HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Girolamo Savonarola: The Renaissance Preacher’ by Samantha Morris

Born on 21 September 1452, the very same year that Leonardo Da Vinci was born, Girolamo Savonarola: The Renaissance Preacher tells the story of a man who believed so wholeheartedly in God and the message that He was giving, that he gave his life for it.

The book is an introduction to the life and times of this infamous preacher, a man who was witness to the dramatic downfall of the Medici dynasty in fifteenth-century Florence, who instigated some of the most dramatic events in Florentine history and whose death is still commemorated today.

cover and blurb via amazon

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If you are new to Savonarola, here is a great place to begin. Savonarola was a Dominican friar and preacher up until 1498 when he was excommunicated and executed for throwing out prophesies and for calling for the end of corruption, the type of thing that gets you killed in Italy during this period. Yet he is constantly made out to be a crazy man, who preached as a friar, who was mad as a hatter, pretended to see the future and callously destroyed priceless art in the process. This time, Morris has created a different man, a portrayal given time and clarity.

Savonarola began life in 1452, and entered life as a friar in 1475. After studying and praying, he gained momentum in 1494, when he set off to preach in Florence, and bumped heads with the most powerful men around at that time. In four years, he would be burned in public for his work. How? By hitching his wagon to the current anti-Medici feelings in Florence at the time. Florence, a Republic then, was in the Medici grip, but only for the last 16 years, so they still had plenty of enemies to go around. Combined with the fact that the French king wanted to storm through Italy and there was the great Borgia Pope on the papal throne, Florence was a jittery mess and Savonarola was right in the middle.

Savonarola believed he could see the future, and began preaching that he was destined to save Florence and its people from sin. He also thought the French king Charles was placed on Earth by God to restore Italy to the ways of 2000 years earlier. Charles himself wanted the Kingdom of Naples, though places such as Florence and Rome stood in his way. But while Savonarola was crushing on the French, he was also busy hating the powerful Medicis, masters of Florence, the Borgia Pope and the strong Sforza family of Milan.

Foretelling the future and also preaching chastity, poverty, piety and repentance, Savonarola hit out against the friars of Florence who lived luxurious lives. He hated the art and beauty of Florence, the greatest to be found in Europe. He was a huge homophobe, so much so that maybe he was possibly over-compensating? (That’s my theory). Savonarola was desperate to make sodomy a crime. He also hated the Church in general for its lavish lifestyle, massive wealth and for its corruption, crimes, whores, nepotism, you name it. Savonarola seemed to think himself the great saviour of everyone.

Along with two others, Savonarola was arrested and tortured, and he caved very quickly, unlike nutters or those desperate to cling to martyrdom. He confessed to everything he had said and done against the Church and Pope. The sad thing is, Savonarola wasn’t some bigot crying in the streets while living it up in private; he seemed to believe what he said completely. It gives the man a little sympathy, as he was not looking for personal gain, just had a desire to change the world order, but it was all in his head.

Poor Savonarola was taken out as a defeated crazy man and set alight, his ashes scattered in the Arne river so they wouldn’t be relics. Savonarola was a victim of his own delusions, of his own pride and vanity, and he burned just like the books and artwork, clothes and wigs he had his faithful followers destroy.

I love Morris’ enthusiasm for Savonarola, a man largely overlooked, always written the same way. Anyone who loves the Medici like Morris is bound to be an authority on all the big players of Florence.

 

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A Cromwell Adventure – Part 5: Queen Katherine

Katherine of Aragon was the Queen of England for 24 or 27 years, depending on how you look at history. Either way, Katherine is one of history’s most profound queens.

Portrait by Juan de Flandes thought to be of 11-year-old Katherine

Katherine of Aragon was born at the Archbishop’s Palace in Alcalá de Henares outside Madrid on 16 December 1485, the youngest child of the mighty Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon, the two monarchs who brought modern Spain together. Unlike the stereotypical Spanish look, Katherine had red hair and blue eyes to go with pale skin, a possible throwback to her English ancestry from her mother. Named after Catherine of Lancaster, her great-grandmother, Katherine was third cousins with her father-in-law Henry VII of England, and fourth cousin to her mother-in-law, the extraordinary Elizabeth of York. By age three, Katherine was already betrothed to Henry and Elizabeth’s son, Prince Arthur, heir to the English throne.

Katherine received an excellent education, especially for a girl, in both canon and civil law, history, languages, religion, literature, theology and genealogy. Her strong Catholic faith was the focal point of her upbringing, and spoke Spanish, Latin, Greek and French. Even with all these academic studies, she also mastered all the ‘female’ subjects, like dancing, sewing, mannerisms, weaving, and lace-work.

Katherine and Arthur married by proxy in mid 1499, but she needed to wait to travel to England until Arthur was 15, the agreed age he should be with his bride. Katherine arrived in England in November 1501 to meet her husband and married officially on November 14 at Old St. Paul’s Cathedral. While Katherine’s dowry was 200,000 crowns, her parents paid only half upfront, an issue which would rear its head later on. While both Katherine and Arthur could speak Latin, they could not understand each other with their accents and pronunciations.

Prince Arthur was an intelligent and kind boy raised to be a leader but suffered constant ill-health. The marriage was never consummated (as sworn by Katherine and her ladies), and they moved to Ludlow Castle in Wales, 150 miles from London. Arthur was Prince of Wales, the title for the future King, but Arthur fell ill months later, possibly of the sweating sickness. Katherine too caught the illness, and awoke from fighting the disease to find Arthur had already died, aged only 15, on 2 April 1502. This was a devastating loss for the Spanish princess, Arthur’s parents and the country who had a good king-in-waiting to keep the country at peace.

Portrait of Katharine of Aragon by Michael Sittow, c1502

Sending Katherine home to Spain meant Henry VII had to return the 100,000 crowns in dowry to the Spanish monarchs. He wanted to keep the money, and potentially get the other half of the dowry payment. When Elizabeth of York died in 1503, Henry considered marrying Katherine for the money, but instead betrothed Katherine to Henry, Arthur’s younger brother and new heir to the throne. But with Katherine’s mother now deceased in Spain, her ‘value’ was less than before. As Henry was not old enough to marry, only 11 at the time, Katherine had to wait. Her father would not pay the rest of her dowry, Henry would not send her home, and Katherine resorted to living in poverty in London, selling all she had to feed herself and her attendants. Despite all this, she was the Spanish ambassador to England in 1507, and seen as a weak negotiator, being female. Only everyone had underestimated Katherine.

Henry VII died in 1509, and the new Henry VIII promptly married Katherine by choice, rather than by any pre-contract or agreement. The Pope consented to her marrying her brother-in-law due to non-consummation with Arthur. Katherine was now aged 23, considered old for a bride, and Henry was just about to turn 18. They had a private wedding but huge double coronation at the Tower of London, with days of celebrations for all and the people of England were thrilled with their young new king and perfect bride at his side.

Within months, Katherine was already pregnant, only to lose her daughter during a premature birth. One year later she gave birth to her son, Henry, who died of unknown causes (possibly stomach related) at only 52 days old. Just a few months into her third pregnancy in 1513, Katherine was alone in England as regent while Henry fought in France. She led the country and a led an army in full amour against Scotland, killing the Scottish king, while Henry failed in his French invasion. Sadly Katherine’s son died in premature labour that November.

By January 1515, Katherine gave birth yet again, another stillborn son. She got pregnant soon after, following her typical pattern of ease in getting pregnant, but hopes were low after four losses. But in February 1616, Katherine gave birth to Mary, strong and healthy, lifting Henry’s hopes for a healthy male heir. Katherine had an early miscarriage in 1517, and then in November 1818 she gave birth one more time, to another daughter who died just after birth. Katherine was at her end after extraordinary pressure on her body to produce the male heir.

Katherine portrait by Lucas Hornebolte

Katherine turned to her Catholic faith and her studies once more as she aged, and promoted education in women, which started to increase in popularity. The Princess Mary was titled Princess of Wales in a male heir’s place, but the issue of no son loomed. Henry had taken several mistresses during the marriage, and Bessie Blount, one of Katherine’s ladies, gave birth to a son in 1518, not considered for the throne by illegitimacy. Henry would not give his throne to a woman, thanks to a history of wars under female rule (basically men not able to get their crap together led by a woman).

Katherine’s nephew, Charles V, King of Spain, became the Holy Roman Emperor, making him in control of much of Europe. She tried to broker a peace deal with him, then instead encouraged Henry to sign the famous peace treaty with France at the Field of Gold and Gold in 1520. It lasted a short time, and England aligned with Charles, and Mary was considered as a wife for the Emperor.

Henry had a mistress, Mary Boleyn, but after two pregnancies (a daughter and son, maybe Henry’s, maybe not), in 1525, Henry changed his mind and wanted Mary’s sister, Anne Boleyn. A non-sexual relationship began sometime in 1526, and Katherine assumed it would be another flirtation, a woman Henry would bed and then marry off. But Anne was young enough to give birth, potentially to a male heir, and in 1527 Henry petitioned the Pope for an annulment, but was denied. As the law stated a woman could not marry her first husband’s brother, Katherine was in trouble despite gaining dispensation years ago. Thanks to a siege in Rome and the Pope a prisoner, the annulment was not granted. By 1529, Henry set up a legatine court in London, with English Cardinal Wolsey and Cardinal Campeggio from Rome, to settle the matter for good. Katherine was on trial as a wife and queen.

Wolsey was a champion of Henry and had ruled alongside Henry for twenty years. They stated the laws, civil and God’s law, that a man could not marry a brother’s wife, and dispensation could not change that. They also stated that Katherine lied, and that she had slept with Arthur almost thirty years earlier. Katherine had powerful allies – her nephew the Emperor pressured the Pope not to give an annulment, and in England the most celebrated powerful religious minds of the age – Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More supported her claim, along with Princess Mary Tudor, Henry’s sister.

The court case quickly crumbled and no result was given, the decision handed back to Pope Clement in Rome. Cardinal Wolsey, Henry’s greatest friend, was arrested for colluding with the Pope to keep Katherine on the throne, and he died on the way to trial in late 1530. Katherine would to give up her throne, the only life she knew.

In 1531, Henry left Katherine at Windsor Castle, to live with Anne Boleyn by his side, though it was said Anne refused to sleep with him until an annulment was finalised. Katherine was moved to The More in Bedfordshire in late 1531, a small manor with few staff, to be forgotten about while Anne Boleyn took her place. Henry had Thomas Cromwell, Wolsey’s successor, change laws making the Pope unable to grant an annulment, and instead was able to gain an annulment through English clergy, the new Archbishop Cranmer, a Protestant reformer. Henry secretly married Anne Boleyn in Calais in November 1532 and again in England in January 1533, when she found herself pregnant. Katherine was titled Katherine, Dowager Princess of Wales, but she refused to believe the claims her marriage was over.

Katherine was moved between palaces several times and reduced to poverty once more. By 1535, she lived at Kimbolton Castle, in a single room, and forbidden to be with her daughter, despite Mary’s ill-health. Katherine and Mary could be reunited if they acknowledged Anne as queen and neither women would give in. Katherine continued to grow ill, and begged Charles the Emperor to protect the Princess Mary on her behalf. Katherine died on 7 January 1536, not seeing her daughter in four years. Poison was claimed, as her heart was black, though cancer is a more likely option. Henry and Anne celebrated, then claimed their yellow outfits were Spanish mourning colours, a fact never true in any time period.

The day of Katherine’s funeral at Peterborough Cathedral, seen by her last followers, Anne miscarried a son. Princess Mary was not allowed to attend her funeral, and the life of the greatest English queen was over, aged only 50. The people of England loved Katherine until her dying day and never accepted Queen Anne, who would be beheaded only a few months after Katherine’s death. Mary would continue her Catholic mother’s fight, and became Queen in 1553.

Up next… Anne Boleyn

 

A Cromwell Adventure – Part 2: Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell as played by James Frain in Showtime’s ‘The Tudors’

Thomas Cromwell – lawyer, politician, religious reformer, mercenary, charmer, merchant, party thrower, country changer, money-lender, queenmaker. When people hear the name Cromwell, they think of Oliver Cromwell. Wrong century. Thomas Cromwell is the only man in English history you need to know. He managed to destroy the Catholic Church’s hold in England and their greatest queen all at once, and became a common man who took over England, and the nobility couldn’t do a thing about it. Here is a short and simple introduction.

Cromwell’s birth is not recorded, but thought around 1485, in Putney, to mother Katherine and father Walter, a blacksmith, merchant and brewery owner. He was simply another common baby born, along with two sisters, around Putney Hill.  In his own words, he was a ruffian as a child. At some stage, Cromwell left home and travelled to France, became be a mercenary in the French army, marched into Italy, and fought as a soldier in the battle of Garigliano in December 1503, all by about 18 years old.

Then Cromwell’s life turned around. Starving and homeless, Cromwell found himself in Florence, where he met a banker named Francesco Frescobaldi, an English-speaking merchant who took him into his household, giving him a home and a job. Working as a merchant on Frescobaldi’s behalf, it is believed Cromwell worked successfully in Florence and the Low Countries (what is now parts of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg). He created his own network of merchants in English, Italian and Flemish, though very little is known of this empire-building part of his life. But he is recorded as a patient in a Roman hospital in June 1514, and Cromwell pops up in Vatican archives as an agent for the Archbishop of York and working for the Roman Rota (like a Catholic Church court system).

Cromwell doesn’t appear anywhere until his name appears back in England, when he married Elizabeth Wyckes in 1515, a girl who also grew up in Putney, but was a widow after her first husband, a Yeoman of the Guard, passed away. Three children came into Cromwell’s life – Gregory in about 1520, Anne and then Grace soon after.

Cromwell found himself a job in the household of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. England’s most powerful man, a favourite of King Henry. Henry was inclined to leave the heavy lifting in the kingdom to Wolsey. With his knowledge as a lawyer (yes, that happened somewhere along the way), in 1517 Cromwell returned to Rome to visit Pope Leo X on Wolsey’s behalf, where he was said to have charmed the Pope into seeing him and granted the papal bull (like a decree or patent) he required for his master. He returned a year later to again see the Pope, such was Wolsey’s trust in Cromwell.

By 1520 Cromwell was doing well, in both legal and merchants circles in England. He continued his work for Wolsey, but also earned money as a lawyer and cloth merchant, and in 1523, won a seat in parliament (the where’s and how’s are not firmly established). But parliament was dissolved (Henry and Wolsey disliked people making decisions for them), and Cromwell was accepted to Gray’s Inn (like passing the bar for lawyers) in 1524.

Cromwell took on more work and started to become more powerful under Wolsey at this time. In 1525 he did Wolsey’s dirty work and closed corrupt monasteries, to redirect their money into building The King’s School, Ipswich (now Ipswich School) and Cardinal College in Oxford (now Christ Church, part of Oxford University). Cromwell was one of Wolsey’s council members by 1526 and his secretary in 1529. Then things took their dramatic turn.

Thomas Cromwell, as played by Mark Rylance in BBC’s ‘Wolf Hall’

Around 1528-1529, Cromwell’s wife and two daughters all died of sweating sickness (a bit like the plague without the boils). King Henry was trying to divorce Queen Katherine and marry Anne Boleyn. Wolsey and another Cardinal, Lorenzo Campeggio from Rome, sat in legatine court to decide on whether the King could gain an annulment. When the court folded, Henry turned on his well-known rage, and Wolsey was fired, banished and humiliated. Cromwell was determined not to suffer the fate of his master and friend.

Anne Boleyn hated Wolsey with a passion, and Cromwell moved out of the Cardinal’s shadow and charmed his way into working directly for King Henry. In late 1530, Wolsey died on his way to execution (you couldn’t make this up) and Cromwell set to making Anne Boleyn queen, and also breaking the stranglehold of the Catholic faith in England. Countries like Germany (or the areas that make up modern Germany) were reforming, creating the Protestant faith, freeing Catholics from the Latin scriptures and suffocating nature of the Church. Cromwell found that reforming the Church was the way to ensure Anne Boleyn could be queen. Cromwell got himself into a prime role beside the king, and got himself back into parliament, and completed a series of law changes which stripped the Church’s power and made annulment possible (I’m massively over-simplifying here). Anne Boleyn gained her crown in June 1533, and Princess Elizabeth was born three months later. The Pope had not annulled Henry’s marriage to Katherine, but by now the Church of England existed and Henry was the leader, not the Pope. Cromwell was a hero in Henry’s eyes, and hated by pretty much everyone else.

In 1534, Cromwell was King Henry’s chief minister, plus in parliament, and running the royal treasury, the royal jewel house, the steward of Westminster and many other titles. With the chance to continue reforming religion, Cromwell had Henry’s blessing to continue with destroying the Catholic Church, interrogating and killing clergymen, weeding out corruption, and famously had everyone in England swear an oath stating Henry ruled the Church, not the Pope. When famous haters of reform, and Queen Katherine supporters, Sir Thomas More (now Saint Thomas More) and Bishop John Fisher (now also a saint) refused to take the oath, Cromwell had them both beheaded in June 1535. The King appointed Cromwell Royal Vicegerent and Vicar-General of England, and Cromwell conducted an extensive census, so he could start taxing monasteries around the nation (the monasteries had money pouring from every gap, powerful in their communities and known for corruption). By now, Cromwell was unpopular with most, but loved by King Henry ever more. Cromwell had total power over the Church in England, which made him as powerful as Henry himself.

Is this Thomas Cromwell? A recreation kept by The National Trust for Scotland in Aberdeenshire

Viceregent Cromwell passed a law suppressing lesser monasteries in England, so their funds could be directed to Henry’s accounts. Queen Anne did not like this, and turned on her precious Cromwell, forgetting he was the power that made her Queen. She had her chaplain preach against him before the royal court, making him an enemy. Anne wanted the monastery money sent to the people for education and charity, while Cromwell followed Henry’s orders and gave it to the royal accounts. Already Anne Boleyn had failed in giving Henry a son that she promised, and now she had Cromwell, England’s real power, against her.

With Jane Seymour, one of Anne Boleyn’s ladies-in-waiting, catching Henry’s eye, Anne became unpopular with the King (the only person who liked her). So when Henry wanted a new queen, a pretty blonde girl was ready, and Cromwell was more than ready to destroy the queen had made only a few years earlier. He had his power and the dissolution of religious control. Anne Boleyn had to die.

Cromwell had Anne Boleyn arrested and tried in May 1536 of adultery, with her brother George, Henry’s close friends and staff Henry Norris, Francis Weston, William Brereton, and court musician Mark Smeaton. Also tried was Thomas Wyatt, court poet and diplomat, but he was a friend of Cromwell, and was spared. In court, Cromwell had the judges find Anne and the men all guilty of adultery and sentenced to death, all with the King’s blessing. All the heads quickly rolled and Henry married Jane Seymour ten days later.

Is this Thomas Cromwell? A 1859 engraving published in Meyers Konversations-Lexikon, Germany.

Now Baron Cromwell and Lord Privy Seal, Cromwell enjoyed total control, passing more laws destroying anything Catholic related, and even great monasteries in England were pulled down. The Church was pulled from the people and Protestant changes were forced upon everyone. Henry got his beloved son from Jane Seymour, only to have her die in childbirth in July 1537. But Cromwell had his own troubles as the commoners were marching in their tens of thousands, calling for his head over the changes being made to their country. The famous Pilgrimage of Grace against Cromwell failed, and English Bibles turned out over England while Catholic relics were gathered and destroyed. By mid 1539, the Catholic Church was more or less wiped out thanks to Cromwell’s extensive law changes. But Henry was sick of the changes, unhappy with the unrest in England, and in need of wife number 4.

The famous sole surviving painting of Thomas Cromwell, done by Hans Holbein, year unknown. It is said it was hidden to protect it from being destroyed – but by whom?

Queenmaker Cromwell found Anne of Cleves, a German noblewoman, from a Protestant nation (Cleves was tiny country/province now in Germany), but Henry, now a fat old man, said his new German bride was too ugly for him (again, this is massively over-simplifying). Cromwell took the blame for Henry marrying a German girl he wouldn’t (or many say couldn’t) bed. Like Henry’s libido, Cromwell’s favour had run out.

But in April 1540, Henry made Cromwell an earl and named him Lord Chamberlain. Trouble was, Cromwell’s huge list of enemies had pushed teenager Catherine Howard forward as a new bride. Cromwell was the man who married Henry to an ‘ugly’ woman, and his enemies had fresh meat for him to defile. Henry turned on Cromwell, having him arrested on heresy and treason charges, but mostly because Anne of Cleves wasn’t pretty enough. A serious of false charges were thrown at Cromwell, tossed in the Tower, and he was beheaded, in what is mentioned as the worst beheading ever (as in, the executioner needed to butcher him to get the head off) on 28 July 1540. Henry married Catherine Howard the same day, only to cut off her head less than two years later (Anne of Cleves got an annulment, kept her virginity, and lived happily in England for all her days).

Henry soon regretted losing Cromwell, and a replacement never took Cromwell’s place beside Henry. The vast amounts of money Cromwell made for Henry was squandered in a petty French war in 1545, and all Cromwell had done was lost. His son Gregory (who had married Jane Seymour’s sister) died in 1551 of sweating sickness, and there was a rumour of a bastard daughter named Jane, though none of that has been proven (you shall have to read my book for that).

the famous sole surviving painting of Cromwell, done by Hans Holbein, year unknown. It was hidden so it couldn’t be destroyed – but by whom, and where?

Cromwell’s Protestant England caused countless deaths, with Henry’s son being a Protestant king, his daughter Mary a Catholic queen and then Queen Elizabeth back to Protestant. Elizabeth, Anne Boleyn’s only child, made the country firmly Protestant and the changes to law and government made by Cromwell were built on to help shape what England has become.

Cromwell disappeared from history, only one portrait of him surviving, his paperwork all destroyed during his trial. In 1953, Geoffrey Elton wrote of Cromwell, studying and discovering, while Henry was a mastermind and despot, it was Cromwell who held the real power of the era. Cromwell brought government from the medieval times to the modern age and was portrayed as the bad guy, until the last decade, where tv and books have tried to show Cromwell in a more positive light.

My first Cromwell book will focus on his creation of Anne Boleyn, the second about the creation of Jane Seymour, and finally the creation of Anne of Cleves, all books covering his creation of Protestant England. Thomas Cromwell is no longer a forgotten genius.

Check back for very regular updates on posts about all the character of Frailty of Human Affairs, out September 1.