Book review: The History of England Volume II: The Tudors by Peter Ackroyd

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A novel approach brings this history to life, but that is both its strength and its weakness

The History of England Volume II: The Tudors

By Peter Ackroyd

Macmillan, 352 pp, £20

It is not an affectation, but it is perhaps a failing on my part; nevertheless I have a deep and abiding love for those old Edwardian histories that once formed the backbone of the Everyman Library – I can spend a very pleasant afternoon lost in Pinnow’s History of Germany or Simondi’s Italian Republics or Motley’s Dutch Republic or the monumental, 12-volume Grote’s History of Greece. I imagine in the future Ackroyd’s six-volume History of England might well be seen as a kind of postmodern tribute to those books; an engaging, intelligent, half-dozen volumes which you might read not so much for the historical detail and precision but for the sweep and the prose.

Ackroyd is more story than history, if one defines history as the academic poring over dusty baptismal registers to tally the number of christenings taking place less than nine months after the marriage of the parents or calculating the average price of a heifer in early Elizabethan York or speculating on the correlation between median rainfall and outbreaks of public discontent. Ackroyd’s aim is different and, I feel, more heartfelt: the ongoing, fractious and never-ending business of telling ourselves the story of ourselves; although in this case the selves are clearly not born north of Berwick. This is unashamedly a history of England. It says so on the cover and delivers on that throughout. Critics who wish to carp that a more global, interconnected narrative should have been delivered might be reminded on the old phrase caveat emptor.

The Tudors have been well served recently. Notwithstanding Hilary Mantel’s astonishing and Booker Prize-winning ghostly psychological merging with Thomas Cromwell, we have the television series ranging across the overtly fictional (The Tudors) to the non-fictions skewed in various directions – Starkey versus Schama, for example. There has also been A N Wilson’s The Elizabethans, a book which takes a more wide-ranging perspective on part of the 

The differences between Ackroyd and Wilson are telling. Wilson begins his survey with the importance of the relationship between Ireland and England, to stress the point that the imperial adventure was turning into a colonial project. Ireland barely appears in Ackroyd’s version.

Likewise, Allan Massie’s superb book, The Royal Stuarts, presents Flodden in a version we in Scotland can more readily understand: a dynasty changing catastrophe. For Ackroyd, the key thing about Flodden is that Henry VIII wasn’t even on the island when the battle happened and left the rallying and support in the hands of his (first) wife.

Whereas Henry VIII is of importance to Ackroyd, and with a novelist’s keen sense of character he manages to bring back how precarious, arrogant and unsettled the period was. Put it this way. In 1519, Henry was 28, Francis I of France was 25, Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire was 19. Henry was the senior figure, but they were all young 
men and Henry had only been on the throne ten years (in some ways, a great achievement compared to longevity of kings during the Wars of the Roses).

The Reformation here is just that, a reforming. Scotland’s change of direction in terms of religious polity after Henry’s death would more correctly be described as a Revolution; a traumatic and ideologically driven change of fundamentals. England’s Reformation, and its shuttlecocking during the reigns of Edward, Mary and Elizabeth, is no less fearful and brutal, but there was, Ackroyd stresses, a kind of continuity. I still wonder why Foxe’s Actes and Monuments is not in any line of “classics”.

There are copious, little details that only a novelist would alight upon. Elizabeth I was the first monarch to wear a wrist-watch. Edward VI had “dampy thoughts”. “Illness was one of the defining features of her reign”, he says about Mary Tudor. There is a great deal of imaginative reconstruction in these pages, and it is usually of a peculiarly humane form: nobody sets out to be a villain, nobody directs their life towards brave martyrdom. Compared to, say, Hume’s histories, or Macaulay’s, or Dickens’s, or Our Island Story for that matter, there is an abundance of generosity here.

In the later pages Ackroyd shows a certain sympathy to the glorious failure – such as Mary or Essex – than that which he bestows on the pragmatic survivor, such as Elizabeth or Burghley. How this might play out when he deals with Charles II or Elizabeth II will be fascinating. He is also astute on the difference, in the period, between London and the places outwith London which were nonetheless asserting their Englishness. Those features will make his forthcoming volumes in the series very interesting indeed.

To what extent did the differences between London, England, Scotland and Britain actually survive the War of Three Nations (or the English Civil War, if one wishes), or the Jacobite Rebellions, or, for that matter, the Industrial Revolution and two World Wars? The continuity of Englishness is always a construct against the disparities and unleashed energies that Ackroyd has carefully tracked in his fictions. The idea that most people are uninfluenced by political or theological change may well be sorely tested in future books.

Ackroyd has (always, already) been a chronicler of a particular form of English – not British – mysticism. He has also (always, already) been a deep sceptic of any overarching and all-encompassing narrative. These books are testing that tension to its limit, and although it is well-written, perceptive and charming, it is also evading the present moment and revelling in a kind of “Olympic Ceremony” nostalgia. The Germans have Ostalgie, the French have nostalgerie, but the British – both Scots and English – have yet to define our limiting Empire.

The Tudors in this version are wonderfully adept at managing their public image and woefully inept at creating a private self as well. Ackroyd’s Tudors belong more to his ongoing fascination with the damaged but brilliant and the effortlessly superior but inescapably flawed than they do to pseudo-scientific versions of their psychologies and economies, with footnotes to every second word. This is its weird weakness and strange strength.