Thomas Cardinal Wolsey by Nancy Leiz Harvey (Collier Macmillan, £8.95) "MINE own good Cardinal, I recommend me unto you as heartily as heart can think." In these words Henry VIII addressed his regards to his loyal servant, Thomas Wolsey. Both master and servant are familiar figures four centuries later. The 16th Century is still, for many people, the most vivid in English history.
It seems to combine a colourId (and suitably remote) exuberance with a fierce passion (not too unlike that of our own century). 'Bluff' King 'Hal', 'Bloody' Mary and 'Good' Queen 'Bess' may have been demythologised. most notably in the works of G. R. Elton and his disciples, but their images remain intact in the popular mind.
So do the images of the secondary characters in the dramatic family history which provided the narrative thread of the period. Thomas Wolsey, whether he liked it or not, was a secondary character. His was more than a %%alk-on part but despite his el andeur (which his led him to disgrace and ruin. His recorded 'last words' have often been taken as a summary of his ultimate failure: If I had served God as diligently as I have done the King, he would not have given me over in my grey hairs."
Nancy Leis Harvey's biography relates the person of the Cardinal to the great events and personalities which eventually engulfed him. As told by the author it is 'a rags to riches' story with a difference; it has a bittersweet ending where in failure. for the first time, at the end of his life, contemporaries found overwhelming) he lacked star quality.
Thomas Wolsey's life led him from the relative obscurity of the Ipswich merchant class. through a brilliant career at Oxford, to the service of the haughty Henry V111. whose most trusted advisor he became. The expertise he showed and the confidence which the king gave him allowed Wolsey to reach the highest offices of Church and State.
He embodied the glory. and the decadence, of the over-ripe English church of the prereformation. His fall, through the king's determination to obtain a divorce from Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn, he rediscovers his vocation and feels at ease with his conscience.
Mrs Harvey, whose discipline is literature rather than history, creates a vivid p.ortrait in her text which is a subtle amalgam of primary sources and persona! observation. Hers is an impressionistic picture which is strong in overall impact, but which sometimes simplifies the complex and tortuous transitional world in which Wolsey lived. She never loses pace, however, and the Cardinal's story takes on a poignancy which other studies have failed to capture.
The greatest strength of the book is its ability to recapture the atmosph'ere of the past. The author is particularly strong in her presentation of word pictures: her description of Hampton Court is especially striking: and, at the end of the book, the reader feels very much at home with the subject and his period.
The specialist may be irritated by the lapses (St Albans was an abbey in the Middle Ages, not a Cathedriil) but the general reader will find it an enlightening insight into the life and times of a man whose like we are not going to see again.