Kindle Edition, Published 2016, Head of Zeus
The King is dead: long live the King. In 1509, Henry VII was succeeded by his son Henry VIII, second monarch of the house of Tudor. But this is not the familiar Tudor world of Protestantism and playwrights. Decades before the Reformation, ancient traditions persist: boy bishops, pilgrimage, Corpus Christi pageants, the jewel-decked shrine at Canterbury.
So Great a Prince offers a fascinating glimpse of a country and people that at first appear alien – in calendar and clothing, in counting the hours by bell toll – but which on closer examination are recognisably and understandably human. Lauren Johnson tells the story of 1509 not just from the perspective of king and court, but of merchant and ploughman; apprentice and laundress; husbandman and foreign worker.
She looks at these early Tudor lives through the rhythms of the ritual year, juxtaposing political events in Westminster and the palaces of southeast England with the liturgical and agricultural events that punctuated the year for the ordinary people of England.
Henry VIII didn’t start out as a vindictive and capricious tyrant. For the first decade and a half of his reign, he was, in fact, a fairly decent chap, at least by the standards of 16th Century Monarchs. Lauren Johnson, a fellow women’s historian recreates England in 1509, the year that the second Tudor King succeeded to the throne.
The new King and his Spanish bride were greeted with hope and optimism by their subjects. Henry was young and handsome, bringing every hope of a fresh start and setting political prisoners free. Katherine of Aragon, the former bride of his brother, was more than just a scion of the useful alliance with Spain. She was the beloved bride of the new King. Even though we know how it ended, So Great a Prince is one of those books which freezes time: requiring the audience to leave aside our historical hindsight to appreciate the world from the perspective of those who lived then.
England in the early sixteenth century was an old country on the cusp of great change. In the days before the Reformation, the Church Calendar with its Saints days and religious feasts was still the main way of measuring time. Cleverly, the book is divided into chronological chapters arranged according to the dates that marked the year. Michaelmas, Ascension, All Hallows. It covers not only political events, lives, and preoccupations of ordinary people and how they interacted with the world around them.
We may not believe that agricultural labourers or cloth merchants could relate to the movers and shakers in the Tudor court, and they didn’t always directly do so. Yet the author reveals how the people of 16th century England were connected to each other, and their environment not just by bonds of marriage or affinity, but the cycles of the year, as well as common bonds of morality, culture and religion. Sometimes, these brought them into conflict, when overmighty and overbearing nobles like the Duke of Buckingham tried to maintain that tenants who insisted they were free were still villains, and the families in question had to fight their case in court.
Merchants made the goods that the nobles wore, and increasingly often in the early modern period, common-born men could rise through the ranks to become courtiers and royal advisors. The King and the lowly alike bought contested marriages to church courts, and the same institution sought to regulate everything from dietary requirements to licensed brothels.
For those like me, who have a longstanding fascination with socio- economic history, and likes to get inside the minds of the men and women of the past, this book is a real gem. I shall certainly be purchasing the paperback.
I requested a copy of this book from Head of Zeus via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review and all opinions expressed are my own.