Jessie Childs has written two books on the Tudors: God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England followed the critical acclaim of the award-winning Henry VIII’s Last Victim.
Why are people still so fascinated by the Tudor period?
There are magnetic personalities, incredible stories and seismic events that we can really grapple with because letters, registers, portraits, buildings, evidence of all kinds multiply. It’s the clash of old and new, Catholic and Protestant, ‘the continent’ and the new world. Things seem familiar, but they’re still dangerous, still ‘other’.
How significant is the Tudor dynasty to British history?
There was the break with Rome in the 1530s, the Act of Union with Wales in 1536, Henry VIII’s assumption of the title King of Ireland in 1541 and, because Elizabeth had no children, the union of Scottish and English crowns in 1603. It’s hugely significant!
How tough would life as an ordinary Tudor have been?
Very: it was cold, dark, diseased, muddy, smelly, intolerant, labour-intensive, weather-dependant, painful and violent. Perhaps as many as 40% of children died before their fifteenth year. People hoped for a better afterlife.
Who do you think is the most underrated Tudor?
I’m cheating a bit: Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset – Henry VIII’s illegitimate son, who died in 1536 at the age of seventeen. He was a chip off the old block and, had he survived his half-brother Edward VI, might just have become Henry IX.
Who do you think is the most overrated Tudor?
Please don’t throw any eggs, but Elizabeth I – torture was used more in her reign than at any other time in English history, yet she is held up as a beacon of tolerance.
How different would Elizabeth’s reign have been had she married?
Less iconic as she wouldn’t have been celebrated as the Virgin mother of her people. But, had she married a powerful Catholic, it might have been more secure. That said, her people were notoriously xenophobic, the most serious contender – her ‘frog’ the duke of Anjou – died in 1584, and Elizabeth herself may not have survived childbirth.
What do you think of historical drama series like The Tudors?
I welcome anything that turns people on to history. The wrong bits can be annoying, but if something is obviously drama, arguably it’s less harmful than bad history. Historians might grumble, but few mind the spike in book sales. I’m very much looking forward to the BBC’s Mantel adaptation. (The series based on the hugely successful novels Wolf Hall and Bringing Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel will be aired on the BBC next year.)
This article was first published in the March 2014 issue of History Revealed.