by Sam Thomas
As historical events in British history go, the Tudor Dynasty has received more than its fair share of attention from historians, authors, and even film and TV producers. Off the top of my head, I can name three series set under the Tudors: Christopher Gortner’s Elizabethan Spymaster thrillers, C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake mysteries, and our very own Nancy Bilyeau’s debut – the first in a series – The Crown. Then on screens big and small you’ve got Showtime's The Tudors, The Other Boleyn Girl, and two recent movies about Elizabeth I. Throw in Hilary Mantel’s mind-bendingly good Wolf Hall, and you could spend a good bit of your life on just the Tudors. (Some of them at least. We tend to ignore Henry VII, Edward VI, and Mary I. From a fictional perspective, the Tudors were a two-monarch dynasty.)
While not entirely ignored, the Stuarts (1603-1714) have suffered terrible neglect. I’d not trade Iain Pears’s An Instance of the Fingerpost for anything in the world, but after it bottoms out pretty quickly. I’ve nothing against Ronan Bennet’s Havoc, in Its Third Year, but it’s not exactly making us forget the Tudors, is it? There are a couple of movies you might have missed: Restoration, The Libertine, and the god-awful To Kill a King. It’s better than nothing (and we’re better off than the poor Georgians), but as the saying goes, this is small beer.
This raises two questions. The first is, why not the Stuarts? If you want blood? We’ve got it. There's a civil war, culminating in the execution of King Charles I! We've got Catholics and Protestants killing each other in very large numbers in Ireland! (Just ask The Pogues.)
Not your speed? How about sex? Charles I's son, Charles II had twenty-five children… none by his wife! Her barrenness meant that Charles’s brother, James, took the throne, and he supposedly had a child smuggled into his wife's delivery room (in a warming pan, no less) so he could pretend to have fathered a son.
Religious tumult? Sure – we’ve got Puritans, Arminians, Quakers, Baptists, Independents, Presbyterians. Okay, so there’s no burning of heretics, but religious dissenters do get locked up pretty regularly, and an impolitic word about the king could result in the cropping of one’s ears, or the boring of a hole through your tongue. As a bonus, we’ve got witchcraft accusations and burnings.
Oh, you’re more interested in political intrigue? Well there are the civil wars (see above, under “Blood, and lots of it”), the rise of Oliver Cromwell followed by the (gentle) overthrow of his son, Richard. Then you’ve got rebellions against James II (by one of his brother's bastards), followed by the successful invasion of England, as William and Mary overthrew James II in 1689.
So what’s not to like? Why not the Stuarts?
The second question, of course, is why the Tudors? Obviously much of the credit has to go to Henry’s colorful marital history. But is that all? If Katharine of Aragon had given birth to a son rather than a daughter, would we give the Tudors the same short shrift the Stuarts have (unjustly!) received?
The larger question, of course, is this: What makes a particular historical period worth writing about? And (if were being honest here), what is it that makes readers latch on to a period and shell out their hard-earned money to read about that period?
Sam Thomas's debut novel The Midwife's Tale: A Mystery will be published in 2012 by Minotaur/St. Martin's press. He can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and his very own website.