The Fighting Tudors

January 14, 2010

You cannot put a good man down! This appears to be David Loades' third book on the Tudors to have been published in 2009, and in total he must soon be approaching his half century, which should surely put him in the running for some kind of early-modern history lifetime achievement award. However, he does not seem to have yet caught up with the arguments recently put forward by C.S.L. Davies that the Tudors never existed - essentially on the grounds that since the Tudors did not think of themselves as Tudors, why should we? If the idea catches on, I do not suppose that it will prove a serious brake on Loades' book production, but he may well have to change the brand image.

What we get here is the by-now-familiar voyage through the "Tudor" period - by jet I should add, since it's all done in about 200 pages. Each sovereign gets a pen portrait. Henry VII was "prudent". Henry VIII was "larger than life". Edward VI might have been even larger if he had not died so young, while Mary was "a pious middle-aged woman ... utterly lacking in maiestas". As for Elizabeth, Loades is yet another English historian who has fallen in love with her, to the extent that she becomes "an embattled virgin and a symbol of her people's freedom". I have always tried to resist this temptation, but in the end it is difficult not to admire anyone, let alone a 16th-century woman, who can rule over a nation for 40 years without coming unstuck.

What we also get is a number of longish extracts from chronicles or documents, including, naturally, Elizabeth's famous Armada oration. It seems a slightly curious exercise, especially given the brevity of the book, but in themselves the extracts are enjoyable.

Then there is the "fighting" of the title. Loades has written often on the Tudor Navy, and here we get what one might call an amuse-gueule. We learn that in this era the Royal Navy was put on a more permanent footing, and that the galleon replaced the carrack, as a result of the increasing importance of the cannon in naval fighting.

Sea dogs such as John Hawkins and Francis Drake figure prominently, as of course does the defeat of the Armada. The Tudors' military record was not, it must be said, particularly impressive: normally we could beat the Scots, and we could for short periods take a Boulogne or a Cadiz, although we sadly lost Calais. What Loades offers no sense of here is what fighting actually consisted of in this period, and what the qualities were that made a good military or naval commander. We are told that the longbow ceased to be important - not exactly a startling revelation - but more information about the technical innovations in warfare would have been welcome.

The least satisfactory section of the book is the epilogue, titled "A changing society". For Loades, these changes include the replacement of an "elite of lineage" by "an elite of service", while at the same time "the politics of morality had replaced the politics of honour". Both these propositions are surely questionable, while another, that "from the reign of Henry VII only the king could make war", made no sense at all to me: there were plenty of rebellions in the 16th century, and in the following century there was a quite important Civil War.

But the real problem with such statements is that they are merely thrown out over just seven pages, so it is hard to take them seriously. Still, for anyone who likes their history "lite", this book will give a good deal of pleasure.

The Fighting Tudors

By David Loades. The National Archives, 240pp, £20.00. ISBN 9781905615520. Published 26 November 2009

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