28 November 2018, The Tablet

Shakespeare’s secret history

The English Reformation

Shakespeare’s secret history

William Shakespeare: veiled poetry that explores the fallout from a failed refomation
Photo: Photo: PA/DPA


What is it about the Tudors? With yet another blockbuster hitting the cinema screens soon – Mary Queen of Scots – the English appetite for Tudor novels, films, plays, histories, seems endless. Ben Elton’s BBC2 series, Upstart Crow, sends up our obsession with the period while plunging viewers ever more deeply into our Sunday-night comfort zone of jerkins, rapiers, taverns, bawdy wenches and gut-spilling executions.

Regularly featured in this familiar Tudor line-up, alongside Catholic plots and Puritan rants, is Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, the backdrop to C.J. Sansom’s best-selling Shardlake series, and the subject of influential works by Hilary Mantel and Diarmaid MacCulloch. In the language of 1066 and All That, this vast property transfer is generally viewed as “A Good Thing” – a piece of national housekeeping overseen by the brisk Thomas Cromwell, whose efficient minions put the decayed monastic estate out of its misery and transferred the assets to more responsible owners. One of the finest of this year’s batch of Tudor novels, however, takes a very different view.

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