The Tudors in Love, by Sarah Gristwood

The latest from the acclaimed Tudor historian looks at a new area of study: the courtly code.
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The love stories of the Tudors have been fodder for historical fiction for centuries. Few do not know the stories of Henry VIII’s wives, Mary I’s marriage to Philip of Spain, and Queen Elizabeth’s array of courtships and succession of favourites. One might be forgiven for thinking that there is little more to say.

However, Sarah Gristwood’s fascinating new study proves otherwise. Indeed, even those familiar with the Tudor era and its larger-than-life personalities will find themselves captivated by this fresh and comprehensive overview.

The great revelation of The Tudors in Love is, quite simply, that we have tended, in looking back, to neglect what “love” meant in the period. By excavating and analysing the Tudors’ romantic relationships, Gristwood reveals a complex code of ritualised behaviours which took on totemic importance to the various regimes. Rather than their love affairs being founded on stereotypical bodice ripping, the Tudor kings and queens each sought means of appropriating and adapting continental ideals of “courtly love”: a stylised and increasingly elaborate series of performances which were alternatively coded to establish the dynasty and conduct domestic and international policy.

This is the real success of the book. By attending to both printed and archival sources, Gristwood demonstrates that, for the Tudors, love was a performance, to be conducted according to circumscribed codes of behaviour. Passion, of course, existed – but it was dressed up in elaborate ceremonial. As political agendas shifted from monarch to monarch, so too did their means of framing and performing their love affairs. What Gristwood does is analyse the caparisons and trappings, the rich overlay of cloths and velvets, to expose the nature of each relationship and consider its implications. Thus, readers will come away from this chronological survey with a fresh understanding of Henry VIII’s romanticised, chivalric jousting tournaments; of Anne Boleyn’s downfall; of Mary and Philip; and of Elizabeth I’s deployment of favour to select favourites (not least that ardent performer, the Earl of Essex, whose fall, it is convincingly argued, marked the end of the Elizabethan system of courtly love).

Love, which is often dismissed as frothy or secondary to the coldness of political relationships, was central to the Tudors’ various styles and systems of government. As Gristwood shows, it became simultaneously a means of political display; a subject of intellectual enquiry (with a rich history); a way of linking England to continental aesthetics and developing cultural traditions; and a type of discourse which allowed political relationships to be forged, conducted, and – in Anne Boleyn’s case – destroyed. Love was everywhere in Tudor high society. At court it was acted out, used as fuel for some of the era’s most politically-charged and memorable writings, and at the root of some the period’s most significant (sexual and non-sexual) relationships.

This book is critical reading not only for lovers of Tudor history, but for readers and writers of historical fiction. Written in an engaging style and with the author’s typical wit and panache, it rewrites, reframes, and refreshes our knowledge and understanding of what it meant to be in love in this colourful, dangerous period.

Sarah Gristwood is the author of Blood Sisters and ArbellaThe Tudors in Love: The Courtly Code Behind the Last Medieval Dynasty is her latest book.

Steven Veerapen is a historian and academic, and author of The Queen’s Gold.