National Portrait Gallery painting by anonymous artist; photo from Wikimedia Commons

The Real Tudor England

Lucy Wooding

There was no such thing as ‘Tudor England’ until long after the last Tudor was dead.1 This epoch was created in retrospect, pieced together out of countless memories and a great deal of selective forgetting. Many modern depictions of the Tudor past continue to distort the historical record, and are often a travesty of the real thing. In popular culture, Tudor England exists as a succession of clear, jewel-like images, as glowing as the Tudor portraits we know so well, and as deceptive. Its story can be framed as a melodrama about a glamorous but dysfunctional royal family, depicted as the era of artistic subtlety and splendour that produced Elizabethan drama, hailed as an age of religious awakening, or acclaimed as laying foundations for the modern bureaucratic state. These are mostly just fables, however, stitched together to create a beguiling picture, at times compounded of benign sentiment alongside the misinformation; at other times, more troublingly, founded on religious bias or political prejudice. Fabricated notions of the Tudor era have been used over the centuries to support everything from the averred prerogatives of parliament to the claims of different sects within the Church of England; they have been blithely appropriated for accounts of the beginning of empire or the dawn of secularism.2 Nowadays they are used as the backdrop for novels, rattling with modern assumptions, prettified to be peddled as a commodity in scores of giftshops, sensationalized by journalists and television personalities, frequently commercialized beyond all recognition. For all that this popular enthusiasm can be inspiring at times, it can also be deeply misleading. The Tudors deserve more profound and careful scrutiny.

Tudor England in its own time was nothing like it looks on a screen.3 The truth is at once more complicated, more intractable and much more interesting. There were many different political, social and religious changes taking place in the years between 1485 and 1603. At the same time, international alliances were shifting; wars were fought on land and at sea; famines and epidemics ravaged communities; schools and colleges were founded; books were written and printed as never before; villages, towns and cities battled with social problems and attempted to promote social harmony; men, women and children worked, suffered, celebrated and died. This book tells some stories which may seem familiar – of kings and queens, battles and rebellions, palace intrigue and political crisis. It interweaves such stories with less familiar accounts of what it was like to walk through the Tudor landscape; to live the life of a peasant woman or an urban artisan; to exercise authority as a noblewoman or as a lawyer; to follow the rhythm of the ritual year in one of the thousands of rural parishes; and to struggle to maintain communal solidarity in the face of unprecedented social challenges. Escaping from the stranglehold of the usual Tudor narratives, this book aims to give a broader picture, looking at the whole of Tudor England, not just the pieces we already recognize.

. . . .

The late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries saw the world changing around them at a pace never before experienced. New inventions such as printing, and advances in navigation or in military technology pushed back the boundaries of the mind, the known world and the threats posed by war. New diseases ravaged the continent of Europe, and were exported to the New World: syphilis, with its degradation and agony, or sweating sickness, which could kill within a day. Old certainties were challenged, as women ruled nations, and rulers not only contemplated bigamy but tried to justify it from the Old Testament. Most of all, any sense of a world united under one God was irretrievably broken apart. It was challenged from the outside by the advance of the Islamic world to the gates of Vienna in the 1520s and by the discovery of non-Christians in newly encountered lands in north or south America, Africa or India. It was challenged from within by ongoing disputes about Jewish identity and scholarship; by fears about the workings of the Devil; and above all, by the profound and deadly divisions between different kinds of Christians.

In the face of these challenges, many early modern men and women responded with extraordinary levels of courage, inventiveness and compassion. At a time when it was considered acceptable by many to aspire to military conquest, to enslave newly encountered populations, to burn heretics and to execute witches, there were voices which spoke up against all of these things. When governments in a panic enacted draconian punishments for vagabondage, riot or heresy, pardons were used to soften their impact; and parish constables and parish priests, exercising both kindness and common sense, might quietly avoid implementing the laws in question. When rebellions broke out, the Tudor authorities, even in times of instability, mostly contented themselves with prosecuting the ringleaders, while pardoning the ordinary folk involved.4 Alongside such pragmatic moderation there was a flowering of idealism the like of which this country has seldom seen. From the skillful ironies of More’s Utopia, through the careful pleas of a succession of reforming church councils and the patient instruction of the official church homilies, to the troubled ambivalence of Shakespeare’s Shylock, Lear or Hamlet, there was a striving to understand the pitfalls of human existence and to build a better world. Works of instruction were written on every conceivable subject – from how to educate a prince in wisdom and justice to how to manage a household; from the arts of archery or angling to the art of dying. Each one held out a new set of aspirations. At a time when the very structures of power depended on a shared ideology of justice, obedience and charity, the ideological strength which Tudor society was capable of showing puts our own to shame. Faced with the threat of apocalypse, people found a new level of resourcefulness, took guidance from the ancients and strove to build afresh. For all their many failures, their levels of political, social and religious engagement remain astounding, and worthy of contemplation.

1. William Tyndale, Obedience of a Christian Man, ed. David Daniell (London, 2000), 3.

2. David Daniell, The Bible in English (New Haven, CT, and London, 2003), 134, 135, 160. See also Brian Cummings, ‘The problem of Protestant culture: Biblical literalism and literary biblicism’, Reformation 17 (2012), 183–89.

3. J. Simpson, Burning to Read: English fundamentalism and its Reformation opponents (Cambridge, 2007), 24; Christopher Hill, ‘William Tyndale and English history’, in Christopher Hill, Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution Revisited (Oxford, 1997), 312–17.

4. Foxe, A&M (1563), 520. It has been argued that Bilney described his conversion this way in order to appeal to Cuthbert Tunstall’s humanist sensibilities, but his account expressed widespread expectations concerning the transformative power of Scripture. See Greg Walker, Persuasive Fictions: Faction, faith and political culture in the reign of Henry VIII (Aldershot, 1996), 160–62.

From Tudor England: A History by Lucy Wooding. Published by Yale University Press in 2023. Reproduced with permission.

Lucy Wooding is the Langford fellow and tutor in history at Lincoln College, Oxford. She is an expert on Reformation England and its politics, religion, and culture and the author of Henry VIII.

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