Sunday, 8 July 2018


For many British history lovers and not a few in America, the sixteenth century is a source of endless fascination, rivalled by no other era. Why should this be? Does the period 1485-1603 merit iconic status? Or do we simply project onto it our contemporary obsessions? Or do we romanticize it, seeking historical figures whom we can refashion into larger-than-life characters for our entertainment? It was in the hope of encouraging an intelligent debate on these and related questions that I invited people to tweet me with just one subject that they found exciting about the ‘Tudor century’. The response was both gratifying and daunting – gratifying because it resulted in a large volume of replies (which, if nothing else, justified my asking the question). Daunting because the wide variety of those replies makes any attempt at analysis subjective (and, perhaps, pointless). However, I have made my bed, so I must lie on it. In what follows I try to filter out some general principles, rather than attempt any kind of statistical analysis.

The great Geoffrey Elton, under whom I had the privilege of studying at Cambridge, described professional historians as ‘those who crawl along the frontiers of knowledge with a magnifying glass’. They study what is there, they sift the detritus left by our ancestors, to find those fragments which make the account more complete. While many fans continue to be fascinated by the monarchs, ministers of state and military leaders they first encountered at school, several respondents told me of their detailed studies of lesser known personalities and events. It was encouraging to note the number of respondents looking beyond the headline grabbers of the Tudor ‘society pages’; and exploring the lives of ‘minor celebs’ such as Margaret Beaufort, Charles Brandon (though, sadly, not his wife, the redoubtable Duchess of Suffolk), William Tyndale, Jane Grey, Philip Sydney. I particularly appreciated one tweeter’s confession to an admiration of the clowns of the Shakesperian stage. There are readers fascinated by particular topics. One reminded me of the important changes in the codification and application of criminal law. And another pointed out that this was a high-water mark of Gaelic culture. Others shared with me their passion for Tudor art, music, architecture and dress.

So much for enthusiasts who start from there and explore the past with all the objectivity they can muster. There are other students and fans who can never quite let go of here. Susan Brigden, in her fascinating interpretation of the age, New Worlds Lost Worlds, observes, ‘We cannot understand the past without imposing patterns.’ We all come to the ancient texts with our own convictions and passions. That’s why interpretations change from age to age. For example, J.A. Froude, writing in the heyday of Victorian industrial and imperial might, could laud Henry VIII as the founder of the English navy and, by extension, of the nation’s worldwide domination. Today our contemporary concerns and preoccupations still influence our preferences when it comes to our appetite for history. This seems to work on two levels.

First, I believe I detect readers who seek out stories that endorse, or can be thought to endorse, certain contemporary attitudes. The most obvious one that happens to be engaging several who responded to my tweet is women’s rights. Some tweeters take inspiration from talented, courageous, and influential ladies of whom there were many in the Tudor age (I’ve recently explored some of them in Mrs Luther and Her Sisters, and The Queen and the Heretic). Their stories are certainly worth the telling but only within the setting of 16th century beliefs and attitudes. Such women were not, could not be, feminist champions, because feminism is a daughter of democracy, and democracy did not exist in Tudor England. Not only was society hierarchic but its rigid structure was accepted by everyone as part of the divine ordering of things. Erasmus might urge that daughters should be educated alongside their brothers. Henry VIII might replace Holbein with Levina Teerlink as count painter. The Tudor dynasty might be kept going by Mary and Elizabeth when the male line petered out. But for anyone to have claimed equal rights for women and men would have been as absurd (and possibly as dangerous) as claiming that the poor ploughman had as great a stake in the ordering of society as the lord of the manor.

The second level of response to Tudor history which seems to start from here rather than there was highlighted by the intriguing response from someone who confessed to being turned on by the ‘romance’ of the period, while, at the same time, acknowledging that ‘it was by no means romantic’. I suppose this suggests escapism – using a certain kind of historical writing as a magic carpet to times and places peopled by heroes and heroines, saints and villains. This is, or should be, confined to the realm of historical fiction (though good novels, including, I hope, my own, are all the better for being grounded in well-researched fact). But books and, especially, films can be powerful persuaders. I confess to being worried about the impact of the big and small screen historical ‘soap operas in doublet and hose’, which aim for audience appeal by lavish use of sex, sinister intrigue, gratuitous violence and anything else that will keep viewers’ eyes rivetted to the screen. Of course, lechery, chicanery and bloody murder existed but they no more define the Tudor era than they do our own age, and they blur the complexities of 16th century life. When it comes to non-fiction treatments of the more ‘glamorous’ or ‘sensational’ episodes that, clearly, fascinate several people certain topics tend to be visited and revisited ad nauseam – the princes in the Tower, the king’s ‘great matter’, the fall of Anne Boleyn, the fate of the Spanish Armada, the exploits of the ‘sea dogs’. Well and good, as long as the writers are coming up with revelatory, new evidence and fresh insights, rather than regurgitating old theories because they are popular.

But this is concentrating on minutiae. What excites many Tudormaniacs, including me, is the big themes. ‘Change is the only constant.’ Heraclitus’s dictum, however, does not suggest that the pace of change is constant. Some eras vacillate more rapidly and more self-consciously – than others. It’s the headlong rush into novelty that enables us to apply the word ‘revolutionary’ to the Tudor age. This exciting reality was put into words by several respondents: ‘The Renaissance hustled Europe into the modern age’; ‘the destiny and psyche of England changed’; ‘there were large personalities playing for high stakes’; ‘the impact of religious change was immense’. I was particularly moved by the person who said that studying the Reformation brought about a change of her own religious allegiance.

If pressed to answer my own question and name the one thing that most intrigues me, I would have to say ‘the impact of the English Bible’. It stimulated education and liberated, for good or ill, an individualism that wrought not only religious change, but also sent reverberating through the nation seismic tremors that affected political and social relations at every level.

England in 1603 was a very different place from England in 1485. Geographically it had become part of a bigger and confusingly varied world. Topographically the nation had changed as monasteries tumbled to be replaced by stately mansions. Socially England faced the challenge of unemployment, vagrancy and population drift from village to town. Psychologically individuals had been obliged to embrace new modes of thought and belief – or risk the gallows, the block or the pyre. Perhaps all this was best summed up by the person who enthused, ‘The Tudor age has got everything.’


Sunday, 29 April 2018


          'Neither life, honour, riches, neither whatsoever I possess here, which 

          appertaineth unto mine own private commodity, be it never so dearly 
          beloved of me, but most willingly and gladly I would leave it, to win 
          any man to Christ'

     This is the sort of earnest declaration we might associate with the evangelical revival of the eighteenth century or with the high rhetoric of a modern American evangelistic preacher. In fact, these words appear in a remarkable little book published exactly five hundred years ago. It was entitled The Lamentation of a Sinner and it is remarkable for several reasons: 

1.  It was published by a woman under her own name - a thing unheard of before that time. English women simply did not write books. Such a thing would have been considered a rejection of the divine ordering of society. Certainly, there were some earlier significant contributions to religious literature by the likes of Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich but they existed only in manuscript until later ages made them available to a wide public.

2.  It was an intense personal testimony of the writer's journey from formal religion - what she called 'dead, human, historical faith' - to the assurance of 'knowing Christ for my Saviour and Redeemer'.

3.   It was written (though not yet published) at a time when justification by faith was regarded as Lutheran heresy, punishable by death.

4.    It was written by the Queen of England.

For these reasons alone The Lamentation of a Sinner deserves its place in the library of Christian classics and should be better known.

The popular image of the author, Catherine Parr, is probably confined to the fact that she was the last of Henry VIII's six wives - the one who 'survived'. She does not register prominently in over-romanticised annals of Tudor court intrigue as one of the queens who flirted with danger by getting involved in politics. The traditional portrait of her is that of the dutiful wife who meekly nursed her irascible, overweight, semi-invalid husband during the last few years of his life. The reality is very different. Catherine was a feisty, attractive woman who, in the terms of the religious history of the age, was the most committed Protestant of all Henry's wives and did her cautious best to steer Henry further along the path of reform.

According to the story recorded by John Foxe in his Book of Martyrs, this was almost her undoing. Henry did not take kindly to being lectured by his wife on matters of religion, and the reactionary members of his Council saw this as an opportunity to accuse her of heresy and urge the king to authorise a thorough investigation and a search of her apartments for banned books. Catherine managed to escape the noose dangling before her (the full story is included in the, just published, The Queen and the Heretic) but it was a close run thing and one that C. J. Sansom's excellent fictionalisation, Lamentation, may well not have too much exaggerated.  Had Catherine gone the way of two of her queenly predecessors the course of the English Reformation could have been very different. It's one of the intriguing 'what-ifs' of British history.

What there is no doubt about - no doubt whatever - is Catherine Parr's commitment to the evangelical cause and her desire to do all in her power to further it.

Monday, 12 March 2018


            We are sickeningly accustomed to seeing bestial images of Syrian civilians being indiscriminately burned, gassed and shattered by ‘brave warriors’ pouring obliteration into homes, schools and hospitals from the security of aeroplanes and artillery vehicles. We hear the partisan rhetoric used to defend such acts by men who have no right to call themselves human. But, hideous though such long-range obscenities are, they come nowhere near the hand-to-hand vicious slaughter that raged throughout Central Europe during the conflict which began exactly four hundred years ago. The Thirty Years War was, without a shadow of doubt, the worst conflict in European history. Worse than the Second World War? Yes. Worse than the First World War? Yes. Worse than the Revolutionary and Napoleonic War? Yes. Just look at the stats. Between 1939 and 1945, sixty million people perished. Between 1618 and 1648 a mere seven and a half million died. But the fatalities of World War II represented 3.5% of the population of the nations involved. The combatant states of the Thirty Years War lost 35% of their populations, and in the German lands most affected the proportion was higher.
            But let’s leave the cold balance sheet of death from military action, disease and famine and talk about actual events such as the siege of Magdeburg. At dawn on 17 May, 1631, that fine city held some 30,000 inhabitants. By noon on the 20th that number had been reduced to 5,000, most of them women and children. The downfall of Magdeburg was the end result of strategic miscalculation and rivalries between commanders supposedly on the same side. The siege, by Catholic forces fighting for the Holy Roman Emperor, began on 20 March. The city held out doggedly. The imperial commander, Johann Count Tilly, called for reinforcements from his ‘colleague’, Albrecht von Wallenstein. But Wallenstein was fighting a personal war and was happy to see his rival getting into difficulties. The citizens, too, were looking for a saviour in the form of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, leader of the Protestant forces. But he was also baulked by German princes who should have been his allies but who dallied over their response and prevented him coming to Magdeburg’s relief. The result was strategic stalemate, one of the worst things that could happen in seventeenth-century warfare. Idle armies rapidly became demoralised. More than that, they became resentful. And hungry. The majority of soldiers were conscripts, men plucked from the plough or prison or the ranks of unemployed vagabonds. The age of conscription was lowered as their conflict dragged on. Those African child soldiers drafted into modern wars had their counterparts in Europe 400 years ago. Tilly’s rag-tag army had little concern for ‘rules of engagement’. Their first and most desperate need was to survive. And that need became more urgent as the siege dragged on.
            When a false rumour that Gustavus Adolphus was advancing rapidly reached the besiegers, it panicked them into redoubling their efforts. They knew they had to take the city and commandeer all the food they could lay their hands on as soon as possible if they were to be in any shape to face the advancing Swedes. They had become little more than crazed animals who would do whatever was necessary to ensure their survival. On 17 May Tilly’s men began a fierce artillery bombardment. It went on, unsuccessfully, for more than two days. It was dawn on the 20th before a breach was, at last, made large enough for the desperate invaders to pour through.
            What followed was an orgy of killing, brutality, plunder and destruction on a scale that shocked the whole of Europe. Tilly’s troops swept through the city, completely out of control, mindlessly punishing a defenceless civilian population for their own sufferings. They broke into wine cellars and rapidly got drunk. Now they were not only savage beasts; they were insensible savage beasts, slaughtering every cowering man, woman or child they came across.
            Then came the fire. At the beginning of the onslaught, the imperialists had set fire to one of the city gates to stop it being closed again. Sparks were carried to the thatched roofs and timber-framed houses of the crammed streets. Within hours beautiful Magdeburg was in flames from one end to the other. The pile of smouldering ash took days to cool down and, when it did, the gaunt, blackened walls of the cathedral and a handful of other churches and public buildings stood like tombstones in a bleak, grey landscape. The city had to be rebuild almost from scratch. And the citizens? Their bodies lay piled in the streets. Survivors huddled together in groups for shelter, unwittingly spreading disease. There was no question of burying the dead. Eventually Tilly ordered all the remaining corpses to be thrown into the Elbe. For months afterwards the river was choked with putrid bodies.
            The siege of Magdeburg was one battle among many in this devastating war in which the Swedish army alone destroyed 1,500 German towns, 18,000 villages and 2,000 castles.
            2018 marks another anniversary. It is 80 years since one of the great historians of the twentieth century published the definitive and immensely readable history of the Thirty Years War. Dame Veronica Wedgewood’s verdict was unequivocal:
Morally subversive, economically destructive, socially degrading, confused in its causes, devious in its course, futile in its results, it is the outstanding example in European history of meaningless conflict.
            Only months after that was written, German troops marched into Poland. As we watch from the comfort of our armchairs the hideous events in Syria, we can comfort ourselves with the thought that we civilised Europeans would never do that sort of thing, can’t we?