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.
Here are two things to keep in mind when reading about history:
- The past is a foreign land
- 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.
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.
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.