Reviewed by: Susan Doran
Author: Peter Ackroyd
Price (RRP): £20
Given the popularity of the Tudors on TV and film, Peter Ackroyd’s second volume of the history of England will undoubtedly attract many readers, and deservedly so. The author tells a good story, with pace and lively detail. I wish, though, that he had included endnotes and an index.
The subtitle, Tudors, is a misnomer, as Ackroyd opens with the accession of Henry VIII. The first Tudor does not belong in the volume because its central theme is “the reformation of the English church”. On the Reformation, Ackroyd stands firmly in the revisionist camp. It was “a political and dynastic matter,” both unnecessary and disruptive.
The first chapter sets the scene for this interpretation: Henry is “a loyal son of the Church,” the Catholic religion is popular, and the clergy is generally “sound”. Unsurprisingly, then, Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth have difficulty in imposing their own brand of reform on the English people, and Ackroyd gives due weight to the various expressions of dissent. Few historians would take exception to this picture, though many would dispute his claim that the Reformation was “entirely under the direction of the king”.
So what does Ackroyd think of the monarchs themselves? In telling of Henry VIII’s transition from a “golden youth” into an authoritarian tyrant, Ackroyd’s portrayal is familiar. His Edward VI is a more sympathetic figure than has appeared in some recent historical accounts: although the Tudor temper is evident, he is “a solemn little boy”, a religious idealist (rather than a fanatic) with “all the makings of a good administrator”. Mary is presented in a similarly positive light. In accordance with recent historiography, Ackroyd avoids treating her as the tragic queen or ‘Bloody Mary’ of myth. She sensibly takes “the natural choice” of husband; her conduct during Wyatt’s rebellion “remains resolute”. Yes, she “clamoured” for the burning of heretics, but they had broken laws whose penalty was death.
Ackroyd’s portrait of Elizabeth should satisfy admirers and critics. He doesn’t fall for the Gloriana myth, although he exaggerates when declaring “she was as learned as any Oxford scholar”. He rightly describes her as capable and cautious, and shows how these characteristics led to stability during the dangerous years of her reign. Yet he also relates how evangelicals despaired at her religious conservatism while counsellors bemoaned her prevarications.
The reign ends on a sad note: the queen is crotchety and unloved, and her realm sinks into high mortality and economic recession. But in a sudden burst of Whig history, Ackroyd’s conclusion points to a future where the seeds of secularism and individualism planted by the Tudors will come to fruition. For this, we’ll have to wait for the next volume.
Dr Susan Doran, University of Oxford