Signposts the Tudors: In the First of an Occasional Series Exploring the Ways in Which Topical Historical Subjects Are Being Tackled in a Variety of Media, John Guy Examines the Directions Historians Are Taking in One of the Most Popular and Controversial Periods in British History

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The 500th anniversary of Henry VIII's accession is the perfect opportunity to take stock of Tudor history. What is considered important has changed dramatically. In the 1960s, when Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons about Sir Thomas More triumphed at the Oscars but scholars still shunned the media limelight, historians studied narrowly-based political and constitutional topics, for example Geoffrey Elton in his Tudor Revolution in Government (1953). The exception, working against the grain in an older narrative tradition, was Jack Scarisbrick, whose Henry VIII (1968) is a brilliant biography of a tyrant-king that has yet to be surpassed.

Younger historians, bored by Elton's infatuation with Tudor bureaucracy, sought fresh directions. Henry VII was largely bypassed and David Starkey's researches on Henry VIII's privy chamber switched attention to personal monarchy. Starkey's 1991 exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, 'Henry VIII: A European Court in England', was a landmark, revealing the scale, opulence and magnificence of the court milieu as never before, but also its European influence. Underpinned by a research project (with Maria Hayward) on Henry VIII's inventories, it led to a fusion of political history with art and architectural history, culminating in Tom Campbell's mould-breaking Henry VIII and the Art of Majesty (2007). Starkey went on to present Channel 4 documentaries on Henry VIII and Elizabeth, but his current exhibition at the British Library, 'Henry VIII: Man and Monarch', takes a different tack and aims to explore the king's mindset rather than his court, resuming where Scarisbrick left off.

Henry's personality is also central to work on the shaping of Britain, since his novel ideas of 'imperial' kingship convinced him that Wales, Ireland and (increasingly) Scotland were 'within the orb of the "imperial crown" of England' as Sir John Davies afterwards explained. Medieval kings had sought reciprocal relationships with their regional magnates and Steven Ellis's Tudor Frontiers and Noble Power (1995) showed that when Henry ignored this, attempting to impose a centralised system of command and control from Westminster over the outlying regions, he overreached himself. Cross-border collusion between Anglo-Scots Protestants in Edward VI's reign would turn out to be more significant in the longer term. For the boy-king and his councillors Anglo-British 'amity' was code for a 'godly empire', notions that the early Elizabethans inherited as an excuse to intervene in Scotland and which became an integral aspect of William Cecil's planning as Elizabeth I's principal secretary of state.

Edward VI died as a teenager but the importance of his reign is out of all proportion to its brief span. As Diarmaid MacCulloch demonstrated in Tudor Church Militant (1999), his councillors spearheaded a religious revolution that propelled England into the heart of the continental Reformation. The old 'Whiggish' view, based on John Foxe's Actes and Monuments (or Book of Martyrs), that evangelical Protestantism had spread spontaneously after the 1520s had already been fatally undermined by Eamon Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars (1992) and Christopher Haigh's English Reformations (1993), which displaced 'topdown' accounts of religious change in favour of approaches based on the beliefs and experiences of ordinary men and women in the parishes. MacCulloch also showed that, despite restoring the outward form of her brother's church settlement, Elizabeth in 1559 sought to strip it of its spirit. Eamon Duffy's new study of the restoration of Catholicism in Mary Tudor's reign, Fires of Faith (2009), is likely to be another landmark, because it argues that Mary and her archbishop and papal legate, Reginald Pole, were successful in turning England into the closest thing in Europe to a Counter-Reformation laboratory (see 'The Queen and the Cardinal', page 24).

Nothing dies more slowly in Elizabethan history than an obsession with court faction, but Simon Adams' research since 1984 demonstrates that no endemic factions existed before the 1590s. …