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On with the five-course banquet

by
23 November 2012

Nicholas Orme finds a Tudor history filling if not always accurate

© PRIVATE COLLECTION/THE BRIDGEMAN ART LIBRARY

"None such like it": a hand-coloured copper engraving of the arrival of Queen Elizabeth I at Nonsuch Palace, which stood near Ewell, in Surrey, in 1582. From the book under review

"None such like it": a hand-coloured copper engraving of the arrival of Queen Elizabeth I at Nonsuch Palace, which stood near Ewell, in Surrey, in 1...

Tudors: The History of England, Volume II
Peter Ackroyd
Macmillan £20
(978-0-230-7064-0-8)
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 and remember.

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 still.

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 sport.

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