plots, as well as the ambitions and demands of the Lancastrian retainers who had helped him win the throne. By 1406 his rule was broadly established, and although he became ill shortly after this and never fully recovered, he retained ultimate power until his death. Using a wide variety of previously untapped archival materials, Chris Given-Wilson reveals a cultured, extravagant, and skeptical monarch who crushed opposition ruthlessly but never quite succeeded in satisfying the expectations of his own supporters.

Synopsis taken from Goodreads. Add to your shelves here.


This is pretty much the biography of Henry IV. He was an English Lord who participated in not one but two rebellions (the second one got him the throne), then spent his reign dealing with rebellions at home and abroad.

HENRY IV is a book of three parts. The first, chronically his early life, rebellions, and early years on the throne was incredible. I might even go as far to say that that 40% was potentially the best non-fiction I have read in a while.

It helps that there is an incredibly strong narrative thread for this section. I am holding myself back from giving you a “brief” rundown of the history (I have typed a sparse version on my laptop that literally just goes from marriage to the first uprising against him as king, and it’s 5k words), but it is a history that honestly you wouldn’t believe if it was fiction. It makes for such an engaging tale and I have so many tabs and highlights in my copy.

On top of the interesting history is some incredible prose. You don’t tend to go into non-fiction expecting good prose – particularly not history. I usually have to rely on the narrative to propel me through the book, but I kept exclaiming over some of the phrases. Having started this only a few days after combing through my own writing with copy edits, I was really aware of prose and it was so nice to enjoy the writing as well as the history.

Lancastrian castles stood not simply as trophies of a great but distant power, but clustered thick upon the ground, in some cases almost visible from one another.

Unfortunately, then we hit the middle years of Henry’s reign. This is a period of history that doesn’t have a natural narrative thread. Henry faces lots of difficulties, but they don’t form a story; disputes with France, Scotland, Wales, Ireland; monetary problems; Church reform and orthodoxy.

To reflect this, the book covers the issues thematically. it does highlight how the matters influence each other, but it’s not always obvious. It did feel a bit more repetitive, going over the same 5-8 years again and again, trying to work out exactly which events are concurrent. This is where I started to struggle and have to push myself through. The number of tabs and highlights drops off dramatically.

Even nerdy me found the amount of tax discussion rather dull. It’s a MASSIVE part of the history of these middle years, but basically every parliament they had to ask for more taxes, and there was much arguing over it. I did a fair bit of personal research into medieval taxes to help with understanding as the exact meanings/types of taxes are never explained. It does rather expect you to know what a fifteenths-and-tenths tax is, among other. I could probably have followed it without that additional research, and just gone “eh, he applied another tax”.

Luckily, once I’d slogged through that section, and Henry IV got ill and his sons started squabbling, there is more of a narrative thread, which made the final 20% a much easier read.

As I said, this is basically the biography of Henry IV. If you want to know more about him in any real depth, this is the book to read. The beginning is amazing, but be aware that the middle is much harder to push through as the focus changes.


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