Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Tudors - the legacy lives on

Henry VIII was a dangerous man to befriend. He ruled England from 1509 to 1547. His father, Henry VII, came to the throne following the Wars of the Roses. We now associate Henry VIII with his six wives and his desperate attempts to ensure a male heir to the throne. The Tudors were responsible for new views of nationalism and religion.

It was a dangerous and uncertain time with political intrigues and alliances. One moment you could be the Court darling and the next find your neck on the chopping block. Following the death of Henry VIII, England had a series of short-lived rulers culminating in the reign of Elizabeth I (1559-1603). Refusing the marry, she died childless leaving no heir. Her reign was considered by many to have been a golden age.

Great fodder for historical fiction and 500 years later our fascination for this era continues to grow.

Hilary Mantel had great success in 2009 with Wolf Hall (winner of the Man Booker Prize). Henry VIII grew disappointed with his wife Catherine of Aragon as she failed to produce a viable male heir. His Chief Minister Cardinal Wolsey failed to procure a divorce for him and was replaced by Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell drafted legislation that freed England from the Pope's jurisdiction which paved the way for Henry VIII's divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn. Mantel goes against the traditional negative view of Cromwell and portrays him as an intelligent and generous man.

Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett concerns Thomas More, a humanist scholar and, over time, and increasingly important world in Henry VIII's court. Initially supporting the King's desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon, he became uncomfortable as Henry VIII began to defy the Pope's authority. More was a supporter of the Catholic Church and opposed Protestant reform. More refused to attend Anne Boleyn's coronation and this ultimately lead to his unfortunate end. Bennett's novel features Hans Holbein the Younger, a German painter, who eventually became King's Painter to Henry VIII. More commissioned Holbein to do two portraits of his family. In Portrait of an Unknown Woman we see Tudor England through the eyes of More's foster daughter Meg Giggs.
Before Anne Boleyn, there was her sister Mary featured in The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory. Mary was a lover of Henry VIII allegedly bearing him two children, including one son. Anne is portrayed as the more ambitious and scheming sister. Mary steps aside for her rival ending her days in relative obscurity with her second husband. Not a bad fate considering the alternative.

Following the death of Edward IV and preceding the reign of Mary I, there was Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Days Queen. In Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir we have a heartbreaking account of her tragic life and very short reign. In the interest of the furtherance of Protestantism and with the machinations of her cruel and ambitious parents, she, together with her young husband unwillingly assumed the throne. Ultimately Mary I assumed the throne and Jane was beheaded at age 16. The Tudor succession was always shaky and, of course, ultimately failed.

In The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir, the young Princess Elizabeth grows from childhood to her coronation under exceptionally stressful circumstances. She is aware, from childhood, of the precariousness of her position. An orphan, she is at the mercy of step-parents, siblings and ministers. As we watch her grow we see how her personal philosophy develops. This is a wonderful portrait of the development of England's greatest queen.

The Tudors live on as well in historical mystery series such as Dissolution by C.J. Sansom set in the time of the dissolution of the monasteries and The Hooded Hawk by Karen Harper taking place during the time of Elizabeth I.

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