Writing Tudor Women
By Judith Arnopp
I am often asked why I chose to write about Tudor women and the honest answer is, I didn’t; Tudor women chose me. I’d been told so many times that the Tudor era has been done to death that when I first began to write professionally, I took that advice on board and set my books in the early medieval/Anglo Saxon period. It wasn’t long before I was asked if I’d written anything set in Henry VIII’s reign and the more readers asked that question, the more I wondered why I hadn’t. I have always loved the Tudors, since I was teenager (eons ago) and I was so glad to return to an era I genuinely loved.
There are some big authors writing in this period and it is important that a writer find their own place in an already busy market. Unfortunately, I am not Hilary Mantel and neither am I Philippa Gregory. I am myself. So, instead of being intimidated by the competition, I just sat down and wrote the Tudor court as I imagined it. In my books I attempt to answer the questions I had always wanted to ask as a reader. You know those irritating toddlers that ask ‘Why? Why? Why?’ – I am a bit like that.
History has often been unkind to the women my books feature, fiction has been unkinder still. We know the barest facts of their actions, and almost nothing of their inner thoughts and feelings. Contemporary opinion has to be treated warily; one must ask who wrote the record, why they wrote it … who they wrote it for. Every writer in every age has an agenda – even today history is a fluid, changing thing that ebbs and flows as society alters. As a writer, I try not to reach a foregone conclusion about my protagonist before I pick up my pen. I read widely before I begin, taking on board as many historical views as possible. The main question in my head as I begin the journey is, ‘how did it feel?’
I don’t have a ‘favourite’ Tudor woman and my representation of them alters from book to book, depending on who is telling the tale. It is all about perspective. In A Song of Sixpence, Elizabeth of York’s view of the events at Henry VII’s court is quite different from Margaret Beaufort’s in The Beaufort Chronicle because, although they were both there, they would have perceived things differently. Just as Anne Boleyn’s experience of the King’s Secret Matter is the opposite of Mary Tudor’s. Neither perspective is wrong, they are just on opposing sides.
I am less interested in gowns and palaces and more concerned with the whys and wherefores, the psyche of my characters, if you like. When I began writing The Beaufort Chronicle I had no idea if the Margaret Beaufort I was creating was going to be good or bad – I rather hope she is something in between.
As the story opened up, the experiences we went through together shaped Margaret’s character. I came to understand her much better. The world she lived in was very different to ours, the choices she made, far outside my experience, or the experiences of any of us. The resulting character is neither kind nor saintly but neither is she evil, or particularly ambitious. She grows from a frightened girl into a loving mother; a grieving mother who campaigns to bring her son out of exile. It is not until she finds herself faced with the possibility of claiming the throne for Henry that she moves against Richard III. Ultimately, Margaret becomes the most powerful woman in England and I think she deserved it.
She fought, worried, and when the tide of war was against her, she tried to keep her chin above water. My Margaret is terse, critical and vitally intelligent, far more intelligent than most of the men around her. Her charity, her education, her piety are often disregarded or sneered at in the world of historical fiction. She is often portrayed as obsessed, a little mad but the course of my research revealed nothing to suggest she did more than survive. The Margaret I discovered was just better at life than her enemies.
Anne Boleyn is another woman of the era who has been painted with a heavy hand. She appears variously in fiction; sometimes as a witch, an ambitious floosy who stole the king from his beloved wife, and sometimes as a saintly, reluctant girl who could not resist the overtures of the king or the machinations of her family. The Anne that emerged from my studies for The Kiss of the Concubine is something in between; she is clever, wise and reluctant at first to marry Henry until she is left with no choice and so chooses to make the best of it. Her end, of course, is well-known but the questions remained.
How did it feel to be young and witty and energetic in the restrictive household of Catherine of Aragon? Anne was a lover of music and dance, she loved to perform, she loved to hunt; she loved life and lived it to the full. How did it feel to be condemned to death for crimes you did not commit? I can’t imagine I would face death as bravely as she did. I don’t think it is fair on Anne to remember her only for her end. She should be given credit for her intelligence, her wit, for her championing of church reform, and of course, for giving us Queen Elizabeth.
The Kiss of the Concubine is written from Anne’s point of view, her first person voice explains each episode of her life with Henry, and the woman who emerges is confident and strong – strong enough to manipulate the king until she was overpowered by her enemies.
I am currently writing The Heretic Wind, the story of Mary Tudor, the daughter of Henry and Catherine of Aragon, and her view of Anne is quite different, as you might expect. Mary is seldom viewed sympathetically but, of all the women I have written about so far, I think she is the most tragic, and since I’d always judged her quite harshly, I hadn’t expected that.
If you leave aside the religious bigotry and cruel treatment of heretics that she dealt in her later life, and look at her life from the beginning, from her perspective, it is little wonder that she grew into the woman she became.
The main aspect of her character that stands out for me is her isolation. Mary had no friends, no equal. She had faithful servants in Susan Clarencius and Jane Dormer but they were not her equal – they serve her, they love her but they can never quite understand. Throughout her entire life she experienced loss after loss; her father’s rejection, the separation from Catherine of Aragon, the loss of her title, status, the death of her mother, the horrific deaths to a string of step-mothers, the fight for her crown, and finally her doomed marriage to Philip of Spain and the humiliation of duplicate phantom pregnancies. She endured relentless misery and after over a year of imagining her pain, her hopelessness, disappointment and her fury, I am exhausted. Next time, I must choose a less traumatising Tudor head to inhabit.
Judith Arnopp is the author of eleven historical fiction novels including:
The Heretic Wind: the life of Mary Tudor, Queen of England will be published soon.
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