Sunday, August 28, 2011

Did Cardinal Wolsey Commit Suicide?

Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop of York, a Roman Catholic Cardinal, Henry VIII's chancellor, trusted official, and friend, meets an untimely end in prison on his way to London after his arrest in York. Season one of The Tudors documents two major plot developments--Henry VIII's growing infatuation with Anne Boleyn and his desire to end his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, and the fall of Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey is Henry VIII's closest advisor in episode one and in prison by the finale of the season--a remarkable victim of political circumstances and his own maneuvering, greed, and desire for power.

Cardinal Wolsey begins to lose his grip on power, and on Henry, when he is unable to use his influence over the Pope to secure Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon. To counter the familial alliance between Catherine and Holy Roman Emperor,
Charles, Wolsey attempts to gain the support of the French clergy to pronounce judgment on the matter while the Pope remained under the control of Charles' military and politics. This fails, and a Papal representative, Cardinal Campeggio, is sent to arbitrate on the matter. The result? After months of deliberation, the case must be tried in Rome.

All along, Anne Boleyn and her family work carefully against Wolsey, and this culminates in Wolsey being stripped of his post as chancellor. He returns to York, but Anne Boleyn and her family still fear his potential return to power. A letter is intercepted written by Wolsey to Catherine of Aragon, and this prompts his arrest. Cardinal Wolsey is arrested in York by the Duke of Suffolk, and, on the way to London, he kills himself in prison.

So, how true is this story?

Who Was Cardinal Wolsey?

Thomas Wolsey, unlike many other high-ranking governmental officials traditionally in the English government to this point, was not nobility. Contemporaries branded him the son of a butcher, but it is equally probable that his family's origins were mercantile. He was born around 1473, and he had an excellent education at an early age. Wolsey was recommended to Henry VII by Sir Richard Nanfan, Deputy Lieutenant of Calais, and he became a royal chaplain in 1507. Wolsey joined the Privy Council of Henry VIII in 1509, but he proved himself energetically loyal to Henry during his campaign against the French between 1512 and 1514. This truly secured royal patronage, favoritism, and advancement.

Wolsey's Downfall

Depending upon, and being trusted by the king had its drawbacks. First and foremost, Cardinal Wolsey made many enemies during his career. He introduced methods of forced loans, a means of taxation without Parliamentary approval, to help fund Henry's campaigns abroad. Many people who had been handicapped in their advancement in office similarly hated Wolsey. When Henry VIII wanted to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, he naturally turned to Wolsey, both trusted advisor and Catholic Cardinal, to help bring the situation to the desired closing. The stumbling block was the Pope, Clement VII, who was beset by Catherine's nephew, Charles, and unwilling to provoke the Holy Roman Emperor by appeasing Henry, even if Henry's conscience was truly troubled by having married his dead brother's bride. Clement did allow for Henry and Catherine's case to be heard by Wolsey and Cardinal Campeggio in England at first in 1528, but Clement recalled the case to be heard in Rome and Rome alone. In the meantime, Wolsey's enemies, including Anne Boleyn's family, were set about convincing Henry that Wolsey was deliberately stalling the proceedings. Wolsey was not invited to join the council when it met in 1529. Instead, he was given the option to appear before Parliament to hear a to-be created list of grievances against him or to throw himself upon the king's mercy. He chose the latter option.

Cardinal Wolsey was deprived of a number of his offices and his estates, which were forfeit to the crown. He was allowed, however, to retain the office of Archbishop of York, and he began the journey north late in 1529. He had reason to believe that the king wasn't irrevocably against him--he received both rings and promises from him, and he was even attended by the king's personal physician when he fell ill in January 1530.

Cardinal Wolsey's biggest problem was his own ambition. It is clear, viewing his entire career, that ambition and love of power truly drove him. When bishoprics became vacant, he chose his own candidates or appointed himself to the post to collect the profits. He worked out his own agreements with the King of France and the Holy Roman Emperor in the hope that he would be elected pope, which never came to pass. Once evicted from the seat of power, Wolsey sought power in any form he could find it, including communicating with the Holy Roman Empire's ambassador to England, Chapuys, claiming he could give him important information about Henry. Wolsey also communicated with Clement, and this was enough for Henry. Wolsey may, or may not, have truly been working against Henry. More likely, he was trying to hold on to the different spheres of influence he had gained when he was in power in the hopes he could emerge in the future from exile still a significant power-player in Europe. Henry, encouraged by Wolsey's enemies, decided instead this was treason.

Wolsey's Death

On November 4, 1530, the Earl of Northumberland arrested Wolsey at Cawood. From there, he was taken to Sheffield Park. On November 22, Sir William Kingston, Constable of the Tower of London arrived with the Tower guard. He continued south, under guard, to Leicester where the party stopped at the abbey of St. Mary. However, he had been ill with a bowel infection for some time, and it was clear upon arrival that he wasn't going to travel any farther alive. The Cardinal died on November 30, 1530, and he was buried in the Lady Chapel of the abbey.


The interpretation put forth by The Tudors series is highly improbable. In the series, it is implied that Wolsey killed himself, and Henry, once made aware, immediately ordered that the suicide be covered up. Wolsey was simply surrounded by too many people who could account for the circumstances to have killed himself and it have been "swept under the rug" for the ages. The Constable of the Tower, his guard, the abbot of St. Mary's, and the brothers would have made up a band of perhaps 75 people, all of whom would have had a fairly intimate knowledge of the events. Even if Henry had somehow successfully managed to cover up Wolsey's suicide, Henry became the enemy of all monastic orders when he dissolved their establishments in England later in his reign. His daughter, Mary, was a fully-pledged Catholic herself, and both of these circumstances would have afforded opportunities for disaffected people to talk, even if they had been somehow silenced or paid off previously. In addition, it may have been to Henry's advantage to have allowed Cardinal Wolsey's suicide to become public knowledge. Wolsey's enemies would have rejoiced, if rather quietly given the scandal of the circumstances. Wolsey could have been denounced as "ungodly" and used as an example of how pride produces a fall--and that would have single-handedly destroyed his remaining reputation and have handicapped anyone who sympathized with him.

The contemporary series of events was never challenged in later, more tolerant, ages. Therefore, there is no question that this was put into the narrative of the series for dramatic effect and there is absolutely no basis for it from a historical standpoint.


Cardinal Wolsey by Sampson Strong, painted at Christ Church, 1526.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Kingston by Starlight (Historical Fiction)

Author: Christopher John Farley
Publication Date: 2005
Cost: You can find new copies on Amazon for as low as $2.00 and a Kindle edition is available for $9.99.
Where Did I Hear About It: A "friend" on Facebook mentioned that she was looking forward to reading it this summer, so I borrowed a copy from BooksFree, the online library.

The Backstory

The subject of this novel, told from a first-person perspective, is Anne Bonny, a woman in the 18th century who turned, on and off, to a life of piracy, if the few accounts about her life are to be entirely believed. Bonny was an Irish woman supposedly born sometime between the end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century. Anne was reputed to be a beautiful woman with a rather intemperate spirit, and she married a rather poor sailor while she was quite young. One of the few details of her life that is known is that she moved to Nassau in the Bahamas before 1720 with her husband. Later, she became intimately involved with pirate Calico Jack Rackham, and she had a child by him in Cuba whose fate is unknown. Apparently, her husband didn't take lightly to this relationship, and he brought Anne before the Royal Governor of the Bahamas demanding that she be punished for her infidelity. Although she was sentenced to be flogged, she managed to escape with Rackham and another female pirate of equally unknown origin, Mary Read.

Mary Read, if true, had a remarkable life as a professional sailor. Read started out on a merchant vessel, but she actually managed to join the British military, and she may actually have seen some action. She supposedly married and even lived off of a military commission, but her husband predeceased her and she returned to the sea. Read fell into a life of piracy when a ship she worked on in the West Indies was attacked by pirates and she was given the option to join them or to be killed. She joined Rackham and Bonny around 1720.

In October 1720, Rackham's crew was taken by surprise, arrested, and brought to trial in Jamaica. Read and Bonny both escaped execution by revealing they were pregnant while in prison. Read died in prison, and there is some indication that childbirth may have been the cause. At the same time, Anne Bonny disappears from the record--there is no indication she was released from prison, and there is no indication she was executed. There are many theories surrounding the fate of Anne Bonny--some think her well-connected father may have had something to do with her disappearance, and some indicate that she lived a long life in South Carolina. None of these theories can be entirely proven.

What About the Book?

Note: A few details of the story are revealed in the following critique. I promise that none of them have a particularly strong bearing on the main plot of the novel, but, if you want to read this for yourself and don't want to spoil a single thing, be forewarned.

This novel was an enjoyable, but completely unchallenging to the reader. The story was a little too tight and convenient, and none of the characters were particularly well developed. However, the story is interesting, and I think this is a pretty quick read overall.

Anne Bonny's story does wrap up a few details of her life into the novel, but there are others that are entirely left out. Other details are a little difficult to believe. For example, Anne's father leaves the family and moves to South Carolina, and eventually Anne and her mother follow him there. Unfortunately, it turns out that the are stuck on a ship contracted to transfer slaves, and the crew, in a drunken rampage, actually kills her mother. None of this makes sense. Under no circumstances would two women unaccompanied by any male chaperones have boarded a ship like this in the 18th century. This odd trend continues when Anne, disowned by her father after meeting him in South Carolina, manages to steal a bunch of silver and pay for her own passage to the West Indies with it. In this case, it would have served the author, and the plot, much better if the factual details of her life guided her to the Indies. The inclusion of her husband would have really added another dimension to the story that it is seriously lacking.

Mary Read's character is endlessly baffling. The crew meet her under completely unrealistic circumstances that are never fully explained. There comes a point when Mary Read reveals that she is a woman, and it doesn't seem to make a difference at all. One feels that it isn't probable that she is even female because this has no bearing on how she is treated, and there isn't even any surprise.

Consistency continues to be a problem in many different ways in the novel. The author goes into great detail about Anne and her love of the sea and adventure and living the life of a man, but, at one point, the reader finds her living on an island with Rackham on what must have been a plantation of some kind. This is completely inconsistent with the character that the author developed for the reader, and it creates a completely unnecessary pause in what would have been a much more interesting story without it. This is one instance, of many, where history--even embellished history--was far more interesting than what the author was able to imagine.

Overall, though, the story is interesting and the reader is encouraged to continue. Anne life is a fascinating one, even with details left out or modified. Probably the best part is the section focusing on her life at sea, which comprises the majority of the novel. The story benefits from the fact that at any time, anything can happen, and that is a great advantage. It is the details that set this scenario up and provide a conclusion that are less captivating.

Rating: A 5, but a strong 5. I enjoyed reading it and went through it quickly. Although I was a bit disappointed in a few aspects of it, it is a fun story, and if you're looking for something enjoyable but not too serious or shocking, this may be the book for you.
Buy It or Borrow It: I'd say borrow it, but with such a small price tag on Amazon, you couldn't really go wrong. A few days overdue, and you'd pay the $2.00 to the library anyway.


An illustration from the Dutch version of Charles Johnson's A General History of the Pyrates published in 1725. This is not thought to be a genuine likeness of either of the women portrayed.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Catherine Howard

Author: Lacey Baldwin Smith
Publication Date: First published in 1961; newest edition is 2010
Cost: A handful of new books are left on Amazon at $14.96, but used ones are also available there for around $10.00. There is no Kindle edition
Where Did I Hear About It: I found this in a Waterstones in London. Since I have never seen this in a US bookstore, I purchased it (couldn't go wrong for 9.99 GBP).

The Backstory

Catherine Howard is best known as Henry VIII's fifth wife and, unfortunately, nothing more. Catherine wasn't a particularly notable character in the context of her family or her family's relationship to the King. She counted the very powerful Duke of Norfolk as her uncle, as Anne Boleyn had before her. In many ways, Catherine and Anne were alike far beyond their having blossomed on the same family tree (albeit on branches rather far apart). Both of them came from families that were connected, loosely, to the higher-level peers in the realm. Both of them truly needed to find more wealthy, more well-established partners if they were ever to live in a state of financial stability. If there is a difference, it is that Anne was a few steps above Catherine on the scale of Tudor era wealth and connections. Anne's family were peers with a connection to the royal family, although they could count tradespeople and merchants in their bloodline as well, and they had the means to send Anne to the Continent to be educated in two foreign courts before she made an appearance on the English scene. Catherine was the daughter of a minor peer with very little influence, even less money, and a large family to feed.

No one actually knows when Catherine was born, although the latest date of 1527 is extremely unlikely as she would have only been around 13 years old when Henry was serious about marrying her. The year 1525 seems to be the latest possible date, based on descriptions of her, that she could have possibly been born. Possibly because of her father's small means and large family, Catherine joined the household of her step-grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk (step-mother of the then Duke of Norfolk) where she was raised with a number of other young peers from minor families like her own. Catherine had two notable "flirtations" while in the Duchess's household--Henry Mannox, her music teacher, and Francis Dereham, a young man who had a position there. Unfortunately, these seemingly innocent adolescent relationships would come back to haunt Catherine later.

In January 1540, an aging Henry VIII wed for the fourth time to Anne of Cleves, and clearly from the beginning, this was not a match that would last long. Although Anne was at least somewhat unaware, Henry, who was used to at least convincing himself he was attracted to and in love with his mates, was not at all pleased by Anne. However, for a man well-known to be ruthless and selfish, he didn't blame Anne. Six months later, he had the marriage annulled, but he granted Anne a generous settlement and continued to foster a positive, if platonic, relationship with her. During Anne's brief tenure as Queen Consort, the Duke of Norfolk gained Catherine Howard a position in Anne's household as one of her ladies in waiting. It is thought that during this time, Henry met and grew infatuated with Catherine, showering her with the same deluge of gifts that were placed before Jane Seymour and Anne Boleyn. There were rumors that Catherine was pregnant by the time Henry ended his marriage to Anne of Cleves, so Henry married Catherine, quietly and hastily, about three weeks later.

Henry's "rose without a thorn" was only queen for a fleeting year and a half. At first, Henry's ardor continued unabated. Catherine was fun and full of life, if not as educated as her predecessors. What possessed Catherine to indiscretion is a mystery to this day, but it is clear that she harbored some intention (at the very least) to begin a romantic relationship with Thomas Culpepper, a servant in the king's household. She also hired the same Francis Dereham she was previously involved with to work in her own household. Allegations of Catherine's indiscreet behavior, primarily in the Duchess's house, was brought to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who brought it to Henry. Henry didn't believe it at first, but confessions from Culpepper and Dereham and a letter written to Culpepper by Catherine sealed her fate. Culpepper and Dereham were executed in December 1541. Catherine would end her life on the scaffold in February 1542, and Henry would never quite be the same again.

What About the Book?

This is one of the only biographical accounts of Catherine Howard out there for readers who may be interested in examining the short-lived queen outside of the many novels that have been written about her, especially in the recent past. There is another biography by Joanna Denny available, but, since I did not have a very positive opinion about her biography of Anne Boleyn, I am very tentative to read it.

This book proves why there aren't more accounts of Catherine Howard's life. The available resources are so few and far between and no new leads have ever emerged to sharpen the fuzzy edges of Catherine's life and character. The majority of the details of Catherine's life only become clear when she and her suspected accomplices were examined by the authorities when Catherine was accused of adultery. Catherine's date of birth has never definitively been known, and neither have the reasons why she was moved in the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk's household. This is mainly because Catherine would have led a pretty unnotable life if she hadn't caught Henry's eye at just the right time. She was never particularly highly educated. In all probability, one of what would have inevitably become a string of available suitors would have succeeded in gaining her hand in marriage at some later point. Catherine is probably the greatest beneficiary and, subsequently victim, of circumstance of any of Henry VIII's wives.

The lack of information is what truly plagues this book. Smith is very enlightening when it comes to Catherine's family lineage, including her own immediate family. Unfortunately, at least one very lengthy chapter, focusing on London and the Court, could have been entirely done away with without a loss to the book's subject, but I assume this was added to at least get 200 pages into the text.

Smith's work also suffers from a lack of interesting commentary and assessment. It is very much a report, and a report that gives too much of what we already know and not enough of what we can only imagine. If she examined sources, she doesn't evaluate them. As a result, there is nothing new, and one can only wonder what may have been missed in the process. David Starkey does offer a fair amount of assessment and commentary about Catherine Howard in his (unfortunately short) section about her in his Six Wives, and I feel that is superior to this biography with Catherine as its only subject.

Rating: A 5. If this is the first book you have read that mentions Catherine, this is as good a start as any, but if you've read other accounts of her by other authors, you'll find this account seriously lacking.
Buy It or Borrow It: Sadly, I am not sure this is widely available to borrow in the US. I am sure it is available in most libraries in the UK, and it may be worth a read if borrowing is an option for you. If your only option is to buy it, skip this in favor of Starkey's Six Wives.


An unconfirmed, but often referenced, possible likeness of Catherine Howard, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1540-1541

Henry VIII, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1540

An unconfirmed possible likeness of Catherine Howard, probably the most popular, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1541