Horrid Henry VI and Moody Margaret of Anjou

The Henry VI plays continue to be pushed aside as not Shakespeare’s (and not in a good way – that’s code for not Shakespeare = not good apparently.. poor potential collaborators) In many respects Wikipedia says it all:

Some regard Henry VI, Part 1 as the weakest of Shakespeare’s plays and, along with Titus Andronicus, it is generally considered one of the strongest candidates for evidence that Shakespeare collaborated with other dramatists early in his career

Though of course we don’t know that. And Henry VI is really rather good – well at least I think so, for a brief overview have a look at this Tweet-by-Tweet version. If the Henry VI plays authorship isn’t the sore point then they’re seen as the boring history ones that are rarely staged, and when they are because of the history cycle obsession they’re presented in such a lengthy and grand manner that they’re unmanageable even to the most avid of Shakespeare fans as with the 18-hour strong French production which hit the stage this summer. Of course I’m generalising hugely there are productions of the Henry VI plays and the Shakespeare Institute Players did Henry VI Part 3 just a few months ago and I’m sure they’re not alone in performing the Henries. Hopefully the Hollow Crown take two will also increase enthusiasm for these histories and not become a series of Richard III and the other ones because the bloody war of roses is of course much more than that.

But there is a reason for the introduction of the sad ranking of the Henry VI plays. I found myself thinking a while ago whether Shakespeare played a role in the writing of Horrid Henry. Yep, the kids books about you guessed a boy called Henry who is suitably horrid. Perhaps I’d better explain. This series of books by Francesca Simon (illustrated by Tony Ross – the bloke who illustrated The Little Princess and Andrew Matthew’s Shakespeare Stories).

These are no longer just books, Horrid Henry has also hit the big screen with a movie in 2011 and closer to home TV screens too picked up by CITV. Intrigued? Here’s a link to ‘The Day of the Dinosaur’ episode which gives you a good idea of the character dynamics if nothing else.

The basic plot line hinges on the stroppy and generally unruly character of Henry who is directly contrasted with his brother, aptly named Perfect Peter, obviously. Every character is given an alliterative adjective which reveals their real nature. So the series features figures like Anxious Andrew, the tongue-twister Brainy Brian, Fiery Fiona well you get the picture. For more Horrid Henry information check out Horripedia. Yep, Horrid Henry Wikipedia.

The question is could this Henry bear any connection to Shakespeare’s Henry – any of them because boy does history throw up a bunch of Henries.

The resemblance is uncanny..


Let me clarify, the connection which struck me first was the figure which, besides his brother Henry perhaps has the closest love-hate relationship: Moody Margaret. She is part antagonist part villainess of the series, there is a suggestion of her potential love interest in Henry in ‘Perfect Peter’s Revenge’ in her happy response to the forged love letter apparently from Henry but most of all what she loves is getting her own way – just like Henry. Recipe for disaster and of course she’s the girl next door.

Henry and Margaret have opposing groups (sounds familiar York and Lancaster?) and they love to compete, think shouting and screaming matches and pranks all over the show and you’ll have a good picture of the Henry-Margaret dynamic.

Henry loves anything monstrous, grotesque, dirty and most of all anything his parents and brother dislike.

But back to the inspiration for Henry. The author was interviewed on his “horridness” back in 2010 and revealed the inspiration for the characters was her own childhood crammed in with many siblings and wishing she was an only child. She even references Fawlty Towers and Father Ted. But Shakespeare is sadly absent on her list. Maybe it’s an unconscious connection. Simon explains the reason for Henry’s bad behaviour was to allow children a “safe outlet” for those uncomfortable emotions felt by children.

Bad children are a stock in trade of children’s publishing. Nobody wants to read about good children unless they are having a particularly miserable life and are surrounded by nasty characters – as in Roald Dahl’s Matilda. But what is unusual about Horrid Henry is that unlike Just William or My Naughty Little Sister, he has no redeeming charm. He is so horrid that “even his Teddy, Mr Kill, avoided him”.

But is there something beyond his horribleness, something in his Henriness which ties him to a much longer tradition of Henries, Margarets, fighting factions and tales of kingship and revenge.

More exciting in her tales of her inspirations and influences at least in terms of literary connections is her university background.

While the impetus for Horrid Henry came from her own childhood, the structure she credits to her university training. Simon did medieval studies at Yale and Anglo Saxon at Oxford. “I’ve always been interested in archetypes, the way people can embody certain humours or characteristics. And I do like alliteration which obviously I got from Anglo Saxon.”

Ok, but the literary connections don’t need to stop there. Looking to Shakespeare and we find plenty of Henries and a Margaret to boot. Historically poor Henry VI was driven mad and eventually his wife Margaret had to assume control of his kingdom (something there’s no doubt Moody Margaret would have revelled in if she was in the same situation with Horrid Henry).

It’s a Love-Hate relationship

Worse still her governance led to his downfall and eventually the rise of the house of Lancaster. This all sounds a bit like Miss Oddbod, one of Horrid Henry’s teachers who is usually nice but can behave strangely sometimes, like the time she decided to dig up all the time capsules at the school. In a position of authority she is very like Henry VI – kind but a bit mad. Shakespeare on the other hand (in a move of political correctness – he was way ahead of his time) in his plays about Henry VI politically sidesteps and fails to mention Henry’s madness.

Of course for many the version of history they remember will be the popular one (often defined by the arts) and Shakespeare has definitely made his mark and as it is now the reason most remember Henry VI is probably because he features as a ghost in Richard III – mad I know.

When we first meet Margaret she’s pitched as the woman wooed for the King (because clearly he can’t manage to get his own lady – and you though Henry V was bad..) worse still Suffolk the bloke who picked him up for her has fallen for her himself. She clearly wears the pants, successfully orchestrates a murder in Henry VI Part 2 all in all she’s a nasty piece of work and uses her body to full advantage of course. Poor old Henry was destroyed by factions and Mean Margaret his wife – which rings many bells with the dynamics in Horrid Henry the two battling clans and a desire for power at any cost, though in Horrid Henry this is found in Henry and Margaret whereas perhaps Henry VI is a little closer to Perfect Peter, less power hungry more driven by a desire to please and for kindness, perhaps too much of a push-over to be king like Horrid Henry.

Henry VI is far weaker than his Horrid counterpart and Margaret is far meaner than her Moody self. Perhaps Simon only chose the names because they were royal, she liked them, or they were the first that came to mind but it’s interesting to ponder on whether Henry and Margaret share more than simply their name sakes with Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays. I think there’s another literary dimension lurking behind Horrid Henry and Moody Margaret and Shakespeare could very well be to blame.


About Sarah Waters

I'm a PhD student at Oxford Brookes University researching female melancholia in Early Modern medicine, drama, and its resonances with our understanding of female depression today. I also have research interests in Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, Children's Literature, CS Lewis, and The Inklings.
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