Tracy Borman, The Private Lives of the Tudors: Uncovering the Secrets of Britain’s Greatest Dynasty (Hodder & Stoughton: London, 2016)
A salutary warning for would-be 21st-century celebrities?
Francis Bacon calls it correctly, as he so often does:
Men in great place […] have no freedom; neither in their persons, nor in their actions, nor in their times. It is a strange desire, to seek power and to lose liberty: or to seek power over others, and to lose power over a man’s self. [a]
If there’s any message to take away from Borman’s meticulously-researched book it is that the title is a misnomer: the Tudor Kings had no private lives at all.
This is a key issue in reviewing a book which is often described online as somehow disappointing, by readers seemingly interpreting the adjective ‘private’ as a hint of controversial, explosively scandalous details. A reality-check is needed. I’ve already said that the book is ‘meticulously-researched’; this is evidenced by large primary and secondary bibliographies. Given we are talking about monarchs dead at least 400 years, any demand for fresh celebrity gossip was always unreasonable.
Let’s therefore reappraise the book, on the basis that ‘private’ more closely resembles ‘everyday’, or ‘behind the scenes’. It quickly becomes apparent, in detailed descriptions of the inner court, their job titles and responsibilities, that the monarchs were scarcely ever allowed what we would call a private moment. Sitting on the toilet, eating, sleeping – even on their wedding nights – majesty was accompanied. Borman reveals that the most intimate details, notably the menstrual performance of Queens or King consorts, were considered legitimate subjects for public discourse and analysis. It’s perhaps significant and ironic that more than one Tudor was only able to achieve relative solitude as they were about to die.
Borman’s writing style is accessible, and she builds a thorough and vivid picture of each monarch’s regime and daily life. There are some interesting insights into how the court was run and the struggles to access, advise and influence the monarch. Occasionally the level of detail becomes a little bewildering but this is a minor niggle.
Shakespeare fans will be disappointed that the playwright occupies only about a paragraph in 500-odd pages; historical fiction authors will find the book very useful if they intend writing about the upper echelons of Tudor society; students of the period will probably enjoy it, their learning dependent on their prior level of expertise. The bibliographies are useful for anyone wanting to deepen their knowledge.
And we should all, perhaps, consider how little the price of power and fame has changed since Henry VII triumphed at Bosworth in 1485. ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown‘ indeed … [b]
[a] Francis Bacon, Essays or Counsels, Civil and Moral (accessed at Bartleby.com)
[b] William Shakespeare, Henry IV part II (accessed at OpenSourceShakespeare)