[book review] Robert Hutchinson: House of Treason

cover HUTCHINSONRobert Hutchinson, House of Treason:  The Rise and Fall of a Tudor Dynasty, (London:  Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2009)

Never mind, DBDDBS*, Robert Hutchinson gives us ample material for a new mnemonic in his account of various generations of the hapless Howard Dynasty.


Hapless as the Howards were, they were also generally hubristic – a quality bound not only to make them enemies amongst other noble houses, but to regularly offend the sensibilities of absolute monarchs who never quite felt secure on the throne.

Herein lies the rub, and the lesson that the Howards have for us.  Ambition and greed are highly addictive; often, even plenty is never quite enough.  Those who are afflicted, male and female in this family’s case, are doomed to fall spectacularly after periods of success that only seem to bring anxiety, never joy.  It’s a life lesson we see repeated in Shakespeare’s plays, of course – consider Macbeth, Richard III, Henry Bolinbroke in Richard II, and numerous others.

Following the Howards offers us the chance to view well-known events from different seats in the house.  The result is to emphasise how politicised and predatory the various royal Tudor courts were.  It’s quite clear that favour was only ever temporary, and that there were always those waiting to ruthlessly expose any chink of weakness, to denounce your unorthodoxy to their advantage.  As you would happily do to them.  It must have been utterly exhausting.  Sometimes, you had just as much to fear from your own kin as you had other dynasties.  But the general always comes back to the specifics of the house, and it seems that there was a reckless, proud streak in the blood that could not be suppressed, and which did not learn its lessons.  It’s a surprise that any of the Howards lived to the ripe ages some of them did. 

Hutchinson’s biography is obviously well-researched and liberally smattered with quotations from primary sources.  The appendices are voluminous and useful, including the obligatory family trees and a chronology of events which I thought was a nice touch.  Monetary sums are routinely given an approximate modern value, which I also appreciated.  What the book lacks, though, is the storyteller’s verve, to make the history sing.  In the second half of the book, perhaps from Catherine Howard onwards, Hutchinson becomes more involved with his subjects and their motivations, but always with a reserve: even when, as others like Dan Jones do, he begins a section in anecdotal mode.  Jones shows us that you can be enthusiastic and objective – it never quite happens here.

An interesting, authoritative perspective on the period which ultimately feels a little dry in the mouth.

(* Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived)

Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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