CLIO READS THE TUDORS: In Fact and Fiction
THE TUDORS: In Fact and Fiction
Not surprisingly, the
Tudors have generated not only a surprising amount of interest from film makers,
but also, long before Thomas Edison ever conceived of “moving pictures,”
the attention of historians. Chroniclers, playwrights and novelists have mined
the rich fields of sixteenth century England. As a result, thousands of books
on the Tudors are available; a large number are of outstanding quality, written
by genuinely distinguished, even magnificent scholars. Indeed, some of the pioneering
research done in the nineteenth century remains even today the standard work
on various aspects of the Tudor world. In addition, novelists in the past two
centuries, with the expansion of literacy and the spread of cheaper printing
techniques, have popularized historical figures of the era just as modern celebrities
are often created by modern media. Since Clio is designed for a popular, as
well as an academic historical audience, the following recommendations include
history and fiction; they are sorely limited by time, space, popularity and
appeal to a broad populace.
HENRY VII (1485-1603)
History: Roger Lockyer, Henry VII, published in 1968 before a small plethora of recent biographies appeared, is a spare but elegantly dry, lucid and scholarly summary of the first Tudor king. Novel: Josephine Tey, Daughter of Time, a modern detective story (1951 style) pivots around the tantalizing disappearance of Edward IV’s young sons in the Tower of London and the characters of Richard III and Henry VII. Who “murdered” the young princes has remained a popular history game ever since 1483. Anya Seton, Catherine, presents a romantic, somewhat panoramic novel on Catherine Swynford’s long love affair with John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster which produced ultimately Henry VII’s notorious ancestors, the Beaufort Bastards. The marriage of Catherine’s sister to Geoffrey Chaucer adds a nice twist.
HENRY VIII (1509-1547)
History: Lacey Baldwin Smith, Henry VIII: The Mask of Royalty is a great read that brings the man and the monarch into solid and colorful view. Even among some great histories and biographies, this stands out. Among a large number of choices about his wives and mistresses, the David Starkey study on The Six Wives of Henry VIII is a good, popular, one-volume option while Alison Weir’s, Henry VIII: The King and His Court contains some social and cultural facts and interpretations that are interesting and amusing; they also are sometimes sparse on depth. The work, however, its not meant to be a biography, but rather an overview of the court and some of the lesser lights who circle the great personalities just as pilot fish circle a shark. Novel: Margaret George, The Autobiography of Henry VIII, ostensibly recounted by the King’s fool, is an early George novel before she took all history as her domain for an excessively long story telling. It is entertaining and colorful.
EDWARD VI (1547-1553)
History: Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Boy King: Edward VI and the Protestant Reformation quite correctly puts the focus upon the intense political quarrels and the religious changes that prepare the English nation for a Protestant future rather than on the personal evolution of the king; the nine year boy, Edward, who was appealingly intelligent, but often pompously prim and stubborn, died at fifteen. For more background on the religious struggle of the era by a provocative writer and scholar, find almost any work on the subject by G. R. Elton, excellent companion on the subject of the English Reformation. Novel: Stick with Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. Twain is always worth rereading and, better yet, read it aloud to the family!
LADY JANE GREY: The Nine Day Queen
History: Paul F. M. Zahl, Five Women of the English Reformation reminds readers that much remains to be studied in the lives of even prominent and influential women of the Tudor era. His examination of Lady Jane Grey, Anne Boleyn, Catherine Parr, Anne Askew and Catherine Willoughby as religious pioneers reminds readers again, how often the politically masculine Tudor world revolved in many areas around women. The work is well done and well written for serious readers of the period. Novel: Alison Weir, Innocent Traitor: A Novel of Lady Jane Grey is straightforward fiction, generally well grounded in fact, but not drowning in overwrought rhetoric.
History: H.F.M. Prescott, Mary Tudor. Over a half century after its publication, this remains a elegantly balanced, solidly readable, and sturdy scholarly account of the “Spanish” Tudor or , “Bloody Mary,” an infamous characterization in comparison to her father’s use of judicial murder or husband’s execution of three thousand protestants in the low countries! It is particularly useful in its presentation of the first half of Mary’s life and how it shaped her reign. Judith M. Richard’s more recent Mary Tudor is a well balanced, readable and thoughtful choice. It places Mary clearly in the context of her family, her education and her era; it also dispels many of the inaccurate stereotypes about the queen: Most interestingly, perhaps, it forces the reader to examine how often accuracy and real events and real characters in history differ sometimes from popular perceptions, leading even astute historians astray. Novel: H.F.M. Prescott, The Man on the Donkey again shows how well a terrific historian can enlighten a serious work of fiction. Its depiction of the dissolution of a small nunnery and its social, religious influence on the women and the surrounding area is exceptional. It is not for everyone, but well worth the price of admission for those readers patient in the pursuit of quality.
MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS
History: Antonia Fraser, Queen of Scots. Certainly, the most popular biography, this is also still the most readable and enjoyable study on the Scottish Queen, Thoroughly researched, with beautiful in depth writing, openly partisan, it continues to be a favorite, but again it is for the serious and knowledgeable reader; it is not pabulum. Novel: Margaret Irwin, The Gay Galliard, is a massive novel on Mary; it centers on her growing relationship with Lord Bothwell which would lead to murder, conspiracy, civil war, insanity for him and nineteen years of captivity in England for her. It is not a novel for the faint hearted or for those who see twittering as a step forward for civilization. Irwin, however, as both an historian and a novelist, is rich in detail, intricate plotting and language. Her novels on Scotland tend to be stronger than those on Elizabethan England. Nevertheless, her biography, That Great Lucifer: A Portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh, is still splendid reading.
ELIZABETH I (1558-1603)
History: Nicole Watson, Michael Dobson, England’s Elizabeth: An Afterlife in Fame and Fantasy, is, even amidst a baker’s dozen of great studies and a welter of excellent histories on almost every topic in the Queen’s life, unique and one of the most delightful books in recent years. As a social and cultural history, it is witty and charming and thought provoking. Novel: Patricia Finney’s trilogy: The Firedrake’s Eye, Unicorn’s Blood and Gloriana’s Touch. Absolutely wonderful and absorbing adventures of David Beckett and Simon Ames, in the splendor of Elizabeth’s court, the squalor of London’s tumultuous citizenry, the horror of the inquisition in Spain. The language and action are outstanding. Many of the minor characters, (the Queen’s physician, the small Jewish community members torn between fear and loyalty, the elderly nun reduced to prostitution, thievery, and insanity), all linger long in memory. Sometimes overly complicated in plot, often too dependent on fate or coincidence, it doe not matter. It is simply terrific reading – and a great movie or series waiting to happen.
Just as film has opened an imaginative window in to the past, recording technology has presented to the world a universe of music and artistic talent. In addition, it has preserved and archived the past for historians in a unique way. No ruler in history as been more devoted to music as an expression of experience and life than Henry VIII, a love shared by his entire family and his nation. Clio has chosen a small group of recommendations from a treasure trove of not just excellent performances, but in large measure, superb ones.
“Great Music from the Court of Henry VIII,” featuring the Hilliard Ensemble is at one and the same time, an exciting and soothing choral presentation that unobtrusively reminds the listener that the voice is indeed a musical instrument in and of itself. Much of the music used was composed by Henry himself and the use of harp music by the king is a delight. Music manuscripts presented as gifts to Henry from the French and other ambassadors reflect the joy that all Europe took in the explosion of renaissance arts.
“Henry VIII and His Six Wives: Testament,” draws on some famous composers of the era (Anthony Holborne, John Dowland, etc), but also uses popular street music to brilliant advantage; the lively performances linger in the mind.
“English Music from Henry VIII to Charles II,” again uses much popular anonymous music of the period. It is sprightly and joyously presented; a “time portal;” as one listener termed it.
“Royal Lewters: Music of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.” celebrates the art of the era and of artist Paul O’Dette. The choices and the range are sensitive as well as lovely and they remind a modern audience of why the lute was such a popular instrument throughout Europe.
“Venetian Music of the Sixteenth Century,” broadens the stage to include the rich musical trove of northern Italy which passed into England through the active diplomacy and archives of the ambassadors to London from the Venetian Republic. It’s comforting to remember that Ambassadors once represented not only their governments and policies, but also, rich, colorful, cultural and social influences.
These and numerous other incredible musical performances preserve a rich past but tie it to modern technology. Many vendors, (not least but noticeably, those such as Amazon.com), reflect the universal and civilizing popularity of historical early music, but often stimulate an expanding populace with the opportunity of listening before purchasing. That alone is a wonderful advance for modern audiences. -Elizabeth Deanne Malpass