Something Old, Something New, Something Asolutely Fascinating

When I was a child (circa 1970) my entire family spent weeks watching the BBC series The Six Wives of Henry the Eighth. That marked the beginning of my interest in Tudor history.

When a new popular book on one of the Tudor monarchs comes out, I’m always eager to read it, to see how it confirms or challenges the understanding I have of Tudor history based on my previous reading. So, I was delighted to be offered an electronic review copy of Leandra De Lisle’s Tudor: The Family Story, just published earlier this month. This is the first book I’ve read that focuses on the entire family, instead of just one or a few individuals, and it’s added a great deal to my understanding of the era.

De Lisle is a historian who’s a relatively new arrival on the scene (her first full-length work was published in 2005)—and a prolific one, given that Tudor is her third title in the seven years since then. The 2005 volume was a study of the transition from Elizabeth I to James I and VI. The 2008 volume looked at the Grey sisters, the eldest of whom had a brief reign as Queen Jane during the interval between the death of Edward VI and Mary Tudor’s rise to power. In other words, she’s focused on some very interesting transitional moments in addition to the lives of the monarchs themselves.

Given this focus on transitions of power, Tudor is an engaging read, whether you’ve been reading Tudor history for years or are looking for a first book on the subject. De Lisle’s prose is crisp; she piles up detail without ever becoming tedious. I particularly appreciate the clarity with which she treats her sources—she takes time to explain her interpretation of key documents, and she’s also done some digging to locate documents not used in previous biographies of members of this family.

Tudor offers a blend of continuity and revelation. The continuity helps readers see the period as a series of related historical events, rather than as individual reigns in isolation from one another. The revelations are many (at least if I didn’t forget a great deal of my Tudor history just prior to reading this book) and well-explained.

One example of these revelations is her discussion of the deaths of the two princes in the tower that preceded the rise of Richard III. She asks, as many have, why Richard didn’t firmly acknowledge the prince’s deaths, putting to an end the possibility of uprisings led by pretenders. She also asks (a question that to the best of my knowledge is a fresher one) why Henry VII didn’t search for the prince’s bodies after his ascension. After all, proving Richard a regicide would seen an appropriate move to strengthen Henry’s claim that he served by moral, as well as military, authority. De Lisle’s answer to both these questions draws on the instability of these two reigns and the popularity of pilgrimage in still-Catholic England. Both Richard III and Henry VII were threatened by the growing cult of and movement to canonize Henry VI: the last thing they needed was a new, more-threatening religious movement viewing the princes as innocent martyrs whose deaths could unite citizens in opposition to either regime. She reminds us of the gathered throngs after Princess Diana’s death, suggesting a similar response were the prince’s deaths to be publicized. That’s the sort of new, interesting thinking this book is full of.

I also appreciated de Lisle’s commentary at the end of the book, offering analogies like the above one between events in the Tudor period and our own. She compares the political villification of Catholicism in Protestant England with the west’s current villification of Islam. She reminds us of the biases created by our own popular culture: Elizabeth is played by Cate Blanchett, Mary Tudor by Kathy Bates.

If you want an interesting historical read that does more than rehash earlier work and that surprises with its reflections on the past and out own time, I absolutely recommend de Lisle’s Tudors.

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