Sunday, January 10, 2016
In the Lion's Court: Power, Ambition, and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII
Rating: 4 Stars
As my daughter would say, "Oh my gracious sakes!"
This one took me For.Ev.Er. Probably because of my preference to place periods in the middle of words, but I digress.
I admit that I have a very love/hate relationship with Wilson when he is being misogynistic but there is no denying that he is a very serious researcher when it comes to texts. I wonder where some of these sources come from though, when the facts are blatantly wrong, but that is another issue I will address later on.
Instead of going the typical route of focusing on the six wives of Henry VIII, Wilson explores the lives, and deaths, of six of the most important men in Henry's Court - all named Thomas. Thomas More, Thomas Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Cranmer, Thomas Howard, and Thomas Wriothesley. Not going to lie, that last Thomas I was the least familiar with and even had to double check the spelling of his last name. Despite the many flaws of these men, it is hard not to feel sorry for them when they meet their ends - though Howard, proving his family always survives, managed to become the only of the six to die at home in his bed of natural causes. Not too shabby for a man who very nearly met his end in the Tower and was saved only by the death of Henry himself.
So, the positives first. As I already stated, it is clear that a lot of research went into the book. That is further evident by the vast numbers of direct quotes drawn from several historical documents. It got to the point where nearly a whole page might be a letter or document having to do with one of the Thomases, and that did get to be a bit much. I skimmed some of them for a while when explanation was discussed in the preceding and following paragraphs. There's only so much old English spelling I can take. I expected the text to be much more disjointed than it actually was, because weaving together not two, but six lives and careers, could not have been easy. The disjointedness came more from the tangents (such as detail on Mary and Suffolk's marriage); even those they were not the worst things that bothered me about this book.
I would have liked to have seen equal attention given to each man in their own introductions before jumping into the chaos that was the later reign of Henry VIII. More, Howard and Wolsey got pages and pages devoted to them, yet Cromwell and Cranmer got a few paragraphs each at what can only be described as the end of Wolsey's chapter - and though it has been a while since I began this book, I do not actually recall how Wriothesley figured into that section at all. But, again, this might be due simply to me forgetting, as it has been three months since I began this journey.
Despite the obvious issue of Wolsey's desire to shine so brightly and outdo everyone, perhaps even Henry, in show, I certainly do not think he was incompetent, as Wilson states. Wolsey played a dangerous game in trying to "work on" the annulment/divorce for Henry and it cost him his life because of his master's impatience, and all of Wolsey's enemies at Court. But his failing in getting the what Henry wanted had nothing to do with incompetence. It has been shown time and again prior to Henry's involvement with Anne that he was a skilled adviser and highly intelligent. For all these flaws of Wolsey's, it is a shame his end came as it did - though dying on his own accord of illness as opposed to the execution awaiting him was surely a better way to go out.
A lot of the issues I have with the book are, incidentally, things that have little to do with any of the Thomases at all. I consider myself to be somewhat knowledgeable about this time period and so when I see facts that are disputed by other historians, it gives me pause. This book was published in 2002, so there are possibly new documents and such that have come to light in the last thirteen years that could have contributed to shifts in opinion. However, that is not true in all cases and when I read things I know to not be accurate about events and people I am familiar with, it makes me wonder what inaccuracies might exist elsewhere in the text when the information is new to me - such as in the case of Wriothesley. First, there is Anne's birth date drama, which will likely never go away because we will never know for sure. Here Wilson seems to accept as fact that Anne was born in 1507, as he states that Henry had fallen in love with Anne when she was still a teenager (page 383). I think at this point we can agree that the date does not entirely make sense and there is a much stronger case for 1501 (and let's not even get started on who was born first, Anne or Mary!) The earlier birth date makes much more sense considering what we (relatively) know of her travels in Europe before coming home to England.
My next gripe comes about in regards to Jane Seymour, the 'lucky' one, you could say. Without any room for the possibility that it is not true, Wilson states (one page 404) that Jane died after having given birth to Edward via C-Section. WAIT A MINUTE. You're really trying to tell me that in the mid 1500s, this was a thing? I can safely tell you it in fact, was not. Certainly not while the mother still lived, anyway. While Church law (both Catholic and Anglican) did not allow C-Sections, they were performed when the mother had already passed away during the birth. However, seeing as how all records indicate that Jane lived nearly two weeks after Edward's birth, it is nearly impossible that she had a C-Section. She even began her recovery from birth, before weakening and dying - most likely from puerperal (childbed) fever. Then on the same page recounting Jane's death, Wilson states that, "Henry was so distressed at Jane's passing that he was already looking for another bride." That is completely contradictory of itself. Henry would not go on to marry Anne of Cleves for another three years. Whether he started looking for a wife immediately or not, Henry considered Jane to be his true love. I personally believe this is only because she gave him what no other wife did - a son. And I also believe that had she lived, Henry would likely have found some reason to grow tired of her as well. He may have believed she was his true love, but I don't think anyone else does.
This is a very detailed, very heavily researched book. It is also dry and at times incredibly boring. That does not mean it is not good, but it is certainly not for the faint of heart. If you have no knowledge of the Tudors, this is the absolute last book on earth you should pick up to start you education. However, for anyone who has knowledge of the life and times of one of the most turbulent periods in England's history, then by all means have at it.
"The drama of the six Thomases is a tragedy of men who were destroyed not simply by a king who was a capricious monster. They were tossed to and fro by the violent gusts of social, political and religious change" (page 521).