Queens of darkness

Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions, by GW Bernard, Yale University Press £20, 256 pages, FT Bookshop price: £16

Anne Boleyn, by Paul Friedmann, edited by Josephine Wilkinson, Amberley £20, 448 pages, FT Bookshop price: £16

Catherine Parr, by Elizabeth Norton, Amberley £18.99, 252 pages, FT Bookshop price: £15.19

Katherine the Queen: The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr, by Linda Porter, Macmillan £20, 456 pages, FT Bookshop price: £16

Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Fate of Amy Robsart, by Chris Skidmore, Weidenfeld & Nicolson £20, 456 pages, FT Bookshop price: £16

Mary Tudor: England’s First Queen, by Anna Whitelock, Bloomsbury £8.99, 384 pages, FT Bookshop price: £7.19

Why are we so besotted with the Tudors? In the past 10 years, portrayals of the Tudor courts have filled TV and cinema screens, bookshops and art galleries. After the surfeit of celebrations of Henry VIII and the endless revampings of Elizabeth I, the Tudor deluge of books continues: publishers are understandably happy to respond to an apparently insatiable market.

To some extent this is a historical legacy, deriving from the Empire-building Victorians who saw in the Tudor years the rise of a proud, self-governing, and above all Protestant England. Elizabethan England, in particular, became “the age of adventure”, of Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake and the trouncing of the Spanish armada. The reigns of Edward VI and Mary, with their martyrs from both churches, Catholic and Protestant, were somehow swept out of mind. Tudor times became the epitome of Merry England, with feasts and festivals, theatres and fairs, knot gardens and manor houses. Recent scholarship has adjusted the picture and revealed the dark complexity of the age. But the enduring appeal remains. This resides, very simply, in the wealth of powerful narratives – brilliantly exploited in Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall – with larger-than-life characters, striving for self-determination in an age of flux, and touching on profound issues of power, religion, money, sex, treachery and death.

Since we are now so familiar with the principal strands of the drama, writers have been turning increasingly to unresolved puzzles, such as the degree to which Henry VIII was personally responsible for the English reformation, and to characters who have not yet stepped into the literary limelight. This spring, for example, brings a bevy of queens. The first of these queens is hardly neglected: Anne Boleyn, the romantic, doomed star of Tudor myth. The actual evidence about her life and fate, as GW Bernard reminds us in Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions, is fragmentary: our picture is built on rumour, forgeries and guesswork. The first scholarly biography, written by Paul Friedmann in 1884 and now reissued, laid out the territory for debate: the assertion that Anne held back from sex to lure Henry on; that she eagerly promoted Lutheran reform; and that she was innocent of the charges of adultery that led to her death on Tower Hill in May 1536.

Anne’s innocence was upheld last year by Alison Weir in The Fall of Anne Boleyn. But although Weir and Bernard both claim forensic objectivity, they come to diametrically opposite conclusions. In his previous book, The King’s Reformation, Bernard claimed that far from being manipulated, Henry was the architect of his own religious policy. The king acted with equal independence, he now asserts, in the long wooing and swift disposal of his second wife.

The first long-held belief to tumble before Bernard’s axe is the notion that Anne kept Henry on a string. Not so, he argues. Judging by Henry’s own letters, they were lovers in around 1527, and then it was Henry who held back, partly from fear that a known relationship would scupper the moral case for annulment, but also because any child born before his marriage was legally ended could be deemed illegitimate. Similarly, it was Henry who orchestrated Anne’s downfall, rather than Thomas Cromwell (as Weir and Eric Ives deduce) or any “Aragonese faction”. All other theories are batted away. In Bernard’s view, Henry reacted violently simply because of Anne’s flirtatious nature. After hearing rumours of her adultery, he personally instigated the arrests and trials, carried out in a whirlwind three weeks. Even more controversially, Bernard argues that perhaps Henry was right in assuming her guilt.

Yet despite his scholarly rigour, Bernard himself is not immune to speculation. His case rests largely on the poem written by the French ambassador Lancelot de Carles in 1536, in which an unknown court lady defends her “loose-living” by comparison to the queen. But if the women of Anne’s household colluded in her adulteries, why were none of them arraigned and tried?

Bernard’s arguments will convince few people that Anne’s trial was not a travesty of justice. But he is more persuasive in his analysis of Anne Boleyn’s religious position, concluding that although she supported the reformist drive for tactical reasons, she was herself conservatively inclined, “deeply attached to the traditional liturgical ceremonies of the church”. This repositioning boosts the claim of Henry’s last wife Katherine (or Catherine) Parr – the subject of two new biographies, by Linda Porter and Elizabeth Norton – to be England’s “first Protestant Queen”. Here too, the documentary evidence is scanty and inevitably both authors follow the same narrative, and even use the same quotations. But the tone is different: while Norton cuts an admirably clear path through tangled Tudor intrigues, Porter offers a more nuanced picture of family allegiances and intellectual background. They also differ in dating Katherine’s religious development. Norton places her conversion to reform firmly in her first marriage to Edward Borough of Gainsborough, dominated by the strong personality of her reformist father-in-law, an associate of Anne Boleyn and Oliver Cromwell. Porter, however, sees this influence as countered by the conservatism of her second husband, Lord Latimer. Unlike historian David Starkey, who sees Katherine as “a woman with a mission”, angling to be royal consort and influence religious policy, Porter suggests that it was only after she married Henry that she defined her views.

After Latimer’s death in 1543, Katherine was a lady-in-waiting to Princess Mary, where she caught the eye of the reckless Thomas Seymour, with whom she fell in love, and also of the ageing king. Smarting after Katherine Howard’s execution for adultery, Henry now chose a dignified widow but one who was still of childbearing age. For a long time Katherine held back, finally accepting, she said, after submitting her own will to that of God. Tactful and charming, she proved particularly useful to Henry in his dealings with Charles V and was a shrewd regent when he left on his costly French campaign in 1544.

Noted for her encouragement of education, Katherine was the first queen to publish her own work, including Prayers or Meditations in 1545. After Henry’s death she would publish the extraordinary Lamentation of a Sinner, describing her own Lutheran quest for truth. But she made no impact on Henry’s own beliefs. Indeed his weariness with her enthusiastic “disputations” fuelled a complex plot against her in 1546, staged by conservatives in the Privy Council, who accused her of seditious extremism. Faced with arrest, Katherine played the humble wife and Henry rounded on her tormentors instead, thus showing both reformers and conservatives that he would make his own “third way”, as head of the church.

Katherine’s more lasting influence was on the three royal children. She befriended Mary, already in her twenties, and they remained close despite their religious differences. She provided Edward with much-needed warmth and encouraged his studies, and gave Elizabeth a model of an independent, principled and intellectual woman, able to run a kingdom. But when Henry died in January 1547 she was excluded from his deathbed, and denied any power as regent. Widowed and free, Katherine rashly married Seymour in secret, but died in September 1548 of puerperal fever, after giving birth to their daughter, Mary. In the previous months, however, she had become dangerously implicated in her husband’s flirtation with the young princess Elizabeth.

During the Seymour affair, Katherine had instilled in Elizabeth the importance of guarding her reputation. She may have remembered this years later, in September 1560, when Amy Robsart, the wife of her favourite Robert Dudley, was found lying dead, with a broken neck, at the foot of a flight of stairs. This famous Tudor mystery is tackled afresh by Chris Skidmore, in Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Fate of Amy Robsart. Dudley’s rival William Cecil spread rumours that Dudley had Amy murdered so he could wed the queen, and Elizabeth herself was said to be implicated. Some argue that Amy’s death was suicide, others that she suffered from breast cancer, causing a weakness that made her neck snap. Skidmore’s re-examination includes the publication, for the first time, of the full coroner’s report – an intriguing blend of detective story and historical scholarship.

Elizabeth survived this scandal, just as she survived all allegations of treachery against her sister Mary Tudor. Recent Tudor historians have adjusted the image of the young Mary, presenting her not as a melancholy victim but as attractive, courageous and defiant. Anna Whitelock’s impressive biography continues this theme, stressing Mary’s significance as “England’s first queen”. (The rival claimant, Matilda, was never crowned.) Whitelock opens with a conceit. When James I wanted room in Henry VII’s vault in Westminster Abbey, he moved Elizabeth’s coffin and placed it on top of Mary’s, with a sculptured commemoration of “Gloriana” above. Thus, writes Whitelock, “James shaped how these queens would be remembered: Elizabeth magnificent, Mary, her body, as her memory, buried beneath.” This book is a resurrection.

Mary’s loyalty to her mother and to her faith appeared in her refusal to recognise Anne Boleyn and to accept her father as Supreme Head of the Church, giving in only when threatened with treason. Under her brother, Edward VI, she clung to her right to hear Mass, despite fierce harassment. When Edward, desperate for a Protestant heir, chose their cousin Lady Jane Grey, Mary bravely rallied support and was unanimously acclaimed by the people. But although Whitelock’s brilliant account commands sympathy for Mary, it does not show her as having any other aims than maintaining her power and bringing England back to Catholicism. Furthermore, in youth she looked to her mother’s nephew, Charles V, for support, and as queen her chief adviser was his ambassador, Renard. It is fascinating to see her presented here as a European queen, a player – and pawn – in the battles between the Habsburgs and France, a pattern that affected every aspect of her reign, particularly her marriage to Charles’s son, Philip of Spain.

The unpopular Spanish marriage provoked plots and reprisals, including the death of Lady Jane Grey. After Sir Thomas Wyatt’s Kentish uprising, the streets of Mary’s capital were planted with gallows, hastily cleared before her Spanish bridegroom arrived. Mary became increasingly anxious. She felt betrayed by the people; by Philip, who left for the Low Countries after her sad phantom pregnancy; and by Elizabeth, who accepted the Mass in form only, and cleverly dodged charges of conspiracy. Ironically, it was Habsburg anti-French strategy, not sisterly feelings, that saved Elizabeth from the Tower. Accepting that Mary would be childless, Charles V realised that if Elizabeth was executed, the next heir was Mary Queen of Scots, daughter of Mary of Guise and betrothed to the Dauphin of France. Hold off, he told Mary.

She did not always follow Habsburg guidance. Her approval of Bishop Bonner’s persecution of heretics was all her own. Whitelock does not flinch from this, pointing out that as well as famous martyrs such as Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer, countless ordinary people perished at the stake, often informed on by quarrelsome neighbours. More than 300 people died a hideous death, their agony extended by slow-burning faggots or contrary winds. This, too, was a facet of Mary’s defiance: when threatened by Edward VI she swore to hold fast to her faith even in the fire. She expected no less of her opponents.

In the end, while interpretations of detail may change, this cluster of books about Tudor queens – scintillating, moving portraits of strong women though they are – dramatise yet again the dark grip of religious bigotry and intolerance, and the greed, dynastic ambition and cruelty that underpinned our “glorious” Tudor age.

And where do we go from here? Perhaps the next stage will be to look back a generation, to Henry VII and the establishment of the dynasty? Or to turn sideways and revalue the role of “ordinary” people in these troubled times: merchants, farmers, small traders, washerwomen and seamstresses, tinkers and vagrants? Our very familiarity with the period encourages more exploration: and the more we learn, the more questions will rise. This will certainly not be the end of the Tudor obsession.

Jenny Uglow’s latest book ‘A Gambling Man’ (Faber) has been longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction

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