Middlebrow Tudoriana

Tudor England is big business. The appetite of the reading (and viewing) public for the English 16th century is second only to their obsession with the Second World War (or perhaps these days the Edwardian country house). Tudor fiction tops the booksellers charts, from Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning Wolf Hall to Philippa Gregory’s fizzier confections, or C.J. Sansom’s sombre whodunnits (shortly to be dramatised on BBC radio). Tudor fictions or Tudor facts are all grist to the mill, so long as the principal characters are  suitably decked out in codpiece and ruff. Mass TV audiences sit in suitably awed rows for David Starkey’s headmasterly and meticulously researched historical lessons. The same audiences seem to have lapped up  three series of Michael Hirst’s preposterous bodice-ripping soap, The Tudors, which cast Jonathan Rhys Meyers, an ageless and gorgeously fey Irishman, as the gross and ghastly Henry VIII, and appeared to construct its scripts by taking some of the facts and all of the fallacies about the period, shaking them up in a box, and rearranging them into episode-length entertainments. 

Peter Ackroyd has now added his own offering to this growing mountain of Tudoriana. Foundation, the first instalment of his projected six-volume history of England,  raced his readers across 15,000 years, from the Neolithic to the death of Henry VII in 1509. In this second volume, the pace slows to a 350-page saunter devoted to the single century from the accession of Henry VIII to the death of Elizabeth I. Ackroyd has already written grippingly about Tudor England, in a fine biography of Thomas More. He has a matchless sense of place, and of the transformations of place across long stretches of time: he is also an inventive and playful English stylist. But, despite occasional stylistic quaintnesses, like the description of Sir Christopher Hatton as “primarily a courtier of handsome address” — an allusion to his physical charms rather than his postcode — neither Ackroyd’s prowess as a stylist nor his mastery of place, are much in evidence here. Though Ackroyd writes always with clarity and economy, Tudors is a conscientious and frankly sometimes pedestrian chronicle of the age of Reformation.   

The lack of literary energy is evident even in the contemporary dialogue Ackroyd inserts into his narrative, in which the salt and pith of Tudor speech can seem leached out in the retelling. So, the teenage prince Arthur’s louche brag on the morning after his wedding to the Spanish infanta Catherine of Aragon, “bring me a cup of ale, for I have been this night in the midst of Spain”,  becomes, in Ackroyd’s version, “Arthur had been heard to say that ‘I have been in Spain all night.'” There are vivid set-pieces, including a gripping account of the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. But incidents and episodes of major significance can be retailed with deadpan lack of emphasis, like the bare and unemphatic paragraph devoted to the decisive moment in Henry’s divorce proceedings, Queen Catherine’s stupendous coup de théâtre at the legatine divorce proceedings at Blackfriars. With a devastating mixture of candour and cunning, Catherine outmanoeuvred Henry, flinging herself at his feet in open court and appealing publicly to his honour to acknowledge that she had come to his bed a virgin. She then swept out of the court, appealing to the Pope over the heads of the presiding cardinal legates, whom Henry had hoped would rid him of his ageing wife. Henry’s public embarrassment delighted the gleeful London audience (Catherine was much loved in the city), and it spiked the king’s legal guns. By stalling any likelihood of a divorce under canon law, it probably also made Henry’s break with Rome inevitable. Ackroyd gives us the bare facts, and passes on. 

One of the most heartening developments in recent historical writing about early modern England has been an increased attention to developments in the regions and at the grassroots, history from below. Such more diffused developments can be a challenge when writing a narrative for the general reader, but the book’s focus on the royal court can at times seem claustrophobically old-fashioned. One might have expected Ackroyd to home in on such social transformations, at least in his beloved London, and to have something enlightening to say about the flowering of  English culture in the age of Shakespeare: Shakespeare, however, rates just three meagre mentions.

Sticklers for accuracy will find much to irritate. For example, the notorious remark of the fanatical Cardinal Caraffa, later Pope Paul IV, that if his own father was a heretic he would fetch the wood to burn him, is attributed instead to the genial and worldly Paul III. The Norfolk rebellion of 1549, whose leaders claimed to be good Protestants, is treated by Ackroyd as a traditionalist Catholic protest, like the Prayerbook rebellion in Devon and Cornwall that same year. 

The central drama of the Tudor age was of course the break with Rome and the transformation of England over three generations into a Protestant stronghold.  On this Ackroyd is refreshingly immune to some ingrained national myths. He has scant sympathy for the more destructive aspects of Reformation change, and a positive aversion to its royal promoters, especially Elizabeth, to whose indecisiveness, vanity and general bloody-mindedness he does full justice. Though he writes movingly about the sufferings of the Protestant martyrs under Queen Mary, he has absorbed recent revisionist accounts of Tudor religious change, and agrees that the Reformation made slow headway against popular reluctance. Somewhat inconsistently, however, he thinks that Queen Mary’s restoration of Catholicism was an attempt to return religion to the state in which her father left it. But Henry’s central achievement was his repudiation of the Pope and seizure of control of the Church through the doctrine of the Royal Supremacy. Mary formally abolished that supremacy, returned the country to papal jurisdiction (at considerable political risk), restored the clerical taxes Henry had appropriated to the Crown, and set about reviving monastic life, all pointed rejections of her father’s legacy. 

Nothing Peter Ackroyd writes is entirely without rewards for the reader, and anyone looking for an accessible one-volume survey of Tudor England could do worse. But this is just not the kind of book which allows him scope for his distinctive talents, and it’s not obvious that it adds much to the existing literature: his admirers may well not think it essential reading.

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