“Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived”
Thus goes the old mantra on how to remember what happened to Henry VIII’s six wives. It is accepted as fact that his marital intrigues were all about begetting a male heir, to bolster and shore up the shaky claim the Tudors had on the throne.
Most books on Henry deal with the man’s marital status, but this one is different. The author looks at the king from a viewpoint rarely if ever considered – that of the men who served him, entertained him, fought and died for him, and most of whom were betrayed by him.
Henry VIII: He is the colossus in this book, and is the hub around which the other characters circle.
Thomas Wyatt: The man who introduced the sonnet to England, he was also in and out of favour. He luckily escaped execution along with Anne Boleyn’s lovers, and
Charles Brandon: A life-long friend of the king, temporarily under a cloud when he married the King’s sister without permission, but soon restored to favour. Brave, a womaniser, and the King’s equal in jousting.
Thomas Cromwell: A protégé of Wolsey’s, and highly intelligent in his own right. He was bluntly spoken, and had a wit that even his enemies admired. See my summary of Wolf Hall for more detail on this most complex of men.
Cardinal Wolsey: A faithful servant for over twenty years, he fell from favour when he couldn’t arrange the annulment of Henry’s first marriage, and died on his way to trial.
Henry VII married Elizabeth of York in 1486 to put an end to the War of the Roses, and create peace in a country torn by civil strife. Elizabeth did her duty, and produced a brood of children, among them Arthur and Henry.
Arthur was the heir apparent, and from an early age was schooled in all of the kingly arts, and needed skills. Henry was the spare, and was allowed more freedom than Arthur. Arthur married Catherine of Aragon, but died shortly after without producing an heir. He was a frail boy, and he official cause of death was phthisis. Unbeknownst to everyone, this was to spell a lot of trouble for millions of people for centuries afterwards.
Henry was thrust into the spotlight as the heir apparent, and being a gregarious youth took to it like a duck to water. He soon surrounded himself with “lusty bachelors”, and though he did seem to have retained a fear of his father (even after the King’s death), he was refused nothing that he asked for. He married Catherine, his brother’s widow, and in time they had only Margaret who survived to adulthood.
Henry was highly intelligent, physically impressive, war-like, and was every inch the Renaissance prince. He could speak two or three languages extremely well, and has at his court the likes of Erasmus, John Skelton, Colet, and Hans Holbein, amongst others. He had at his beck and call the nobility of the land, and the sumptuousness of his court had international renown. He also had a coterie of servants drawn from all other ranks of society.
It is the story of all these men that makes up this book.
His “minions’ (from the French “mignons”) served his every desire. The author believes the monster king was actually very insecure, and why he was relatively easily manipulated (more so earlier in his life, than later when he took more control over affairs of state).
This allowed “low born” but highly capable men such as Wolsey to rise in his service, to attain great heights of power and wealth. It seems it also helped to have Thomas as your first name!
Thomas More spent many years at court, sometimes precariously so, but survived and in time he headed the list of forty-four charges that were levelled against Wolsely. He of course was firmly Catholic, and resisted all attempts at Reformation.
Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, led the Reformation of the English Church, supported Royal Supremacy, but eventually ended as a Protestant martyr in the pyre upon the accession of Mary I (to be covered in “The Burning Time” by Virginia Rounding, which I am reading).
Thomas Cawarden, master of revels, his was the responsibility to remind the king of his former glories by arranging masterful displays and pageants, etc. Upon Henry’s death, Cawarden received a generous sum “in token of special love”
William Butts was Henry’s personal physician, and I was surprised to learn he served the Tudors for over twenty years. I was also surprised to learn of the potential influence this relatively unknown man had over the king, in particular his religious views which could have prompted Henry towards splitting with the Catholic Church.
George Boleyn was brother to Anne and Mary, both of whom were lovers of Henry. He comes across as arrogant and scheming, he did act as ambassador for Henry, but was ultimately accused of and executed for treason.
While many of those who surrounded Henry were bred to it, and took it as their right to have this level of access to the King, Henry did seem to favour those who were somewhat of the outsider [maybe, the author suggests, he saw something of himself in them]. The author likes to give examples of his heretofore unknown kindnesses [e.g. his treatment of his court jester Somer].
What I Liked:
- The freshness of this perspective.
- The level of research was excellent.
- The book was written with a lay reader in mind, so no special knowledge needed of the various characters. The author made an excellent job of keeping the flow seamless.
What I Didn’t Like:
- The breadth of characters is both a strength and weakness. Some deserved more depth and coverage than others, I think.
The world shows no signs of tiring of all things Tudor, and this is a good book which will stoke interest. It gives an original insight into the very male world of Henry. It does make you think of the huge anxiety levels that must have been so prevalent, as this court was literally a nest of vipers, with constantly shifting loyalties, favours and alliances.
Henry’s own fickleness is thrown into greater relief, as we see how callously he treated those around him. He raised people up, and as quickly threw them down, and they were never certain of whether what he asked for was what he really wanted.
It is well-researched, and would make a great Christmas stocking filler!
Thanks to NetGalley for sending me a free copy of this book, in return for an honest and objective review.