A snapshot of a significant year in British history that “stands at a crossroads between two very different kings, and between equally different worlds.”
Despite the claim of the subtitle, the accession is one of only a few things about Henry VIII in the book. Instead, in this important work of history, Johnson (The Arrow of Sherwood, 2013) provides a crisp study of the everyday lives of citizens living within “a complex story of ruthless political maneuvering, greed and deception.” The author finds clues in marriage contracts, account books for cities, guilds, Inns of Court, and even cathedrals. Many of these sources demonstrate what was considered important to a person’s wealth as well as to the king’s treasury. Henry does come into focus at various points in the narrative, as does his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Johnson proposes that the beginning of his reign was equally important to the period of his break with the church and multiple marriages—a point the author overstates—and she quickly explores his cosseted childhood, accession, and desperate need to prove himself. More significantly, the author looks closely at the events of 1509 and how they affected both royal and peasant. At this time, after the ravages of the Black Death, which still reared its ugly head occasionally, the peasants found themselves with more power to demand better wages and terms from their landlords. With so few serfs to do so much work, it became a simple case of supply and demand. Later, the author explores Henry’s obsession with an heir, which was an understandable concern driven by the fact that his throne was not entirely secure and there were plenty waiting in the wings to take over. A list of key characters at the end of the book will help readers keep track of the royal family.
The power of this book lies in Johnson’s comprehensive look at the quotidian lives of English men and women. For that, it is eminently readable and interesting.