Derek Wilson examines a set of relationships which illustrate just how dangerous life was in the court of the Tudor lion. He tells the interlocking stories of six men - all, curiously, called Thomas - whose ambitions and principles brought them face to face with violent death. Thomas Wolsey was an accused traitor on his way to the block when a kinder death intervened. Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, whose convictions and policies could scarcely have been more different, both perished beneath the headman's axe. Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, would have met the same end had the king's own death not brought him an eleventh-hour reprieve. Thomas Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, and Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, though outliving the monarch, perished as a result of that war of ambitions and ideologies which rumbled on after 1547. Wriothesley succumbed to poison of either body or mind in the aftermath of a failed coup. Cranmer went to the stake as a heretic at the insistence of Mary Tudor, who was very much the daughter of the father she hated. In the Lion's Court is an illuminating examination of the careers of the six Thomases, whose lives are described in parallel - their family and social origins, their pathways to the royal Council chamber, their occupancy of the siege perilous, and the tragedies which, one by one, overwhelmed them. By showing how events shaped and were shaped by relationships and personal destinies, Derek Wilson offers a fresh approach to the political narrative of a tumultuous reign.
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 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.