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Two studies explore the Tudors, Scotland’s crown and a nonchalant union

by Giles Tremlett

The Observer

The unhurried fashion in which James VI of Scotland ambled south toward London to claim his crown in 1603, stopping off to hunt along the way and arriving six weeks after Elizabeth I died, suggests there was nothing terribly dramatic about the event. The man who would be James I of England, the first Stuart monarch, was in no big rush.

TUDOR: The Family Story, by Leanda de Lisle. Chatto & Windus, 2013, 560 pp., £20 (hardcover)
CROWN OF THISTLES: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary Queen of Scots, by Linda Porter. Macmillan, 2013, 424 pp., £20 (hardcover)

Yet this was the end of the Tudor dynasty, one of English society’s longest-held historical obsessions. And it was the seed of the union between Scotland and England — the creation of a political Great Britain that will survive, well, at least until next year’s referendum on Scottish independence.

The Tudor period between 1485 and 1603 brought cultural, religious and political revolution. But the English fixation with the era has as much, if not more, to do with the vibrant individual stories it presents as with the family’s debatable self-image as a dynasty. Exuberant Henry VIII with his six wives, “Bloody” Mary and Elizabeth I all provide compelling narratives. Even dark, grim Henry VII has come back into the limelight. Many supporting players also boast dramatic stories be they power-brokers like Cromwell and Wolsey or bold but unfortunate women such as Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Mary Queen of Scots. We should not be surprised that the Tudors provide us with such great fictional television fodder and fine historical biographies while inspiring novelists like Hilary Mantel — not to mention giving us shelves full of romantic mush. We cannot get enough of them.

Two bold new histories widen the focus, adding context and meaning. In “Tudor: The Family Story,” Leanda de Lisle explains both where the Tudors came from and where they got to; in “Crown of Thistles,” Linda Porter tells the back stories of England and Scotland as they head toward a union that we often assume was inevitable.

There was nothing inevitable, however, about James I of England. Porter’s magnificent account of Scotland’s feuding factions makes that clear — even if the battles were more to control monarchs than to replace them. In Porter’s account, indeed, one of the rare unifying forces was England itself. Faced with a chance to bloody the old enemy, Scotland would (more or less) pull together. French money, meanwhile, encouraged it to maintain the “Auld Alliance” against England.

The great Scottish tragedy is that its army kept on losing. From Flodden Field to the “Black Saturday” at Pinkie, the darkest moments of Scottish history are on the battlefield against the English foe. When little James V was crowned shortly after Flodden, it became known as the Mourning Coronation, such was the death toll. Porter analyzes these battles wonderfully and does not spare us the brutality of the ensuing routs. English victories, however, did not bring union by force. English monarchs were too stretched or too wary to press home their advantage.

Scottish monarchs outdid their English rivals in the bedroom, filling their nurseries with children (legitimate and illegitimate) while the Tudors fretted about the siring — or choosing — of just one suitable heir. A son bolstered the monarch against rivals, be they of royal blood or impostors like Perkin Warbeck. A daughter was less of a guarantee. But Tudor boys were scarce. This explains Henry VII’s tight control of young prince Henry as well as the latter’s penchant for divorce and beheading. Elizabeth I, meanwhile, refused to name successors who, in the absence of children of her own, could only become rivals.

De Lisle’s family history also goes beyond England, this time to Wales — the birthplace of Owen ap Maredudd ap Tudur who, ironically, was able to marry a royal because he was only a modest, if charming, squire. That made him a suitably unthreatening second husband for Henry V’s widow, Catherine of Valois. It was his grandson, born to 13-year-old Margaret Beaufort, who became Henry VII. This may seem familiar territory, but De Lisle’s command of the facts provides a complete and entertaining overview.

Marriages as often caused problems as not. A wrong call or, even, an attempt to marry for love, could bring disastrous consequences. Women needed to take special care — when permitted to choose for themselves. Perhaps the most unfortunate was Mary Queen of Scots. Her brief period as queen consort in France ended with Francis II’s early death. She then married the vain and self-serving Lord Darnley, only to see him murdered before she was forced into marriage by the Earl of Bothwell. Her escape from that was into effective imprisonment in England, where Elizabeth saw her as a dangerous rival. She was easily trapped in a treason plot and beheaded.

Yet this was an extraordinary century for women as rulers, be they regents or queens regnant. Beyond Isabella of Castile there were few models to follow. Both England and Scotland struggled to come to terms with the idea. Men feared women’s uncontrolled passions and sexual incontinence. They rued their lack of martial vigor. More than anything else, though, they feared other men controlling women rulers. The Scottish protestant firebrand John Knox, author of a polemic against “the monstrous regiment of women,” was among the most vocal critics.

In the background, the religious revolution sparked by Martin Luther and other opponents of the Roman church rumbled on.

Scotland’s story is of religious change demanded from below the monarchy. It is a reminder that England may not have needed Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon to produce a split with Rome.

The big picture provided by De Lisle shows Tudor insecurity revolving around the thorny issue of succession. Porter’s valuable review of the path toward union proves there was nothing predestined, or particularly pre-planned, about the coming together of Scotland and England.

The man really to blame was Henry VII, who set up the possibility by marrying his daughter Margaret to Scotland’s James IV. He was sanguine about a Scottish descendant eventually becoming monarch in England, saying the latter would inevitably be in control. James VI of Scotland, who was that descendant, seemed equally relaxed.