It was brave to embark on this book: so vast is the literature on the period and familiar its highlights. But Peter Ackroyd is energetic and gifted enough to have mastered his sources and produced a sparklingly fresh account of Tudor England. No doubt, the professionals will find plenty to complain about here; but most of them will secretly wish that they had been able to write it.
Yes, the gory bits get the full treatment: the brutal executions (especially of two of Henry VIII’s hapless wives and the Jesuit Edmund Campion); the horrendous burnings; the risings of 1536 and the rash of rebellions from Cornwall to Norfolk in 1549; the careers of the two thuggish Seymour brothers who tried to take advantage of the minority of Henry’s son Edward and gain control of the land; the impudent plot by Robert Dudley to put his daughter-in-law on the throne when the sickly Edward died.
Elizabeth’s amours and the plots against her receive the attention they need, as do the stories (which are particularly well told) of that most fatal of femmes fatales, Mary, Queen of Scots, and of the dashing, vainglorious young Earl of Essex, who, in a bid to break the Cecil family’s grip on the Elizabethan political scene, tried to kidnap as well as woo the aging Elizabeth.
Ackroyd has a wonderful eye for the telling detail, cameos that stick in the mind. I will limit myself to three examples: Henry in his last years, bloated and stinking, being hoisted up stairs by ropes and pulleys; Elizabeth lending a handkerchief to her French suitor, the Duke of Anjou, when he wept on being told that he was not to be the lucky man; the same Elizabeth sporting the first-ever wristwatch. These are the little touches that make the past come alive.
Ackroyd also tries hard to master the complexities of the Tudor religious scene and to be fair to all sides, even “Bloody” Mary Tudor. But he could say more about the positive qualities of her brief restoration of the old faith, and is not surefooted when tracing the remarkable revival of English Catholicism in the last decades of Elizabeth’s reign. (Incidentally, he should not say that Roman Catholics believe that the Eucharistic presence is a physical one and that in the Mass the sacrifice of Calvary “is repeated or reproduced.” Catholic teaching is that the presence is real but not physical and that the Mass is a making present now of Christ’s unrepeatable self-offering. And why does he continually refer to Convocation, the clerical “parliament”—in fact there were two of them, one for the South and one for the North—as “a convocation”?)
The final chapter claims that the great theme of the book is the story of a reformation of the English church that came wholly from “above” and owed little to continental Protestantism. This may be largely true of what occured during Henry VIII’s reign. But the Elizabethan Settlement, for all its fudging, was a Protestant one. Its leading divines were inspired primarily by Calvin and saw the English church as part of the pan-Protestant movement. Ackroyd calls that church “Anglican,” which is highly questionable, especially as he previously stated that Anglicanism “did not really ever exist before [Richard] Hooker”—i.e., not until the 1590s—which is much nearer the truth. Anglicanism was a sort of English “Counter-Reformation.”
It is true that the Reformation gave us an English Bible and the sonorities of Thomas Cranmer. But I think Ackroyd could have said more about the losses: hundreds of often magnificent buildings torn down; countless statues, stained glass windows, chalices, pyxes, and paxes smashed; thousands of rich vestments stripped of their gold and silver thread and jewels; organs and rich libraries gutted, and so on. This was mass vandalism, a cultural disaster.
I also think he underestimates the fragility of the Tudor regime. If, as seems likely, Henry’s grandfather Edward IV was illegitimate—and was known by many contemporaries to be—his daughter, whom the first Tudor king married, did little to strengthen the dynasty’s position. The threat may have diminished as the years went by, but Henry VII’s son was still very vulnerable. Reginald Pole, eventually a cardinal and archbishop of Canterbury, had a better claim to the throne than did Edward VI. Had Pole come back to England to lead the great rising of 1536, as he nearly did, or had he married Mary Tudor, as some urged—what might have happened?
As for Henry’s daughter Elizabeth, we can never expect to shed all the “Good Queen Bess” and Gloriana mythology: It means too much to England’s self-image, and to Hollywood. But we can try.
Ackroyd does pretty well. His Elizabeth is a remarkable woman, but more than a bit cantankerous and mean. He could add that, since she never ventured further north than Kenilworth in the Midlands, and never visited East Anglia, let alone Wales or the southwest, the majority of her subjects never saw her. She spent much of her time on progress at a few miles’ radius around London, enjoying the increasingly reluctant hospitality of some of her wealthier subjects, and probably patronized her dressmakers more than the arts and learning. The famous Elizabethan sea dogs, like Drake and Hawkins, were little more than pirates.
If we take away the things that happened to her, that is, that were not of her making—the plots, the unwelcome arrival in England of the fugitive Mary Queen of Scots, the Spanish Armada, and so on—there is not much to show for her reign, not much positive achievement initiated by her or her ministers. And, of course, we must always remember that Shakespeare did not belong to the Elizabethan establishment. He was likely a serious Catholic in his younger days, and he remained an outsider to the end.
But none of that detracts from the fact that, if you want a finely written, racy account of the monster Henry VIII and his brood, a history book that really fires your imagination and is often so exciting that you cannot put it down, you should get this book.
J. J. Scarisbrick, professor emeritus of history at the University of Warwick, is the author of Henry VIII.