Tudors, Volume II in Peter Ackroyd’s planned six-part history of England, has a different tone from that of Volume I, Foundation. In both volumes Ackroyd is keen to find sources of English identity; however, Volume I had a much wider canvas, ranging as it did from a recently discovered scattering of 900,000-year-old flints found in Norfolk to the death of Henry VII. In Volume I, Ackroyd dealt with the main dynastic developments – all the Henrys, Williams, Richards, Edwards – as well as the slow growth of the power of the Commons and Parliament. He leavened the stories with well-researched nuggets concerning domestic life and the general rough lawlessness and cruelty which prevailed.
Tudors, equally well researched, is naturally much more focused, dealing as it does with the Tudor family, so small but so vivid. There are two main themes throughout: one deals with the lives of the rulers, and the second is concerned with the impact of those lives on the beliefs and identity of the English people.
We know almost too much about the Tudors, because of Henry VIII’s Bluebeard characteristics and Elizabeth’s cleverness, and the real importance of their place in history is in danger of being swamped by the notoriety of their lives. However, Ackroyd’s retelling of the well-known tales is at the service of showing how the lives of this small band of royals impacted on the immense changes in English life. Most, if not all, of Ackroyd’s books are a celebration of Englishness. One senses that he has an immense pride in the way aspects of modern life have evolved. As he says, ’There was no Inquisition in England.’ And, ’The English instinct has always been towards practice rather than theory.’
That said, he doesn’t spare us the brutal stories of the judicial murders of heretics, the callous repudiation of wives and friends and the gross greed of the destruction of the monasteries.
The Tudor family was important for well over 100 years and their fame has not diminished. Bookshop shelves are laden with history books about the Tudors. There are TV programs, films and plays. Hilary Mantel’s recent novels dealing with the life of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s main agent during the rise of Protestantism, ask us to look at the times in a fresh way. It could be said that the Tudors were the first celebrities in the way we understand the term today. Everything was there: sex, image, beauty, gossip, tragedy, self-seeking; even the media was available with the advent of printing, and of course, Shakespeare was a Tudor propagandist. The book includes some sumptuous portraits from the time, which reflect the magnificence of the clothing and jewellery. Ackroyd describes Henry VIII’s coronation:
His robes were stiff with jewels, diamonds and rubies and emeralds and pearls, so that a glow of light hovered about him. He now radiated the power and the glory. He may have acted and dressed under advice, but he soon came to understand the theatre of magnificence.
Magnificence was constantly reflected in their clothing. Elizabeth I owned 3000 dresses at her death and at the death of Katherine of Aragon, Henry and Anne Boleyn appeared at a ball both dressed in brilliant yellow. As with celebrities today, sumptuous display was de rigueur.
While Ackroyd deftly, and often amusingly (Elizabeth’s devious dealings with potential suitors is always entertaining) shows the almost soap-operatic lives of the rulers, their bitter fights and betrayals, resentments and cruelties, his real aim is to demonstrate that these traits were married to extraordinary piety. It is this piety and religious belief that forms the basis of Tudors. Ackroyd wishes to show how the Reformation in England was a peculiarly English thing, quite unlike the continental movements. He is also keen to let us see how this momentous schism shaped the English identity. The royal family’s role in the transition from Catholicism to Protestantism and the repudiation of Rome marked English religion as different and reinforced the idea of specialness:
The reformation of the English Church was, from the beginning, a political and dynastic matter; it had no roots in popular protest or the principles of humanist reform. No Calvin or Luther would have been permitted to flourish in England. Reformation was entirely under the direction of the king.
The separation from Rome and from continental Catholicism also encouraged the belief that England was in some sense an ‘elect’ nation; this in turn led to a redefinition of Englishness that excluded, for example, the Catholics of the nation.
He also demonstrates how the changes leading to Protestantism occurred slowly, subtly and by degrees:
Time and forgetfulness, aided by apathy and indifference, slowly weakened the influence of the old religion beyond repair.
So, in spite of the brutal martyrdom of over 500 people (Mary 300; Elizabeth 200) there was a practical and pragmatic quality to the changes. Ackroyd sees the English as very practical people.
In terms of most of his beliefs, Henry VIII could be described as still a Catholic at his death: ‘Henry was never opposed to Catholic doctrine, only its leadership.’ However, the changes he had started with Wolsey and Cromwell were inexorably moving the English church to the Reformation and were to be fought over bloodily by his daughters.
Ackroyd also has something quite moving to say about the resulting effects on public life:
The abolition of the rituals of the Catholic faith may have had a more profound, although less easily observed, consequence. The Rogationtide processions in which the boundaries of the parish were delineated with bells and crosses, had been an important element in the English sense of sacred place; the land was, in a sense, now secularized. The holy wells and springs of the land were largely forgotten, and the land itself became a commodity rather than a communal possession.
This sense of the land as a commodity is still very much with us.
The abandonment of public rituals in the streets and open places of the towns led in time to social fragmentation. When popular pastimes were curtailed and despised, the richer sort tended to think of themselves as a class apart.
Well, we know where that led; class still rules English society. But it has been estimated that the number of alehouses doubled in the fifty years after 1580, perhaps making up for the absence of meaningful community rituals.
Tudors is full of fascinating detail and has some very illuminating areas of research. Ackroyd’s information concerning Cromwell provokes a different reaction from that gained by reading Hilary Mantel, whose extreme writing skills are able to seductively and sympathetically move one into Cromwell’s head. But Cromwell’s hands were not clean:
Cromwell eventually appropriated the land and revenue of six religious houses, and was widely reputed to be (after the king) the richest man in England.
This is a fascinating read, an accessible history where the immense research is wittily presented and where the ideas are profound and moving. We have to look forward to the next four volumes.
Peter Ackroyd Tudors: The History of England Volume II, Macmillan, 2012, PB, 352pp, $32.99
Folly Gleeson was a lecturer in Communication Studies. At present she enjoys her book club and reading history and fiction.
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