IN THE LION'S COURT: Power, Ambition and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII

Derek Wilson, Author . St. Martin's $35 (592p) ISBN 0-312-28696-1

With encyclopedic complexity, the prolific Wilson (The Astors; Hans Holbein) traces the political webs of the period 1499–1559, "the sixty most creative—and, therefore, most destructive—years in [England's] history." In place of the attention that other popular historians have given Henry's six wives, Wilson focuses on six Thomases whose careers shaped the regime: Wolsey the cleric, More the lawyer, Cromwell the "whizz kid," Howard the nobleman, Cranmer the scholar and, later, Wriothesley the courtier. Ministerial careers were as perilous as matrimonial politics, and Wilson offers a new mnemonic: "Died, beheaded, beheaded, / Self-slaughtered, burned, survived." His book shines a bright modern light on familiar characters, on their individual quirks and their labyrinthine interactions. Thomas Cromwell, we are told, was the 16th-century equivalent of a dot.com millionaire, prospering in a culture of grasping greed. The author, in fact, is fond of contemporary analogies: a coronation celebration in 1511 is "reminiscent of the mobbing of 1960s pop stars," while the fragmentation of the Catholic Church in the 1530s is compared to the last days of communism. As a whole, the narrative is unwieldy, and the attempt to organize the book by key years (1499, 1509, 1519, etc.) is half-hearted; some readers will drown in the detail. Nonetheless, devotees of Tudor history will find much that is provocative and fresh. (Apr.)

Forecast:Blurbs from the two queens of royal biography, Antonia Fraser and Alison Weir, could help this reach its market, but Wilson's sales may not match theirs.

Reviewed on: 02/04/2002
Release date: 04/01/2002
Genre: Nonfiction
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