Friday, December 21, 2001

The Sword Of Truth: King Henry VIII's England

Gilbert Morris' The Sword of Truth, the first in the Wakefield Dynasty series, gives a wonderful picture of life in England in the early 16th century, amid the turmoil of King Henry VIII. Divided into four parts, the book tells the life of Myles Morgan (Wakefield), from his early childhood starting in 1513 to adult with young family of his own at the book's end in 1534. Along the way, Myles experiences life as a serf, working the land as a commoner, later coming into his inheritance as the only son of Lord Richard Wakefield and the new ways of nobility.

The Sword of Truth involves actually two great historical accounts, both that of King Henry the 8th and his court as well as the concurrent story of William Tyndale and his efforts to bring an English Bible to the people of England, amidst great persecution in these years of the Protestant Reformation. At times Myles has connections with King Henry, enjoying hunting parties with the king and other nobles as well as conversations with the unhappy Queen Catherine. Yet throughout the book he remains a friend of William Tyndale, whom he first meets while a peasant boy. He later helps Tyndale (for whom the book publishing company is named, which this book is published by) in his work, traveling between England and the European continent, and sees Tyndale's goal accomplished: "the day when every plowboy would read the Word of God for himself."

The book begins with young Margred Morgan, who, facing a desperate situation in Wales, takes her then 6-year-old son with her on a perilous journey over the mountains into England. Despite the travails of winter traveling, they safely reach England and find a home and employment as serfs working Sir Bourneville's estate. The life of the servant is not unpleasant, but everyone knows his place, including those who caution the sometimes angry young Myles. For even when women peasants are violated, or a boy from a higher social class is at fault, the serfs receive all the blame and punishment. Though most of the book's more developed characters are of the higher classes, one strong peasant character is Nob, a likeable man who cares for his masters' hawks and falcons.

Even as one of the workers, though, Myles finds company instead in a girl his age, Hannah Kemp, of the middle-class English; and Isabella, Lord Bourneville's flighty daughter a few years older than Myles, becomes a romantic infatuation, though seemingly out of reach. Enter Sir Robert Wakefield and his wife, Lady Jane, who have no children--until Robert learns of his son, Myles, now 16 years old. Immediately Myles is accepted and given legal status as a Wakefield, and begins an intense education in haste, catching up on the years of proper schooling he has missed.

The significant women in Myles' life--mother Margred, Hannah Kemp, and Lady Jane Wakefield--all exhibit the characteristics of quiet and peaceful godly women, with Protestant sympathies. Hannah and Jane have connections with William Tyndale, as Hannah's childhood tutor and a corresponding friend for Lady Jane, and the two women naturally become good friends. Tyndale in turn tells of his meetings with Martin Luther in these early years of the Protestant Reformation.

The world and its allure, and especially the worldly Isabella, ever tempts Myles, who continually spends more and more time "at court," vowing to Hannah that the court and its blatant immorality will not taint him. But will he be able to share its company and not be corrupted? Indeed, Henry's court is one of the worst, if not the most corrupt, England has yet seen. Soon Henry's excesses become common knowledge throughout England and even the rest of Europe, as "the King's Great Business" (of his desired divorce from Catherine to marry Anne Boleyn) is gossiped among women and discussed at the bars.

Many of King Henry's actual associates (some of whom were later executed by him), including Sir Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, and of course Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, are featured throughout the story, interacting with Myles and other fictional characters. Myles also encounters the clever and power-hungry Ralph Geddes, who resents Myles for taking the Wakefield inheritance, which would otherwise have been his. Through a great rags-to-riches story filled with romance and persecution, Gilbert Morris adeptly introduces the reader to this turbulent time period, with great background of worldwide events of the early 1500s.

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