Wednesday, February 18, 2015

An Illustrated Introduction to The Tudors

With all the sundry costume dramas about the Tudors that are available on DVD, cable and streaming, it is easy to become confused about who the major characters are in the various portrayals. Not to mention the dozens of historical novels, both old and new, telling of the rise and fall of kings and queens in sixteenth century England. Gareth Russell's An Illustrated Introduction to The Tudors is therefore indispensable, and can serve as a guide for Tudor novices as well as a refresher course for Tudor aficionados.

I have enjoyed internet debates over the years with Mr. Russell over some of the points brought up in the book. I have agreed with many of his interpretations; he has certainly changed my opinion about Anne Boleyn. I used to see Anne as a heartless opportunist and hussy. Now I see her as a witty, glamorous and highly-intelligent woman who played a ruthless game of chess and lost.

The author's style is as engaging and entertaining as readers have come to expect from his plays, his novels, his Confessions of a Ci-Devant blog, and his book on World War One called The Emperors. The Tudors is Mr. Russell's second non-fiction work and will be followed next year by a biography of Katherine Howard. The volume includes magnificent images of historic persons and sites, together with the author's thorough mastery of his subject. The Tudor era is vivified in a concise and cogent manner.

Mr. Russell tries to be as balanced as possible, although he leans just a little bit to the Protestant side. I do not agree with his statement about Queen Katherine of Aragon resisting an annulment and refusing to go to a convent just in order to save her title. (p.74) An annulment was, and is, a matter of conscience. If one party sincerely feels that the marriage is valid then it is right for them to contest the annulment, as the Queen did. Also, if a woman does not feel a call to the convent, then she should not go. Sometimes women who misbehaved were sent to monasteries but Queen Katherine had never misbehaved.

Mr. Russell looks at the strengths and weaknesses of every reign of the Tudor family, including Henry VII and his parsimony; Henry VIII and his megalomania; Edward VI and his priggish reforms; Lady Jane Grey and her fervent devotion to Protestantism; Mary I and her burnings of heretics, and finally, the most politically successful Tudor monarch, Elizabeth I. I find the analysis between the popular image of Lady Jane Grey versus the image of Mary I to be intriguing. "While Jane Grey was immortalized in paint as Delaroche's virgin-pure martyr, in 2010 the London Dungeons advertised their tours with a portrait of Mary morphing into a blood-drinking zombie." (p.79) This is, of course, because Mary had people burned at the stake, while Jane ruled for only nine days, and later was beheaded, and so became a martyr of the New Religion. Nevertheless, if Jane had reigned long, she may have made life as difficult for Catholics as her cousin Elizabeth did. Elizabeth's political astuteness, as well as her fear of marriage, is shown. It is possible that she reigned so successfully because she remained single, and so she was able to avoid the entanglements that came with having a consort.

I heartily recommend this short, readable history as both an introduction and a review. It is the perfect book to have on hand for quick consultation. For those who love English history, it makes an important addition to any library.

*NOTE: The book was sent to me by the author's representative in exchange for my honest opinion.


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