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In most histories of England, or English histories of kings and rulers of the Tudor times, characters such as Reginald Pole exist on the periphery. Born in 1500, he was related to King Henry VIII, being a grand-nephew of both Edward IV and Richard III. His mother, the 8th Countess of Salisbury, was the daughter of George of Clarence (brother to Edward IV and Richard III), and was, from all accounts, a valued and loyal lady in waiting to Henry VIII's first wife, Katherine of Aragon. But for all her title and heritage, the family was not a happy one. Henry VIII did not care for those who opposed him, and Margaret Pole and her family did not wholeheartedly support Henry. Reginald Pole was a figure who Henry would have dearly liked to have on his side in the annulment of his marriage to Katherine, but Pole would not oblige. While at first he appeared to support Henry's authority, he soon came down firmly on the side of the Roman Catholic church, and spent the rest of his life avoiding Henry's ire, largely from exile in Italy and other European cities. Pole was a learned man who had a wide range of equally learned men and women in his circle, and his opinion counted in Renaissance Europe - he attended not only Henry VIII, but Emperor Charles V and the Papal Court. Even after the death of Henry in 1547, Pole was still not safe to return to England; nor indeed was he always safe in Europe, as assassins and rumours still dogged him wherever he went. After Mary Tudor became Queen in 1553 and returned England to the Roman Church, Pole, by then a Cardinal, returned to England as the Papal Legate and became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1556. From then until his death in November 1558, twelve hours after Queen Mary's death, Pole was a highly regarded member of Mary's Council.

This book returns Pole to the centre of action - necessarily, the action moves from England to Europe in general; to Rome and areas of Italy specifically - the courier in the title, Michael Throckmorton writes of life as a member of Pole's inner circle, and how, even outside of England, the affairs of England and the Tudors affected them all. This is a unique view of Tudor history from an angle we rarely get to see, and while it is a novel, it is written sensitively and empathetically. Throckmorton alternates between a man who yearns to return to England and his sweetheart, and a man who strives to protect Pole as a man of integrity and honour, and who can see so much more realistically than the dreamy and introverted Pole, living a life of high education and deep contemplation, but never being left alone by the forces, political and religious, outside him which drive him on to his duty and honour. I cannot recommend this book highly enough; it is utterly brilliant - thought-provoking, honest and touching.

I apologise for the length of this review, but I feel this book is important enough to justify against some negative reviews I see that have been posted, unfortunately, perhaps by those who do not fully appreciate the times or the people that this book seeks to represent. I also do not agree that it has to be compared to "Wolf Hall" as either one being enjoyable or the other - I have read Wolf Hall, and loved it, and will be reading it again as soon as the sequel comes out, with great anticipation.
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on 2 January 2012
I started this book yesterday as the first of a 2012 challenge - to read 52 books between now and the end of the year ! I'm already half way through and loving it ! Tudor history from a different angle. I think it's well written, and clearly the author has done his research, as already said in another review by his friend ! It makes a great change to the (often) bodice-ripping Tudor yarns that we usually see !!
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on 17 February 2015
This is a dense, richly detailed novel -- in his note on sources, the author describes it as a "documentary novel" and that is both it's strength, and its weakness. I've given The Courier's Tale five stars because I thoroughly enjoyed the characters, settings and witty narrative. If it were possible to give four and a half stars, though, I would -- not on account of Walker's own work but because of the lengthy quotes from documentary sources. As a former academic I like primary sources better than most people, but even I found them a little bit burdensome at times and they occasionally impair the story's pace. But really, that is a minor quibble when compared with all there is to praise about this book. I would recommend this, especially if you are interested in the wider European context of Henry VIII's break from Rome and its aftermath.
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on 9 September 2010
The Courier's Tale invites immediate comparison with Hilary Mantel's very successful novel Wolf Hall. In many respects Peter Walker's book is superior to Mantel's. While Mantel is excruciatingly, and at times tediously, accurate with her historical detail, Wolf Hall still gives the impression of being a contemporary novel, which I think is a failing. Walker is far more able to recapture the diction, vocabulary and phrasing of a 16th century narrator. Consequently his story feels a more genuine account and at half the length of Mantel's opus avoids the latter's occasional lapses into turgidity.
The Courier's Tale is a historical novel that recounts the tragicomic adventures of Michael Throckmorton on his frequent journeys between England and Italy relaying messages from King Henry VIII and his courtiers to Henry's cousin Cardinal Pole in Rome. Pole has become a forgotten figure in English history, his reputation tarnished by a probably unjust association with the martyrdoms during the reign of Mary Queen of Scots. His signature on five death warrants having cast him as an anti-Protestant villain in thrall to a Catholic Queen and her advisors. Walker resurrects Pole as a highly intelligent, articulate, complex and above all compassionate man whose conscience put him at odds with his powerful cousin and forced him to spend the greater part of his life exiled in Italy.
Throckmorton's story encompasses four decades of Tudor history from Poles arrival in Italy in 1521 to the narrator's death in 1558. Walker moves his narrator easily through palaces and hovels, equally at home with the language and mores of both. It is simultaneously a serious historical novel engaging with major issues of religion and philosophy that have done much to shape subsequent history; an amusing account of a young Englishman who travelled widely and in august company and a well-crafted love story as Michael Throckmorton endures years of separation from his childhood love and eventual wife.
Absolutely the best historical novel of 2010 and I think one of the best books I have read this year. Highly recommended.
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on 29 November 2010
There are lots of novels about the Tudors coming out all the time, and each one tries to differentiate itself by having its own special angle. Usually it's by turning a traditional bad guy into a good guy (as in Wolf Hall) or vice versa. In this case, the angle is to put the spotlight on Reginald Pole and his "courier" (the narrator of the story). Most of it is set in Italy and that's a point in its favour since sixteenth-century Italian settings can't really go wrong. But it is very dull. The pretentious philosophising by Pole and assorted Italian intellectuals only adds to the pain. I don't know how, or why, I finished it - something to do with travelling at the time and not having anything else handy for airports and trains.
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on 27 August 2010
Let me come clean: the writer of this book is a friend of mine. I am convinced, however, that I would have loved it whatever name was on the cover. It's just great: Henry VIII, art, popes, Italy, burnings at the stake, ideas, Michelangelo, intrigue, horses, books, love, religion and fear. And not only is it a good tale, it is also beautifully written -- witty and humane, without a hackneyed phrase to be seen.
If you liked Wolf Hall you may be in for a shock, for Thomas Cromwell comes out of this badly, but I happen to know that the research has been exhaustive. I galloped through The Courier's Tale in little more than one (working) day -- on the Tube, in the bus, into the small hours. (It's shorter than Wolf Hall too.) Buy it and my friend will be pleased; read it and you will be too.
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on 30 August 2010
This novel is brilliant.It's a beautifully written, historically accurate narrative that works on a number of different levels. Not only an enlivening account of a fascinating period of European and indeed Religious history,'The Couriers Tale' is also a moving human story of an 'ordinary' person who by the nature of being a courier between Rome and London is witness to extraordinary events. Walker's prose is fresh, clear, funny and nuanced with perceptive vignettes about the nature of being a human being, both in the sixteenth century and today. By far the best book I have read this year-buy it for your Autumn evenings.
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on 7 October 2010
What a disappointment. Treachery, intrigue, passion? A damp squib of a book which hides behind a clunking narrative style and attempts to bamboozle the reader by name dropping Michaelangelo into scenes so stultifyingly dull that I struggled to finish this. Wolf Hall was full of wonderful characterisation, an intriguing narrative pace and a sense that you were reading real literature. This book belongs to a Carry on Henry approach to history - with a hefty wiff of pretentiousnees.
Do yourself a favour - read Wolf Hall instead.
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on 10 June 2011
I enjoyed this book which helped to fill on some blanks in the history of this time, It is not fast moving but still very readable,
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on 10 September 2010
If you enjoyed "Wolf Hall", read "The Courier's Tale" for another, much better, account of the same historical period. If Hilary Mantel's laconic, dispassionate style disappointed you, take heart: Peter Walker is a much better writer. While never losing narrative momentum, the quality of his descriptions as his character journeys between England and Italy are superb.

The courier, Michael Throckmorton, meets many great and notorious figures, from Michelangelo to Thomas Cromwell, but none exceed his master, Reginald Pole. It is extraordinary that this Englishman, who nearly became Pope but could also have been King of England, is so little-known today. Walker's extensive research tells us much about the period, but never at the expense of the human drama: Throckmorton's yearning for his native land, and for Judith, the love of his life, is at the centre of the story. This is a formidable debut novel which deserves as much, if not more, success as "Wolf Hall".
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