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In the Lion's Court: Power, Ambition and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII - A Study in Political Intrigue Hardcover – 5 Apr 2001
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"Derek Wilson's prose style... is both masterful and lively. He writes with great conviction and a breathtaking attention to the kind of personal detail that makes his books such compelling reading." -Alison Weir
An illuminating examination of the careers of the six Thomases, whose lives are described in parallel- their family and social origins, their pathways to the royal council chamber, their occupancy of the seige perilous, and the tragedies which, one by one, overwhelmed them.
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Looking at Henry VIII through his Thomases rather than his wives gives a far different aspect to his reign - the traditional personality-driven history gives way to a truly fascinating look at the tangle of politics, religious reform, ambition, intrigue, faction and betrayal that so characterised the Tudor period. One could argue after reading this book that many of the Thomases were undone not so much by Henry VIII but by those jostling for the position as his right-hand man and second power in the realm. Whether Henry would have despatched them anyway, without others succinctly reading his mood and manufacturing or uncovering proof of treachery and incompetence, is a question history will never be able to answer.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book - Derek Wilson has a real knack for narrative that manages to clarify and simplify a truly complicated era in English history. He is a little overly fond of colourful metaphors - "as soon as the downpour of cold realism began the colours soon streamed from the sagging bunting of Christian fraternity" was a particular favourite! But that's a small quibble that only occasionally dislodged me from an otherwise firm enjoyment of this book.
The allocation of space to the six Thomases is uneven: Wriothesley, for example, is given far less time than Wolsey or More, and I did wonder why Wilson bothered including him as one of the main characters. I also found Wilson's depiction of Thomas Howard as unintelligent and inefficient slightly strange.
The most irritating thing for me is Wilson's style: he's uncomfortably jaunty and uses a lot of modern concepts and language to interpret sixteenth century events - so things are described as a 'PR disaster', for example, at one point in the narrative.
Despite some niggles this is a dense and well-researched book, though not a scholarly one, good for anyone interested in popular history that is weightier than Weir or Fraser.
"Divorced, beheaded, died,
Divorced, beheaded, survived."
and then observes: "I propose a different set of relationships which I believe offers a more illuminating approach to the court and government of Henry VIII." Specifically, Wilson focuses his primary attention on six Thomases: Wolsey, More, Cromwell, Howard, Wriothesley, and Cramner. "I can even suggest an alternative mortuary mnemonic, although one admittedly not so trippingly off the tongue.
Died, beheaded, beheaded,
Self-slaughtered, burned, survived."
Henry's VIII's relationships with all six serve as the basis of Wilson's narrative. There were lions in London at that time ("the King's Beasts") housed in the Tower menagerie and a major tourist attraction. More once compared the king's court to a lion pit "in which the magnificent and deadly king of beasts held sway."
Of the six, More interests me the most. One of my favorite plays and films is A Man for All Seasons. (In the film, More is brilliantly portrayed by Paul Scofield.) In both, Robert Bolt focuses on More's rectitude which threatens and infuriates Henry and eventually results in More's execution. Thus presented, More is a tragic but noble political victim and religious martyr, later canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. He is no less admirable as portrayed by Wilson but, in my opinion, is much more complicated than Bolt and others suggest. For years, More skillfully navigated his way through a court ("a lion pit") characterized by what Wilson refers to as its "seamy realities": "The royal entourage was a vicious, squirming world of competing ambitions and petty feuds, guilty secrets and salacious prudery. Courtiers, vulnerable to threats and bribes, could be induced to perjure themselves, to exaggerate amorous incidents which were innocent in the context of stylised chivalric convention, to indulge personal vendettas....Over all these momentous happenings looms the larger-than-life figure of Henry VIII, powerful and capricious yet always an enigma."
In certain respects, this book reads as if it were a novel. It has a compelling narrative, dozens of unique characters, all manner of conflicts and intrigues which create great tension throughout, and a number of themes such as power, ambition, loyalty, betrayal, piety, terror, and (for most of the main characters) ignominious death. Wilson draws upon a wealth of primary sources to ensure the validity of his historical facts. However, some readers may question his interpretation of those facts. (A non-historian, I consider myself unqualified to do so.) Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out Alison Weir's Henry VIII as well as The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Karen Lindsey's Divorced, Beheaded, Survived, and David M. Loades's Henry VIII and His Queens.