Titian, Charles V on Horseback in Mühlenberg, 1548Oil on canvasMuseo del Prado, Madrid.

The majesty of power. The power of majesty. Both emerge clearly from John Julius Norwich’s lucidly written and life-enhancing Four Princes, an account of a time of turmoil, adventure, and development. As he writes, has there been a half-century like it? Here, packed into the space of a lifetime, are the High Renaissance, Luther and the Reformation, the exploration of the Americas, and a series of memorable monarchs, each of whom left an indelible imprint on the history of the European world.

Both with this splendid imperial and royal cast, and with the others who play a walk-on part from Erasmus to Luther, the privateer Barbarossa to the great architect of Suleiman’s Constantinople, Mimar Sinan, this is a story that proclaims the importance of the individual and, therefore, the value of particular characteristics and drives and the importance of the interaction of a small group. Indeed, this is an account of the “Founders,” the founders of modern Europe, and it represents a grasping of the Classical understanding of the role of the hero, as well as a new iteration of the Enlightenment commitment to the idea that modernity occurred from the early sixteenth century. Thus, William Robertson, in his classic The History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V: With a View of the Progress of Society in Europe, From the Subversion of the Roman Empire, to the Beginning of the Sixteenth Century, saw the development then of the balance of power:

the method of preventing any monarch from rising to such a degree of power as was inconsistent with the general liberty . . . that great secret in modern policy, the preservation of a proper distribution of power among all the members of the system into which the states of Europe are formed . . . . From this era we can trace the progress of that intercourse between nations, which had linked the powers of Europe so closely together; and can discern the operations of that provident policy, which, during peace, guards against remote and contingent dangers; which, in war, hath prevented rapid and destructive conquests.

Their role was magnified by the extent to which rulers were also semi-sacral figures.

Newly diffused innovations from printing to gunpowder were key parts of the equation, while the planting of the standards of Spain from the modern southern states of the usa to northern Chile was a dramatic demonstration of practical power and global change, one that has consequences to the present.

The exhilaration and wonder of it all is grasped repeatedly by Norwich, with the age indeed presented as in many respects a precursor to the more recent one of transformation. Yet, the literally smaller and less populous known world of the sixteenth century ensures that a few individuals then could be even more important. Their role was magnified by the extent to which rulers were also semi-sacral figures, a position that took forward the vision of majesty outlined in the Book of Kings and dramatized in the arts of the period. The Sultan was also Caliph, the Emperor was the secular counterpart to the Pope, the king of France received communion like a priest, and Henry VIII took over the Church in England and Wales. Sometimes, monarchs were physically prepossessing and dominant, as Norwich makes clear, not least in the case of Henry.

They always had great symbolic power. Until Queen Anne, who touched the young Dr. Johnson, the touch of English monarchs was supposed to cure skin disease, while, as Shakespeare makes clear in his discussion of Duncan’s dead body in Macbeth, it was believed that monarchs had different color blood.

All of these rulers were also warriors, both in reality and in the military preparations known as hunting and jousting that marked their public leisure and much private practice. Charles V challenged Francis I to personal combat in 1528, and Francis took up the challenge. Although nothing came of it, Charles’s move, and the response, expressed the ideal values of the period. Fighting Charles’s army at Pavia in 1525, Francis had been defeated and captured, only for Francis to repudiate the terms he had had to accept to win his freedom. Charles led expeditions against Tunis in 1535 and Algiers in 1541, the first successful, the second not, but both involving personal risk. Charles also defeated the leading German Protestant ruler, Elector John Frederick of Saxony, at Mühlberg in 1547, a triumph celebrated by Titian in a magnificent canvas.

Suleiman is the most interesting and dramatic of the four. Ruling from 1520 to 1566, he established his position by seeking and gaining victory. He captured Belgrade in 1521 and Rhodes in 1522. These successes had eluded Suleiman’s great-grandfather, Mehmed II, the conqueror of Constantinople in 1453, and comparative success within the dynasty was important to fame, with such fame serving as a lubricant of obedience.

Strip away talk of God and the Law, and there is power.

Suleiman went on to smash the Hungarian army at Mohács in 1526, besiege Vienna unsuccessfully in 1529, capture Baghdad in 1534, and campaign until his death in 1566. At Mohács, the Hungarians lost 16,000–18,000 men, King Louis drowning while trying to swim across a river in armor. His death gave the Habsburgs a claim to the Hungarian crown. As Norwich brilliantly describes, Suleiman’s death outside the besieged fortress of Szigetvár was concealed from the troops so that the Grand Vizier could maintain control of the situation and arrange a peaceful transfer of power. The vitality of Suleiman’s military system at the close of his life contrasted both with Charles V’s enforced flight from Germany in 1552, and with the severe difficulties faced by his son Philip II in the Low Countries in 1566 as the Dutch Revolt began. Philip’s one-time wife, Henry’s elder daughter, Queen Mary, had died a failure in 1558, and her successor and half-sister, Elizabeth, faced rebellion in 1569. France was already convulsed in the Wars of Religion that was to help bring the Valois dynasty to an assassinated end in 1589, while Mary Queen of Scots, widow of Francis II of France, was deposed in 1567.

Norwich’s dramatic and magnificent warrior kings were far from the idea of bureaucratic governance that was associated with certain other rulers, such as Henry VII and Philip II. More particularly, they ruled in the royal Court and through favoritism. Suleiman might be called the Lawgiver, but that entailed having family members who potentially challenged him killed, usually by being strangled with a bowstring. And so for Henry VIII with the abrupt labours of the executioners’ axe. There is, indeed, something very modern about the exercise of power in the Renaissance. Strip away talk of God and the Law, and there is power.

Norwich is a shrewd guide to its processes and consequences, to the nature of Renaissance authoritarianism, and to the world that was to be anatomized by the Elizabethan Revenge dramatists. Norwich, indeed, offers a setting for such plays as The Revenger’s Tragedy and Hamlet. A short book, but one in which every page offers something for reflection.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 9, on page 75
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