‘Four Princes’: John Julius Norwich interviewed about his new book on the lives of Henry VIII and his contemporaries Francis I, Charles V and Suleiman the Magnificent

Four Princes

John Julius Norwich and Philip Zeigler aren’t just historians and best-selling authors. They also happen to have been close friends for 75 – yes, 75 – years. Incredibly, both continue to write, and both remain as passionate about history as ever – something that shone through during tonight’s conversation.

They were at Daunt’s to discuss JJN’s new book, ‘Four Princes’, which covers the lives of Henry VIII, Francis I, Charles V and Suleiman the Magnificent. Born within ten years of each other, these four men were to dominate the whole of the civilised world in a way which, argues JJN, has never been seen before – or since. This was, after all, an era that encompassed the Renaissance, the Reformation and the discovery of America: a time of huge political and religious upheaval.

The lives of the four princes were extraordinary. Although we will never know as much about Suleiman as about the others (the lives of sultans were not chronicled by their contemporaries in the same way as western monarchs), we do know about, and understand, his political strategies if not, alas, his character and personality. He very nearly succeeded in changing the destiny of Europe forever – in 1530, his army was at the gates of Vienna, only defeated in the end by bad weather and insufficient siege supplies.

Luckily for us, the lives of Henry, Francis and Charles are well-documented. We know, for example, that Henry and Francis (neither of whom had ever expected to become monarchs), relished their roles, especially when they were younger, despite the fact that neither lived to see 60 and that both died painful, lingering deaths. They loved the power of being king: the swagger, the money, the women, the jousting…

Charles, on the other hand, hated every minute of it, despite being immensely hard-working. He spent most of his life wanting to abdicate, eventually succeeding at the age of 56. The division of the Church caused Charles a great deal of pain and he was unable, ultimately (through no fault of his own), to prevent it.

Religion, of course, played a huge role in all four of the monarchs’ lives. JJN goes so far as to argue that, had Henry been granted the divorce from Catherine of Aragon that he so wanted, the Church of England would probably never have existed. His entire life, Henry considered himself a devout Catholic, only breaking away from Rome because he had to – a decision that, in the end, was made easy for him because much of the rest of Europe was doing the same.

Francis’s legacy, too, is shaped by religion. JJN admitted that, although the most interesting of the four monarchs to write about (and the one he would most like to have dinner with), Francis’s horrendous persecution of Protestants following ‘L’Affaire des Placards’ remains an indelible stain on his character and, indeed, his legacy. He could have shown moderation and kept matters under control, but made no attempt to do so.

What would it have been like to work for one of these men? “Exhausting”, JJN says of Francis – he might have been fun to be around, but he was incredibly demanding and easily bored, hence never spent more than a fortnight in any one location. This meant his entire court “moving house” every two weeks – 1,800 horses and their riders who spent most of their lives sleeping under canvas, sometimes 15 miles or so from where their king was staying (there was no palace large enough to accommodate them all), having to be ready to rejoin him at any moment.

Henry’s court, on the hand, was downright dangerous – but then, I think we all knew that, didn’t we? If you made it through the course of your life and died of natural causes, you could consider yourself successful (and lucky). Of Henry’s two most powerful civil servants, Wolsey and Cromwell, JJN says that neither of them deserved their fates. Wolsey served Henry to the best of his ability, but ended up failing due to one insurmountable obstacle: the Pope would never have granted Henry a divorce; Catherine was Charles V’s aunt and to do so would have been far too dangerous politically. Wolsey was “lucky”, ultimately, that illness claimed him; he would almost certainly have faced trial and execution, otherwise.

As for Cromwell, JJN describes him as “our greatest-ever politician”. Unlike Wolsey, he had no ambition other than to serve his master – which he did, brilliantly, for many years, counting the dissolution of the monasteries among his achievements. In the end, it was a woman who was his undoing – Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves was a catastrophe for which Cromwell was to lose his head.

What, though, of the women of this period? Which of them played significant roles? The stand-out figure for JJN is Catherine of Aragon. There’s a tendency, these days, to view her as a victim – and her final years were certainly very sad – but we tend to forget that she and Henry were married for more than 20 years, many of them happily. Catherine was a highly intelligent, well-educated woman who spoke many languages – and what’s more, Henry trusted her to govern the country during his absences. She was also (and I didn’t know this) Spanish Ambassador to the Court, in itself highly unusual – a woman had never held this position before. At the height of her powers, Catherine was very influential indeed.

The same cannot be said of the wives of Charles and Francis (although Charles adored his wife and was devastated when she died) and we know too little about Suleiman’s life and family to pass judgement (Wikipedia disagrees, but I’m trusting JJN on this one). Louise of Savoy, Francis’s mother, was hugely impactful, though.

If you’ve enjoyed my jottings above, you’ll very likely enjoy JJN’s book, too. I will read it, but won’t rush to do so – much as I enjoyed the talk this evening, not much of the content was new to me. That’s not to say that the book won’t be interesting – more, a reflection of the fact that the lives of three of these four men are so well-documented that it’s difficult for authors to find a fresh angle. How incredible, though, that we continue to talk about them and be fascinated by them so many centuries after their deaths – a fitting testament to the legacies they left behind.

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