The Private Lives of the Tudors by Tracy Borman (Grove Press, 2016)
I admit it. I am a Tudor junkie. So when I espied The Private Lives of the Tudors by Tracy Borman on the shelves of our local library, I clutched it to my breast and ran to the check out counter. Can I recite every British monarch from Edward V forward? Of course. Have I not drooled over Jonathan Rhys Meyers playing the stunningly virile Henry VIII in The Tudors television series? Yes. But still, a new title on the Tudors invites me to revisit that period in history that haunts me to the point that I think about these long dead historical icons, flawed, yet fabulous, and ponder why they still speak to me over the 500 years since they walked the earth.
And, happily, The Private Lives of the Tudors, twists the kaleidoscope of historical perspective enough so that even though the story is familiar to Anglophiles, Borman reveals new information about the day to day living (as well as dying) of the royalty of Renaissance England. Aside from including details about the mundane, such as the job of groom of the stool, who oversaw the King's close-stool (toilet), the inventories of elaborate clothing and jewels worn by the royal family, and the accounts of meats that were served over the course of a year in the palace, the author recounts the struggles and triumphs of each monarch from Henry VII to Elizabeth I.
One fascinating aspect of Borman's book is the way in which she traces the development of rudimentary medicine used during the Tudor era towards modern scientific understanding of disease and how to treat it. Borman states, “Ever master of his own destiny, Henry was determined to bolster his immunity against sickness and disease. For this reason, he took a keener interest than most in the medical practices of the day. In 1518 he chartered the Royal College of Physicians in London, and later in the reign he established the Company of Barbers and Surgeons.” (p.109) Henry oversaw the passing of seven Acts of Parliament that were aimed at regulating and licensing medical practitioners, legislation that stood for over 300 years.
Although the people of the time did not know specifically about germs, they had made the connection between filth and sickness. Thus, when Henry VIII's beloved son, Edward, was born, the King commanded that the living quarters of the young prince be scrubbed, walls and all, twice a day. Since the infant mortality rate during the Tudor period was excessively high, such heed to hygiene contributed to the health of the young prince in his early years, when he was described to be a very fat and spoiled child.
Physicians used a variety of herbal remedies to help allay a number of ailments, some of which were not far off what is used today. For example, when Henry VIII had suffered a terrible leg wound in a riding accident, the ulcerous area was treated with St. John's wort, and then a special paste of rose oil, myrtle seeds, and long worms. The wound was washed down first with alcohol before receiving any treatment, which would have successfully cleansed the wound. Thus, it is interesting to trace the attempts of rudimentary medicine to save the patients from great pain, and even death. Many of the early remedies did more harm than good; bleeding the Tudor heirs to the throne, Queen Mary, and later Queen Elizabeth, to relieve them of menstrual stress only depleted their physical resources and failed to treat the problem. However, the tracing of experimentation, knowledge, along with the superstitions of the time give the reader a fascinating picture of medical practice during the Tudor reign.
Depending of which author one reads, and from whose perspective we learn the story of the Tudors, each of them can be viewed as a hero or a villain. For example, “Bloody Mary,” as Mary Tudor is referred to in many historical works, has been despised for burning over 5000 Protestants at the stake during her brief reign. Borman's chapters on Mary, daughter of Katherine of Aragon, whom Henry VIII divorced to wed Anne Boleyn, detail the life of Mary as a tragically lost princess.
Used as a political pawn of her father's for over 30 years, the diminutive princess dreamed of being married and having her own children to love. Frequently shoved aside by her cruel father, Mary finally ascended to the throne that she never expected to get in her 30s, truly past her childbearing years. However, she had her heart set on marrying Prince Philip of Spain, linking England with the country of her mother's birth once again. Although the handsome Prince Philip was not keen on the idea of marrying a woman much older than he, King Charles V of Spain insisted on the alliance for political reasons. While Queen Mary adored her husband from the first moment that she saw him, it was clear that he was disinterested in the toothless, plain, skinny hag whom he had married. However, in an effort to produce the requisite heir to the throne, Philip, to whom Mary referred as “King,” tried to live up to his responsibilities.
Shortly after their marriage Queen Mary took great joy in announcing her pregnancy, and over a period of months her body swelled as if she were with child. Sadly, the anticipated time for the happy delivery came and went, and it became apparent that there was no baby. During Mary's confinement, her husband enjoyed a flirtation with Princess Elizabeth, and he longed to rid himself of his barren queen. Fortunately for Prince Philip, his father plucked him out of England and sent him to the Netherlands on business, allowing him a way out of his disastrous marriage. His dreams of marrying a second Tudor princess, however, never came to fruition as Queen Elizabeth astutely refused to marry.
Borman's summation of Queen Mary's life hit the nerve of torment. On November 17, 1558 Mary “slipped from a life that had been marked by tragedy and heartbreak . . . Among the personal effects that Mary left was a book of prayers, with a page devoted to intercessions for expectant mothers. It was stained with tears.” (p.270) With these words, Borman shows a depth of understanding of Britain's first Tudor queen, who was less than successful during her struggle as monarch and though devoutly faithful to Catholicism, never achieved happiness during her tragic and lonely life.
Another myth dispelled by Borman is seen in the following statement, “There are many myths surrounding the issue of personal hygiene in Tudor times. The generally accepted wisdom is that the vast majority of people---from the king down to his humblest subject---washed and bathed so infrequently that they stank to high heaven.” (p.125) In fact, Tudor monarchs and their courtiers went to great lengths to sweeten their breath, their clothing, their bodies, and the rooms in which court was held. Rose oil was particularly popular in perfuming the body, and sweet powders devised from lavender and rose petals scented garments to keep them fragrant. Ladies sucked on lozenges of licorice to keep their breath from reeking. So, although bathing was not a frequent personal habit, people made a conscious effort not to give offense with their person.
Borman is detail oriented, and she has studied primary sources at length to discover details of life in Tudor times. However, her writing style is fluid and engaging. She is artful in her prose in that The Private Lives of the Tudors is fluid. She offers credible theories regarding the mysteries of the Tudor monarchs: Was Elizabeth I really a virgin? What is the likely cause of the death of young Edward VI? What psychological effects did Mary and Elizabeth suffer as a result of Henry VIII's cruelty to their mothers? Although Borman admits that the answers to these questions will never be answered definitively, she offers opinions based on the personalities and beliefs of each of the individuals in a way that make her hypotheses plausible. The reader finishes the book feeling satisfied.
Joint chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces and chief executive of the Heritage Education trust, Tracy Borman has written seven previous books, including the highly acclaimed Elizabeth's Woman and Thomas Cromwell. A native of England, she has a PhD in history from the University of Hull.