TUDOR HISTORY: FACT OR FICTION? – PART 1
Once upon a time, I had a history teacher who asked his class, “What do you believe about [X]?”
We wrote down our answers. He collected them.
And then he asked, “Why do you believe what you believe?”
We discussed. In only a few minutes we had reached a conclusion: “Our parents, our religious leaders, or our teachers taught us what to believe.”
And then my teacher said, “Don’t believe what others tell you, because they often don’t know what’s true. You have a mind: use it and don’t assume. Go and see for yourself. Research [x]. Look at it from all angles. Think about things, and reach your own, independent conclusions. You will then own your knowledge and your conclusions. You will no longer merely regurgitate what someone else has told you.”
Lately I’ve been thinking about Tudor history. Specifically, what we should call it when Tudor history is presented as accurate in schoolrooms, on the telly, in books, on the Web, and in the media…yet it’s anything but accurate.
POSSIBILITY #1: It’s ironic; or,
POSSIBILITY #2: It contains lies; or,
POSSIBILITY #3: Both #1 and #2 might apply, depending on the motives of the source; or,
POSSIBILITY #4: It’s sloppy reporting, and the originator should receive a failing grade and be sent back to do his or her work over again.
POSSIBILITY #5: It might be a lazy form of “whisper down the alley,” where the author used traditional sources, but didn’t bother to go back and verify the accuracy or truthfulness of those sources.
POSSIBILITY #6: It’s another form of Tudor propaganda, which has never ended and likely never will because those who have a horse in the race (e.g., advertising dollars to lure, a degree or tenure to get, an academic reputation to preserve, an ego that admits no possibility for wrong, etc.) pick their team (Plantagenet or Tudor), hunker down, and refuse to reassess their position or any portion thereof. Ever.
ADDITIONAL POSSIBILITIES: There are others. One is the age-old rule for producers of documentaries: always cast three experts. Expert #1 should be “for” whatever the focus of the show is. Expert #2 should be “against” whatever the focus of the show is. Expert #3 should be “neutral” regarding the focus of the show. This, so the project appeals to everyone in the audience and offends no one. In theory, anyway.
In this series of articles, I will present and examine a few historical Tudor truths for your consideration. If you care to look for yourself, there are hundreds of others I won’t have space to mention – details most Tudor historians flick aside as if they don’t matter. Or perhaps the truth is closer to this:
EARNEST STUDENT OF HISTORY: Do you swear you’re in an honest, honorable relationship with Henry, Henry, Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth, so help you God, and that you’ll tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about ’em?
TUDOR HISTORIAN: [hesitates] It’s complicated.
EARNEST STUDENT OF HISTORY: Um… okay. Do you at least swear you’ll teach me as truthfully as you can about the Tudor dynasty?
TUDOR HISTORIAN: [hesitates] That’s also complicated.
Diving into the actual, factual details of Tudor history are like diving headlong into a twisty, messy maze. Of course the maze is whitewashed (was any other woman as pure and pious as Margaret Beaufort? Maybe Joan of Arc, but that’s a whole other story. Was any other queen as magnificent as Elizabeth I?). In all fairness, the Tudor Maze is far from the only historically whitewashed maze out there.(1)
There are times I wish there was somewhere a definitive table I could consult regarding specific points of Tudor history – sort of an official Akashic Record of Historical Tudor Truths. The headings would go something like this:
Alas, there is no such table. If you want the truth about the events of the soap opera that is the Tudor Dynasty, you have to dig. A lot.
If you don’t want to dig, if you’re happy skimming and listening to surface-skimming telly presentations and media quickies, then don’t ever think you know the historical truth. All you know is what someone else with a specific agenda has told you, 500 years beyond the events themselves.
I’m not someone who’s happy skimming the surface. I like to dig. So if you’re still with me, let’s begin with a basic assumption about “The House of Tudor” and see where we can go from there.
ASSUMED HISTORIC FACT: The House of Tudor proclaimed itself The House of Tudor
“Once upon a time, Henry Tydder won the Battle of Bosworth and the English crown. Because his last name was Tydder, he and his contemporaries called his new dynasty the House of Tudor.”
(Right out of the box, my Muse asks, “Hey, who first called the Battle of Bosworth the Battle of Bosworth?” I shove Ms. Muse back inside her box because we’re not talking about how battles were named. Yet ‘Battle of Bosworth’ is another one of those taken-for-granted-Tudor things you might want to research if you feel so inclined.)
So. Where, exactly, did the phrase “The House of Tudor” originate?
- Every Tudor descended in the male line from the Tudors of Penmynydd, a noble and aristocratic family connected with the village of Penmynydd in Anglesey, North Wales.
- The Tudors trace no further back than 13th-century Wales.
- There were three Tudor brothers in the 15th century: Rhys ap Tudur, Gwilym ap Tudur and Maredudd ap Tudur (great grandfather of Henry VII).
- Prior to the 18th century, the only references to “The House of Tudor” are in Welsh. This means there are no contemporary references in English to “The House of Tudor.”(2)
- What does “contemporary” mean? It means the people living and the sources written at the same time the Tudors lived. It means primary sources; not secondary, not hearsay, and not something some writer made up after everyone involved with the events has died.
- The lack of contemporary English references to the phrase, “The House of Tudor” means that Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, Elizabeth I did not refer to “The House of Tudor.” Neither did their contemporaries.
- Henry VII, et. al., thought of themselves, and their contemporaries thought of them, as just more Plantagenets.
ACTUAL HISTORIC FACT: “The House of Tudor” was invented by an 18th-century Scottish writer
We humans like to categorize. We like to stuff things into separate boxes for the ease of our own use.
So who conveniently invented the phrase “The House of Tudor” and inserted it into history, so that it was picked up and used by others, until this, our present day?
- His name was David Hume, Esq. He lived from 1711-1776 – long after the death of the last Tudor monarch.
- Who the heck was David Hume? He was a Scottish historian, philosopher, economist, diplomat and essayist who spent much of his life in Edinburgh. Today, he’s regarded as one of the most important philosophers to write in English. In his own time, he was known as an historian and essayist.
- He wrote a little book called The History of England in installments while working as the librarian of the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh. His little book was published in six volumes in 1754, 1756, 1759, and 1761.
- The volume we’re interested in is volume 2, published in 1759. It’s called, The History of England: Under the House of Tudor.(3)
- Until Hume released his work, the House of Tudor was never referred to in English as “The House of Tudor.”
- Come to think of it, the Houses of Lancaster and York may not have been defined until Hume, either.
If “The House of Tudor” isn’t historical fact…what else isn’t historical fact when it comes to the Tudors?
I’ll bet you thought “The House of Tudor” was a proud, happy phrase invented by Henry VII and his saintly mother to celebrate their new dynasty. Or perhaps you thought it was a thing that evolved organically and naturally, like the Tudor rose that triumphantly merged the Plantagenet with the Lancastrian, after Henry Tydder saved England from…whatever he’s supposed to have saved England from.
(Remember that rose. It’ll come up in a future discussion.)
(Remember the myth of Henry Tydder saving England from…something or other. It’ll also come up in a future discussion.)
In the meantime, you might also want to ask yourself what you believe about the Tudors, and where you learned to believe it.
You might also want to question everything your history teachers or documentary hosts and anyone else has told you about that dynasty and its blessed rulers. Because if the “experts” are wrong about something so basic as the contemporary name bestowed on a dynastic house, what else are they wrong about?
Don’t take things for granted: go and see and learn for yourself. You just might be surprised at what we think we know…but we really don’t.
And look for Part Two of “Tudor History: Fact or Fiction?” coming soon.
(1) A good example to begin with is here: “6 Ridiculous Lies You Believe About the Founding of America” (http://www.cracked.com/article_19864_6-ridiculous-lies-you-believe-about-founding-america.html). Regardless it’s a Cracked article and not published in some scholarly journal, it is historically accurate; sometimes you find truth in the most unlikely of places.
(2) John Ashdown-Hill, Royal Marriage Secrets: Consorts and Concubines, Bigamists and Bastards (2013). Bibliography online here: http://tinyurl.com/lu37gu3 .
(3) You can get your own copy of volume 2 for free, here:
…or all six volumes of Hume’s The History of England are available here in multiple formats: