“HER head. Do you think it’s here?” My mumbled question, uttered for the umpteenth time, must be driving my companion mad. It’s a cold, blustery autumn morning, the sky a sombre canvas of grey, and I’m traipsing behind a tour group intent on retracing the final steps of the most famous of Henry VIII’s wives, Anne Boleyn.
For those familiar with 16th century English history, Boleyn’s notable claim to fame is the fact that she lost her head (she was beheaded) in 1536 when Henry VIII, the second Tudor monarch who ruled England from 1509 to 1547, tired of her inability to produce him a male heir, accused her of adultery, incest and high treason; and most notably, for being a key figure in the political and religious upheaval that was to be the start of the English Reformation (when the Church of England broke away from the Pope’s authority and that of the Roman Catholic Church).
There’s an eerie stillness to Tower Green, an open space located within the Tower of London, situated on the north bank of London’s River Thames, where two English queen consorts (including Boleyn and Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard) and many other British nobles were executed by beheading.
Suddenly, a shrill sound disrupts the calm. It’s the singular squawk of that bird of ill omen, a raven, I’m sure of it.Immediately I recall the words uttered by the tour guide earlier, “... no one knows when the ravens first came to the Tower, but their presence is surrounded by myth and legend. According to legend, the future of Country and Kingdom rests on their continued residence. At least six ravens must remain here at the Tower otherwise both Tower and Monarchy will fall.” As if the morning couldn’t get any eerier.
“Hey, come here!” my companion hisses urgently. Everyone else seems to be talking in muted tones too as if in reverence to the sheer history shrouding this place. In front of her is a monument of sorts, and written on it, a poem:
“Gentle visitor pause awhile, where you stand death cut away the light of many days. Here jewelled names were broken from the vivid thread of life, may they rest in peace while we walk the generations around their strife and courage under these restless skies...”
It’s the monument marking the site of the scaffold where all those noble heads rolled hundreds of years ago, including that of the infamous Anne Boleyn, the first woman to suffer death by beheading for the so-called crime of treason. Thinking of the wretched fate that befell Boleyn, my favourite of all Henry’s wives, a strange feeling of desolateness slowly begins to envelop my being.
STUCK IN THE PAST
The fascination for all things Tudor started very early for me. Back in primary school in England, the English national curriculum required the Tudors to be studied for those between the ages of seven and nine.
By the time this Malaysian kid entered secondary school, she’d already “hafal” (committed to memory) the names and fate of all Henry VIII’s six wives and was completely captivated by this particular period in English history.
As far as I was concerned, the court of Henry VIII, with all its intrigue, violence (Henry’s bloody reign was estimated to have seen between 54,000 and 72,000 executions), scandals, seductions, and sublime falls from grace, made for far superior reading than all the namby-pamby story books that children of my age were into.
In fact, one of my treasured childhood possessions then was a postcard from one of my school trips to Hampton Court Palace, one of the two surviving palaces out of the many owned by Henry VIII (the other is St James’), depicting a resplendent-looking Henry (VIII) in his familiar pose, legs akimbo.
The fascination went into overdrive after I caught the 2008 film, The Other Boleyn Girl, starring Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson and Eric Bana.
Suddenly, Henry VIII, the most renowned of all English monarchs who established one of the most glittering courts in Europe back in the days, and who turned the country upside down in his pursuit of Anne Boleyn, became so much sexier when the broody Bana portrayed him.
Having seen the movie, I was driven to seek out the book from where the movie was adapted — The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory. Suddenly, Gregory became my all time favourite author and everything and anything that had remotely a whiff of Tudor-dom was coveted and devoured.
TUDORS ARE SEXY
Go to any historical fiction section of your local bookstore (okay, not many bookstores here have a dedicated section but check out Kinokuniya in KLCC) and you won’t fail to see that the period which occupies a significant portion of the shelves would be those set around about the time of Henry VIII to possibly Elizabeth I, his daughter by Anne Boleyn.
And it’s the same in England too — the Tudors are everywhere. You can either find them lining the popular history books section or heaving under the banner of historical fiction.
Then of course, there’s the small screen. There’s no denying that Henry VIII and his posse also make for great TV. When smouldering hot Irishman Jonathan Rhys Meyers played the tyrant king in the four-season series, The Tudors (2007 - 2010), which aired on the BBC, I’d guess that the whole female population of the UK suddenly decided to dust their old school history books to delve into the life and loves of Henry VIII.
I recall a fabulous article I read, published sometime last year in the UK’s Guardian newspaper. It was a discussion about the appeal of the Tudors and in particular, the British obsession with the 16th century dynasty.
One particular part caught my attention. In it the writer mentioned that through the course of her chats with historians, novelists and curators of the period, many, at some point of the discussion, would “... reach for a pop-cultural analogy. The Tudors are like the Kardashians, said one. No, they’re like the Caesars, or the Kennedys, said another.”
Others, meanwhile, likened them to that medieval fantasy epic, Game of Thrones or even any one of the two families that make up that primetime 80s soap, Dynasty — the Carringtons and the Colbys.
Well, with all the scandals and intrigues that permeate their very existence, I’d be inclined to concur.
Returning to the pulling power of the Tudors, remember that unexpected double hit by Hilary Mantel, who suddenly found herself winning the Man Booker prize for her novels, Wolf Hall (published 2009) and Bring Up The Bodies (published 2012)?
Mantel’s historical novels, set in the court of Henry VIII, were adapted for BBC Two (TV) and last year, Wolf Hall clinched the Bafta Television Award for Best Drama. Apparently, prior to her double hits, Mantel had published another historical novel — one set during the French Revolution. As she duly discovered, not many people were too enamoured with that period.
Suffice to say, all that sexy powerplay of the Tudor court and the romance of 16th century England continue to capture our imagination. Other authors such as Alison Weir, Suzannah Dunn, Diane Haiger, and Jean Plaidy are just some of the names who’ve also produced some wonderful works of Tudor-fiction. And with best-selling author Philippa Gregory’s latest outing, The Last Tudor, no doubt the flames for Tudor-mania will continue to be stoked.
The Last Tudor
Author Philippa Gregory
Published by Simon & Shuster
Pages Hardcover 528
PUBLISHED in August, the The Last Tudor is Gregory’s 15th novel from the bestselling Plantagenet and Tudor series. Said to be the author’s final novel based on the Tudor family, the book revolves around the Grey sisters, Lady Jane, Katherine and Mary.
Jane Grey, great-granddaughter of Henry VIII, was queen of England for just nine days — between July 10 to July 19 — before finding her head on the executioner’s block.She was proclaimed queen, at age 16, after the death of her cousin, King Edward VI, son of Henry VIII, despite being only fifth in line to the throne. It was actually supposed to be the turn of Mary, the Catholic daughter of Henry VIII with first wife, the Spaniard, Catherine of Aragon
While the pious Jane Grey’s fate has been written about quite widely in history books, little however, is known about her two younger sisters, the flighty Katherine and midget Mary, both of whom also faced imprisonment and death sentences for treason. In the Last Tudor, Gregory allows them all to narrate their respective story in a book that’s divided into three parts.
What’s hot: Gregory has a wonderful knack of transporting the reader into the world which she writes about and makes you feel like you’re a voyeur in the lives of the characters in her book. In this outing, she sweeps the reader effortlessly from the reign of Edward I to Bloody Mary’s execution, and to the nervous reign of the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I, with her pacy and at times, melodramatic narratives. As usual her research is absolutely immaculate; the details and all that information that she incorporates to create the backdrop to her story is mindboggling.
What’s Not-so: I adore Philippa Gregory. And I can attest to having snapped up almost everything that she has ever written from the Plantagenet/Tudor series. There’s not a character in her book that I haven’t felt for. But with this particular instalment in the Tudor canon, I felt a strange disconnect with the main characters — be it Lady Jane, Katherine or Mary.
Perhaps it was because I didn’t feel that the characters were fleshed out enough; or maybe it was down to the fact that none of the main characters were likeable enough. Lady Jane Grey in particular drove me up the wall with her annoying self-righteous spiel. By the time she was led to the scaffold for her execution, I was on the rah-rah squad!
Meanwhile, her sister Katherine seemed far too flaky and flimsy to be taken seriously. Her illicit love for paramour Ned Seymour held some promise but even that felt cursory, making me feel terribly shortchanged. Personally, Seymour was one of the characters that I was keen on but hey, nothing came of that either.
The midget Mary, the youngest sister, could have made for an interesting story but again, she was painted in such a way that didn’t quite endear me to her either. Despite her “limited” stature, she possessed a sense of‘mightier than thou’ persona which grated at times. Her romance with the queen’s seargent porter was not fully explored either, and once again, I felt frustrated.