Five centuries have not diminished the appetite for all things Tudor. Henry VIII, his six wives and his equally intriguing children are endlessly being reinvented in the popular media. Veritable rock stars of the English monarchy, their lives easily eclipse anything our own celebrity-obsessed, reality show culture can spit out.
In what is billed as the first complete history of the Tudor dynasty to be published in two decades, G.J. Meyer ironically begins “The Tudors: The Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty” by wondering if it even qualifies as a dynasty. The Tudors, for all their notoriety, ruled England through just three generations over 118 years; by contrast, the Plantagenet dynasty that ended when Henry Tudor (Henry VIII’s father) rose from virtual obscurity to vanquish Richard III on Bosworth Field held sway for 331 years.
But even if their time on history’s stage was relatively short, Tudor rule shook the foundation of English society and altered the political map of Europe in ways that reverberate to the present day. Meyer sets out to retell the story in ways that challenge centuries of myth; readers who long for the more romantic, heroic version of the Tudor legend won’t find it here.
The author’s portrait of Henry VIII is particularly harsh.
The Henry we meet here was more than just brash, more than just vain. He was an impulsive, self-absorbed and insatiably greedy tyrant, exceptionally brutal even by the often barbaric standards of his day. He was also a bad manager, squandering the Crown’s finances on military misadventures and opulent palaces.
The dark side of Henry’s personality pervades what became known as the king’s “Great Matter.” His bid to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn led ultimately to England’s separation from the Roman Catholic Church. Here, Meyer seems less critical of the break itself than of the manipulative, cynical and heavy-handed way
in which it was carried out.
In his quest for total subservience, Henry becomes a killing machine. Friend and foe alike are eliminated, some fortunate enough to merely lose their heads while others are emasculated and disemboweled before being drawn and quartered.
It was left to Henry’s three children, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, to sort out the tangled religious and political conflicts their father left behind. The results were often disastrous.
Elizabeth’s long reign has often been viewed as a relatively stable, peaceful and enlightened period in English history. Meyer is far less impressed, portraying Elizabeth not as a strong heroine but as a rather shallow and selfish monarch whose primary goal amounted to nothing more than her own survival.
In the end, the unmarried and childless queen’s refusal to publicly name a successor finishes the Tudor dynasty and launches her country into a new period of uncertainty.
Meyer is quick to inform readers when the spotty and occasionally contradictory historical record simply does not allow definitive conclusions to be drawn about a particular event or motive. The author also disperses “background” chapters throughout the book on subjects ranging from Parliament to the English theater, providing valuable insight into the Tudor period without detracting from a thoroughly readable and often compelling narrative.