Sow The Tempest by Jane Lane (Elaine Dakers) 1962
Anne Boleyn is more of an ensemble cast member here than the star; while many novels from this time show scenes from different characters’ points of view and in which Anne is not included, she seldom disappears for such long stretches as she does here. While there are several long scenes focusing on Henry VIII’s perspective, the real narrative interloper here is Thomas More, as the central part of the book focuses as much on him and his family and career as it does on Anne’s, and of course the characters very seldom meet. When they do, they might as well be wearing black and white hats, for convenience, as More is all goodness and selflessness and humour, and this Anne is entirely self-interested and motivated by nothing other than vile ambition. She’s definitely one of the nastier specimens out there, especially as she doesn’t even have a thwarted true love or sixth-finger related trauma to explain how she became such a piece of work — her sixth finger does exist, but doesn’t seem to trouble her, and her lack of scruple is matched only by Thomas Cromwell. Which of them will have Thomas More’s head off first? Read on and find out.
We open with a nice ensemble piece – Henry VIII’s coronation in June of 1509. Among the spectators are the five Thomases whose lives will become so affected by the new king later: Cranmer (a wimpy theology student lusting after a local barmaid) Cromwell (Putney thug returned from travels abroad) Boleyn (acquisitive bower and scraper, accompanied by his wife and children, including the eldest, Anne), Wolsey (reflecting on his recent rise and thinking that if he plays his cards right he may yet get a Cardinal’s hat) and More, young and with several children, feeling like “one awakening from a nightmare” in his joy at seeing the new king and queen. There’s a decent amount of exposition here but it’s smoothly done and goes down easily, although there is one peculiar detail – the new Queen Catherine remembers her first marriage to “puny, sickly, precious Arthur” as being one of unmitigated horror, and that it was a sad relief when the “adolescently nasty Arthur” was dead. Considering that Catherine’s portrayal in the story will be positive – although she has a few flaws that help round her out a bit – and it’s clear that she’s telling the truth later on at Blackfriars, I think these were meant to be euphemisms for Arthur’s being homosexual. Looks like Retha Warnicke was beaten to the punch this time.
Onward: there’s a time skip to 1514, and while Henry and Catherine are overall quite happy together, their lack of a living heir and political problems are beginning to take a bit of the gilding off their relationship. Henry, from a handsome, cheerful adolescent, has begun to show the less attractive aspects of someone brought up to believe that whatever he does is right simply because he’s the one doing it, and he’s starting to resent Catherine’s tendency to mother him instead of having surviving baby. He went on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham to give thanks for their first son, surely he deserved a living child after that? He’s also rather nervous over a recurring rash which has been plaguing him ever since his first illicit sexual encounter at the age of fifteen. Surely the King of England couldn’t have acquired the pox on his first throw, could he? Still, the rash keeps returning … The first break between Catherine and Henry comes when Henry, off trying to cover himself in glory in France, receives her letter telling him about the victory at Flodden – on his return, he can’t stifle the suspicion that the assembled citizens watching the triumphal parade are more impressed by Catherine’s accomplishments than his. Catherine’s well-meaning tactlessness evinces itself several times over the course of the book, and we see how remarks that she would barely remember are blown up by Henry and rankle at him. After Ferdinand and the Emperor forget to pay back the money Henry had given them for campaigning, he’s furious, and it’s clear that Catherine is no longer in the saddle. They’re getting along well enough in daily life now that she’s had Princess Mary, and there’s still the hope of a living son, but clever Wolsey is Henry’s confidant now. Wolsey, aware of problems in the church, genuinely devout but not quite enough to give up his (admittedly splendid) earthly enjoyments, has been trying to clean house a bit at home by suppressing overly small or corrupt religious houses – a move noted with great interest by his creepy-crawly, “piggy-eyed” “bullet-headed” servant, Thomas Cromwell. Yes, he is described that way, every time we see him, except for intervals in which we learn that he has a dull, ugly face or that he’s fond of lying. It’s pretty clear that the author is not a fan.
The years roll on, and before we know it, Anne Boleyn (remember her?) is returning from France so she can be married off to settle the Ormond dispute. True to form for her more negative incarnations, she flounces home, wearing the latest fashions, well-schooled in the art of flirting, sneering at the newly-dumped Mary for giving up too much, dropping French phrases and refusing to even contemplate going to Ireland “to live in a tumbledown castle, watching the Nore flow by for my amusement, and as a special treat going to thatched Dublin for a parliament.” Soon it’s time to go to court, but not before she’s managed to lure Thomas Wyatt away from his wife. Having wreaked destruction on the Wyatt marriage, she goes off to court to see about netting someone a little more prominent (not to mention single) and soon enough her eye lights on the “spindly, weak-chinned” Henry Percy, who’s so agog over her that before long he’s willing to pledge his troth before witnesses – it’s not a marriage, and isn’t consummated, but it’s still serious.
But! There’s an unexpected complication. Henry VIII, still fond of masquing and “surprising” people with disguises, has decided for one evening that he and a few friends will be “foreigners” requesting help at the palace, speaking only French. They’re duly admitted and the attendant courtiers dutifully feign shock when Henry reveals himself – except for Anne. Being new to court, and not being used to seeing Henry, her surprise is genuine and Henry notices. He’s attracted to her at that moment, after the one uncalculated move of her entire career.
Henry promptly gets Wolsey to cancel the engagement, sends Anne off to Hever for a while, and then goes after her. No woman had ever denied him anything, we’re told, and so Anne, for whom playing hard to get is a way of life, is quite a shock to him – all it takes is one flirtatious rejection (“so hasty a wooing is strange to me”), and Henry’s astonished and then eager reaction, before Anne is starts to dream big:
She had learnt to perfection in France the art of enticing and at the same time holding off. And the Queen was sickly, past childbearing, and no longer co-habiting with her husband.
Anne smiled slowly and secretly ….Her black eyes snapped in excitement as in the glowing logs she saw, or thought she saw, the shape of a crown.
Going by the established timeline, this would be about 1523, by the way. Their flirtation proceeds apace – or doesn’t proceed, depending on how you look at it, with plenty of saucy talk on Anne’s part and desperate badinage on Henry’s, while Anne looks for the moment to strike. She finds it when Henry is moaning about not being able to see in what way he displeased God – surely he, Defender of the Faith, patsy of the Holy League, could have had at least one?
“It may be that your Grace is punished for the sins of others who offended against God’s divine law in your Grace’s regard when you were but a child.”
“Eh?” he said, startled.
She paused for the last time. She knew him well enough by now, and especially did she know that an idea once put into his head could never be put out again. On this she had staked all.
“In the matter of your Grace’s marriage,” she said, very deliberate and solemn, “to your brother’s wife.”
Henry is shocked, but then begins to see the possibilities, and Wolsey is duly applied to inquire into this matter forthwith. Suddenly we skip ahead to 1527 and the continuing negotiations for Princess Mary’s hand, during which she overhears Wolsey and the Bishop of Tarbes discussing Mary’s possibly dubious status should her parents’ marriage be annulled, and she sends a message off to her mother – it’s in this way that Catherine finds out what’s going on. Word comes of the sack of Rome and the Emperor’s sudden dominance,
Interspersed with these scenes we’re shown scenes of Thomas More debating with Wolsey on matters of church reform, and wishing that Wolsey didn’t place so much priority on politics and was a little more interested in the “necessary” reforms in a corrupt church. Henry consults him about the possible annulment, citing Utopia as an example of a society where divorce is permissible and asking his opinion (More tells him that even in Utopia, you can’t divorce a spouse just because she’s old and losing her looks). We’re also shown scenes of him with his family which, while not exactly dull – More did get off quite a few good lines if the records are to be trusted – they do slow things down because they don’t advance the plot much. True, he talks about court and we hear his well-known line about how the king would strike off his head to win a castle, but really all it does is establish that he loves his family and they love him. A number of times.
The attempted annulment drags on, and here the focus switches away from Anne once again and becomes a drama centering around More and Cromwell, the latter of whom can see that Wolsey is starting to flail – he’s trying to solve an impossible political problem – and is thinking ahead to the day when Wolsey will be Chancellor no more. He’s been accepting bribes on the side from some of the small religious houses Wolsey has been suppressing, and has been thinking about how this policy could perhaps be expanded. He has no love for Wolsey; when Cavendish finds him crying at the window it’s strictly his own shaky future he’s worried about, and when he goes off to court “to make or mar” he takes some stolen property with him, including a Papal license or two. With Cromwell’s assistance, Wolsey is disgraced and stripped of authority soon enough and More, hoping that Henry can be brought back to his former glory by good advice, steps into his place. He’s under the impression that Wolsey was the one who led Henry down the annulment path, but soon enough he realizes that this is in no way the case, and “now I perceive that my silence vexes him, and he will not rest until he has won me over to his side.” Henry is a bit stressed – among other things, his mysterious rash has come back and is making him worry once more about his ability to beget healthy children.
Cromwell, having gotten off to this promising start, now starts telling Henry about all of the choice properties owned by the church and what a great help they could be to him financially – it would be a scorched-earth way of getting rid of corruption! – and between parliamentary sessions arranges for the poisoning attempt on Bishop Fisher’s life (using poisons he prudently stocked up on back when he was in Italy). More, after much badgering and theological and legal nitpicking, resigns and heads home to tell his family that they’d better learn how to get used to living on bread and water, Anne becomes Marquess of Pembroke (in a very brief scene) and Cromwell enlists Cranmer as Archbishop-elect, since Warham is old and ailing and clearly on his way out. Cranmer “bleats” (he always bleats or whimpers) that he’d rather just stay home and study, but Cromwell blackmails him into it by threatening to tell Henry, who is old-fashioned in many ways, about the illicit Mrs. Cranmer he brought back from Germany. Thus Cranmer is consecrated with his fingers crossed, and the now-pregnant Anne is married to Henry and crowned. The coronation scene is the first we’ve seen of her for a while, and it establishes that she’s just as nasty as ever. She also has a long memory, as it turns out – her coronation is a grand spectacle but a flop with the crowd (many caps on heads, and few tongues) and Anne, resentful of More and Bishop Fisher for not being there, is reminded of another coronation.
“Well, let them wait, those impudent low creatures; she would punish them. And she would punish this so famous scholar, Thomas More, and this dreary ascetic, Bishop Fisher, for refusing to be present at her triumph. So she told herself; but all the while a strange little childhood memory nagged at her; she was sitting at the window of her grandfather’s house, watching King Henry’s coronation, watching a young and radiant Queen ride by on her Spanish mule, while the Londoners shouted themselves hoarse in acclaiming her.
We jump forward again to a few months after Elizabeth’s birth, when the Nun of Kent appears to complicate things, and while More manages to slide out getting involved in that one, Cromwell and Richard Riche are now contriving to make things extremely complicated for him as they argue over what exactly “Supreme Head” implies, not to mention their disagreements over just how much the Law of Christ will allow, and when More says once and for all that he will swear to the Act of Succession, but not the Oath of Supremacy, he’s taken into custody and the end game has begun. Meanwhile, Anne and Henry pay a visit to Elizabeth at Hatfield, in which Anne threatens Mary in the presence of her father with no reaction, and frets because Henry has recently discovered that she (Anne) was faking her supposed second pregnancy. Henry is bored and tired of her already and Cromwell has noticed his eye wandering towards Jane Seymour. Once again, Cromwell is thinking ahead.
Back to More, and Fisher who’s in prison as well. More has visits from his wife and, eventually, his eldest daughter, who’s been writing to him urging him to take the Oath – knowing her letters would be read by the intermediaries, she thought that would be one way to get to visit him, which she does. Cromwell comes by and sneers at him to take the oath. His wife comes back and urges him to take the oath. You get the idea. It’s what happened, but it happened quite a number of times. Fisher is executed, and eventually Richard Riche decides to cut out the middleman and invent a supposed declaration from More that the King is not the head of the church, More goes on trial and is of course found guilty. His daughters and a few servants are there to watch him make his end. He dies the King’s good servant, but God’s first, and his eldest daughter realizes that she hasn’t got a shroud and sends the maid out to get one – the maid, who hadn’t had any money with her, reaches into her purse and finds the exact price of the shroud.
Once again we leap ahead to the spring of 1536 – Anne, recently miscarried of a boy, unpopular with everyone save a few court gallants, is hanging on by a thread and knows it – she spends her time dancing and flirting and trying to ignore the inevitable. Cromwell, servant of the inevitable, is busy observing her every move and cooking up possible charges against her, after Henry’s broad hints, and at the May Day tournament Henry is shocked, shocked to learn that Mark Smeaton has “confessed” to adultery. The usual suspects are rounded up, and Anne is sent to the Tower, where she has a very accurate breakdown. After a bit of debate between Cromwell and Cranmer, during which Cromwell again hints at spilling the beans on Cranmer’s wife, Cranmer goes off to hear Anne’s vow that she and Percy were precontracted and to promise her that in exchange for that she’ll be sent to a French convent instead of being executed – of course, as soon as he’s out of her sight he sends Henry a letter telling him that Anne is definitely guilty and he’ll be happy to both invalidate this marriage and consecrate the next one at the King’s leisure.
Anne’s trial is, oddly, skipped, but she does ask Lady Kingston to beg pardon of Mary and dies with hauteur, her bleeding remains being stuffed into an arrow chest at the very moment Henry is holding Jane Seymour’s hand, plighting his troth.
The epilogue is an account of Henry’s last hours, preceded by a description of the countryside which has been so strangely altered during his reign; the abbeys and chapels either taken over by favourites or looted and left to ruin. Henry himself is drifting in and out of consciousness as Edward Seymour tries to get him to sign the Duke of Norfolk’s death warrant, but Henry is beyond that sort of consideration – instead he’s being visited by the ghosts of some of his victims, most notably Catherine of Aragon, Jane Seymour, and Thomas Cromwell. Anne Boleyn, oddly, is not there. Henry’s soul begins to fly, and as it does so it sees the ruin of the abbeys, and he prays one final time to Our Lady of Walsingham as he goes “down into the dark.” Cranmer, attending him in his last moments, has to break the news to Seymour that Norfolk’s death warrant was not signed, and so it ends.
SEX OR POLITICS? Politics by a wide margin. Between the eternal sneaking around of the industriously evil Cromwell, the speeches of Thomas More, and the amount of detail regarding the revision of the laws and the debates over the exact wording of the Oath of Supremacy, there’s no question about where the author’s real interest lies. This is also one of the comparatively few books to spend a lot of time dramatizing the pre-Great Matter political issues, which I enjoyed – those tend to get rushed over.
WHEN BORN? 1502 – at Henry and Catherine’s coronation, she’s depicted as a seven-year-old, watching the procession solemnly while absentmindedly sucking on her sixth finger, and in 1522 she states herself to be twenty. Mary is the middle child, implied to be toddling age at the coronation, and George is described as “the baby”, but no exact ages are given. We’ll say at a rough guess, 1505 and 1508. (As Mary is described as being Henry VIII’s mistress before the Field of Cloth of Gold, she can’t be that much younger. At least, one would hope).
THE EARLY LOVE: None, surprisingly. When Anne returns from France, full of insiders’ knowledge about court flirtations and a trunk full of gifts from disappointed French courtiers, Mary assumes that she “had lovers.” “I had admirers,” Anne tells her, “And if you think it is the same thing, you are a fool.” Before she even goes to court she manages to demonstrate the fine art of catching an admirer by ensnaring Thomas Wyatt, a gentle, sensitive type who is happily married until Anne gets her claws into him and who, the night before her departure for court, shoots an arrow up to her window around which is wrapped the octet of Whoso list to hunt. Anne, however, dismisses him as “my lovelorn cousin” and goes off to Court determined to get the best catch available. She does this in record time, reeling in the “spindly, weak-chinned” Henry Percy, although very unusually she doesn’t particularly like him. Percy, however, is crazy about her and defends himself desperately when Wolsey, on the King’s orders, sweeps in to deliver his speech in which he marvels not a little that Percy could get entangled with Anne.
THE QUEEN’S BEES: Only one is named – Jane Seymour, and while she’s mentioned a number of times she never speaks. “This pale English wildflower, with her buttoned-up mouth and kittenish manner,” is beloved of Henry because she’s everything that Anne isn’t, and she’s clearly learned from her predecessor’s example. There are no other maids of honour named, partially because scenes showing Anne after becoming Queen are scanty (Thomas More takes center stage at this point) and partially, I think, to emphasize how isolated and disliked Anne is, not just by the common people and Catherine’s faction, but by women everywhere. During the last months of her life, the only people who want to be around her are “the younger gentlemen at Court, the only ones whom her arrogance and vanity had not alienated.” One interesting side effect of this is that even Lady Rochford, that ever-reliable bete noire, doesn’t appear in the story at all, and thus the incest charge is devised by Cromwell alone. (And who’s to say this isn’t closer to the truth, anyway?)
THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR None for Anne – there’s no special servant character, and as above, Anne is so haughty and repellent that she drives away everyone except a few flirtatious gentlemen. All of this is, of course, by way of stark contrast with Thomas More, who’s shown being accompanied by his servant John Wood, not to mention his daughters and foster daughters, to the bitter end.
THE PROPHECY Just as she first conceives the idea of aiming for the crown, Anne remembers “how an astrologer had forecast for her a brilliant marriage.” However, Thomas More’s prediction that Anne will come to the same end as himself is left out, I’m not sure why – it’s a nice variation from the endless stream of sixteenth-century puns. Of course, Roper may have been remembering that story with advantages, but it’s still a very old one. The Nun of Kent makes a number of prophecies about Henry’s imminent downfall if he doesn’t renounce Anne, all of which she actually made and none of which came true.
IT’S A GIRL! We don’t see the scene directly, but are given Cromwell’s memory of it. “Having boasted to everyone that he had begotten a son, his rage had been really alarming when Anne’s child turned out to be a girl; yet a few days later he had been all smiles again, standing at a window with the infant Princess Elizabeth in his arms…”
DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Yes – she “affects long ruffles to her sleeves” which are otherwise accurately described for the period (“enormous cuffs turned back on the forearm to show the lining of lynx fur”) so I assume this means her undersleeves cover most of her hands, which sounds like it would make things like eating or lute-playing very awkward. She also has the wen on her neck, which she covers with a jewelled collar.
FAMILY AFFAIRS: Thomas Boleyn is, well, classic Thomas Boleyn – climbing, greedy, and stingy (his brother-in-law is sure that Thomas will show up a court function because he “would never miss a chance for a free dinner.”) At the end of the book, Anne asks her father if he’s seen Mark Smeaton, as she wants him to play for her, and her father tells her that he’s in the Tower, and that she should know on what charge, “for it seems you had a finger in that pie.” Afterwards, he leaves, never to see her again – “He had no pity for her; all his life he had made traffic of everything …. All he was concerned about at present was to dissociate himself from Anne’s coming destruction.” The objects he’s “made traffic” with include his wife and daughter Mary, the latter for obvious reasons and the former for what was at least a very heavy flirtation with the young Henry VIII. We don’t see very much of Anne’s mother or siblings, because so much of the book is given over to More’s family, but Mary is established as her usual self – sweet, sentimental, and throwing everything away for love, including her chance of profiting by her affair with the King. “I tell you, you are a fool, Mall,” Anne tells a distraught Mary, “and more of a fool because you have made nothing out of your amour with the king.” George is very muted, and is described as “her incapable brother” whom the king nonetheless sends on foreign embassies in order to gain favour with Anne. Elizabeth Boleyn doesn’t have much to do except play second fiddle to her husband – she and he are ambitious together, and as stated earlier, an early affair with Henry VIII is implied.
DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No. She lies about a second pregnancy and has to admit she was mistaken, she thinks seriously about poisoning Catherine and Mary, may be guilty having poisoned Catherine (the book is vague) and she flirts outrageously, but of adultery and incest she’s not guilty – Cromwell is depicted coolly writing up notes of times and circumstances which could be spun as “suspicious” but he’s doing it with the express purpose of getting rid of her.
WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: It’s well-written but some of the scene-setting can get a little overwrought – here’s the post-monastic landscape in the epilogue:
In town and country the wind whistled round heaps of rubble become common quarries, where once had stood the most noble architectural monuments of England. In the cloisters garths still showed black patches where bands of workmen sent from London had built fires of choir stalls, reredos, and rood for the melting of the head torn from the roofs. They were silent now, those ruins, but not so long ago they had echoed to the crash of the sledge-hammer and crow-bar; they had been noisy with the voices of foreign merchants following like vultures in the footsteps of the royal Visitors, haggling at auctions, held on the spot, or buy cheap and sell dear, illuminated Mass-books, psalters, manuals, antiphonals, the results of a labour of love which had once occupied some monk for a lifetime, and now to be sold to grocers for wrapping up their goods.
But most of the time it’s very good; I especially liked the wrestling match at the Field of Cloth of Gold. Not only are they not wrestling over Mary Boleyn (for once!) but the reactions of the people around them – and Henry’s reactions to them make it a lovely little bit of character and plot development.
“Brother, I will have a wrestle with you!”
The tall young Frenchman was taken off his guard. He nearly fell; recovered himself; and by some quick skilful movement flung Henry flat upon his back. In that fraction of a second, Henry had a glimpse of Wolsey, the fleshy face surprised into a smile.
As the whole gaudy multitude stood petrified, Queen Catherine’s voice came clearly:
“Madre de Dios! I have never seen your Grace take such a tumble!”
… Henry, though he laughed it off, would remember that trifling little incident. Especially would he remember his wife’s tactless remark, and the smile, gone again in an instant, he had surprised on the face of his faithful Wolsey.
ERRATA: Henry is highly unlikely to have had syphilis, but in fairness this was a going theory when the book was written and its inclusion would have been backed up by a number of historians. Anne for some reason is crowned on May 22nd instead of June 1st, with her procession occurring on May 21st. Jane Seymour is betrothed to Henry on the day of Anne’s execution, when in fact they were betrothed the day after. Anne’s remarks about boxing Mary on the ears and “if I have a son … I know what will come to her” are delivered together and instead of being in letters strategically dropped, Anne says these things out loud, in the presence of Mary and of Henry, behavior one can’t imagine Henry countenancing as peacefully as he does here. The candles on Catherine’s hearse light themselves (supposedly) on the morning of Anne’s execution, not of her miscarriage – granted, this probably never happened on either day, but still, the contemporary story was that it was January 29th, not May 19th. However, with these exceptions, the verifiable details are very, very well done – the author knows the timeline precisely and has a good handle on the political issues. While the More of this book is very much a 1960s More, all gentle paternal wisdom and no shadow in the sunlight, she does make clear the fact that he was prepared to acknowledge and even praised Anne Boleyn (Roper, for understandable reasons, doesn’t go into this) – it was the Oath of Supremacy that ultimately got him, not the issue of Anne’s position. And although her Anne is a dyed-in-the-wool Jezebel for most of the book, when her words are recorded – as they were in the Tower – the book is faithful to them. Only one exception that I noticed, and that’s when Cranmer pays Anne his consolatory visit in the Tower – he comes away and writes a letter to the King saying that he is now “quite convinced” of her guilt. The real Cranmer didn’t go that far, but neither did he (in Flashman’s words) stand proud and unflinching at the gates of doom. Instead he dithered about how he had never had a better opinion of anyone than her, but if the King thought she was guilty, well, maybe …” and so on.
Note that I’m not saying all of the people depicted actually were exactly the way they’re shown – I’ll get to that in a moment – but that the dates, political and theological issues, and other such paper-verifiable materials are quite accurate and detailed.
WORTH A READ? It’s an engaging read depending on what you’re looking for – as is clear after all of this, the book is just as much if not more about Thomas More than Anne Boleyn, and it’s written from a firmly Catholic perspective; you could call it a retort to those earlier Protestant efforts in which Anne is the Queen of Heaven on earth and is done in by wily, sometimes imaginary Catholic conspirators. This book is not an equivalent to those earlier efforts by any means – there are no imaginary people employed to work out plot points and the research has been very thorough. However, it does suffer from the, shall we say, overzealous characterizations of some of those older works – Thomas More is just so good, so wise, so cheerful in the face of adversity (his few despondent moments are fleeting and don’t carry much conviction) that the only thing preventing him from becoming irritatingly dull are his own words, derived from Roper and other sources. Allowing for the fact that humour has changed quite a bit over the last five centuries, the man was still obviously a brilliant mind and speaker. Then too, there’s the fact that More’s stock isn’t nearly as high as it was fifty years ago – no heretics in the basement or scathing denunciations of the newly-dead Wolsey here – and these scenes come off as being much stickier than they were doubtless intended to be. And by way of comparison, Anne, Cranmer and Cromwell, being the villains of the piece, cannot be allowed any virtues except for – in Anne’s case – that of courage, which she’s explicitly allotted but then described as using only for bad purposes. Anne catches Henry’s eye by accident and plots and schemes from then on with never a moment of weakness, Cranmer is invariably cowardly and sneaky, and Cromwell’s unattractive appearance (“bullet-headed” “dull-faced” “piggy-eyed”) that it’s hard to say whether the author dislikes him more for his face or his lack of scruples. He, too, is not permitted any virtues – it’s so dire, in fact, that it’s hard to see why anyone even has him around. Who wants a servant who’s so openly on the make?
It’s in the secondary characters and political developments that book shines and shows what it could be. I really, really enjoyed the emphasis on Henry’s early political development and the fact that in his sections, every incident forwarded the plot somehow – you really got a sense of what he was up against and how these public political entanglements affected the private ones. This is one of the very few books I’ve read in which enough background is given for Mary Rose’s marriage to Louis XII that a novice reader would really understand why it took place, instead of being given the usual boilerplate paragraph about the horror of evil men forcibly betrothing women for vaguely delineated “political reasons”. The secondary Catholic characters were handled with a surprising subtlety for many of them – Princess Mary is proud, inquisitive, stubborn; you can see why she became what she did but also what she might have been had her life not been interrupted the way it was. Catherine of Aragon was also well-handled – I liked how her small, annoying habits became major irritations to Henry, and the stresses that the shifting political alliances could put their personal relationship. She’s still the superlatively patient and admirable Catherine of most fictional portrayals, but she was very human at the same time. I wish the author could have done the same service to the lead characters, but even if the main courses were disappointing, the side dishes made it a very enjoyable read and an interesting slice of popular historical opinion circa fifty years ago.
Links to Amazon are an affiliate link. You can help The Head That Launched A Thousand Books read even more novels by purchasing any item (not just the one linked to) through these links.