Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Tracey Borman’s thesis makes very clear that she is interested in a book that gives her readers “the king’s character and tastes, the motives for his decisions and the impact of his actions, the creation and evolution of his image from Renaissance prince to tyrant, and the legacy that he bequeathed to the men who survived him” (7). She finds what she is looking for in the men who fed off him.
It seems that Hans Holbein was the artist who unwittingly tells us more about the king than any other. His famous portrait of King Henry is a vision in strident masculinity. “More than any other artist, he is responsible for creating the impression of a stridently majestic, imposing and invincible monarch, who could inspire terror and devotion among his subjects” (251). The portrait does not reveal the resentment the son felt of the father or the deep-seated insecurity that Borman reveals in the decisions and subsequent actions of Henry VIII. The author relates the narrative until the death of Prince Arthur, then marks time to measure the impact of this tragedy on the no-longer-‘spare-heir’. She paints a vivid picture of Henry’s youth and gives some detail of persons like Sir Thomas More, Erasmus, and Henry Guilford of a similar age to Henry, of William Blunt, Lord Mountjoy who was employed as a tutor to Henry after John Skelton was found to be too radical. Mountjoy has the distinction in history as having impressed the scholar Erasmus, no mean feat indeed.
There were men who strode through history at the same time as the king whose presence is acknowledged as significant but is by and large skipped over. Sir Francis Bryan (the mad Vicar from Hell), the arch-schemer Stephen Gardiner, Sir William Butts (Henry’s physician), Will Somer the king’s Fool, Sir Thomas Cawarden (well-spoken of for his spectacular entertainments) and Sir Anthony Knyvett, who occupied many important roles – Lieutenant of the Tower of London, the power behind every production of every major tournament and revel at Court – a presence in Court until his death in 1534. Lack of space forces Borman to be prescriptive.
Bormann spends some considerable space outlining Henry’s attempts to break free from the shadow of his father. The Court becomes a beacon of dynamic change with nobles from established peerage families appointed to key positions. Feasting, revelry and tournaments became the pattern with men like Charles Brandon, Thomas Howard, and Thomas Knyvet playing a leading role. Only later in the reign did it become apparent that the benefits of the king’s largesse could just as easily be withdrawn. Retained from Henry VII’s council were people like Sir Thomas Lovell, Sir Edward Poynings, and Sir Henry Wyatt who assisted the transition from one administration to the next, as well as Bishop of Winchester Richard Fox who, at sixty, was given the position of Lord Privy Seal. Charles Brandon, William Compton and Thomas Boleyn are allowed a little extra coverage before the book introduces the big names during Henry’s reign, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and later Thomas Cromwell. Brandon receives extensive coverage later.
Wolsey, according to Borman, “recognized in this typically indulged ‘spare heir’ the desire to be surrounded by men who would cater to his every whim” (90). Wolsey provided that. Wolsey also recognized early on that behind the king’s affable appearance lay “a nascent insecurity and paranoia, expressed in a need for unquestioning loyalty and devotion from those closest to him” (90). When Wolsey grew increasingly arrogant, he was to feel the taste of his master’s displeasure. However, before that, Borman treats us to interesting, and no doubt accurate, pen pictures of the men at Court who were impacting on the reign. We may mention Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, Henry Percy, and Sir Thomas More, each in their different ways contributing to a violent and/or significant period of kingship. Then, to Wolsey’s dismay, from 1527 his world began to unravel. The Boleyns and the Howards were openly conspiring against him. When Henry showed Wolsey’s letters of assurance of his loyalty to the sovereign to Thomas Boleyn and Thomas Howard, these men easily twisted Wolsey’s words. Wolsey had achieved limited success in having Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled, and without Henry’s support, the derision of his colleagues reached flood status and he fell. Wolsey’s place was taken, as history tells us, by Thomas Cromwell, whose efforts on Henry’s behalf were herculean, but known in fine detail by scholars of history. This is the period of the Act of Supremacy and the executions (judicial murders to many) of Thomas More and Archbishop Fisher. It is the period of Thomas Audley, the man who presided over More’s trial and Richard Rich, he “always reputed light of his tongue, a great dicer and gamester, and not of any commendable fame” as More described him (quoted in Borman 246).
On June 28 1535 the name of Will Somer the king’s Fool is first mentioned as a member of the royal household. His origins largely unknown, he is often “depicted as a witty and acerbic commentator on the events and personalities of court” (249). Borman puts the lie to that. Borman is convinced that he was probably a man with learning difficulties. As such he was treated by Henry with the utmost respect. Surrounded by sycophants and schemers Henry appears to have enjoyed the innocent Will Somer.
There was a plethora of events at Court. There were love affairs that impinged on the royal succession, interference in government on the part of Stephen Gardiner, Lord Thomas Howard was “vehemently suspected and presumed maliciously and traitorously minding and imagining to put division in this realm” (256 – 57), the growing influence of the Seymour family, and the odd situation of Catherine of Aragon’s death being rumoured as poisoning, and a mini crisis when King Henry took a severe fall from a horse. Cromwell and his secretary Thomas Wriothesley were involved in, and often generating, conflict to achieve Cromwell’s great plan to dissolve the monasteries. Plotting while all these events were happening was Queen Anne, who was determined to bring down Cromwell. King Henry was the master juggler, always in control, delighted that the opportunity arose where he could give Chapuys, the archconservative ambassador to the Emperor, a dressing down.
In the period leading up to the queen’s downfall, largely engineered by Cromwell, the book enters a stage where the events are explained by a coming together of people like Cromwell, Norfolk, Audley and possibly Cranmer, determined to get rid of “this troublesome woman” (279). Dredged from the years that follow, Borman provides detailed descriptions of innumerable plots and counterplots. Henry rides untouched above them all. His men were like chess pieces who could be manoeuvred or removed as their master saw fit. Constant among all the uncertainty was the changeable nature of the king, whose actions were quixotic and often violent.
Borman’s hugely comprehensive account now turns to Cromwell’s supporters: Thomas Cranmer, Thomas Wyatt, and Thomas Wriothesley. Former friend and ally Thomas Audley was firmly on the king’s side. Legislation presented to parliament was thrown out because the king withdrew his support. Borman writes with all the power she possesses. This is riveting reading. While much of the material is known to her readers, she manages to find evidence suggesting that an alternative course may have been followed. On pages 343 and 344 we witness the meeting of Anne of Cleves and the king. Borman finds supplementary evidence to suggest the real reason for Henry’s lack of warmth. When the king showed that he did not wish to be appeased in the Anne of Cleves disaster, Sir John Russell, the Duke of Cornwall and Edward Seymour were quick to remove their support of Cromwell. Interestingly, Thomas Wriothesley stood firm. However, he, too, was found to have feet of clay.
Tudor history in the time of Henry VIII demonstrated its bloodthirstiness and the pursuit of selfish motives. Borman takes us through the events leading up to the arraignment of Catherine Howard. The story does not change. A ruthless, quixotic, and murderous king with a noble class doing their damnedest to blame one another. Falsification of evidence in order to convict is the least of their sins. There was only one motive; gain station from the king by blasting your rivals. When the king withdrew from his regular haunts following the execution of Katherine Howard, the thirst for blood did not let up. Foremost among the wreckers, as always, was the Duke of Norfolk.
Of benefit to the king at this late period in his life were Thomas Heneage, groom of the stool, Sir Thomas Cawarden, and particularly Will Somer who provided mirth when the old king was taken over with grief. Sir John Russell remained loyal without question as did Sir Thomas Wyatt. While these men suffered ill health, Sir Francis Bryan was as robust as ever, and every bit as foolhardy. Borman traces his activities during the early 1540s. She highlights the resurrection from a parlous state of Sir Ralph Sadler, who became pivotal to the current administration. John Dudley, Viscount Lisle justified Henry’s faith in him in his role of Lord High Admiral.
The story of the latter years of Henry’s reign is not pretty. Intrigue, deception and dishonesty, betrayal of friends and comrades, claim and counter-claim where the spoils were great and the losses were too often death or the destruction of reputation. Men who could have pursued careers to leave their heritage intact chose, as exemplified by Wriothesley and Norfolk to leave to posterity nothing but the taint of murder to their names. A very sorry period in English history comes to an end many years after this monster of a king died in agony in 1547.
This is a brilliantly told book about subjects who ultimately were of less value to mankind than the story of their days in the sun is to us.
By Tracy Borman