h i st or y
His critics claim that in his eagerness to incriminate Mary, Walsingham resorted to entrapment. ‘The Papists accused him as a cunning workman in complotting his businesses and alluring men into dangers.’ He let Mary think she had established a foolproof way of communicating secretly with her supporters, when in fact all her correspondence passed first through his own hands. When Mary endorsed a plot to kill Elizabeth, the secretary pounced, confident that Elizabeth could no longer resist the clamour for Mary’s head. At her trial Mary taxed him with trickery, to which Walsingham retorted that though he had ‘curiously searched out the practices’ against the state, he had ‘done nothing unbeseeming an honest man’. Walsingham’s detractors have condemned this response as Machiavellian and evasive, but such criticism is not entirely fair. Walsingham may have used enticement to ensure that Mary compromised herself, but her sanctioning of a murderous attack upon Elizabeth was entirely voluntary.
Walsingham’s grasp of foreign intelligence was no less impressive than his monitoring of the English domestic scene. Within days of Philip II of Spain receiving a report from his admiral outlining the resources he required for an invasion of England, Walsingham had a copy of the document. On learning that the English ambassador to France was betraying secrets to Spain, Walsingham fed him with false information, designed to mislead the enemy. After the Armada was dispersed in 1588, one admirer told the secretary, ‘You have fought more with your pen than many have in our English navy.’
At a time when religious extremism and terrorism have once again become intertwined, and the response of supposedly civilised nations has all too often involved recourse to torture, this biography of Walsingham is timely. Making full use of recent scholarship, John Cooper neither vilifies nor lionises his subject, preferring to set his actions in context. It would, perhaps, have been welcome if he could have devoted more attention to Walsingham’s place within the factional struggles at court, and to his relations with Lord Burghley, but Cooper does not neglect other less wellknown aspects of Walsingham’s career, such as his involvement in colonising ventures. Inevitably Walsingham will always remain a bête noire of English Catholics, but Cooper’s lucid and readable study of this ‘most subtle searcher of hidden secrets’ does much to show that Walsingham’s work was (as one of his agents said of the profession of spying itself ) ‘odious though necessary’. To order this book for £16, see the Literary Review Bookshop on page 29
p e t e r marshal l
Dynasty Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England
By Thomas Penn (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 448pp £20)
It is hard to understand why the reign of Henry VII has for so long had the reputation of being one of the most boring periods of English history. Perhaps it is because successive generations of A-level students have been made to wrestle with the technical aspects of bonds and recognisances, and to memorise the contents of trade treaties called things like the Malus Intercursus. In fact, Henry’s story is truly remarkable and often engrossing. He was a king who, in the final stages of the Wars of the Roses, as Thomas Penn puts it, ‘appeared out of nowhere’ – an obscure exile who seized the throne from Richard III in 1485 with a single, desperate throw of the dice. His enjoyment of it might easily have been brief. He faced a succession of serious challenges, not merely from the pretenders Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck (reduced, unfairly, to comic-opera status by 1066 and All That), but from Cornish rebels, hostile foreign powers, and bona fide Yorkist heavyweights such as the Earl of Suffolk. Treason, real and imagined, festered in the highest circles of the land throughout his reign. Henry’s response was to enmesh his leading subjects in layers of financial threat and obligation, employing the talents of a crew of ruthless cronies operating through the euphemistically titled Council Learned in the Law. Resentments quietly mushroomed. That Henry’s son succeeded him, unchallenged, in 1509 must be regarded as a triumph against the odds.
It is pushing things a bit to suggest, as Penn does in his introduction, that this story has hitherto been ‘ largely untold’; his own endnotes and acknowledgements reveal a heavy debt to recent academic scholarship. Nor does the account here contain many startling new
Terracotta bust of Henry VII by Pietro Torrigiano revelations or original insights into the character of the reign. The shakily insecure foundations of the Tudor dynasty; Henry VII’s persistent political paranoia; his rule through an escalating system of fiscal tyranny; the intense (and ultimately misplaced) optimism upon the accession of Henry VIII – these are all familiar themes to anyone who has studied the period. Penn does, however, succeed in investing the material with urgency and eloquence, and imposes on
| o c t o b e r 2 0 1 1 h i st or y it a convincing, and in places compelling, narrative shape.
He is at his best in writerly evocations of court life: the bitchiness of jobbing poets, and the strange atmosphere, at once courtly and malevolently violent, of elaborately staged tournaments. Spare and effective pen portraits bring the principals to life. Edward IV’s queen, Elizabeth Woodville, makes an early appearance as ‘a cold, lynx-eyed beauty’; Margaret Beaufort, the king’s pious mother, is a ‘sharpeyed’ presence around the court; while the regime’s stalwart and fixer, Bishop Richard Fox, is ‘narrow-eyed’. (Henry VII’s own eyes, as glimpsed in a portrait of 1505, are ‘uneven, heavy-lidded [and] glinting’.) While the narrative drags in a few places – we learn more than we really want to about the interminable negotiations between Henry and Ferdinand of Aragon over the remarriage of the latter’s daughter, Catherine – some moments of drama are brought wonderfully to life: the shattering effect on Henry of the successive deaths of his eldest son and wife in 1502–3; and the coup, orchestrated from the heart of the establishment itself, which brought down the scapegoat advisors Empson and Dudley in the opening days of Henry VIII’s reign. Penn is also good at subtly exploiting our knowledge of what comes next for poignant effect – the arrival on the scene, almost unnoticed, of the ever-obliging Thomas Wolsey; the observations on power and princely conduct of the insider-outsider Thomas More; the joyous promise of the young Prince Henry.
Yet as a window on the early Tudor world, Penn’s account has its blind spots. He is not particularly interested in the devotional ambience of Henry VII’s court and reign, and makes little effort to understand it or evoke it convincingly. Henry’s religion is, for Penn, a matter of (frequently non-specific) rituals, performed conventionally or cynically among ‘relics and graven images’; late medieval prayer involves the muttering of ‘mantras’. (Meanwhile, in a somewhat chronologically disorientating metaphor, the corruption and venality of the late Renaissance papacy is said to have ‘assumed baroque proportions’.) Henry VII’s personal piety moved up a gear as he prepared to meet his maker, though here we should note that the ‘Art of Dying’ practised on late medieval deathbeds was not, as Penn supposes, a matter of giving people ‘the best chance of salvation from the horrors of purgatory’. The intense introspection of the final moments in fact aimed to ensure that Christians did not commit the mortal sin of despair, and thus condemn themselves to hell. The path of salvation led via purgatory, and the strategies for alleviating its rigour and duration were a rather different matter.
Elsewhere in the book, the requirements of propulsive narrative history iron out some of the complexities and uncertainties of the historical record. Penn takes for granted, for example, that the brief and youthful marriage of Prince Arthur to Catherine of Aragon in 1501 was a consummated one, a thirsty Arthur emerging from his bedchamber the morning after the wedding to demand a cup of ale, ‘for I have this night been in the midst of Spain’. But he omits to tell us that this was testimony solicited many years later, in 1529, when Henry VIII was desperate to assert, against Catherine’s protestations to the contrary, that sexual relations had indeed taken place. If they had not, his entire campaign for a papal annulment of his own marriage was undermined. Historians, like contemporaries, remain divided over the question.
Yet if this book succeeds in raising Henry VII’s profile among the reading public, it will have done history a service. Perhaps because he had only one wife rather than six, and was never brought to life by an artist of Holbein’s extraordinary calibre, Henry has fared badly in comparison with his son in the public recognition stakes. There has been, as far as I can recall, no film treatment of Henry VII’s life, and historical novelists have not in general been drawn to its possibilities. Even Shakespeare swerved conspicuously around Henry in his cycle of modern histories. Shame. The theme of the bold young warrior descending into the vengeful and paranoid king is one he might have been able to do something with. To order this book for £16, see the Literary Review Bookshop on page 29
F R O M C H I C A G O
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and this book shows just that,
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