Tudors is the second volume in Peter Ackroyd’s six-volume history of England, the first being “Foundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors”. Here Ackroyd takes a look at the Reformation of the Church in England and the reign of Henry VIII and his Tudor successors up to James VI/I.
I must confess here to being a bit of a major fan of Peter Ackroyd’s work ever since I read ‘Hawksmoor’ back in 1985, his exceptional atmospheric novel about the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor and the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire. While I am in the confessional mood, Ackroyd’s masterwork for me is ‘London: The Biography’, which stands as the book I have re-read the most, and a book I would choose to have on a desert island (if I was lucky enough to be asked).
So, with that out of the way, what can I say about ‘Tudors’?
The first thing that struck me was that even though this period is so well known, and the stories associated with Henry and his Reformation are so often told, there were still snippets of information that were fresh and fascinating in turn.
The narrative of the Tudor Dynasty reads like a novel, and it has all the heroes and villains that make great History. Ackroyd paints these characters, Cromwell, Henry VI and Anne Boleyn for example, in splendid detail, and instead of being one dimensional, each player in the story is a fully rounded person with their own distinct foibles.
Just as important however is the way Ackroyd illuminates the role of the ‘Rude’ folk, the peasants of the land. The Reformation was not really a revolution from below, as many have been, rather the English Reformation was a series of ‘personal’ breaks with Catholicism, made by Henry VIII for very pragmatic reasons. The ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’ for example highlights the depth of feeling many in Northern England had for the Monasteries and the role of the Pope in their everyday lives.
The early death of Edward sees yet another religious ‘U’ turn, this time Mary attempts to wipe away any trace of reformist doctrine in whatever way she can, leading to her gaining the title ‘Bloody Mary' in some quarters.
It was the daughter of Anne Boleyn and Henry that was eventually to bring some sense of order to the ravaged realm. It was to be the highly intelligent, gifted Elizabeth that was to set the nation on a path that was to eventually lead England to Empire.
With this second book in the series Peter Ackroyd has added a key work to our understanding of the Tudor period. It may not dwell on some of the legal issues (those relating to the Monasteries for example) in as much depth as some students of the period would want, but as an overview and a general History, he has produced yet another fascinating, challenging and yet charming volume.