The six wives and nine lives of Henry VIII

Bard movies, ruff sex, soap-opera 'faction' and grumpy old historians: Clive Bloom on our enduring fascination with the Tudors

September 23, 2010

Clenchpoop and codpieces: it's the Tudors, the Asbo monarchs who have invaded every branch of our cultural landscape like some unholy royal rash, hey-nonny-nonnying and slapping their thighs raw wherever you look. It seems we cannot get enough of these royal ne'er-do-wells, with books, television and films full of Henrys (thin, young and handsome or old, fat and hideous) and Elizabeths (redheaded and sexy or bald and farty - at least according to that 17th-century gossip John Aubrey), their image dependent upon which bit of their reigns tickles the most.

Nowadays we like our Tudor monarchs on the young and sexy side of 30, but it was not always so. In the 1930s, Hollywood had Charles Laughton and Bette Davis portray them as decadent, camp old rogues who threw chicken legs to the dogs and drove courtiers to the scaffold with equal relish. For those of us a bit too young to remember The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) or The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), the trouble began with Keith Michell in the 1970 BBC television production of The Six Wives of Henry VIII.

That's the point about the Tudors - they are a movable feast, easily adaptable to contemporary desires. Tudor England is neither history nor fiction, but a lifestyle choice where fantasies can come true: you choose your edited highlight and you stick to it. Here is a world where men can be men even if they wear earrings and tights, and women are women with just the merest hint of a heaving bodice. Unlike the repressed courtships in Jane Austen adaptations, the 15th-17th centuries offer ruff sex and violence in equal measure, the rules of period etiquette being subservient to MTV looks and perfect teeth, and aside from the singular appearance of Baldrick in Blackadder II, wholly without the inconvenience of a diseased, turnip-eating peasantry.

And of course there's always Joseph Fiennes as Shakespeare, falling in love and meeting the Queen for an impromptu speech and an Oscar in the 1998 film that sums up the recent resurgence of the romanticisation of the period; its everyday geniuses and old queens rubbing shoulders in the Globe, and perhaps watching a production of Shakespeare's latest take on the World Cup, a wheeze concocted this summer for Sam Wanamaker's thatched postmodern simulacrum on the South Bank.

Wanamaker first dreamed of recreating the Globe when he came to England in 1949 and found that Shakespeare's gaff wasn't where it should be (nor would it be until 1997 when the rebuilding finally got under way). For all those audiences cowering under a grey sky, the experience is as much about the romance of seeing Macbeth like an authentic bunch of "groundlings" as it is to see any Shakespeare play - and the intermission gin and tonic will always make up for the rain.

What is it that elevates the Tudors above the Stuarts and Hanoverians, and makes us come back for more? It might be the 118 years that define the period, full as they were with murder, mayhem and religious bigotry. Or is it David Starkey's highly contentious comment that women (especially feminists) have "feminised" and trivialised Tudor history that suggests a clue to our fascination?

The trouble is that Starkey's chosen fiefdom has been impertinently trespassed upon by a plethora of women historians and novelists who never asked his permission to do so. A case in point is Antonia Fraser's The Six Wives of Henry VIII, which was published in 1992 and predated Starkey's book on the subject by more than a decade. Female historians have continued to take the Tudors to their hearts and enrage Starkey, for it seems to be a fact - at least to judge by the weight of books - that the Tudor period fits the type of historical scenario that fascinates women.

Perhaps it is the personal intrigue, the behind-the-tapestry gossip, the beautiful clothes and jewels, the clandestine marriages and sexual frisson, the chance encounters with Sir Francis Drake, Shakespeare or Good Queen Bess that fire the blood. Perhaps, despite all, the period meets a current taste for romantic, personal and domestic fulfilment. No historian sums this up better than Trea Martyn, whose 2008 book Elizabeth in the Garden documents the masques, festivities and firework displays held in the pleasure gardens designed for Robert Dudley at Kenilworth Castle, created to provide an erotic, escapist paradise for Elizabeth during her various "summer progresses".

Martyn's book is full of the dappled shade, cool arbours and herb-strewn paths that give sensual life to Elizabeth and her lovers' garden capers. This is not the history of battles and political dynasties, but a "softer", more intimate history of clandestine desires, backstairs intrigue and popular gardening - enough, indeed, of alternative "feminised" history to get up Starkey's right royal nose.

To a great extent, the Tudor historian has given ground to the novelist, where women writers of romantic and detective fiction have the field almost to themselves. What we want is not history but "faction". It may have all started with the romantic idealisation of Paul Delaroche's The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833), recently the subject of an exhibition at the National Gallery, or William Harrison Ainsworth's 1840 potboiler, The Tower of London. Or it might have been Sir Henry Newbolt's poem, Drake's Drum (1897), which played a minor but nevertheless significant role alongside his Vitai Lampada in inspiring a generation of public schoolboys to go over the top in the First World War.

The 20th century, however, saw the congruence of two of the staples of almost all subsequent Tudor plots: the sea adventure and romance with a Spanish beauty. The Sea-Hawk was written by Rafael Sabatini in 1915. Set in the period of the Spanish Armada, the novel features the rugged Cornishman Sir Oliver Tressilian, who, after being betrayed by a jealous half-brother, has adventures as a slave on a Spanish galley and in a Moorish court and falls in love with the beautiful Rosamund. Errol Flynn, swinging from galleon to galleon like a Tudor Tarzan in the 1940 film of the same name, set the look of every sexy sea dog since.

Georgette Heyer's 1929 romantic novel Beauvallet took these tropes further. It features the roistering freebooter Sir Nicholas Beauvallet, who "bit his thumb at Spain" and is as daring as Drake and as feared. He captures the ravishing Dominica de Rada y Sylva, daughter of the Governor of Santiago. There is, of course, lots of name-dropping laced with swathes of Tudor blarney: it is obligatory to say "poltroon", "dizzard" and "roistering" whenever the opportunity arises. The book was published amid a positive rage for Tudor Rose tea rooms, suburban "Tudorbethan" semis and Spanish galleons on the mantelpiece.

Heyer set the tone for the many histories, novels, television shows and films that were to follow. You may be forgiven for thinking of Alison Weir with her "character-driven" histories that read like novels and are based around the tragic women of the 16th century, or Philippa Gregory, whose novel The Other Boleyn Girl (2002) charts the coming of Mary Boleyn to Henry VIII's court. There she becomes a "pawn" in the king's sexual game with her sister and is subsequently forgotten until she meets a man who dares to "offer ... a life of freedom and passion". Certainly the garish covers of Gregory's six Tudor romances are suggestive of upmarket Mills & Boon books.

And of course there is Hilary Mantel, whose Wolf Hall brings us Thomas Cromwell, Anne Boleyn, Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas More in all their vivid colour in a novel that won the 2009 Man Booker Prize. Ironically, she went on to debate Tudor history with Starkey on the Waterstone's Books Quarterly website. In the debate, Starkey gave a hint of his animosity towards women writers. "The Tudors are", he writes, "wonderful soap opera" - and as we all know, soap opera is a "feminine" genre.

And it is in soap opera that the Tudors thrive via books such as Anne Herries' The Spanish Witch (1987), where our hero Nicholas Tregarron overcomes all odds, including the Inquisition and the wrath of Queen Elizabeth, to marry the delicious Spanish beauty Dona Magdalene d'Ortega, whose haughty demeanour crumbles before the "smouldering anger" and "hungry lips" of her amorous pursuer. In a similar vein is The Spanish Medallion by Lloyd Peters (2005), in which Frances Durville falls in love with the irresistible swagger of Don Pedro de Ravallo in one of countless tales about the forbidden love between England and the Costa del Sol version of Spain.

The Tudors are the answer to many modern anxieties. John Wyndham's The Kraken Wakes was published in 1953, the year of another Elizabeth's coronation, but also a period of uncertainty about the future. In this disaster novel, England's population is reduced to what it was in Elizabeth I's day. A cause for distress? Not at all, because as Phyllis Watson, the book's heroine, tells us, "there were only five million or so of us in the first Elizabeth's time - but we counted".

The Tudors provide a dream of origination and harmony. Despite all the fictional and much of the historical murder and intrigue, we find the history we are seeking. Where there was chaos we find continuity and calm, a bedrock England flying St George's Cross, where life is a homogeneous, rural, black-and-white-beamed, inglenooked mythic landscape.

What we want from the Tudors is what they cannot give. Historical reality gives way to wish-fulfilment, the regaining of our lost innocence and a strange sense of permanence. This feeling even penetrates higher education, for it seems to be a fact that the newer the university, the more colourful and "Tudor" its graduation robes.

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