A Year with the Tudors II: Have You Heard It?
The Tudors captivate our imagination, and they cultivate our multi-media screens—and in honor of Open Letters Monthly’s 10th year of publication, Steve Donoghue revisits one of the journal’s most popular features by embarking on A Year with the Tudors: The Second – looking at the year’s crop of new books telling the gaudy, fascinating stories of the Tudor dynasty.
The Private Lives of the Tudors: Uncovering the Secrets of Britain’s Greatest Dynasty
By Tracy Borman
Grove Press, 2017
Historian Tracy Borman, in her new book, The Private Lives of the Tudors, promises to give readers access to the lives the Tudors lived “behind closed doors,” when “their more ‘human’ characteristics and habits could find expression.” Borman, author of half a dozen books including Elizabeth’s Women and a biography of Thomas Cromwell, consults accounts of eyewitnesses, plus “a rich array” of other contemporary sources, including correspondence, household ledgers, and the reports sent home by various ambassadors to the Tudor court, sifts through these records, and writes an account designed to “shed new light” upon an enduringly popular period. “It is only when we understand the real people behind the mask of royalty – with all their qualities, defects, tastes and temperaments,” she writes, “that we can truly understand the political, religious and social tumults of this extraordinary period.”
These kinds of promises are as common as salt in writings about the famous, and they’re always bogus. The behind-the-scenes crowd-call is natural enough as a lure to the prurient in any circumstance. The lure grows stronger in direct proportion to the exclusivity of the subject, and what’s more exclusive than royalty? As a device for selling books, it’s a canny if cynical gambit, and Borman sets it to work for 400 pages of Tudor history, reminding her readers early on that the human sources for uncovering that hidden privacy were abundant even in the reign of the first Tudor monarch, Henry VII:
The close proximity of servants served a practical purpose as well as a security function. Having an attendant in or near the room in which one slept mean that they could quickly carry out any commands if required. Moreover, a monarch was at his or her most vulnerable when asleep. Given the turbulent events that had resulted in Henry VII’s accession, he may well have required his attendants to stay close by during the night. Little wonder that servants often played a key role in the exposure of adultery or the dissolution of an unsuccessful marriage.
At that mention of tattle-tale servants, aficionados of Tudor history will immediately think of their favorite examples from art or the historical record. There’s the whimsical little scene in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, for instance, in which Anne Boleyn, offered lucrative honors by the king’s messenger, is teased by her old chamberwoman:
There was a lady once, ’tis an old story,
That would not be a queen, that would she not,
For all the mud in Egypt: have you heard it?
(“Come, you are pleasant,” the still-bedazzled Anne weakly replies)
Or from the standard Tudor histories, there are private-feeling moments scattered throughout the records, from meddlesome lady-in-waiting Lady Rochford allowing Henry VIII’s wife Catherine Howard and her lover Thomas Culpeper their nighttime intimacies to sick young King Edward VI dying in the arms of Sir Henry Sidney to the young-girl Elizabeth protesting her innocence of trysting by sharply pointing out that she’s never alone, even in bed.
The relatively commonplace nature of such anecdotes, in fact, tends to give the lie to books like The Private Lives of the Tudors before they’re even opened. Part of the problem is simple anachronism: there’s a very real argument to be made that not only did the Tudor monarchs virtually never experience anything close to what a modern-day audience would consider privacy but also, and certainly connectedly, that they had no personal conception of what such a private life would be like. Borman is right to point out, for instance, that the usurper-king Henry VII might have kept servants around him day and night out of fear of knife-wielding Yorkist grudge-bearers. But among other things, she seems less aware of the possibility that Henry probably didn’t view those servants as fully human beings – an odd lapse in a book that’s otherwise sometimes off-puttingly tone-deaf to finer sensibilities, a tendency nowhere better epitomized than when we’re callously told that the job of tending the heavy meat-turnspit in Tudor kitchens was “so arduous that it was one of the first to be mechanized,” when in reality it wasn’t mechanized: instead of humans, dogs were chained to the turnspits and forced to work on dribbles of grease until they starved to death and were replaced.
And whether or not Henry VII or his son or his granddaughter viewed their ever-present coterie of servants as human beings (Shakespeare’s “pleasant” rude mechanicals notwithstanding, I think they mostly didn’t), there’s also the question of whether or not any Tudor monarch – or indeed any Tudor citizen – would have wanted our modern conception of privacy. Such preferences are after all entirely learned things; who’s to say Henry VIII wouldn’t have reacted to what we call alone-time the way 21st century prisoners react to the prospect of a stretch in solitary confinement? There’s a very good chance that no Tudor would have even understood the title The Private Lives of the Tudors.
But even if they did, even if the concept translates mutatis mutandis, a book like Borman’s is still impossible. There’s simply no grounding for its main promise. Official papers and household accounts – much less the dispatches of ambassadors and envoys – can never penetrate even to quiet moments, let alone private ones. Borman, no more than any of her predecessors, can take her readers into any version of the private lives of the Tudors. As in all cases, the most she can do is offer those readers her version of what Francis Hackett offered his readers nearly a century ago in the title of his bestselling book Personal History of Henry the Eighth: a character-driven narrative overview of the Tudor era, something no more “private” than a broad-scale sociological inquiry or a sweeping ecumenical history but full of local color. It can be very entertaining, and certainly Borman’s version of it is; The Private Lives of the Tudors is unfailingly colorful and lively. But it can be depressing too, particularly when it gets the reader nowhere especially interesting.
Since she has virtually no reliable primary sources to revert to, Borman is forced over and over again to substitute speculation for substance. About Henry VII’s wedding night with Elizabeth, for instance, she writes, “It is likely that Henry and Elizabeth spent their wedding night in the painted chamber at Westminster, the most luxurious apartment in the palace.” Once you encounter a line like that, you have the sinking feeling that you’re going to encounter many more, and Borman supplies them, almost never even glancing in the general direction of credibility, much less citing solid sources. About the execution of Anne Boleyn on May 19 1536, we get the same unsourced silly stuff that crops up about Marie Antoinette as well:
After she had delivered her final speech, Anne’s attendants blindfolded her so that she did not see the executioner’s sword, which killed her with one clean strike. The crowd looked on aghast as Anne’s eyes and lips continued to move, as if in silent prayer, when her head was held aloft.
When it comes to Anne’s tyrannical husband, we zoom in to specific details with the confidence of a prime time medical drama:
Only the king’s closest body servants knew the full extent of the king’s illness. They saw the suppurating ulcer on his leg, the stench from which was enough to turn the strongest of stomachs. When they undressed their royal master each evening, they also had to take care not to aggravate the pus-filled boils that covered other parts of his body.
Obviously, this is historical fiction in almost every respect. We don’t know what Henry’s body servants saw, on his leg or anywhere else; and if they saw anything, we don’t know that it was a suppurating ulcer; we don’t know how strongly anything smelled; we have no idea how much care, if any, those servants needed to take, and we don’t know anything about pus-filled boils. Ironically, simply churning out this kind of romantic self-indulgence for page after page pushes any kind of actual realization of the “private” Tudor world farther and farther away. The state documents and household accounts Borman consults can support fruitful, thought-provoking suppositions when handled rigorously. But when invoked and then disregarded in favor of easy fiction, those primary sources, however scanty, become just a bit more conceptually remote. Time and again in her book, Borman doesn’t so much illuminate the private lives of the Tudors as supply them, fully formed, reading with an enviable neatness:
When Elizabeth retired to the privacy of her bedchamber every evening, her ladies would remove her dark red wig, jewels and other accessories, and would wipe off the thick makeup that covered her face, bosom and hands. To do so, they might have used some of the highly perfumed soap that had become popular among the fashionable elite in London during the closing years of the sixteenth century. Stripped of her queenly adornments, Elizabeth would become the private woman once more.
The Tudor monarchs fascinate in large part because they form a pageant, a very public gallery of human weaknesses written for performance at the front of the stage. Throughout the dynasty’s record, there are quick, arresting moments when the pageant halts and the focus narrows: a very sick Edward VI drags himself to his window in order to reassure his subjects with the sight of him on his feet and looks so ghastly he horrifies them instead; Queen Mary refuses the advice of a table-full of older counsellors in order to fight for her crown; an old Queen Elizabeth snaps at the impetuous Earl of Essex when he bursts into her chamber and sees her in her bed clothes (and boorishly later comments on her “carcass”) … such moments snag the imagination precisely because they’re so rare and feel so immediately genuine, so at odds with the pageant’s gaudy passage. A book studying the import of those moments might yield some new insights into the Tudor monarchy, and maybe someday Tracy Borman or somebody else will write that book and make what they can of those signal interruptions. But a ripped-from-the-headlines scandal-sheet approach like The Private Lives of the Tudors is unlikely to be the kind of book that does it.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston. He reviews for The National, The American Conservative, The Washington Post, and The Christian Science Monitor. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.