On 17 August 1510, Empson and Dudley were escorted out of the shadows of the middle gateway of the Tower of London to meet their fate. In one regard at least, the king was merciful. They were to escape the full traitor's death of hanging, drawing and quartering. Not for them the shameful, painful haul behind a horse to Tyburn. Their sentence was commuted to a public beheading. They walked to their execution on Tower Hill through crowds eager to see the despised royal councillors finally get what they deserved.
The gesture largely worked. A country that had been groaning under the predation of the old king took a largely-symbolic comfort in the execution of two such prominent predators. And Henry was free to concentrate on what he considered more pressing issues – mainly, producing an heir, which was, as Johnson seems to delight in pointing out, a matter of frightful logistics, particularly when Catherine thought (mistakenly, it turned out) that she was pregnant with their child:
Henry had no permitted outlet otherwise for his sexual desires. The church forbade sex between husband and wife during her confinement and for the month or so until her 'churching', when she returned to the world of men. Royal and noble women usually employed wet nurses, so Henry would at least be spared the further restriction on marital sex while his wife was breastfeeding. These rules were just the tip of the iceberg when it came to religious proscriptions of sexual activity. Sex was also forbidden on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays; throughout Lent, Advent and Pentecost; before major holy days; when a woman was menstruating; three days before Communion; during daylight hours; naked; or in any position other than missionary.
“Marriage was the only moral outlet for sexual activity and even then the participants needed to ensure they were not enjoying it too much,” Johnson adds, “St Jerome had written that in the eyes of God, taking too much pleasure in one's spouse was tantamount to adultery.”Catherine's phantom pregnancy was followed by a real one, but little Prince Henry lived for less than two months, and when a healthy child eventually was born, it was a girl, the future Queen Mary I. Johnson is entirely right to point out that although the wording of all official notices of the little prince's death denoted sorrow, the main emotion emanating from Henry's court was anger. Stillbirths, phantom pregnancies, a daughter, a son who didn't live two months … even as early as spring of 1510, Henry might have begun to fear some blighting pattern. He would later self-servingly describe that pattern in Biblical terms, as divine punishment for marrying his brother's widow; Johnson describes at some length the old Medieval concept of Fortune's Wheel. In any case frustration in the nursery must have leant other aspects of kingship added allure. Tudor historian Polydore Vergil writes, for instance, that Henry considered it “his duty to seek fame by military skill,” and hovering over Johnson's account of this single year is the specter of the intermittent warfare with France that Henry would conduct throughout his reign.Johnson is intent on dramatizing her story in addition simply to reconstructing it (her previous publishing credit was a historical novel called The Arrow of Sherwood), and as she follows the year 1509 through its course, the violence of the battlefield – the place where the Tudor dynasty was born – is never very far in the background. Young Henry comes to his throne hot for war and impatient with councillors who advise patience. Readers are told that the king's future alter ego Thomas Wolsey (“the portly son of a Suffolk butcher”) “saw what some of the royal council still could not: that for all his inexperience, Henry was determined to rule himself, not to be ruled by his elders.” This impatience applied even to the battlefield's domesticated cousin, the jousting yard, as Johnson lays out in novelistic detail:
As the sun set on Henry's eighteenth birthday, the tournaments celebrating his coronation came to a close. As Henry and his queen handed out prizes to the knights and enterprisers of his celebratory jousts – Pallas Athena's crystal shield, Cupid's golden spear, Diana's hunting dogs and the scholars' swords – was it with a twinge of jealousy? For Henry had never been permitted to play anything but the role of spectator and judge of these contests. It was a part that his father had been content with, but the energetic young king was of a more active bent. Did Henry's hand itch to take up the lance himself?
These dramatizations – questions of what Henry gazed upon or pondered or itched to do – are now all but requirements of the kind of popular history So Great a Prince clearly aspires to be, as is the gesture of giving readers a narrow, restricted focus in order to make the sprawl of scholarly research more approachable: one single year rather than, say, Henry's first decade. The dramatizations are usually at best inferences, although Johnson does a uniformly energetic job of them, and the narrow narrative focus is of course an impossibility – readers get large, sometimes distractingly large, amounts of background-filling exposition on everything from the deep history of Henry VII's reign to the calendar of holy days to the nature of Court life to the intricacies of the Tudor legal system.And always the exposition comes back around to the tall, red-haired teenager at the heart of the book. It's naturally tempting, when reading an account like this, to see the tree in the acorn, tempting to find in the 17-year-old Henry the germs of all the traits that would be so prominent in the 30-year-old Henry, or even the 50-year-old Henry. It's to her credit that Johnson usually resists this temptation; for her Henry, it's the morning of a new era, and all things are possible.____Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston. He reviews for The National, The American Conservative, The Washington Post, and The Christian Science Monitor. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.