Four Princes is John Julius Norwich's study of Henry VIII, Francis I, Charles V, Sulieman the Magnificent and the obsessions that forged modern Europe. I think this was his last book before he sadly passed away in 2018. In my view, he was one of the greatest historical writers, with the ability to make factual history sound like a novel. Normans in the South is my personal favourite.
The four rulers he chose for this study all lived at roughly the same time in the first half of the 16th century. The book seeks to weave the story of their lives together in the context of the vast changes happening around them. He argues:
"Has there, in all European history, been a half-century like it? Here, packed into the space of just fifty years, are the High Renaissance, Luther and the Reformation, the exploration of the Americas, the panoply and pageantry exemplified by the Field of the Cloth of Gold and, above all, those four magnificent, memorable monarchs – each of whom, individually, left his indelible imprint over the land he ruled and who together transformed the civilised world."
It is a decent argument, although I am not entirely convinced with the attempt to weave their stories together. They were also very different personalities, from Henry VIII and his six wives to Charles V, who broke his heart when his Empress died at the age of only thirty-three. He never remarried and was to dress in black for the rest of his life. Norwich concedes the differences but argues together, they dominated the world stage and moulded the continent of Europe. None were truly great rulers, but they all possessed elements of greatness, and each left an indelible footprint on the lands he ruled. Again possibly valid, although I think Sulieman was pretty close to greatness, but that still doesn't bring them together.
The basic history of each ruler is outlined. However, one of his writing strengths is bringing the story to life with colourful anecdotes. For example, Francis I moved his court around the country, which took no fewer than 18,000 horses. When the King visited Bordeaux in 1526, stabling was ordered for 22,500 horses and mules. Another I should have known is an old Hungarian song that tells of a series of domestic disasters; after each comes the chorus: Több is veszett Mohácsnál – ‘but no matter; more was lost on Mohács field’. In modern Hungarian, the line has become a proverb.
The contradictions of rulers in an age when religion was taken seriously are not ignored. Francis I was busy burning protestant heretics while at the same time allying with Sulieman. The siege and capture of Nice was a joint operation of the Franco–Turkish alliance. The sight of Christians fighting Christians with the help of infidels left many deeply shocked but perhaps not surprised at the realpolitik. Given that Francis was surrounded by the Habsburgs to the east and west and a generally hostile Henry to the north. However, the citizens of Toulon were less than enthused to have Barbarossa spending the winter refitting his fleet in their city. Crusades were much discussed but were never going to happen.
Two of the four princes died in the first three months of 1547. Only Sulieman completed his three score years and ten; none of the other three reached even sixty – Francis dying at fifty-two, Henry at fifty-five, Charles at fifty-eight. However, for the period, these were decent innings. Suleiman the Magnificent (or the Lawgiver as he is commonly described in Turkey) was possibly the greatest of the Ottoman Sultans, although I think a good case can be made for this father, Selim. He was a statesman, a legislator and a patron of the arts but primarily a soldier, and he died as all good soldiers wish to die, with his troops on the field of battle. He also had one characteristic that the others didn't, religious tolerance. As the Norwich rightly concludes:
"an instinctive respect for the beliefs of others and a readiness to allow them their own customs, traditions and forms of worship. In Suleiman’s dominions tolerance was absolute; if only his fellow princes had followed his example, how much happier Europe would have been."
Despite my reservations about the book's premise, this is still a good read. As you would expect from the master's hand.
|OK, I am biased when it comes to comparisons. Let's have some Ottomans!