Monday 13 June 2016


I've been wondering if we have yet reached peak Tudor.

Henry VIII’s stinking, gangrenous leg has been endlessly speculated upon, every layer of Elizabeth I’s petticoats has been lifted and thoroughly searched beneath and Anne Boleyn’s execution has been read, learned and inwardly digested from all possible angles. There are even novels that speculate upon what might have been, had Anne and Henry produced a son. But still, doyenne of the period, Alison Weir, is bringing out a series of novels about each of Henry’s wives, Philippa Gregory, has returned from the Plantagenets to give us her version of Katherine Parr, I too have recently completed a Tudor Trilogy and, lest we forget, Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels have spawned an arts’ industry all of their own. Surely there is no stone left unturned on Henry’s marital mismanagement, but even so both the BBC and channel 5 are dishing up the six wives. It is not surprising then that Charlotte Higgins recently asked in the Guardian, Tudormania: Why can’t we get over it?

I have a hunch that when such questions begin to be asked about fads – like when people wonder
about why house prices have risen stratospherically high or why beards in Hoxton have begun to walk into rooms before their owners – it signals that their days are numbered. Interestingly two acclaimed Tudor biographers have lately turned to another equally dysfunctional family of royals: the Stuarts. Linda Porter will publish Royal Renegades, about the children of Charles I, in the autumn and Leanda de Lisle’s next book, The King’s Story, will unravel the enigma of Charles I himself. Also published this year are Andrea Zuvich’s, A year in the Life of Stuart Britain and Andrew Lacey’s, The Stuarts: A Very British Dynasty.

The Stuarts offer just as much in terms of drama as that of their Tudor cousins. The period was torn by dark sectarian troubles. The thwarted Gunpowder Plot was an event that – had it succeeded as intended, to wipe out the entire new dynasty – would have been as dramatic as the attack on the Twin Towers. It was a time of witch hunts, espionage, the exploration of the globe, a Queen who unceasingly promoted the dramatic arts and in James I, an openly homosexual king. James was a complex, flawed and unpopular individual whose son would be tried and executed in Cromwell’s revolution – a regicide that would irrevocably change the path of English history.

The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death this year, with all the celebratory exhibitions and seasons of plays, also shines a light on the early Stuart period. We tend to think of the bard as an Elizabethan but some of his greatest and most enduring work fell in the Jacobean period. Think of Macbeth, King Lear and The Tempest. James Shapiro’s recent, and brilliant, 1606, Shakespeare and The Year of Lear, argues that this year, early in James I’s reign, was the apotheosis of the playwright’s career. Drama holds up a mirror to the culture it comes from, and so Shakespeare’s late plays, with their moral complexity and ambitious reach, suggest the society that gave rise to them must be infinitely fascinating.

Indeed, Shakespeare wasn’t alone. The Jacobean period is characterized by a thriving of the literary arts. Even The Bible had its James I makeover and poets such as John Donne and Ben Johnson remain familiar today; women were finding their voice too and publishing for the first time. In 1611 poet, Aemilia Lanyer, published Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, a brilliant defense of Eve that sought to shake up received thinking about women’s position in the world. Women stepping outside the box so publically gave rise to an anxiety about the female sex, which was articulated by tragedians like Webster and Middleton who, along with Shakespeare, were producing some of the most bloodthirsty heroines in all of English literature, with Lady Macbeth as flag bearer.

The cultural flourishing that reached its zenith with the early Stuarts was abruptly suspended when Cromwell closed the playhouses. But it returned in force with the restoration of Charles II, the most charismatic of the Stuarts, whose reign saw actresses on the stage, and in the King’s bed, for the first time. A recent exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution thoroughly explored the events of the Restoration period as will Rebecca Rideal’s forthcoming book 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.

The intrigue of the Stuart century is endless, so it is unsurprising that fiction writers have also had their heads turned. A couple of years ago Rose Tremain revisited the eponymous anti-hero of her 1989 Booker shortlisted novel, Restoration with Merivel, a brilliantly funny and touching rendition of debauched Restoration society. Katherine Clement’s duo of novels, The Crimson Ribbon and The Silvered Heart, tell of women leading extraordinary lives during the chaos of the Civil War. Andrew Taylor’s latest thriller,The Ashes of London, is set in the aftermath of the Great Fire and I am working on a Stuart Quartet, with the first, The Girl in the Glass Tower, about Arbella Stuart, who might have been England’s Stuart queen.

So prepare yourselves for the Stuarts: every bit as flawed, dysfunctional and fascinating as the Tudors.

Elizabeth Fremantle’s novel The Girl in the Glass Tower is published by Penguin 


Catherine Hokin said...

It's an interesting one the whole Tudor mania (which I have to say I'm still very happy to read good novels about ) - the agent I'm currently doing the dance with said she wouldn't have looked at me twice if I was writing about the Tudors as 'they're all sick of it". I think its like all eras - a good story well told is a good story well told!

Sally Zigmond said...

Although I find the Tudors of interest as I do most periods of British history,I have never liked "horrid Henry" or Elizabeth for that matter. From an early age, the Stuarts have interested me far more. I can even remember, as if it were yesterday, illustrating my history exercise book (ours books were a combination of lined and blank pages) with a Stuart man and lady in their long curly wigs, lace flounces and vibrant colours. I was 9 or 10 and already an ardent Royalist! (although later I sympathised more with things more radical.) I think my love of historical costume was born then as well. How early in life do we form our historical preferences.

Although there have been attempts to make us all admire the Georgians, it is proving a struggle. However, with more emphasis on the Stuarts than the Tudors, the tide may well be turning. We shall see.

Leslie Wilson said...

I think people are very interested in the Georgians! But let's certainly have more interest in the Stuart era, the English Revolution, and so on. If Cromwell closed the playhouses, he also abolished censorship and allowed pamphlet publications, which meant that free and interesting thought could flourish as at no other time; this is another kind of cultural enrichment. The 'Merry Monarch' did quite a nice line in religious persecution; his successor introduced the Toleration Act which took the heat off the Quakers, but I have a feeling that if he'd remained, and had reinstituted Catholicism, the Inquisition might well have followed. Let's not just talk about royalty, but about the people, who during this fascinating and turbulent period got a chance to speak out as perhaps never before. They are the ancestors of most of us, after all.