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The Tudors is volume 2 of Peter Ackroyd's ambitious planned 6 volume work on the history of England/Britain. Volume one covered the history of England from the earliest days through to Medieval times, volume two focuses on a much shorter period - the reign of the Tudors...
...Except that it doesn't. For some curious reason, the volume actually kicks off with the accession of Henry VIII to the throne who, as we all know, was the second Tudor monarch. Presumably, this is because Ackroyd considers Henry VII to be the last of the medieval kings of England (which, in many ways, he was) and so included him in the previous volume. Even so, it seems slightly odd to write a book on the Tudor dynasty, without including the very monarch who won the throne for that family.
Putting that to one side, The Tudors is a book of "popular history" i.e. a work aimed at the mass market, not the professional historian. The term "popular history" is often used in snobbish way to suggest it is somehow of lower quality or not sufficiently academic to be considered "real" history. However, it can also be used in a more positive sense, to indicate a book which takes a potentially complex subject and presents it in a way which is both understandable and interesting to a wider audience. Despite what some people might think, history is important and even events that happened over 400 years ago still have an impact on our lives today. The more people that understand where we came from, the better able we are to understand our present and shape our future.
It's this second, more positive interpretation that should be applied to Ackroyd's History of England. It's not without its weaknesses (what book is?), but there's more to like than to dislike. Let's get the snobbish scholarly stuff out of the way first.
First of all, Ackroyd falls into the classic trap of so many Tudor chroniclers of devoting the lion's share of the book to Henry VIII. In a book comprising just under 400 pages, almost half is devoted to Henry's reign, with the reigns of Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I being squeezed into the remaining 200 pages. This does mean that some elements of these latter reigns (particularly Elizabeth's long term as Queen) receive some slightly superficial treatment. In fairness, Ackroyd is not alone in this and you have to bear in mind that the book is book aimed at the popular market and Henry VIII is the most i recognisable monarch for most people. What a sad indictment of the way history is taught...
Perhaps taking the populist agenda too far, Ackroyd has a frustrating tendency to quote from sources (either contemporary or secondary) and not reference them. I appreciate that a book packed full of footnotes is off-putting to the casual reader, but it's equally frustrating if the book piques your interest and you want to read the other sources for yourself, but don't have a clue where to start. Ackroyd provides a select bibliography, but this is only really a taster of what is available.
He also has a slightly frustrating tendency to take comments at face value and doesn't always question the personal bias or propagandist intentions of some writers. At one point, for example, he proclaims that John Foxe (author of Foxe's Book of Martyrs) is "generally a reliable witness". Whilst Foxe's writings certainly contain plenty of facts and helpful information for students of the period, they also contain an awful lot of made up tales or embellished accounts. At the end of the day, Foxe's book was a propaganda tool for the Protestant cause, so it always sought to cast Protestants in a good light, whilst portraying Catholics as blood-thirsty murderers of the just and innocent. Whilst Foxe's writings are certainly a valuable source, its contents should be treated with caution.
OK, that's the bad things sorted; let's move onto some more positive things. There's no doubting that The Tudors is an ambitious undertaking and Ackroyd pulls it off with aplomb. He chronicles almost 150 years of English history in an interesting and accessible way. If you already know the basics of the period, you will still pick up plenty of extra information. If all you know of history is what you learned in school, then this book will take you deeper and give you a far greater understanding of why this period of history is crucial to the development of England as a nation.
Ackroyd has a very readable and accessible style. Forget those dry old history books you used to suffer, Ackroyd helps to bring the period alive. He doesn't take a strictly chronological approach to the reigns of the various monarchs, but focuses on particular themes (religion, international relations, and social conditions) in their reigns. In one sense, this is another negative: I wouldn't want to read this book without having at least a basic understanding of the key events of each reign. On the other hand, it makes it feel less like an academic history book and gives the author free reign to organise his material in a more interesting, thematic way.
Ackroyd has an enviable skill for mixing historical fact and analysis with interesting anecdotes. These serve to reinforce the points he is making, but also bring everything down to a more human level. When talking about the religious reforms under Henry VIII, for example, he will give personal examples of how individuals benefitted from the sale of ex-monastic lands, or the impact this had on the average peasant (although he does make a rather sweeping statement that most monks came out of the situation well - a statement only really true for the higher ranked monks who capitulated to the King's demands). Whilst there is plenty of consideration of policies and laws, equal weight is given to the effect of those policies on the lives of ordinary people, which helps the reader establish a more personal connection.
It's true that The Tudors might not add a great deal to the weight of material that is already out there; it doesn't break new ground or make any stunning new claims. What it does do is make an important period in English history accessible and interesting for your average man in the street. Yes, it might be a little lightweight at times and too ready to repeat received wisdom, but if you read it with these caveats in mind, you will find it a highly enjoyable "popular history" book.
A History of England Volume 2: The Tudors
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