Posted by: nedlnthred | September 6, 2014

The New Tudor Obsession: what gives here, people?

Maybe popular television is to blame, but in the last five years there has suddenly been an explosion of interest in the people ruling England in the sixteenth century.  You don’t have to sell me on this one, of course.  I’ve been obsessed for years.  But I find myself fascinated by other people’s fascinations with these people.  I mean, they died 500 years ago.  Why do we care?  Which is a fair question to ask any historian, frankly.  And I am one.

7.Hampton Court Palace

Hampton Court Palace, which Cardinal Wolsey built for himself in the 1520s, but was then shamed into giving to his king in 1527. Nice, right?

I insert a pic here because blocks of text should all have great images, especially when they help tell the story.  And one of the reasons I’m obsessed with the sixteenth century is that it was such a sumptuous era.  At least for the rich, which is who we’re really talking about here, anyway.  Cloth-of-gold, gilt and painted ceilings, tapestries woven with silk and gold, books and treaties painted with portrait miniatures and gilt, it just all seems so rich.  In a way that 20th-century splendor (think the Winter Garden down at the Amex complex off where World Trade 1 used to be or Trump Tower) just isn’t.  So maybe that’s not really a reason for one to base one’s first big research piece upon an era, but that’s really what it boils down to for me.  I’ve been obsessed, fascinated, intrigued by these gowns, the portraits, and, finally, the women in them, since I was eight.  Weird, huh?

But why is everyone else so fascinated?  Is this really all just because of a ShowTime series that teetered between brilliance and heresy?  One of the most-oversexed, badly-costumed, history-doctoring, sensationalist dramas ever put together by Hollywood?  That explains some of the American obsessions, but not David Starkey’s sudden burst of publications, or David Loades, or Elizabeth Norton’s, or or or.  A quick search for “Henry Tudor” on reveals the following publications…

Penn, Thomas, “Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England”, 2013.  Ok, points for expanding the envelope a bit earlier, thank you.

Ackroyd, Peter, “Tudors: the History of England from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I”,  2013.  Ok, so maybe the people who are hooked on the HBO “Tudors” really do need a decent, if abridged, history of the period.

Weir, Alison, “Henry VIII: The King and His Court”, 2002.  This woman is everywhere.  And perpetuating old stereotypes and bad research.  Ugh.

Weir, Alison, “Elizabeth of York, a Queen and Her World”, 2013.  I am guessing this is Weir’s digestion of the recent scholarly biography by Arlene Naylor Okerlund from 2009.  And as usual, I’m apprehensive about the contents.

Leanda de Lisle, “Tudor.  Passion.  Manipulation.  Murder: the Story of England’s Most Notorious Royal Family”, 2013.  Title says it all, really.

Foulkes, Deborah, “The Boleyn Effect”, 2014. <eyeroll>  Huh.  Fictionalized, clearly.  This actually could be interesting.  It’s a retelling of Anne Boleyn’s story set in modern day, with the people renamed.  It could be intriguing in terms of getting new perspectives on the characters involved in the original tragedy.  Except that many of the pressures on the characters were uniquely sixteenth-century pressures.  Maybe beach reading?

Rogers, Henry Hamilton, “The Strife of the Roses and the Days of the Tudors in the West”, 2011.  ??  This bears investigation, just to figure out what it is.  It’s certainly phrased as though it were an historical document, so maybe it has actual research in it?

Weir, Alison, “The Six Wives of Henry VIII”, 1991.  Garrr.  See above.  She’s the British precursor to reality TV, I swear.

Meyer, G. J., “The Tudors: the Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty”, 2011.  Another one?  Companion volumes for the Showtime fiasco?  The florid title implies this is not the most balanced take on these folks.

Evans, Victoria Sylvia, “Ladies-in-Waiting: Women Who Served at the Tudor Court”, 2014.  I am currently reading this, and it’s actually pretty good.  It reads very much like someone’s dissertation, but I haven’t been able to find any other information about the author.

Gregory, Phillippa, “The King’s Curse (Cousins’ War)”, 2014.  Phillippa Gregory gets to the Wars of the Roses, it seems.

It doesn’t take many titles before the Tudors are reduced to voyeuristic sensationalism, does it.  “Most Notorious” is a lot more glamourous than Anne Boleyn’s “Most Happy”.  Sells a lot more paperbacks, too.

When I gave a talk on “Henry VIII, Unlikely Valentine” to grad students at the University of Manchester, they were thrilled by it.  They were fascinated by the number of images I was able to find of these women, and each person had his or her own interpretation of the personality of the players.  It was almost as if it were still current news for them.  Whereas, for Americans, it seems much further away than our current lurid politics.  I suppose this makes sense for a people who can be planting dahlias and dig up renaissance coins.

My point being here that there appears to be a steady and possibly even growing market for distillations of the drama of Henry VIII and his many ladies.  I guess this is a place where David Starkey is right, that the story of Henry IS one that combines passion, murder, love, hate, intrigue, religion, and world politics in a way that not many biographies of real people can.

six wives statues

I have decided that it’s time for me to review all these queenly biographies from a scholarly perspective, since so many of the reviews out there seem to be written from a popular point of view.  And seriously, folks, Alison Weir isn’t doing us any favors by rehashing every old rumor ever written.  Anyway, that’s it for today.







  1. Huh. At least I’m not alone in noticing:

  2. I love hampton crt one of my Fave placeS to go and richmond park.

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