Archives » Henry VIII

The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett

Cassell, 1962, 541 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

The Game of Kings cover

This novel is set in the times of what the father of the historical novel Sir Walter Scott dubbed the “Rough Wooing” (a phrase Dunnett never uses in the book) which started when Henry VIII of England wished for a marriage between the infant Queen of Scots, Mary, and his son Edward (VI of England) in order to unite the two kingdoms and so prevent any military threat through England’s back door. The Scots, longtime allies of England’s perennial enemy France, were somewhat unwilling to oblige Henry in this regard, and so a series of wars and invasions began, which in the novel are being promulgated in Edward’s name by Lord Seymour, Duke of Somerset, England’s Lord Protector during Edward’s minority.

Our hero is Francis Crawford of Lymond, Master of Culter, a younger son at odds with his older brother, though his mother’s favourite. We find him newly returned to Scotland from enforced exile (not to mention a term as a galley slave,) the leader of a band of border outlaws, the states of both Scotland and England having a price on his head (in particular he is thought to have betrayed Scotland, as a result contributing to the disaster that was the Battle of Solway Moss five years in this story’s past,) as a young red-headed aristocratic lad called Will Scott of Kincurd, heir to Sir Walter Scott of Buccleuch, turns up wishing to join his band.

Lymond is outrageously accomplished, a master swordsman and archer, who litters his speech with Latin epithets and quotations from both French and German, speaks Spanish, has a firm grasp of psychology and can outthink and outdrink anybody – the last being handy when you’re the leader of a band of outlaws. To put it another way, in the words of Chris Tarrant on Tiswas parodying Eamonn Andrews in This is Your Life, he is, “a right clever dick if ever there was one”. He is not unaware of this and neither is Dunnett as at one point she has him say, “‘Nothing arouses suspicion quicker than genuine, all round proficiency.’”

I confess it got a bit wearing in the earlier parts of the book when every mysterious “new” character turned out to be Lymond in some disguise or other (or, in one instance, as an amnesiac.) Whatever, incident is packed on incident, scrape on scrape, as the plot unfolds Lymond’s efforts to uncover the Englishman who might clear his name.

However, Dunnett has, while foregrounding the lives of Lymond and his family, also, almost quietly, ticking away in the background, provided a primer in the politics and strife of the time. This, indeed, is the sort of story nations need periodically to tell themselves so that they keep their histories alive.

And some things never change. An Englishman tells Lymond, “I don’t want to become part of the Holy Roman Empire, and it wouldn’t do Scotland any good either. You’re a threat to three million people out of all proportion to your size. You can’t expect us to leave you alone, to siphon up the dregs of Europe and inject them into our backside.” Substitute EU for Holy Roman Empire and fifty-five for three million and you’ve just about got the present day situation. As a rejoinder Lymond says, “‘You haven’t seen what your late king managed in the way of practical persuasion, with Somerset following ….. abbeys brought to the ground, villages annihilated by the hundred, a nobility decimated, a country brought to poverty which thirty years ago was graced above any other in Europe with the arts of living.” To the suggestions that French domination is inevitable if Mary marries the Dauphin and that the Auld Alliance had done Scotland little good, “‘Look at Flodden,’” Lymond replies, “‘France has too many commitments to spare enough troops to rule Scotland. Good lord, if England can’t do it, then France isn’t likely to.’”

On the subject of patriotism Lymond is scathing. It’s “‘a fine hothouse for maggots. It breeds intolerance; it forces a spindle-legged, spurious riot of colour ….. A man of only moderate powers enjoys the special sanction of purpose, the sense of ceremony, the echo of mysterious, lost and royal things; a trace of the broad, plain childish virtues of myth and legend and ballad…. He wants advancement – what simpler way is there? Patriotism. It’s an opulent word, a mighty key to a royal Cloud-Cuckoo-Land …… a vehicle for shedding boredom and exercising surplus power or surplus talents or surplus money; an immature ignorance which becomes the coin of barter in the markets of power.’” I am with the Lord Advocate, Henry Lauder, who says to Lymond, “‘Preserve us from the honest clod and the ambitious fanatic.’” There are too many of those, in any time.

Dunnett definitely aspires to fine writing. Lymond’s allusions are the least of it. “‘I wish to God,’ said Gideon with mild exasperation, ‘that you’d talk – just once – in prose like other people.’” Many chapter headings refer to obscure moves in chess and the text is littered not only with quotations and epithets but a good dose of uncommonly used or obsolete words (how about aposteme, or concamerate, or escharotic?) but actually not very many Scots ones. When she stops to take breath Dunnett is particularly adept in description of scenery or atmosphere but for me there was not quite enough of that and a bit too much of the swashbuckling derring-do about the project. But her characters are well drawn, the intrigue and politics intricately laid out. It’s a good read if a little over-wordy (but in that it’s not in the class of Sir Walter Scott, novelist.)

Throughout, though, I couldn’t shake off the feeling (and the dénouement only emphasised the thought) that however much Lymond appears to be Dunnett’s vehicle the tale is really that of Will Scott of Kincurd.

Pedant’s corner:- “dead right” (dead is here used in dialogue as an emphasiser to mean completely or absolutely. In the 1400s?) knit (knitted,) vocal chords (it’s cords; vocal cords.) “The progress of Sybilla though a market” (through a market,) “as Flaw Valleys’ near the border” (Flaw Valleys is a farm so, “as Flaw Valleys is near the border”,) “genetically speaking” (in dialogue in the fifteenth century? Imre Festetics was the first to use the term genetic, 300 years later,) Portugese (Portuguese,) peripetia (peripeteia?) Bowes’ (Bowes’s; apart from the one below other names ending in s are rendered …s’s elsewhere,) accolyte (the correct “acolyte” appeared later,) vivesection (vivisection,) Berick (Berwick,) Stokes’ (Stokes’s,) olefactory (olfactory,) insifflating (insufflating?) subsaltive (subsultive?) catachumen (catechumen.)

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Fourth Estate, 2012, 411 p.

Bring up the Bodies cover

From its opening words, “His children are falling from the sky,” to its final ones – a warning that there are no endings, only beginnings – this second in Mantel’s Tudor trilogy is a consciously literary endeavour. (The “children” are in fact falcons named after Thomas Cromwell’s offspring.) Not that it is in any way difficult. The narration is still in the third person but the use of “he” to refer to Thomas Cromwell does not induce as much confusion as in Wolf Hall – perhaps because the reader is more accustomed to it but also since Mantel uses “he, Cromwell,” more often than in the previous book. There are occasional flourishes of poetic language to leaven proceedings and emphasise the literariness of the endeavour.

The action covers the events surrounding Anne Boleyn’s trial and execution. The phrase “Bring up the bodies” is uttered to call her supposed lovers (all of whom have been in Cromwell’s sights since they mocked his patron Cardinal Wolsey during a masqued ball at court) in to their trial. Mantel does a fine job in portraying all this history (whose outlines are well known but for which few documents remain.) Her hero, Cromwell, is instrumental in securing confessions but the text still leaves open the possibility that Anne was innocent of the charges laid.

Anne’s crime, if any, would not have been adultery (though for her lovers it would have been.) Rather, her offence was “imagining the King’s death.” This tickled me since Mantel was herself recently criticised for imagining a Prime Minister’s death – some idiot Tory MP said Mantel ought to be prosecuted for it – even though the PM concerned had already died, and crime writers imagine people’s deaths all the time.

In the book, apropos of Thomas Wyatt (the poet) Cromwell muses, “You must believe everything and nothing of what you read.” Mantel is believable. Reading Bring Up the Bodies, a much better and more rounded book than Wolf Hall, may be the best substitute for being at Henry VIII’s court. (Better even; since there is no risk to life involved in the experience.)

And only one contender for Pedant’s Corner: when he had rode. Plus not a single typo anywhere. Remarkable for these times.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Fourth Estate, 2009, 651 p.

Wolf Hall cover

In ways the first few scenes of this reminded me of Science Fiction. It bore the same necessity to introduce a different milieu. Here they describe Thomas Cromwell’s early life as the son of a brutal blacksmith. The book then jumps in time to chronicle his relationship with Cardinal Wolsey, from whom he learned his craft, and his subsequent rise to the position of Henry VIII’s go to man.

Aside:- There is a peculiar fascination for certain inhabitants of these islands endlessly to dissect Tudor times. A few years ago a theory occurred to me to explain this. It is that under the Tudors was the last time in which England was just England (and Wales.) After Elizabeth Tudor’s death the monarch – and one hundred years later the Parliament – had to be shared with the Scots and nothing was quite the same again. Of course the decisive shift from Catholicism also took place on the Tudors’ watch, the beginnings of which are in the background to Wolf Hall.

The character of Thomas Cromwell has not been as exhaustively mined as those of say Thomas More or the main players in Henry’s divorce. As with Cromwell, Wolsey here gets a more sympathetic hearing than I have seen elsewhere.

The narration of Wolf Hall is in third person, closely focused on Cromwell. It uses the pronoun “he” copiously – in most cases meaning Cromwell. However, this occasionally leads to moments of confusion when other male characters are in a scene. It is an interesting decision by Mantel to use this form. Where a first person narration would have immersed us in his world view the formulation has the effect of distancing us from the man.

While well written with some very nicely turned sentences the book is probably too long, with too many characters. They are well differentiated to be sure, but not easy to keep track of. Phrases that particularly struck me were, “Perhaps it’s something women do: spend time imagining what it’s like to be each other. One can learn from that he thinks,” “You get on by being a subtle crook,” – all too true even yet – “The world is not run from border fortresses or Whitehall but in the counting houses, by the scrape of the pen on the promissory note,” “The fate of people is made like this, two men in small rooms,” and of the French wars, “The English will never be forgiven for the talent for destruction they have always displayed when they get off their own island.” To this last a Scot or Welshwoman/man might perhaps observe they didn’t even have to get off “their” island to manifest destructive tendencies.

A power of research must have gone into the book but it is worn lightly and convincingly. As to Wolf Hall itself, the seat of the Seymours, none of the action takes place there and it is mentioned in the text six times at most.

I gather the issues of length and the use of “he” are less problematic in the sequel, Bring up the Bodies. I’ll get round to it.

Pedant’s corner:- A “sprung,” j’aboube for j’adoube, “faces peers”

Flodden

Today is the 500th anniversary of the most disastrous encounter between the forces of Scotland and England in history. (Bigger even than the 9-3 reverse at Wembley only 50 years ago. But that was a mere football match.)

On the 9th Sep 1513 14,000 men died on a battlefield in Northumbria. 10,000 of those were Scots – including most of the Scottish nobility and even the King, James IV, himself, the last British king to die in battle. The Battle of Flodden Field was at one and the same time the biggest clash of arms between the two countries plus it was the last mediæval and first modern battle on British soil. Never again was the longbow to be a major weapon, never before had artillery been employed.

My memories of reading about this were that it was an unnecessary tragedy as James had only invaded Northumbria as a sop to the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France. England’s king, Henry VIII had gone to war with France and Louis XII had appealed to the Scots king. One of the peculiarities of this situation is that James’s wife was Henry’s sister, Margaret. She had apparently asked him merely to “break a lance” to honour his obligations. I doubt that she thought he would not return.

Reading the BBC History magazine a couple of weeks ago it turns out that Henry VIII’s father, Henry VII, aware of his tenuous right to the English throne had foregone the English claim to Scotland and signed the Treaty of Perpetual Peace. Henry VIII had no such inhibitions – or else was eager to bolster his own position – and had recently reasserted England’s overlordship over Scotland. James, then, in effect, had no option but to stand up to Henry.

His initial efforts were successful, taking three castles in short order. He then set up a strong fortified position on Flodden Hill and awaited the English forces. The English commander, Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, apparently accepted battle on James’s chosen ground. However, being out of favour with Henry, he was desperate for a victory and instead of attacking at Flodden Hill, he made a flanking manœuvre, interposing his army between the Scots and the border. James was furious at this unchivalric behaviour and had to make a quick redeployment to Branxton Hill instead. Perhaps it was this anger that led to his lack of judgement in the battle. Wikipedia has the details of this dispute over the proposed battleground slightly differently.

Flodden Memorial from path
Flodden Memorial from path.

Flodden Memorial

The plaque reads, “Flodden 1513. To the Brave of Both Nations.”

The Scots artillery was heavier but more cumbersome and so less effective but at the beginning of the battle the Scots left completely overran the English right (if only!) and retired from the battlefield expecting the rest of the army to achieve overall victory. In the centre, however, things did not go so well. From their position on Branxton Hill the Scots could not see the boggy ground in the declivity between the lines.


Flodden Memorial. View to Branxton Hill

Flodden Memorial. View to Branxton Hill. From English start line.

Flodden Memorial from Scottish line

Flodden Memorial from Scottish line. Memorial is just left of centre here.

The Scottish Start Line at Flodden
The Scottish start line at Flodden.

The Scots infantry, armed with long pikes, whose efficiency had been proved in European battles, soon lost the essential formation necessary for success as they slipped and slid on the uncertain footing. The pikes also could not be anchored securely due to the underground conditions so were useless defensively. The English infantry, armed with much shorter billhooks, waded in to bloody effect. Dead bodies and blood soon made the conditions even worse.

Flodden Information Board

To their credit, as one of the information boards on the Battlefield Trail says, the Scots did not cut and run, but bravely fought on.

The memorial, built in 1910, is inscribed to the brave of both nations. I have been told the only other battle memorial to acknowledge both armies is at Quebec but cannot confirm this.

There is an information centre – in a red telephone booth – in Branxton village. It claims to be the smallest information centre in the world.

Flodden Information  Centre

James had been making his court and kingdom one of the most cultured in Europe, and Scots into a major European language. That process came to an abrupt end on his death.

The result of the battle at Flodden, the subsequent decline of Scotland’s influence, is probably the main reason why this post is being written in English rather than Scots.

The irony is that, despite the result of the battle, it was not Henry VIII’s descendants that would unify the crowns of Scotland and England and be monarchs of the UK but rather James’s, through his marriage to Margaret, their son James V and granddaughter Mary Queen of Scots, down to her son James VI and I.

The disaster is said to have inspired the traditional Scottish lament for the fallen, Floo’ers o’ the Forest,” sung here as The Flowers o’ the Forest by Isla St Clair.

free hit counter script