Chatto & Windus £20
Review: Tudor - The Family Story, By Leanda de Lisle
How to breed a dynasty
Sunday 08 September 2013
Were the Tudors essentially a self-invention? The Tudor Age – not known to them such – was a short one, from Henry VII to Elizabeth I, just grandfather to granddaughter. Yet it has attracted more attention than any other. Henry VII's claim to the throne – through his mother, Margaret Beaufort, the illegitimate great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt, and Edmund Tudor, the son of Catherine of Valois's second husband, the commoner Owen Tudor – was weak. But military success mattered more than progeniture, as his defeat of Richard III at Bosworth showed.
Some may argue that Leanda de Lisle's focus on the Tudors' "family" history is to indulge in prurient detail at the expense of battles and religious debates. But that would be to miss what she is doing with this highly readable but no less scholarly biography: emphasising the role that women play in any dynastic society. Henry VII's overthrow of Richard left him insecure about the hereditary nature of the crown (given that he had pushed that aside), and so, ironically, he highlighted its importance. For him, having a son became all important.
Enter the women. The wives and mothers, from the fascinatingly manipulative and ambitious Margarets – Beaufort and Douglas – to the Elizabeths and Marys who would begin and end a dynasty. De Lisle goes back to the beginning, to Owen Tudor's marriage to Catherine, to trace their grandson's rival to Elizabeth Woodville's offspring (arguing that either Henry VII or Richard III could be blamed for the disappearance of the "princes in the tower" though both are culpable for ignoring their memory). She spends time with Henry VIII's sister, Mary Tudor's line, too, which produced Lady Jane Grey, the "Queen for nine days". She highlights which figures each ruling power chose to emulate – even Mary, Queen of Scots is shown to have "Yorkist" looks, descended from Elizabeth of York. Edward VI was less fortunate, possibly inheriting his uneven shoulders from great-uncle Richard III.
With this game of invention and bloodlines, the Tudors were all about reconciling opposites, and they did so with a ruthless force that fascinates. Mary Tudor was just as capable of executing teenagers as her father, and his father before him. To us, Richard III, erstwhile murderer of the young princes in the tower, seems "a psychopath". But you didn't need to be one to "do away with claimants to your throne", as de Lisle shows. It was a psychopathic age.
Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 National Orgasm Day: Six reasons (plus one bogus one) why they're good for us
- 2 The 'world's most beautiful vagina' has been debunked by science
- 3 Whoopi Goldberg tells Cara Delevingne to suck it up: 'She's not famous. I'M famous'
- 4 John Green schools morning show hosts after awkward interview with Cara Delevingne
- 5 Doctor Who: Christopher Eccleston says why he left the BBC series after just one series
Why Harry Potter's aged 35, not 26
Frank Ocean, where's that new album at?
Jon Snow: Kit Harington spotted in Belfast where Game of Thrones season 6 is filming
Drake responds to Meek Mill's 'diss' track 'Wanna Know' by laughing at the rapper on Instagram
Game of Thrones to run for at least eight seasons, according to HBO showrunners
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn – or a return to a Labour government
Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn says 'we can learn a great deal from Karl Marx'
Is Britain really full up? Are migrants taking our jobs? Leading academic answers the most common anti-immigration claims
Calais Migrant Crisis: Deputy Mayor of Calais labels Cameron's use of 'swarm' as 'racist' and 'ignorant'
Public anger after French sunbather beaten up by gang for wearing a bikini in Reims park
Labour leadership: New poll shows party is now even 'less electable' than under Ed Miliband