For more than 50 years British historian John Julius Norwich has been generating scores of thoroughly researched, engagingly written books that are damned with the faint praise of being “popular” histories. This is unjust as it is wrong.
All books about historical events should have some resonance with current events and this story of the founding of modern Europe’s nation-states goes a long way to explain how the flaws in its invention 500-plus years ago are showing up todayin Britain’s planned Brexit and the fracturing of culture and politics everywhere else on what not long ago was hailed as the United States of Europe. And then there is the chaos known as the Middle East.
Mr. Norwich is a master of bringing his characters to life as part of the larger canvass of the great events they brought into being. For 10 centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire the people of Europe and the Middle East struggled to regain control over their separated destinies and find a stability despite the surge in populations, the birth of new technologies, the expansion of trade and the need for a unifying religious faith.
But then came these four remarkable princes, all born within 10 years of each other. These occasional allies and perpetual rivals fought over a new structure for Europe, the Middle East and even the New World that kept its shape for five centuries more until it just recently started to come unraveled.
At the beginning, England laid claim to territory inside France, the French kings had seized parts of Italy, and the Holy Roman Empire was divided between Spain, Austria and the Lowlands now known as Belgium and Holland. As for the Turkish Sultans, their empire rimmed both sides of the Mediterranean but their momentum was headed on into Central Europe.
Adding to the confusion, none of our four princes were prime candidates to become rulers when they were born. And then there was the small problem of the Protestant Reformation begin waged by an obscure monk named Martin Luther.
Henry VIII of England was the oldest of the quartet, born in 1491. He was a second son of Henry VII, but the death of both his brother and, then in 1509, his father, young Prince Hal suddenly found himself on the throne with no real idea of how to proceed. That doubt did not last long.
When the man who became Francis I was born in 1494, his father was only a second cousin of the ailing Louis XII who reportedly honeymooned himself to death trying to beget an heir in 1515. The problem first facing Francis was not Henry’s ambitions for more land in France, but with his other Christian rival who was challenging his hold on valuable provinces in Italy and colluding with the pope.
Charles V was not only the most powerful of the four at the start, he also was the ugliest, least intelligent and most religious. He had inherited kingships that included the Lowlands of Burgundy, Aragon in Spain, and also Naples, Sicily and Sardinia. Then, in 1519 with the death of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian, Charles was elected successor and thus became ruler over the Hapsburg holdings in Austria and Germany, to which he quickly added Hungary.
This last acquisition was a preventative strategy as was his challenges to French holdings in Italy. If he was to hold what he had been given so easily, he would have to protect it not only against the ambitions of Henry and Francis, but more immediately against the tide of Ottoman Turkey and its hyperambitious young Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent.
And magnificent Suleiman surely was. Born about the same time as Francis in 1494, he became Sultan 23 years later. He was more secure than the other three princes since his father Sultan Selim the Grim had taken the precaution of murdering any likely rivals among the family beforehand. The Ottoman Empire had already taken over most of the Balkans with only Hungary beyond his reach.
What happened over the next first half of the 1500s is riveting stuff. As Mr. Norwich sums up, “Here, packed into the space of just fifty years, are the High Renaisscence, Luther and the Reformation, the exploration of the Americas 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 civilized world.”
This is an important history masterfully written. Read and enjoy.
FOUR PRINCES: HENRY VIII, FRANCIS I, CHARLES V, SULEIMAN THE MAGNIFICENT AND THE OBSESSIONS THAT FORGED MODERN EUROPE
By John Julius Norwich
Grove Press, $26, 304 pages
• James Srodes’ latest biography is “Spies in Palestine, Love, Betrayal and the Heroic Life of Sarah Aaronsohn” (Counterpoint)