It’s been a fair few years since I enjoyed Paul Doherty’s Egyptian and Roman mysteries and now we have the publication of his one hundredth novel, The Last of Days. It is, I think, a little different from his others. The Last of Days focuses on the final few weeks of the malignant monster-king Henry VIII as witnessed and told by Will Somers, the royal jester and Henry’s companion through much of his life, for better or worse. Usually worse.
As his grotesquely obese body festers, splits and weeps blood and noxious vile ooze, Henry’s mind is as alert as ever and it sees danger all around him and across his land and beyond. His heir, Edward, is a frail child of 9 years old and Henry has no doubt that there are men among his own Council and court who would murder the boy, replacing him with his Roman Catholic sister Mary or even with a son of their own. As the headsman sharpens his axe, blunted by overuse, it is clear that Henry is more dangerous than ever, not least because he cannot sleep for the ghosts of the men and women that he has killed, especially the Thomases – Wolsey, More and Cromwell. As everyone around Henry scrambles to hang onto power, not to mention their very lives, in these days of madness, we learn that the men about the dying king may be almost as unscrupulous and dangerous as their master. Some among their number are certainly insane.
The Last of Days takes the form of a journal, written by jester Will Somers on the command of Henry. Henry is obsessed with the gossip of court and the streets. Will is his agent and ears. He trusts, possibly, the jester because Will will not coat the unpleasant in sugary lies. Unfortunately for Will, this means that his reward may as often be a punch, a pinch, even to be pissed upon, as it might be a purse full of coin. Will’s feelings for the king are mixed – he loves him (he remembers and reminds us of the glorious Renaissance days of Henry’s golden youth) and he hates him. The beauty of Henry’s youth only serves to make even uglier the monster he has become. Will cannot leave the king and his close association with him means that he is himself at risk from the plotters and connivers and torturers of the court. Some seek to use him while others to destroy him and all of this is noted in Will’s journal.
Certain names stand out here – Wriothesley, Paget, the Seymour brothers, Dudley, Gardiner, Cramner, the mysterious Balaam, Norfolk and his glamorous poet son the Earl of Surrey. There is also mention of the martyr Anne Askew, Katherine Parr the suspect Queen, and the king’s daughters Elizabeth and especially Mary, as well as Will’s love Lady Jane who is Princess Mary’s own fool. The women, though, are very much the pawns of the men and several are remembered here for their torture and execution. The whispers and posturing of the male Council is interrupted for quite salacious accounts of the torture and deaths of many that Will has had to witness for the king over the years. The execution of the elderly Countess of Salisbury doesn’t become less harrowing after almost 500 years.
The Last of Days is a fast and, despite its subject matter, light read. While I was happy to keep on turning the pages, I was increasingly disappointed by its lack of depth – in terms of characterisation and in general. It has some fine and enthusiastic prose, especially when describing rotting corpses, the stews of London, its prisons or the horrendous fate that many suffered within their walls and on the execution scaffold, but the majority of the characters are paper thin. Henry is possibly the exception. He is truly revolting without doubt but even he doesn’t seem particularly three-dimensional. Will Somers, our guide, is the weakest of all. For much of the time he merely recounts or is told history that will be hugely familiar to many readers. In places, it felt to me like reading a wiki page. I would also have liked to have seen much more insight into the characters of men such as Wriothesley or women like the Princess Mary. Balaam, the apparent enigma of the novel, could have been a swashbuckling pantomime figure with leather boots, twirling his grand mustachios.
Although the novel covers a short period of time, it’s a time that has much to give and I would have appreciated much more substance than this brief novel gives. I found the idea of the king commanding Will to write a journal very unconvincing, as I did the whole relationship between the king and his jester. The Last of Days has the feel of schoolboy history about it – lots of nastiness wrapped around the history to make it more palatable. I can see that kids would love this book.
There have been some superb novels on Tudor England over the last year or two, you’ll find reviews of some of them in these pages, and unfortunately The Last of Days suffers by the inevitable comparisons.