Book Review: “The Private Life of Thomas Cromwell” by Caroline Angus

cover260114-mediumWhen we think about the men who surrounded King Henry VIII, a few names come to mind. Cranmer, More, Wolsey, and Wroithesley are just a few, but the man who is synonymous with the infamous king’s reign is Thomas Cromwell. The man who helped Henry get his divorce from Katherine of Aragon saw both the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn. He also assisted in the dissolution of the monasteries and brought reform to England with the break from the Roman Catholic Church. To modern audiences, it feels as if we know everything that there was to know about Thomas Cromwell’s public life, but what was he like in his private life when his friends and family surrounded him? Caroline Angus gives her readers an insight into Cromwell’s personal life in her latest book, “The Private Life of Thomas Cromwell.”

Thank you, Pen and Sword Books and Net Galley, for sending me a copy of this book. I love finding new perspectives about historical figures, like Thomas Cromwell, so when I heard that Caroline Angus was writing this book, I was delighted. I wanted to see what new information this book could provide about Thomas Cromwell’s life.

Angus begins her new nonfiction book on Cromwell by showing the origins of the Cromwell family and how Thomas went from the son of a blacksmith to his journeys in Italy, especially in Florence. It is impressive to see how Thomas’ influential friends from Florence would help shape how he conducted business later on in life as one of King Henry VIII’s top counselors. Thomas must have been a polymath to achieve the astronomical rise to power that we see him go through that landed him in the workforce of Thomas Wolsey.

Under Thomas Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell’s private and public life became insanely busy as he gained the king’s respect. He would be the principal architect for the dissolution of monasteries and helped Henry VIII gain his divorce from Katherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn. As Cromwell became a player in Tudor politics, he married Elizabeth Williams and had several children. As Cromwell’s family grew, so did Thomas’ roles at the court of Henry VIII. He was the king’s number one advisor and was asked to perform the most difficult tasks, like bringing the downfall of Anne Boleyn and breaking England from the Roman Catholic Church. In a way, Thomas Cromwell was the Tudor equivalent of Alexander Hamilton.

I enjoyed this book because we see Cromwell as a human being, not just some lofty historical figure. He was a man who climbed the social ladder with his talents and his connections throughout England and Europe. With every title and every bill passed, Cromwell gained new enemies, who would lead to Thomas Cromwell’s downfall after the disastrous marriage between Henry VIII and Anna of Cleves. His fall was so dramatically quick that even Henry VIII regretted killing Thomas Cromwell.

Angus’s passion for comprehensively telling Cromwell’s story for scholars and students of Tudor history shines through this book. Her research is meticulous as she balances Thomas’ public life and private life to tell the whole story of the legendary man. If you are interested in understanding the life of Henry VIII’s most faithful servant and trusted advisor, I recommend reading “The Private Life of Thomas Cromwell” by Caroline Angus.

Book Review: “The King’s Painter: The Life of Hans Holbein” by Franny Moyle

C1629377When we think of famous artists in the 15th and 16th centuries, we focus on the great European masters. Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Albrecht Durer tend to come immediately to mind. However, one man from Augsburg, Germany, revolutionized how we viewed the Tudor dynasty through portraiture: Hans Holbein the Younger. Many are familiar with his famous works of art and how they influenced how the Tudors have been perceived for centuries, but the man behind the masterpieces has been overlooked. His story and how art was understood in the 16th century is told in Franny Moyle’s latest biography, “The King’s Painter: The Life of Hans Holbein.”

Before I read this book, I did not know much about Hans Holbein, the man behind the art. I knew about his masterpieces like his portraits of Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII, and The Ambassadors, which I love to marvel at, but the man himself was a complete mystery. When this book was announced, I knew I wanted to read it to learn more about the master Hans Holbein.

Hans Holbein the Younger was from a family of artists; his father was Hans Holbein the Elder, and his older brother Ambrosius were also artisans, but they never reached the level of prestige as the youngest member of the family. Holbein the Younger was willing to break the mold and create art his way. Before finishing his apprenticeship, he signed his artwork and ensured that he was not in debt like Holbein the Elder. Holbein the Younger decided to move to Basel, Switzerland, to make his name. Here, Holbein was introduced to men like Erasmus and the ideas of humanism and Protestantism. It was in Basel where Holbein married Elsbeth Schmidt and started his family.

Holbein did not stay in Basel as he was destined to travel to England to be the painter for King Henry VIII. Holbein’s paintings for Henry VIII and his court are some of the most stunning images in 16th century England. The way Holbein was able to paint his subjects in such a life-like style is astonishing. However, when you pair it with Moyle’s information about Holbein’s circle of friends like More, Cromwell, Erasmus, and Cranmer, it adds depth to his work. The amount of allusions and symbolism in these works of art is astounding, and you can spend hours just analyzing one piece at a time.

It is a spectacular biography that any Tudor or art fan will adore. Franny Moyle has created a vivid image of Holbein’s world that could stand side by side with one of his masterpieces. I purposely took my time to read this book slowly to absorb every minuscule detail that Moyle included about Holbein and his world. I know it is a book that I will personally reread in the future. If you want a definitive and delightful biography about the man behind the canvas, I highly recommend “ The King’s Painter: The Life of Hans Holbein” by Franny Moyle.

Book Review: “Wolf Hall Companion” by Lauren Mackay

52659696 (1)One of the most popular Tudor historical fiction series in recent memory has revolved around the enigmatic Thomas Cromwell. Of course, I am talking about the famous Wolf Hall trilogy by Dame Hilary Mantel. As many dive into this monumental series, certain questions arise. How true is Mantel’s portrayal of Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII during some of the most tumultuous times of his reign? What was life like for those who lived in privilege during Henry VIII’s reign? How did Cromwell rise to the pinnacle of power and why did he fall spectacularly? In Dr. Lauren Mackay’s third book, she takes up the monumental task of explaining to readers what is fact and what is fiction in Mantel’s series. Her book is aptly titled “Wolf Hall Companion”. 

I would like to thank Batsford Books and Net Galley for allowing me the opportunity to read and review this book. I will admit that I have not yet read the Wolf Hall trilogy, but this book might have convinced me to take up the challenge and read the trilogy soon.

Mackay starts this delightful book by exploring Thomas Cromwell’s origins and what his family life was like. To uncover the truth about Cromwell’s life, Mackay relies heavily on the behemoth biography of Cromwell written by Diarmaid MacCulloch, which makes perfect sense. She also looks into the lives of those who either influenced Cromwell or were affected by Cromwell’s decisions. People like Anne Boleyn and the entire Boleyn family, Cardinal Wolsey,  Katherine of Aragon, Thomas Cranmer, Anne of Cleves, and Stephen Gardner just to name a few. Mackay balances how Mantel portrays these figures in her novels with the facts that we know about them and the events from numerous sources. 

Mackay also tackles the aspects of the Tudor court and life that adds another layer of details for readers. Things like important holidays, how Henry VIII’s court was structured,  gentlemanly activities and sports, and the Renaissance and the Reformation. It breathes new life into the Tudor dynasty and the people who lived during this time. 

Mackay’s challenge is how to write a book that is just as engaging for the readers as Mantel’s trilogy while still being educational and informative while incorporating her feelings about these novels. It is not an easy task, but Mackay can take on this task and write a gorgeous companion piece, with exquisite woodcut images to follow the story of Thomas Cromwell’s life, his rise to power, and his downfall.

I found this companion book a sheer delight. A combination of being well-researched, bite-size biographies, and gorgeous woodcut illustrations make this book an absolute treat for fans of Wolf Hall and the Tudor dynasty alike. The way Mackay describes Mantel’s writing style and how she created her characters may not be the way I envision them, but that is the great thing about historical fiction. It can challenge your views about a person while still being entertaining. I wish more historical fiction series had companion books like this one. If you are a fan of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy or if you just love learning about the Tudor dynasty from a different point of view, you need to check out Lauren Mackay’s latest masterpiece, “Wolf Hall Companion”.

Book Review: “Sovereign” by C.J. Sansom

27151979When one thinks about a royal Progress, we often think about the glitz and glam of the royal family traversing the entire country at a leisurely rate to inspire awe for their subjects. However, the Progress of 1541, when Henry VIII and his fifth wife Catherine Howard traveled to the hostile northern part of England, was anything but a casual visit. It was very political as Henry was trying to make the North submit to him after the Pilgrimage of Grace while at the same time he was waiting for a meeting with King James V of Scotland. It is the city of York and during this important Progress that C.J. Sansom shapes his latest adventure with his hunchback lawyer and part-time detective, Matthew Shardlake, in book three of the delightful Shardlake series, “Sovereign”.

We join Matthew Shardlake and his dedicated assistant Jack Barak on the road to York to join the Progress to take care of local petitions for the King. They have received another complicated mission from their new boss, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, to look after the wellbeing of a suspected conspirator in a plot to overthrow Henry VIII’s government, so that he can make it to London for further questioning. Things seem to run as smoothly as it could until a master glazer’s mysterious death reveals secrets that will send Shardlake and Barak into a deadly collision course with some of the most powerful men and women in England during this time.

Sansom has done it again. He has expanded Shardlake’s world outside of London to show that England was not all united for the Tudors. As someone who knows about the Wars of the Roses, to read Sansom’s description of the treacherous and rebellious city of York makes sense completely. It is dark and edgy while the glory of the court is on full display. To add more intrigue to this amazing novel, he adds the mystery of a certain member of the Yorkist family’s origins that could change England forever. I personally do not agree with this theory about this particular person’s origins, but it did not take away from my enjoyment of this book. It just added another layer to this enthralling tale.

Of course, since this novel touches on the relationship between Henry VIII and Catherine Howard, Sansom had to include a way for Shardlake to meet these two, as well as confront figures like Lady Rochford, Culpepper, Dereham, and of course Sir Richard Rich. The way he does this is ingenious. Sansom’s attention to details of the Progress is nothing short of extraordinary. Compared to the first two books, this one is much darker as you are unsure how Shardlake and Barak will ever get out of their dangerous situations, but that is what makes it so remarkable.

It is actually difficult for me to write this review without spoiling the ending so I will keep this short. I thought that “Dark Fire” was my favorite in the series, but now “Sovereign” reigns supreme. That might change as I read the rest of this absorbing series. I will say that if you enjoyed the first two books, you have to continue the journey with Matthew Shardlake and Jack Barak in “Sovereign” by C.J. Sansom.

Book Review: “Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him” by Tracy Borman

40642324The story of the reign of King Henry VIII has been told mainly through his numerous marriages and through the lives of his children. Although his immediate family was a big part of his legacy, there is much more to his story than his tempestuous relationships. There were also his legal, religious, and military exploits. The ones who were with Henry when he made these decisions were the men who were loyal to him, his counselors and companions. Their tales are often told separately, until now. Tracy Borman has decided to masterfully combine their tales to explore the life of their infamous king in her latest biography, “Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him”. 

I have read plenty of books about Henry VIII’s wives and his children, but I haven’t read many books about the legendary man himself. I wanted a biography that explored the decisions he made in his life and the men who helped him along the way. That is exactly what Borman delivered in this biography that is bountiful with the information that it provides. 

Like any good biography, Borman begins by exploring Henry VIII’s birth and childhood. This is actually a significant time in his life and in the development of the future king of England. Growing up as the second son, Henry VIII was not destined to be king, but when his older brother Arthur tragically passed away, everything changed and Henry was thrust into a life of training to become king. He was constantly living in the shadow of his father and once he became king, he tried to outshine Henry VII.

Once he became king, Henry surrounded himself with men, both of royal birth and humble origins, to help run England. Some of the men that Borman included are Charles Brandon, Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Francis Bryan, Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Cranmer, Thomas Wroithesley, and Thomas Howard. Relatively familiar names for those who have studied the Tudors before and understand the significance of their roles in the Tudor court. However, Borman also includes the stories of men who did their best work on the sidelines, like the painters, diplomats, members of his inner circle, and doctors who saw all of Henry’s triumphs and failures. 

By highlighting the men that Borman did, she gives her audience a fresh perspective on such an infamous figure in history. He was a complex figure who could change his mind at a drop of the hat. These men knew how to navigate the dangerous situations that they were thrust into in order to make sure that their master’s orders were carried out. Of course, some went above the call of duty and others lost their lives to achieve their goals. 

This was the first book that I have read by Tracy Borman and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Her writing style was so engaging that I did not want this book to end. I thought I knew a lot about Henry VIII and his men, but “Henry VIII and the Men who Made Him” still provided new facts that surprised me. If you want to read a biography about Henry VIII that gives a fresh and innovative look into his life, I highly recommend you read this book.