For the time being, this is our final dip into the murky waters of Sellar & Yeatman’s classic 1066 and All That. After all, overindulgence is always wrong. Wouldn’t you agree?
Having digested the reign of Henry VIII, and then gobbled up his heirs & successors Edward and Mary, we come at last to Gloriana herself, Good Queen Bess, the Virgin Queen, the one who was to be obeyed (on pain of decapitation etc etc). These Tudors weren’t exactly a straightforward bunch. No doubt, there were post-natal attachment issues which can explain all the shenanigans.
Boys and girls, last week’s lesson was only the beginning, the tip of the iceberg. How could you possibly imagine that we had plumbed the depths of the English Restoration? There is more work to be done – not least because Bluff King Hal left quite a legacy, much of which was left much to be unravelled amongst his 3 children and successors.
mess web he weaved.
A day late, but hey. It’ll be worth it. But whatever you do, don’t use this for your GCSE history revision. [If you have done your revision, you’ll see why]. Having read this, how will you ever be able to confuse the Reformation and the Restoration again? What’s more, whoever thought we’d need Hilary Mantel to bring this era to life?
Anyway, thought I would dedicate one or two Friday Funs to the sublime brilliance that its 1066 and All That. So let’s dive in straightaway, with Henry 6th and his 8 wives. Or was that the other way round? Read more
It came as a shock when this was first pointed out to me. Or rather, to be more accurate, it was a shock when I first realised how true it was of me. For a pastor friend was pointing out how perfectly capable we all are of justifying any action to ourselves; and worse, how perfectly capable we all are of justifying any action in specifically spiritual terms. Read more
Sir Isaac Newton is a titan in world science, so it’s no surprise that he features on the very first, and the penultimate page of James Hannam’s excellent, 2009 book God’s Philosophers (which made it onto the shortlist for the 2010 Royal Society Prize for Science Books.
The Blair autobio was far too chunky for me take on the plane to Albania, last week, so instead I took Clay Shirky’s followup to the wonderful HERE COMES EVERYBODY, from which I’ve posted before. He’s called it Cognitive Surplus, which is perhaps rather an intimidating and opaque title. Nevertheless, he’s still his readable, informative and thought-provoking self. It’s perhaps not as ground-breaking as the first one, which his why i gave it 4 not 5 stars. That good old ‘second album syndrome’, I guess. But it is definitely worth a read for any wanting to understand further how the Internet is shaping our lives and cultures. Read more
I admit it. I’m a total sucker for historical fiction – and absolutely adore all the books of C J Sansom. I’ve reviewed a few from the Matthew Shardlake series before (e.g. Revelation, Dark Fire and Dissolution) so i eagerly opened my copy of the 5th in the series: Heartstone. I only hope that there are more…
What makes them such page-turners? Well for a start, they have the pace of a good detective mystery. Shardlake is a superb creation. Amateur sleuth and stubborn, hunchbacked London barrister, he takes on the sorts of injustices from which the ‘great and good’ walk by on the other side… or even perpetrate. He’s a valiant-for-truth and a protector of the weak, in large part because he is one of society’s marginalised himself despite his mind. We’re frequently reminded that ‘hunchbacks bring bad luck’. Is there a subtle allusion to the Tudor propaganda against Richard III here as the hunchback, I wonder? (To see what I’m getting at, check out Josephine Tey’s masterly Daughter of Time.) Sansom’s sublime skill, however, (as I’ve noted before) is his ability to weave genuine plot-twists and cliff-hangers into the meandering events of genuine Tudor history. For not only is Sansom a trained lawyer, he is also a PhD historian. When combined with story-telling abilities, this is a potent combination.
In Heartstone, we’re in the last few years on Henry VIII’s reign, following on a few years after previous books (which, incidentally, all get nods by Shardlake on p296). He’s engaged in his 3rd campaign against France (as disastrous and pointless as the previous ones), but is now married to Catherine Parr, an old friend of Shardlake. The queen engages the lawyer on what (inevitably) proves to be a rather dangerous case. I will not plot-spoil at all – it’s too good a read to do that! But despite coming in at just over 600 pages, I’ll simply say that this is a rich and gripping book. More than that, there were aspects of Tudor life about which I previously knew nothing, and yet get meticulously researched and vividly brought to life:
- the sweat and heat of the old iron foundries in Hampshire and Sussex
- the recruitment and training of the famed English military archers – and the impact on a whole society of a country threatened with French invasion
- the protocols, snobberies and excitements of a Tudor stag hunt
- the brutal life on board the warships like the great Mary Rose
The biggest eye-opener, however, was the ancient Court of Wards, created by Henry to raise revenue by overseeing the sale of orphans’ wardships. It was appallingly abused and notoriously corrupt – as Sansom notes in his afterword, its abolition was one of the great achievements of Cromwell’s Parliament. While Shardlake normally works in the Court of Requests (which was a forum to protect land rights for the vulnerable), he gets dragged into this murky world at the Queen’s behest. And these 3 big themes come through the book – all of which seemed very contemporary.
- The power of leaders to drag their country to war: a frequent refrain is the cost of the king’s wars with France – both in terms of taxes but more importantly, in terms of lives. It is chilling to see, especially when the campaigns seem so futile and whimsical – an elderly cleric near the end of the book reflects on just war theory and concludes this French campaign certainly wasn’t that. Does this all sound familiar? Not quite the same, I realise, but Iraq anyone? My hunch is that the various post-invasion enquiries were going on in London while Sansom was writing this.
- The destructive grip of ambition: as the narrative develops, it becomes clear that ascending the power ladder in Tudor England takes ruthless dedication and single-mindedness. Several characters are determined to rise at all costs. And several of the crimes encountered by Shardlake illustrate the point perfectly, with the victims of others’ ambitions are left reeling or dying. But they are not the only victims. The ambitious men themselves suffer awful consequences. As one character says ‘Ambition, sir, I believe it a curse.’ (p281) Two characters are told that they ‘deserved it’, after all that they’d done. Therein lies a wordplay that forms the book’s title. A heartstone was in one sense a goodluck charm. It was a bone from a stag killed at a hunt – and was presented to the first person to bring it down (presumably itself a wordplay on heart’s bone or hart’s bone (the old name for a deer)). As well as bringing the owner (who’d wear it on a necklace), it was meant to have healing properties. But 2 or 3 different people are described in the book as having hearts like stone. And as Shardlake bitterly observes to a great adversary near the end of the book, the king takes advantage of henchmen around him, because they are ‘men without even hearts to turn to stone‘ (p547). And the power of ambition is something that never goes out of date, does it?
- The extreme vulnerability of children, especially daughters: this is probably the key thread of the book, however – as one might expect when the subject is the Court of Wards. There are 3 parallel stories of children that Shardlake struggles to protect. And this is what makes this, the 5th in the series, one of the most poignant. We see children consigned to Bedlam, stolen as military booty and mascots from invaded lands, sold when orphaned to so-called protectors. It is truly horrendous – but one has little doubt about the credibility of such plot-lines. No doubt things were far worse. And in order to survive, such children find themselves having to act parts (as several in the book have to) – they are trapped and institutionalised, to the extent that even when they can physically walk way, they are chained psychologically. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the horrors of those abused as children by parish priests – which again bring such issues horribly up to date. (To see an impassioned articulation of the decades long damage, see this plea on Irish TV).
History should teach us – but rarely does. However, it’s amazing to find so much depth, provocation and research in a novel, and a whodunnit to boot. I’ve one, tiny stylistic quibble I’d not noticed before – I sometimes wished he’d let the dialogue speak for itself, without having to explain the significance of what everyone says immediately in the narrative. But that’s not a big deal. These are all wonderful books.
One undercurrent I’ve not touched on (but it’s something that this book has in common with its predecessors) is Shardlake’s struggle to sustain a theistic worldview. He is full of anguished doubt as he battles injustice after bloody injustice – as well as seeing firsthand the horrors caused by wielders of power. Belief in God or providence or fate has been dissipated. One or two characters half-heartedly try to resurrect his faith – including Queen Catherine Parr herself. And it is left to a decrepit parish priest (who harks back to the old pre-reformed ways) to attempt, amidst his beer cups, to attempt a defence. He even manages to point to precisely where I’d point when seeking to grapple with the goodness of God in a suffering world – the cross of Christ. As Seckford says, because of the Cross ‘I think Christ suffers with us.‘ (p601) But Shardlake dismisses this with a simple ‘What is the good of that, Reverend Seckford?’
If only he saw. But I certainly don’t begrudge him his questions – for none of this is easy nor lightly dismissed. This is a brutal world – and the Tudor world far more brutal than ours, perhaps. One is only glad that there are people around like Shardlake – and hope that there were those of conscience and integrity even in those dark Tudor times to stand for truth, justice and the downtrodden – as in fact Jesus himself did. It’ll be fascinating to see how Shardlake manages if he reappears in young Edward VI’s reign and even Mary I’s – for religion will be even more a burning issue. I fear that the events of those years will in many ways make faith even harder him. But I, for one, can’t wait to find out.
The pope is arriving on these shores next week. And there are many things that make his visit controversial. There are of course even people who want to try to arrest him. I certainly don’t think that is the right way to proceed and bear him no ill-feeling necessarily. Nor does it particularly worry me that he’s visiting the country. Why shouldn’t he? And as they say, ‘some of my best friends are Catholic’.
But if one of the purposes of such visits is to raise the profile of Catholicism, then it is perfectly fair game to re-examine the reasons why many of us count ourselves Christian but not Catholic.
Some believers constantly relive past battles of spiritual ancestors as if little or nothing has changed for decades or even centuries; while others reject the need to get involved those such debates altogether (perhaps in the mistaken assumption that this makes them more contemporary). Neither path makes sense. The past is not irrelevant but nor is it a straightjacket. As I previously quoted on Q a few weeks back, Tom Wright helpfully sums it up like this:
the trick is to recover the first-century questions and try to give twenty-first century answers, rather than taking sixteenth-century questions and giving nineteenth-century answers…
Still, some past battles continue to have relevance when they concern first-century questions – and that is in large (though not entire) part what the Reformation was concerned with in its determination to get back to the sources (‘ad fontes‘) of Scripture and the early church. We might not answer the questions in exactly the same way that the likes of Luther or Calvin answered them (not least because the presenting issues are different) After all, 21st Century Catholicism is by no means identical to its 16th Century forebear. But we would be unwise to ignore what they said and why they said it, especially if there are aspects of Catholic belief that have not in fact changed that much.
This then was the thinking behind a recent, but all too brief, series preached by the boss, Hugh Palmer last month. It was a corker on the 4 ‘sola’s of the reformation, under the title TRUTHS WORTH DYING FOR. Definitely worth checking out:
Communion was of course a hot button issue 500 years ago. It’s unlikely to be again in quite the same way, even though the debates were fiercely fought over issues of transubstantiation, real presence or (in Zwingli’s case) a real absence. The question all revolved around the extent to which God was actually present in the breaking of bread and sharing of wine at Communion
Things have moved on – some of the concerns may matter still, but as Tom Wright so pithily put it (when speaking about hermeneutics and the New Perspective on Paul):
the trick is to recover the first-century questions and try to give twenty-first century answers, rather than taking sixteenth-century questions and giving nineteenth-century answers…
And the twenty-first century has certainly thrown up some new conundra to get our heads around – things that the likes of Calvin and Luther could never have anticipated. For it seems that a Methodist minister, Tim Ross, has started tweeting the Communion service. This was his explanation:
Twitter offers unique possibilities for communication for the Church. It’s a community that’s as real and tangible as any local neighbourhood and we should be looking to minister to it… The perception of church is often that it is rusting away in antiquated buildings and not in touch with the world around us, but this is a statement that we’re prepared to embrace the technological revolution.
Where he’s onto something…
Well, he’s right about perceptions and the unique communication possibilities that offered by new media. And I do believe embracing the technological revolution is important (as I said in my Digital life paper). For online, people can look for, find and make genuine, authentic connections with other people. These are essential ingredients if any community is to grow and develop.
But that doesn’t mean that what is created by the likes of Twitter is necessarily ‘a community’ – not in the traditional understanding of the word, at any rate. A community is where we rub shoulders with one another, where we deal with our quirks and foibles, where personalities clash and where conflicts must be resolved somehow. Authentic community life is not a consumer’s paradise of pick and choose (and thus avoid what we don’t like), but a place where we are forced to face hard realities about ourselves as we learn other-person centredness.
Where he’s missed the point…
So Twitter might be a way of attracting people into a community, and it might conceivably be a means to deepening that community life; but it can never replace community life. Communion is one of the key, but not only, places where (if it is functioning as it should) community life is challenged to be Christ-centred, cross-centred, forgiveness-centred. That’s why ‘the peace’ (all too often, completely skimmed over) is so important, for example.
We are to forgive as we have been forgiven… And there is something important about the tangibility of the sacrament and the togetherness of a community service that no virtual reenactment (however real it might be in other senses) can ever convey. And it’s not because I’m going all anglo-catholic here. Far from it.
It’s just that I sense that (quite apart from what’s happening with the bread and wine) a communion without the real presence of the community is no communion at all.
Leonardo, Machiavelli, Borgia: these 3 men were, each in their own way, extraordinary. Genius is not too strong a word (though some might balk at the idea of Cesare Borgia being included – especially after what we learn in this book of him and his father Pope Alexander VI). What Strathern calls a ‘fateful collusion’ in his book The Artist, The Philosopher and the Warrior, was a story largely untold (as far as I can tell) before this book – and is therefore a fascinating approach. The period in view lasted only a matter of 4 or 5 years – and its complexities require much explanation and background study – but it works successfully as a piece of gripping history.
This is no straightforward biography of the 3 men – it is a study of a unique cultural moment. And that is this book’s greatest asset… but also its constant challenge. Even though we’re dealing with only a few years (roughly 1500-1505), it is sometimes hard to keep track of all that was going on (not least because of the sheer complexity of Italian Renaissance politics – many city states, different dukedoms, not to mention the intricacies of the inner-workings of the Papacy). Then, despite the book’s title, the number of times the 3 men intersected was not actually that great – their meetings (never with all 3 in one room, as far as we know) are largely described from (perfectly reasonable) conjecture – although we have clear records of Machiavelli’s encounters with Borgia from his own writing (e.g. regular diplomatic despatches back to Florence, and the impact of Borgia on his ground-breaking The Prince). Yet there is no doubt that all 3 knew each other (probably pretty well) – and so the book does have a sound basis. I found at times Strathern’s need to repeat, backtrack or review moments quite confusing (because the book is structured so that each of the 3 is repeatedly given focus in turn) – and was only saved by the essential chronology at the start. It would have been even better to have a summary of that timeline at the start of each chapter, just to keep the reader on track.
Despite these minor gripes, I couldn’t put the book down. I was enthralled from the start – and found myself hankering for more at the end. For any interested in the background to the European Reformation, this is essential reading, since the charges of corruption against the Papacy (most notably from Luther just a few years later) are given clear grounds. The escapades and ambitions of the Spanish Borgia family knew no bounds – the orgies and machinations within the walls of the Vatican were simply shameless. Strathern pulls no punches in what are at times rather lurid depictions of the goings on. More significantly, because every great work of art or writing has a context or provocation (rather than being some ethereal timeless revelation), the wonders of Leonardo’s inventions, painting and imagination now make so much more sense, as does Machiavelli’s political philosophy, because of this book. Then, to top it all, the account manages to convey moments of great poignancy – for example in the analysis of what probably turned Leonardo away from his work as a military engineer, and Machiavelli’s enforced languishing in professional isolation on his farm once the Florentine political winds had changed.
This is a well written and deeply researched book, full of gems and insights – and any book that leaves you sad to be finishing has clearly succeeded in what it set out to do.