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

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

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits  

So who, really, is David Cameron, our re-elected ‘one nation’ Prime Minister?

Andrew Grice
Time travel: Thomas Cook has been trading since 1841  

A horror show from Thomas Cook that tells you all you need to know about ethical consumerism

Janet Street-Porter
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?