Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell. And Cranmer too.

I noted when listing books-read-so-far-in-2012 that Henry VIII is a recurring character in many of them. Henry shows up in the background of one non-fiction book, The Last Divine Service about the dissolution of the monastery at Durham. In Durham the monastery wasn’t destroyed, it was converted into a cathedral chapter that still exists today. Geoffrey Moorhouse managed to catch some of the way things remained the same though everything changed during the English Reformation in that book. There was an ambivalence to the thing, a not wanting to go too far.

That same ambivalence is caught very well in Wolf Hall, the Booker-Prize-winning novel by Hilary Mantel. The point-of-view character in WH is Thomas Cromwell. The book follows his career from his loyal service to Cardinal Wolsey to becoming one of the king’s trusted advisors. Mantel makes Cromwell, who history does not regard fondly, a very sympathetic character. The book left me wanting more history. Shortly after finishing WH I found published letters of Cromwell in the used books at the theological bookshop where I work. I didn’t buy these as I’ve got really large to-be-read piles already, but the letters are out there. I’m thinking Mantel read them. Anyhow, I think Mantel catches the ambivalent nature of the English Reformation, the king wants to be a good Catholic, but now he’s the Head of the Church in England, and what does that mean exactly. Then there’s the whole Cranmer’s SECRET WIFE business. The Archbishop of Canterbury had a SECRET GERMAN WIFE. No wonder he wanted a Reformation in England.

I’ve also read two of the Matthew Shardlake mysteries by C.J. Sansom, Sovereign, and Dark Fire. I’ve been reading the Shardlake books out of order. I started with the first one, Dissolution, then jumped to Revelation, then backed up through S, and DF. May I suggest reading them in order? (Dissolution, Dark Fire, Sovereign, Revelation.) The characters do develop, and there is a historical timeline to be concerned about. They can be read out of order, but some of the suspense might diminish in sub-plots if you do that. Just saying. The Shardlake mysteries are set in England during the reign of Henry VIII. Our Hero is a lawyer who longs for the quiet life, but seems to get dragged into solving mysteries connected to affairs of state. Cromwell features as Shardlake’s employer in the first two, but then he falls and his fall is great. Cranmer shows up in the second book, and in the third is the person Shardlake investigates for. The King is a key character in the third book as well, as might be guessed by the title, Sovereign. While Sansom captures elements of the back-and-forth nature of the English Reformation, and also describes aspects of the time really clearly, I think his main character is too modern in outlook. This can be a problem in writing historical fiction. The past is a foreign country, so how does one adequately get into the characters’ heads? I’ve found historical mystery writers especially prone to writing first-person characters who have a 21st-century outlook and make 21-C remarks about what is going on back in the day. Sansom’s Shardlake character leans in that direction in these books. Maybe this makes them more readable as fiction, but I find some of the revisionist historical fiction becomes unreadable when the revisions are really obvious. (I can’t read Anne Perry’s 19th Century characters any more, because they are too revisionist.)

If you want an interesting way into the English Reformation, give any of these books a try — start with the fiction though, it makes looking at the history more interesting somehow.


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