The Tudors: the Historical Soap Opera
'Why is it we consider... the Tudors so iconic?'
Lucy Hubbard | 28 March 2017

Elizabeth I was voted ‘Britain’s Favourite Monarch’ in a BBC poll of Great Britons in 2002.  Dramas and films such as The Tudors, The Other Boleyn Girl, A Man for all Seasons and Elizabeth are frequently on our screens with Wolf Hall being BBC2’s most popular drama with, on average, 4.4 million viewers a week. It calls into to question why, as a nation, we seem to be obsessed with the Tudors. Why is it we consider the 118 years of the Tudors so iconic over, say, the 331 years of the Plantagenets?

The Tudor dynasty brought an end to the upheaval of the War of the Roses. The period between Henry VII winning the crown at the Battle of Bosworth and Elizabeth I’s death in 1603 saw the overturning of the Catholic Church in England, the formation of the American colonies and the pursuit of Empire with Sir Francis Drake completing the first circumnavigation of the globe by a single man. The dynasty saw the beginnings of the secret service, helped to shape the modern state with bureaucracy and administration and saw Parliament become a permanent place of political importance.  

Hilary Mantel, the author of Wolf Hall, argues that the reason the Tudors remain so popular is that they faced the same ‘close concerns’ as us in love, marriage and children. Mantel considers how, even five centuries later, the pain of Catherine of Aragon only having one child surviving until adulthood from her at least six pregnancies is very relatable and understandable. She talks about how each of Henry VIII’s first three wives have distinct characters and how “you know these women, in your 21st century life”. According to Mantel, the Tudors “take us to a centre of ourselves, our own needs and secret wishes” but they offer a more exciting version of our everyday lives with higher stakes and greater consequences.  

Historian Suzannah Lipscomp argues that there are two reasons why the Tudors are “the most important and significant dynasty in English history”. The first of these is “simply because they matter”. As mentioned above, the Tudors were architects of much of what we have today. The dynasty was a time of English Renaissance. The monarchs surrounded themselves with artists, writers and pioneers who are still household names today. Hans Holbein was crucial in the first age of portraiture and painted the first full-length, life-size portrait of an English monarch. Tyndale’s translation of the Bible earned him the title of ‘architect of the English language.’ Most famously, there is William Shakespeare’s renown as not only a playwright but an actor. Lipscomp’s second argument is “the sheer weight of character”. The character of the ruler was essential to the success of the dynasty and the Tudors successfully created a balance between “bluff, prodigious majesty” and “continual intrigue” which ensures that we are still fascinated by them today.   

Our monarchy is littered with conspiracy and progress. We have seen Queen Matilda, the first English Queen, and Richard the Lionheart and the Crusades. There has been the secrecy over the fate of King Edward V and his brother Richard (otherwise known as the Princes in the Tower), the ‘mad’ king, George III, and the 63 years that Queen Victoria spent on the throne. Whilst the Tudors were undoubtedly worthy of our attention it seems a shame to neglect such important parts of our past.


Image sourced under Creative Commons Licence

James Routledge 2016