Today I'm pleased to welcome Anne Clinard Barnhill, author of At the Mercy of the Queen, to A Bookish Affair. Today she's talking about something that I've always wondered about as a fan of historical fiction.
What is it about Tudor England that continues to attract the attention of later generations? Is it the lurid details of Henry VIII's marital history? Is it the tenuous yet tenacious hold Henry VII had on his nascent dynasty? Is it the pathetic young kingship and death of Edward VI? Perhaps it is the debacle of Queen Mary's marriage, the old maid queen and the handsome Spaniard. Or has the Virgin Queen bewitched us with her charm? No doubt, all of these characters intrigue us, for they are larger than life. Their stories have the elements of Greek tragedy as well as high comedy. Look no further than Queen Mary for the tragic, a woman very much in love with a man who did not love her, a queen desperate to give her country an heir, yet the child she imagined in her belly turned out to be a cancer instead. As for the comedic, Henry VIII's middle-age pursuit of Catherine Howard has its moments of mirth, though my favorite funny story about Henry is his sudden appearance to the quite bewildered Anne of Cleves, his romantic gesture resulting in a less than ideal reception. But it is not just the characters that draw us into the English Renaissance--it is the times themselves. England in the 16th century was changing quickly. The New Learning, as it was called, gave those with the ability to read much to consider. The religious uproar caused by Martin Luther in Germany, along with the corruption of the Church and the availability of the Bible as well as other books, brought the questions of religion to the people rather than the priests. The invention of the printing press a century earlier led to the spread of ideas, a free interchange that had not been possible in earlier times. Successful merchants and trade with the Netherlands helped create a rising middle class; again, a change from the earlier feudal days of lord and serf. With this increase in wealth came education and exposure to the new ideas expressed in books and pamphlets.
In so many ways, 16th century England resembles our 21st century world. The internet has made the spreading of information almost instantaneous, to huge effect, much like the invention of the printing press 500 years ago. Technology and science are threatening to some because they seem to contradict traditional religious teachings. And religion, at least Christianity, has done exactly what Henry VIII feared--it has splintered into different denominations, each claiming to have found 'the truth.' Finding common ground becomes more and more difficult as the fabric of one's culture is stretched. In such a climate, some cling to the old ways while others walk boldly into the brave, new world. This conflict expresses itself in politics and the law as well as in churches and colleges.
In Shakespeare's plays, we find characters who impersonate the opposite gender, often to comic effect. Girls pretend to be boys and vice versa, at least on-stage. Even in real life, gender- bending occurred. There's Moll Cutpurse, a famous London thief who dressed as a man and even performed at the theater. She was good with a sword and smoked cigars. In our world, we have similar examples of gender-bender-ing. For some, this boundary blurring is frightening and fear often gives way to violence against those who do not conform to the norms.
Violence is something Shakespeare knew about--he incorporated it in his plays and made the action look as real as possible, using animal parts to squirt blood at the appropriate times. He wrote of murders, suicides, battles--sounds very much like our current movie fare.
Because we are in the middle of great socio-economic changes in our own time, we look back to Tudor England, also a time of cataclysmic change. Many elements in our modern-day problems had their beginnings back then: the crumbling of the established Roman Catholic church and the upsurge of Protestant creeds; the shift from an agrarian society to a society of merchants and skilled workers is much like our own shift from Thomas Jefferson's dream of an American farmland to an industrialized nation and world; we watch celebrities play out their lives with at least as much interest as Londoners observed the antics of their monarchs; and, we are as confused and uncertain as the times we live in, just like many of the common folk in Tudor England. All of these elements sometimes express themselves in protest--like the Pilgrimage of Grace, when Henry VIII's northern citizens protested the changes he had made in religion and the closing of the monasteries. Right now, the Occupy Movement gives expression to socio-economic dissatisfaction.
One final reason we are so intrigued by Tudor England must be the works of Shakespeare himself. His work, the very flower of the English language, helped create a sense of national pride and identity. Who can read these plays and remain immune to the beauty of their language? This is the language of the age and so that age becomes of universal. The stories, the social problems that mirror our own, the great blossoming of English literature, the strong characters of the Tudors themselves all combine to make this one of the most interesting ages of all time. That, and the clothes.