Sarah Sands: The Tudors are the seasoned beams of British history

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The historian Niall Ferguson once complained that schoolchildren are taught only about Henry VIII and the world wars. Yes, but let's face it, these are the blockbusters of British history.

This year, the Tudors are on a roll. Hilary Mantel has become the high-end, historical equivalent of J K Rowling. Wolf Hall, her Booker prize-winning novel about the influence of Thomas Cromwell, won a stadium-size following. Her publishers hastily promised a sequel, then a trilogy. The second book, Bring Up the Bodies, this summer's guaranteed bestseller, spans the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn. If Mantel can make the wily administrator Cromwell such a layered character, imagine how an uppity and doomed Queen will fare in her hands. It will be like jumping into a Holbein painting.

I have been reading Nicola Shulman's portrait of the poet Thomas Wyatt, Graven with Diamonds, an elegantly written, well-researched book which should not be eclipsed by Mantel. Wyatt may not be as major a historical character as Cromwell, but his story is intimately woven into the Tudor court. He was allegedly a lover of Anne Boleyn. It will be interesting to see if Mantel supports this theory. He was sent to the Tower of London during Cromwell's sinister rounding-up of men accused of adultery with the queen, but survived, and later regained favour through another unfortunate queen, Catherine Howard.

It is hard to go wrong with stories of spirited, troublesome, divisive women who turn the country upside-down. Look at The Iron Lady. The vitriol towards Anne Boleyn makes the Thatcher-haters look kindly. The Queen's fault lay in a talent for French wordplay and a high-handedness. But by the time she was sent to the Tower in 1536, she was accused of taking 100 lovers, of bewitching the king, and of poisoning Catherine of Aragon and Princess Mary. Her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, who had schemed to promote Anne, begged the king to be rid of her.

The intrigue and shifting axis of power at the Tudor court gives the Borgias a run for their money. And at the centre is the almost remorseful king, fencing shadows. The tale works on every level. It is a vortex of love, power and religion. It is also the beginning of present day England. The foundation of this proud and bolshie island, at odds with Europe, is formed here. Our present queen's willingness to grant equal rights of succession to a daughter of Prince William, is a reminder of Anne Boleyn's tragedy and dramatic irony. She was beheaded for failing to produce a son, yet her daughter became history's great queen.

The Christmas parade of the Royal Family at church in Sandringham is an expression of narrative determination. The Queen is the head of the Church of England because her ancestor was besotted by a woman who was not his wife. Yet it is hard to imagine Britain now as a Catholic country. It is an example of how the crooked timber of our history assumes a natural, familiar shape over time.

Downton Abbey has been terrific entertainment, but we haven't learnt much from it, whereas anyone over 45 whose brain has got mushy about the order of Henry VIII's wives, feels silent gratitude to Mantel. With the Tudors we can enjoy the human story, admire the qualities that made Britain great and feel a little closer to the century that gave us Shakespeare.

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the 'London Evening Standard'

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