His­tory Four Princes

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John Julius Nor­wich (John Murray, £25)

The four princes who form the sub­ject of this book are henry VIII of eng­land, Fran­cis I of France, Charles V, who was both holy Ro­man em­peror and king of Spain, and the Ot­toman sul­tan Suleiman the Mag­nif­i­cent. They were all born in the last decade of the 15th cen­tury and their lives, am­bi­tions and mil­i­tary ven­tures over­lapped in a quag­mire of war, in­ter-mar­riage, in­trigue, de­ceit and ri­valry.

John Julius Nor­wich doesn’t of­fer short bi­ogra­phies of them each; in­stead, he does some­thing much more chal­leng­ing, telling the story of their com­plex and con­flict­ing en­deav­ours, which were to form so much of the frame­work of euro­pean his­tory through­out the fol­low­ing cen­tury: the pur­suit of a bal­ance of con­ti­nen­tal power and the con­flict be­tween Chris­ten­dom and Is­lam, Catholics and Protes­tants.

The au­thor ac­knowl­edges that an english school­ing in his­tory pays scant at­ten­tion of any of his sub­jects ex­cept henry VIII; his own ap­proach is more cos­mopoli­tan. hav­ing al­ready writ­ten multi-vol­ume stud­ies of Byzan­tium, the Pa­pacy, the Nor­mans and Venice, he is well qual­i­fied to take this broader view.

But what makes this such a com­pelling read is that the au­thor sea­sons his eru­di­tion with a sharp eye for the quirky fact and the sar­donic com­ment. When a bridge col­lapses as the em­peror’s suite was pass­ing over it, ‘once it was es­tab­lished that the many ca­su­al­ties in­cluded no one of se­ri­ous im­por­tance… cel­e­bra­tions con­tin­ued’. henry VIII de­clined to ac­cept a car­di­nal’s hat for one of his bish­ops and of­fered to send the bishop’s head to Rome in­stead. a for­eign am­bas­sador re­ported that ‘the laws of eng­land were so un­sat­is­fac­tory that it was im­pos­si­ble to have peo­ple ex­e­cuted un­less they had pre­vi­ously been proved guilty’. The sar­coph­a­gus planned for henry VIII lay empty un­til it was even­tu­ally used for Nelson. Philip II of Spain felt ‘a rea­son­able re­gret’ for his wife’s death, and so on.

lord Nor­wich ex­plains in his pref­ace that he felt his four pro­tag­o­nists had left such a mark on their cen­tury that ‘there was a book there some­where’ and he hopes ‘this is it’. It cer­tainly is. More than that, it’s a firm refu­ta­tion of the Marx­ist the­ory of his­tory, that ev­ery­thing de­pends on eco­nomic trends. here is clear ev­i­dence of how much de­pends on per­sonal char­ac­ter and in­di­vid­ual ac­tion and, in this au­thor’s hands, that makes for a fas­ci­nat­ing and com­pul­sive story. John Ure

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