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.’


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