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Book Review: An illustrated introduction to The Tudors by Gareth Russell

As the title states, this new release by Gareth Russell is indeed a short introduction to the most famous dynasty in England’s history. As it is only 96 pages long, you can certainly whip through the pages, soak up all of the information anyone needs about The Tudors, and still feel like you haven’t been bombarded with great deals of unnecessary facts and figures. Russell gets straight to the point, and there’s some brilliantly colourful portraits and even a helpful timeline to break up the reading too.

For anyone who doesn’t know much about The Tudors, or if you’re someone who wants to get the basic facts straight in your mind, then this might be the book for you. Hopefully, after reading this new release, you will have your Tudor-taste buds tingled and want to go out and find more information on the illustrious Kings and Queens of the 15th and 16th centuries.

Russell begins with explaining where the name ‘Tudor’ came from in the first place, highlighting to readers the significance of the marriage between Henry V’s widow, Catherine of Valois, and the Welsh servant Owen Tudor. Russell goes on to explain a little bit of necessary background about the key players in the Wars of the Roses, along with some information about Margaret Beaufort’s marriages – all things readers need to know before delving further into Tudor history. Some books tend to begin straight away with Henry VII when discussing this dynasty – rightly so you may say, but it is crucial to know where Henry came from, and so it is enlightening to see that there is a chapter dedicated to where the Tudor line first began.

Although the Tudor dynasty was founded in 1485, the story does not simply begin here. Russell quite rightly discusses Henry VII’s background in further detail, including emphasising the influence that Henry’s uncle, Jasper, had upon him, and a brief explanation of his time in exile.

One part of this chapter I do have disputes with is Russell’s direct claim that Henry VII fathered an illegitimate child, named Roland, whilst he was in exile in Brittany. This is a very strong assertion to make, and does not bring into the equation that many of the leading biographers of Henry VII, such as S. B. Chrimes and R. A. Griffiths, tend to question and reject the possibility that Roland was Henry’s son due to a lack of evidence. I also found the subtitle section of ‘Sex in the Tudor Era’ a somewhat random aspect to include right in the middle of a discussion about Royal patronage at Henry’s court.

Russell briefly discuss the Battle of Bosworth, Henry’s accession to the throne and his strategic marriage to Elizabeth of York. He does certainly makes good use of Polydore Vergil’s description of Henry in explaining the key physical and emotional characteristics of the first Tudor King, and appropriately addresses the issues Henry faced with pretenders to the throne.

Moving on to the next Monarch, and it must certainly be a task to cut down Henry VIII’s tempestuous reign into a few short pages. However, Russell does this effectively. He successfully highlights the differences in looks and manners between Henry VIII and his father, and how this transpired into the new and younger Royal court. Russell takes readers through the first twenty-five years of Henry’s reign quite swiftly, but includes the key details any reader needs – including descriptions of how Katherine of Aragon was unable to give birth to a longed-for son and heir, the rise of Anne Boleyn, the Break with Rome and the fall of Cardinal Wolsey and Sir Thomas More. When discussing Anne’s fall from favour, Russell’s use of historiography allows readers to understand the complexity of the arguments surrounding Anne’s descent, as well as her trial and execution. The final decade of Henry’s reign, including his last three marriages, is then quite briefly summed up in a couple of pages.

When looking at Edward VI’s reign, the discussion of Edward’s education and the influence that the men around The King had upon his character and his beliefs is a key point of strong discussion in this chapter. Although there is a clear explanation of the succession crisis that Edward faced when he became increasingly unwell in 1553, the writer misses out the amount of guidance that his advisers would have had in the decisions surrounding the changes to the Succession.

It is interesting to see that this book includes a chapter dedicated to Lady Jane Grey, as it is all too easy for writers to skip over Jane’s accession faster than her actual reign itself (which was nine days short, hence her nickname ‘The Nine-day Queen). Russell includes good background detail about Jane’s upbringing as the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister, Mary, along with great descriptions of why the idealised image of the ‘heroine’ version of Jane appeared during the nineteenth century.

The book then skips back a few decades to discuss Mary I’s upbringing, including the effects that her parents’ divorce had upon her and briefly touches on the importance of her humanist education. Although one cannot read an account of Mary’s reign without mentioning the number of Protestants who were burned, it is appropriate that Russell highlights that Mary’s reputation of being ‘bloody’ has been contested in recent scholarship. However, it is discouraging to find that many modern popular representations of Mary are still as negative and bloody as ever, including the image of her used on the London Dungeon advertisements.

When discussing at great length Elizabeth’s childhood experiences, Russell has assumed, as many have previously, that Elizabeth’s knowledge of her mother and step-mother’s executions, along with her father’s other marriages and Thomas Seymour’s public flirtations with her, all left “deep emotional wounds” upon her. With this, he argues it had a great influence upon her attitude towards marriage and the men around her during her reign. However, such assumptions have been contested greatly in scholarly work in recent years – Susan Doran, in particular, highlights how we have no form of evidence that Elizabeth was psychologically effected by the loss of her mother and her step-mother, Katherine Howard. I am quite sure that the question of Elizabeth’s marriage will continue to be debated for years to come, however we cannot simply state that her decision to not wed was solely due to her childhood experiences. Each marriage suitor brought with him a whole host of difficulties and opposition at court, and these issues certainly had an impact upon Elizabeth’s decisions. One feels that Russell has taken Elizabeth’s quotes, such as ‘I will have here but one mistress, and master’, and how she will ‘live and die a virgin’, have been taken too literally here – it is quite possible that Elizabeth used such language in order to deter her pestering councillors and MPs on marriage debates, rather than meaning them quite so literally.

I also hold some contention with Russell’s discussion of the Spanish Armada. His discussion of Elizabeth standing among her troops, dressed in armour and delivering rousing speeches is based upon sensationalised views of ‘Gloriana’ and no strong evidence. There is no certain proof that a suit of armour was created for Elizabeth at any time during her reign, and the renowned ‘I have the heart and stomach of a King’ speech of is actually based upon an account from the seventeenth century, rather than one from 1588. Hollywood films are also a little to blame here – it’s all too easy to boast about Elizabeth’s warrior façade when she is on the cinema screen when it may never have happened at all.

One discussion I certainly agree with Russell on is the point he makes at the end of his chapter on Elizabeth I (who you can tell he thinks of rather highly of out of all of the Tudor Monarchs). He states that even though for centuries people have debated Elizabeth’s sexuality, and the possible medical conditions she may have suffered from in order to explain certain aspects of her character or her reign, it is certainly true that all of the ridiculous theories about Elizabeth’s “aberrant sex life, confused gender, and physical abnormalities tell us much about ourselves and almost nothing about her.”

Although I have a few reservations about certain phrases and historical assumptions, I would recommend this book to anyone who is just starting to learn about the Tudor dynasty. An illustrated introduction to The Tudors gives a good outline for the period and the changes that occurred and transformed our history.

The blurb states: “Fascinated by history? Wish you knew more? The Illustrated Introductions are here to help. In this lavishly illustrated, accessible guide, find out everything you need to know about the Tudors.

The six monarchs of the Tudor dynasty are phenomenally well known. Henry VII succeeded in ending the Wars of the Roses, Henry VIII formed the Church of England and famously married six times: Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Katherine Parr. His three children, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, would all ascend to the throne, as would his great-niece Lady Jane Grey. Between them they ruled for an eventful 118 years.

This easy-to follow introduction to The Tudors follows the major events and personalities of the age.”

An illustrated introduction to The Tudors was published by Amberley Publishing and is available to purchase in stores and online now.

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