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The Tudors: Not just a giant turnip

I just finished reading The Boleyn Inheritance by Philippa Gregory. I love her novels when I'm after some easy reading, melodrama and escapism - but I have come to thinking that this shouldn't really be the case... Yes, a book should entertain you and offer all of the above, but at the end of the day the characters in her Tudor Court series were once real. Perhaps it's a little wrong of me to delight in the misfortunes of five successive queens? In fact, it is! Two of these women really did walk across sawdust to lay their head upon a slab... it's barbaric! And yet, as I pick up one book after another in this genre, I look forward to the scandals, the manipulations and the deceit I know awaits me within the pages. I look forward to the decadance bordering on grotesque. It's what usually goes into a good story. The best books always have the hardest struggles.


The thing is - it is so hard to see many books about the reign of Henry VIII as anything but fiction. Speaking for myself, it is only when I reach Elizabeth that I ever really think "wow, she was alive once. This woman existed. How on Earth did she do it?"

The fact is, the "truth" (using the term loosely there!) of the Tudor era is like a perfectly planned novel: so many scandals, secrets, plagues, wars... and beheadings! In fact, if a novelist had created what we learn as History at school, I would have it rival Lord Of The Rings and Song Of Ice and Fire for epicness.

The Tudors never really seemed real to me... history lessons at primary school presented the hulking giant of Henry VIII as a comic figure: we knew he had six wives, but we didn't really understand what that meant. They were just a rhyme: "Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded SURVIVED!" It was funny to us that a man could eat 12 courses at dinner, that he dressed in a way that made him look like a turnip, and that he wore tights and a flouncy hat. Like a girl! As far as I can remember, the severity and fear of a life dictated by the madman that was Henry was never much impressed upon us.

Henry's wives never became much of a focus in their own right until secondary school, where we finally learned the significance of England's longstanding religion being entriely rewritten to allow Henry to marry Anne Boleyn. But still, though the magnitude of the event was known, it seemed too massive - too big for one man to have achieved on his own. It still held an element of fiction...

Further on, the fact that he actually beheaded two of the women he supposedly loved the most takes on a romantic tragedy of its own being. Sometimes, I think about the Tower of London. I try to imagine it as Tudor historians document it to be. I close my eyes and try to imagine Queens and crowds... I try to imagine "the block". It's impossible. For two women - one as young as Catherine Howard too - to have faced their violent deaths in that spot, it's just impossible to imagine. If you've been there, I wonder if you agree? There are some places in the world where you still feel the ghosts of the horrors that took place there. London has it's fair share of ghosts, no doubt, but when it comes to Queens I fancy it more as "disbelief". It still feels like fiction.

Beyond this, there were princesses disowned, princesses locked up in faraway castles, sickly sons, religious inquisition, plague, social climbers, warring families, planned coups... It's almost (is) ridiculous.

Although I hugely enjoy and appreciate the slew of historical fiction surrounding Henry VIII's court, and those around him, I do wonder whether people ever really do believe this stuff is true. I hope that after reading these books, people explore into the history behind the words in a less "novel-y" light and see it in it's stark horror. Perhaps slowly, those like me may endeavor to feel an historical affinity with it, rather than looking back on it as just an entertaining muddle of craziness that had something to do with bigamy - as many accounts/educators may have us believe in early life!

So - having now read most Tudor novels of note except Wolf Hall (Im still waiting for that leviathan of a book to drop below £5!) I think I might venture into the world of Tudor non-fiction. Any suggestions?!

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