Observer, 25 August 2013
from both sides of the border
studies of the Tudors and Scotland explore a far from inevitable union
Tremlett, Madrid Correspondent for The Guardian and author of Catherine
of Aragon; Henry's Spanish Queen
The Family Story Leanda de Lisle Chatto & Windus E20, pp560
of Thistles: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary Queen of Scots Linda Porter
Macmillan £20, pp424
unhurried fashion in which James VI of Scotland ambled south towards London
to claim his crown in 1603, stopping off to hunt along the way and arriving
six weeks after. Elizabeth I died, suggests there was nothing terribly
dramatic about the event. The man who would be James I of England, the
first Stuart monarch, was in no big rush.
this was the end of the Tudor dynasty, one of our longest-held historical
obsessions. And it was the seed of the union between Scotland and England
- the creation of a political Great Britain that will survive, well, at
least until next year's referendum on Scottish independence. James's coolness
seems almost mocking in the face of our own excitement.
Tudor period between 1485 and 1603 brought cultural, religious and political
revolution. But our fixation with the era has as much, if not more, to
do with the vibrant individual stories it presents as with the family's
debatable self-image as a dynasty. Exuberant Henry VIII with his six wives,
"Bloody" Mary and Elizabeth I all provide compelling narratives. Even
dark, grim Henry VII has come back into the limelight. Many supporting
players also boast dramatic stories - be they power-brokers like Cromwell
and Wolsey or bold but unfortunate women such as Catherine of Aragon,
Anne Boleyn and Mary Queen of Scots. We should not be surprised that the
Tudors provide us with such great fictional television fodder and fine
historical biographies while inspiring novelists like Hilary Mantel -
not to mention giving us shelves full of romantic mush. We cannot get
enough of them.
bold new histories widen the focus, adding context and meaning. In Tudor:
The Family Story, Leanda de Lisle explains both where the Tudors came
from and where they got to; in Crown of Thistles, Linda Porter tells the
backstories of England and Scotland as they head towards a union which
we often assume was inevitable.
was nothing inevitable, however, about James I of England. Porter's magnificent
account of Scotland's feuding factions makes that clear - even if the
battles were more to control monarchs than to replace them. In Porter's
account, indeed, one of the rare unifying forces was England itself. Faced
with a chance to bloody the old enemy, Scotland would (more or less) pull
together. French money, meanwhile, encouraged it to maintain the "Auld
Alliance" against England.
great Scottish tragedy is that its army kept on losing. From Flodden Field
to the "Black Saturday" at Pinkie, the darkest moments of Scottish history
are on the battlefield against the English foe. When little James V was
crowned shortly after Flodden, it became known as the Mourning Coronation,
such was the death toll. Porter analyses these battles wonderfully and
does not spare us the brutality of the ensuing routs. English victories,
however, did not bring union by force. English monarchs were too stretched
or too wary to press home their advantage.
monarchs outdid their English rivals in the bedroom, filling their nurseries
with children (legitimate and illegitimate) while the Tudors fretted about
the siring - or choosing - of just one suitable heir. A son bolstered
the monarch against rivals, be they of royal blood or impostors like Perkin
Warbeck. A daughter was less of a guarantee. But Tudor boys were scarce.
This explains Henry VII's tight control of young prince Henry as well
as the latter's penchant for divorce and beheading. Elizabeth I, meanwhile,
refused to name successors who, in the absence of children of her own,
could only become rivals.
Lisle's family history also goes beyond England, this time to Wales -
the birthplace of Owen ap Maredudd ap Tudur who, ironically, was able
to marry a royal because he was only a modest, if charming squire. That
made him a suitably unthreatening second husband for Henry V's widow,
Catherine of Valois. It was his grandson, born to 13-year-old Margaret
Beaufort, who became Henry VII. This may seem familiar territory, but
De Lisle's masterful command of the facts provides a complete and entertaining
as often caused problems as not. A wrong call or, even, an attempt to
marry for love, could bring disastrous consequences. Women needed to take
special care - when permitted to choose for themselves. Perhaps the most
unfortunate was Mary Queen of Scots. Her brief period as queen consort
in France ended with Francis II's early death. She then married the vain
and self-serving Lord Darnley, only to see him murdered the Earl of Bothwell.
Her escape that was into effective imprisonment in England, where Elizabeth
saw her as a dangerous rival. She was easily trapped in a treason plot
this was an extraordinary for women as rulers, be they regents or queens
regnant. Beyond Isabella of Castile there were few models to follow. Both
England and Scotia struggled to come to terms with idea. Men feared women's
uncontrolled passions and sexual incontinence. They rued their lack of
martial vigour. More than anything else, though, they feared other men
controlling women rulers. The Scottish protestant firebrand John Knox,
author of a polemic against "the. monstrous regiment of women", was among
the most vocal critics.
the background, the religious revolution sparked by Martin Luther and
other opponents of the Roman church rumbled on. Scotland's Story of religious
change demanded from below the monarchy. It is a reminder that England
may not have needed Henry's divorce from Catherine Aragon to produce a
split with Rome.
big picture provided by De Lisle shows Tudor insecurity revolving around
the thorny issue of succession, Porter's valuable review of the path towards
union proves there was nothing predestined, or particularly preplanned,
about the coming together of Scotland and England.
man really to blame was VII, who set up the possibility by marrying his
daughter Margaret to Scotland's James IV. He was sanguine about a Scottish
descendent eventually becoming monarch in England. In the end, he predicted,
it would be England that dominated. He was right. James VI of Scotland,
who was that descendent, seemed equally relaxed.
to Crown of Thistles Reviews