Two Tales of the Tudors: The Tudor Secret by C.W. Gortner and Death and the Virgin Queen by Chris Skidmore

It’s been nearly half a millennium since a Tudor held the British throne, yet narratives of Tudor exploits seem to proliferate at an exponential rate. The primary reason may be that these monarchs — Henry VIII and Elizabeth I in particular — were such strong characters, people whose fascinating qualities extended beyond their world-changing edicts. And it’s not just the monarchs, of course, who draw our attention, but the characters around them — the Boelyns and the Cromwells, Thomas More and William Shakespeare (the latter was tangential and late, to be sure, but hardly an insignificant figure of the Elizabethan era). We identify in the Tudors a certain sexiness (one milked shamelessly by Showtime’s silly series), as well as its corollary intrigue: personal scandal for these royals was politicized; what happened in the bedroom affected the public sphere. There is something strikingly modern about this fact, which perhaps also makes us turn our attention to the Tudors again and again.

C.W. Gortner delves into the conflict between the political and the private in his historical novel The Tudor Secret. He plants his fictional hero Brendan Prescott into Dudley Castle, where the young man grows up bullied by Lord Robert Dudley –who will later become an “intimate familiar” of Queen Elizabeth. In the summer of 1553, however, Elizabeth is still Princess; her brother Edward VI is king. Around the same time Brendan is brought to court to squire for Robert Dudley, Edward falls gravely ill and then disappears. Princess Elizabeth soon enlists Brendan’s aid as a spy, a situation that quickly becomes more complicated when he finds himself having to serve as a double agent for William Cecil, Elizabeth’s adviser, an employee of the Duke of Northumberland who meanwhile plots to raise Jane Grey to the throne (a move that would cut Elizabeth out of succession). The Tudor Secret is a tightly-plotted, quick-paced read, stuffed with animated historical characters buzzing around in a world of espionage and intrigue. Setting the stage for the ascendancy of a crafty Elizabeth I, the book is the first in a planned series called the Elizabethan Spymaster Chronicles.

Chris Skidmore’s Death and the Virgin Queen will also be of great interest to those fascinated by the darker side of the Tudors. Skidmore’s book is essentially a forensic analysis of the events of September 8, 1560, when the body of Amy Robsart was found dead in Cumnor Place, her neck broken after an apparent fall down the stairs. The problem: Rosbart was the wife of one Lord Robert Dudley (hey, remember him from before?); with Rosbart out of the way, Elizabeth might be free to marry the man she was scandalously close to. Even after the death was ruled an accident, a cloud of suspicion and rumor about the issue hung over Elizabeth’s reign. Skidmore digs into the issue, outlining the motives of possible parties and detailing likely suspects. Skidmore also explores why, even with Rosbart out of the picture, Elizabeth’s advisers would never allow a marriage to Dudley — and how Dudley worked to prevent the queen from marrying another. Death and the Virgin Queen is a nice parallel to The Tudor Secret; both are written in a popular style for a general audience, both are clearly well-researched, and both should satisfy those thirsting for more details about the still-bewildering world of the Tudors.

Death and the Virgin Queen is new this month in hardback from St. Martin’s Press. The Tudor Secret is new in trade paperback February 1st from St. Martins’ Griffin.

Hilary Mantel on Thomas Cromwell; James Wood on Thomas More

I’m coming to the end of Hilary Mantel’s brilliant treatment of the Tudor saga, Wolf Hall. Sign of a great book: when it’s finished, I will miss her characters, particularly her hero Thomas Cromwell, presented here as a self-made harbinger of the Renaissance, a complicated protagonist who was loyal to his benefactor Cardinal Wolsey even though he despised the abuses of the Church. Mantel’s Cromwell reminds us that the adjective “Machiavellian” need not be a pejorative, applied only to evil Iago or crooked Richard III. The Cromwell of Wolf Hall presages a more egalitarian–modern–extension of power. Cromwell here is not simply pragmatic (although he is pragmatic), he also has a purpose: he sees the coming changes of Europe, the rise of the mercantile class signaling economic power over monarchial authority. Yet he’s loyal to Henry VIII, and even the scheming Boleyns. “Arrange your face” is one of the book’s constant mantras; another is “Choose your prince.” Mantel’s Cromwell is intelligent and admirable; the sorrows of the loss of his wife and daughter tinge his life but do not dominate it; he can be cruel when the situation merits it but would rather not be. I doubt that many people wanted yet another telling of the Tudor drama–but aren’t we always looking for a great book? Wolf Hall demonstrates that it’s not the subject that matters but the quality of the writing. Highly recommended.

Cromwell’s greatest foil in Wolf Hall is Thomas More, who is also the subject of the first essay in James Wood’s collection The Broken Estate. I got my review copy in the mail late last week, so it was pure serendipity that I should read “Sir Thomas More: A Man for One Season” after a full day of listening to Wolf Hall (did I neglect to mention that I listened to the audio book? Sorry). Wood is harsher on More than Mantel; whereas she lets us despise him within the logic and framework of the Tudor court, Wood aims to find a contemporary secular standard from which to judge him. He finds license to do so through the work of John Stuart Mill, citing the influential essay On Liberty. Wood writes:

So it is enough for secular criticism to argue that More should have acted differently, and in asserting only this, secular criticism gives birth to itself. It is enough for the secularist to say that there are categories and modes of being which possess a transhistorical and universal status equivalent to sainthood’s, and by which it is therefore permissible to judge More’s actions.

I think in some ways Mantel’s work performs a kind of transhistorical secularist critique of More, albeit one that steps outside of historical or literary criticism or philosophy, one that remains in the logical limits of historical fiction. Mantel does not ask her Thomases to be something that we in the 21st century want them to be, but by centering on Cromwell, she engenders a sharp critique of More’s hypocrisy, a hypocrisy endemic to his time. Cromwell is a humanist (who does not know that he is a humanist, perhaps) and his complicated view of More forms the thrust of any critique we might choose to find in Wolf Hall. Cromwell admires More’s erudition but despises his arrogance; he respects More as a family man but resents his attitudes toward women. In Mantel’s London, Cromwell works to save More’s life not because he wants to avoid creating a martyr, but because he feels genuine compassion and pity for the man’s family. More’s selfishness is all the more apparent in light of this. Further reflection Wood’s book to come; this second printing (the first in a decade) of Wood’s essays debuts in June, 2010 from the good folks at Picador.