It’s quite possible that we have reached peak Tudor.
Henry VIII’s stinking, gangrenous leg has
been endlessly speculated upon, every layer of Elizabeth I’s petticoats has been lifted and thoroughly searched and Anne Boleyn’s execution has been read, learned and inwardly digested from all possible angles. There are even novels that speculate upon what might have been, had Anne and Henry produced a son. But still, doyenne of the period, Alison Weir, is bringing out a series of novels about each of Henry’s wives, Philippa Gregory has returned from the Plantagenets to give us her version of Katherine Parr, I too have recently completed a Tudor Trilogy and, lest we forget, Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels have spawned an arts’ industry all of their own. Surely there’s no stone left unturned on Henry’s marital mismanagement, but even so both the BBC and Channel 5 are dishing up the Six Wives. It’s not surprising then that Charlotte Higgins recently asked in the Guardian, Tudormania: Why can’t we get over it?
I have a hunch that when such questions begin to be asked about fads – like when people wonder about why house prices have risen stratospherically high or why beards in Hoxton have begun to walk into rooms before their owners – it signals that their days are numbered. Interestingly two acclaimed Tudor biographers have lately turned to another equally dysfunctional family of royals: the Stuarts. Linda Porter will publish Royal Renegades, about the children of Charles I, in the autumn and Leanda de Lisle’s next book, The King’s Story, will unravel the enigma of Charles I himself. Also to come this year are Andrea Zuvich’s, A Year in the Life of Stuart Britain and Andrew Lacey’s, The Stuarts: A Very British Dynasty.
The Stuarts offer just as much in terms of drama as that of their Tudor cousins. The period was torn by dark sectarian troubles. The thwarted Gunpowder Plot was an event that – had it succeeded – would have been as dramatic as the attack on the Twin Towers and would have wiped out the entire new dynasty. It was a time of witch hunts, espionage, exploration of the globe and a royal court with, in James I, an openly homosexual king. James was a complex, flawed and unpopular individual whose son would be tried and executed in Cromwell’s revolution – a regicide that would irrevocably change the path of English history.
The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death this year, with all the celebratory exhibitions and seasons of plays, also shines a light on the early Stuart period. We tend to think of the bard as an Elizabethan but some of his greatest and most enduring work fell in the Jacobean period. Think of Macbeth, King Lear and The Tempest. James Shapiro’s recent, and brilliant, 1606, Shakespeare and The Year of Lear, argues that this year, early in James I’s reign, was the apotheosis of the playwright’s career. Drama holds up a mirror to the culture it comes from, and so Shakespeare’s late plays, with their moral complexity and ambitious reach, suggest that the society that gave rise to them must be infinitely fascinating.
Indeed, Shakespeare wasn’t alone. The Jacobean period is characterised by a thriving of the literary arts. Even The Bible had its James I makeover and poets such as John Donne and Ben Johnson remain familiar today; women were finding their voice too and publishing for the first time. In 1611 poet, Aemilia Lanyer, published Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, a brilliant defense of Eve that sought to shake up received thinking about women’s position in conjunction to man. Women stepping outside the box so publically gave rise to an anxiety about the female sex, which was articulated by tragedians like Webster and Middleton who, along with Shakespeare, were producing some of the most bloodthirsty heroines in all of English literature, with Lady Macbeth as flag bearer.
The cultural flourishing that reached its zenith with the early Stuarts was abruptly suspended when Cromwell closed the playhouses. But it returned in force with the restoration of Charles II, the most charismatic of the Stuarts, whose reign saw actresses on the stage, and in the King’s bed, for the first time. A recent exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution thoroughly explored the events of the Restoration period as will Rebecca Rideal’s forthcoming book, 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.
The intrigue of the Stuart century is endless, so it’s unsurprising that fiction writers have also had their heads turned. A couple of years ago Rose Tremain revisited the eponymous anti-hero of her 1989 Booker shortlisted novel, Restoration with Merivel, a brilliantly funny and touching rendition of debauched Restoration society. Katherine Clements’ duo of novels, The Crimson Ribbon and The Silvered Heart, tell of women leading extraordinary lives during the chaos of the Civil War. Andrew Taylor’s latest thriller, The Ashes of London, is set in the aftermath of the Great Fire and I’m now working on a Stuart Quartet, with the first, The Girl in the Glass Tower, about Arbella Stuart, who might have been England’s Stuart queen.
So prepare yourselves for the Stuarts: every bit as flawed, dysfunctional and fascinating as the Tudors.
- Charles I, Henrietta Maria and children.
- The execution of Charles I
- The Great Fire of London