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A vivid set piece: "Study for 'Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots'" (c.1840) by Ford Madox Brown

Tudor England is big business. The appetite of the reading (and viewing) public for the English 16th century is second only to their obsession with the Second World War (or perhaps these days the Edwardian country house). Tudor fiction tops the booksellers charts, from Hilary Mantel's Booker-winning Wolf Hall to Philippa Gregory's fizzier confections, or C.J. Sansom's sombre whodunnits (shortly to be dramatised on BBC radio). Tudor fictions or Tudor facts are all grist to the mill, so long as the principal characters are  suitably decked out in codpiece and ruff. Mass TV audiences sit in suitably awed rows for David Starkey's headmasterly and meticulously researched historical lessons. The same audiences seem to have lapped up  three series of Michael Hirst's preposterous bodice-ripping soap, The Tudors, which cast Jonathan Rhys Meyers, an ageless and gorgeously fey Irishman, as the gross and ghastly Henry VIII, and appeared to construct its scripts by taking some of the facts and all of the fallacies about the period, shaking them up in a box, and rearranging them into episode-length entertainments. 

Peter Ackroyd has now added his own offering to this growing mountain of Tudoriana. Foundation, the first instalment of his projected six-volume history of England,  raced his readers across 15,000 years, from the Neolithic to the death of Henry VII in 1509. In this second volume, the pace slows to a 350-page saunter devoted to the single century from the accession of Henry VIII to the death of Elizabeth I. Ackroyd has already written grippingly about Tudor England, in a fine biography of Thomas More. He has a matchless sense of place, and of the transformations of place across long stretches of time: he is also an inventive and playful English stylist. But, despite occasional stylistic quaintnesses, like the description of Sir Christopher Hatton as "primarily a courtier of handsome address" — an allusion to his physical charms rather than his postcode — neither Ackroyd's prowess as a stylist nor his mastery of place, are much in evidence here. Though Ackroyd writes always with clarity and economy, Tudors is a conscientious and frankly sometimes pedestrian chronicle of the age of Reformation.   

The lack of literary energy is evident even in the contemporary dialogue Ackroyd inserts into his narrative, in which the salt and pith of Tudor speech can seem leached out in the retelling. So, the teenage prince Arthur's louche brag on the morning after his wedding to the Spanish infanta Catherine of Aragon, "bring me a cup of ale, for I have been this night in the midst of Spain",  becomes, in Ackroyd's version, "Arthur had been heard to say that ‘I have been in Spain all night.'" There are vivid set-pieces, including a gripping account of the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. But incidents and episodes of major significance can be retailed with deadpan lack of emphasis, like the bare and unemphatic paragraph devoted to the decisive moment in Henry's divorce proceedings, Queen Catherine's stupendous coup de théâtre at the legatine divorce proceedings at Blackfriars. With a devastating mixture of candour and cunning, Catherine outmanoeuvred Henry, flinging herself at his feet in open court and appealing publicly to his honour to acknowledge that she had come to his bed a virgin. She then swept out of the court, appealing to the Pope over the heads of the presiding cardinal legates, whom Henry had hoped would rid him of his ageing wife. Henry's public embarrassment delighted the gleeful London audience (Catherine was much loved in the city), and it spiked the king's legal guns. By stalling any likelihood of a divorce under canon law, it probably also made Henry's break with Rome inevitable. Ackroyd gives us the bare facts, and passes on. 

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