The Tudors: The Complete Story of England's Most Notorious Dynasty
by G.J. Meyer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
As many others have pointed out, the title of this book is rather misleading. Barely 50 pages is spent on Henry VII, about 300 are spent on Henry VIII, a bit over 100 on Edward VI, Lady Jane Grey and Mary I combined, and then a little over 100 on Elizabeth I...and keep in mind Elizabeth had the longest reign of all of them by far. I felt a much more accurate title would have been Religion and Succession During the Tudor Era or something along those lines, as that would have explained the scope of the book better. Even then, after Jane Seymour died, and with the exception of how Protestants took control of the government during Edward VI's reign, it seemed as though Meyers was exhausted with all of the previous detail he had spent on the matter and seemed to skim through the rest of history
That said, this book did focus on matters that I had always wondered about when reading biographies of the Tudors, namely, how did people react to being Roman Catholic one day, Henry Catholic (for lack of a better term) the next, then Protestant, then Roman Catholic again, before returning to Protestant. Here, especially during Henry VIII's reign, Meyers painted a detailed picture of how this was accomplished. His two great strengths were in illustrating how these changes were forced upon the people of England and bringing a rather novel and fresh perspective to events that I had never read any one espouse before but made me think.
I also appreciated on how he focused not just on events in England, but how events on the European Continent and even the Ottoman Empire played a role in English affairs. For instance, the reason the Pope likely never excommunicated Henry VIII was because he was under attack by the Ottoman Empire and couldn't afford a war with England. This gave added depth and perception to how interconnected the world was even in the 16th century.
His weakness was how openly he showed his biases. I won't defend Henry VIII. He was a vile, ruthless tyrant. And most of what I have read supports the view that the people of England were content enough with the Catholic church and the decision to leave was Henry's temper tantrum over not getting his way. Yet the way Meyers so rigorously defended the Catholic Church in England as innocent and Henry as vile was simply over the top. What made this even worse was that while he maintained over and over about how reports of abuse at monasteries were exaggerated, he didn't provide any figures and few examples to back this up. Given I had read similar things from other authors I don't have any trouble believing his point, yet how forceful he was with his statements of how rare of a problem this was for the Catholic Church in England (something like of 1000 monasteries, only 2 had sustained complaints against them would have been helpful) just created this impression that if he yelled loudly enough he could make a lie truth. And this was how it seemed to someone who agreed with him!
And sometimes his examples exonerating Catholics backfired. For instance, in defending Wolsey, an archbishop who had a illegitimate son, he talked about how he refused to let Anne Boleyn and her family appoint a female family member who was sexually loose to become head of an abbey. So I guess it's okay when a male priest has sex to still hold positions of power, but it's not okay for a woman to do so. If Meyers had focused on this women being grossly incompetent or the like I wouldn't have minded, but apparently the hypocrisy did not register with him.
I have seen some reviewers wonder if Meyers has a problem with women in power in general, and given his sympathetic portrayal of Mary I and how strongly he defended English Catholics, I wondered more if he was Catholic. Yet he was also very sympathetic to Edward VI and he could be just as cuttingly harsh on Catholics when the circumstances warranted it as he could with defending them when he felt they were slandered. If anything I would say the longer the time the monarch had to rule, the harder he was on them. And his bias came out again in full force with Elizabeth I, and unlike Henry VIII, it felt unfair rather than over the top.
While rightly lambasting her for the failures of her reign (and to be fair, he lambasts everyone in the book at some point), I was flabbergasted by the lengths he went to deny her any credit for the successes of her reign. When successes did happen, it wasn't Elizabeth's doing, it was because of Cecil's brilliance or bad weather or Phillip of Spain making a mistake, etc. Yet, as he points out on his chapter on Parliament, good leaders delegate and put good people in charge. There's simply too much to do on their own, and to my mind, Elizabeth does get credit for having the wisdom to appoint Cecil and to listen to him. His other big critique of Elizabeth was that she had no ambition other than to survive, yet given what Henry VIII's ambitions did to England and how the country had been reeling from that, Elizabeth giving the country time to breath and adjust to a new status quo sounds wiser than tearing it down all over again.
That he stated the last years of her reign were Essex's story was rather appalling and feeds into the appearance of sexism.
All said and done, I felt I gained a lot from reading this book. From a fresh, novel perspective, to details on how the Church of England was established and what effect this had on the common people, as well as filling in the blanks on how events in Spain, the Ottoman Empire, France and the Netherlands played a role in English politics, it answered questions I had been harboring for a long time. Bottom line, would recommend with reservations.View all my reviews