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.
Broadcaster unveils Christmas scheduleTV
Review: Posh journalists just can't get enough of each otherTV
Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s
'At times I thought he was me'film
Review: One Direction, Fourmusic
Review: The World of Ice and Firebooks
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Tamir Rice: 12-year-old boy playing with fake gun dies after being shot by Ohio police
- 2 To help fuel their propaganda machine against the poor, our government has now decided to redefine the word 'welfare'
- 3 Halle Berry takes ex-boyfriend Gabriel Aubry to court for allegedly trying to make daughter look less African-American
- 4 Isis propaganda image showing 'abuse of Muslim woman by soldiers' is actually taken from Hungarian porn film
- 5 'You should come to my house and eat cheeses with me': 4-year-old sends adorable love letter to girl at school
Black Mirror Christmas special: Jon Hamm episode will see people 'blocked' in real life
True Detective series 2: Rachel McAdams cast in female lead as 'no-nonsense' detective
Zoella: YouTube sensation Zoe Sugg's debut novel expected to become overnight bestseller
Naked free runner captured in breathtaking photographs above London's streets
Posh People: Inside Tatler, BBC2 - TV review: Fundamentally not just about posh people
Rochester by-election: Ukip gains second MP as Tory defector Mark Reckless holds seat
'Beast of Bolsover' Dennis Skinner takes Ukip MP Mark Reckless to task moments after he is sworn in
Rochester by-election: Labour MP Emily Thornberry resigns after posting white van and England flags tweet
France 'blocks' Russian sailors from boarding a warship
The young are the new poor: Sharp increase in number of under-25s living in poverty, while over-65s are better off than ever
Revealed: How the world gets rich – from privatising British public services