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Review: Tudor - The Family Story, By Leanda de Lisle

How to breed a dynasty

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.