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WEB EXTRA: Peter Ackroyd talks Tudors in Volume 2 of his acclaimed history of England

Most of Peter Ackroyd’s more than 50 books – two dozen written in the past decade - can be consumed like a “Vinho do Porto,” a fortified wine product of Portugal. They are sweet reading, and reminiscent of the “page-turning literary history in the Gibbon and Macaulay tradition.”

“Tudors,” the second in his series of six books of England’s history, fits the Ackroyd pattern that “elides the fine-grain truths of academic history.” This quote is fellow English writer Christopher Hitchens’ way of saying that Ackroyd’s sense of English history is “flippant about facts” and having a “talent for heroic generalization.”

But I don’t think Hitchens’ assessment is quite true. Ackroyd has a strong sense of what he calls “the poetry of history,” that is, not getting bunkered in more details than he thinks necessary to tell the story.

This volume tells the story of England’s thunderous break with Rome, the resultant English Reformation and the rise of the Anglican Church; i.e., the Church of England. Readers will remember that, at the beginning of the 16th century, England looked to the past and Rome with loyalty. All that changed, and Tudor history effectively begins here.

In a chapter entitled “Hallelujah,” Ackroyd says the “The land was flowing with milk and honey” as it anticipated the young king coming to the throne. Henry VIII, a touch over six feet and about to turn 18, had kingship thrust upon him when his father, Henry VII, “harsh and rapacious”, died April 21, 1509. Henry VIII was crowned on June 24 of the same year.

Ackroyd, raised in a Catholic home by his mother, writes that the crowning was “… considered to be the eighth sacrament of the Church … Henry was anointed with chrism … as a token of sacred kingship.” Only 13 days earlier, the young king married Catherine of Aragon, who had come to England from Spain to marry his older brother, Prince Arthur. Regrettably for England, the elder prince died of consumption six months before Henry VIII’s investiture.

Henry VIII had been carefully supervised by his father, acquiring the reputation of being learned beyond his years. He was an excellent debater and steeped in the theology of Thomas Aquinas. Young Henry composed Masses, sang and played the lute and keyboard, and was described in a poem by his chancellor and still later foe, Thomas More, as “the glory of the sea.”

It is worth reviewing Henry VIII’s marital history, since its disastrous course influenced England’s history. Ackroyd devotes an entire chapter, entitled “The woes of marriage,” to the king’s infidelities.

Ackroyd writes, “Henry had already strayed from the marriage bed” soon after wedding Catherine of Aragon in 1509. She was only five years older than Henry. In fact, the king had many sexual dalliances. A decade later, Elizabeth Blount, one of his many mistresses, gave birth to a healthy boy named Henry Fitzroy, in 1519.

But because Catherine was unable to provide a male heir to Henry, he declared that she had never been his legitimate wife. This caused a huge row with the Catholic Church. Its unwillingness to acknowledge the nullity of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was a major reason for England’s rupture with the Church of Rome. Thomas Wolsey, Henry’s papal legate to Pope Clement III, was unable to get the pope to grant an annulment.

Some readers may remember the 1966 film, “A Man for All Seasons,” which reprises this history. Paul Schofield played Sir Thomas More, Henry’s chancellor, who would not submit to either Henry’s argument about Catherine’s status, or to acknowledge Henry’s role as the head of the Church in England. As a consequence, Thomas More was beheaded on perjured testimony in 1535. He was made a saint of the Catholic Church in 1935.

Henry VIII declared himself “The only supreme head of the Church of England” in 1534. The Dissolution of the Monasteries was implemented by his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, from 1536 to 1540, and Henry squandered the church’s wealth. Henry fell out with Cromwell and beheaded him June 10, 1540. Cromwell was presumed guilty of heresy, without a trial.

Next up, or down, however one describes Henry’s serial marital arrangements, was “Anne of a thousand days,” Anne Boleyn, whom Henry secretly married in 1533. She was the sister of one of Henry’s mistresses. Boleyn gave birth to Elizabeth I, but failed the male heir test and was decapitated on the king’s orders, May 2, 1536.

Once Anne’s thousand days were up, it was Jane Seymour who was proposed to by the King. They married May 30, 1536. She delivered what Henry wanted: a male heir, Prince Edward, born Oct. 12, 1537, at Hampton Court. Jane died 12 days later, throwing Henry into what must have passed for grief on his part.

Anne of Cleves, the “Flanders Mare,” was next to post Jan. 6, 1540. But the marriage was never consummated, much to the dismay of Henry, apparently humiliated by his impotence. Henry told Thomas Cromwell, his agent in all things malicious, that she had “displeasant smells,” suspecting she was not a virgin.

The queen agreed to a divorce that summer. After an appropriate time for Henry - five months - he married a woman of experience, Catherine Howard, July 28, 1540. Mirabile dictu, Henry discovered Catherine’s apparent unfaithfulness and was shocked. He divorced her as it was “treason for an ‘unchaste’ woman to wed a king.” She was beheaded.

Last came Henry’s sixth wife, Catherine Parr, whom he married July 12, 1543. Twice a widow, she was a helpful companion to the king and survived him to marry a fourth husband, Lord Thomas Seymour. (During this same year, preparations were made for the invasion of France by England and Spain.)

Henry VIII died Jan. 28, 1547, grossly corpulent and prematurely aged and unable to walk. “His appetite was immense and his waistline grew to 66 inches.”

So the crown came to Prince Edward. He was 19 years old, raised as a Protestant and crowned Edward VI on Feb. 18, 1547. His reign was largely a failure. Why? The answer was that he was young and sickly. A Regency Council governed in his place during difficult economic times and social unrest.

From the beginning of life, Edward was falsely rumored to have died, a rumor which Henry VIII scotched by spending time with the youth, “dallying with him in his arms … and so holding him in a window to the sight and great comfort of all the people”.

This vignette, Ackroyd remarks, “is one of the few images that show the king as a natural human being.” For the next six years, Edward was raised “among women.”

Edward VI fell ill in 1552 with smallpox and measles, and developed tuberculosis. Some scholars think he developed congenital syphilis from his father. As Edward neared death, he drew up a will with the help of the Earl of Northumberland in 1553 that, when he died July 6, 1553, named a devout Protestant, the great-niece of Henry VIII, Lady Jane Grey Queen (1537-1554), Queen by the King’s Council. This ploy lasted nine days. For her trouble, Lady Jane was executed Feb. 12.

Next, Henry VIII’s eldest daughter and rightful heir, Mary Tudor (1516–1558), proclaimed herself queen July 19, 1533, and was welcomed by cheering crowds to London in early August. Catholicism was reimposed with, as Ackroyd writes, “the stench of bonfires under ‘Bloody Mary’ ” until 1558.

An instance: he relates that six radicals were burned at Smithfield that year, and another six burned at the dead of night in Brentford; noting that Mary proclaimed no one should give the heretics comfort. Mary, he writes, also burned up with “an epidemic disease, called the ‘new ague’, a virulent form of influenza,” as well as depression that same year. She died Nov. 17, and at 8 o’clock, two hours after her death, Ackroyd writes that “parliament was summoned with the announcement that Elizabeth was now ‘queen of this realm’.”

In these circumstances, Elizabeth I (1533–1603) attained the throne, from 1558–1603, athwart civil strife. Ackroyd writes, “her hair hung loose as a token of her virginity.” She sought and finally achieved stability. As time went on, people looked “to themselves for answers rather than to those who ruled them.” She may best be remembered for the defeat of the Spanish Armada and Elizabethan drama that flourished with playwrights William Shakespeare and William Marlowe.

Ackroyd reminds us that House of Tudor came into being with the defeat of Richard III and claiming of the crown on at Bosworth Field by Henry VII. There were five monarchs in its rule, Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, (1485–1603.)

There is more to the Tudors, and Ackroyd’s interest in his beloved England is undiminished. The 41 chapters include “War games,” “A virgin queen,” “Armada,” and “The great plot” and “The revels now are ended.”

An American journalist, Jody Rosen, who writes for Slate, did a frank interview recently that divulged the writer’s two-bottles of wine a day habit with a bad liver. Rosen also noted that Ackroyd, who is gay, has been celibate for years.

Peter Ackroyd’s tag line is a touch long for an epitaph, but it fits. He writes, “I’ve often thought that all my books are really one book. They’re all just separate chapters in the long book which will be finished when I’m dead.”


The History Of England From Henry VIII To Elizabeth I, Tudors

By Peter Ackroyd

Thomas Dunne Books

507 pages, $29.99

Michael D. Langan is the former headmaster of Nardin Academy and a frequent reviewer of English literature and history.