The Lion House: The Coming of a King by Christopher de Bellaigue

Did you ever wonder, as you gave yourself over to Hilary Mantel’s narcotic Thomas Cromwell trilogy, what was happening elsewhere during the early 16th century? Beyond even the Low Countries where the future chancellor served or the Italy where he fought, as far away as the land of the Great Turk where ruled, in that time, Suleyman the Magnificent? Me neither. I never thought about it.

But those lucky readers who come to Christopher de Bellaigue’s book in proximity to reading Mantel can suddenly have a new panel thrown open to them like an unfolding altarpiece. Over here was Cromwell’s green, rainy England with Henry and his wives and his courtiers, and at the same time over here — in almost blinding color — were Venice, Vienna, Tunis and Istanbul with theirs.

The Lion House shares a theme as well as a period with Mantel’s trilogy, its cover describing the contents as “a tale of the timeless pull of power, dangerous to live with, deadly to live without” (although that should be vice versa, as we will see). Although the subtitle suggests that the central character will be Suleyman I, the Magnificent, who ruled from 1520 to 1566, this book is far more about two of his leading courtiers — Ibrahim of Parga and Alvise Gritti of Venice, neither Turkish-born, who rose to positions of extraordinary wealth and power working for the sultan and eventually, like Thomas Cromwell, met violent deaths while their master lived on.

De Bellaigue’s book also — unusually for a history — shares a tense with Mantel’s novels. It is all written in the present tense. This creates the obvious sense of liveliness and urgency as well as dissipating a little the slightly dead feeling the reader can experience with historical narratives, that you already know the end before you begin and there is nothing to play for. That urgency can come at a cost to your trust in the historicity of the writing and would be tricky to sustain, but shorn of index and notes, The Lion House is less than 250 pages long and de Bellaigue, whose previous books include The Islamic Enlightenment, sets about the task with such confidence and skill that it works.

Christopher De Bellaigue’s book—unusually for a history—shares a tense with Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy. It is all written in the present tense.

In this Mediterranean and Black Sea world traders risk their capital on risky voyages to exotic ports and pirate fleets still plunder towns on the coasts, carrying off goods and people to be sold in the slave markets. Craftsmen fashion beautiful and fabulously expensive items for noble and royal families for whom ostentation is a necessity. And the ordinary people fish, farm, fornicate and fight as ordered.

For the most part the young Suleyman is to be found in Istanbul where, de Bellaigue writes, “the private apartments of the New Palace shine and scintillate with an abundance of silver, precious stones and marble. In the middle of the sultan’s porticoed balcony is a beautiful basin worked in marble with colonettes of porphyry and serpentine and this basin accommodates fish whose darting movements he enjoys watching.”

His great Christian counterweight, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, the Habsburg Charles V, is a distant figure, although his younger brother, the warlike Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, based in central Europe, is a closer one. Yet between these poles, navigating whatever water is left to them, are the smaller states and cities of Europe and North Africa. “The sultan’s possessions,” de Bellaigue summarizes, “run in an arc from the Crimea to the Nile; the emperor’s, in an arc of comparable length and declivity, from the Baltic to the Atlantic. Algiers and Rhodes, Vienna and the Morea, are potential points of conflict. Sardinia and the Dardanelles. Almost anywhere along the arcs.”

The book opens with a wonderful mise-en-scène taking in an important meeting in one of these independent states, the Most Serene Republic of Venice. The sultan could swat trade-dependent Venice, past the zenith of its power, at any time. And the emperor could do the same. Venice is on the verge of electing — by a process so bizarre and lengthy you’ll have to read the book to understand it — a new doge from one of the leading families.

Eventually they settle on the controversial Andrea Gritti, who is subject to one of the author’s many rather wonderful character summaries. “Even the public’s recognition of his patriotism and acumen,” he writes of the new doge, “is tinged with distrust for his arrogant manner, his long stare, his Francophilia, his habit of impregnating nuns.” (This is only bettered, I think, by de Bellaigue’s description of a passing Queen of Hungary that she “veers between binge-eating, insomnia and equestrianism”.)

Nun-bedding laid aside, the doge contemplates the problem of the Venetian Republic in a storm-tossed world. And carries on with the policy of playing both ends against the middle. He butters up the Turks and is careful not to alienate the emperor. And he is helped in this by an illegitimate son of his, the dynamic and clever Alvise Gritti, who, acting as a spy/representative/trader in Istanbul, catches the eye of the sultan and begins to render service to the Sublime Porte in Istanbul.

Although the subtitle suggests that the central character will be Suleyman I, the Magnificent, this book is far more about two of his leading courtiers—Ibrahim of Parga and Alvise Gritti of Venice.

The other half of Suleyman’s Thomas Cromwell is Christian-born in a town on the Dalmatian coast, taken in slavery and risen to high office. Ibrahim is a Muslim convert, but is nevertheless nicknamed “the Frank” and rises to become grand vizier. Everything must go through him before it gets to the sultan — everything except Suleyman’s favorite concubine and (breaking a one-heir-per-woman protocol) mother to several of his children, Hurrem.

The system for producing new sultans is wasteful: they are fathered on various concubines in the knowledge that only one can succeed and the others are likely to be strangled. And because, in de Bellaigue’s words, “in an absolute monarchy the natural unit is the faction”, this sets the scene for the most murderous infighting. Infighting in which Hurrem has the edge because for Suleyman on campaign, “a letter from her brings the wellbeing of opium, the hilarity of wine, the warmth of a brazier on a cold day”.

Under Suleyman or his lieutenants the “golden apple” of territorial expansion is sought in the west toward Italy, in the northwest into Hungary and to the east into the lands of the heretical Shah. It is quite an undertaking. Castles and cities are besieged. Sometimes they fall, sometimes (quite surprisingly) they don’t. A summer campaign is often followed by an autumn retreat.

However, Suleyman gets richer and more powerful. “He has,” de Bellaigue writes, “a strong arm and can fire an arrow farther than anyone else at court. Either that or no one at court sees much advantage in firing an arrow farther than him.” And with wealth and conquest come imaginative feasting and killing. One Istanbul royal celebration has “pyramids of whole cooked oxen … and when the people approach them all manner of live birds and animals spring from their flanks, crows, magpies, jackals, foxes, cats, hares, curs and wolves”. This reviewer certainly wouldn’t eat a cut of meat that a jackal had squatted in, but tastes change.

As for killing, the disastrously unfavored are put in sacks and thrown into the Danube; they are cut in half; they are strangled with silken cords, pulled behind horses till their skin is flayed; their noses are cut off, their eyes “shucked from their sockets”, but if time is short they are just hanged or decapitated. Burning alive, however, appears to be a Christian thing.

What about the eponymous Lion House? It is the old pre-Ottoman church where the sultan keeps his lions and tame elephants — where his beasts are allowed to live, a metaphor for his potentially too-haughty counselors.

It’s an apt title for a dazzling and dark work. Witty and often wise, it speaks to the frailties and the precarity of power. It offers advice that is timelessly appropriate, such as that (reported by de Bellaigue) given by the king of Tabaristan to his son that “before embarking on any course of action, think of the after-effects of that action, and without seeing to the end do not look to the beginning”.

As I write this Putin’s missiles are landing in Ukraine. His advisers, if they have time to read, may reflect that with despots the wages of loyal service are the same as those of sin: you get murdered. Gritti is beheaded and the Frank is strangled. At least in Venice, even if your republic is slowly decaying, you stand a good chance of dying in your bed.

David Aaronovitch is a columnist for The Times of London and the author of several books, including, most recently, Party Animals