Resurrecting the Tudors

John Pemble

  • James Anthony Froude: An Intellectual Biography of a Victorian Prophet by Ciaran Brady
    Oxford, 500 pp, £45.00, May 2013, ISBN 978 0 19 966803 8

The scene had been too trying even for the practised headsman of the Tower. His arm wandered. The blow fell on the knot of the handkerchief, and scarcely broke the skin. She neither spoke nor moved. He struck again, this time effectively. The head hung by a shred of skin, which he divided without withdrawing the axe; and at once a metamorphosis was witnessed, strange as was ever wrought by wand of fabled enchanter. The coif fell off, and the false plaits. The laboured illusion vanished. The lady who had knelt before the block was in the maturity of grace and loveliness. The executioner, when he raised the head, as usual, to show it to the crowd, exposed the withered features of a grizzled, wrinkled old woman.

This account of the execution of Mary Queen of Scots wasn’t written by Hilary Mantel or Antonia Fraser. It was written more than 140 years ago by James Anthony Froude, whose History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Defeat of the Spanish Armada put the Tudor show on the road.

That wasn’t Froude’s only legacy. His Life of Carlyle, published in 1885, inaugurated modern biography, biography with no holds barred. If Carlyle hadn’t lumbered him with a preposterous legacy – his papers, responsibility for his reputation, an exhortation to truth, and uncertainty as to whether he wanted a biography or not – and if Froude hadn’t put truth first, the bedroom door wouldn’t now be open in every biography worth a publisher’s advance. The subjects of Victorian biography, as Virginia Woolf put it, had been ‘like the wax figures now preserved in Westminster Abbey, that were carried in funeral processions through the street’. Froude’s Carlyle blew open the citadel of privacy. It encouraged public speculation about what Jane Carlyle’s friends were saying in private, by strongly hinting that Carlyle was impotent. It was doubly shocking in being as much about her as about him: a portrait of the silently suffering and profoundly unfulfilled wife as well as the brilliant, atrabilious and harshly egocentric husband. It was the first unwrapping of a real-life marriage. Scandalised critics called Froude a muckraker and traitor. Tennyson said he’d sold his master for thirty pieces of silver. Froude was mortified but unrepentant. He was used to controversy.

James Anthony Froude by George Reid, 1881.
James Anthony Froude by George Reid, 1881.

The Life was a homemade bomb; the History was a meteorite, a bolide from somewhere remote and unknown. It inspired Tennyson to try to reactivate English verse drama with Queen Mary. It’s huge – two and a half million words in six and a half thousand pages and 12 volumes, twice the length of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall and three times that of Macaulay’s History of England – and it was unprecedented. Nobody else had been able to say what Froude said in a lecture at Newcastle in 1867: ‘I know more about the history of the 16th century than I know about anything else; I have spent the best years of my life in reading and writing about it.’ The Tudors were familiar, but they hadn’t hitherto been known: no one had ever supposed that they were worth knowing about. Bluff King Hal, Bloody Mary, the Queen of Scots, the Virgin Queen: like Drake finishing his game of bowls and Raleigh spreading his cloak over a puddle, they all belonged as much to folklore as to history; and folklore, so far as enlightened opinion was concerned, could have them. Modern sensibility shuddered at the gore, graft and fanaticism of the 16th century: the most sordid and shameful era in the national saga. Reviewing Henry Hallam’s 1827 Constitutional History of England, a two-volume work covering the period 1485-1760, Macaulay savaged the English Reformation:

In Germany, in France, in Switzerland and in Scotland … worldliness was the tool of zeal. Here zeal was the tool of worldliness … The work which had been begun by Henry, the murderer of his wives, was continued by Somerset, the murderer of his brother, and completed by Elizabeth, the murderer of her guest. Sprung from brutal passion, nurtured by selfish policy, the Reformation in England displayed little of what had, in other countries, distinguished it – unflinching and unsparing devotion, boldness of speech, and singleness of eye.

So the Tudors had been left to poets and novelists – Schiller, Scott, Southey – and the French historian François Mignet, whose highly romanticised Histoire de Marie Stuart appeared in 1851. British historians wrote about ancient Greece and Rome, the Italian Renaissance, and Anglo-Saxon and post-Reformation England. The runaway bestseller of the 1840s and 1850s was Macaulay’s History of England, which took up the story in 1685 and spotlighted the Revolution of 1688 as Britain’s entry into the modern era of popular sovereignty, constitutional government and the rule of law.

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