Being Troubled by the Tudors, or Writing With Feeling

Posted: April 8, 2015 in reflections
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Further reading, for those who want to know more about poor Mary Tudor

I’ve recently been doing some freelance history writing. As part of this, I’ve spent time reading and writing about Henry VIII and his daughter, Mary I. It made me feel some surprisingly extreme things, and I want to talk about that experience and how we deal with emotions when writing for work.

Poor Bloody Mary

Lets start with a history lesson.

Henry VIII is generally treated as a hero or a joke in English history – the strong leader with the six wives. But when we look at his personal life, we see something that by modern standards is pretty monstrous. Among other things, he accused his second wife Anne of cheating on him and had her killed because they’d fallen out; had his fifth wife Catherine killed for actually cheating on him, despite his own numerous extra-marital affairs; declared his daughters Mary and Elizabeth illegitimate and largely excluding them from his life because they weren’t boys; bullied Mary into signing a document that went against both her values and her respect for her late mother, out of fear that he’d have her executed; and much more. You can make all sorts of arguments about the necessity of his actions, but that still looks like horrifying domestic abuse to me, whatever the reasons for it.

There’s a terrible irony to the fact that his daughter Mary helped Henry through a period of depression after Catherine’s cheating and execution. Mary’s own understanding of depression came from the fact that she’d suffered it for years thanks to her father. Long deprived by political circumstances of the chance to marry – something she strongly desired – often isolated from friends and support, when Mary finally married she suffered from a neglectful husband and a series of miscarriages and false pregnancies. The death of many Protestants at her hands is appalling, but so is the suffering she endured in her life, for most of which she suffered from poor physical and mental health.

As I say, Henry is mostly remembered as a great leader and/or punchline, Mary as a villain. It appears that memory, like their lives, has little taste for justice.

Feeling History

Reading and writing about Henry and Mary hit me very hard. I’ve suffered from depression. My wife and I have struggled with the long, frustrating process of trying to have a child, only to be robbed of it by a miscarriage. This stuff hit me where I live, and it hit me hard. I’ve worked in schools and for social service, read case files and heard first hand accounts of the vilest treatment dished out to families by abusers. How much worse then to see the effect of a parent who was outright abusive and who is now regarded in the playful and positive light Henry is.

There’s another irony here, and it’s in my attitude. When a king is presented to me as a villain, like King John has been, and I then learn about the other side of them, I can somewhat come to terms with their appalling behaviour. John was responsible for the death of his nephew among others, but because of his troubled upbringing I’ve come to see him in a more forgiving light than the traditional tales of the evil king. I recognise the hideousness of some of John’s actions, but I can step back and put them in context. In contrast, hearing about Henry filled me with near-unbearable bile. I was literally shaking with anger and sorrow.

Part of this is of course about current discourse, not just history. I’m almost as angry at our idolisation of Henry as at his behaviour. A domestic abuser shouldn’t be seen as a hero or the subject of casual jokes.

And part of it is how personal these issues are, not just to me but in a general sense. Looking at the domestic lives of Henry and Mary takes us past the veil of top level politics, something beyond most of our lives, and into the realm of the personal, where we all live. We all have some experience of love, loss and family. Seeing those things warped and broken affects us all.

Dealing With the Pain

There’s a part of me that wants to rationalise away these feelings. To tell myself that I’m getting wound up over something that’s not about me, that I should just calm down and do my job. This is my work, not a place to get emotional.

And to that I give a heartfelt cry of ‘bullshit!’

These are my feelings. This is the way the world affects me. They are a way of drawing attention to something that is wrong. Millions of years of evolution have equipped me to feel these things, and repressing them isn’t just incredibly unhealthy, it’s a waste of part of my human potential. Our feelings have a legitimate place in every corner of our lives, including our work. How else would we ever care about what we achieve?

More than that, this is the work of writing. Words are meant to move, not just to inform. They’re meant to fill our bellies with fire, our eyes with tears, our hearts with rage, sorrow, love and the desire to change the world.

I’m not saying this experience has been good for me. I’m not saying all this grief and anger I’m feeling for long-dead aristocrats is fun. But it’s a part of writing, a part of reading, a part of responding to history. It’s a part of being human, and that’s something to be proud of.

*deep breath*

OK, got that vented, for now at least. In case you hadn’t realised, what you just read was part of my dealing with this.

And now over to you. Are there parts of history or works of fiction that really move you, in happy or unhappy ways? Have they surprised you by doing that? I’d love to read about your experiences in the comments below.

  1. amkuska says:

    Wow. I’ve read about Henry and Mary to a certain extent, but never delved into it for the same sticky reasons you posted. I’ve read a lot of good history, I think my favorite being “Empress,” a novel about the only female empress of china.

  2. Sheila Thomas says:

    I found this particularly interesting because, for me, Henry VIII has always been a villain so your message made me think a bit about the strange idea that people sometimes view him in a good light. And I can still get very irate during dramas and histories of the period involving him and his rebellion against the Church.

    • I think your Catholic roots are showing Sheila! The only time I studied Henry at school was at a Church of England primary, and while his marital behaviour wasn’t exactly held up in a glowing light, his position as the supposed founder of the Church of England got him a lot of good press. I suspect the same is true in a lot of English schools, for reasons of religion and tradition. Henry is often held up as a man who stood up for England against foreign influences, despite a lot of recent less positive analysis.

      Having mentioned religion, Henry clearly doesn’t even deserve credit for religious reform, even among those who think it was a good thing. After all, despite the break with the Pope he remained Catholic, and it was his son who brought Protestantism into the mainstream in England.

      • Lynda says:

        It’s funny, because I studied the Henrician era at A level, explicitly looking at the reformation, and he wasn’t protrayed that positively then either. I suppose it made a difference that my teacher did a PhD on Cromwell so was a. pretty well emersed in all that stuff already and b. definitely saw Cromwell and Cranmer as the brains behind the whole operation! In fact, I’ve often had the same response to stuff on Henry as you did on John – to read his early letters to Catherine, or read about his relationship with Lady Margaret B, or think about how he must have felt when his illegitimate son died. Makes me despise him a little less for all that came later, and for his costly wasteful ego-trips to fight in France.

        I find reading stuff during the Wars of the Roses qutie emotionally hard work, because of course it was all so avoidable, and so many many lives were lost because a small group of powerful people (mostly cousins) were pig headed and stroppy.

        • The Wars of the Roses is another period I’ve been reading about lately, and I find myself having very mixed feelings. On the one hand, I agree with you that there’s a lot of stupidity involved, and needless bloodshed in the name of ambition. On the other hand, compared with the Anarchy under Stephen and Matilda, or the carnage of the Civil War, at least the destruction was relatively self-contained. It was about the perception of power rather than control of land or wearing the other side down, and so you get short, sharp campaigns in which much of the country remains untouched and ordinary people are mostly left alone. I’m not saying it’s good, but if I had to live through any English civil war, that might be one of the better choices.

      • Sheila Thomas says:

        You are, of course, correct about why I dislike the man. When we came to do that period in history classes, I used background reading other than what the school provided. Fortunately the teacher did not object! I still see him as a bad lot all round.

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