They dominated one of the bloodiest, most scandalous periods of British history, cramming our library books full of revolution, war, adultery and execution. From Henry VIII’s six torrid marriages to Bloody Mary’s brutal crusade against the Protestants, not forgetting Queen Elizabeth I’s turbulent 44-year reign, the Tudors have provided us with more scintillating drama than the BBC and ITV put together. So isn’t it wonderful to have them back in fashion once again.
Whether you’re visiting the library, switching on the telly or popping down the cinema, Henry, Elizabeth and co are everywhere. Novels from double Booker Prize recipient Hilary Mantel and her corset-busting counterpart Phillipa Gregory continue to fly off the shelves, examining every sordid detail of Tudor history, from Elizabeth’s rebellious cousin Mary Queen of Scots to the illicit love between the Virgin Queen and her mischevious advisor Robert Dudley.
Gregory’s popular exploration of The Other Boleyn Girl was first solicited to the BBC in 2003 before being snapped up by Hollywood five years later, attracting a pool of A-list talent that included Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman, Eric Bana and Eddie Redmayne. Meanwhile, Wolf Hall, Mantel’s ode to Thomas Cromwell, is heading for BBC2 later this year, as is a new adaptation of Gregory’s War of the Roses bestseller The White Queen.
As a nation we’re no stranger to Tudor history – but with its endless depiction inevitably comes the sexy revisions that pepper our consciousness. And that’s why I’m such an advocate of BBC2’s current Tudors Season. As a collective unit the royal dynasty gave us some of the finest narratives in history. Anne Boleyn’s highly documented dramatic downfall left her accused of adultery, incest and witchcraft before she was beheaded for high treason – a fate handed out by her own uncle. EastEnders quite simply pales in comparison.
But while Anne’s story maintains its place in cultural and religious history – her future husband Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church to marry her – lesser known tales, such as that of Lady Jane Grey, are equally dramatic. Poor Jane’s role in the fallout of King Edward’s death saw her parents arrange her marriage with Lord Guildford Dudley in a bid to hoist her onto the throne and prevent a revision to Catholicism under Edward’s sister and heir, Mary Tudor. Her brief reign lasted just nine days before teenage Jane was executed by her successor who then embarked on a bloody campaign to purge England of its Protestant figureheads.
As I’m sure you are now aware, I could spend all day exalting the compelling twists and turns of Tudor Britain, but BBC2 are doing a much better job. Their current Tudor season – which yesterday featured a journey through the ruthless stewardship of conquering monarch Henry VII and tonight explores everyday Elizabethan life – has masterfully recounted the glorious machinations of the family’s 117-year reign. From Anne Boleyn’s tortuous final days to Thomas Cromwell’s scheming assent to power, the Tudors have offered us drama to die for. Let’s celebrate that.
The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England is on Friday at 9pm on BBC2