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-


We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals…Gillian Gill

When Victoria, newly crowned queen of England at the young age of 18, fell in love with and married her German first cousin Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in 1840, both came to the marriage with very differing ideas of the path their marriage would take. Victoria felt as queen that she would have the best of both worlds: control of her beloved country and love and companionship with her husband. Albert hoped that in the midst of child-rearing and domestic activities, the usual sphere of a woman in the mid-nineteenth century, Victoria would eventually hand over the reins of power to him and concentrate on their family. Obviously this was a match against the odds, even in today’s society.  This interesting and potentially explosive relationship is the basis of Gillian Gill’s We Two, a wonderful double biography of the royal couple and their 21 years of marriage.

Both Victoria and Albert were descended from the Coburg family, a small duchy located in what is today the German state of Bavaria. Both were raised in single parent households, Victoria losing her father to pneumonia at eight months old, and Albert losing his mother at five when she was banished from court following an ugly divorce. When Victoria’s three older uncles died childless, she was crowned queen at 18 years old, just barely old enough to rule on her own. Her mother the Duchess of Kent and her friend Sir John Conroy had hoped to rule as regents for Victoria (meaning they would rule in her name if the current monarch died before Victoria turned 18) and so imposed a strict series of rules and isolation on Victoria, called the Kensington System, which kept the young Victoria under their power and isolated from her royal relatives. They even at one point tried to get her to sign a document allowing them to rule for her until she was 21, which thankfully she did not sign. Once queen, Victoria banished the hated Conroy from court, and would not regain friendly relations with her mother until her children were born.

Albert, on the other hand, was raised from childhood with the goal of being married to Victoria. Victoria, however, was unimpressed when she first met him as an awkward teenager in 1836. Albert then spent the next two years undergoing “refinement” by his Coburg relatives to be more of what Victoria was looking for, and it worked. They were married four years later. Poor Albert met with extreme anti-Coburg hostility when he first came to England. Members of Parliament and the public were concerned that as a foreigner, Albert had his own agenda (which he did) and would work his agenda through his wife (which he did). Albert’s stoic public demeanor, heavy German accent, and insistence on morality in a court long known for indulgence and adultery did not make him popular either.

Like most men in nineteenth century England, Albert felt himself to be superior to women, and thus had a very hard time taking second place to his wife the queen. All of the other European royal families did not allow women to be crowned as sovereigns, so Albert had no one to turn to for advice or look to as an example. Many of these kingdoms refused to give Albert the precedence he enjoyed in England, which added insult to injury. As it was, it took Victoria until four years before Albert’s death to finally convince Parliament to give him the title of Prince Consort.

Albert’s greatest achievement was the conception for the Great Exhibition of 1851 (the first World’s Fair), which brought international manufactures and technology to London under the spectacular roof of the Crystal Palace. Albert is also credited with keeping Britain out of the American Civil War, when he rewrote a very harsh letter that was to be sent to Lincoln following the capture of a British mail carrier carrying two Confederate diplomats to England.

Between 1840 and his death in 1861, the two would raise nine children, which kept Victoria extremely busy and more reliant upon her husband to help with affairs of state.  Unlike most women of the time, Victoria felt child-bearing and motherhood to be a ball and chain, preventing her from doing the things she loved and from being a more complete queen. It didn’t help that childbearing was very unsafe back in the nineteenth century, and many women and children died in childbirth. Victoria was one of the first women in England to use ether during childbirth, which she happily recommended to all women and helped to bring about its more widespread use.  Her resentful feelings about motherhood translated into chilly relations with her children during their childhood. Happily, as her children grew up, these feelings began to abate, and she became especially close to her oldest daughter, “Vicky” through their letters when she moved to Prussia. Her youngest daughter Beatrice, born three years before Albert’s death, became her especial favorite. Albert, on the other hand, was an extremely devoted father who spent a lot of time with his children, especially his two oldest daughters Vicky and Alice.  He had agendas for each of his children to marry well and bring his ideas and legacy to their own kingdoms, and was especially hard on his son and heir Bertie, who would become Edward VII.

Having never read anything about Queen Victoria, I really enjoyed this book. It was never for a moment dry history. Any woman out there who is a working mother trying hard to balance the priorities of husband, family and job will appreciate what she went through and how amazing it was that the pair did not run away from each other screaming. Although I am sure Victoria had loads of help with her brood, I cannot imagine the stress on the body of bearing nine kids, and then raising them. (Kate Gosselin should take note!!!) The only birth control option available for the upper classes in the nineteenth century was abstinence. Victoria enjoyed relations with her husband so much that she did not want to give that up, so numerous children were the inevitable result. Nineteenth century child mortality rates were very high and sadly families expected that one or more children might die, so it was very important for the monarch to have as many children as possible to both ensure the succession and/or to be married off to other royal kingdoms. Many times these children would be married off to old, ugly, mean or related husbands or wives in need of titled spouses, which would be horrible. I can’t think of anything more gross than marrying a guy 35 years older than me who was my uncle. YUCK.

Another interesting aspect of the book discussed the genetic trait of hemophilia in the royal family. The trait originated with Victoria and Albert’s union and was spread to succeeding generations. Women are the carriers of the disease since it is carried on the X chromosome, and since women have two X chromosomes, a hemophiliac X chromosome can be compensated for by the other normal X chromosome. Not the same for males, who only have the one X chromosome, so the affliction of hemophilia is usually exhibited only in males, passed on to them from their mothers. Essentially, hemophilia is a disorder that prevents normal blood clotting, so something as simple as a bump on the head or a skinned knee could be fatal. Victoria’s eighth child Leopold suffered several hemorrhages, and her daughters Alice and Beatrice were carriers. Since her children intermarried with royals from other countries, and their children did as well, hemophilia has become known as the ‘royal disease’.

Victoria and Albert buried together at Frogmore

Despite being at odds sometimes in their political views and child raising ideas, Victoria and Albert loved each other very much. Victoria was decimated when Albert died at the very young age of 42, and after his death, essentially removed herself from the public eye to mourn. It was said she wore black until the end of her life, 40 years later. She never remarried, although the book briefly touches on the famous relationship she enjoyed with a Scotsman, John Brown. Her reign would last 63 years, and when she died, the British empire was at the height of its power. To this day she is still England’s longest-ruling monarch. Both are buried together in the Mausoleum at Frogmore.

I really enjoyed this book as a very readable and enjoyable biography of one of the earliest “power couples”. I hope you will pick it up yourself.

Grade: A