“What’s past is prologue”*
William Shakespeare’s plays have always helped to maintain the British passion for the past, as does a new series of books by acclaimed award winning English novelist, broadcaster, biographer, poet and historian Peter Ackroyd. His ‘The History of England’ published by Pan Macmillan will be delivered over six volumes, recounting the story of the many changes that have taken place on the isle of Albion and by whom and why, considering a relentless tide of migratory tribes, the conquerors, princes, priests, potentates, churches and monasteries, as well as the introduction and establishment of common law.
With the successful establishment of the Tudor dynasty came the flowering of the English vernacular style and the visible expression of its power, the monarchs who brought it everlasting fame: Henry VII (1457 – 1509), Henry VIII (1491-1547) and Elizabeth 1 (1533-1603). The History of England Volume II – Tudors has Ackroyd highlighting in erudite fashion, the period from when Henry VIII ascended the throne until the end of days for Queen Elizabeth I, whose ‘golden age’ is affectionately held in the English memory. It’s great to expand your knowledge about the journey from hate to hallelujah with Ackroyd, whose work is well researched, scholarly and always fresh; his writing style is post-modern in that you can suspend belief that you are reading ‘history’ at all. He teaches us that it is all about attitude, how we perceive and embrace our society and its cultural history. Ackroyd proves the past doesn’t have to be dry or boring, because in reality it never was.
The age of the Tudors was an age of visual boldness and certainly not an era for the fastidious or feint hearted. It was a time when, because of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind, the rule of force was gradually replaced by the rule of law.
During the reign of the Tudor dynasty, from 1485 to 1603 people, became passionate in their exploration of life. They shouted alleluia in times of plenty and burned those who would not agree with the ‘status quo’ set of beliefs as heretics at the stake, especially when they wanted a scapegoat for all ills.
High treason was the charge for anyone opposing or speaking out against any of the Tudor monarchs hell bent on a path to victory. It would be left to one slip of a girl with Titian coloured hair to bring about the positive change everyone was seeking and offer her people the hope that life could get better.
During Elizabeth 1’s reign the question of which form state religion would finally take was resolved by Parliament passing an Act of Supremacy and an Act of Uniformity. Elizabeth changed the game plan. She is the one who signed the documents that ensured the Protestant religion became the most dominant in England for centuries. She also proved that hereditary qualities could, and would win out over being as child, raised in a hellish environment of both hate and high treason.
Author Peter Ackroyd has become renowned for his ability to make the characters of history live again in the pages of his works. When you are reading this extraordinary tom, you are well appraised of facts. It means you can come to a conclusion that at this time the princes, potentates and larger than life personalities were a paradox; they could love what they enjoyed killing and in contrast lavish affection on beasts and super beasts, much like we do on cars and machinery.
What England’s history is all about, as highlighted by Ackroyd, is how our continuous interaction with each other, as well as the past and present, always informs and influences what happens next. What someone says at any given period in time can very easily be misunderstood or be taken completely out of context, while having a considerable influence on a chain of events that once in motion is hard to stop.
While the Tudor period of English history may be well documented, researched and written about, Ackroyd brings art, literature and reality together in such a way that you want to become actively involved.
His first volume The History of England – Foundation, traced the transformation that took place from the neolithic period, when England was first settled more than 15,000 years ago, to the death in 1509 of the first Tudor monarch Henry VII.
When Henry Tudor defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field in 1485, he brought to an end a series of dynastic civil battles for the throne of England that had begun in 1455.
Fought over by rivals from the House of Lancaster (whose badge was a red rose) and the House of York (whose badge was a white rose) this dispute ensured the death of two innocent child princes in the Tower of London in 1483.
Who killed them has remained a mystery, but history’s two main candidates who had something to gain were Richard III, condemned in dramatic style by Shakespeare and popular mythology, and the future Henry VII whose demeanour seemed to be far less threatening.
Henry VII’s father was Edmund Tudor from the House of Richmond, his mother Margaret Beaufort from the House of Lancaster.
To bring the factions together and reign as Henry VII Henry Tudor, the ultimate diplomat, married Elizabeth of York an heir to the throne by birth.
He adopted as his emblem a red and white rose symbolic of conjoining the powerful White Rose of York with the Red Rose of Lancaster founding the Tudor Dynasty.
Henry VII was a quiet unassuming man with a wry sense of humour and he would begin the process proving to be an administrator of outstanding ability. On his accession the royal Treasury was empty, but by the time of his death in 1509 it contained several millions, such was his remarkable enterprise. During that time he also seems to have had a personality makeover.
Until the reign of Henry VII England had been regarded as an offshore island of relatively small concern in the affairs of Europe. However Henry’s initiatives included establishing trade links abroad was so successful, that England fast became a nation and market of importance ensuring that the monarchs of Europe changed their attitude towards the English.
In Volume Peter Ackroyd covered the events of Henry VII’s life, painting a very vivid portrait of a man who was hated, loved and admired all at the same time. Henry VII gave the English people, through his astute management of their affairs of state, a land flowing with milk and honey.
At the end of his long life however there was not much that the people liked about him. Ackroyd tells us that he was ‘harsh and rapacious’ when he died in his palace at Richmond on the south bank of the Thames. Those surrounding him kept his death a secret for two days, until they could get him six feet under and bring the new young King Henry VIII up to speed.
The History of England Volume II – Tudors starts as Henry VII’s body is being lowered into the ground and heralds loudly proclaim ‘le noble Roy, Henri le Septiéme, est mort’ and follow it immediately with ‘Vive le noble Roy, Henri le Huitiéme.
The King is dead long live the King.
The common people were more than likely shouting alleluia (hallelujah), a song of praise to god that was an exclamation in general use, meant to express thanks, to praise God or to herald relief, welcome and gratitude.
Eighth century historian and Doctor of the Church The Venerable Bede b 672-3 died 735, had earned the title “Father of English History”. He related the story of a battle known as the ‘Alleluia Victory’ when Mariners reputedly shouted this ‘exclamation’ from ship to ship following their success.
Creating songs of praise, devotion and thanksgiving, reflected the beauty of the cosmos, and alleluia became the cry of all the people, especially when the handsome son and heir Henry VIII succeeded to the throne. They did not on a whole speak French, the language of the court. Ackroyd paints a masterly image of the man who was in every way in charge of how he was perceived from the moment he ascended the throne until they lowered his coffin into the ground.
Henry VIII’s arrival in a world of splendour was dazzling and at the beginning of Ackroyd’s Volume II story he was the new sun dawning on the new day and a man in the ascendancy.
When he knew his father Henry VII was dying he hastily married his deceased older brother’s wife Katherine of Aragon in Spain, who had only enjoyed six months before her usefulness ran out. Katherine must have thought her luck had turned when he offered to arrive at the font of power with her as Queen on his arm.
Henry was making the transition from prince to power broker and from young man to King and it was an important strategy. He needed a ‘giant step forward for mankind’ as his father had been larger than life.
While he was a big man by the day’s standards, over 6’ tall, Henry wanted to be assertive and climb the ladder of success. His father’s reign had brought prosperity back to England and this was a pivotal moment for the court and for how others perceived him, whether they were in his circle or on the world stage of his time.
Henry VIII’s chest measured 45 inches in his youth and he loved to wear lavish clothes on which jewels were abundantly applied.
One thing we would have to say about the Tudor monarchs is that they perceived that the visitors to their court equated lavish display with national strength and power. No other period would give men more precious adornments to project their human beauty.
Henry was anointed with the holy chrism oil of the church wearing clothes weighed down by buckets of jewels that blinded everyone with their brilliance.
At this time aesthetic and ethical ideas could not be considered just a mere imitation of the classical world.
If the ancients were revered and admired at all it was because they were thought to have found their wisdom and art at the same source of knowledge and beauty to which a Renaissance man, such as Henry, now turned to in his quest for a new life.
Henry VIII would break from the Pope at Rome, furious over the Pope’s refusal to give him a divorce from his first wife Katherine of Aragon, he would always remain a committed Catholic at heart and die holding onto the faith that he believed deserted him, not the other way around.
His meeting with King Francois 1 of France on the ‘field of the cloth of gold’ would surely be the ultimate expression of who he really was. Henry left England in his splendid Tudor ship the Henri Grace de Deui whose sails were reputedly made of cloth of gold.
He took 1865 horses and 3997 people, including almost the entire nobility of his realm.
Basically the event was a giant promotional enterprise, proclaiming the strength, riches and majesty of England. Henry wanted everyone in Europe to know that his was no longer a barbaric isle, but a brilliant rich, sophisticated monarchy.
It was however nearly a disaster when a tremendous storm hit the encampment forcing Francois to seek quarters elsewhere. Henry’s tent survived the tempest, testifying to British resilience.
One observer was reputedly so carried away he stated that Leonard de Vinci could not have done better.
Italy, because of Henry was placed at a diplomatic distance from England, one much harder to overcome than the physical obstacles of France and the Italian Alps that kept travellers by road at bay for centuries.
Henry’s change of religious direction, subsequent dissolution and sacking of the monasteries between 1536-8 meant many new house sites and readily available building materials passed into the hands of those with sufficient cash or royal favour. Any excessive interest in Italian culture with its inevitable ‘Catholic’ overtones incurred severe penalties. Its influence during his reign gradually slowed its pace in England and by the end people awaited his death with baited breath for he was one of the most hated men in the British Isles.
Some would say it was ironic, others that it was fate and many that it was divine retribution for his desecration of the Abbey that as Henry VIII’s body was on its progression from Windsor to London it was laid in state at Syon House where his coffin inexplicably burst open and his corpse was said to have been mauled by dogs. Ackroyd states that he believes long told tale is perhaps ‘too dramatically appropriate to be true’. He had gone through six wives, hundreds of friends, millions of pounds and was consumed with self-pity, greed and vengeance.
Henry searched all his life for the perfect wife who would give him the perfect heir. His sad and only sickly teenage son Edward VI, who succeeded his father Henry VIII to the throne of England in 1547 was only 10 years of age. Five years later he died an appallingly slow and agonizing death aged only 15 years, without being able to progress his kingdom or his subjects forward.
The reason has long been a subject of controversy including the sixteenth century favourite poisoning. Some suggest tuberculosis, pneumonia and yet others complications of congenital syphilis . One thing is sure without exhumation and examination by modern forensic scientists we will never really know anything except that it was tragic.
Lady Jane Grey whom he had nominated as his heir, ahead of his sisters the very Catholic Mary and the compliant and youthful Elizabeth, followed him closely. A learned woman of her day and committed Protestant Lady Jane Grey was the eldest granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister Mary Tudor.
She was an uncrowned Queen for nine days before being taken from her home, the Syon House, which she now owned to the Tower of London where she was beheaded on Tower Green at the orders of Henry VIII”s eldest daughter Mary. Within nine days of Edward’s death she had gathered support and ridden into London from the north to claim the throne and restore the Catholic faith to England. Lady Jane was only posthumously regarded as a political victim and martyr because at the time the populace were all well behind Mary, whom Parliament had declared the rightful Queen.
Ackroyd paints a picture for us about the moment when Mary entered London, accompanied by a retinue of 500 attendants; her horse was trapped with cloth of gold, and her gown of purple velvet embroidered with gold. She wore a chain of gold and jewels about her neck and her headdress was covered in precious stones.
Mary was living up to the legacy of her father, hoping perhaps that people would be dazzled by her brilliance and status.
All over the country the ‘Mass’ was again being chanted in Latin as the old faith was restored. She was popular at first, although her marriage to Philip of Spain was not. On the whole England did not profit from her husband’s lucrative trade deal with the New World because the Spanish guarded their access to the America’s jealously.
Mary found herself unable to legitimize English piracy because she was married to a Spaniard, which caused her a great deal of angst. Under the stench of the bonfires that marked the reign of ‘Bloody Mary’, the re-imposition of Catholicism plunged the kingdom into an eternal darkness, as she unceremoniously slaughtered all those who opposed her. The 300 or so religious dissenters that dared oppose her all suffered the same horrible fate, they were burnt at the stake.
Economically during her reign the kingdom suffered and Mary died prematurely five years later aged only 42 of a suspected tumour.
Elizabeth 1 the daughter given to Henry VIII by his second wife Anne Boleyn had lived through heart racking years of uncertainty, many in prison or confinement when she finally came to the throne at the age of 25. Elizabeth was an ideal feminist who ruled by a combination of diplomatic skill, good advice and an ability to compromise, using her personal magnetism to full effect. She said… ‘you may have many a wiser prince sitting in this seat, but you never have had, or shall have, any who loves you better. It is not my desire to live or to reign longer than my life’.
It didn’t begin or end easily and it must have been hard for the lovely young woman labeled as illegitimate in a world that did not give grace or forgiveness easily and perhaps in this lies a clue about how she perceived herself in a portrait she commissioned in 1572 depicting the ‘family’ of Henry VIII.
The painter has never been identified, and it reveals Henry VIII, his three children, and Queen Mary’s husband, Philip of Spain, alongside figures from mythology. Henry sits on his throne in the centre, with his son Edward, the future Edward VI, kneeling beside him receiving the sword of justice.
Henry died in 1547, but on the left of the picture his daughter Mary is shown next to Philip, whom she didn’t marry until 1554 when she was queen, with Mars, god of war, behind them, symbolising the wars they fought.
Elizabeth, by way of contrast, stands forward of them all holding the hand of Peace, who treads the sword of discord underfoot, as Plenty attends with her cornucopia.
She is making a statement that in standing alone during her life she would be able to give all to her people, and not be distracted from attending to their welfare by ministering to her own heart or by being distracted by complicated relationships with others. She held most of those who came near her at arms length, despite how she felt about them.
The Earl of Leicester was for a very long time her favourite, however he caused her a lot of grief. When he died she ordered that his goods be sold and the state purse reimbursed, proving that while personally grieving, she would not allow what they had shared as adults to impact on the welfare of her people.
When she sat for the unknown artist (only attributed) of her famous ‘Armada’ portrait she is shown wearing the pearls he had bequeathed to her with love.
The brilliant English defeat of the Spanish Armada would be one of the major events of her reign.
Philip of Spain dedicated his great enterprise to God and carrying 19000 soldiers and 8000 sailors 130 large ships of war sailed forth to conquer England. They set sail to make war on the woman that Spanish Catholics wanted to see excommunicated.
There were some 600 monks on board the Spanish fleet to ensure that religious devotions were celebrated and that the wounded and dying would have an opportunity to confess their sins.
The Spanish fleet set a vengeful course for England, praying that the fates and God would favour their cause.
The Queen relied on her favourite and most famous privateers Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake to get her through the firestorm that was to happen.
She gathered a great group of captains and their vessels, some of which were barely seaworthy, to be her fleet to take on the might of the Spanish Empire. She also gathered 100,000 men on the coast in case the Spanish did make landfall.
Backing her up were forces on the ground and throughout the countryside, who had orders to remove the corn and cattle if they did and 10,000 men were to divert and guard the person of the Queen. She came down from London to the coast to see her ships being prepared to take on the might of Spain and rode out amongst her men gathering in formation to defend the coast, resolving ‘to live and die among you all’.
When she finished inspiring them all with her great rhetoric they were heard to shout.
The change from Catholicism in England didn’t happen overnight, but in degrees, at least until the Oxford movement of the nineteenth century, when taking the church, in both theory and practice, back to pre-Tudor times when it had been viewed as a jewel in Our Lady’s and the Pope’s crown began.
This was probably easier than many might suppose to make happen, in that the one thing the Tudors didn’t destroy was the liturgy of the Eucharist known as the ‘Mass’.
Mass is an English word that derived from the Latin text the priest recited at the end of the service ‘ite, missa est’. It was the way of dismissing congregation – to which the people responded ‘Deo gratias’ – thanks be to God.
While the ‘Mass’ may have lost some of its processional and ceremonial aspects in some parishes throughout the ‘church of England’, there has long been a ‘high church’ aspect of the new Anglicanism. Many people still genuflected to the altar, crossed themselves, prayed to ‘Mary’ using rosary beads and celebrated much of the ‘Mass’ standing up straight in honour of their God, as they had in days of yore.
Today the Anglican faith still reflects its extremes and compromises that range from one end of the scale to the other.
In the great traditions of those who chronicle history Peter Ackroyd’s opus The History of England so far is both rich and eloquent in its prose, especially Volume II: Tudors.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2012
Ref: The History of England Volume II, courtesy publishers Pan Macmillan
*Quote by William Shakespeare from his play ‘The Tempest’ a phrase meant to convey that history influences, and sets the context for, the present.
Images from Elizabeth and Elizabeth; The Golden Age courtesy Universal Pictures
Images from the TV Series The Tudors courtesy Showtime