The Tudor Queens of England

August 27, 2009

Recently, "our greatest living historian", David Starkey, announced that Tudor queens were not important - admittedly after writing about them himself, when a rather different view was put forward. Undaunted, David Loades has come up with his own account of them, but then he is not a man to be easily put off.

I reckon that he has produced more than 40 books on the Tudor period, including full-length biographies of some of the queens treated here. Perhaps to give himself a bit of a challenge, in this new work he includes some people that might be considered a little outside the scope of the title.

For example, it is difficult to see how Elizabeth Woodville, married to the Yorkist Edward IV, can be seen as a Tudor queen, even though one of her daughters was to marry Henry VII, and I am not sure about Lady Jane Grey's inclusion, although she appears in a chapter titled "The Queens who Never Were".

In total, we get 14 potted biographies and some 140 years of English history in only 234 pages of text, which one might consider to be challenging itself. How well does he do it?

Clearly Loades is somebody who knows his stuff, but perhaps just because he is anxious not to appear too academic, he tries a little too hard to catch our attention.

There are, for instance, the rather sexy chapter titles: "The Queen as Dominatrix" (Margaret of Anjou); "The Queen as Lover" (Elizabeth Woodville); "The Queen as Whore" (Catherine Howard). Fair enough, but this approach plays havoc with the chronology, so that Anne of Cleves ("The Queen as Foreign Ally") comes before Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour, who are "Domestic Queens".

He strives for a lively style, but I am not sure that it works: people are either in "a spot of bother" or "sent on their way", and sometimes things "go out of the window". In general, however, the approach is rather schoolmasterly, with marks being awarded to each of his "pupils": for instance, Elizabeth does rather well, Mary Tudor could have done better, and poor Catherine Howard (the "Whore") gets no marks at all.

But what about the history? It is here that I have trouble, not so much with this particular book, but with the whole genre - the problem being the difficulty of trusting the author's judgment when there is no serious discussion of the evidence.

I found his treatment of Elizabeth rather convincing, but then I happen to agree with much of it. On the other hand, his portrayal of Anne Boleyn annoyed me greatly, because I do not. The notions that it was she who refused to go to bed with Henry unless he married her, and that she was brought down by a coup essentially organised by Thomas Cromwell (although as with all conspiracy theories, there are conflicting versions) have been seriously challenged, but the text and the footnotes don't mention this.

Does this matter? One must not be too solemn about it. This book is presumably directed at a readership unlikely to know very much about the subject, and for them this book will be an easy but informative introduction. So to borrow an expression Loades used about Edward IV, one could say he has done "quite a good job". But in the end there has to be a difference between history and a good story, and by that criterion I can only mark him down.

The Tudor Queens of England

By David Loades Continuum, 2pp, £25.00 ISBN 9781847250193. Published 1 January 2009

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