Monday, January 16, 2017

The Private Lives of the Tudors


Rating: 5 Stars

Do we really need another book about the Tudors? Of course we do, especially if it is one that is as well-researched and well-written as this effort by Tracy Borman. I like to consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the Tudor dynasty, and as such a lot of the information here were things I already knew. However, the strength of this book is that it really is an in-depth look at the lives behind the curtain, so to speak. The focus here is those closest to them, the clothing, hygiene, and of course that pesky question of Elizabeth's virginity. The fact that I took so few notes while I was reading is a testament to how much I enjoyed this book; I rarely stopped reading long enough to take many and did not realize this until I was in over 200 pages. It will make writing the review itself a bit tougher, as there was so much information to absorb. I really loved that the focus was on the daily lives of the Tudors and those close to them, not the wars or the political maneuverings so much as the things that made them human. It really was a fantastic and thorough read, but I expect nothing less from Borman.

One of the first subject in regards to their private lives comes in discussing pregnancy and birth in Tudor England. Reading about giving birth in that time never ceases to amaze and terrify me. I can't imagine having to go through the whole process; it was hard enough having a baby in 2013, even with medication! Though, to be fair, I had an emergency C-section and medication was kind of necessary. Some information in this section was new to me, and quite funny - such as the things pregnant women should not eat, do or LOOK AT. That's right, look at. If a woman looked at a hare, her child was sure to be born with a hare-lip, while gazing at the moon would make sure the baby was either a lunatic or sleepwalker (page 29). Oh, you silly Tudors. I am interested in reading more about pregnancy and birth, and these superstitions that were taken so seriously that we now consider silly and amusing. I also was interested to find actual information about who midwives were and what was considered qualifying factors for them to do the job.

"The Tudor version of a pregnancy test was to mix the woman's urine with wine, or alternatively to make her drink rainwater at night or eat honey with aniseed, both of which would bring pain to her stomach if she was pregnant" (page 38). This part was a bit unclear to me - and gross if I am understanding correctly. She was supposed to drink the urine/wine concoction? Ew.

I have read several books and articles in the last couple years that have tirelessly tried to use modern medicine to diagnose why Henry VIII went from the epitome of Renaissance Prince to a petty tyrant in his final years. The problem with this line of work is that we are talking about to vastly different centuries and it is all but impossible to truly make an accurate diagnosis. Borman states in regards to Henry VIII, "But the new king had an altogether darker side. Indulged in childhood, he had grown into a highly strung, impulsive, vain young man with a terrifying and unpredictable temper" (page 79). with descriptions like this, it is easy to see how he became the man he did in later years. We don't necessarily have to look at disorders like McLeod's to provide any further explanation.

The issue of whether or not Elizabeth remained a virgin her entire life, and why she refused to seriously entertain the idea of marriage, is one that is still hotly debated today - though I myself am not sure there is any significance, not that way it mattered whether or not Catherine of Aragon was a virgin when she married Henry. Borman discusses several theories that historians have put forth over the years, but there was one that was totally new to me. This particularly absurd rumor involved the death of the real Elizabeth at age nine after being sent to Overcourt House when a nasty case of the plague was ravaging London. Henry was due to visit, on his way in fact, when Elizabeth supposedly became ill and died. Those caring for Elizabeth combed the village for a girl who looked similar enough to her to fool the king but none could be found that was the right age except a boy. Rumor goes that the boy was dressed up in Elizabeth's clothes and from then on, for the rest of his life, he was Queen Elizabeth. This rumor probably would not have gone anywhere had a stone coffin containing a skeleton wearing remains of Tudor-period clothing not been found in the 1800s during renovations at Overcourt. Then Bram Stoker included the story in his book titled Famous Impostors and from there it just grew. Still, this is one I had not heard and seeing it addressed here again goes to show how detailed and thorough the research was.

As always, no Tudor book can be complete without at least somewhat examining the relationship of Elizabeth and her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. I always feel the need to comment on such goings-on, as this is the biggest reason why I have such a beef with Elizabeth and why I do not hold her in as high esteem as so many others do. Elizabeth's treatment of Mary is on full display here, and while Mary is by no means innocent - she certainly made some terrible choices - I feel like some of the hostility came from the basic fact that Elizabeth was jealous of her younger, more beautiful cousin. Mary took a huge risk even fleeing to England, and in the end it cost her her life. But, after being held as a prisoner for so many years, I don't blame Mary one bit for the plots she actually did encourage against Elizabeth. What did she have to lose after all, when it was clear Elizabeth would never let her go, let alone even agree to meet her face-to-face. (Not to mention, for James to be so disloyal to his mother was gross, though his excuse at least was that he had been apart from her his whole life and raised by people who hated her.) I will never believe that Elizabeth was remorseful over Mary's death. She signed the order and she knew it would be carried out because her secretaries had been clamoring for Mary's blood for years. If Elizabeth would have at any time at least owned up to the fact that her actions were purposeful, perhaps I would not loathe her so much. Not to mention that it disgusts me that Mary was not even given a proper burial and that her "corpse still lay rotting in Fotheringay Castle" five months after she was executed (page 347).

The most interesting aspect of the book to me came towards the end. I am endlessly fascinated by the women who served Elizabeth so closely, and many who served who for decades. We know so little about the lives of these women beyond what was recorded while they were in service to Elizabeth, and that was the only part of their life that mattered. I wish we could know more about them, as they often sacrificed their own personal happiness to remain at their posts in the privy chamber. I can't imagine returning to work so soon after giving birth, but I suppose in an age where the children of the nobility were not raised by their parents anyway, the loss was not felt so greatly.

Overall, this was a wonderful and insightful read about an endlessly fascinating dynasty. Not all of the stories will be new, especially for Tudorphiles, but they are still woven together to present a complete picture of a complex age. Highly recommended.

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