When Henry VIII Came to Dinner, by Paul Wreyford

Comically memorable examinations of the characters presented.
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We are in a modern suburban house occupied by a boy and his father. The boy is a teenager, with an enquiring mind and a predilection for bad jokes. The somewhat inept father is usually the butt of these and the banter adds to the humorous lightness of touch that characterises the nine episodes which comprise the book – like highlights from Horrible Histories.

Into this carefully drawn domestic setting, the nine ‘dinner guests’ arrive one after another. Whence and why is not explained – they simply appear on the garden path and knock on the front door. Henry VIII is first, followed by Napoleon, Shakespeare, Cleopatra, Columbus, Churchill, Oliver Cromwell, Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth I. All are well described, challenging many assumptions, information backed up by copious notes. (For instance, allegedly ‘short’ Napoleon at 5’6 is of average height for his times and taller than Nelson. Note 2). They are ‘in character’ and very much of their own era, though they all speak modern English. They are at ease in their hosts’ company and are willing to discuss any questions raised or challenge any suppositions. Napoleon, for instance, goes to some length to correct the ill-founded belief that the English army won the Battle of Waterloo (Notes 19 – 21 support him). These descriptions and conversations, together with the guests’ reactions to the house, its contents and the food they are given, serve to bring them vividly and often hilariously to life.

The first dinner guest is Henry VIII and his section serves as a paradigm for the others. Before he enters, the house is scrutinised by (unimpressed) courtiers. Henry himself is presented as he was in later life with emphasis on his height and weight. He is happy to discuss his wives and other domestic arrangements. Father has prepared to feed him by buying a bucket of chicken pieces from KFC, which proves to be acceptable though the boy is disappointed the king does not throw the bones over his shoulders. (Note 11 assures us that he probably did). When Henry needs to relieve himself, however, he requires the help of his courtiers to get up the stairs to the family bathroom. Father quips that he needs a stairlift. (Note 16 informs us that he may actually have used one powered by servants in Whitehall Palace).

Henry is succeeded by the eight other ‘guests’ as listed above. There are some interlopers – Columbus is preceded by Leif Ericson who defends Vinland as the first European settlement in America; Elizabeth by the Biblical Joseph of the many-coloured coat (which does not get spread over a puddle, but whose beard goes towards discussion of the Bisley Boy theory). Florence Nightingale is confronted by Mary Seacoal over the matter of historical standing.

The overall effect is to balance comically memorable examinations of the characters presented, using incongruity and anachronism, against the deeper and more illuminating notes at the back of the book. The episodes fill 191 pages but the notes fill a further 30, a fact that emphasises the depth of scholarship Paul Wreyford marshals to underpin this amusing and illuminating project.

When Henry VIII Came to Dinner by Paul Wreyford is out now and published by Chiselbury.  Peter Tonkin is the author of the The Queen’s Intelligencer series.