A novelist and popular historian (The King and the Gentleman: Charles Stuart and Oliver Cromwell, 1499–1649, 1999, etc.) argues that the six wives are far less significant to our understanding of Henry VIII than the six Thomases who served him: Wolsey, More, Cromwell, Howard, Wriothesley, and Cranmer.
What interests Wilson is the politics of Henry’s court, and so he focuses on the politicians—secular and sectarian—who rose and fell (or knelt briefly at the block) during Henry’s 38-year reign. He achieves a number of important goals in his long, dense text: (1) he humanizes More, establishing beyond debate that he was not the saintly martyr of A Man for All Seasons; (2) he creates some sympathy for Wolsey, too often portrayed in history as a fat-cat cardinal interested only in acquiring wealth and power; (3) he reveals much about the lesser-known Thomases, especially Cromwell, Cranmer, and Wriothesley, all of whom had enormous gifts, painstakingly shown by Wilson. As much as he wishes to shove the six wives into the shadows of the six Thomases, though, he recognizes that the status of the men rose and fell with the king’s marital relationships. Failure meant loss of power (Wolsey) and even loss of life (More, Cromwell). Wilson displays an impressive command of early Tudor history and an even more impressive ability to interweave so many separate strands of the great story. Some individual sentences shine with wit and insight (“Henry was besotted with his new queen [Catherine Howard] and persuaded himself that he was young again”), yet he seems determined to exclude from his narrative any of the lurid details of life, sex, and death that have drawn readers to the subject for centuries. The deaths of Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell, and Catherine Howard are recorded in the most restrained and even prudish prose (we are told only that Cromwell’s headsman “bungled the job badly”).
Remarkable research, a masterful synthesis—but lacking an animating panache. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen)