Who is not completely fascinated by Henry VIII? My interest in Tudor England began with a trip to England with an Episcopal choir. We sang Evensong service every night for a week at Ely Cathedral. We were also fortunate enough to go to Canterbury, York, Lincoln, and London. When you process into the choir stall and walk over stones that literally have been worn thin by worshippers before you, the sense of history is palpable. Also lingering are the remnants of the major social, political, and religious upheavals of King Henry’s reign.
But, let’s not get too lofty. My fascination with Tudor England has a smarmier side. It’s a really juicy story. The people at Showtime have capitalized on this juiciness with the series The Tudors . I’m not sure why, but Henry is so much more captivating when played by Jonatha n Rhys-Meyers. The King is the quintessential flawed leader—obsessed with his precarious legacy and driven to destruction and paranoia. Watching The Tudors is like watching a train wreck. It is part Greek tragedy, part Jersey Shore.
Lately, my Tudor obsession has turned into a reading obsession. I know I’m late to the party with Philippa Gregory’s popularity, but for those who still need a little Tudor fix, here are some of my favorites:
The first of my recommendations actually is a Philippa Gregory novel, The Constant Princess . This is the story of Katherine of Aragon, who becomes King Henry’s first wife after the death of Henry’s brother and Katherine’s husband, Arthur. Anne Boleyn was Katherine’s mistress in waiting. Jane Seymour was Anne’s mistress in waiting. Do you see a pattern here?
The Queen of Subtleties and The Queen’s Sorrow by Suzannah Dunn—The Queen of Subtleties is the story of Anne Boleyn’s demise told from both her perspective and that of Lucy Cornwallis, the King’s confectioner. The Queen’s Sorrow is the story of Mary Tudor, daughter of Katherine of Aragon and half-sister to Elizabeth. I love how Dunn weaves the narratives of historical figures into those of fictional, everyman/woman figures. A sundial maker, Rafael, is the narrator of Mary Tudor’s story.
Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir—Weir’s work is predominantly non-fiction, although she’s written two novels—Innocent Traitor and Lady Elizabeth . Innocent Traitor moves beyond the reign of Henry VIII to tell the story of his niece, Lady Jane Grey. Jane, like so many Tudor women before her, is cultivated and used for the political advancement of her family. And, like the Tudor women before her, she has a tragic end. Alison Weir is an exceptional storyteller and is very skilled at conveying psychological truths in a very precise way. I may even cross over to the non-fiction side to read more of her.
I’m not quite sure when I’m going to get out of Tudor England. Now, when I come home with a new library book, I’m teased for reading another “period piece.” I think I will eventually return to my usual picks—contemporary, psychological, women’s fiction. Just one more Anne Boleyn novel first.