If you were one of the faithful who watched religiously the machinations, schemes and horrors that ran rampant through the court of Henry VIII through the four seasons of Showtime's historical tour de force, The Tudors, you may want to spend a few days with G. J. Meyer's new history of the whole family in The Tudors: The Complete Story of England's Most Notorious Dynasty. While Meyer's portrait of Henry VIII may not be much like the dashing Jonathan Rhys Meyers, it is likely the more accurate picture, physically, if nothing else. Still like the Showtime series, G. J. Meyer's book is no dry as dust academic history. It is a lively account of life, love and death in not only the court of Henry VIII, but that of his father and three children as well.
Meyer begins with Henry VII's ascent to the throne after the defeat of Richard III at Bosworth Field, the battle which — as Shakespeare would have it — the defeated villain screamed out his offer of his kingdom for a horse in 1485 and ends with the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. While he does deal with the reigns of all the Tudors, the bulk of the book deals with Henry VIII and his ego-maniacal thirst to control the hearts and minds of his subjects and the bloody results of that ego. It was not merely that he wanted to rid himself of a wife he no longer wanted, as Meyer sees it, it was a firm belief in his own godlike wisdom and authority. His quarrels with Rome were as much about his demands for his own supremacy as it was for the granting of an annulment from Catherine of Aragon. Besides, the suppression of Catholic institutions in England had the advantage of swelling his treasuries and those of his favorites.
The religious turmoil begun in his reign continued through the stewardships of those that followed. His young son, Edward VI, of an even more Evangelical turn than his father, pushed the kingdom further away from Rome during his short reign. His sister Mary, a faithful Catholic, then became Queen and did away with much of what her father and brother had done, making sure to persecute those who failed to go along with her. Upon Mary's death, the pendulum swung back once more as her Reform minded sister Elizabeth assumed the throne. Now it was the Catholics that were hounded and persecuted. Much of that part of the book devoted to Elizabeth concentrates on debunking the romanticized view of her that has dominated popular opinion over the years. Meyer's pictures her as vain and selfish, an aging crone demanding to be treated as a fresh young beauty. Moreover, her treatment of her subjects was every bit as cruel and inhuman as that of the rest of her family. The history of the Tudors is a history of a period filled with intolerance, betrayal and dishonor. "Notorious" is barely adequate a word to describe the family.
Their reign is filled with impressive heroes and hypocritical villains. Sir Thomas More and Bishop Fisher both go to the axe refusing to compromise their faith. Catherine of Aragon stands firm in her belief in the legality of her marriage. Robert Aske leads a rebellion, but mistakenly puts his faith in the word of the King. The list of villains, unfortunately, is much longer, led by Thomas Wolsey, the King's advisor who used his position to enrich himself and lord it over the rest of the court. Thomas Cromwell rises from nowhere to become secretary to the King and his chief political agent and provocateur. Then there were hypocrites and lickspittles like Thomas Cranmer and Richard Rich. Sadistic torturers like "Rackmaster" Norton and Richard Topcliffe. Suffice it to say, the Tudors couldn't have managed all the mayhem without plenty of help.
Most of the historical chapters are followed by background chapters which explain some particular facet of life in the sixteenth century. For example there are background chapters on "Torture," "The Council of Trent," "The Rise and Fall of the English Theater," and "Popes." Meyer explains things like the theology of Calvin and the role it played in the English reformation, the history of the Tower where so many were imprisoned on their way to the chopping block, and the role of the Turks during the century. These background passages are often informative and help to clarify events in the historical chapters that may need some explanation for the modern reader. On the other hand, the background doesn't always relate directly to the chapter it follows. Sometimes, then, the explanatory material is not as useful as it might have been, and sometimes it necessitates a repetition of information we may have been given fifty or a hundred pages back. Still, this is a comparatively minor quibble; the background is well worth putting up with the occasional repetition.
Meyer's book is carefully researched and well documented. It is written with style and panache. He seems to recognize that he is dealing with the stuff that would be on the covers of today's scandal rags and the crawls of the twenty-four hour news channels, and he writes with the kind of wit and scorn such material often deserves. He takes a sensationalistic subject and treats it with the jaundiced eye it deserves.