It’s been nearly 20 years since Derek Wilson’s “In the Lion’s Court” gave readers interested in Henry VIII at least one alternative to the endless Saga of the Wives. Instead of focusing on King Henry’s gaudy parade of queens, Wilson wrote about the ways six men, all coincidentally named Thomas, influenced the king throughout his life and reign. The spotlight was briefly wrested from Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Katherine Howard, Anne of Cleves, and Katherine Parr and thrown on Thomas Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell, the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas More, Archbishop Cranmer, and the Earl of Southampton.
Apart from all the other strengths of the book, the approach itself was distinctly refreshing, and Tudor expert Tracy Borman uses it in her captivating new book Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him, a study of some key male figures who shaped Henry’s thought and rule. Borman varies the cast of this coterie; Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, necessarily appears again, since he was not only the uncle of two of Henry’s wives but also his most powerful subject for decades, and other Thomases – Cromwell, Wolsey, and More – command broad reaches of the book. Some of Borman’s other choices surprise, like Henry’s best friend Charles Brandon, the first Duke of Suffolk, or Eustace Chapuys, the ambassador of Charles V of Spain, whose granular memoranda on all aspects of the reign have long been goldmines for Tudor historians (“His real legacy,” Borman writes, “was the collection of long and brilliantly detailed descriptions of Henry and his court that have survived down the centuries”).
Regardless of the dramatis personae, this staging of the dramatic keynote story of the Tudor dynasty makes a counterweight to “divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived.” Henry VIII came to the throne as a tall, learned, magnificently handsome teenager; he fundamentally changed the nature of the English monarchy; he greatly increased the size and complexity of the state apparatus; he launched two wars against France; he broke the Church of England from Rome and confiscated the church’s vast wealth in England for his own coffers. He is, in other words, a compelling subject of study on grounds completely unrelated to his wives.
Borman’s book delivers an excellent example of such a study. She follows Henry from birth to death, and the effect of shifting the spotlight once again produces an arrestingly different portrait of the king and his reign, perhaps more different even than Borman herself sees at times. At the onset of her book, she tells readers that the men in Henry’s life “shaped Henry into the man – the monster – that he would become,” but despite her obvious openness to this possibility, Henry-as-monster makes comparatively few appearances in this narrative. Instead, in chapter after chapter, Borman gives readers a far more complex figure, often indecisive, often tormented, well able to match the wisest men of his era in brainpower, as versed in church reform as his own most learned divines. In many ways, this is the best kind of biography for Henry: it locates him firmly in his natural environment, the world of power politics.
Thanks to Borman’s skillful handling of her sources, Henry is also considerably fleshed out as both a man and a ruler. We see him, for instance, through the prism of his favorite Court fool, Will Sommers. And there are unguarded moments, as when, after Cardinal Wolsey’s death in 1530, Wolsey’s secretary, George Cavendish, meets with Henry alone. The King tells him he would gladly pay 20,000 pounds to have the Cardinal back and warns Cavendish never to speak of their meeting. “His words betrayed a great deal of lingering affection towards the man who had been his mainstay for almost twenty years,” Borman writes. “But to the outside world … Henry was careful to show no regret.”
This interplay between the public and the private Henry is the consistent highlight of Borman’s book. In many ways, it’s displayed less by his always-guarded dealings with his powerful ministers and more by Henry’s relationships with childhood playmates, tilt-yard cronies, and longtime friends. Borman makes the wise decision to fill her narrative with these secondary figures. Readers meet Sir Nicholas Wingfield, Henry’s ambassador to France and a man who could tease the king out of dark moods other counsellors would have found exceedingly dangerous. There are career men like William Blount or Thomas Grey, valued friends of the King, or Henry Courtenay, Earl of Devon, likewise a friend but one who was destroyed by Cromwell while Henry looked the other way.
The varied collection of tough and enterprising men reflects always back on the man at the center. Through these many perspectives, Borman builds a composite portrait of Henry VIII that’s more interesting – and more believable – than any simple monster story would be.