That question is likely to be--and probably should be--sparked by the appearance of almost any new book about the Tudors. Does the world really need more words about the dynasty that produced King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I? Those two are already the most written-about monarchs in English history, after all. They’re the subjects of so many movies, novels and TV dramas that sometimes they seem to be not figures out of the past but living showbiz celebrities. Why should anyone want to read about them yet again?
I offer two answers.
First, though the number of books about the most famous Tudors is practically infinite, single volumes dealing with the entire dynasty and aimed at a general readership have always been rare. This is unfortunate, because it deprives a great story of its proper context. The legendary career of Henry VIII would have been impossible if not for the exploits--in some ways far more astonishing--of his father Henry VII, a penniless fugitive who came almost out of nowhere to seize the crown. And Elizabeth was only the third of Henry VIII’s children to inherit his throne and struggle to deal with his blood-soaked legacy. She had a brother and sister, both of whom ruled before her and tried without success (in radically different ways) to undo what Henry had done. Her story comes fully to life only when illuminated by theirs. The Tudors ruled England for three generations--118 years in all--and not nearly enough has been done to deal with their five reigns as a continuum, a chain of causes and effects that cumulatively changed the course of English, European, and even world history, often in tragic ways.
Second, more than four centuries after the death of the last Tudor, there continues to be an immense gap between who the various members of the family actually were and what most people--including most people with some knowledge of English history--think they know about them. The real Henry VIII was both a greater and lesser man than the lusty Bluff King Hal of legend, the man who famously had six wives. Elizabeth was vastly more complicated, more pathetic and less noble than the glorious façade behind which she concealed herself. The now-obscure Henry VII, Edward VI, and Mary I were both more important as rulers and far more fascinating as human beings than is commonly understood.
The true shape of the Tudor story has been long obscured, even for leading historians, by religious controversy and differences of political ideology. It is only in the past couple of generations, as ancient passions have cooled, that the story has come into clear focus, and too often it has done so only for the historians themselves. For the public at large, the truth has continued to be overwhelmed by old legends with too little basis in fact. My hope for The Tudors, as it goes to press, is that it will help to bring popular understanding of one of history’s most deservedly famous dynasties into closer alignment with reality. --G.J. Meyer