Controversial academic and renowned authority on the Tudors, David Starkey, just can’t help himself sometimes.
He brings his latest talk, The King Is Dead: Royal Death And Succession Under The Tudors, to Portsmouth this weekend.
It’s a world that is so strange and so foreign as to what we think of as EnglandDavid Starkey
The Tudor period has long held a grip on the public imagination, thanks in no small part to David’s own popular documentaries, but also proved by the recent success of Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall and its BBC adaptation.
But ask David what he thinks of her work and he says: ‘I haven’t read it.
‘I glanced at the Mantel book, the first of them. I’m sure this a reflection on me, but I found it very boring.
‘I found the opening rather like a bad A-Level essay on Tudor England and, in any case, I’m interested in what happened and not in fiction, and by definition it’s a fiction.
‘Some people find historical novels exciting and a way into a period. I can read historical novels on a period which isn’t my own and enjoy them - Mary Renault’s novels, I find them splendid, or Diana Norman on the Middle Ages, terrific stuff – but on my own period I’m just irritated.’
The new talk picks up on Starkey’s ongoing biography of Henry VIII.
‘We’re back with the Tudors with a vengeance, and it begins with the work that I’ve been doing in preparation for the next tranche of my gigantic Henry VIII biography.
‘In fact this is overlapping with the previous book, I’ve been coming up with so much exciting new material – I’ve been looking at the last phase of the young prince, as he was, under his father Henry VII and the last five years of his reign.
‘I’ve been able to come up for the very first time with a real picture of the politics.
‘It’s a world that is so strange and so foreign as to what we think of as England. It’s a royal court which is run by a royal confessor, in other words, you get Henry VII who is a very pious king but is also torn about his own moral behaviour.
‘It’s a very peculiar mixture. On the one hand he’s sympathetic to the most extreme forms of Franciscan doctrine – like the current pope. The renunciation of wealth and the absolute simplicity of the Christian way. On the other hand, he’s the most efficient money-grabber of English kings – he beats Gordon Brown into a cocked hat when it comes to ways of screwing money out of people.’
As David puts it, it’s a ‘glorious soap opera.’
‘Henry VII’s on a rack of conscience and I’ve been able to explore what this means politically, and to show that the politics that Henry VIII inherits as an 18-year-old boy are the result of a bitter struggle between the church on one hand and the lawyers and the administrators on the other. He inherits a kind of pre-Reformation struggle, and it all takes place over the king’s death-bed.
‘The death is kept secret, you have the Archbishop of Canterbury participating in a farce in which he turns up knowing the dead body of the king is inside and comes out smiling saying the king is much better today, we can all relax.
‘It’s astonishing stuff.’
But how, after all these hundreds of years is there still so much new information to uncover?
‘The historian is always alerted by the concerns of his or her own time, and we are now much more alert to the inner struggles of politics, all the stuff of the Blair years and whatever.
‘I’ve been able to find many of the Tudor ancestors of Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell.
‘It’s also new technology –the thing that enables me to come up with the most surprising stuff is digital photography.
‘The fact that you can take a copy of a complex manuscript in seconds, the amount of time you need to spend in the actual archives is reduced to virtually nothing, and then you can study it in detail at your leisure. It’s completely different to how I used to do it 40-50 years ago as a research student with a pencil, doing it on the spot.
‘You can come up with so much more, particularly in the financial records, and all the best stuff is in the financial records.
‘They’re so complex and detailed, but if you’ve got the opportunity to go back and check and reflect you can spot trends or see something odd about expenditure, and you can investigate.’
David can also see parallels with The Tudor era and now in terms of a media revolution – now it’s the internet and digital technology, for them it was the rise of the printing press.
‘The thing that’s going on now is the availability of knowledge, that effect of digitisation. For The Tudors there’s a revolution in knowledge – printing makes more information available to more people in a more digestible and accessible form than ever before in human history.
‘Not only are so many of the political questions of the day the same as ours, it’s a society undergoing a media revolution. The reign of Henry VIII is an extraordinary axis point of English history.
‘The entire debate we’re having now about our relations with Europe is only possible because of what happened under Henry VIII.
‘Before Henry VIII, the idea that we’re somehow distinct from Europe is completely unintelligible, once Henry VIII has broken with the Catholic church, the idea that we’re different, and there are loads of superstitious nun-deflowering monsters on the other side of The Channel becomes the basis of the English world view. but that’s all because of Henry VIII and the divorce. There’s a lot to chew on.’
And it’s here in Portsmouth that David sees these themes come to the fore: ‘Portsmouth is the place that exemplifies all this.
‘I’m a longstanding trustee of the Mary Rose and the Mary Rose is part of this development of an English navy, which for the first time acts as a wooden wall around the country.
‘At the same time you have a stone wall because of the schemes of fortification – and with the the great new forts constructed by Henry VIII, you physically redefine England in a very simple way.
‘He turns England really into an island – in the middle ages, the fact that we’re an island with lots of nice harbours, the greatest being The Solent, makes us very open to invasion.
‘He turns us into a defended island, a walled island.
‘In a way he’s the early version of Nigel Farage.’
The King Is Dead
New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth
Saturday, May 28