Misery and misrule in long-ago England
For 118 years, beginning with the ascent of Henry VII to the throne in 1485 and continuing through the sequential reigns of Henry VIII and his children, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth, England suffered under the divisive, rapacious and bloody rule of the Tudors. While this era was underscored by Henry VIII’s legal and material dispossession of the Catholic Church in England, the Tudors further created misery, says G.J. Meyers, author of The Tudors, by engaging in profligate personal spending, fighting elective and wasteful wars and being actively hostile toward the plight of common citizens. Such advances as occurred in the theater, higher education and naval power happened, Meyer contends, in spite of the Tudors, rather than because of them.
So why are the Tudors so widely celebrated in virtually every medium from popular song to TV dramas? Why do many still regard Queen Elizabeth’s reign (1558-1603) as England’s Golden Age? Meyer argues that such mythmaking arose to aid descendants of the powerful ruling class Henry VIII created when he redistributed the Church’s vast wealth among his favorites. “No longer needing or willing to tolerate a monarch as overbearing as the Tudors had been at their zenith,” he says, “that new elite nevertheless continued to need the idea of the Tudors, of the wonders of the Tudor revolution, in order to justify its own privileged position. . . . Centuries of relentless indoctrination and denial ensued, with the result that England turned into a rather curious phenomenon: a great nation actively contemptuous of much of its own history.”
The story of Henry VIII’s serial marriages is well-known in its broader outlines and is, at first, almost comic to witness, as the king twists this way and that to appear a pious and dutiful Catholic while simultaneously seeking to satisfy his own considerable lusts. But the humor fades quickly. As his impatience grows at Rome’s unwillingness to grant him a divorce from his first wife, Henry finds it convenient to become, in effect, his own Pope, his own interpreter and executioner of God’s will. Once he reaches this stage, of course, Catholicism in England becomes ipso facto a religious affront and must be eradicated—along with the enormous holdings in land and property it has accumulated over the centuries.
Still, there is the sticky matter of turning the English masses (and his own children, for that matter) against the only Church they’ve ever known, and one that has reliably acted as a safety net for the poor. These are the seedbeds of “heresy” and rebellion that Henry VIII and his successors confront with such brutality and disregard for justice that one winces to read about it. Even under the comparatively gentle Queen Mary, who ruled for only five years, more than 300 people were barbarously executed, most of whom Meyer judges to have been “incapable of posing a threat to church or state.”
Meyer does a masterful job of delineating the ever-shifting lines of intrigue during the various Tudor reigns and of keeping tabs on a dizzying array of genetic, romantic and political relationships. He also provides crucial background chapters on Parliament, the English theater, village and monastic life, schools and schooling, John Calvin, the Tower of London, the Council of Trent and other significant entities and occurrences that stood apart from the English court even as they were affected by it.
Assiduously researched and laid out, The Tudors is hard-edged history without the beguiling romantic overlay. Meyer never renders his assessments vulnerable by falling in love with (or in awe of) the figures he chronicles, and his book is the better for it.
Edward Morris reviews from Nashville.