Nicola here, talking about the Tudors. A few days ago I read an article about the huge number of historical fiction books set in the Tudor period. The author was suggesting that it was time to move away from the wives of Henry VIII and choose some different historical periods and characters to write about. Even Hilary Mantel, with her Booker Prize winning Tudor set novels is saying that we have reached “Tudor peak” and that the market is saturated.
As someone whose next book is a dual time period novel set in the present and… Yes, the Tudor era, this left me with mixed feelings. As a young reader, before I discovered Georgette Heyer and the Regency period, I had been drawn into reading historical fiction through the Tudors. My wonderful school history teacher, Mrs Chary, had brought alive the history of the period by telling it to us as a story and there was plenty to engage us.
Fortunately for me my grandmother had a vast collection of books I could borrow, including Brief Gaudy Hour by Margaret Campbell Barnes (about Anne Boleyn) and the golden-boxed collection of stories about the Wives of Henry VIII. I was hooked. Anne became my first historical heroine. I had a strict pecking order of favourite wives of Henry VIII with Anne at the top and Katherine Parr in second place.
The popularity of the Tudor period has not waned in all the time I’ve been reading about it and it is curious as to why, despite the richness of other places, characters and eras, writers return to it time and time again. Firstly I suppose there is the draw of Henry VIII and his soap opera of a life. He really does dominate the era with his flamboyant character and melodramatic marital parade. Then there is his daughter Elizabeth, a spectacular monarch, and the drama of the Spanish Armada. There is Henry VII and the victory of Bosworth Field, the tragedy of Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Days Queen, the boy king Edward, “bloody” Mary and a whole host of family rivalries, bloodshed and adventure, so there is a huge and colourful cast of characters to draw on, and real-life stories you could not make up.
The Tudor era provides plenty of scope to explore less well known characters too. One example is Catherine Filliol, first wife of Edward Seymour the Lord Protector, who features in Susanna Dunn’s book The May Bride. Another is Amy Robsart, wife to Robert Dudley the favourite of Elizabeth I. Mary Boleyn was also an inspired choice for Philippa Gregory to write about and it was fascinating to see Mary brought out from under Anne’s shadow.
Since then Philippa Gregory and others have worked backwards into the era of the Wars of the Roses and the medieval period of British history as well as exploring the lives of the more obscure characters of Tudor England, yet nothing seems to match the popularity of those Tudor royals.
In The Phantom Tree, the book I have coming out at the end of the year, I explore one of those lesser-known Tudor women. My heroine is Mary Seymour, bearer of a famous name, niece to one of Henry VIII’s wives and daughter of another. Mary’s story is shrouded in mystery and I wanted to tell it, or a version of it, since there is so little recorded history to draw on. I didn’t set out specifically to write a Tudor set book but was drawn to Mary’s story because I enjoy writing about historical mysteries. So whilst I name check Wolf Hall and the Seymours and even Anne Boleyn, it is Mary and her hidden history that I am exploring.
I think it is true that while the Tudors are compelling, there are other time periods and historical characters that are equally fascinating. The Stuart period surely provides just as much inspiration, and there has to be potential for a television version of the English Civil Wars or of the life of Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen, and the fortunes of her 13 children in the style of “The Tudors.” (The title of The Winter Queen is just as good as The White Queen!) When I researched Elizabeth's story for House of Shadows I was riveted by the potential for a huge historical saga. Elizabeth was the intended beneficiary of the Gunpowder Plot, her story is one of love, war, bloodshed, escape and exile. She was a political leader and her court was a centre of culture. Of her sons, two became pirates, one married the richest heiress in France and a fourth killed a man in a duel. Of her daughters, one was a famous philosopher, one married a Prince of Transylvania and another was heir to the throne of England. But one of the reasons why I didn't write that book myself was because an editor told me that historical novels set outside of England are not popular and I would fail to sell the idea to a publisher.
Amongst the suggestions in the article I read for alternative historical figures whose stories could be told was Alice Chaucer, granddaughter of the famous poet Geoffrey, Emilie du Chatelet, a French mathematician, and the playwright Aphra Benn. But would any of them achieve the popularity of the wives of Henry VIII and if not why not? What is it that makes some eras and books perennially popular – the Regency is an example of this as well as the Tudor age – and others less so?
Are you a fan of Tudor-set books? Do you have a favourite? Would you like to see other characters from history have their stories told and if so, which would you choose?