Our book today is The Life and Death of Thomas Wolsey by his devoted servant George Cavendish, who wrote it in 1557 but dared not publish it in his lifetime, since its disclosures would certainly have ruffled feathers - not to mention getting its author strung up, disemboweled, and then torn in pieces by rearing horses. Talk about bad reviews.
The reason the book would have ruffled feathers is so simple, so much a given in our current understanding of biography, that it bears stressing: he tries his best, over and over, to tell the truth. In Tudor writings, especially anything connected with the court of Henry VIII, that really wasn't done. The portraits winding their way through this slim, highly enjoyable book - of Thomas More (Cavendish was married to one of the man's vindictive, chinless nieces), the king's earls and dukes, Thomas Cromwell, good queen Catherine, Anne Boleyn, and especially Henry himself - smack and strut of living veracity in a way that's absolutely captivating.
And more than any of them, Wolsey himself. Cavendish and his brother William, in the modern phrase, came from money, but both of them were bottomlessly ambitious when they were young men, and it was as young men that they attached themselves to Wolsey's service. And they came to love the man, to genuinely esteem him - so much so that they clung to him even in his downfall, when he had nothing to give them but his gratitude. Even long after the Cardinal's death, Cavendish could still fume about that downfall, when he came to put pen to paper. I love the shot across the bow that opens his book:
Meseems it were no wisdom to credit every light tale, blasted abroad by the blasphemous mouth of the rude commonalty. For we daily hear how, with their blasphemous trump, they spread abroad innumerable lies, without either shame or honesty, which prima facie showeth forth a visage of truth, as though it were a perfect verity and matter indeed, whereas there is nothing more untrue.
Cavendish's book is a priceless resource for historians; he was in the rooms during the King's Great Matter, his struggle to divorce his queen and marry Anne Boleyn (and in the process seize all the Catholic Church lands and properties in England), and although he smarts continuously under the treatment given to his master (Wolsey's endless international scheming was going along just fine until the Great Matter erupted in their midst, trapping him in urgencies he knew perfectly well could eat him whole, as they indeed ended up doing), he's in all a remarkably faithful chronicler. In his account, all these famous figures - especially his master - come alive in their various moods and quips, as with Wolsey one hot day when the King summons him to yell at him:
Thus this court passed from session to session, and day to day, insomuch that a certain day the king sent for my lord at the breaking up one day of the court to come to him into Bridewell. And to accomplish his commandment he went unto him, and being there with him in communication with in his Grace's privy chamber from eleven unto twelve of the clock and past, at noon, my lord came out and departed from the king and took his barge at the Black Friars stairs, and so went to his house at Westminster. The Bishop of Carlisle being with him in his barge said unto him, (wiping the sweat from his face), 'Sir,' quoth he, 'it is a very hot day.' 'Yea,' quoth my Lord Cardinal, 'if ye had been as well chafed as I have been within this hour, ye would say it were very hot.'
Or later, when Wolsey has been banished from the court and is living anxiously in the country, constantly fretting and justifying himself and literally making himself sick:
When night came that we should go to bed, my lord waxed very sick through his new disease, the which caused him continually from time to time to go to the stool all that night; insomuch from the time that his disease took him, unto the next day, he had above fifty stools, so that he was that day very weak. The matter which he voided was wondrous black, the which physicians call choler adustine; and when he perceived it, he said to me, 'If I have not some help shortly, it will cost me my life.'
Cavendish's book circulated widely in manuscript long before it was printed - Shakespeare certainly read a close version of it, as scene after scene of his Henry VIII play show - and although part of that was due to titillation, a big part of it was due to something more straightforward: it makes fine, dramatic reading. I wish there were a handy popular paperback edition (it amazes me that Penguin never, to the best of my knowledge, made a version) to recommend to you all, but alas, there isn't. Then again, the perfectly serviceable 1922 version is probably one of those gazillion uncopyrighted books Google is hungrily scanning as we speak - ah, what a world poor George Cavendish missed.