With the hotly-anticipated final instalment of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell series set to be published, Hephzibah Anderson explores Tudormania, and why this era of history still fascinates us today.
More than 400 years after their era ended, the Tudors are everywhere, striding across stages and swaggering onto screens, haunting our politics, and even slipping into our wardrobes by way of statement sleeves and Anne Boleyn necklines. The Duchess of Cambridge has been sporting pearl-studded velvet headbands, and Boleyn and her fellow wives are now strutting their stuff on both Broadway and the West End in Six, a musical by Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow that features an electronica remix of Greensleeves.
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Nowhere is the dynasty’s pull felt more forcefully than in literature – from fiction to non-fiction, high-brow to low, the Tudor reign is apparently unshakeable. And towering above all those portly Henrys and jewel-encrusted wives is one man: Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell, whose final outing looks set to become the publishing event of the year.
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Tudor England has long fascinated both at home and abroad, and with good reason. It was a period of unprecedented social, political and religious upheaval that laid the foundations of modern Britain. As Elizabeth Fremantle, author of Tudor-set novels including Queen’s Gambit, says: “Certain periods come up again and again, I think because they’re times of great change. In the Reformation, the old way of life was obliterated almost overnight.”
The Tudor drama – and what drama! – is played out largely through desire, marriage and pregnancy
Unlike other complex moments in history, the Tudor drama – and what drama! – is played out largely through desire, marriage and pregnancy. “It’s so easy for people to connect with because it’s a human story”, notes writer and critic Stephanie Merritt, whose latest instalment in her series about 16th-Century spy and heretic philosopher Giordano Bruno – published under the pen name SJ Parris – is due out in April. “It’s about rivalry and marriages and love, and then beyond that, in the next generation, it’s a story of sibling rivalry, which is also a family drama.”
And then there are the characters themselves – an “upstart dynasty”, as Fremantle puts it. “You’ve got a man on the throne who’s a proper Bluebeard figure, a despot. He changes society in order to achieve his own personal ends – his desire for a son wasn’t a whim, it was a really urgent necessity. There’s an extraordinary sense of jeopardy.”
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In the UK, it’s one of the first chapters of history that we learn as children, summed up in the macabre, sing-song rhyme about Henry’s six wives: divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. . It can feel a very physically present part of our national story, too. On rainy summer days, we pay to traipse around the homes of some of its key protagonists, and at the National Portrait Gallery, we can feel the intensity of their gazes, undimmed by the passing centuries, thanks to paintings by the likes of Hans Holbein.
Each generation views the past through its own lens, revealing as much about itself as the time in question. The Victorians, for instance, idealised the Tudor era. Their religious identity was forged by the Tudors; they, too, were living through a period of immense social change; and as industrialisation gathered pace, the pageantry of the 16th-Century’s ‘Merrie England’ exerted a powerful nostalgic pull. It was Queen Victoria who opened up Hampton Court, once home to Henry, to the public. As well as creating mock Tudor, an architectural style that’s never really gone away, and shelves of prototype pop-history about the period, the Victorians bequeathed a certain kind of romantic Tudor heroine.
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The influence of those women could still be felt a couple of world wars later, when Jean Plaidy wrote her own bestselling Tudor novels – novels that would shape how publishing in particular viewed the era for decades to come, giving rise to a sub-genre that critic Laura Miller, writing in Salon back in 2015, memorably dismissed as “princess novels”. Though the likes of bestselling author Philippa Gregory strive to inject some feminist agency into their stories, Miller was unconvinced, comparing the first chapters of The Other Boleyn Girl to Gossip Girl. “It is, essentially, the same,” she declared.
By the time Mantel – still a relatively underappreciated author – published Wolf Hall in 2009, the marketplace was glutted with works whose jackets featured ruffs galore and bosoms heaving from bejazzled bodices, as well as more historically sound works by the likes of Antonia Fraser, Alison Weir and CJ Samson. Originally intended as a standalone novel, Wolf Hall became the first in a trilogy that has already sold millions of copies, won her two Booker Prizes (and counting), and spawned a cottage industry of screen and stage adaptations.
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The final instalment, The Mirror & The Light, is released next week and, at more than 900 pages long, is every bit as brilliant as the early reviews make out: propulsive and intimate, sweeping and immersive, it’s a fitting endpoint to an extraordinary series. Unlike most series, each of these three novels is quite different. The latest, for instance, has a more diffuse narrative than its immediate predecessor, Bring Up the Bodies; it’s also the most saturated with tangible historical detail. The descriptions of food alone might fill a small cookbook.
Shifting the gaze
In swinging the spotlight around to wily fixer-in-chief Thomas Cromwell, Mantel has not only elevated Tudor England as a novelistic setting (and, some might say, the historical novel itself), she’s altered our view of it. “She’s shifted the gaze, and with it our understanding of Tudor history,” says Nicholas Pearson, publishing director at 4th Estate and Mantel’s editor. “The gaze was always on the wives, but with the trilogy it is Thomas Cromwell who is brought most sharply into focus. And through the prism of Cromwell, we understand Tudor England differently. That is part of the genius of it, I think.”
Part of her achievement lies in her ability to use character to illuminate radical differences between now and then
A certain kind of historian is ever ready to conjure up parallels to the past, casting the Tudors as olden times Kardashians or Kennedys or characters from Game of Thrones. Mantel has no time for this – especially when it comes to comparing the English Reformation to Brexit. For a start, Cromwell was a committed internationalist. It wasn’t a break with Europe, either, but with Rome.
“People who write fiction about the past are always asked for modern parallels, as if only the present validates the past. And as if historical fiction were an exceptionally tricky and labour-intensive way of doing journalism, but the past is not a rehearsal, it is the show itself. Our ancestors were not us in an unevolved form,” Mantel insisted in one of her 2017 Reith Lectures.
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It’s a powerful point, though in the same lecture series, she noted that there are continuities – prophets of doom, for instance, our own using climate change to frighten the masses, where their Tudor equivalents employed the idea of sin. For Merritt, who began her own series 10 years ago, parallels between the Tudors and our own age have occasionally felt uncanny. “I was writing about espionage in 1580s, and some of what was happening in terms of the detention of terrorism suspects looked so similar”.
As Mantel has said, the world is once again ‘at the mercy of a rumour system’
Another similarity is the high-stakes gossip, which in Henry’s court was all but indistinguishable from news. As Mantel told The Financial Times in 2017, the world is once again “at the mercy of a rumour system”, this one calling itself the internet. It’s a point not unrelated to enduring anxieties about historical fiction in general, and about Mantel’s depiction of Cromwell in particular, which contrasts with the way he’s been cast by many a historian.
Irresistible though it is to play spot-the-similarities, it’s through absorbing the contrasts between today and Tudor England that we grow. Merritt acknowledges that one of the hardest-to-convey aspects of life back then is the role played by salvation. As Mantel has explained, “Their lives were lived in an exquisite tension between the claims of time and the claims of eternity. This life was short and hard, its aim was salvation.” But if we can grasp this – if an author can lead us there – it has real value to us in the 21st Century. “If we enter into their concerns, it helps us understand the history of the Christian west, but it does much more: it helps us to see how in our own era, religious faith globally has the power to build or destroy.”
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It doesn’t end there, either. By the time Elizabeth I’s ascension to the throne closed the Tudor chapter, the country was bitterly split along religious lines. You don’t need to irk Mantel by mentioning Brexit to see the contemporary parallels. To quote Merritt once more: “You do feel in both instances that you want to urge people to listen to the other side and look at what we have in common rather than these arbitrary divisions. It seems mad to us that the country could be so divided, to the point of violence, over whether a piece of bread was God, but future generations are going to look back and think the same about blue passports.”
Peer beyond the accessory trends borrowed from women who lost their heads (literally), and hurry on past the ahistorical excesses of the likes of TV’s The Tudors (as Mantel quipped, while most historical fiction is in dialogue with the past, “The Tudors was not holding a conversation, just stamping, whistling and making faces”). Instead, take in the full sweep of the period. Do that, and it might just seem as if Tudor-mania’s greatest gift is the preaching of tolerance.
The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel is published on 5 March by 4th Estate in the UK and Macmillian in the US.
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