Book Review – Four Princes by John Julius Norwich (non-fiction)

Here’s the blurb;

‘Never before had the world seen four such giants co-existing. Sometimes friends, more often enemies, always rivals, these four men together held Europe in the hollow of their hands.’ 

Four great princes – Henry VIII of England, Francis I of France, Charles V of Spain and Suleiman the Magnificent – were born within a single decade. Each looms large in his country’s history and, in this book, John Julius Norwich broadens the scope and shows how, against the rich background of the Renaissance and destruction of the Reformation, their wary obsession with one another laid the foundations for modern Europe. Individually, each man could hardly have been more different ­- from the scandals of Henry’s six wives to Charles’s monasticism – but, together, they dominated the world stage.

From the Field of the Cloth of Gold, a pageant of jousting, feasting and general carousing so lavish that it nearly bankrupted both France and England, to Suleiman’s celebratory pyramid of 2,000 human heads (including those of seven Hungarian bishops) after the battle of Mohács; from Anne Boleyn’s six-fingered hand (a potential sign of witchcraft) that had the pious nervously crossing themselves to the real story of the Maltese falcon, Four Princes is history at its vivid, entertaining best.

With a cast list that extends from Leonardo da Vinci to Barbarossa, and from Joanna the Mad to le roi grand-nez, John Julius Norwich offers the perfect guide to the most colourful century the world has ever known and brings the past to unforgettable life.

I received a free E Arc from Netgalley of this book.

It’s been a long time since I read a non-fiction history book that wasn’t set in the Anglo-Saxon/Viking period, but the Tudor period – or rather Elizabeth I was my first great history crush and I was fascinated by the idea of this accounting of the first half of the sixteenth century. History books too often focus on one person, one event or one series of events, it’s high time that ‘history’ looked at the wider reach of events and this is exactly what the author tries to do.

There can be few who know nothing about the reign of Henry VIII and his two ‘frenemies’ Charles V and Francis I of France, but by offering an account of the interactions of these three men, and adding Suleiman the Magnificent into the mix, a far richer landscape of Europe at this time is revealed. It was a time of great change, and all four of these men strove for something different, but all of them wanted, perhaps, to earn the biggest reputation for themselves, and they all seemed determined to bankrupt themselves in order to do so.

The author treats each king in a similar way; he might not agree with their actions but he can at least offer an explanation for their actions, and, with not a little humour, he’s able to find their achiles heel – for Suleiman it seems to have been the weather, for Charles V his unambitious son, the later Philip II, for Francis I his hatred of Charles V and we all know about Henry VIII and his need for a son and heir. And yet these men all dealt with far greater issues as well and I couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for Charles V who seemed to face some sort of disaster from everywhere simultaneously.

I would have liked more information about Suleiman as I know so little about him, but the purpose of the book precludes that – indeed I think some understanding of the period is needed beforehand in order to appreciate all that the author has to offer.

Overall, this is a very readable account of the time period – the Papacy looms large, as to be expected, as do some of Suleiman’s piratical allies, but each king is given his own space and time and I thoroughly enjoyed the writing and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading history books.

Four Princes is already available in hardback and for the Kindle, and you can buy it here;

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