ARC Review: Tudors in Love by Sarah Gristwood

  • Title: The Tudors in Love: Passion and Politics in the Age of England’s Most Famous Dynasty
  • Author: Sarah Gristwood
  • Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
  • Release Date: 12/13/22
  • Genre: Historical Non-fiction
  • Age Range: Adult
  • Rating: ★★★
  • Publisher’s Summary: Sarah Gristwood’s The Tudors in Love offers a brilliant history of the Tudor dynasty, showing how the rules of romantic courtly love irrevocably shaped the politics and international diplomacy of the period. Why did Henry VIII marry six times? Why did Anne Boleyn have to die? Why did Elizabeth I’s courtiers hail her as a goddess come to earth?The dramas of courtly love have captivated centuries of readers and dreamers. Yet too often they’re dismissed as something existing only in books and song–those old legends of King Arthur and chivalric fantasy. Not so. In this ground-breaking history, Sarah Gristwood reveals the way courtly love made and marred the Tudor dynasty. From Henry VIII declaring himself as the ‘loyal and most assured servant’ of Anne Boleyn to the poems lavished on Elizabeth I by her suitors, the Tudors re-enacted the roles of the devoted lovers and capricious mistresses first laid out in the romances of medieval literature. The Tudors in Love dissects the codes of love, desire and power, unveiling romantic obsessions that have shaped the history of the world.

If you know me, you know that I love the musical Six, which is about the six wives of Henry VIII. I have been eager to learn more about the real women Henry married. I was eager to read Tudors in Love and spend some time with the Tudors, especially the queens who have fascinated me.

Tudors in Love starts off with several chapters dedicated to centuries of British history that preceded the Tudor dynasty. Of course, it makes sense to set the stage for the beliefs on love, politics, religion, etc that led to the behavior of the Tudors. However, I didn’t need a quarter of the book to be about Dante, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and King Arthur. As I read, I was just counting down to when the first Tudor monarch was going to take the throne.

In my many times seeing Six, Catherine of Aragon has never won me over, but Gristwood’s portrayal of her managed to do so. Tudors in Love spends a lot of time with Aragon, which makes sense as she was married to Henry VIII for over two decades. Gristwood focuses on Aragon’s advisory role in her early marriage and emphasizes her education. It was also cool to compare the text of Aragon’s plea to Henry to not divorce her to the lyrics of “No Way” (Aragon’s song in Six). Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss did an excellent job conveying her actual words through their song.

As one of many fascinated by Anne Boleyn, I enjoyed learning more about what led to Anne’s downfall. It is disturbing to think that her downfall was orchestrated because she was seen as a threat to Thomas Cromwell’s foreign policy (and because Henry wanted to marry Jane Seymour). Gristwood is sympathetic to Boleyn, and she emphasizes that Anne was likely not guilty of the adultery of which she was accused. Unfortunately, Gristwood does not give the same thoughtful treatment to Katheryn Howard (Anne’s cousin and Henry’s fifth wife).

Katheryn Howard is my favorite of Henry VIII’s wives. She was famously beheaded after being accused of treason and adultery (much like her cousin). I was very disappointed in Gristwood’s portrayal of Howard. Gristwood dismisses Katheryn as someone who was uneducated and indicates that she had “an inability to understand that actions have consequences.” Howard was the victim of sexual abuse who was taught that her sexuality was her only worth. It was frustrating to see her described as simply silly and irresponsible.

I don’t know as much about Elizabeth I as I do about her mother, but Gristwood’s portrayal certainly brings forward dualities in Elizabeth’s reign. She portrays Elizabeth as a regal and confident ruler who rejected the societal pressure to share her power and throne with a man. She paints a picture of Elizabeth as educated and thoughtful, and includes a lot of Elizabeth’s poetry and other writing. However, she also describes Elizabeth as a jealous woman who would lash out whenever one of her courtiers showed favor to another woman.

Gristwood has a very distinctive narrative style. She tends to write in long sentences that include parenthentical commentary. This adds voice and dimension to the historical facts, but it also means that this is not an easy or casual read. Gristwood throws a lot of information at the reader and quickly.

This is certainly not Gristwood’s fault, but it was at times difficult to keep track of the players in the historical tale as so many of them had the same names. Henry VIII’s father was named Henry, and he had two sons named Henry. He and Anne Boleyn named their daughter, Elizabeth, as both of their mothers were named Elizabeth.

I’ve spent a lot of time with fictionalized versions of the Tudors, and I enjoyed learning more about the facts and how they differ from portrayals like Six and The Other Boleyn Girl. It left me wondering where the truth about these historical figures lies and how the Tudor women would want to be portrayed nearly five centuries after their deaths.


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