I doubt that I would ever, of my own volition, have sat down to read a study of the Earls of Pembroke and the origins and development of the notion of Arcadia. Which means I would have missed out on the rare delight of Adam Nicolson’s erudite and spellbinding book. Deeply researched using a broad range of sources, this is far from the rather dry, academic read I was anticipating. Nicolson writes with a grace and style that you barely notice, so caught up are you in his fascinating portrayal not only of the Pembrokes but also of the lives of ordinary people and of the immense changes that affected the entire country between the mid-sixteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries.
Being the second son of a minor Welsh lord (himself illegitimate) with a poor estate in the Black Mountains, William Herbert had an unfavourable background and an equally unpromising future in a society in which second sons had to forge their own fortunes. But William was ‘a Welsh hardman’ aggressively ambitious and extremely canny, he made his way into the inner circle of Henry VIII’s court and was then helped along by an extraordinary piece of good luck when the king married his wife’s sister, Katherine Parr. This was the family’s good fortune sealed (apart from a worrying wobble when Katherine was later accused of being a traitor). William was knighted, becoming the first Earl of Pembroke, and, with the dissolution of the monasteries, was given Wilton, a hugely wealthy nunnery in Wiltshire.
It was the beginning of a brief but powerful dynasty that matched material and political ambition with noble and artistic pretensions. The family mixed and married with the great and the good and there are some intriguing associations. Was the mysterious ‘W.H.’ to whom Shakespeare’s Sonnets were dedicated a later William Herbert? Was James I influenced in his decision to grant mercy to Walter Raleigh by a performance of As You Like It commissioned by Henry Herbert’s wife, Mary Sidney, who had reputedly once been in love with Raleigh? Was the children’s nursery rhyme ‘Little Miss Muffet’ written at Wilton?
The rise and fall of the Earls of Pembroke echoes precisely first the soaring and then the temporary collapse of the English monarchy, from the first earl’s burgeoning during the reign of Henry VIII to the fourth earl’s death a broken man in health, wealth and reputation almost precisely a year after the execution of Charles I. It also tracks the enormous political and social changes that occurred during that period, which Nicolson discusses and conveys in fine and fascinating detail.
I could write a book about this book, I thoroughly enjoyed it and learned so much from it. I really cannot recommend it highly enough.
Suzy Ceulan Hughes
It is possible to use this review for promotional purposes, but the following acknowledgment should be included: A review from www.gwales.com, with the permission of the Welsh Books Council.
Gellir defnyddio'r adolygiad hwn at bwrpas hybu, ond gofynnir i chi gynnwys y gydnabyddiaeth ganlynol: Adolygiad oddi ar www.gwales.com, trwy ganiatâd Cyngor Llyfrau Cymru.