Tudor: The Family Story by Leanda de Lisle

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Tudor: The Family Story by Leanda de Lisle

Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A comprehensive account of the Tudor history, its monarchs and unsuccessful claimants to the throne, unusually taking the death and and funeral in 1437 of Catherine of Valois, mother of the dynasty, as a starting point.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 539 Date: June 2014
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780099555285

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With so many recent books published on various aspects of Tudor history, it becomes harder to find a new angle or approach to the subject. Leanda de Lisle has thus pulled off the almost-impossible. Her starting point is not the battle of Bosworth and Henry Tudor’s claiming of the throne as King Henry VII in 1485, but an event nearly fifty years earlier, the death and funeral of Catherine de Valois. The widow of King Henry V, Catherine married secondly the Welsh squire Owain ap Maredudd ap Tudur, known to posterity as Owen Tudor. Their elder son Edmund later married Margaret Beaufort, a descendant of John of Gaunt, one of King Edward III’s several sons, and it was the only child of this union, born when his mother was a mere girl thirteen years of age, who would become the victor on Bosworth Field.

A glance at the two invaluable genealogical tables in the first pages of this volume will reveal what a tangled line it was between Edward III, the Plantagenets, and the houses of Lancaster, York and Tudor who all jostled for the ultimate prize during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Add to that a love-hate relationship with the Scottish monarchs, related more than once by marriage to contemporary English and French royalty, the schism with the Roman Catholic church under Henry VIII which led to the fierce rivalry between Catholic and Protestant, and perpetual conspiracies on behalf of rival claimants, and it is easy to see why the Tudors’ hold on the English crown was never secure. A friend one week could be a bitter enemy the next, and a potentially fatal illness of a crowned head could inspire several would-be kings or queens regnant to chance their arm. It was indeed a family – or rather several branches of the same family – at war.

We are guided gently through the Wars of the Roses, the rise of the Woodville family, and the everlasting mystery of the Princes in the Tower. Wisely, the author does not lay blame decisively at the door of any particular person as being responsible for the deaths of Edward V and his younger brother Richard, reminding us that it could have been either of the two sovereigns who succeeded him, or the ambitious Duke of Buckingham, or alternatively the scheming Sir James Tyrrell.

The chequered fortunes of Henry Tudor, the onetime refugee in Brittany who became King, are charted vividly as are his son’s reign, the latter’s break with Rome and his obsession with marrying a Queen who would give him a legal male heir. As we all know, his lifelong obsession with becoming the father of a legitimate and healthy King to succeed him was hardly a success, and the sheer detail of the reign of terror which engulfed so many in England during the last ten years or so of his rule is chronicled in all its savagery. Maybe we have taken it for granted since our schooldays that the versatile Renaissance man we might remember as ‘Bluff King Hal’ could be an irascible old devil who had two of his wives executed, but this history reminds us just how sensitive to opposition and how unforgiving this most vindictive of monarchs, the ‘hippopotamus in scarlet hose’ as he is fetchingly described in these pages, really was. Whether the head injury caused by a severe fall from his horse in 1536, leaving him unconscious for two hours, caused him to become a raving psychopath for the rest of his life or not, is left to speculation. Nevertheless, it seems at least to have been a tipping point in that it was partly responsible for Anne Boleyn’s miscarriage of her saviour, the son whose healthy birth might have saved her neck. From then on the number of executions escalated sharply.

Poor sickly Edward, the only son of the equally poor sickly Jane Seymour, might have become every bit as autocratic and ruthless as his father once he was King, but his death at the age of fifteen robbed history of the chance to find out. With no male heirs anywhere in sight, the way was open for several princesses to claim the throne. Curiously it was not one of his sisters whom Edward nominated as his successor, but his cousin, Lady Jane Grey. The young woman who reigned for nine days and was within a year executed alongside her husband was not, as is suggested in this book, just an innocent and vulnerable child, but a far more interesting and ambivalent figure than the idealised girl of outdated tradition.

The remaining fifty years of the powerful but fragile and ultimately doomed dynasty would be dominated by the two warring half-sisters and their cousin. The two winners, Mary and Elizabeth, both wore the crown of England in turn, one for a fleeting five years and the other nine times as long, while the loser, another Mary, had become Queen of Scotland while still in the cradle, Queen consort of France for a brief interlude as well, but spent almost twenty years in captivity. Hers was a sad existence, only ended like so many others in Tudor England by the executioner’s axe.

Life was a grim business in Tudor England. To play a prominent role in the country and not finish one’s career on the scaffold, the gallows or at the stake, or a victim of ill-health and early death from natural causes, often seems like a major achievement. Even ‘Good Queen Bess’ could be every bit as cruel as her father and elder sibling, and it is reported that after the northern rebellion of 1569, she ordered hangings in every village involved. The toll of those executed is estimated at around 900, more than four times as many as those put to death by Henry VIII after the Pilgrimage of Grace some three decades earlier.

This is a remarkable if often chilling story of determined men and women, locked together in the most desperate of power struggles. Most of us who are interested in English history have a rough grasp of the personalities and events, but the thoroughness of this account helps us to see the Tudor age in a new light. It is also a picturesque chronicle of what is traditionally seen as one of the most fascinating periods of our island story which deserves to take its place alongside the best of all the Tudor histories and biographies that have clamoured for our attention over the last few years. The two sections of colour plates, mostly portraits, are also very well chosen.

We can also recommend:

The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story by Catherine Fletcher

Elizabeth's Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen by Tracy Borman

Buy Tudor: The Family Story by Leanda de Lisle at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Tudor: The Family Story by Leanda de Lisle at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Tudor: The Family Story by Leanda de Lisle at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Tudor: The Family Story by Leanda de Lisle at Amazon.com.


Booklists.jpg Tudor: The Family Story by Leanda de Lisle is in the Top Ten History Books of 2014.

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