Henry viii

The perils of waiting on a Tudor queen

At 7 o’clock on a bleak February morning in 1542, King Henry VIII’s fifth wife Katherine Howard, so enfeebled by fear and misery that she could hardly stand, was half-led, half-carried from her cell in the Tower of London to the scaffold in a nearby courtyard. Watching as the axe fell on her mistress’s neck, and knowing it would be her turn next, was her lady in waiting Jane Rochford. This grisly scene illustrates the horror that underlay the glamour and magnetism of a court where ambition, intrigue, plot and counter-plot swirled in a giddying maelstrom and where balancing on the slippery tightrope of Henry’s moods was essential. Threaded through

What became of Thomas Becket’s bones?

The St Brice’s Day Massacre? I must admit I hadn’t heard of this ‘most just extermination’ of Danes in Oxford at the instigation of King Aethelred the Unready in 1002, perhaps because the teaching of history in this country tends to kick off in 1066. You certainly don’t think of Oxford as a place that pioneered techniques of ethnic cleansing. Crypt is a collection of seven essays that unearth details about how certain people lived and died in the past. If you didn’t already know Alice Roberts’s background as an anatomist and biological anthropologist, you’d have a good chance of deducing it from this book. The old jibe that archaeology

The making of Good Queen Bess

In the course of British history there have been few royals with a childhood as traumatic as that of Elizabeth I. She endured the torment of her mother Anne Boleyn’s execution, her father’s death, the comings and goings of four stepmothers, sexual abuse from a stepfather (who was executed soon after), the death of a half-brother, imprisonment and the death of a half-sister before finally acceding to the throne. All this by the age of 25. Throughout her young life, Elizabeth veered from sole inheritrix of the crown to hated bastard child Not many could cope with such a relentless identity crisis. Throughout her young life, Elizabeth veered from sole

‘Struck with the dart of love’: portrait of a marriage

‘These bloody days have broken my heart.’ Thomas Wyatt’s words are an expression of his personal distress at the fall of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife and the woman for whom the king had defied the pope and proclaimed himself supreme head of the English Church. But they are also indicative of the shockwaves resonating around England in May 1536. Within just three weeks, Queen Anne, along with five men – among them her brother George, with whom she was accused of incest – were tried and convicted of treasonous adultery and beheaded in the Tower. Wyatt himself, narrowly escaping their fate, may have witnessed Anne’s execution from a

Hampton Court: an architectural symbol of royal lust

The Dowager Countess of Deloraine, who was governess to the children of George II at Hampton Court and other royal homes, was a notorious bore – so much so that her ‘every word’ made one ‘sick’, according to the courtier Lord Hervey. When she naively asked him why everyone was avoiding her, he replied with exquisite irony that ‘envy kept the women at a distance, despair the men’. This kind of witty, skittish anecdote is scattered throughout Gareth Russell’s scintillating hybrid of a book, which is partly a biography of a place and partly something stranger: an episodic history of England from Tudor times to the present, illustrated by lightning

Henry VIII’s windfall from the monasteries was shockingly short-term

In 1536 there were 850 monastic houses in England and Wales; just four years later they were all gone. The romantic remains of many of them still grace our landscape, Shakespeare’s ‘bare ruin’d choirs’ receiving more visitors today than the living communities did half a millennium ago. Now these visitors are primarily tourists and heritage lovers; then they were pilgrims, travellers, businessmen and, of course, those who toiled spiritually as servants of the Church, some more conscientiously than others. Monasteries were huge physically, commercially and spiritually; ‘they were never only scenery,’ declares James Clark in his new book: ‘Their profile defined not only a locality but sometimes a whole region.’

How the British musical conquered the world

What do Henry VIII’s wives, a Rastafarian musical icon and a drag queen have in common? They are all the subjects of new stage shows that are heralding a golden age of the British musical. Let’s start with the court of Henry VIII. A pair of friends at Cambridge University, Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, decided to write their own musical four years ago because the student theatre society couldn’t afford to pay the royalties for an existing one. They based it on the life stories of the six women who were unfortunate enough to marry Henry VIII. Six, as this debut effort came to be known, opens on Broadway

Knowing Cromwell’s fate only increases the tension: Mantel reviewed

When the judges for the 1992 Booker Prize received Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety, an 800-page novel set during the French Revolution seemed a quirky diversion from the work of a novelist then most associated with shortish dark comedies of contemporary or recent life, such as Fludd (1989), featuring a weird Catholic priest, and Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (1988), in which an Englishwoman suffers Saudi Arabian culture shock. We did not shortlist the book. History shows that monumental distant-historical fiction would subsequently become the glorious core of Mantel’s work, though, perhaps validating our doubts, featuring English, rather than French, revolutionary struggles. Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring up