Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Peter Ackroyd’s “Tudors”

They ruled England for less than a century. But their influence and impact was enormous, and reaches to our contemporary times.

They were the Tudors – Henry VIII (reigned 1509-1547), Edward VI (1547-1553), Mary (1553-1558), and Elizabeth I (1558-1603). They ruled England from 1509 to 1603, and their reigns included the English Reformation, the first English explorations of the New World, the attempted invasion by the Spanish Armada, and the cultural explosion that was Elizabethan England.

Their reigns also experienced plots, attempted overthrows, and more burnings at the stake than any other period in English history (usually for heresy, of both the Protestant and Catholic varieties). And who better to tell the story of this powerful family and the period they shaped and lived through than Peter Ackroyd?

Tudors is the second volume in Ackroyd’s History of England, the first being Foundation, which covered the beginnings to the reign of Henry VII.

Edward VI
And what a great story Ackroyd tells. The story of 16th century England is the story of religion. No other issue had as much impact on governments, power alignments, politics and the royal court than did religion. While the impetus for the English Reformation was Henry VIII’s desire to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, because of no male heir, the Reformation was actually multi-faceted, with ebbs and flows by the Reformers; Henry himself continuing as a practicing Catholic with the exception of acknowledging the Pope’s sovereignty; the dissolution of the great monasteries, abbeys, convents and friaries; and constant changes in diplomacy and continental power politics.

Ackroyd tells the story chronologically and tells the story factually. The worst religious excesses (not counting Henry’s dissolution of the monasteries) occurred in the two shortest reigns – the boy king Edward VI and his immediate successor and half-sister Mary. The first was more to the Reformer extreme; the latter to the Catholic reactionary stream (including the burning of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, at the stake on Oxford). Elizabeth would steer the nation’s religious life back to the middle, and it was in her reign that the final shape of the Anglican church known today came to be.

Elizabeth I
Because this is history focused on the country’s rulers, it’s also a history of the powerful courtiers, religious leaders, and aristocrats who surrounded them and often opposed them. Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell, numerous dukes, Mary Queen of Scots, Lady Jane Grey (queen for nine days), the Seymours, the Duke of Essex, William Cecil and Francis Walsingham, among many others, are treated fully. Treason was not taken lightly; many aristocrats and would-be royals lost their heads or were hung, drawn and quartered.

Tudors is the story of sixteenth-century England and the Tudor family that dominated it, in all its color, pageantry, glory and gore. It is also the story of the development of religion in England, and how Anglicanism fianlly took hold (with portents of the Puritans to come).


Top illustration: Henry the VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1537.

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