You can learn a lot about a national culture from the bits of its history it chooses to celebrate. Whilst modern Britain’s most culturally vibrant and frequently invoked historical narrative is almost certainly the red white and blue heroics of the Second World War; slithering behind like the serpent in the garden is the bloody, paranoid romance of the Tudors. Even the most historically illiterate tends to remember that Henry VIII had an idiosyncratic approach to marital fidelity. However for all the executed wives and religious turmoil, it’s somewhat par for the course considering that our history contains more blood, betrayal and conquest than an entire season of Love Island. What is it about the Tudors that make them stand out to us?
Compared to some of the other monarchic heavy hitters, the Tudors were a fairly short-lived dynasty. A mere three generations for a jumped up minor family with only the most tenuous claim to the throne. By contrast their mortal enemy the Plantagenets gripped the reins of power for over 331 years, but aside from Richard III (the devil in the Tudor creation myth) they’re barely a ripple in the national conscience. Perhaps it’s because the Tudor period is where the Medieval becomes modern; under Henry and Elizabeth’s watch the last shreds of the ancient world were sloughed off, revealing the primordial shape of the modern nation blinking in the dawn. The Church of England may indeed owe its entire existence to royal overconfidence in Anne Boleyn’s ability to bear a son; the ripple effects from Henry’s carnal profligacy ended up codifying previously unimagined ideas about keeping Church and State in two separate boxes.
Parliament, too, was transformed as a consequence of kingly lust. As a result of the long sessions, far-reaching measures, and revolutionary consequences of the Reformation Parliament (1529–1536), Parliament went from being an occasional king’s court, called for advice on great matters and for the provision of funds, to being a permanent place of political importance, a representative institution whose statutes bound everyone. Parliament “is the most high and absolute power in the realm”, Sir Thomas Smith stated in 1565, whose decisions “bindeth all manner of persons”. By 1640, devotion to its use and the sense that it was an intrinsic part of English government were so great that 11 years of Charles I’s “personal rule” were sufficient grounds for civil war.
Everything from the British Navy to the Secret Service saw their beginnings under the Tudors (indeed one of these ‘intelligencers’, the astronomer, astrologer, mathematician, alchemist and cartographer Dr John Dee, signed off his letters to Elizabeth with two zeros and a backwards long division sign, effectively making him the first 007.) The Tudors are our bloody beginnings, we are of them but not like them. Perhaps this is the reason that there is enough fiction set in the time period to fill all of Britain’s landfills added together. Whilst the historical names and faces have the comforting pageantry of the past, behind the ruffs, codpieces and armour we are looking at ourselves, embroidered in rubies and blood.