Reviews

There’s more to the Tudors than Henry’s marital problems

After three glorious weeks, the BBC’s Tudors season is drawing to a close. Highlights for me included an expert panel (with guests ranging from David Starkey to Hilary Mantel) taking a fresh look at the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn and a biography of Henry VII, the king who gave birth to the dynasty.

But what impressed me most was the fact that the BBC moved away from a narrative focusing purely on Henry VIII and his domestic problems. For far too long countless schoolchildren have grown up thinking that the only thing of significance about the Tudors was that a fat king (Henry VIII) couldn’t hold down a marriage, getting through six wives during his lifetime.

The reality of course, as many of the BBC programmes pointed out, was that the Tudor dynasty was far more significant. The Reformation, which was heavily influenced by Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and separation from the church in Rome, was the start of a turbulent journey towards the modern England we live in today.

Yes, Henry’s motives for waging war against the Pope may have been personal, but he embarked on a social transformation that we are all now benefiting from. In the place of a corrupt Church, came merchants who drove through the wealth and entrepreneurism that exists to this day.

It was tough for many as the Reformation meant an end of the charitable support offered by monasteries. But after a bitter and messy struggle, I believe that things became more equal. Many talk today of a society divided between the haves and have-nots, but before the long process of Reformation began things were much more unfair.

As Diarmaid MacCulloch argued in a fascinating programme re-assessing the character Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s one-time right-hand man, much of the credit must come from those in the Royal Court. The King died a Catholic, but it was the likes of Cromwell who pushed through Protestant change.

Although Cromwell, the son of a brewer from Putney, is best known for closing down monasteries, I have to agree with MacCulloch – his role in pushing through reforms should be better acknowledged. He pushed so far in trying to change England for the better that he was beheaded.

Melyvn Bragg’s film looking at the lasting influence of the William Tyndale, who translated the Bible into English, was another example of something adding something significant to the Tudors debate. Here is someone who went to the block for his beliefs, but his legacy lives on – he was the main author of the King James Bible, the very translation used by Christians today.

And watching the Tudors season on BBC2 encouraged me to go further in learning about the dynasty. I’ve been watching re-runs of David Starkey’s Monarchy series and at the weekend I went to the splendid Hampton Court. Henry’s palace and grounds make for a wonderful summer’s day out.

Historic Royal Palaces, which manages the site, has done a great job bringing the Tudors story by re-enacting some great moments from Henry’s turbulent reign. It was at Hampton Court, for example, that Henry made the decision to divorce Catherine of Aragon and split from the Church in Rome.

So where does all this leave Henry’s legacy? I have more admiration for the king than I had three weeks ago. Aside from his marital problems, it seems to me that he was pushed and pulled by both Protestants and powerful Catholic nobles. They all wanted to dominate in his Court.

But we need to move away from these personal characteristics and look at the important, societal long-lasting changes that the dynasty brought about.

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The Great Hall at Hampton Court

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