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

Share
Related Topics

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'

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own