Historian Derek Wilson’s new book, ‘The Queen and the Heretic’, is a lively account of political intrigue, determination, faith and the flouting of social expectations. It focuses on two remarkable women – Catherine Parr and Anne Askew. Derek is here today talking about our fascination with the Tudors.
What is it about these Tudors? by Derek Wilson
Writing about the brief English (or Welsh!) royal dynasty established by Henry VII is such a thriving cottage industry that it needs explaining (and defending?). What is it about our sixteenth-century rulers and their era that makes them so endlessly fascinating? Do they really merit such overexposure? Are we in danger of letting Tudormania get out of control, thus failing in our duty as historians to record the past objectively and accurately for the benefit of the present? It seems to me that our literary approaches to the sixteenth century (both novelistic and non-fictional) can be divided into two broad categories, the superficial and the significant. Anyway, that’s the analytical pitch I’m going to adopt in this exercise.
Starting with the superficial treatment of the Tudor age I suppose takes us back to our schooldays. History lessons in the early years tended to focus on events and personalities declared by the syllabus-setters to be ‘memorable’, to use the term wickedly parodied by Sellers and Yeatman (and the same humorous treatment has more recently been employed in the Horrible Histories series). Focussing young minds on the more dramatic or intriguing aspects of what must seem to children to be otherwise a long and tedious narrative is one way of equipping them with an essential chronological ground plan. But, as with all other subjects, education needs to move from the basics to the profounder issues of providing our girls and boys with life skills. If they abandon History before they have moved on from the fundamental stage, as many of them do, they will fail to grasp the importance of the subject in forming those intellectual skills and value judgements that will help them to understand the modern world. As Robert Crowley recently remarked (History Today, September 2018), ‘The past is not a foolproof guide to the present or future – it is simply the only guide we have.’
Now, savvy writers seeking to make an honest buck from historical material, by producing fictional or non-fictional books and TV programmes, have grasped the truth that many people like to be told about what they think they already know about. That means that there’s plenty of room on such bandwagons as ‘Richard III’, ‘Anne Boleyn’, ‘Elizabeth’s sea-dogs’, and the like. In other words, there remains a lively market for historical ‘romance’, in the widest sense of that word. It matters not that there really isn’t much that hasn’t already been said about the Princes in the Tower, or Elizabeth and Dudley or the King’s Great Matter. There are enough fans out there to snap up the latest offerings. If we use the word romance in its more restricted sense, the same truth also holds good. Novels purportedly giving readers the keys to Tudor bedchambers will always enjoy a good fan base.
Does it matter when history is treated as a lucky dip of memorable personalities and events from which writers can pluck items for our entertainment? Is it important that our potential punters are not being told any more than they already knew in Year 7? Should we be concerned that demand for celebs and scandals is being met by writers in search of easy pickings from sensational stories based on little or no serious original research? Can we defend making observations about our ancestors that would involve us in libel litigation if we dared to write the same things about our own contemporaries? Do all historical writers have a responsibility to bring to life, as accurately as we can, that ‘foreign country’ to which L.P. Hartley referred? The answers to those questions will depend on what we consider to be ‘significant’ about Tudor life and times. To that I’ll return momentarily.
First of all we must acknowledge our debt to the visual arts because it was the painters and sculptors of the sixteenth century that held up for us a magnifying class enabling us to ‘see’ for the first time since second and third century Rome some of the key players of the age. When Pietro Torrigiano arrived from Florence, c.1510, to make the superb figures for Henry VII’s tomb and, particularly, when Hans Holbein the Younger began work for his patron, Thomas More, in 1526, they brought Renaissance realism to England. The iconographic style of portraiture was out. Courtiers who queued to have their portraits made by the man who went on to become the king’s painter were amazed at the likenesses achieved by the man hailed as the ‘Appeles of our time’, so named after the famous artist of fourth century B.C. Greece. And the images have, of course, survived (or most of them). We do not need the aid of imagination to people Henry VIII and his court. Where the great Swiss painter led, others followed as English lords, ladies and merchants hastened to buy into the new fashions. The Flemish female portraitist, Levina Teerlinck, took over as Henry’s court painter and, by the middle of the century London had become a northern centre of the arts where an English school of portrait painting developed (Hilliard, Oliver, Gheeraerts, etc.). Does this matter? Manifestly, yes. It is not altogether clear why this should be so but the fact that we recognize the major players in the drama who would, otherwise, be just names gives us the impression that we know these people. They draw us closer to the events they were involved in. And it matters not that this impression is, to some extent, illusory. By the time we reach Nicholas Hilliard and the great miniaturists we confront, not just facial likenesses but statements – emotional, poetic, philosophical, political. Tokens of status and moral probity, expressed by flowers, gems, and a host of other accoutrements, abound; all of them symbols packed with meaning.
And this leads us, seamlessly, to the issue of significance. One reason why artists turned from religious painting (originally their biggest source of income) to portraiture and other genres was the Reformation. It was not only that churches were stripped of ‘idolatrous’ images by a new breed of churchmen whose theology was expressed more in words than pictures; anti-papal convictions were expressed in satirical and polemical propaganda images emanating from printshops and designed for a mass audience. Word and image went together in shaping public opinion. When William Tyndale’s New Testament began selling in 1526 it was an event far more important than Henry VIII’s contemporary decision to reject Catherine of Aragon. Tyndale’s ambition was that every ploughboy should learn to read the word of God. That, in turn, implied universal education and could only mean that ordinary men and women received licence to think about issues that, hitherto, even most clergy had lacked the intellectual skill to grapple with. All this underscored a new individualism. Of course, the Reformation did not invent individualism but it gave it a considerable boost. The majority of Elizabeth’s subjects were still content to leave religious thinking to their priests but, by the end of the reign, divisions into rival Protestant groupings were well underway that would ultimately consign to the dustbin the idea of the state church.
Many other significant events occurred during the reigns of the five Tudor monarchs – significant, that is, in the long-term history of the island race: the extension of government by statute; the emergence of London as a major centre of international commerce (Gresham’s Royal Exchange, the Virginia Company); the disappearance of monasticism, leading directly to the emergence of a large ‘middle class’ of landed gentry commanding impressive estates. And peace. Apart from Henry VIII’s hankering after military adventure and the conflict with Spain which broke out in Elizabeth’s latter years England avoided the continental warfare in which the kingdom had been intermittently embroiled for more than four centuries.
But peace, like religion and trade and educational development and constitutional change, is not sexy. This is why the professional historian and the general reader tend to look for – and discover – different things in the Tudor century. That, I know, is an over-simplification but it is not wholly without merit, because it does take us some way towards answering the question with which we began. For, whatever we seek in our sixteenth-century history, we stand a good chance of finding it. The reader who turns to biography or fiction for escapist adventure in the company of larger-than-life men and women has an ever-growing library at his/her disposal. The historian who recognizes in this period many of the more important developments in the emergence of England as a nation with an international destiny does not lack for archival material to flesh out what we already know and to provoke new lines of enquiry.
I hope I may be forgiven for ending with a quote from my own book on the English Reformation.
The Reformation did not inaugurate an age of faith. What it did establish was a national Christianity that could define its own doctrines, invent its own liturgy and regulate its own public morality without dependence on a foreign spiritual superpower. Since church and state were inextricably entwined, this freedom found expression in the government’s internal and external relations. England assumed a leadership role in Protestant Europe. In the fullness of time, thanks to its commercial and colonial expansion, it would take its culture and its reformed heritage to the ends of the earth.
Many thanks, Derek. You’ve certainly intrigued my interest! Derek describes himself as a historian of fact, faith, fiction and fantasy. He has written many well-received fiction and non-fiction books.
Derek Wilson’s latest foray into the life of the Tudors is The Queen and the Heretic – How two women changed the religion of England, published by Lion Books. For further information visit his website – http://www.derekwilson.com. Derek has been on the blog before as D.K. Wilson writing about The Devil’s Chalice.
The Queen and the Heretic by Derek Wilson – The dual biography of two remarkable women – Catherine Parr and Anne Askew. One was the last queen of a powerful monarch, the second a countrywoman from Lincolnshire. But they were joined together in their love for the new learning – and their adherence to Protestantism threatened both their lives. Both women wrote about their faith, and their writings are still with us. Powerful men at court sought to bring Catherine down, and used Anne Askew’s notoriety as a weapon in that battle. Queen Catherine Parr survived, while Anne Askew, the only woman to be racked, was burned to death. This book explores their lives, and the way of life for women from various social strata in Tudor England.