History Four Princes
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