Why the Tudors grab us

Eric Ives asks what it is about the Tudors that encourages academics, writers, filmmakers, television producers – and, of course, the general public – to keep coming back for more...

A crowned Tudor rose. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Stringer via Getty Images)

Ever since 1900, more than two books or articles have appeared on average every day on the history of the British Isles between 1485 and 1603, and that’s only the scholarly ones. Add in popular material, plus fiction and film, and totals soar. TV investment in the Tudors has gone through the roof. But why?

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The obvious answer is romance – Good Queen Bess, Bluff King Hal, Bloody Mary, ‘the sea dogs of Devon’, the block and the scaffold. Fiction, film and TV feeds on it. Bluff and genial Henry VIII could be, but Thomas More was right to say the king would have no qualms in cutting his head off if it would win him a castle in France.

Fascination about Elizabeth ignores an England where a woman in labour might be dragged into another parish to avoid her pauper brat becoming a charge on the rates. Romance is today’s celebrity cult in costume. The excuse is offered, “it’s drama, not history”, but why then spend thousands on historically accurate costume and scenery? Shakespeare didn’t.

A better reason for the fascination is that Tudor England has a high density of ‘memorable people’, not least its monarchs. However this was no ‘flowering of the English spirit’. Quite simply, we know more. We visit Tudor houses. Portraits show what Tudor people were like – more than that, the image they wanted to present. Holbein ‘airbrushes’ his sitters. Most important of all, personal papers and modern public records first survive in quantity – letters, accounts, memoranda, narratives; evidence of all sorts multiplies. The Paston Letters are famous because similar 15th-century collections are few. Not so in the 16th.

The new sources do not simply provide personalia such as Henry VII’s susceptibility to dancing girls. They let us see the Tudors in a fresh way. New questions – who did this and why. New understandings – of business, society, law and order. New areas of study – gender, family, folk belief.

For earlier centuries such knowledge is hard-won; as the 16th progresses, the problem can be too much data. Books poured from the presses, ideas proliferated, our speech took shape. The King James Bible we celebrate this year is substantially a Tudor achievement: ‘sheep’s clothing’, ‘fleshpots’, ‘the powers that be’, and 200 other expressions in use today. We don’t read Chaucer and Langland in the original, but we can and do read More and Shakespeare.

The new sources appear to reveal a familiar scene: parliament, an established church, England emerging to European status, overseas interests, class, inflation, poverty. Familiarity does, however, bring danger. The environment of Tudor England is alien as well as similar. We must not make assumptions which are only valid for today. The biggest need for caution is over religion. Think of the position Islam appears to have in certain eastern communities today – not only prescribing ritual observance, and required behaviour, but also providing a matrix of thought and ideas. Religion in 16th-century England was similarly embedded in society and similarly formative. The axiom was ‘one nation one faith’ and hence controversy. Which faith? Toleration was not an option. Today it would be monstrous to burn someone because of their views. The Tudors thought otherwise; the disagreement was over who to burn.

There are other traps for the unwary. The significance of Tudor rule may appear to be a series of seminal developments, for instance the Church of England. But the Tudor church only lasted a century. What we have today effectively dates from 1660 and it calls itself Anglican precisely because it is not the Church of England. Parliaments became more important, but only a name and tradition links them to the current institution.

Tudor rulers wielded more personal power than any before or since. None would recognise modern monarchs as monarchs at all. National identity was strengthened by the 1588 victory over Spain, but in Tudor parlance, ‘country’ is as likely to mean ‘county’; after all, in terms of travelling time, England was 25 times larger than it is today. The colonies, the church and the law written about by Ralegh, Hooker and Coke, are not the colonies, church and law we know. England in the 16th century and England today are “two countries separated by a common language”.

Zest for living

Notwithstanding the dangers of empathy, Tudor England does have a good feel about it, an ebullience and a zest for living. The truculence of the age is one facet of that, the attitude to martyrdom another. It is the great age of English music and drama, notable architecture, widening horizons and for many a measurable advance in comfort and civility. In the 1570s William Harrison listed the changes in his Essex village: “the multitude of chimneys nowadays” (better warmth and comfort), “the amendment of lodging” (beds and bedding) and “the exchange of vessel” (pewter instead of wood).

The explanation is not a ‘golden age’ but ‘the economy, stupid’. From the mid-14th century, western Europe’s population shrank because of plague and war. A century later plague began to recede in England and the population increased. In other words, the Tudors arrived with, or were soon followed by, an economic boom, another example of their phenomenal luck everywhere except in the bedroom. Particularly from the 1540s, the expanding labour force made sustained growth possible: consumer goods such as stockings, pots and pans, new or enlarged industries – mining, glass and paper-making, the ‘new draperies’, luxury trades including theatre. And all was underpinned by political stability. Religious changes did not lead to civil war. Mary Tudor’s was the only successful rebellion; otherwise the elite stayed loyal.

As always there was a downside, a vicious downside. Harrison noted higher rents, the pressures of a money economy and less concern for the poor. The increase in population meant that prices rose and this was made worse by currency manipulation. The gap between the comfortable and the poor widened significantly. A village economy had always needed resident poor to provide seasonal labour. Now structural unemployment became endemic. The 1590s were horrendous as the cost of the war fed inflation.

Suffering was made infinitely worse by bad harvests; in some years paupers died in the streets. Nevertheless, the England of 1600 was enormously wealthier than in 1500. An insular, agricultural country was becoming a country with a growing trade and industry sector. New families – Russells, Spencers, Cecils, Cavendishs – were forging ahead to lead the country and would do so until the 20th century. Tudor England was exciting to live in, and that makes it exciting to study, warts and all.

Eric Ives is an expert on the Tudor period. He is emeritus professor of English history at the University of Birmingham. His new book The Reformation Experience will be published by Lion Hudson.

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This article was first published in the August 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine