To call a book The Tudors , and title its five chapters "Henry VII" to "Elizabeth I" may seem a spectacular regression in historical writing. But Richard Rex is right to justify his approach as a "series of essays in brief political biography", in an era when personal monarchy was still central to political activity. Indeed, the dominant themes of Tudor history are continuous dynastic uncertainty and endemic suspicion, in contrast to the only sporadic uncertainty of the 15th century, and the complete absence of dynastic doubt in the 13th and 14th. Yet, as Rex concludes, one of the ironic consequences of the Tudor century was that short-term expedients to maintain the dynasty formed the basis of enduring state structures, which could increasingly bypass the monarch or even choose one, as the governing elite did in 1603.
The book's real theme, however, is religion. Perhaps now is historiographically the first moment when a survey can both recognise religion as central and treat it impartially. Balance was not possible until recently because of confessional blinkers; and the mid-20th-century response was to downgrade religion as an issue. Here it is triumphantly restored as the central focus of the decades from the 1520s, but treated with admirable even-handedness (barring the occasional acid swipe at reformers).
Rex poses some plausible counter-factuals: had Henry VIII died six months earlier, England would have remained a Catholic country; had Edward VI lived, England would not only have become thoroughly Protestant ("as dour and grey as anything ever seen in Scotland or Switzerland"), but it might have led a Protestant northern Europe against the Catholic south.
This sense of contingency, depending on the particular views and experiences of monarchs and on the kaleidoscopic shifts of faction, is certainly the emergent orthodoxy of England's long "Reformations". But the argument may undermine itself. Would a Catholic Privy Council really have managed to sideline Edward VI's Protestantism, inculcated by evangelical education? Equally, if Catholicism was so popular at ground level (an essential building block in the now-orthodox revisionist argument), then surely implementing a thorough Protestantisation would not have been so easy even for a long-lived Edward VI?
Indeed, Rex does not push his luck where Mary is concerned, given that she was unlikely to bear children and so would have eventually been succeeded by Elizabeth anyway. He resists the temptation to offer a vision of a Catholic England to match his peroration on Edward, contenting himself instead with the conclusion that, while "she did not save England for Roman Catholicism", she "saved Roman Catholicism in England" because she "stopped the rot".
Perhaps, indeed, some sort of compromise such as the Anglicanism that emerged under Elizabeth was the only possible solution. Elizabeth recognised what neither her father nor her siblings could accept - that securing uniform inner conversion to a single religious outlook was impossible and was a recipe for endless division. Insisting only on outward conformity offered the sole hope of some stability after three decades of traumas. Perhaps Rex implicitly acknowledges this necessity, in that his account of the Elizabethan settlement takes on a greater air of inevitability than some historians would accept.
One consequence of the centrality of religion is to remove narrative tension from the beginning and the end of the tale. Henry VII appears as a prologue to a drama sparked by his son's search for an heir; and Elizabeth's reign subsides into an almost uncontentious Anglicanism, an impression reinforced by the narrative strategy of placing Puritan opposition early in the chapter, and by Rex's rejection of the more lurid accounts of the 1590s. And where Rex's account of Mary is framed as a moderate defence - "she did what she could" - he avoids overt judgement on Elizabeth.
Nevertheless, the story is gripping and told with enviable narrative skill. It accommodates compelling but unobtrusive analysis, both explicit and by off-the-cuff aphorism illuminating a general thrust ("like most forms of permissiveness, Somerset's was highly selective"). Rex writes with verve and colour, and with a broad sympathy for a wide range of subject matter.
This is a model of popular history written by an academic: the latest research is absorbed, with some debates explicitly discussed (even, in the case of Henry VII, with the immortal undergraduate line: "The truth lies somewhere in between"); the result is both instructive for students and a delight for any reader. The publishers have corralled David Starkey and Eamon Duffy on to the covers, and if they are partisan in claiming the century as the most "important" in English history, they do not err in proclaiming this excellent book "the best introduction" to it.
Benjamin Thompson is lecturer in medieval history, University of Oxford.
Author - Richard Rex
ISBN - 0 7524 1971 4
Publisher - Tempus
Price - £16.99
Pages - 254