Inside the Tudor Court

Inside the Tudor Court, by Lauren Mackay

Lauren Mackay has written an absolutely riveting account of Henry VIII’s court from 1529, when Henry’s infatuation with Anne Boleyn had already started him down the road to divorce and an independent Church of England, to 1545, by which time Henry had married his sixth and last wife, Katherine Parr. The years correspond to the tenure at Henry’s court of Ambassador Eustace Chapuys and the viewpoint presented is that of the ambassador himself.

The dust jacket proclaims the subject matter to be “Henry VIII and his Six Wives through the writings of the Spanish Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys.” That is both largely correct, and misleading. As Mackay makes clear, Chapuys was far more than an ambassador of, or from, Spain. He was the Imperial Ambassador, representing a monarch who not only ruled Spain, but also south Italy, Sicily, the Netherlands, Austria and significant lands in Germany. Chapuys did, however, gradually become inextricably linked to Katharine of Aragon, Henry’s discarded wife and Emperor Charles V’s aunt, as he grew into a passionate advocate and wise councilor to the embattled queen.

Mackay uses the dispatches and letters of Chapuys to vividly depict the constantly shifting terrain navigated by Chapuys as he negotiated and renegotiated his relationship with the king and his courtiers. In the Anne Boleyn years, the chief players were Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, Thomas and George Boleyn, and Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, all of whom spring vividly to life on Chapuy’s – and Mackay’s – pages.

Chapuys remained at Henry’s court as Charles’ ambassador long after Katherine’s death. While he continued as an advisor to Princess Mary, Henry and Katherine’s daughter, Chapuys’ work now focused more intently on issues of politics, finance and war among England, France, and the vast territories of the Empire.

Chapuys’ writings include not only his own dispatches but also his analysis of information that he received from his network of informers. His letters provide a fascinating view by an outsider with inside access, and a perceptive and informed viewpoint. Far from being a deeply partisan and conservative Spaniard, as all too often he is depicted in both fiction and popular history, his outlook was cosmopolitan and cultured.

By nationality, Chapuys was French and educated (as was Erasmus) at the University of Turin. His viewpoints were, necessarily, biased but he was well informed on a wide variety of issues, and a careful observer, noting what was rumor and what was fact. Like most Europeans, he found Henry’s pursuit of Anne Boleyn unbecoming and undignified, but he only began to show personal enmity towards Anne after long exposure to her personal animosity towards Katharine and Mary. His writings, which are the source for much of the information about Anne’s marriage and her downfall, remain, therefore, very illuminating indeed.

Inside the Tudor Court definitely rates five stars! It takes a period of English history that is sometimes all-too familiar, demonstrates from whence the stories arise, and then rewards the reader with new interpretations and unexpected revelations, all based on sound research. While containing a great deal of serious scholarship, it reads as easily as any popular history.

Its only drawback (and one that more books should have) is that the pace is slowed by the constant urge to share, by reading segments aloud – “Listen to this, its really interesting!” and, repeatedly, “Did you know….?“