Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Tudor - Leanda de Lisle

The Tudors are the most fascinating royal family in English history. They've been immortalised in fiction, movies, theatre & popular culture for centuries. Leanda de Lisle's new book is a stunning retelling of this familiar story.

Rather than beginning at the battle of Bosworth in 1485, de Lisle takes us back to the real beginning of the Tudor story - the marriage of Welsh squire Owen Tudor to Katherine de Valois, the widow of Henry V. Katherine had no political power after Henry's death but her marriage to a servant was still a scandal. Her son, Henry VI, was fond of his Tudor half-brothers, Edmund & Jasper & it was Edmund's marriage to Margaret Beaufort that marks the beginning of the Tudor story in relation to the English crown. Margaret was a considerable heiress but more importantly, she was descended from the marriage of John of Gaunt, son of Edward III, to Katherine Swynford. The children of this liaison were given the name Beaufort & were legitimized by their half-brother, Henry IV, after their parents married. However, they were explicitly excluded from the succession, a point which was disputed throughout the 15th century & long afterwards.

Margaret Beaufort was only 12 when she married Edmund Tudor & he didn't wait to consummate the marriage. He died of the plague soon after so, it was as a 13 year old widow that Margaret gave birth to her son, Henry. Henry spent much of his life in exile in France & Brittany as the Wars of the Roses were fought between the houses of Lancaster & York. Eventually, with the help & support of his mother, Henry defeated Richard III at Bosworth & took the throne as Henry VII. Henry's marriage to Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV, reconciled the two warring factions & was symbolised in the union rose which combined the red rose of Lancaster with the white rose of York.

Henry's reign was troubled by outbreaks of rebellion from Yorkists who were unhappy with his victory as well as the appearance of pretenders who claimed to be one of the Princes in the Tower. However, Henry consolidated his rule & by the time of his death in 1509, his son, Henry, peacefully ascended the throne. Henry VIII's struggles to have a son are well-known. The political & religious turmoil of the Reformation had an impact on the lives of all three of his legitimate children who all reigned after him. Edward VI, king at the age of nine, was influenced by his advisors to create a Protestant England. Mary, determined to take England back to Catholicism & Elizabeth, the most successful of them all, who took a middle way.

Henry VIII's determination to have a son was the result of the belief that a woman could not rule & it led to the break with Rome as he struggled to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn who had promised him a son. Katherine & Henry's daughter, Mary, wasn't considered a practical choice as heir. How could a woman rule? She would have to marry & then her husband would rule her & also the kingdom. It was only when Jane Seymour, Henry's third wife, gave birth to Edward that Henry believed he had truly provided for the future of England.

de Lisle tells this complicated story very well. I've read many books about this period so I was especially interested in the emphasis she gives to some of the forgotten women of the family. The 16th century was a time when women were not considered fit to rule yet most of the heirs to the throne at this time were women. Henry's sister, Margaret, married James IV of Scotland & after his death at the battle of Flodden in 1513 she married the Earl of Angus & had a daughter, Lady Margaret Douglas. As Henry VIII's niece, she had her own claim to the throne but she was the mother of Henry, Lord Darnley, who would marry Mary, Queen of Scots & combine their claims in their son, James. Margaret's story is fascinating & de Lisle brings her out of the shadows to show just what a determined, intelligent woman she was.

Henry's younger sister, Mary, first married Louis XII of France but the marriage was brief. She came away with some beautiful jewellery & was always known afterwards as the French Queen. Mary then married Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk & was the grandmother of Jane, Katherine & Mary Grey, who came to prominence when Edward VI named them as his heirs (overlooking his half-sisters because of religious differences) in his Devise for the Succession, written shortly before he died. Jane famously did become Queen for nine days but Mary was able to defeat the coup & did her best for the next five years to roll back the religious changes of her father's & brother's reigns. Mary's failure to have a child meant that her success would always be limited as her heir was her Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth.

Katherine & Mary Grey continued to be considered as potential heirs to the throne as Elizabeth refused to marry & her Council had to consider the claims of the Protestant Grey sisters against the possibly superior, but politically unpalatable claim of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots. Perhaps fortunately, by the end of Elizabeth's long reign, the only realistic option as heir was the Queen of Scots' son, James VI. If Elizabeth had died of smallpox, as she very nearly did, in 1562, the rival claims of the Greys & Mary could have led to civil war with the added element of religious divisions.

In the Appendices to the book, de Lisle interestingly expands on some of the thorny questions brought up by the narrative. She explores the myths surrounding Jane Grey's mother, Frances & her husband, Guildford as well as the fate of James IV's body after Flodden, the quarrel between Henry VIII & his niece Lady Margaret Douglas & the life of Margaret Clifford, another granddaughter of Mary, the French Queen, & another possible heir to the throne. Tudor is full of interesting stories & de Lisle tells the story with great fluency & wit. She does an excellent job keeping the story intelligible which is not easy with a cast of thousands & several main characters with the same name. It's a wonderful introduction to the Tudor story but there's more than enough that was new to interest anyone who has read a lot about the period.

I read Tudor courtesy of NetGalley.


  1. Thanks for clearing up something about Margaret Beaufort. We're watching the TV series The White Queen and I hadn't been able to figure out who the father of her precious, God-ordained-future-king son Henry was. I love the history, but I get lost in all the numerical names (Henry VIII, Henry IV, Edmund I, Edmund IV, etc.), not to mention the French kings with similar names. I was never mathematically inclined.

    1. It is confusing with so many people with the same name! I haven't seen the White Queen (it's only on pay TV in Australia) but I can imagine they would have found it hard to keep it all straight. It's also difficult because Edmund died before Henry was born.