In this article, I attempt to answer the question: ‘why does the popularity of the Tudor dynasty show no signs of flagging?’
Allow me to suggest three key reasons…
Everyone knows the story of the Tudors. They remain England’s most recognisable historical dynasty, routinely depicted on stage, on film, in TV dramas and documentaries, and in literature. This can be a matter of vexation to some historians – especially those whose interests lie elsewhere. The Stuarts, for example, are every bit as colourful – so, why are they comparatively ignored? Why are the complexities of the Georges so little known? Why is it not until the diminutive figure of Queen Victoria strides onto the pages of history that the public – and Hollywood – again seems interested?
Having written a biography of James VI and I – a man whose life was a veritable rollercoaster of religious divisions, love affairs, sex scandals, and murder plots – I found myself wondering why his story – his engaging, soap operatic story – has historically garnered so little public attention in comparison to his Tudor forebears. Why exactly are the Tudors so popular, and why do we show no sign of losing our appetite for Henry VIII’s matrimonial conquests or Elizabeth I’s sex life?
In some ways, this ought to be an easy question to answer. I have just as much interest in the Tudors as anyone else, to the extent I’ve recently begun a series of murder mystery novels set in Henry VIII’s court. Yet, when asked why I find the dynasty so fascinating, I have frequently struggled to answer. It is, I long suspected, a holdover from childhood, when “Horrible Histories” and the classic TV and film dramatizations (“Anne of the Thousand Days”, “Elizabeth R”, and “The Six Wives of Henry VIII”) were dependable satellite and cable staples. “Blackadder II” also has much to answer for. Yet this is too glib a response. Like it or not, there is something about the Tudors – and certain other historical periods, events, and figures – that gives them the edge over others. In trying to work out what that is – to work out why I and others keep coming back for more – I’ve found what I think are the three key ingredients that make any era one of enduring public interest.
Most people in the UK – and probably in much of the western world – will instantly recognise the famous portrait of Henry VIII taken from Hans Holbein the Younger’s Whitehall Mural. In it, Henry, leonine and broad-shouldered, stares squarely back at the viewer, his hands on his hips: he is a veritable colossus. It is a portrait designed to be provocative, to challenge. Henry is aided not just by the composition but by his era’s fashions: the codpiece, the gold chain, and those magnificent bulky sleeves make of him the classic image of a king – the stuff of playing cards. His daughter Elizabeth’s portraits, too, are remarkably memorable: her flaming red hair, impossibly stiff, padded gowns, and rich array of jewels dazzle, whilst her shrewd black eyes stare out from numerous images with a mixture of caution, suspicion, and haughtiness.
It is the iconography of the Tudors which has contributed, more than anything else, to their longevity. It is no surprise that Hollywood, whose job it is to recognise the power of the visual image, has come calling at this dynasty’s door more than any other: it is less the case that film studios have continually shaped public interest than those original images have proven so formidably memorable that public interest in the lives behind the faces, doublets, and butterfly ruffs has rarely waned. Whereas Jacobean portraits, even of the king himself, tend all to look somewhat similar, those of the Tudor monarchs (thanks not only to Holbein but to the likes of Cornelis Massijs, William Scrots, and Nicholas Hilliard) remain brash, colourful, and inarguably iconic. Thanks to this innate sense of iconography, the Tudor dynasty ensured that its key figures would endure. One wonder how historiography might have shifted had the artist who painted James I’s coronation portrait thought to paint him head-on rather than in a three-quarter view…
2. The Power of the Tagline
It is, sadly, true that there is little copy (in tabloid terms) to made about a successful king who governed well and stably, married well, produced heirs, and died in his bed. Yet a king who married six times in pursuit of legitimate heirs and personal happiness – and who executed two wives whilst altering the realm’s ancient religious practices – is another matter entirely. If people know little else about Henry VIII, they know two words: ‘six wives’. Even schoolchildren might learn, early on, the rhyming aide-mémoire, ‘Divorced, Behead, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived’. So memorable is his matrimonial history that the recent musical dedicated to the women whose misfortune it was to walk down the aisle with him could be shortened still further: ‘Six’. Taglines and pithy sobriquets are powerful. Witness Elizabeth I’s: ‘the Virgin Queen’. It is at once intriguing, memorable, and bound up with the visual image – however manipulated – of the eternally youthful, goddess-like figure.
A simple, straightforward tagline does much to make a historical period or event linger in the public consciousness. The sinking of the Titanic, for example, towers above other sea disasters (some more devastating in terms of loss of life) than others, because ‘the largest ship in the world sinks on its maiden voyage’ is so shocking, so haunting and noteworthy, that – combined with the indelible image of the ship’s stern, its portholes still blazing with light, pointing finger-like into the black sky – it has become a cultural touchstone. Queen Victoria, likewise, was blessed with an instantly-recognisable profile and build, this preserved by the invention of photography and her fame assured by a simple tagline: ‘the grandmother of Europe’. The Tudors, too, have enjoyed the boon of arresting taglines that sum up reigns (for good or ill). And if one knows the basics – Henry VIII had six wives – one is hooked. There is a story – there are multiple stories – just waiting to be told.
3. Human Stories, Motives, and Debates
Once we know the images and have heard the taglines, we are – as the designers of movie posters know – far more likely to stay for the main feature. In this, the Tudors seldom disappoint. Who was really behind Anne Boleyn’s downfall – her husband or his chief minister? What was it like to be trapped in the snake-pit of the Henrician court, as the king, gross and paranoid in his final years, raged against the ‘ill-conditioned’ nature of his wives and turned on his loyal servants? Did Elizabeth I and the Earl of Leicester ever go further than heavy petting? What of the rumours of a secret child? And how, exactly, did Francis Walsingham’s extensive spy network infiltrate and trap the hapless, unfairly-imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots?
These stories are at once dramatic, dark, intriguing, and open to endless revision, debate, and discussion. At root they are human stories – the tales of people with various, conflicting, and complicated motives. Often they can be the stuff of pure soap opera, with stock heroes and villains just waiting to be deconstructed and fleshed out by careful study. They offer identifiable figures who can resonate with all: the scorned wife; the intelligent woman unjustly punished by a patriarchal society; servants – of various races and ethnicities – bound to haughty masters; politicians on the brink of precipitous falls from grace. Of course, every historical period has a slew of such stories (James VI and I’s English court, for example, was more glittering and extravagant than any of his predecessors and had just as many murder and sex scandals), but not every period has the iconography and the effective taglines needed to draw people into studying them. Once again, the Tudors (like the tale of the Titanic, or the almost Manichaean conflict of World War II, with its bombers, land girls, and Nazis – the latter instantly recognisable as symbolic of evil) have an edge over other eras.
In all, the dynasty founded by Henry VII thrives in the imagination because it achieves that holy trinity of memorability: iconic images, recognisable globally; fantastic hooks which beg for deeper exploration; and, as a reward for that exploration, an endlessly fruitful mine of human stories ripe for debate and disagreement. If any period lacks any one of these things – again, one might think of the Hanoverian dynasty, so amazingly rich in human stories, but held back from consistent public interest thanks to portraiture from which one can scarcely distinguish one sitter from another – there is unlikely to be such lasting resonance. Thus it is that the silver screen will probably keep returning to the Tudors. In doing so, it is not creating a public hunger for more adaptations of Henry VIII’s marriages and reign or Elizabeth’s romantic liaisons. It is feeding it.
You can read more about Henry VIII and the Tudor court in my historical murder mystery, “Of Blood Descended” – available from all good bookshops and here:
In a wave of pomp, Henry VIII’s court welcomes the Imperial emperor, Charles V. Anthony Blanke, the son of the king’s late ‘black trumpet’, John Blanke, is called to Hampton Court by his former employer, Cardinal Wolsey. The cardinal is preparing a gift for King Henry: a masque of King Arthur and the Black Knight. Anthony is to take centre stage.
The festive mood, however, quickly sours. Wolsey’s historian, charged with proving the king’s descent from King Arthur, is found murdered, his body posed in a gruesome tableau. A reluctant Anthony is charged with investigating the affair. His mission takes him on the path trod by the historian, through ancient monastic libraries and the back streets of London.
On a journey that takes him from Hampton Court to Windsor and Winchester, and which sees him lock horns with secretive monks, historian Polydore Vergil, and a new face at court, Anne Boleyn, he must discover the murderer, secure the great masque, and avoid King Henry’s wrath.