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The Man Who Wrote Henry VIII's Court

21/04/2014 17:58 BST | Updated 17/06/2014 10:59 BST

Inside the Tudor Court by Lauren Mackay.

It's about time someone took a long, hard look at Eustace Chapuys. Without us really noticing, the dispatches of the Spanish Ambassador have shaped our interpretations of the court of Henry VIII, especially the Catherine of Aragon- Henry- Anne Boleyn triangle which still attracts so much fascinated interest almost five centuries after its heart-breaking events were played out. Equally, Chapuys has been dismissed as biased and misogynistic in his portrayals of Anne, making it difficult to glimpse the real man behind the diplomatic mask.

Now, historian Lauren Mackay has looked afresh at Chapuys' letters, returning to his actual words, to decipher exactly what he did have to say. And what he didn't. What emerges in this new book about the Tudor court is a complex diplomatic picture of a lively and clever man who defies the stereotypes perpetuated in some history books to shine as he takes centre stage. Mackay is successful in depicting the nature of the ambassadorial role in all its elements, from the need to flatter the King, balanced with Chapuys' natural sympathies for Catherine's plight, the practical problems of waiting for weeks for an audience, and coping when his salary wasn't paid or his house burned down. This is the real Chapuys for once, not the vessel of myth and misinterpretation.

Mackay presents the details of Chapuys' early life in an interesting and accessible style, setting him within the context of Annecy society, along with well researched information about his family and the city. She is also successful in conveying the touching relationship that develops between Chapuys and Catherine of Aragon, through the difficult years of her divorce and the sadness of her death, a few days after having been visited by her old friend. Likewise, it is interesting to read of his friendship with Thomas Cromwell, offering a new window on the portrayal of the master statesman, juggling to satisfy an increasingly despotic master. Readers who enjoyed Hilary Mantel's portrayal of Cromwell, will find this a satisfying read.

Where Mackay really excels with Chapuys is in her process of stripping away his "mask of dissumlation." This deconstruction necessitated the analysis of his letters and comparisons with commentators, whose words have been attributed to the ambassador, and the pin-pointing of the source of particular phrases and rumours. Everyone used to "know" that Chapuys denigrated Anne Boleyn as "the concubine," but Mackay's careful translations have proven that he was less hostile and allows us to see the personalities involved in Henry's divorce through different eyes. She wades through the ambassador's various obligations and efforts to present his art as a diplomat, operating among friends, enemies and unknowns, responsive to his Imperial orders and the fluctuating moods of the English King.

Interestingly too, Mackay allows us to see Chapuys as a survivor, outliving many of the big characters of his time, including Henry himself. She paints his developing closeness with Princess Mary as an almost paternal relationship, an extension of the affection and respect he held for her mother and a champion of her cause in the wake of her turbulent youth; he was one of the few people in whom she confided. I was delighted to see at the end of the book, that the retired Chapuys lived long enough to learn of Mary's accession to the throne, although I did think Mackay may have missed a trick by not exploiting this fact as a satisfying narrative conclusion.

Inside the Tudor Court is a valuable new addition to an old topic. Well-told, full of first-hand source material and perceptive analysis, it allows a reader to gain another foothold on the slippery sands of Henry VIII's divorce. With so many powerful figures involved, with such heartache and conflicting accounts, it is a complex and compelling episode in Tudor history and Mackay's thorough research on this pivotal figure allows us to step closer to understanding the motivation and characters of those whose lives were forever altered by it. At last, Eustace Chapuys emerges as a complex central player, rather than a stereotypical foil for the King and his wives.

I look forward to Mackay's next work, on Thomas Boleyn.

Inside the Tudor Court is available to buy on Amazon, or direct from Amberley Publishing.

ISBN 1445609576

288 pages

£20