Monday, December 20, 2010

Book Review: The Tudors: The Complete Story of England's Most Notorious Dynasty

The Tudors: The Complete Story of England's Most Notorious Dynasty, by G.J. Meyer is a one-volume history of the Tudor dynasty, written for a popular audience by an author referencing many standard works on the era. Meyer's references all are secondary sources and he offers his own interpretation of the dynasty based on his reading of these materials. G.J. Meyer is also a journalist and author of a study of the First World War, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, also published by Delacorte Press.

Meyer uses the word "notorious" in the subtitle and on occasion in the text he notes that the Tudors excelled in certain discreditable activities: torture, for instance and execution by various means. He calls Henry VIII a monster and tries to remove the romantic fascination of Elizabeth I by diminishing her role in matters of state and emphasizing her vanity and desire for syncophantic praise. Meyer terms Edward VI "a King too early" and Mary I "a Queen too late".

One omission I think is a chapter dedicated to Henry VII! Shouldn't a complete history of a dynasty include a chapter on the founder of the dynasty? He incorporates an overview of Henry VII's rise to the throne and reign into the Prologue and the first chapter of Part One. By the second chapter, Meyer is already discussing the King's Great Matter, and the issues of Henry's marriage to Katherine of Aragon dominate throughout that section. Part Two documents Henry's tyranny and excess with the Dissolution of the Monasteries (Meyer relies on Gasquet here and would do better with Knowles), the Acts of Supremacy and Succession, executions, marriages, etc.

The hardcover edition includes a dustjacket with Elizabeth I and Henry VIII's portraits, in that order, because those are the monarchs he devotes the most pages to in the text. He does, however, give the reigns of Edward and Mary their due, as they share Part Three. Part Four is dedicated to Elizabeth I with a very good analysis of the issues of succession.

Between narrative chapters, Meyer inserts background notes on topics like the monasteries in England, the Tower of London and executions, the Protestant Reformation, the Council of Trent, Parliament, etc. The reader can either follow these excursions or maintain the narrative, but they do provide good background. I certainly think he should have incorporated the background of Mary I's life before her accession to the throne in the chapter on her reign, rather than attaching it in one of the background notes to that section.

Among his secondary sources, he lists Father John Lingard's History of England, but also references standard modern works by Eamon Duffy, D.M. Loades, David Starkey, Lacey Baldwin Smith, Antonia Fraser, and J.J. Scarisbrick, et al. He uses the sources adeptly to back up his interpretation of events and personalities.

I found it to be a very good overview of the Tudor dynasty and I agree with many of his judgments. Meyer is straightforward about his purpose, his method, and his limitations. He does not claim to be an academic scholar but he does claim the conclusions he had reached about the Tudors based on reading and studying academic works.

My husband bought me this book as a gift.

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