Jul/Aug 2001 Book Reviews

In the Lion's Court: Power, Ambition and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII

Derek Wilson
Hutchinson, Random House (June 2001) 580 pages
ISBN: 0 09 180118 4

reviewed by Ann Skea

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 violent gusts of social, political and religious change... Yet, in the final analysis ...they were brought down by their own vices and by their own virtues.

Was Henry VIII a monster? And, if he was, was he any more monstrous than other powerful men of his time?

Of the six Thomases (More, Wolsey, Howard, Cromwell, Cranmer and Wriothesley) whose lives Derek Wilson charts in this book, all were powerful men and all were responsible, like Henry, for the deaths of others. Were they any less monstrous than Henry? Derek Wilson notes that four of them acted out of principle (religious or patriotic or both) and two acted predominately out of self-interest. Yet, he shows that Henry was also a man of principle, whose actions were directed by religious and patriotic conviction as well as self-interest. For example, he points out that Henry's need for a son to secure the peace of his realm, and the promptings of his religious conscience, were the major cause of his anxiety over his marriage to his brother's widow long before he set eyes on Anne Boleyn.

Henry VIII's status as a monster is never convincingly established in this book. On the contrary, it is one of the strengths of the book that many of Henry's deeds are put in the context of the dramatic changes in religion and society which were happening at that time throughout Europe and which profoundly affected England.

The dissolution of the monasteries and religious houses, the iconoclasm, the questioning of the authority of the Pope and the clergy, none of these things originated with Henry, as popular opinion often holds. All, rather, were part of a much broader upheaval. It is good to be reminded of that. And the lives of the six Thomases, as Wilson shows, were as intimately bound up with these changes as they were with Henry's personal concerns.

Yet, Wilson's attempts to divert our attention away from Henry's relationship with his wives and direct it instead towards that with his ministers only partly succeeds. Perhaps because these potted, parallel biographies never really bring the characters to life, and the less we already know about each of these men the less we are able to flesh out this condensed chronicle of their deeds.

With six protagonists, plus Henry and his wives, plus various other more minor players in the drama, Derek Wilson and his readers have huge cast and a complex history to grapple with. On the whole Wilson handles this well, but it does not help that all the main protagonists are called Thomas and that Wilson refers to them also by their Earldoms, Dukedoms and Courtly titles: Surrey, Norfolk, Southampton, Lord Chancellor, Secretary, Lord Admiral, etc. Early in the book, to aid my concentration, I needed to sketch brief family trees for each Thomas and to include their various titles: it would have helped to have this, and some relevant dates, provided.

Early on in the book, too, I found myself frustratedly backtracking, time and again, to check who was who and who was where: as, for example, when on page 124 Wolsey is said to have "left his palace" to travel to Greenwich but it is entirely unclear which palace Wilson is talking about, having just reported the gutting of Westminster but not yet placed Wolsey in either York Palace of Hampton Court. A small omission, perhaps, but one which added to my confusion in the dense welter of events.

My other gripe is with Wilson's use of slang and catch-phrase. He can write beautiful English, and often does so in this book, but phrases such as "did not hit the headlines until 1529" are ridiculously inappropriate, and I find asides like "nudge, nudge; wink, wink" or "it ain't necessarily so" gratuitous and jarring.

Nevertheless, Wilson handles his material well and the book suggests some interesting parallels between Henry's time and our own. This is especially so in relation to cynicism about religion; popular support for discarded royal wives; and the eternal deviousness of politicians and those with power and influence.

In the Lion's Court certainly lives up to its sub-title—there is plenty in it about "Power, Ambition and Sudden Death"—but is it good history?. "Good history books ought to change the way we look at ourselves and our nation's past," wrote one reviewer recently of another book. Well, even if it does not tell us anything not already covered in other, individual biographies of the six Thomases, Derek Wilson's book by bringing their stories together offers us a change of perspective on Henry VIII's time and it also show how much in our own world has not changed since then.


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