Tudor Tuesday: The Thing About History

Welcome to Tudor Tuesday, an occasional blog series where I’ll dive into the ocean that is the history of England’s Tudor Dynasty, which ruled from 1485-1603. It’s my favorite historical period, filled with dynamic people and events that prove that truth is stranger than fiction. I won’t be writing one of these every week, because that would be too much, but I’ll try to do at least one each month.

But before we starting talking about the people, places, and things of the Tudor era, let’s get a few things out of the way. First of all, I am not a professional historian. I don’t have a degree in history. I’m just a history enthusiast who loves learning about the past. So I’m not going to get everything right. If I get something wrong and you catch it, please let me know.

That said, be careful about citing works of historical fiction as factual. The key word there is ‘fiction’, and while many authors strive for accuracy, even the best of them will admit that they don’t get everything perfectly right*. It’s up to the reader (or viewer or listener) to do their own fact checking to find out if some plot twist in a historical novel was true or not. And be aware, too, that not all historical sources are equal. Philippa Gregory, for example, draws from the works of the Catholic scholar Nicholas Sanders, who wrote polemics about Anne Boleyn as a way of attacking the legitimacy of Elizabeth I’s reign. But Sanders was a small child when Anne Boleyn was executed, and was extremely biased against her. He was essentially writing anti-Reformation propaganda decades after the fact in order to achieve a political goal in favor of the Catholic church. So Sanders isn’t a reliable source when it comes to the reign of Henry VIII the way something like Thomas Cromwell’s ledger would be. Sure, pulling from Sanders’s work helps Gregory to push even more drama into something like The Other Boleyn Girl, but that doesn’t make it historically accurate. It would be like me ranting about the wild goings-on at Woodstock (the one in 1969), and then someone in the year 2485 uses my crazy story to write what they swear is a fact-based novel about Woodstock.

“And on the last day, a dragon showed up! It’s totally true! I have the source right here.”
Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

Here are two things to keep in mind when reading about history:

  1. The past is a foreign land
  2. People have always been people

While you might be able to travel to England and walk in the metaphorical footsteps of Roman legions, Vikings, and kings and queens, those cultures are so radically different from our own that they might as well have come from the moon. For example, while we hope that we might be successful enough to rise from, say, the middle-class to the upper class, such a thing was nearly unheard of in previous centuries, where sumptuary laws decreed who could wear what kind of fabric, fashions, or colors, like a 1571 law that decreed that on Sundays and holidays, all males over the age of six– except for the nobility– had to wear a particular kind of hat. And everyone was like, “Yeah, that makes sense”.

Or let’s take a look at the Bible, which was a foundational text for monarchies across Europe, but only in a certain version. English translations began appearing as early as 1382, but they were regarded as being riddled with errors, and those who read those translations and then set themselves apart from the ‘standard’ belief of the realm were persecuted or, like the Lollards, were executed. Over a question of translation. I know I’ll fight for the sake of a banned book, but can you imagine anyone who would willingly face being burned to death over To Kill a Mockingbird?

So while it’s easy to be an armchair historian and judge earlier cultures for not being as “enlightened” as we are today or deciding to “cancel” books from those time periods because they’re not woke enough, it’s essential to remember that the world was different then, and the social norms of 1527 were radically different from those of 2020.

Just imagine what a historian in 2156 will think when they look back at 2020 from their more enlightened time.

“What the hell were they thinking?”
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

But while culture and social norms may be drastically different, people have always been people. Then, as now, they were striving to do better and make the world better for their children. They wanted to keep up with the Joneses and have the most fashionable clothes and the nicest means of transportation in the neighborhood. They wanted to eat good food and have stability in their lives. And while I have heard a few teachers state that because the child mortality rate was staggeringly high and so parents didn’t love their children as much as they do today, that’s simply not the case. There are too many letters written and memorials commissioned by grieving parents for me to believe that children were less loved in 1320 than they are in 2020.

And throughout history, we’ve always wanted to make our mark, even if it’s just graffiti on a wall. When a friend of mine visited Pont du Gard, a Roman aqueduct in southern France, he was disappointed to see graffiti carved into the 2,000 year old structure. Then he noticed that the graffiti was dated to around the year 1000, making the graffiti historical, too. Today in the Tower of London, you can see signatures carved into the walls by prisoners awaiting their fate. Archaeologists have found graffiti that’s the Roman equivalent of ‘your mom’ on walls in Pompeii, while hundreds of years later, Vikings in Scotland carved graffiti that was equally as lewd or just downright ridiculous, saying things like, “Tholfir Kolbeinsson carved these runes high up” on a cave in the Orkney Islands. We all want to make our mark somehow, whether it’s in the pages of history, or with runes carved into a wall. We’ve all had our clever moments and our moments of stupidity. We’ve all been impulsive teenagers who (hopefully) lived to regret our callow youths and grew into adults who were at least a little wiser.

While the Grand Events of History might seem to us to have been inevitable, they really weren’t. The events that history turns upon were the result of thousands of decisions made by people great and small. People who didn’t know what the future would hold, and who were trying to make the best of the situations they were in. Henry VIII didn’t ascend the throne in 1509 and say, “Right. I’m king now, and by the time I’m dead I’ll have had six wives and thrown the country into religious and political turmoil”. He was a handsome, intelligent seventeen-year old kid who had been given the reins of a kingdom and the money his father spent years hoarding. He wanted to go to war to prove just how brave and chivalrous he was, and he wanted to marry the beautiful Katherine of Aragon to rescue her from her situation. He didn’t set out with a plan to separate England from the Catholic church, but because of many, many decisions made by him, his counselors, and the women around him, that’s what ended up happening.

So when you’re looking back at history and wondering why Unferth made a stupid decision, just remember that time you made a stupid decision because it seemed like a good idea at the time. Unferth probably thought it was a good idea at the time, too.

“I know it seems like a good idea, Unferth, but just… don’t.”
Photo by JJ Jordan on Pexels.com

So bear those things in mind when you look back at history, and remember that, while things were very different and often strange to our modern eyes, that those who affected the tide of history were just people trying to make it from one day to the next, and they were unaware of what the future held.

* While I will praise Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy to the moon and back, she acknowledges where her characters diverge from the historical record, as is the case with her depiction of Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rocheford, which Mantel admits may be less flattering than the historical record gives proof for.

28 thoughts on “Tudor Tuesday: The Thing About History

  1. Omg ! How people think historical fiction is accurate! This has become my new pet peeve. It’s like saying that Madame Defarge was really knitting…..this makes me so mad

  2. “So when you’re looking back at history and wondering why Unferth made a stupid decision, just remember that time you made a stupid decision because it seemed like a good idea at the time. Unferth probably thought it was a good idea at the time, too.” I absolutely love this, so very true and well said!

    When I hear someone mention a fictional book or movie they just read or watched and how much it taught them about that event or time period, a little part of me cringes. They might be right, they may have learned something entirely accuate. Or they may have learned something sensationalized to make good entertianment. What I do enjoy, though, is when someone says they loved that book or movie so much they started looking up non-fiction books or documentaries trying to learn more about those events or that time period (though you make a great point about not all sources being equal). I’ll admit, I haven’t always done this, but the older I get the more interest I find in history. And because of how little interest I had in it while growing up, I have MUCH still to learn. So I look forward to more of these posts. Really well done!

  3. I read a historical fiction book recently. After I read I like to go back to reviews. One reviewer stated in her first line…”in this non fiction work…” I wanted to scream….

  4. I’m really digging this feature. I didn’t realize that back in the day they had laws on what fabrics and colors certain people can wear until I read The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair. I’d also assumed that it was easy to have clothing in different colors. Until I read that book, I didn’t realize how hard it was back in the day to dye clothing a certain color.

  5. Thanks! Yeah, color and clothes are things that people overlook (and I get why. Why would you think about whether or not it was easy to get a rich black color in linen?). But they’re fascinating to learn about (assuming you’re a big nerd, like I am. 🙂 ). I’ll have to look up that book. I’ve never heard of it, but it sounds super interesting.

  6. I think it’s less to do with people assuming that historical fiction is fact, and more to do with what ends up in the popular imagination due to what ends up in pop culture because of historical fiction. I wonder how many people think Anne of Cleeves was ugly because that’s what stories have said for years and years (hint: she wasn’t ugly), or that Anne Boleyn committed adultery with several men because that’s the story that shows up in movies and whatnot (hint: she most likely did not commit adultery). It’s easy to let the general culture tell you stories. It’s harder to do the research yourself.

  7. Thanks! I wish more people looked at historical fiction as a gateway to discovering a period in time they could fall in love with and go and learn more about. But I suppose it’s easier to read a novel that’s exciting and full of glamour and romance or whatever than it is to find a well-written biography of someone from that period of time (which are often just as full of glamour and romance or whatever as the novels). I hope I’ll be able to teach a little about the history and people of my favorite time period, because it’s so interesting, and so often misrepresented in popular culture.

  8. I think you might like it. It’s a really good read. It gives an overview of each color and digs into its history/development and other names certain colors were known by. I have a review of it on my blog.

    I read it twice. I kid you not. Some brilliant points here and a wonderful way to start this series! I really hope that you’ll open each Tutor Tuesday post with a link back to this one. It’s so important to keep these things in mind while exploring history. My husband is a huge history buff and he gets so angry when people on the internet start “canceling” history because it doesn’t meet their modern values. I hear a lot about this at home. 😉

    The biggest thing I struggle with when reading historical fiction is the character’s perspective. Often, if I’m reading historical fiction written in 2020, I’ll find the characters have modern sensibilities and values if we are to love them and then appropriate values for the time if we are to hate them. This is extraordinarily frustrating. I don’t read historical fiction because I want to belittle the past. I want to understand it, learn from it, and try to make sense of how the world got to where it is today. I hope you’ll address this as appropriate in future posts — particularly when referencing specific books.

    So excited to follow this journey!

  10. Thanks! It makes me mad, too, when people want to “cancel history” because it doesn’t meet their version of wokeness. I mean, if you don’t learn from history, you’re doomed to repeat it…. And also missing some pretty badass stories. Eleanor of Aquataine? Judith and Baldwin? AEtheflaed? Amazing women in history.

    And I totally get not wanting historical fiction to have that modernist cast to it. I’m the same way. I want to get a sense of a lost time, not hear about some simpering noble lady whining about having to learn to curtsy instead of learning to use a sword. Hello? Not all power comes from wielding a sword? Again, Eleanor of Aquitaine, et. al…..

    I hope you enjoy the series!

  11. Great post! Tudor dynasty is one of my favorite history too. Look forward to your serials to know more about it. It doesn’t need a history degree to love history. My major is chemistry and I love history too😜

  12. Haha. I mean, if someone would PAY me to read that, I’d just do it all the time. But I have some upcoming vaca time as you know — I have a week off, and while I’ll be spending part of it with my family, I decided to spend a handful of those days doing nothing BUT reading. So, I was imagining taking my week of vacation and just reading historical fiction about badass women instead of reading Newbery Winners and visiting my parents.

    It was a very specific daydream. 🙂

  13. I see! That sounds like a lovely daydream! I’d be down for a full wee of nothing but historical fiction.

    Are you planning to listen to the Lord of the Rings audiobooks during the drive, or is this one of those terrifying airplane rides you’re embarking on?

  14. Audiobooks during a drive, for sure. David’s family is 7 hours away by car and mine is 9. Add in a wedding or two a year and we typically spend 100 hours a year in the car driving to visit people together. It’ll take us a few years to read all three books together, but it’ll be totally worth it.

    Airplane rides will probably not happen again for years… 😦

  15. This drive will be solo, hence no LotR. I want to read these books with David, and we both desperately need to re-read them and know we’ll have a lot to discuss. I even have the Rob Ingles editions and I cannot WAIT to listen to them.

    For this drive, I have a copy of Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, So You Want to Talk About Race, and Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption… though, now that I see all these titles next to each other, I realize they are all non-fiction. I might want to grab a silly romance novel or something to help break it up a bit.

  16. Rob Inglis’s version is, to my knowledge, the only audiobook version of LotR, and it’s fantastic!

    That’s a long drive to make solo. And a lot of non-fiction! I’m pick up something lighter, too. Personally, I’ve been wanting to listen to The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, but it’s been on hold for a while. I’d also recommend Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, or Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy.

  17. I listened to The Goblin Emperor when I read it a few years ago and the audiobook narration is AMAZING. Highly recommended.

    I’ve been all over the place with audiobooks lately. Mostly due to library availability. I’ll see what the library has to offer and let you know what comes in. 🙂 It’s been years since I’ve read Stewart’s writing, and I think I’ve only read the first two books, strangely…

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