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Q & A with Linda Porter

By (September 1, 2008) No Comment

Open Letters: First a question you’ve no doubt fielded a thousand times, but your choice of subject is so divisive, I can’t help myself: why Mary Tudor? Can you trace the origin of your interest in her? Your book crackles with revisionist zeal: why do you think Mary needs defending?

Linda Porter: I chose Mary because I was searching for a subject who was important, well-known, but not written about (at least, not outside the academic community) for some time. The last popular history of Mary Tudor is Carrolly Erickson’s book in the late seventies: scholarship has moved on a lot since then, but new views of Mary and her reign had not filtered outside scholarly circles. I felt that the time was right for a re-appraisal but did not have any strong opinions on Mary either for or against when I started my research. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that, like most people, I was a great enthusiast for Elizabeth I and felt sorry for Mary on a personal level but accepted the prevailing wisdom that she had been a disaster as a ruler. I had, though, always been slightly puzzled as to why, if Mary was such a terrible ruler, her sister was able to succeed so smoothly. But my intention was to explain her rather than defend her though obviously in writing about someone who has been reviled for so long (even King John and Richard III have been, to some extent, rehabilitated) I suppose explanation becomes defence. I also came to admire Mary as a survivor and very hard-working ruler who was not rooted in the past, as her detractors have always claimed. And I began to understand how her image had been twisted over the centuries, first by Elizabethan propagandists and then by generations of male Protestant historians who had a particular vision of British nationhood to sell.

Open Letters: Elder statesmen among Tudor historians have, as you know, traditionally dismissed Mary as a pathetic failure. Pollard writes that her reign was characterized by sterility, and Elton says, “Positive achievements there were none.” They had access to the same facts you do, and yet your conclusions are the opposite – why the difference? Do you think it stems from the ‘elder’ part, or, possibly, the ‘statesmen‘ part? Or is it just the changing times?

Porter: I think the answer is yes to all of the above! It is simply not true to say that there were no positive achievements. How can you say, for example, that the sublime music of Thomas Tallis is not a positive achievement? He was one of the gentlemen of Mary’s Chapel Royal and it is probable (though we can’t be certain) that one of his major works was composed during Marys’ reign. The overhaul of the fiscal administration of England was long overdue and municipal reforms instituted while Mary was queen lasted till the mid-19th century. Much that is attributed to Elizabethan success (including increased exploration, for example) was actually started while her sister was on the throne. In reality, Pollard and others didn’t have access to all the facts – in the past twenty years there has been a lot of work done on Mary’s reign, and there are plenty of aspects still to explore, not least the role of her husband, Philip. Most people don’t even know he was king of England in the 1550s.

Open Letters: A few of your cited secondary sources – Chris Skidmore on Edward VI, Jessie Childs on Surrey – have already been reviewed in this series, and like your own book, they tend to cast a new, revisionist light on subject previously held as settled (Edward as a sickly little reed, Surrey as a feckless adventurer, etc.). Have you met these authors? Is there a sense of community, or do you wish them and their heirs undying ill?

Porter: An interesting question. Writing is a lonely experience and I’m not sure that I would honestly say there is a sense of community. It would be nice if there were such a thing, but there is probably just a little bit too much underlying competitiveness for it to be a reality. Given the difficulty of getting anything published these days, perhaps that is inevitable. Also, you have to remember that I have a background in business as well as in academe, which may explain my reaction! I know Jessie Childs quite well (we share the same literary agent) and she has been very helpful and supportive. She is a fine writer and a meticulous researcher, as well as being a lovely person. I exchanged a few e-mails with Chris Skidmore and sent him a copy of my book, having purchased his biography of Edward VI myself. I have not heard from him since but as I believe he also has a burgeoning career as a political adviser to the Conservative Party, perhaps he has more important things to do.

On a related point, an unseemly spat has recently broken out here in the UK about glamorous young women writing biography whose credentials seem to have more to do with their looks than their ability. Kathryn Hughes, who is a regular contributor to the Guardian newspaper as both columnist and reviewer and who also is a broadcaster, historian and professor of creative writing at the University of East Anglia in Norfolk (I didn’t know you could be a professor of creative writing, but there you go), launched into an attack on Amanda Foreman as the source of all the woes of would-be biographers who weren’t female, under 30 and wiling to pose in the nude in front of a pile of books for publicity. This was intended as part of a wake-up call to publishers but has rather diverted attention from a serious concern about the difficulties of getting serious non-fiction published. If I were to be really cynical (and why not) I suspect it hasn’t hurt sales of books by Professor Hughes or Amanda Foreman at all, though it’s not clear what it’s done for the rest of us.

Open Letters: Writing a work like The First Queen of England entails a vast amount of research, but not all primary and secondary sources are created equal; some authors must have made your research easier than others. Any favorites you’d care to name? Was Eric Ives a pleasure to turn to, for instance? Garrett Mattingly? St. Clare Byrne’s edition of the Lisle letters? (to name three I’m hoping you enjoyed as much as I did!)

Porter: You are quite right, some authors are harder work than others. I did, indeed, greatly enjoy Eric Ives, who writes so fluently but who obviously knows so much. I am also an admirer of GW Bernard, whose massive work, The Kings’ Reformation, is a masterpiece of scholarship and often controversial re-appraisal. Diarmaid MacCulloch and Eamon Duffy are also a pleasure to read and wonderful examples of the historian’s craft.

Open Letters: The Tudor historian Christopher Morris, in his sketch of Mary, makes the astonishing aside that “like all Tudors, it is possible she was not undersexed.” Your Mary is under virtual lock and key until her marriage to Philip, although you do mention her love of music and dancing. To what extent do you think Mary enjoyed life (it’s a singularly noticeable quality in Elizabeth, but maybe Elizabeth got all the good luck)?

Porter: Morris’s remark probably refers to Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain. There are some indirect hints (largely from Philip’s Spanish entourage) that she rather enjoyed the marriage bed. On a more general note, I think that Mary enjoyed life when she could. She was probably happiest at her musical instruments and when dancing as a young woman – and, of course, she was an inveterate gambler at cards. She also loved masques and plays and was known to have a sense of humour (yes, really!). Court jesters and the poet John Heywood could make her laugh out loud. I think she was probably at her happiest when Katherine Parr was married to Henry VIII.

Open Letters: Let’s talk about the heretic-burning. You write: “Chillingly, in our own time, the idea of religious terrorism has, once again, become familiar. The belief that those who hold a different faith should suffer a horrible death sits deeply in the human psyche. It is nothing new.” It seems here almost as though you’re drawing a parallel between Marian religious persecutions and the modern-day radicalism of groups like al-Qaeda, and yet your book seems to want to absolve Mary of any personal barbarity. Leaving aside the fact that Jesus said, “Forgive, and you will be forgiven,” let’s ask it the way a bad-tempered TV commentator would: how can you defend a woman who burned people at the stake for their religious beliefs?

Porter: I was intending to draw the kind of parallel you describe, though it can be drawn at other points in history, as well. The popular press tends to overlook the fact that there is a ghastly history of intolerance within Christianity, never mind between Christianity and other faiths. As far as Mary herself goes, I don’t defend the burnings, but I did try to put them in the context of the age in which Mary lived. At a conservative estimate, ten times as many Protestants were slaughtered in Paris on St Bartholomew’s eve in 1571 in one night. People of different religious outlooks hated one another and Mary was a woman of her times. She was a gentle woman, merciful to political enemies but completely blinkered when it came to those who attacked the Mass, the one part of her life that she could not exist without. I suppose the parallel I would draw is with Oliver Cromwell, a principled and tolerant man except when it came to Catholics. Part of the reason that Mary has been so vilified, I think, is the manner of death for heretics. To the modern mind, burning seems so repulsive that those who order it are beyond comprehension. But the saintly Sir Thomas More believed in it absolutely. This was a barbaric age – hanging, drawing and quartering is scarcely an attractive end and Henry VIII had a cook who upset his stomach boiled alive. The Tudors were all pretty brutal. Yes, 280 people were burned at the stake during Mary’s reign and the blot on her reputation will never be erased. However, what is less well-known is that Elizabeth had over 800 people summarily executed after the 1569 northern uprising. For Mary, her religious opponents were, in a very real sense, rebels too. They attacked not just her religion, but the state itself.

Open Letters: In your book you reproduce a 1546 portrait from Viscount De L’Isle’s private collection, of a woman ‘thought to have been Mary Tudor,’ and yet the woman in the portrait looks almost nothing like the woman from the 1544 portrait, which you also reproduce. In spending so much time writing about this person, you must have developed an image in your mind of what she looked like – how would you describe her? If you were able to meet her, do you think you’d like her?

Porter: The 1544 painting was done when Mary was just emerging from more than ten years of stress, punctuated by bouts of debilitating illness. It shows in her face. The portrait from Lord De Lisle’s private collection is an absolutely beautiful painting, though we don’t know for sure who the sitter is. By the time of her father’s death, Mary was much happier and, of course, some painters were always more flattering than others. We can be fairly sure that the red-headed lady in the Penshurst Place portrait (it’s a shame the illustrations were only in black and white in the US but that was my publisher’s decision), was wealthy, pious (the jewel around her neck shows the heads of four men, possibly the four apostles) and in mourning for Henry VIII, because the embroidery on her sleeves features the letter “H”. It says 1546, but these dates are often inscribed later, and in the old calendar, Henry died in 1546, the new year starting on 25 March.

I see Mary when she came to the throne, aged 37, as a small, thin woman, pale through chronic ill-health and constant bleedings, but still looking very regal. She had the Tudor red hair, a good complexion but was short-sighted, which may explain why crowds found her rather distant in her reaction to them. She probably couldn’t see them very well! She would have dressed in the very latest fashions, often in colours of violet, crimson, russet or black, and wearing a lot of jewellery. This was partly to show how important she was but also she loved her stones. She had a very deep contralto voice, considered unfeminine in those days but I suspect it was rather attractive. Her small frame belied a commanding presence. I would have known she was a queen. If I had been one of her ladies, I think I would have liked her very much. But I wouldn’t have wanted to cross her.

Open Letters: The allure of Elizabeth and the many frustrations of Mary’s reign have made her an irresistible target for movie-makers, almost always to her detriment. Have you ever seen a portrayal of her you liked?

Porter: In a word, no. I’m told that the second series of The Tudors (which I don’t hate quite as much as I thought I would) may paint her in a more sympathetic light, at least as a princess. I also understand that BBC Films are making a movie about her over here, whether for TV or cinema I don’t know. As the script is by Jimmy McGovern, a Glaswegian best known for a detective series here called Taggart (I doubt that it’s aired in the States, the Glasgow accents are so thick that someone suggested it needed subtitles) I shudder to think what the interpretation may be. I’d expect a lot of violence and screaming and a further reinforcement of “Bloody Mary.” Alas, poor Mary Tudor!

-July 30, 2008