Comment: Hundreds of years later, this rose still has thorns

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After seeing the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special The Day of the Doctor there was only one thing I wanted to talk about.

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One of the most famous time travellers in pop culture: “So, The Doctor was married to Elizabeth I? But that wouldn’t necessarily have made him the King of England. In fact, if Elizabeth had married, her husband would probably have been a consort, like Victoria’s husband Albert. I often wonder if Elizabeth never got married because-“

There has been enduring fascination with the Tudors since they ruled England 500 years ago, and from Shakespeare onwards popular culture has catered to this obsession with a never-ending flow of art and literature inspired by their lives. Just this year saw the release of several books, and two new television series based on the dynasty.

Even during the reign of Victoria, one of the other great monarchs of English history, the Tudors dominated popular culture. Harrison Ainsworth’s The Tower of London, and Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (on the throne for just 9 days after the death of boy-king Edward VI) captured public imagination in mid-1800s.

Another revival occurred in the mid-1900s, with the romance novels of Jean Plaidy, based on the lives of the Tudor women, lending colour and drama to the dreary post-war period.

Best known for their scandalous private lives, the Tudors reshaped not just English society and religion but also oversaw the start of the English conquest of the world, when Elizabeth sent explorers to establish English colonies in the Americas. When the Tudors came to power after the War of the Roses, England was a feudal backwater and merely an afterthought to the great powers of Europe. By the time the dynasty came to an end with the death of Elizabeth I, Britain was well on its way to Empire status.

As compelling as the political side of the Tudors is, it will always be secondary in the public imagination to their personal lives. The six wives of Henry VIII, two of whom lost their heads on charges of treason and adultery; an entire state religion abolished because of a love affair; a Virgin Queen, who ruled alone despite the unquestioned patriarchy, and was rumoured to have had numerous lovers.

Are the Tudors so enduringly popular because we recognise ourselves in their stories of sex and power, betrayal and intrigue, lust and politics? Is that why their reputations transcend both time and space, making them the most enduring time lords of all?

Some Tudoresque recommendations:

Literature

Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, told from the point of view of Henry VIII’s advisor Thomas Cromwell.

CJ Sansom’s Shardlake series, starting with Dissolution. Set during the period of the Reformation, when Henry VIII broke from Rome and established the Church of England.

Historian David Starkey is renowned for his Tudor scholarship, bringing accuracy to the soap opera history of Tudor legend. Another well-known English historian, Peter Ackroyd has undertaken to write a six volume history of England, the second of which is entitled Tudors. The first volume was Foundation, if that gives any indication as to the importance of the dynasty to English history.

Television

Elizabeth I (2005) miniseries on the later years of Elizabeth’s reign, starring the queenly Helen Mirren.

The Tudors (2007-2010) historical inaccuracies aside, this is one of the most opulent, attractive and extensive renderings of the life of Henry VIII in modern popular culture.

The White Queen (2013), set during the War of the Roses, and Reign (2013) both focus on the lives of Tudor women – the latter on Mary, Queen of Scots, who Elizabeth I had executed for treason. She later named Mary’s son James as her heir.

Film

Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) if only for Richard Burton as Henry VIII.

Elizabeth (1998) and Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007) starring Cate Blanchett as the Virgin Queen, and written by Matthew Hirst, who also created The Tudors TV series.

Anne Treasure works in communications, is a recent survivor of the book industry, and exists mainly on the Internet.

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