Monday, June 23, 2014

Book Review: A Journey Through Tudor England

While my husband and I visited Columbus, Ohio last week we went to The Book Loft of German Village where I purchased Suzannah Lipscomb's A Journey Through Tudor England even though Hilary Mantel endorsed it (I'm only kind of kidding). From the publisher, Pegasus Books:

For the armchair traveler or for those looking to take a trip back to the colorful time of Henry VIII and Thomas Moore (sic), A Journey Through Tudor England takes you to the palaces,castles, theatres and abbeys to uncover the stories behind this famed era. Suzannah Lipscomb visits over fifty Tudor places, from the famous palace at Hampton Court, where dangerous court intrigue was rife, to less well-known houses such as Anne Boleyn’s childhood home at Hever Castle, or Tutbury Castle, where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned. In the corridors of power and the courtyards of country houses, we meet the passionate but tragic Katheryn Parr, Henry VIII’s last wife; Lady Jane Grey, the nine-day queen; and come to understand how Sir Walter Raleigh planned his trip to the New World. Through the places that defined them, this lively and engaging book reveals the rich history of the Tudors and paints a vivid and captivating picture of what it would have been like to live in Tudor England.

Lipscomb selects her locations very carefully: the site or building has to have a crucial Tudor connection--to an event or a person important to the era--and there has to be something to see that will help the Tudor traveller, armchair or not, understand both the significance of the location and of the person or event. She selects 50 locations and restricts herself to England proper (not even going to Wales). Although she provides an appendix of "Opening Times and How to Get There" I think the book serves as background to certain sites rather than a guidebook--it lacks a map. Also, except for sketches at the beginning of each chapter of the building or ruin (formerly Catholic sites like abbeys and shrines) there are few illustrations and none of the portraits mentioned in certain chapters are reproduced in the book--but the reader can search for them online, I suppose. Here's a sample of the contents of the book.

The author has her bona fides: as Kirkus Review notes: Lipscomb (Early Modern History/Univ. of East Anglia; 1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII, 2009) combines her credentials as historian/TV presenter/author to give us a thorough history/guided tour of the Tudors. She also has her theories and biases, and because she is presenting history in this rather unsystematic way, there are lapses in detail. Starting with the latter, she mentions that neither Henry VIII or Mary attended Katherine of Aragon's funeral at Peterborough Cathedral--but does not clarify that Mary wanted to attend and Henry forbade her. That's an important detail. Lipscomb also sides with those who select 1501 rather than 1507 for Anne Boleyn's year of birth which I think makes little sense if Henry wanted a younger woman to bear him a healthy son and heir. Why would he marry a 32 year old woman? See Gareth Russell's blog on this issue.

Although Lipscomb mentions only "Protestant martyrs" in her introduction (p. 2), she actually dedicates much more ink to the Catholic martyrs during Henry VIII's and Elizabeth I's reigns: the Carthusians of the Charterhouse, St. Thomas More, St. John Fisher, St. Edmund Campion, St. Robert Southwell, and St. Henry Walpole. While she explores a Catholic safe house (Harvington Hall) and thus discusses Catholic dissent from the established Church of England, she does not present an example of Puritan dissent from Elizabeth I's incomplete reformation of that via media. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I receive the lion's share of attention, although Lipscomb's treatments of Henry VII and Mary I are balanced and fair--Edward VI is a little slighted. Of Henry's six wives of course Anne Boleyn dominates--but Lipscomb offers a convincingly sympathetic analysis of Anne of Cleves.

This was an entertaining book offering a different angle on familiar Tudor history. I think a reader would need to know more about Tudor history, however, to have the proper line of sight for this angle.

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