Book Review: “Four Princes” by John Julius Norwich

The subtitle of this book is “Henry VIII, Francis I, Charles V, Suleiman the Magnificent and the Obsessions that Forged Modern Europe”. Whew! How about that for raising expectations? But I have to say, this book delivers.

There is a blurb inside the front cover that says this: “Never before had the world seen four such giants coexisting. Sometimes friends, more often enemies, always rivals, these four men together held Europe in the hollow of their hands.” This pretty much sums up the era and what a time it was. Europe was experiencing great upheaval. There was monumental transformations in matters of religion. The Renaissance began with new discoveries in science, mass printing of books and gorgeous art being produced.

Amidst all this upheaval, there were four princes who ruled Europe, all with monumental egos. This books introduces us to the four men, giving their backgrounds. The author explains their changing alliances along with their bellicose warfare. There were many different meetings between these men which are described here. Treaties were made and broken. Invasions were mounted. Suleiman the Magnificent was at the outskirts of Vienna but drew back twice. Francis I of France stunned Europe by forging ties with the Sultan in an effort to stave off having France taken over by Charles V. Because the author has written about the papacy, he includes a lot of papal history and how it relates to the other rulers. You just can’t make this stuff up.

I would classify this book as ‘popular history’, whatever that means. It is not meant to be an academic work and indeed, I found a few historical mistakes. These are just a few of the most glaring errors. Norwich states that King Francis I’s mother Louise of Savoy attended peace talks in Toledo in July of 1525. This is incorrect. Francis’ sister Marguerite was present and spoke directly to Charles V about the release of Francis from captivity after the devastating French loss at Pavia.

Norwich also states that Cardinal Compeggio had been sent to England in 1518 and that he remained there from that date until the legatine court at Blackfriars in 1529 was convened to discuss the divorce of Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon. This is not so. Compeggio had to travel from the continent to England for this trial. Norwich also has a footnote regarding Sir Thomas More where he states that Henry had More arrested after he refused to attend the King’s wedding to Anne Boleyn. I have no idea where he got this and it’s almost laughable.

But this does not detract from the overall joy of reading the fascinating history of early modern Europe. The book has a section of beautiful color photos and a limited bibliography. It’s a good starting point for those who are new to the era and a good vacation read for those who know the history.

Book Review: “Jane the Quene” by Janet Wertman

Jane the Queen book cover

There are many readers who enjoy historical fiction from the Tudor era. I used to be one of them and have many fond memories of reading the delightful books of Jean Plaidy and Norah Lofts. Due to the constraints of historical research, I haven’t read any fiction for years. But I thought I would make an exception for my friend Janet Wertman and read the first book of her Seymour Saga.

What a delight this book is! Wertman’s premise is that Jane Seymour was the plain sister in the family and all she really wanted was to get married. The story opens with Jane working as a lady-in-waiting for Anne Boleyn and King Henry VIII and the Queen are about to go on summer progress. Jane is sent to the family home of Wulfhall to oversee the preparations for the King’s visit. While Henry VIII is there, he and Jane have a moment in the garden and that’s where Jane’s romance begins.

Jane’s prospects improve from that moment on. Wertman includes all the iconic moments in Jane’s life. There’s the day Anne Boleyn caught Henry with Jane in his lap and the famous scene where Henry tries to give Jane a bag of coins and a letter. Jane refuses the gifts with great aplomb. I love Wertman’s dialogue throughout the book. All the famous characters from the Tudor court are here: Jane’s brothers Edward and Tom, her sister-in-law Anne Seymour, her sister Elizabeth, Thomas Cromwell, Ralph Sadler, the notorious Anne Boleyn and of course, Henry VIII in all his royal splendor.

The scenes of the birth of Jane’s son Edward and her death as written are very vivid and moving. There’s a lot of insight into what Jane, Edward Seymour, King Henry and Thomas Cromwell are thinking, their behavior and their motivations. This book took me back to those Jean Plaidy days. I think any reader would enjoy the book and highly recommend it. I’ll be looking forward to the rest of the Seymour Saga from Janet.

Book Review: “Henry VIII: The Mask of Royalty” by Lacey Baldwin Smith

Lacey Baldwin Smith's Mask of Royalty book cover

When I was a history major in college, probably in my senior year, I took my first psychology course. Psychology turned out to be a fascinating subject and made me think about how it could be applied to history. The thought of a course in psycho-history crossed my mind but unfortunately my school didn’t offer such a course! Little did I know at the time Lacey Baldwin Smith was writing his seminal work on King Henry VIII and that is was a masterful psycho-history biography.

Many people had recommended this book to me and it was gripping from the very first chapter. Smith begins with the dying king secluded in his chamber and describes the loyal servants around him and their behavior. As many Tudor history fans know, there may have been some shenanigans during the king’s fateful final illness, especially regarding his will. Smith explains that Henry had his full faculties up until the end, perhaps blissfully ignoring the fact he was dying. But we do know there were changes made to the will and it wasn’t signed by the king’s hand but with a dry stamp. All this is very intriguing.

The book then goes into flashback so to speak to around the time Henry married Catherine Howard and most of the book recounts the years from 1540 until his death in 1547. Smith explains how Henry was given an in-depth humanist education but he certainly wasn’t the most intelligent man at court. What he was good at was remembering many minute details of all the business of governing of the realm. There are many records with Henry’s own notes written by hand that still exist to this day.

There is a most interesting chapter regarding Henry and his thinking as Supreme Head of the Church in England. Henry’s conscience was responsible for the spiritual life of all his subjects. Smith gives us a most interesting insight into what a precarious position this was for Henry and how this affected his view of the church in his kingdom. Smith examines some of the foreign policy of Henry in the later years recounting the delicate dance of power between the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and King François I of France.

Woven throughout Smith’s narration is how Henry’s psychological perspective and views of his place in the world influenced his reign. His insights go a long way in explaining why he did what he did in making decisions, marrying so many times and executing valuable servants. I found all of Smith’s arguments to be very absorbing and they gave me a deep understanding of not just Henry but the mindset of Tudor England overall. I couldn’t put this book down and was sad when I finished it. I can’t recommend it enough. Any reader will definitely have a better understanding of the standout king and his reign.