Sweeping into the history of the explosive reign of Henry VIII and his Great Matter, a divorce from Katherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn, this tale is relayed from the perspective of a highly educated adopted daughter of Sir Thomas More, an avid Catholic and heretic hunter who caught in Henry's drama with the Church and the chaos that ensues. A loyal subject, More reaches the pinnacle of power in Henry's court, only to find himself in conflict with the new ways of the reformists and the king's challenge of church authority. In a great struggle for religious domination that shadows sixteenth century England, the king will not be dissuaded, his desire for a male heir the driving force behind his impetuosity. As More's children watch their father's success, so too do they worry about his personal danger as Henry's demands chafe against More's rigid religious beliefs.
Through the adoring eyes of his adopted daughter, Meg Griggs, More appears a loving, if somewhat distracted father who prides himself on the education of his family, a ready discourse common as they gather together. Into this warm family scene comes portraitist Hans Holbein, fleeing a boring marriage and the messy reformation that has flooded Europe with violence. Holbein's talent is in the intimate detail of the scenes he paints and the use of symbols to add depth and mystery to his work, often telling a story within a story. Inevitably drawn to Meg, Holbein dares not hope for more than friendship, although his obsession grows over the years; meanwhile Meg marries her lifelong love, John Clement. A likely match for the compassionate beauty, Clement, a physician, has much in common with his wife, who has a working knowledge of herbal cures, ministering to those in need. But John Clement's background remains a mystery, as well as More's connection to John's early years; hence, a series of difficult conflicts between husband and wife.
A cataclysmic confrontation between the old religion and the new, Henry's inability to sire a male heir and a potential threat to the Tudor throne provide the uneasy political texture of the novel; Meg's perspective is more intimate, a tumultuous world where she struggles with her husband's dark secrets, her visceral reaction to the persecution of the reformed Christians and an increasing affection for the simple devotion offered by Hans Holbein. Both drawn to and repulsed by the actions of her enigmatic father, "a medieval man through and through", Meg must come to terms with More's intransigence and confusing affection. While her love for Clement remains constant, an appreciation of the painter's genius threatens Meg's ordered life, an educated woman caught in the turmoil of the king's obsession and her longing for security. As intricate and mystery-laden as Holbein's celebrated paintings of More's family, this novel is as complex and fascinating as the era it so deftly portrays. Luan Gaines.
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