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Book Review: The Tudors: The Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty by G.J. Meyer

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Both serious students of 16th-Century England and those with a passing interest in the period will find The Tudors: The Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty by G.J. Meyer a comprehensive look at that momentous span of history, along with essays that provide supplementary context to the saga of this most examined of British royal families.

Now out in paperback, the book is also a refreshing reality-check grounded in fact after the entertaining fictions of the recent past that have figured in the public imagination, most notably The Tudors, the TV series on Showtime, which took the term “historical license” to a new — and outrageous — level.

The background entries lend flavor and perspective to the times, such as “Bestsellers,” which explores the advent of printing and its impact on the scholars of the day. “They Were What They Ate” is a taste of typical Tudorian fare and recipes (“Take a necke of mutton and a brest to make the broth stronge and then scum it cleane”), along with speculation as to why many of the Tudor lineage deteriorated at young ages (with the exception of Elizabeth I, who apparently ate sparingly).

The book is the first in a while to tackle the Tudors in such an ambitious fashion, and the critical analysis is for the most part (with one notable exception) on the mark. The focus on Henry VIII, for example, is as “Monster,” an apt description, and not just due to his reputation as Bluebeard-ish barbarian and decapitator of two wives. Henry’s reign of terror actually began prior to his marriage to doomed second wife Anne Boleyn, and in the chapter “First Blood,” Meyer describes his initial victim, a 27-year-old nun named Elizabeth Barton (the “Nun of Kent”), put to death due to her opposition to the King’s intentions of divorcing his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

The author cites the Barton case as the beginning of Henry’s path of ruthless and unfettered reprisals when met with opposition. It was behavior that eventually consolidated power almost exclusively in the hands of the monarch, cemented by England’s break with Rome and the Catholic Church in 1534.

Ghastly tales of executions, persecutions (and even a near-genocide in the case of a 1543 invasion of Scotland) were par for the course; yet Henry, his distorted ego self-delusional and intact, seemed oblivious to the horror of his actions even until the end. On his deathbed, when asked for his confession, he answered that he was convinced his sins would have been forgiven even had they “been greater than what they were.”

After the reigns of Henry’s only legitimate son (Edward VI, who died at 15) and the turbulent five years of Mary Tudor, Meyer approaches the epoch of Elizabeth I with a revisionist tone bordering on the disdainful. One passage about the “Survivor” (as he does correctly call her), in the twilight of her reign:

“Four decades of painstakingly building and maintaining a theatrically regal persona, of projecting a manufactured image across not only her kingdom but all of Europe in order to compensate for being a female monarch in a world ruled by men, had reduced Elizabeth to the tiresome shabbiness of a trouper whose prime was long past.”

Though “Gloriana” was no Pollyanna, the reality is that Elizabeth’s relative religious tolerance, when contrasted with the Catholic fanaticism of her half-sister Mary (“Bloody Mary,” for a reason) was enlightening in the extreme, and best summarized by her comment that she had no desire to “make windows into men’s souls.”

Still, Meyer maintains that despite her stewardship of England’s “Golden Age,” Elizabeth’s last decade left the kingdom in a dismal shambles and that “her passing was not nearly as lamented as legend would have us believe.”

I suppose time – or rather, yet another generation of Tudor historians — will tell.

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