23 AUGUST 1975, Page 18

Men of power

AL. Rowse

The Cardinal • and the Secretary Neville Wil

liams (Weidenfeld and Nicolson £5.25) Henry V. The Cautious Conqueror M. W. Labarge (Seeker and Warburg £4.50)

' Here are two good books on interesting subjects, both sound and reliable, which make pleasing reading. It is always a relief to read . history that is written by professionals — when they can write; tl-e trouble with so many amateurs writing history is that they rarely get it quite right.

The Secretary of the British Academy — almost as prolific as his old tutor — has made a name for himself as a leading popular writer on Tudor history. I mean this for a compliment, for

_ I am all in favour of history books that are both reliable and readable — what is the point of books not designed to be read? Publishers should reject them in these days of increasing

• burdens on our dwindling resources. Dr Williams's new book is the best he has given us, for it has the original idea of

' presenting Cardinal Wolsey and his successor

Thomas Cromwell together, in a dual portrait. They are two of the greatest figures and most fascinating characters in our history, and at the same time most ill appreciated and maligned. Dr Williams has got them right, without any argumentation or advocacy, simply by presenting the facts with sound judgment ahd understanding.

What was Wolsey really like? He was precocious and clever, of immense energy and administrative ability, a glutton for work as for everything else; of charm, when he chose to exert it, a gifted speaker. Henry VIII undoubtedly had a strong attachment to him. On the other side, there was his pride and presumption, his unwise arrogance to the great — such a contrast to the cautious (rather bogus) humility of the Elizabethan Lord Burghley. But Wolsey was more sympathetic to the poor, and risked power and popularity by trying to arrest the progress of enclosures, which harmed them. Though a coarse Tudor type, he was something of an aesthete, the patron of Italian artists, and the builder of Hampton Court, Whitehall and Christ Church. (He was a glutton for building, too.) He was tolerant, as Cardinals go — far more so than Sir Thomas More.

What a shame such a man has had such a poor press from unimaginative historians!

What they fail to understand is that Wolsey held power on the uncertain condition of royal favour: he always had to consider Henry's foibles and passions, his preferences and convictions. The worst of these was his ardour for cavorting in France, resulting in the French wars that cost so much money and ruined Wolsey's genuine pursuit of European peace (after the first French war, at least) — the real object Of his balance-of-power diplomacy.

Dr Williams concludes that the Cardinal had no vision beyond that of propping up the old order — why should he be expected to have? He did, indeed, set the example of dissolving a number of redundant small monasteries for his educational foundations — and but for Henry's greed we should have had a magnificent school at Ipswich, to vie with Winchester and Eton.

Wolsey's agent in these useful occupations was Thomas Cromwell — and nothing is more exceptional in the Tudor rat-race than the servant's joyalty to his falling master. Cromwell was the creator of the new order, an administrative genius; but he was also a more respectable, conventional and — for revolutionary times — a more decent man than people realise. He was a nicer man than Bishop Gardiner, for example, Wolsey's other leading follower. It was not Cromwell who destroyed Sir Thomas More and Anne Boleyn alike — that was Henry's doing, a capricious and cruel type, like his Yorkist grandfather, Edward IV, not like the Tudors, and their Lancastrian forbears.

There are many ironies and paradoxes that make the story so dramatic, and keep the reader on his toes. It was the layman, Cromwell, not the Cardinal, who knew Rome: Popes had no terrors for him, who waylaid one of them on the roadside with a present of sweetmeats and jellies to secure a favour. On the other hand, the self-educated Cromwell was much better read, and intellectually more interested and wide-awake than the Oxonian scholar who took his degree at so exceptionally early an age. The layman was also more respectable sexually than the Cardinal, with his two known bastards.

But Cromwell, too; held power simply on the condition of royal favour: he had no party or other support when the crunch came and he lost grace by promoting the unsuitable Anne of Cleves to Henry's bed. What a risk that was to take! Of course Cromwell had won intense unpopularity, as Wolsey had done, by his exercise of power and his services to Henry. Cromwell's execution was popular — and the wickedest thing the old ogre permitted himself: a faux-bonhomme, he was shortly regretting the loss of the ablest servant he ever had. (I expect Stalin had reason in 1941 to regret the purging of the ablest of Russian generals, Tukhachevsky — but he was never heard to admit it.) Henry VIII was not descended from Henry V, nor was he in the least like his Lancastrian predecessor. Henry V was a real soldier, a lifelong commander in the field; and a more consistent and abler politician than his succes sor. In fact, he made an indubitably great man — as our leading authority on the fifteenth

century, K. B. McFarlane, held — perhaps the ablest ruler to occupy the English throne. He was utterly dedicated to his metier de roi, known all through Western Europe in his own time not only as the ablest of rulers but for his passion for justice.

As a king, everything was subordinated to his political ends. These were the conquest of France, as a stepping stone to the liberation of the Holy Land from the Moslems. One must think ot his objectives in medieval terms — as Mrs Labarge does all through her faithful depiction of him. Henry had quite legitimate claims upon France and certainly thought of himself as exerting his rights. His astonishing achievements — Agincourt and the succession to the French throne — wore him out at only thirty-five, and placed an intolerable strain upon English resources. The regrettable consequences — the disastrous minority of his son, the subsequent loss of France — offer a subject for condemnation by the hindsight that is history.

Actually, as a man, Henry V was prudent — Mrs Labarge calls him, "the cautious conqueror" — again unlike Henry VIII. The victor of Agincourt was cool and under absolute self-control, a chaste introvert who gave himself to no-one, certainly not to Catherine of France — Henry VIII's ancestor through her extraordinary marriage to Owen Tudor. What a contrast these two Henries make! There is no doubt which has my vote.

Only two small cavils. McFarlane thought that there was more to be said for Shakespeare's depiction of the young Prince Hal and his misdoings, and the undoubted conversion he underwent on succeeding to his father's shaky throne. Number two: why don't people take the trouble to get Cornish names right? Wolsey's early patron was the well-known Sir Richard Nanfan, not Nonfan — naughty of my old pupil, Dr Williams. And Latimer was never bishop of Salisbury, either.