Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Keeping Up with the Tudors: The Other Tudors!

Our book today is The Other Tudors: Henry VIII's Mistresses and Bastards by Philippa Jones, a highly detailed and chatty volume originally published in the UK by New Holland and now enjoying a second life as an incredibly sturdy Metro Books remainder here in the U.S. (your local Barnes & Noble will have it in the Remainder section, not in History).

The typical line here is to go straight to poor Elizabeth Blount, who became Henry's mistress during one of the seething disagreements that characterized the second half of his marriage to Queen Catherine and bore him his only 'acknowledged' bastard, that epic idiot, that monument to mock, Henry Fitzroy. That boy was given lands and titles (not to mention that surname, which would be suicidal unless the king agreed to it) and even a kind of court of his own – it obviously pleased Henry to display him.

But Jones is far more assiduous than this, and she has filled her book with ill-begotten royal offspring – according to her, Henry had five sons and three daughters, almost all by the wives of other men. In addition to the normal tally (plus Fitzroy), there was Mary Boleyn, of course, “the other Boleyn girl,” and her son Henry Carey; there was Jane Pollard and her son Thomas Stukeley; there was Mary Berkeley and her son John Perrot; and there was Joanna Dingley and her daughter Etheldreda Malte. According to Jones, once Henry started fathering bastards, he quickly got good at it – instead of pregnant single ladies-in-waiting just hanging around until their due dates, he began to confine his more serious affairs to women already married to prosperous men, men who could then with a wink (and usually some lands or appointments to ease the humiliation) step in as the 'fathers' of all these royal by-blows.

The main strength of Jones' book is the digging she's done into the vast, tangled thicket of Tudor aristocracy. She's delved the family records and family alliances of hundreds of minor figures in the reign, and she's turned her findings into extremely readable prose throughout, as when she's giving us a thumbnail sketch of Mary Berkeley, the mother of that John Perrot some claim as the original for Spenser's Sir Satyrane:
John's mother's maiden name was Berkeley, and she had been one of Catherine of Aragon's ladies. Mary came from an old and illustrious family based at Berkeley Castle in Somerset. Her father was James Berkeley and her mother was Susan Fitzalan. The Berkeleys were one of the great families in the west of England. One of her cousins was married to the Earl of Ormonde, and her Berkeley great-grandfather had married the daughter of one of the Mowbray Dukes of Norfolk. One can assume that she was well-bred and possessed the talents that Henry found so attractive: she was a good musician, poetess, literate, lively, witty, and pretty.


Believe it or not, Jones quite easily makes 300 pages of this sort of thing entertaining – it's a helpful reminder that Henry's era was thickly populated with actual people, aside from him and his various wives (as some of you will remember, I touched on this very facet in one installment of “A Year with the Tudors”). The problem with the book is its overreaching, and you can see it right there in that excerpt. We don't know anything at all about Mary Berkeley's personality, much less that she was pretty and witty and a dab hand with the zither.  John Perrot was a big, beautiful braggart of exactly the type that pleased Henry VIII, and Henry showed that pleasure by laughing at Perrot's adult antics and in large part excusing them. There were rumors that Perrot was the king's bastard, and no doubt Henry knew of those rumors – and if he liked them, he would have done nothing to discourage them. This was a king who dreamed of being bluff and casual, and yet he was a chronic over-thinker who had a cancerous ulcer constantly suppurating on his leg. He was daily reminded of his own physical realities, so it's entirely natural that he would slyly enjoy the reputation of a begetter of bastards like John Perrot.

The problem is, there's no evidence. There's only what various individuals (courtiers at the time and writers ever since) can read back into the record by way of inference. Since John Perrot acted such the braggart, and since Henry smiled upon it, surely John Perrot was a royal bastard. The idea that such implications would only be made if they were flattering to the king – and that this, instead of their respective truths, might be the only reason they were made at all – never seems to cross Jones' mind. She never seems to attribute vanity or wishful thinking to Henry's character, or indeed any other aspect that isn't superlative (I lost count of how many times in this book Henry is called “magnificent” without any speck of irony). That an ailing king of niggardly virility would abet rumors of his own bastards in every county is pathetic but perfectly natural, and it's this royal fantasy that's on display here.

Which isn't to condemn the book, either in its particulars or its general heft. Those particulars are not definitively inclusive, but they're not definitively exclusive either – all of these alleged bastards could have been Henry's. There was certainly time, inclination, and opportunity in each case. The severe counter-argument – that if Henry's seed took so well, his legal wives would have been popping out heirs left, right, and center (instead of all those miscarriages and stillbirths) – is of course never examined here. But what Jones makes up for in credulity she definitely lacks in tedium: this is a lively, enjoyable book, regardless of where you stand on the merits of its subject.

And one one point Jones is indisputably correct: these were bastards who mattered. The alternate reality she paints is spot-on:
The question remains what would have happened if even one of Catherine of Aragon's sons had lived? Henry would have most probably remained married to her. Wolsey would have stayed as Cardinal, never quite achieving his ambition to be Pope, and the Roman Catholic Church would have continued in England. Anne Boleyn might have been a mistress, dearly beloved, but very easy to discard if he tired of her. Henry would have found a husband for Anne and most probably never set his sights on plain, quiet Jane Seymour. He would have carried on choosing his loves and likes, spending years with the same mistress whilst offering his occasional adoration to a range of charming, married ladies.

Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, might never have risen to such high status or, indeed, have ever been acknowledged. As Earl of Richmond he would have been a discreet if loveable ornament to his father's Court. Etheldreda would have been joined by Elizabeth as the bastard daughters of the King; Elizabeth too would have been fostered out to a suitable family and lived a shallow, blameless married life in the shadow of her half-brother Henry IX. Henry Carey would still have served; Thomas Stukeley would still have connived; John Perrot would still have blustered.


This is good, gamely stuff, and The Other Tudors has lots of it (you certainly get your money's worth for that remainder price-tag; this book, full of research and lively thinking, will cost you less than any of the trashy paperbacks on more prominent display in the same bookstore). And although Jones adopts a light, engaging tone throughout, there's a peculiar shadow hanging over the book's hypotheticals. Ordinarily, in any game of 'what if' there are better and worse roads not taken; we can imagine brighter and darker might-have-been futures for all our participants. But look at Jones' very likely extrapolation of what would have happened if, for instance, Catherine's first boy, little Henry, had lived. You'll spot at once the difference between this and most other such alternate futures.

In this one, every single person involved would have been happier than they were in real life. One of the darker Tudor legacies, I think.

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