Peter Ackroyd may very well be God. I haven’t met him but I’m feeling pretty good about this. Any other explanation as to how he manages to produce so many huge books filled with so much knowledge in such a short space of time (commonly termed “prolific,” to be concise), all so well written, comes up short. I bow to him. Even genuflect. He is my hero and he is superhuman, with an exhaustive bibliography unparalleled by any writer save, perhaps, Joyce Carol Oates. His body of work encompasses:
Three volumes of poetry
Thirty-four works of nonfiction (to date)
Six television programs
As I said, unparalleled. I have read precious few of his writings. There is much work to be done, all of it pleasant.
This second volume in his History of England series is exhaustive and exhausting, though not necessarily in a negative way. The level of detail is staggering, best ingested in small portions. This is not a book to race through. Rather, the more slowly you work your way through the better, to aid in the memorization of the cast of characters buzzing in and around the Tudor family like bees in a hive. It’s nothing if not phenomenal. Perhaps majestic. Mind blowingly incomprehensible. Very, very impressive.
Ackroyd begins with Henry VII, whose victory over Richard III at Bosworth Field assured him the throne, ending the Wars of the Roses. The simplified story is that Henry’s son Arthur inherited the throne from him, taking Katherine of Aragon as his wife. Arthur was not long for this world. Enter Henry VIII, who married his brother’s widow, immediately beginning the series of affairs that lead to much beheading of suspected unfaithful wives. Oh, but the beheadings and elicit sexual exploits are all but microscopic compared with the Reformation, England’s break from the Catholic Church effected by Henry’s demand his marriage to Katherine of Aragon be annulled, so he could marry that tramp Anne Boleyn. And the political intrigues, and the wars, and Henry’s ballooning weight and ulcerous legs. And the treachery. And the wars. And the blood and the blood and the blood. At the same time it’s riveting, it’s disgusting.
Upon Henry VIII’s death, the powers that be went mad jockeying for power. The winning straw was drawn by Lady Jane Grey, or her uncle, rather. Jane was too well educated to believe this could ever be a good thing but she had no choice in the matter. Into the Tower she went while, it was hoped, things would settle down enough to bring her out to rule. It was not to be. Poor Jane was executed – after nine days as queen – upon the successful rout by Elizabeth’s half-sister, Mary. Mary, a devout Catholic who abhorred her father’s break with the Church in Rome, went about the business of undoing what her father had started, destruction of all Catholic trappings and killing of those practicing the religion. “Bloody Mary” attempted a bit of religious cleansing of her own, sentencing hundreds of Protestants to death for the crime of obeying the monarch, her father, who threatened to kill them for being Catholics.
It wasn’t really such a great time to be English.
After two years, Mary sickened and died. A bit of relief there, when she was succeeded by Henry’s son Edward VI, the product of his marriage to that slut Jane Seymour. Edward was nine years old upon his accession, so his uncle Edward Seymour acted as regent until the day Edward would come of age. Without his lifting a finger, Protestantism at last came to be the de facto national religion of Britain during Edward’s regency. It’s a really long story, filled with yet more killing and manipulation. But, as far as almost-monarchs go, Edward VI didn’t seem half bad. He’s largely in the background, left to his own devices save for the occasional raising of his head to ask a question or declare something or other, but what we do know of him may have made him a decent monarch. Damn the 16th century and its short life spans!
However, he left behind his diary, which is something to recommend him:
I’ve ordered a used copy via Amazon and you may find more about the book here.
Edward sickened and died in 1553. Following Edward was Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, monger of wars and cousin of Mary, Queen of Scots. Then things really got interesting. Wars and intrigue, political back-stabbing and attempts to marry Elizabeth to various leaders for reasons of political gain characterized Elizabeth’s rule. Overshadowing it, how to solve a problem like Queen Mary. The English defeated the Armada and Elizabeth kind of, sort of worked out the whole religion thing.
Of course, Ackroyd fills in a few more details. Never before have I felt I understood the complex relationships amongst the Tudors and their hangers on until reading this volume. The family is a universal favorite, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I icons of British history, yet the whole story of who did what to whom – and who didn’t but got beheaded, anyway – is far stranger than any fiction. Peter Ackroyd accomplishes a breathtaking juggling act, keeping it all straight with minimal confusion for the reader busily working out all the Henrys and Edwards and Marys, and what country was at war with which in an age when power and alliances shifted seemingly daily.
He’s so easily read, unlike any dry history we all suffered through in high school. I don’t know how he nails it but he does. He’s developed a method of telling a complex story in a straightforward way, so there’s no having to go back and read pages or even chapters to understand what’s going on. I already said it: he’s God. Or at least the God of British history. This is why I’ll be going back to read the volume preceding Tudors, The Foundation, and look forward to Volume III. The accomplishment thus far is astounding.
If you’ve had an interest in the Tudors, don’t bother with any other, single book. Read this, then have a go at Hilary Mantel’s series if you’re like me and hadn’t made it far before getting too muddled to carry on. I feel much less intimidated by British history of this era now, much better educated, though there’s more to be known. That’s the encouraging part, what makes my heart beat a bit faster. Riveting as this read was, fantastical and entrancing, it leaves out much branching off from it.
There is always more to be learned. Thank God – a/k/a Peter Ackroyd – for that.
Series: History of England (Book 2)
- Hardcover: 528 pages
- Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books (October 8, 2013)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1250003628
- ISBN-13: 978-125000362