The Tudors: The Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty….G.J. Meyer

Henry VIII of England

Have any of you readers out there ever been snowed by the cover of a book? Where the picture on the cover leads you to think the book will be about one thing, but it turns out to be something entirely different, and not even necessarily what you wanted to read about? The feeling is something akin to picking up a glass of soda you think is Coke and once tasting it, realizing it’s root beer. Ugh.

Well, I was completely taken in by the cover of GJ Meyer’s book, The Tudors. And not in a good way. I will start out by saying I have been (thus far) a HUGE fan of the British Tudor family. I can back that up by noting that 1) I have read Philippa Gregory’s entire body of work, 2)Elizabeth starring Cate Blanchett is one of my all-time favorite movies, and 3)my husband and I devoured Showtime’s series The Tudors. For those of you who know generally nothing about the Tudor family, their ranks include the head-chopping, wife-divorcing Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, she of the red hair and big frilly collars. Throw in Mary I, the inspiration for the drink we know as the Bloody Mary, and a short-lived child king Edward VI, and that concludes the Tudor lineup. Sadly, Meyer’s book would prove that everything positive I thought I knew about the Tudors was either seriously embellished or an outright lie.

So here’s why I was taken in by the cover. On the cover of my book was a lady’s torso, clad in a low cut Renaissance gown, grasping her bosom invitingly. So I stupidly thought this would be the inside skinny on the bed-hopping romantic antics of Henry, and also Elizabeth, who although known as the Virgin Queen to her subjects had a steamy love affair of her own going on behind the scenes. How wrong I was. Meyer’s book took the glamorous, powerful images of the Tudors we’ve been shown in mass media and turned them inside out, revealing them as paranoid, selfish, insensitive mass murderers, caring nothing about the suffering of their subjects and inflicting some of the worst religious atrocities I’ve ever read about. Meyer’s book quickly glossed over the many wives of Henry (except for Catherine, his first wife, and obviously Anne Boleyn, who required that he disavow the Catholic church in order to marry her) and Elizabeth’s flirtations, and focused mainly on the religious turmoil we know as the Reformation that was flooding through Europe after Martin Luther published his works on Protestantism. During the reigns of the Tudors, depending on which Tudor it was and what they believed at the moment (and it could change at any time, without warning), if you happened to believe the wrong thing, you could be tortured, executed, or both, with no chance at a fair trial. And it wasn’t just religious leaders either. No one was safe. The Tudors routinely executed close friends, family members, and their own councilmen if they happened to disagree with them. TV and the movies make this time period look so glamorous, but really, Meyer argues, it wasn’t at all. Thanks to famines, taxes and unemployment, the poor got poorer and the very few rich people got richer.

Meyer slipped small sections about such topics as the Boleyn family, the pope, Martin Luther, peasant life, food, etc in between the book’s chapters, ostensibly to help the reader get more of a feel for what it was like to live in that time period. While some of the bits were interesting, I felt this device prevented the book from gaining what little momentum it might have had with the more important Tudor story.

So you can imagine my disappointment when I expected to get the TMZ skinny on Henry and Elizabeth’s sex lives, and ended up instead reading about executions, burnings, wars, class turmoil, and royalty having hissy fits. I normally only review books I really enjoyed on this site, but because I slogged all the way through it (and believe me, it felt about as long as the Tudor era itself in some sections), I felt I should give it a review. I realize that the media have done an amazing job of glamming up this part of human history, and it’s unfortunate that the fake history should seem so much more interesting than the real history, to the point where the real history is boring. After reading about this era in Meyer’s book, I can understand why movies and TV have gone the direction that they have.

Grade: C-

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10 thoughts on “The Tudors: The Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty….G.J. Meyer

  1. Kudos to you for slogging through it! ‘The Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty’ sounds so deliciously spicy too… I must admit that although I’m a Tudor fan like yourself, the extensive political and religious turmoil gets a bit MUCH, particularly in book form where the author can delve into it for that much longer!

  2. I know…I was looking for the spice, people!!! And I got priest-burnings and beheadings. Talk about a buzz kill! The one juicy tidbit Meyer offered up was that Anne Boleyn probably got beheaded because she was going around telling people that Henry VIII couldn’t “perform”. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to figure out that probably wasn’t a good move on her part.

  3. I think you’d better go back to being a soccer mom. You prefer romanticized BS to the truth? Or, maybe you prefer to be entertained rather than educated. I found the book well researched, factual and fascinating. Maybe not romantic, but then I don’t think romance is all that great.

    • I have read Alison Weir’s The Life of Elizabeth I, which was an engaging, well-written history book about the Tudors, but also managed to have that ‘steamy’ side at the same time. The cover of this book led me to believe it would be along these same lines, and my point was that the cover wasn’t very representative of the book’s actual content. My disappointment arose not from the material so much as what I was expecting. I would describe it as going to see a movie you are expecting to be an action movie and having it turn out to be a romantic comedy instead.

      Thanks for commenting. I am glad you liked the book.

  4. I too have enjoyed the fictionalized accounts of the Tudor dynasty, such as the Showtime series The Tudors, but I wouldn’t recommend avoiding this book just because it is not tarted up as splashy fiction for mass consumption.

    In particular, it struck me that there were obvious parallels between the economic system promulgated by the Tudors and the shenanigans on Wall Street that lead to the mortgage crisis a few years ago. In both cases there was a small group of insiders with the ability to get a grip on some key choke points in the economy, and who then proceeded to milk that leverage for all it was worth, regardless of who else suffered as a result.

    Meyer also asserts rather plausibly that the image that has persisted about the Tudor concern for the welfare of the kingdom was really just self-serving propaganda, and again there is an obvious parallel with the efforts of the economic elite of today to paint themselves as the creators of employment and other economic benefits for the middle and working classes.

    Of course, this is all grim stuff to think about, and will not serve the purpose if you are looking for escapist fiction, but if you are in the mood for a detailed look at some universal, and apparently timeless themes in human history, then Meyer’s book is quite gripping.

    As for myself, I am not surprised that the average citizen can be manipulated by folks in powerful positions, because as a business manager I myself have usually found my subordinates transparently easy to manipulate. This is not to say that I abused them for the sake of ulterior motives, but only that I had a minimum of trouble getting projects done, because most people are quite desperate for a kind word or any semblance of economic security. Thus, merely acknowledging these needs in a tactful fashion is usually enough to generate serious levels of gratitude, loyalty, and enthusiasm for the job at hand.

    Rather, I am perpetually at a loss as to what the “economic elite” are really getting out of their efforts to aggrandize themselves so outrageously. After all, no matter how extravagant one’s belongings become, one can still only eat a limited amount of food, sit in one chair at a time, wear one suit of clothes, ride in one vehicle, etc. There clearly is no practical benefit in so much excess wealth, so the motivation must lie elsewhere.

    Thus, it does indeed strike me as pathological to pursue ever-larger economic gains when one already has far more than the average person ever needs or wants. So, Meyer’s detailed look at this aspect of the Tudor dynasty is potentially quite interesting, and the question is of practical importance, because the aggrandizement of the elite does clearly come at the expense of everyone else.

    Does this mean that I expect such a study will lead to a general uprising of some sort against the elite by the people they are exploiting? No, not really. Most people appear to be horribly frightened by the overwhelming nature of the world in which they find themselves, and, as we used to say in the Army, “fear will make you stupid”.

    So, my personal goal in reading books like this is simply to learn how to avoid being caught in the middle between the frightened, sheep-like masses and those who prey upon them. Both prey and predators appear to have rather simple motivations that interact in predictable ways, for the most part, so it is not too hard to live in relative peace and comfort while the idiots on all sides make a complete mess of their lives.

    That is to say, the elite are not actually that brilliant or dangerous, in that their goal is simply to steal everything in sight, and they would not be very successful if the people they exploit were not so pathetically helpless. So, simply by not having anything that looks obviously worth stealing, one can usually escape their attention altogether. And, by definition, the exploited masses were never dangerous in the first place. Even if they get provoked badly enough to turn into a violent mob, they will generally be too disorganized to cause much trouble.

    Is that a cynical take on the human species? You bet. Unfortunately nothing in my experience comes close to convincing me otherwise, and the best that I expect to manage in life is to avoid being put into an early grave – for whatever that might be worth.

    In short, Meyer did a good job with this book, and if you read it for the right reasons you may find it quite satisfying, but otherwise not.

    • Bravo, and well spake. I think that the C- of the reviewer was waaaay out of bounds by any measure. I am a huge Tudo-phile, and for years both worked as an actor on the Renaissance festival circuit (playing courtiers of henry VIII as well as Eustache Chapuys for several years), and loved Margaret George’s fun romp the “Autobiography of Henry VIII.” But I think that G.J. Meyer’s book gave me pause to reevaluate the romanticizing of a brutal regime that did anything but serve the needs of its people. It also gives Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ portrayal of H8 a different cast when seen through the light of a self-centendered narcissist who paved the way for the end of the British monarchy. Both Meyers men should be praised for their takes on the subject.

  5. Dave Johnson has commented above that he draws parallels between the sixteenth century and the present era. It is no use wondering why humans hanker after power and money. They always do. The point of history is to understand that human nature does not change. The point of Shakespeare’s plays is very often to underline the futility of such ambition, but also to show that it never changes. I heard about this book on Elaine Charles’ radio show, The Book Report. You can hear the archived shows on http://www.bookreportradio.com. Thanks Elaine for reminding me that there is always something new coming out of history.

  6. The author is a polemicist and, if not quite a plagiarist, a popularizer of the bad scholarship of several modern revisionist historians. He owns as much as the book winds down. Meyer spins a good secondhand tale from complex and ambiguous data with the certainty of his favorite 16th Century Jesuit martyrs, but comes no closer to the truth. The aural version strips away Meyer’s scant pretense to objectivity. Read the book if you must, but you really should hear it read by a skilled actor to get its full impact.

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