Tudor terror: John Guy is on a mission to bring history to the masses

Forgery, forgotten evidence and mouse-droppings – Tudor expert John Guy has made all sorts of unsavoury discoveries down in the National Archives. He tells Mark Bostridge why he's on a mission to bring Tudor history to the masses, and where David Starkey got it wrong

It is the summer of 1535, just weeks after the execution of Sir Thomas More. A small rowing boat makes its way along the Thames from Chelsea to London Bridge. The oarsman's passengers are a 29-year-old gentlewoman, Margaret Roper, and her maid, who carries a basket. A horrific sight meets their eyes as they approach the bridge: a dozen or more skulls on poles protruding from the parapet, which have been boiled and tarred to prevent them being fed upon by circling gulls. As new heads arrive, the old ones are moved along the row until they reach the end of the line, when they are thrown into the river.

At the door of the north tower of the bridge, the maid negotiates with the bridge-master, handing over the contents of her purse. In return she receives one of the skulls, carefully wrapping it in a linen cloth and placing it in a basket. This is all that remains of Thomas More. One day the skull will join Margaret Roper herself, when she is interred in the family tomb at Chelsea, a burial symbolic of the special attachment between father and daughter.

This is the gripping opening scene of John Guy's study of the relationship of Margaret Roper and her father, Thomas More. Such a grisly depiction of the past seems all of a piece with John Guy's historical method. As a writer Guy has sometimes been accorded the epithet "Chandleresque", a tribute to the forensic skills with which he sets about revisiting and reinvestigating the scene of a historical crime, and to the pacy, atmospheric narrative in which he places his discoveries.

Four years ago, Guy carried off the Whitbread Biography Prize for his thrilling dissection of the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, My Heart is My Own. Had Mary really been complicit in the assassination of her second husband, Lord Darnley, at Kirk o'Field in 1567, he asked, or was she framed by agents of the Scottish Crown, the Confederate Lords, anxious to replace Mary's rule with a regency in the name of her young son James? By subjecting the Casket Letters, so long reputed to establish Mary's guilt, to rigorous analysis, Guy was able to reveal the letters as a clever forgery. In some instances, forged passages – designed to prove Mary's part in Darnley's murder – had been interpolated into genuine letters in Mary's handwriting.

Now Guy has turned his attention to another story from Tudor history, that of the opposition of Thomas More, the former Lord Chancellor, to Henry VIII's marriage to Anne Boleyn, his arrest for treason, and his martyrdom. As before, Guy's scholarship is irreproachable. He admits to being never happier than when he is scrutinising some vital document which will enable him to throw new light on a familiar version of events. "Sometimes this means that I have literally to get my hands dirty." He tells me that 16th-century documents in the National Archives are often covered with damp and the traces of vermin, and one doesn't always have the protection of gloves, though he adds that modern techniques, such as ultra-violet light, can yield unexpected dividends in the examination of papers that are simply too damaged to read with the naked eye.

From a host of unprepossessing legal documents, through which we can glimpse the small-scale workings of Tudor society, as well as from a series of more idiosyncratic sources, such as the interrogation records of More's servants while their master was under arrest in the Tower, Guy has produced a compelling portrait of a tyrant's court, in which the king's friends had far more to fear than his enemies. Guy's Henry is a Stalin-like figure, bullying and intimidating his closest associates, fixing juries and resorting to all sorts of chicanery to achieve his will.

Central to Guy's book is the part played in the drama by More's favourite child, Margaret. "She has been airbrushed out of the public events of More's life," Guy says, "and confined to scenes of the More family's domestic life at Chelsea. Yet, during his imprisonment, Margaret was his sole intermediary with the outside world, and without her support More could never have continued his heroic struggle against the king. It is to the letters they wrote to one another, to those she smuggled in and out of the Tower during her visits, and to Margaret's energy in preparing an edition of her father's collected works after his death, that we owe much of what we know about Thomas More today. In Holbein's famous portrait of the family, Margaret sits with a book open on her lap. She is, if you like, the storyteller – and what an emotional story it is."

John Guy always knew that he wanted to make Tudor history his career. Born in 1949, in Warragul, Australia, where his father, an engineer, was on an assignment "fixing cranes", Guy returned to England at the age of three and was raised in Lytham St Anne's. In the late 1960s, he went up to Clare College, Cambridge, and came under the spell of the preeminent Tudor historian of the time, G R Elton.

However, unlike his slightly older Cambridge contemporary, David Starkey, who also studied under Elton, Guy never turned against his mentor. He remains full of "admiration and affection" for Elton, while conceding that he could be something of a "control freak". He further admits that the Eltonian model of 16th-century English history, with its concentration on administrative and institutional structures, and its insistence on a Tudor Revolution in government piloted by Thomas Cromwell, is far removed from the kind of history he himself currently writes, addressed to a general readership who have had their appetites whetted by the dramatic, vivid presentations of Henry VIII's reign that they have seen on television.

Twenty years ago, Guy, then still a full-time academic at Cambridge, published Tudor England, the first full-length study of the period for decades, which has sold a quarter of a million copies to date, and remains an influential textbook for undergraduates. Today, while he still teaches part-time, his approach to the subject has undergone a sea-change. Television, including his own involvement in documentaries for the BBC's Timewatch strand, has helped him appreciate that history can be written in a more inspirational way, though he now thinks that TV is too bent on "sensationalising" the past. As an academic, Guy had already written two books on Thomas More's public career, but I sense that what attracts him most to the story nowadays are the novelistic elements in it – underpinned, of course, by scholarship. At home in north London, Guy and his wife Julia Fox, who last year published a biography of Jane Rochford, nemesis to two of Henry VIII's queens, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, are a veritable Tudor production house.

One of the myths that Guy's book destroys is of the idealised picture that has come down to us of the More family as a cosy, supportive unit. In fact, like any family, this one was riven by internal disputes, chiefly about religion (the new Lutheran faith) and money.

What of the "man for all seasons" himself? Despite Pope John Paul II's nomination of More, in 2000, as the patron saint of politicians, More's unrelenting campaigns against Protestant heretics have come under renewed scrutiny in recent years, challenging his reputation as a humanist intent on equality of justice for all.

The figure of Robert Bolt's play and film, so popular for the counter-culture of the 1960s, may have had his day, Guy admits. But there is no doubt whatsoever in Guy's mind that, in the shadow of the block, and with the steely resolve of his daughter behind him, Thomas More became a hero of conscience. "When the chips were down, he remained a conscientious objector and stayed an honest man."

The extract

A Daughter's Love: Thomas and Margaret More, By John Guy (Fourth Estate £25)

'...Times were changing. Not for nothing would Margaret's descendants compare Anne to Salome, who'd called for the head of John the Baptist. Incensed by More's boycott, Anne thirsted for revenge after discovering that, although some friends of his had urged him to attend her coronation and he'd accepted £20 from them to buy a new gown, he'd stayed at home, jesting with his benefactors'

Arts and Entertainment
Kristin Scott Thomas outside the Royal Opera House before the ceremony (Getty)
film
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Channel 4's Indian Summers
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West found himself at the centre of a critical storm over the weekend after he apparently claimed to be “the next Mandela” during a radio interview
music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig and Rory Kinnear film Spectre in London
film
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor