Tudorism Today

Plan of the Tower of London, 1597 from ‘On the Tudor Trail Website’

Recently, whilst doing some research into the Tower of London as a visitor attraction I came across the Victorian fascination with the Tudors, or the Olden Times.

Peter Madler has written a lot on this, and Peter Hammond has written specifically on the Tower, and I’ve found their work fascinating. The reign of Queen Elizabeth I, in particular, was held in esteem by the Victorians. Not only was Britain ruled by a long serving and strong Queen, it was also seen as the time the start of the modern era with the establishment of the Church of England and the great military victories including that of the Spanish Armada.

However the fascination of this period was more than nostalgic nationalism for ‘Good Ol Queen Bess’, it was also useful for the emerging political ideas of a greater political enfranchisement. It was seen as a time for the people, before the corruption of capitalism and greed, evoking an ‘imagined era of community, fellowship and national solidarity.’[1]

However there was also a darker side to the popular fascination with the Olden Time, and this was only strengthened with the rise of antiquarianism and the continued increase in circulation of printed material. Billie Melman has interpretation of the urban vision of Olden Times having aspects ‘in which conflict, danger and disorder were quite dominant.’[2]

These themes can be seen in the development of the Tower of London as a visitor attraction and strengthened through works such as William Harrison Ainsworth’s The Tower of London, published as a serial from 1840 it was a historical romance focused on the tale of Lady Jane Grey set in and around the Tower of London. As well as writings by Charles Knight who promoted the idea of a National Heritage belonging to the people and so should be accessible to the people in works such as London published in six volumes from 1841 to 1844. Due to works like these increasingly visitors wanted to see the dungeons, prisoner inscriptions on the walls and torture implements. Ainsworth & Knight had been advocates of greater access to heritage sites like the Tower of London from the 1840s but it was not until the 1870s, after the 1867 Reform Act, that there was a greater push for free access to the Tower originating around the area of Tower Hamlets. Easter Saturday 1875 became the first day for free admissions.

The Tudors tv series, from IanVisits website

Whilst researching this area I was becoming increasingly aware of what appears to be our current fascination with Tudorism. This may be because my research coincided with the BBC Tudor series, and working at the Tower, you can’t really escape the Tudor influence. But there are other pointers, the popularity of the tv series, The Tudors; Hilary Mantel’s numerous award winning fictions on Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, as well as the Queen’s recent coronation anniversary leading to BBC programmes and academic conferences calling us all the New Elizabethans.

Attempts to answer the question of why we’re fascinated with the Tudors have included blogs that are also focused on Tudor history, see here and here for examples. And they often suggest it involves the drama and soap-opera-like quality to the period, the catastrophic changes that took place, the contrast of tyrannical and arguably good leadership, and also the strong presence of women often portrayed as tragic, heroic or tyrannical.

These all appear to be good reasons to hold popular interest, but you could probably find the same mix in other periods. In fact, due to my research I think we owe a lot to the Victorians for the continued presence of the Tudors in the popular realm. Arguable works like Mantel have their origins in the work of Ainsworth, fiction based on archival research and set in realistic settings – able to bring history to life for their readers. Furthermore through the work of architects such as Anthony Salvin heritage sites such as the Tower of London as well as other palaces and houses look more Tudor than they did in the eighteenth century. The nineteenth century increased the visibility of the Tudors in our popular culture, from continual adaptations of Shakespeare to historical fiction to stately homes.

Though it’s not all hand-me-down popular culture, I think the current interest and popularity in the monarchy is also a strong link. Arianne Chernock’s very interesting article (see here) asks why there has not been more critical writing of modern monarchy, with the exemptions including David Cannadine and Wendy Webster, arguing that monarchy still shapes contemporary politics and sensibilities. Fiction has tried to close the gap between the people and their Queen, to whom access is extremely limited, but perhaps integration of a monarchical past also fills that gap for some, a reflection of this appetite. In contrast to the use of the Olden Times as a golden age of the people to encourage political enfranchisement, perhaps a whiggish view has become stronger emphasising our distanced, charity giving royalty as better than the all-powerful murderous Tudor monarchs. In Frank Prochaska’s Royal Bounty: The Making of a Welfare Monarchy he has argued that the Windsors have in fact helped to guide the British public towards acceptance of a more limited welfare state, through their increased philanthropic work. I find the question of how the portrayal of today’s monarchy contrasted with those of the past can shape our view of society and our place in it, is a really interesting one.

Finally our national curriculum probably has a lot to do with it as well. It is a topic that is currently studied at key stage 2 and, based on the reaction of my niece, appears capable of capturing the imagination. Also, something that was recently brought up in a recent discussion about history on television, people appear to want to watch topics they already have a familiarity with, and the Tudors is one of those.

The Tudor presence in our popular culture is so strong and constantly reinforced through fiction, heritage tourism and comparisons to modern day monarchy. Consequently it is probably one of the few areas of history that most people could feel some familiarity and the ability to give an opinion on the characters involved. So apart from complaining that yet another Tudor themed exhibition or TV programmed is on how could this interest be developed to the study of history’s benefit? I think it is through the views of monarchy and women that a connection between modern Tudorism and politics exist. In the period’s familiarity I see an opportunity for public history to encourage debate around this ‘well-known’ period and around modern ideas of monarchy and women in politics. In this sense I think the BBC programme looking at Anne Boleyn’s execution was useful in demonstrating debate on a historical topic, and it would be interesting to see how that was received by the general viewing public. Perhaps the next step could be to look at how these historical debates have been shaped and can shape contemporary views.


[1] P. Mandler, ‘Revisiting the Olden Time: Popular Tudorism in the Tim of Victoria’, Tudorism: Historical Imagination and the Appropriation of the Sixteenth Century, ed. By Tatiana C. String & Marcus Bull, Proceedings of the British Academy 170 (Oxford, 2011) p.14

[2] Billie Melman, The Culture of History: English Uses of the Past 1800-1953, (Oxford, 2006), p.124

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