Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'The Tudors' -- An account of 'England's Most Notorious Dynasty' -- now in quality paperback
If all you know about the Tudors -- who ruled England from 1485 to 1603 -- comes from watching the TV series and movies about Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and Elizabeth I, you don't know jack. 

That's the view of G.J. Meyer, author of "The Tudors: The Complete Story of England's Most Notorious Dynasty" (Bantam Books Trade Paperback,  a Random House imprint, 656 pages, color and black and white illustrations, index, notes, $18.00). It was originally published in 2010 as a Delacourt Press Hardcover, and this review is essentially the same as the one I wrote for that edition.

Historian Meyer ("A World Undone: The Story of the Great War") uses his journalism background skillfully in this book, providing "background" chapters -- we journalists call them "sidebars" -- to explain the culture of the period. 

The background essays on such topics as torture -- both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I used it against their real or imagined foes -- how the rich got richer and the poor got more children and hardships (sound familiar?) and how the descendants of an obscure Welshman ended up ruling England for 118 years and in the process provided endless dramatic fodder for playwrights (one of the essays deals with the rise of the English theater), novelists and moviemakers. 
Meyer strips away the myths that have obscured the Tudors, from founder Henry VII, Henry VIII' s father, through the "Monster" himself (Meyer minces few words in this book) to the boy king, Edward VI, to his sister Queen Mary I, more commonly known as "Bloody Mary" to distinguish her from Mary Queen of Scots, to the second Virgin Queen -- I bet you didn't even know about Queen Mary I -- Elizabeth I to show the startling excesses of the Tudors. 

Yes, it's even worse than you could imagine, involving religious wars and massacres between Christians (the English didn't have any Jews to kill, having driven them out in the 13th Century) so the religion of peacemaker Jesus devolved into excesses that Meyer describes in detail. How about at least 10,000 French Protestants (Huguenots) killed by the Catholic regime in the St. Bartholomew Day massacre that began in Paris on Aug. 24, 1572? Or the hundreds of Protestants killed by Bloody Mary in her abortive attempt to bring back Catholicism, and the thousands who left for Geneva, Switzerland and other Protestant strongholds? Or the "Catholic hunters" operating during Elizabeth's reign, freelance secret agents hired to ferret out secret Catholic congregations? Meyer's book reinforced my long-held view that organized religion is one of mankind's most dangerous fatal flaws. 

The Tudor story begins with young Henry Tudor, whose claim to the English throne was very weak, defeating King Richard III in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field ("A Horse, A Horse, My Kingdom for a Horse" Shakespeare says King Richard cried before he died). The Aug. 22, 1485 battle saw the the elevation of Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, becoming the first of the Tudors, Henry VII. Historians consider the battle to mark the end of the Plantagenet dynasty -- a seminal event in English history. 

Half a century later his son, Henry VIII, desperate to rid himself of his first wife in order to marry a second, launched a reign of terror aimed at taking powers no previous monarch had even dreamed of possessing. In the process he plunged his kingdom into generations of division and disorder, creating a legacy of blood and betrayal that would blight the lives of his children and the destiny of his country. 

Edward VI, a true believer in reforming the English church, died before accomplishing his goal of a second English Reformation. Mary I, the daughter of Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII, tried and failed to reestablish the Catholic Church and produce an heir. Finally came Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, who devoted her life to creating an image of herself as Gloriana the Virgin Queen but, behind that mask, sacrificed all chance of personal happiness in order to survive. She also was heartless in her token gestures to soldiers and sailors who loyally served her in many battles, especially the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Cate Blanchett, Helen Mirren and others present a very fictional view of the real Elizabeth. 

Meyer paints the Tudors as they existed, warts and all, as Oliver Cromwell instructed his portrait painter in the 17th Century. 

English history is an acquired habit that many seem to avoid without any problems, like my experience with algebra. I took a course in English history at Northern Illinois University about 50 years ago -- it was a requirement for English majors -- and dodged the bullet for many years. Only fairly late in life did I get hooked on the excesses and dark crimes of the rulers of England -- especially people like Richard III and the Tudors. 

Consider G.J. Meyer's book to be the reading equivalent of several marathons, allowing yourself a break at regular intervals. The excesses of this clan will turn your stomach, I can guarantee that. You'll have nightmares about people like Richard Topcliffe, Elizabeth's personal torturer, who was permitted to have a torture chamber in his Westminster residence (bringing new meaning to working at home!). 

The Tudors is graphic proof that truth is stranger -- and more horrific -- than fiction. If you've read books about individuals of the period, read Meyer's book to tie the loose ends together, as well as providing a world view of this historical period. 
About the Author
G. J. Meyer is a former Woodrow Wilson Fellow with an M.A. in English literature from the University of Minnesota, a onetime journalist, and holder of Harvard University’s Neiman Fellowship in Journalism. He has taught at colleges and universities in Des Moines, St. Louis, and New York. His books include A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, Executive Blues, and The Memphis Murders, winner of an Edgar Award for nonfiction from the Mystery Writers of America. He lives in Goring-on-Thames, England.