Henry VIII and daughter Elizabeth are just two of the sadists animating the lively new history by G.J. Meyer, “The Tudors: The Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty.”
The king died, a suppurating blob, in 1547, but not before chopping the heads off two wives and thumbing his nose at the pope in pursuit of a male heir.
Meyer is splendid describing the many ways Henry raged against his countrymen and women, destroying the Catholic Church of England, stealing its property and killing anyone who stood in his way (except for first wife, Catherine, who survived his sneaky attempts to cast her aside).
Nor is Elizabeth I painted in the flattering colors she demanded from her smarmy poet publicists.
Meyer spoke to me from his home in Goring-on-Thames in Oxfordshire, England.
Hoelterhoff: Why didn’t Henry arrange to have Catherine pushed out a castle window?
Meyer: No one can say for sure why not, but she probably had a substantial hold over him. When they married, he was barely 18 and she, then 23, came from a much grander background.
And it was good marriage for a long time with a lot of affection and residual respect. The other factor that probably had some weight is that she was a very popular queen. It would have been a dangerous thing to be suspected of putting her down.
Hoelterhoff: Would an annulment have changed English history? England would not have broken with Rome, for instance.
Meyer: An early annulment, I would guess, and the whole thing might have turned out differently.
But once (Thomas) Cranmer was there as his adviser, he showed Henry how much money would be gotten out of the church. This was a huge redistribution of wealth, the biggest in the history of England other than the Norman Conquest.
Hoelterhoff: Even so, Henry proceeded to ruin the country financially.
Meyer: It is almost unbelievable — financial irresponsibility on such a scale. He blew it all.
Hoelterhoff: And he slaughters large numbers of people often for just thought crimes. Was he out of his mind? He even orders someone cooked because he might have, accidentally or as a joke, added a laxative to a meal.
Meyer: Yes. Cooked up a big vat of hot oil and just dipped him in it; makes the toes crawl.
Hoelterhoff: We have such a glittering image of the Tudor court with dancing and courtiers, it’s shocking to read that living standards dropped to medieval times around 1350.
Meyer: Yes, measured in what an ordinary person’s wages would buy.
Hoelterhoff: When and why did drawing and quartering get to be such a popular form of execution? Every few pages, some poor guy is getting his entrails removed.
Meyer: It is an English invention, started in the 1300s by Edward I, but not used on his own people. Here’s the shocker: It wasn’t outlawed until the 19th century, though after 1820 you couldn’t quarter anyone while he or she was still alive.
Hoelterhoff: If you had to sum up Elizabeth in a word.
Meyer: One word that pops into my mind: selfish. You have to give the woman credit. She inherited the throne at a dangerous, difficult time and she held on to it for 45 years. But she repeatedly showed through her life that she cared for little except her own survival. Even on her death bed, she wouldn’t say who she wanted to succeed her.