- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 14, 2002

By Derek Wilson
St. Martin's, $35, 592 pages, illus.

Henry VIII is one of the few British monarchs many American readers can recognize: He's the big stud with lotsa wives (six to be exact).
Henry was, of course, infinitely more than that, as the British historian Derek Wilson shows in this informed but sometimes tediously long work, "In the Lion's Court," that traces the Tudor monarch's life from his birth in 1491 until his death in 1547. Not like every man in those violent times, Henry died in bed, his vast bulk raddled by the excesses of his boisterous youth and the demands of his later life.
At a time when none of Henry's wives appeared able to bear him a healthy male heir, he faced the animosity of most of continental Europe, the ire of Pope Paul III (who excommunicated him), the rebellion of his Irish and Scottish chiefs, the disaffection of his traditionalist Catholic subjects and hard economic times.
Able, energetic and awe-inspiring as he was, Henry did not accomplish all this on his own: He had the aid of six remarkable men, all named Thomas, only one of whom survived Henry's death or its immediate aftermath. This is their story.
The six included Sir Thomas More, Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell (the Earl of Essex), Thomas Howard (third Duke of Norfolk), Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Wriothesley.
More, the "man for all seasons" of Erasmus, an ecclesiastical reformer in his youth, helped Henry keep the top on the churchly teapot but balked at signing the Act of Succession, which set aside Catherine of Aragon, Henry's first wife, who had been wed to his deceased older brother, Arthur, in favor of Anne Boleyn and her issue. That cost More his head.
Wolsey, an archbishop of York who had his eye on the papacy but had to settle for a cardinal's red hat and the archbishopric of Canterbury, quickly became Henry's right-hand man in both domestic and foreign affairs. Accused, (probably falsely) of treason, he died apparently of natural causes on his way to the Tower of London. His sin was that he had been unable to pry out of the Vatican a divorce for Henry from Catherine of Aragon.
Thomas (not Oliver) Cromwell, a lowborn but highly educated cleric, rose in Henry's service to be vice-regent, his deputy in ecclesiastical affairs and Earl of Essex. He made himself useful (and Henry much richer) through the closure of England's last 800 monastic institutions (their gold, silver, jewels and tapestries were worth a pope's ransom.)
He rewarded Henry's friends with land and titles and burned his enemies. He extricated the king from two unwanted marriages, held his many enemies at bay and kept England out of financially ruinous foreign wars. His reward was a one-way trip to the chopping block, largely because Henry, ill, paranoid and bad-tempered, had grown tired of him.
Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, was among the wisest and kindest of Henry's advisors. Of humble background, he supported Henry's religious reforms and break with the papacy, but he fought unsuccessfully to save the lives of other English Catholic bishops who refused to do so. That the Anglican Church ended up as a moderate Protestant denomination was largely to his credit. He crafted its 16th-century prayer book, one of the great jewels of the English language, despite the depredations of modern ecclesiastical vandals. He outlived Henry but later was burned at the stake by Mary, the king's Catholic daughter by Catherine of Aragon.
Thomas Howard, the third Duke of Norfolk, lacked the intelligence of a Cromwell or the subtlety of a Cranmer.
He had a powerful Yorkist claim to the throne and was Britain's first soldier. Henry was right only half trusting Norfolk, but rarely failed to call on him in time of war. And Norfolk seldom failed to respond, bringing Henry home many victories and sending two of his blood to the monarch's bed (both were executed, but Norfolk never thought to complain). He was in the Tower awaiting execution when Henry died (Norfolk expired shortly thereafter; the Howards to this day remain England's most prominent Catholic family).
Wriothesley was the last, youngest and most unpronounceable of the six Toms, serving first Wolsey, then Cromwell and finally the king with equal industry, intelligence and charm, rising to become Henry's principal inquisitor and torturer. Lord Chancellor after Cromwell's fall and the turning of many a coat, he apparently poisoned himself after a failed coup attempt.
The death of Henry VIII and the coronation (1558) of Anne Boleyn's Protestant daughter as Elizabeth I marked the end of one bloody era and the beginning of another.
Henry's England (and only to a slightly lesser extent, his Europe) was a bloody, violent place in which the ship of state was tossed about by powerful waves of social, political and religious tumult.
Thanks to the efforts of Henry and his advisors, most of the great questions had been answered for England: England, Scotland and Wales were to become a single united Protestant kingdom; the Bible was to be in English and democracy, at first limited but always real. was to become the system of government.
The spilt blood of those who circumstances led to trespass into the court of Henry's lion learned what a dangerous place it was. But their accomplishments were as real as their failures, and who shall say that they died in vain?
Mr. Wilson's book, although sometimes hard going, is a worthwhile read for those with more than a passing interest in Tudor England.

Smith Hempstone is a former editor in chief of The Washington Times.

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