Tudors by Peter Ackroyd

“Rich in detail and atmosphere and told in vivid prose, Tudors recounts the transformation of England from a settled Catholic country to a Protestant superpower. It is the story of Henry VIII’s cataclysmic break with Rome, and his relentless pursuit of both the perfect wife and the perfect heir; of how the brief reign of the teenage king, Edward VI, gave way to the violent reimposition of Catholicism and the stench of bonfires under ‘Bloody Mary’. It tells, too, of the long reign of Elizabeth I, which, though marked by civil strife, plots against the queen and even an invasion force, finally brought stability.

Above all, however, it is the story of the English Reformation and the making of the Anglican Church. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, England was still largely feudal and looked to Rome for direction; at its end, it was a country where good governance was the duty of the state, not the church, and where men and women began to look to themselves for answers rather than to those who ruled them.”

This review is going to be a bit different from the ones that I usually do.  You see, I didn’t finish this book, so I’m going to discuss the reasons why.  I firmly believe that you can learn a lot about a book by reading both the positive and the negative with regards to other people’s opinions about it.

I’ve been interested in the Tudor dynasty for a long time.  The history of that era reads like the most sensational novel ever penned, and it encompasses love, hate, passion, politics, religion, war, and a host of other things.  It’s a complicated time in history, when many forces came into play and shaped the way the world looked for decades, if not centuries.

My primary sources of info have been, as you may imagine, books written on the subject.  I’ve also watched media presentations like The Tudors on Showtime and The Other Boleyn Girl on the big screen, and while these favor entertainment over accuracy in many respects, they still inspire me to go looking for information on my own.  A few documentaries round out my experience with delving into the period.

When I saw that Peter Ackroyd was writing a book the covers the Tudor dynasty, I was immediately interested.  I hadn’t read anything by him, having mostly read books by Alison Weir, but I’m always open to a new author.  His first book about English history, Foundation, had many excellent reviews, so I had high hopes for Tudors.

I freely admit that I only made it through three of Henry VIII’s six wives before I gave up in boredom.

How did that happen?  How did a historical period that I find so fascinating get reduced to something that I was slogging through long before I gave up on it?

Part of my disappointment seems to have sprung from my own expectations.  For one, this book is slightly mistitled in that it does not cover the entire Tudor dynasty–it leaves out Henry VII.  This seems a bit odd to me as the Tudors were brought to power on the battlefield and readers don’t get to see that piece of history in conjunction with the rest of the family’s deeds.  For another, prime movers and shakers of the period get short shrift here: Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell, and others show up much less frequently than I expected.

The rest of my inability to finish the book lies in the author’s writing and presentation style.  I was surprised to find that Ackroyd’s writing felt fairly unfocused to me.  This may be because so many books about this period look heavily through the lens of Henry VIII’s actions, which makes sense given how many changes he introduced to England during his reign.  But while Ackroyd covers a lot of ground, many of the events he writes about seem unmoored from everything else and are presented in isolation.  The passing of laws that were the result of specific chains of events seem to pop up suddenly in a way that makes them feel abrupt. People come and go from the narrative with awkward irregularity, such as the way the Spanish ambassador (who, if I remember rightly, was never named in this book although he was present at the court for many years) occasionally appears in references to his letters back to Spain.

At the point that I gave up, I didn’t feel that I was going to get a good overview of the Tudor era by reading this book.  It isn’t that I feel that a comprehensive look at the era is impossible; rather, I don’t think Ackroyd’s approach works well either stylistically or as a collection of facts.  I’ll stick with Weir for my history fix.

This review was originally posted on November 26, 2013.

This book was borrowed from the Yolo County Public Library Davis Branch.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

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