- Inside the Tudor Court: Henry VIII and his Six Wives through the Writings of the Spanish Ambassador Eustace Chapuys by Mackay, Lauren
For just on sixteen years, Eustace Chapuys was the eyes and ears of the Habsburg empire at the Tudor court, writing copious missives on a tumultuous period to Charles V, Mary of Hungary, and, eventually, Charles’s son, Philip. Chapuys’ two missions, from 1529 to 1545, initially saw him charged with defending, unsuccessfully, the claims of Charles’s aunt, Katherine of Aragon, as rightful Queen of England against Henry VIII’s planned annulment, and then, as Mackay argues, as lone champion for her daughter Mary, who was abandoned, in practical terms, even by her cousin Charles. The appointment brought Chapuys into close and regular encounter with a changeable monarch, a number of queens, an evolving line-up of administrators, fellow diplomats, ladies-in-waiting, and merchant communities, whom Chapuys appeared to convince to provide a wealth of information for the Imperial cause. Chapuys, a legally-trained man of the middling sort schooled in the humanist tradition, held admiration, it seems, for others regardless of their religious persuasion, and enjoyed sociable relations most notably with Thomas Cromwell.
It seems remarkable that Mackay’s is the first study to place Chapuys himself in the spotlight since Garrett Mattingley’s 1935 PhD thesis. Framed as a study ‘to rescue Chapuys from his relative obscurity among the footnotes’ (p. 10), the missions of the Imperial ambassador nonetheless structure Mackay’s book. Eustace the man is rather harder to trace in the archives than Chapuys the diplomat, as Mackay distinguishes them. Further, the spotlight is really on the first of these missions, covering the years from the rise of Anne Boleyn through the death of Jane Seymour to the vastly changed political landscape of 1539. Two short chapters consider the nature of Chapuys’ relationships with Princess Mary and Thomas Cromwell and two more cover his second mission, when an older Chapuys was distanced from some of the action of the court by ill health and generational change, missing some of his former colleagues and networks. [End Page 180]
Mackay writes with a dynamic and confident style, which is lively and engaging. Academic readers, though, are perhaps not her foremost audience. Although well versed in Tudor historiography, Mackay is not concerned with contemporary scholarly questions that surround the new history of diplomacy, gender and masculinities, or the history of emotions, all of which could enrich the work. There is little consideration of the constructed nature of Chapuys’ accounts, as potential acts of self-fashioning that occur through the rhetoric of epistolary content, the material apparatus of the letter and in his actions. This descriptive analysis of Tudor court life treats Chapuys’ accounts largely at face value. How do we understand his claims to knowledge control through a wide network of informants or accounts to Charles of his evenly-matched verbal jousts with Henry VIII?
Chapuys’ epistolary prose provides the thread through the text. It is unclear if Mackay has translated these works afresh; the calendars are cited heavily among other, archival sources and original wording is not provided in the notes. The short introduction is limited to addressing the question of Chapuys’ accuracy as an eye-witness, recognizing his biases but rightly defending his importance as a source for the period. The work could certainly have benefitted from a conclusion separate from the last chapter, positioning Chapuys in the wider context of his time, among his fellow ambassadors. This would have made a stronger, analytical argument for his significance and value, beyond repeated assertions about the colour and life that his letters breathe into the court.
The 28 illustrations remain illustrative at best. A number of images of Chapuys’ letters require more than the description ‘original letter’ to make them meaningful, and eighteenth-century copies of his letters and several of Chapuys’ home town, Annecy (two of the same building) seem a wasted...