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

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

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

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

Tory modernisation has failed under David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Russian President Vladimir Putin 'hits his foes where it hurts'  

Dominic Raab: If Western politicians’ vested interests protect Putin, take punishment out of their hands

Dominic Raab
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform