George Bernard considers an emotive attempt to understand the trials and tribulations faced by a poet in the court of Henry VIII
Gentleman, courtier, diplomat and, most remarkably, poet, Thomas Wyatt died of a fever at the age of 39 but had also come perilously close to losing his life on two earlier occasions. He was briefly held in the Tower in May 1536 on suspicion of having been among Anne Boleyn’s lovers, and again in January 1541 on suspicion of being less than fully loyal to Henry VIII when on embassy to Charles V, Holy Roman emperor.
Wyatt’s verses are hauntingly allusive, often making reference to deep but unrequited love, fears of betrayal by supposed friends, and the challenges of serving, and advising, Henry, a monarch who demanded total allegiance.
Susan Brigden’s biography is an attempt to bring together what we know about Thomas Wyatt from letters, and especially diplomatic correspondence, and what his poems can be taken to reveal. As with her earlier books she proceeds by evocation, building up, quotation by quotation, a vivid impression of how Wyatt felt, whether unhappy in love or frustrated at the impossible demands of his master, who expected his diplomats to persuade European rulers of the justice of his divorce and of his royal supremacy over the church.
Brigden’s is a distinctive voice that holds the attention throughout. It is easy to imagine her reading her book out loud by candlelight in the atmospheric setting of Hampton Court Palace. Her labours in the archives have been prodigious, and her endnotes show her to be well-read in the current literature. Acknowledgments to the “powerful vision” of one scholar and the “persuasive” interpretation of another are readily made. But Brigden’s evocative approach makes it harder for her to deal in her main text with different interpretations. She gives, for example, an account of Anne Boleyn’s fall, and the endnotes fairly cite the books and articles by historians who have engaged in what Steven Gunn has called “trench warfare” over the matter. However, she does not attempt to give reasons why she takes the view she does and rejects others.
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I enjoyed and benefitted much from reading Susan Brigden's New Worlds, Lost Worlds: The Rule of the Tudors, 1485 to 1603, part of the Penguin History of Britain series, because of her interest in the Reformation and religion:
No period in British history today retains more resonance and mystery than the sixteenth century. The leading figures of the time have become almost mythical, and the terrors and grandeurs of Tudor Britain have resonance with even the least historically minded readers.
Above all Brigden sees the key to the Tudor world as religion - the new world of Protestantism and its battle with the the old world of uniform Catholicism. This great religious rent in the fabric of English society underlies the savage violence and turbulence of the period - from Henry VIII's break with Rome to the overwhelming threat of the Spanish Armada.
New Worlds, Lost Worlds is a startlingly atmospheric tour de force.