Tuesday, October 4, 2011

In Defense of the Stuart Dynasty. Or, why all the fuss over the Tudors?

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?

Just curious.

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.

14 comments:

  1. I have to agree that the Stuart Period is fascinating. Full of intrigue, conflict, religious and political turmoil, dramatic events and colourful monarchs.

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  2. I am not a Tudor fan, my historical periods are post Roman and Saxon Britain and the Golden Age of Piracy (early 1700's) which overlap the Stuarts - Queen Anne, William of Orange and the Jacobites (the 1719 Jacobite rebellion is a sub-plot of the 4th novel in my Sea Witch Voyages)
    What about Lorna Doone - that fits into the Stuart period (Kidnapped, Treasure Island? (Can't quite remember offhand - early 18th century?)
    A friend of mine wrote an excellant novel called "Rogues & Rebels" based around the English Civil War in Devon, fantastic book, but sadly it is now out of print. I must encourage her to get it on Kindle or something!
    I think reading fashions tend to go with movies or TV drama series, and are perpetuated by the big publishing houses who only publish what is popular. (I get "Pirates? Oh no, no one is interested in pirates." What nonsense! Not long ago it was "No one is interested in wizards.... vampires....Mr Darcy....
    I recall my ex agent saying that the American readership only wanted Tudor or Richard III, so there was no point in me writing anything historical that was not in that time frame.
    I'm rather glad I didn't take her advice!

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  3. I have always liked the Tudor period, and I have watched that movie called Restoration (I had to watch it to write an essay about it and about the period for my university English History lessons). It is true that some writers tend to neglect some Tudor monarchs, but you can also find a great deal about them. If you read my article in the Readers/Writers section, I talk about Mary I, and of course there were burnings of heretic or religious dissenters (my article talks about that, oh surprise!).
    But you are right, I would like to see more about the Tudor Period.

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  4. My agent said the same thing, 'write a Tudor novel'but I didn't think. I hate henry viii so much he'd not get a fair hearing in a book written by me :D I agree with everything you've said here. not that the Tudors arent interesting, ist just that we are drowning in them! Give me the Plantagenets anyday! or maybe someone should dramatise Bernard Cornwell's saxon chronicles.

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  5. As an actress, I'm just as partial to the Jacobean tragedies as I am to the Restoration comedies. I adore the Stuarts, in particular Charles II, although I'm warming to Charles I. You'll be happy to know that Gillian Bagwell, Susan Holloway Scott and Claire Thornton have all written historical novels set during that period, and there was a mystery series that featured Aphra Behn awhile back. There was the fabulous Gunpowder Plot miniseries, and the Last King miniseries starring Rufus Sewell as a rather dishy Charles II.

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  6. Sam, on your behalf I watched Mary, Queen of Scots last night. With Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson, it was done from Mary's point of view. It was a good movie, but I'd have enjoyed seeing it start when she was younger and becoming engaged to marry the King of France.

    It always irritates me when the top guys (agents, producers, publishers, etc) say that nobody would be interested in something. Many of us would read or watch anything that they made from British history. I am fascinated by info from the earliest periods, and I'm sure I am not the only one.

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  7. Thanks everyone - perhaps I was overstating the case a bit, but it still seems to me that as far as recent (and big budget) productions go, the Tudors rule the roost. And while Elizabeth rightly points to some authors working in the Stuart period, they seem to favor romance or women's fiction (whatever that is). So I suppose I was wondering why a period that has so much to offer has not found a broader swath of authors?

    I'm also curious more broadly about why authors settle on a particular period as their favorite. My reasons are largely connected to my background as a historian, but even these fit in with my eclectic religious upbringing. (Long story to be told elsewhere.) Why the Plantagenets? Saxons? Hanoverians? What is it that makes a period good for writing about?

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  8. Well, I like coffee better than tea. Even among the green teas, I like only one brand, Royal King. Other people will prefer a black tea, a weaker coffee, cream in their coffee and milk in their tea. It's a matter of taste.

    I'm sure it is that way with literature and movies. Some like heavier, drier history with less story telling. I love history books, but please, let them be fascinating with some humor. I write lighter weight historical fiction that probably appeals more to women for entertainment purposes. Yet, I am surprised at how many men have read and reviewed it! There is no accounting for taste.

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  9. I'm a huge Stuart fan -- loved Diana Norman's The Vizard Mask, which starts in the reign of Charles II and ends with William and Mary. I'm always looking for more books about the era! (And I'm not really keen on the Tudors...)

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  10. My works during the Stuart era (1660's London) deal with common folk who must cope with the enormous changes from Cromwell's Protectorate to the Restoration of King Charles II. Couples married under the Protectorate did not know if they were married when King Charles II returned to England due to the the upheaval of religious rules. Bigamy was rampant. You'll find how a woman handles this in my Viola, A Woeful Tale of Marriage. TWINS (An EPIC 2012 award finalist) Edgar and Emma Torbet live under a superstition that persisted from the Medieval days stating a man could only sire one child at a time. When a woman had twins, she was known as an adulterous. Edgar and Emma live in London during the year of King Charles II coronation. TWINS relates how Edgar and Emma make their way in a world with superstition and religious intolerance in London. Please check out www.wings-press.com for more information. Author: Katherine Pym.

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  11. Katherine asked before posting to see if it was alright. Sweet, I thought!

    Must have been strange when the twins both looked like the woman's husband. Probably thought it was witchcraft.

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  12. Sam: As a writer of a Tudor thriller series, I have to say, I didn't choose the Tudors. The Tudors chose me! When I was perhaps 11 years old, I saw "Elizabeth R," and I was hooked for life. But I think the Stuarts are ripe for fiction and film too! I saw a television movie or miniseries on Charles II that was pretty good. You can't go wrong with Nell Gwynne. I have a fondness for that ultimate historical fiction soaper "Forever Amber." One of my favorite movies of all time, "Captain Blood," is set during Stuart era. So lead the revival, dude! I'm with you...

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  13. I think the answer is very simple: Elizabeth I. Some sixty odd years ago Britain was widely heralded as entering a second Elizabethan age - which you must remember was the foundation of the British Empire - and that whole idea caught hold of the public imagination. And Elizabeth's life itself is fascinating.

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  14. as much as i enjoyed the tudors elizabethans mary queen of scots etc the only fictional books about the stuarts ive read are by jean plaidy i like her so any other authors in a similar style will be gratefully read

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