Sunday, September 23, 2007

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW: PETER GWYN'S THE KING'S CARDINAL

PETER GWYN'S THE KING'S CARDINAL REVIEWED BY JOHN CHUCKMAN, March 15, 2006


Here is investigative historical scholarship of the highest order, ranking with J.J. Scarisbrick's remarkable Henry VIII. Written in good, clear prose, every chapter of The King's Cardinal is packed with subtle observations and deductions from existing documents.

Wolsey is an interesting figure for many reasons. He was butcher's son who rose to the highest offices of church and state, the kind of career we usually associate with the modern era rather than with a time when feudal titles tended to be requirements for all important posts in government. Wolsey's capacity for work was breathtaking and his talents were considerable. Most interestingly, here was a man who understood the demands of realpolitik as well as Machiavelli yet maintained a genuine concern for humanism, enlightenment, justice and fair dealings in society.

There is surprisingly little reliable evidence for details of Wolsey's life, yet a substantial body of his correspondence and observations of others during his years in power survives. Thus, this book is less a biography of the controversial Cardinal than an analysis of important acts and policies while he was in power.

Gwyn strips away, carefully, layer by layer, many myths and misunderstandings that have accumulated over five centuries and managed to cloud understanding of Wolsey. Most importantly, he makes it clear that Henry ruled and Wolsey served, sweeping away the image of the younger Henry as playboy king who handed over most serious business to his Cardinal/Chancellor.

Gwyn makes it clear that it was Henry's bull-headed demands for progress on the divorce, "the king's Great Matter," coming at a time when Wolsey had many other important issues with which to deal, that were the cause of his downfall.

I love Wolsey's words in a final interview with Sir William Kingston, keeper of the Tower: "Therefore, Master Kingston, if it chance hereafter you to be one of his [Henry's] privy council...I warn you to be well advised and assured what matter ye put into his head; for ye shall never pull it out again."

Here is a book for all lovers of scholarly history and biography, for all serious students of English history, for students of foreign policy and statesmanship, and for all those who want to understand how a first-rate scholar goes about his business.

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