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

Computer Science Teacher required

£7200 - £36000 per annum: Randstad Education Nottingham: We are currently recr...

Teaching Assistant Plymouth

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: TEACHING ASSISTANTS NEEDED FOR PLYMOU...

SEN Teaching Assistant Runcorn

£50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant EBD , Septemb...

Nursery Assistant/Nurse all cheshire areas

£7 per hour: Randstad Education Cheshire: We are a large and successful recrui...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The influx of hundreds of thousands of eastern European workers has significantly altered the composition of some parts of Britain  

Immigration is the issue many in Labour fear most

Nigel Morris
The Lord Mayor of London Fiona Woolf heads the inquiry  

Why should Fiona Woolf be expected to remember every dinner date?

Mark Steel
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker