Magazine article The American Conservative

England's Game of Thrones

Magazine article The American Conservative

England's Game of Thrones

Article excerpt

Tudor: Passion. Manipulation. Murder. The Story of England's Most Notorious Royal Family, Leanda de Lisle, Public Affairs, 560 pages

L.P. Hartley famously opened his novel The Go-Between with a now proverbial sentence that described the past as "a foreign country: they do things differently there." The history of early modern Europe, encompassing the Renaissance and Reformation, blends that alluring sense of difference with a sometimes misleading hint of familiarity. Seemingly familiar stories often involve unexpected complexities that make the protagonists and their problems more real than the legends convey.

Leanda de Lisle reveals such hidden depths in the vivid history of England's most famous dynasty by focusing on how the Tudors won the crown and the struggles they faced to keep it. A 15th-century crisis of governance sparked a civil war that ended with a distant claimant to the throne seizing power after defeating Richard III at Bosworth Field. Henry Tudor's victory, however, never put the succession beyond question. Peace remained as fragile as his dynasty's hold on the realm.

Part of the problem in understanding the Tudors and their world, de Lisle persuasively argues, lies in the fact that they operated under very different assumptions from the generations that followed them. The English Reformation marked a watershed in more ways than one. Catholicism had shaped habits of mind and public culture right through the late 16th century. Even those who broke with its teachings operated in reaction to them. Concepts of justice and obligation differed from those of a post-Reformation or post-Enlightenment age even when conveyed in the same words.

Struggles in the 15th century had imbued Englishmen with a horror of disorder that set much of the context in which the Tudors acted. Monarchy offered a check on the licentious violence where they strong did as they would and the weak suffered as they must. Law and social hierarchy had divine sanction that constrained kings along with nobles and commoners. Providing good lordship that protected subjects and ensured that all received their due counted for more than a claim to the throne by blood.

De Lisle opens her story with an unlikely marriage that shows how truth can be stranger than fiction. Owen Tudor, an obscure Welsh squire, landed a position as chamber servant in the court of Henry V's widowed queen, Catherine of Valois. By one account, he landed in her lap when a leap during a dance went awry. Prevented from marrying a great noble by the council Henry V had appointed to rule during his infant son's minority, Catherine instead turned to a man who posed no political threat to the king or state. Their marriage broke social conventions and did little to raise Owen's standing, but the four children it produced had wider opportunities as half-siblings to the young Henry VI. Edmund and Jasper Tudor were brought up for a life at court, and Henry VI later raised them to the nobility with hopes of securing them as allies in governing the ream.

The king needed loyal allies since England's defeat in the Hundred Years' War with France--and consequent discontent heightened by the money spent on the conflict--created difficulties. He lacked the commanding personality to impose his will, though de Lisle credits him with more ability than many contemporaneous or later accounts do. The fact that generations earlier Edward III left a numbers of sons who produced heirs made for a large extended royal family, some of whose scions might see themselves as potential kings. Henry VI only produced an heir in 1453, raising speculation before then over who would succeed him. That same year Henry VI suffered a mental collapse before his son was born, and thus the king's cousin Richard, Duke of York, became protector of the realm. York's brief ascendancy split the elite further as the kingdom moved toward civil war.

Family relationships mattered. …

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