Tudors: The History of England, Volume II
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT517
WHAT is it about the Tudors that
produces this unending stream of histories, novels, and TV series?
I suppose it comes in part from their limited numbers. There were
only eight of them, and only five really count. Even with their
spouses, they hardly make more than a rugby team, easy to recognise
We know more of them than of earlier
kings and queens. They wrote letters; they inspired reports by
foreign diplomats; and they patronised buildings, art, and
literature that we still cherish. They were involved in great
issues: English nationhood, the Reformation, and the discovery of
the New World. And the five who ruled were nicely contrasting in
character: a menu of soup, roast, fish, sorbet, and gateau.
At any rate, we cannot have enough of
them, which is sufficient excuse for another book about them: the
second volume of Peter Ackroyd's History of England. This
is a story for the general reader, with all the familiar episodes,
and some less familiar ones. It is a readable account of the kings
and queens, their ministers and courtiers, and what happened to
them: personal and political history.
An attractive feature is the mixing of
great and small events. Reading it is rather like reading a Tudor
newspaper. At one moment, we learn of events at court; at another,
of some execution, riot, or piece of image-breaking in the country.
The author has read widely among the secondary sources, but,
inevitably, the concentration on the political story does not allow
much to emerge about constitutional, social, or cultural matters,
for which one must go to other kinds of works.
Religion is a feature, but not always
an accurate one. The woodcut mentioned in which Henry VIII gives
out Bibles while the people cry "Vivat rex" is not the
title page of Coverdale's Bible of 1535, but that of the Great
Bible of 1539. The communion service of 1549 did not place the
priest at the north side of a table, because altars were still in
existence; that came in 1552, with the Second Prayer Book of Edward
VI. And it was impossible for roods and images to make a sudden
reappearance when Mary became queen in 1553: they had been
destroyed. Churchwardens' accounts show that it took a good deal of
money, and some years, to replace them.
The Reformation is given a special
chapter at the end of the book, but I found this rather
unconvincing. The author ascribes to it the concept of good
governance, secular (non-monastic) history, the growth of literacy,
and an (alleged) increase in the number of schools. There is plenty
of evidence for all of these before 1500, and often much earlier
And it is far too simple to say that
the Reformation emphasised the individual rather than the
community. What about uniformity? Roman Catholics could follow a
wide range of devotional practices; Protestants were corral-led
into one set of Sunday services.
Read this book, then, not as a history
of Tudor England so much as a well-paced story about its leaders,
featuring much that you will know and much that you won't: the snow
pope that melted; the great Hertfordshire earthquake; and many,
many gory executions. At 470 pages, it should keep somebody quiet
for two or three days after Christmas.
Professor Orme's books include
histories of religion, childhood, education, hospitals and