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Tudors go to our heads

The history of Henry VIII and his heirs, like that of the Windsors, was a soap opera with the quality of Greek myth. And we can't get enough of it. By Jack O'Sullivan
YOU might think that the idea of chaps in doublet and hose, stiff ruff necks and big floppy head gear finally sank with the Spanish Armada. But who knows these days? The Tudors are suddenly hip and the fashion folk are on the case. Vivienne Westwood has taken to dressing up as Elizabeth I and Isabella Blow, self-styled muse of the Cool Britannia designers, is urging her proteges, Philip Treacy and Alexander McQueen, to think half-timbered.

Meanwhile, in political circles, the talk is oh so Tudor, of Britain as once again a buccaneering, enterprising state, unencumbered by empire, a country of Francis Drakes, a nation casting aside stuffy old ways in favour of storming off confidently into modernity.

And, of course, the royal parallels are clear enough. The dilemmas of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles would have been well understood in Henry VIII's day, when a king had occasionally to dump a wife or two. The House of Tudor, like the Windsors, "provided an extraordinary supply of family dramas, soap operas which had the quality of Greek myth".

The speaker is David Starkey, LSE historian, whose three-part Channel 4 series on the life of Henry began on Sunday. In making his documentary, Dr Starkey apparently has a problem. There is not much visual material, apart from a few Holbeins, to work from. But that does not bother him. Each time some fresh twist in the Tudor drama unfolds, he need only zoom in on the present royal family or today's politicians to find an illustration of history repeating itself. "What has happened in recent years is exactly the same," says Starkey, "except that Diana and Sarah did not have their heads cuts off."

He is not alone. Others fascinated by the Tudors include the makers of a forthcoming film focusing on the love life of Elizabeth I which has sparked a debate on whether she was in fact a virgin; Maria Perry, the actress and historian, who has published a book on the tumultuous lives of Henry's sisters (one married thrice after two divorces) and Peter Ackroyd, whose new work explores the rise and fall of Henry's right-hand man, Thomas More. Lord Irvine behaves with the arrogance and extravagance that led to the demise of Henry's Lord Chancellor, Thomas Wolsey. And, of course, a scene from Elizabeth's court, in the style of Black Adder II (currently being repeated) is being used in an advert for Hoola Hoops.

It is tempting to point out, in the face of all this interest, that the Tudors have always fascinated. It was, after all, something of a golden age which saw the flowering of the English language. Charles Laughton established his career on the strength of his Oscar-winning performance in the 1934 movie, The Private Life of Henry VIII. Glenda Jackson may end up as Mayor of London on the basis of her stern performance as Elizabeth in the Seventies BBC dramatisation of her reign.

Starkey acknowledges that the era has had near universal appeal. "Henry VIII," he says, "has genuinely mythic status. He has become the English Bluebeard. The best stories about the Tudors call for and can stand endless repetition."

But the period seems to have a particular resonance today. "Partly it is because it was an age of great portraiture and pageantry, when, like today, so much attention was paid to visual image," says Maria Perry. She recalls a lavish event in 1520, known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold, when fountains flowed with claret in a massive display of wealth designed to impress Francis I of France when he met Henry VIII to talk peace. It was the type of event, branding England as rich and powerful, of which Peter Mandelson would have been proud.

Starkey also sees the Tudor period as offering vital insights into what post-imperial Britain should aspire to. "We are now," he says, "in exactly the same position as in Henry's day. We are top of the European second division. Then Henry created the Eurosceptic nation by cutting England off from the European Catholic church and creating the Church of England. He established a sense that the nation was God's vehicle on earth. And the Elizabethan period became a time of great exploration throughout the world.

"Blair threatens to destroy the changes Henry made in return for a future in Europe that nobody understands. He is going against the grain of 500 years."

There is, in short, an intellectual battle going over the Tudor legacy, with Blair's people claiming to be the true believers. Mark Leonard, whose work for Demos on rebranding Britain has been a key influence on the Government, argues that the Tudor period demonstrated qualities of nationhood which the present government is now pursuing.

"There was an openness to the world. In those days foreigners regarded this country as one of expressive, emotional people, not of stiff upper lipped types. We started to rediscover this character after Diana's death and over Louise Woodward. Fashion was over the top and in your face, quite resonant of British fashion today. It was, like now, a very creative period - the Tudors created the Church of England, the Navy, the monarchy as we came to know it and what came to be regarded as classical British institutions."

Leonard, author of Britain - Renewing Our Identity, rejects Starkey's image of Henry as founder of the Eurosceptics. "His marriages were designed to create alliances with European countries. He led an international lifestyle. The heroes of the period such as Shakespeare were internationally minded. And Henry could speak several languages. He was a quintessential European."