Top critical review
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Fills out the details
on 13 July 2009
This is definitely not the book for anyone who does not know the chronology of Henry VIII's reign, or for anyone just wanting the six wives story, or indeed much about the English Reformation. Nor is it much of a biography of the old monster himself.
Where it does score highly is in bringing out why faction was such a crucial element in the politics of the reign and how different people used different offices and positions within the court of a paranoid tyrant who was fundamentally a coward to advance personal and political agendas at different times. The ebb and flow is fascinating if gruelling to read.
Unlike another reviewer, the impression I took away is that Thomas Cromwell destroyed Anne Boleyn because he knew the King wanted rid of her and had to take charge of the process lest the noble/conservative faction used her downfall to carry him and his whole programme away with her. He was no more ruthless or bloodstained than anyone else in the carnage of the 1530s, just more skilled. Not that it saved him when his own time came.
Starkey, I think, might have done more to explain why, uniquely among all ages, the reign of Henry VIII was a time when to lose at politics almost always meant death.
During the reign, by my count, 23 courtiers or ministers were put to death for treason. Of these, only Bishop John Fisher (who called for Spain to invade England) was definitely guilty as charged and, by the standards of the day, Catherine Howard, her lovers and Lady Rochford who aided her might be added to the list. Why did five palpably innocent men have to die to be rid of Anne Boleyn? Even on the most cynical reading, surely one would have done. And what did living in this world do the psyche of courtiers? Now that would make an interesting book.