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Lucy Wooding on Tudor England: A History

We can’t seem to get enough of the Tudor dynasty and its soap-opera twists. But in her book Tudor England: A History, Lucy Wooding argues that to really know the Tudors you must look past the famous names and racy plotlines. While Wooding visits the period’s kings and queens—was Henry VIII the lusty man we imagine? How “bloody” was Mary? What about Henry VII?—she also leaves the court to roam England’s streets and fields.

Wooding’s book is a beautifully written account of period’s society, culture, and beliefs that the Times of London has called a “classic in the making.” She discusses the Tudors and our major misconceptions about them with host Barbara Bogaev.

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Lucy Wooding

Lucy Wooding is the Langford Fellow and Tutor in History at Lincoln College, Oxford University. Her book Tudor England: A History is published by Yale University Press.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published January 31, 2023. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from Tiffany Cassidy in Oxford and from VoiceTrax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.

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WITMORE: We can’t seem to get enough of the Tudor dynasty in all of its soap opera twists. But to really know the Tudors, you have to look past the famous names and racy plot lines twist.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Whitmore, the Folger director. Lucy Wooding teaches history at Oxford University and is the author of a biography of Henry VIII.

Her latest book is a sweeping overview of the entire Tudor period, and it’s full of surprises. For example, Henry VIII wasn’t nearly the lusty man he’s been made out to be. Mary I never deserved her bloody nickname. And if you want a shrewd, effective, intellectually gifted monarch, look no further than the frequently ignored Henry VII.

Wooding’s book covers all the juicy drama of the Tudor nobility, but she argues there’s only so much you can learn about the period by following the ups and downs at court. To get a real sense of what life was like, you have to get out in the streets and in the fields. She opens her book with a chapter about the almost mystical connection Tudor people felt to the land that they inhabited.

Lucy Wooding’s Tudor England: A History is a beautifully written account of the society, culture, and beliefs of the Tudor period. Along the way, she punctures many of the stubborn myths that clinging to the period and its headlining figures. The Times of London called it, “A classic in the making.”

Here’s Lucy Wooding in conversation with Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: Well, the first and maybe overarching point that you make in your book is that Tudor England, as most of us think of it from depictions in popular culture, is a myth and a huge distortion. So if you had to choose one thing, what do we get most wrong?

LUCY WOODING: It’s great that people are fascinated by the Tudors. It’s lovely that there are all these films and novels and so on. And, you know, anything that promotes enthusiasm for history, I’m totally behind.

But we do tend to talk about the Tudors as though it’s all about this one dysfunctional royal family, and that it’s five people and their closest adherents. You know, we are looking at a country where there are thousands and thousands of people who just don’t figure in a lot of the kind of popular culture that revolves around the Tudors.

I think the thing that we get wrong is that we forget that this was a huge and complicated society, and we just focus on the people at the top. I think that’s a missed opportunity, quite a lot of the time.

BOGAEV: Great. And we’re going to get into some of the details that you give that are fascinating about the people at the bottom all throughout Tudor society. But as you say, this was such a complicated period and England was so politically unstable. You had, Scotland was hostile territory, and Ireland a big political problem, and Wales, the separate country, and the Cornish spoke another language. Why was Tudor England, as you put it, so preoccupied with its own historical past?

WOODING: Because this is the era of Renaissance and because everyone in Europe is preoccupied with the past—with the classical past and with the biblical past. in the 16th century, their idea of progress is not forward looking like ours might be today. I mean, nowadays, you know, we look forward to—I don’t know—colonizing Mars or finding a cure for cancer.

In the 16th century, the idea was that you reformed your society, you revitalized your country by looking back to the great ages of classical Greece and Rome, and the inspiration that you could find there. Or you looked back to the time of Christ and the apostles and the primitive church, and you looked for the kind of spiritual regeneration that you found there.

So, writing history was important for very practical reasons. You sought historical example to inspire and revitalize. That becomes much more, sort of, urgent a task once Protestant and Catholic are, you know, vying with one another to lay claim to their vision of the true faith. They need to be able to prove their credibility by saying, “Look, we have the true inheritance derived from the time of Christ and the apostles that’s been preserved through century after century of Christian history.” So, the writing of church history in particular, by the end of the 16th century, has become a really, really important way of establishing religious credibility.

BOGAEV: So, that’s why the education was focused so much on classic Greek and Roman history and writings. I guess the question is, what kind of Tudor adult did all of this classical education yield, besides William Shakespeare?

WOODING: I think it created the most extraordinary sort of mindset, and one that’s not just limited to, you know, the occasional genius playwright.

Many aspects of popular culture in this period reflect this fascination with Greek and Roman legend and literature. I think it liberated the imagination. I mean, everyone has stories that they tell. Every culture has its stories, has its fables, has its legends. Tudor England had a particularly rich reserve of those. This is why, you know, we look back to the Elizabethan age, perhaps in particular, as this great age of theater and poetry.

BOGAEV: This education that they were getting, it wasn’t just for elites, right? It sounds as if it was learned or absorbed or felt on every level of Tudor society.

WOODING: Well, we have to be a little bit careful there because of course we’re still talking about an age in which literacy is limited. But, I think it goes further down society than some people might assume.

There are good grammar schools, many of which were founded in the late medieval period, and a great many more are founded in the 16th century. They do say that the proportion of grammar schools per head of population is not equaled again until, I think, the 19th century.

So, you know, you could be the son of a… I mean, like Shakespeare, you could be the son of a glover or you know, somebody else in trade. And you could still get an extraordinary education.

Obviously for the elites—who are tutored at home and who then might go to Oxford or Cambridge University, or, indeed, who very often traveled Europe and went to universities abroad—for them, there is an education of quite extraordinary range, which is why Elizabeth I is supposed to have spoken about seven languages. It’s really not uncommon for people at the very highest levels of society to be extraordinarily gifted in terms of language and literature.

BOGAEV: Was it all about class when it comes to, specifically, Tudor women? Because we’ve talked a lot on this program about how many upper-class women at the time were extremely well-educated. But, of course that couldn’t trickle all the way down to girls in the village.

WOODING: No, although girls in the village would also have the… well, they would get a basic education probably within the home. And, there were, kind of, much more unassuming schools where, you know, sometimes girls might be educated.

For a woman who had real kind of imagination and determination—it’s not easy to get an education. It’s not easy to express yourself through writing—and yet people did. And the few voices that we hear—I mean, they may be just a few voices, but they’re really quite powerful and eloquent voices.

BOGAEV: We were just talking about Jane Anger on this show, and that’s who I’m thinking of as you speak.

WOODING: Yes. I think, actually, the arguments that people have in this period, or the debates that they have about the role of women, are fascinating, and really confound a lot of the assumptions that… I mean, we just assume that early modern society is a patriarchal society, and that women were going to have the rough end of every deal. But the more you probe the way people are thinking and writing about gender and the relations between the sexes, the more you realize that there’s a huge diversity of views. There are people who, you know, will quite emphatically stand up for the education of women, and sometimes the sort of moral superiority of women.

BOGAEV: Does it shed light on a play like the Taming of the Shrew? I mean, how did audiences of the day interpret the ending of the play? For instance, Kate’s big marriage speech.

WOODING: Well, that’s a fascinating question. I think the scholarship that surrounds that play suggests that they were prepared to take her great speech as tongue-in-cheek. I think they thought that Shakespeare was having some fun with this whole debate about the role of women and whether a wife should be submissive or not.

I mean, if you look at late 16th-century culture more generally and the way that women are depicted in ballads, as well as in plays, as well as in poetry, you don’t really get the overriding impression that women were quiescent, submissive, and silent. Far from it.

BOGAEV: One major point that you make that has so much resonance with Shakespeare is, you say you can’t understand Tudor England without knowing about the land and the woods and the towns and the cities. That the landscape around Tudor men and women was full of meaning. What did Tudors believe about the landscape of their country that makes it so ripe with significance?

WOODING: Well, I suppose the first thing to point out is that most of Tudor society lived and worked on the land. We are still looking at a predominantly agricultural society. I think even in the 21st century, if you talk to someone from a farming family, from a farming background, the importance of the land looms very large in their imagination. Even when they’ve left and gone to the big city to work there instead.

You know, we’re looking at a population which is very often hovering on the poverty line. Where a landscape can seem, yes, full of riches and fertile and full of promise. But where probably every five or six years a harvest will fail. And, if a harvest fails two years in succession—or as it did in the 1590s, three years in succession—then you are seeing people who are starving.

So, the understanding that the fertility of the landscape is a blessing from God, I think this helps imbue the landscape with a lot of religious meaning.

At the start of this period before the Reformation, you also have a way of looking at the world which sees sacrality. Which sees, you know, spiritual meaning and indeed spiritual power invested in material things.

Now, within a church that might be within a statue, within a holy relic, something like that, but out in the countryside, you also see holy wells and holy trees and sights associated with saints and pilgrimage ways. So, the landscape is overlaid with a sort of network of spiritual, you know, indicators.

BOGAEV: Right. You say that 95% of the people lived in villages. But then you had London, this amazingly mutating city. It just had tremendous turnover and it depended on immigrants, you write, to keep the city alive. That they needed, I think you said, 4,000 new arrivals each year to sustain population with so many people dying of, what? Plague and overcrowding and poor sanitation?

WOODING: Yeah, and also people going home again. You know, it was quite common for people to come to London for a while, and then they might go back to their village or go back to their town and the provinces.

But yes, London is extraordinary by European standards, generally. London is quite extraordinary. It is of course a capital and it’s a port. But it does have a kind of unique identity, I think.

BOGAEV: Yeah. It sounds as if it was a time of great income disparity, you know, prosperity as well as widespread poverty, or fear of poverty. It sounds very familiar actually, and I know you caution often against making great parallels between modern times and Tudor times. But between immigration and plague and political instability and income inequality, it’s hard not to.

WOODING: Yes. I don’t know whether the inequalities were quite as glaring as they are now in the modern world.

I do think one thing that set them apart though, is that even the wealthy in Tudor society quite often had a really powerful sense of social responsibility towards the poor. Something which I think, well, I think perhaps compares favorably with attitudes today.

They felt that their riches, their land holdings were a blessing, and therefore, they very often—I mean obviously not universally, there were greedy people in the 16th century too—but very often they felt that their land came with an obligation to the people who farmed it, to the people who lived on or around their holdings. Tudor charity and Tudor philanthropy are quite an inspiring subject.

BOGAEV: Well, this brings us to the nobility and to kings and queens, and you have a lot to say about all five of them in this period. But maybe we could do a little bit of a romp through royalty, because your book is so compelling in its myth busting.

One of the myths that you talk about is, you write that while Henry VIII and Elizabeth usually get all the attention. Henry VII was actually the most effective and impressive Tudor king. So why is he so overlooked?

WOODING: I think he is overlooked because his son made sure that he was overlooked.

BOGAEV: Oh, so it was a smear job.

WOODING: Yeah, in a way. I think that… I mean, one of the problems with Henry VII was that he was very efficient, and he was very efficient at extracting the money that was their due from the more elite members of society.

Now, nobody likes being made to pay their taxes. Tax evasion, again, still with us in the 21st century. So, although Henry VII did a great deal of good to the country in terms of promoting political stability and prosperity, and sort of securing his dynasty, people found that uncomfortable.

Then, if you can imagine Henry VIII succeeding him, he’s 17 years old. He’s tall, he’s handsome, he’s full of life. He wants to separate himself from his very overprotective and sort of careful, father. He wants a court which is perhaps a little bit more ostentatiously magnificent. He takes part in a lot of jousting, which was actually a bit irresponsible of him, because kings were not really supposed to risk their lives in this way. But he didn’t care, he was going to do it anyway.

He’s distancing himself from his father. He therefore sort of buys into this idea that his father was miserly and a bit oppressive.

I don’t think it’s just Henry. I think he’s also being subtly manipulated by his courtiers, by his immediate advisors, who also would rather not have to pay their taxes as readily as they were made to do under Henry VII.

So, yeah, there is a sort of concerted attempt by some of the upper echelons of society to deride Henry VII’s achievements. To deplore his reign and, you know, his style of kingship, which is deeply unfair.

BOGAEV: Hmm. Well, is this why you think, Henry VII didn’t get his own Shakespeare play? I mean, he does appear just at the end of Richard III as Richard’s successor after the Battle of Bosworth Field. But that’s it. Shakespeare didn’t take him on.

WOODING: Shakespeare didn’t take him on, did he? But then, I mean, I don’t think Shakespeare is interested in the kings who succeed, exactly. I mean, he’s more interested, isn’t he, in the turbulent era of the Wars of the Roses.

Yeah, there’s not quite so much drama in Henry VII, [who] does well. And in fact, that figure at the end of Richard III, you know, Henry of Richmond appearing, he’s a curiously unsatisfactory character.

BOGAEV: Oh terribly. Yeah. Flat.

WOODING: Yeah. Well put.

BOGAEV: Well, Henry VIII of course had plenty of drama, and he is such a towering figure in popular culture even now. What’s most misunderstood or misrepresented about him? You write, he wasn’t a libidinous predator.

WOODING: No, I think the whole six wives thing has given people the wrong idea. I mean, if you compare him with his European counterparts, he’s really quite restrained.

There is this phenomenon that he marries the women he knows. You know, he marries his former sister-in-law. He marries, most unusually, a succession of women from the court. Well, you know, that’s not really how an early modern monarch is supposed to behave. You’re supposed to make a grand, dynastic match with foreign royalty. The one occasion that he does that, with Anne of Cleves, is a disaster. No, I think he is quite cautious when it comes to his private life.

It’s interesting that, you know, with Anne Boleyn, he’s already had an affair with her sister. So yeah, no surprises there. So, I don’t think seeing him as some kind of sexual predator is really at all appropriate.

But, towards the end of his reign when he was so anxious about the succession, when he was so anxious about what he had unleashed by breaking with Rome, I think there is a menacing tone to many of his actions, to his manipulation of faction.

But you’ve got to remember that for the first sort of 20 years of his reign, he is very popular and very successful, I think, in the eyes of his subjects, and does a pretty good job of creating an image of the Renaissance prince who is godly, who is artistic, musical, who is good at the arts of war. He rises to playing that role and does so to good effect, I think.

BOGAEV: I want to pick up on that, Henry Tudor’s rejection of Rome, because it’s another one of the myths that you address. You almost make it seem as if you have to be really dense to think it was all about getting a divorce so that he could marry Anne Boleyn and have hopes for a male heir. What was his broader purpose? Does anyone really know what he believed about religion? Because he just seemed so hostile to Protestantism.

WOODING: Well, I mean, this debate has gone through various kind of stages. Some people would see him as just cynically manipulating religion to get his own way to swallow up the wealth of the church, particularly the wealth of the monasteries.

Other people would see him as a kind of reluctant—or not quite a reluctant Protestant—a Protestant who was a bit slow on the uptake, you know? That he had some of the ideas. He appreciated the importance of the Bible. He appreciated, you know, that the reform was needed, but that he just didn’t get very far with the doctrine.

I mean, I’ve always argued that Henry needs to be set in the context of his own time, rather than evaluated according to later categories of what we think Protestant and Catholic might mean. Because in the 1530s and 1540s, everything is still in flux. There is no single Protestant identity.

Come to that, there’s a great deal of debate within Catholicism as well as to, you know, where the sort of center of gravity of Catholic belief and worship should be.

I think he is a lot more intelligent than people often make out. I think he was genuinely fascinated by theological debate. Remember, he has, in 1521, written a work against Luther. Although, we’re fairly sure he had some help with it, I think it’s also clear that he did genuinely have input into that work. Yeah, he’s interested in scholarship.

So, his primary motivation is to fix his marital problems. He does need to get rid of Catherine because it becomes clear to him that their marriage is just not blessed by God, so he must have done something wrong. He is, I think, genuinely in love with Anne Boleyn. Who is, of course, a very fascinating creature herself, and is also a highly intellectual, highly educated, and very pious individual who’s interested in some of the same, humanist ideas about religion.

I mean, she keeps a vernacular New Testament in her chamber for people, for her friends to read. She understands that excitement at the encounter with scripture. But that doesn’t make you a Protestant. Not overnight, anyway.

BOGAEV: It’s all fascinating stuff and you’d think that Henry’s—his tortured theology and these towering contradictions would be perfect fodder for Shakespeare. But his play doesn’t deal in any of that. I mean, he makes Henry VIII out to be a kind of a young, innocent, duped by evil Catholic Wolsey.

WOODING: Yes, but Shakespeare’s got to be careful because Elizabeth is, you know, still a very powerful memory. And Protestantism is still a bit precarious. And, also, we are not entirely sure, are we, where Shakespeare’s own religious loyalties lay? So, if you are going to talk about the religious politics of the 1530s and 1540s, it’s getting a little bit close to home and you might well find yourself in trouble. So yeah, you could see why you need to sort of steer carefully around Henry VIII as a subject.

BOGAEV: Well, in terms of our royals, at least we’ve arrived at the Early Reformation. And this is where we get into another of what you describe as the “great myths of the Tudor period”: that it’s all about the Reformation, not, as you put it, the richness of religious life at this time. Tell us what we’re getting wrong in focusing so much on the Reformation.

WOODING: It’s been a very, sort of, powerful part of the stories that the English—later the British—like to tell about their own history. That Protestantism wasn’t, until very recently, understood in British culture to be a superior form of Christianity. And anti-Catholic prejudice has survived into the 21st century. It still, you know, affects the role of the Monarch today. I think the assumption always was that the pre-Reformation Church must have been a disaster, because Protestantism must have naturally been the reaction against that. So, you know, for generations we took the view that the late medieval church was unpopular and oppressive and that it alienated its congregations by worshiping only in Latin.

It was really only maybe from the 1970s onwards that the historical pendulum swung the other way and people started to appreciate the richness and diversity of late medieval religious culture. You know, we began to look at the amount of money that people invested in building and rebuilding their parish churches. We began to look at the extraordinarily rich literary culture of the 15th century, much of which was emphatically in favor of traditional religion.

Print has always been associated with the arrival of Protestantism, but actually for the first 50 or more years of the printing press in England, it was churning out great medieval religious classics. So, we began to think again.

BOGAEV: Okay, moving on to Bloody Mary: Henry’s daughter and the first queen of England. You say that only in recent years have we realized that we may have been almost completely wrong about her. What have we so missed the mark on and why?

WOODING: Well, because Britain became a Protestant country, because Protestantism became a big part of its identity, we assumed for many years that when Protestantism first arrived in England in the 1520s, that it was enthusiastically welcomed, endorsed by in a great sways of society. We used to think that by 1547, England was already fairly Protestant.

Now that was partly because we were looking at history from the top down, much more. So we were looking at the work of, you know, churchmen and scholars. We were viewing it from an elite perspective. Also, assuming that when governments pass legislation declaring the country now to be Protestant, that everything fell into place accordingly.

Now that we look more at the underbelly of society. Now that we look at what it’s like to live through these upheavals, we are more alive to the reluctance, I think, that many people felt about this new, quite contentious way of looking at religion. And a religion which did require a level of literacy and which deplored the kind of material sensory culture of pre-reformation religion, which, I think, made it hard to understand and assimilate for a lot of society. Now, we are looking at it from that perspective. We realize that the advance of Protestantism was a lot slower and more halting, and more reluctant than we ever thought.

So, where Mary fits into this. You know, back in the day we used to assume that she was swimming against the tide: that Protestantism was well established, and she was reactionary, hidebound, repressive, putting the clock back. Of course it was a failure.

Now that we are questioning whether in fact there was that much Protestant commitment when she comes to the throne in 1553, we can look at her in a slightly different light and think, “Ah, okay. Well…” I mean, she herself always said that she was ruling over a largely Catholic population with a small vocal minority of Protestant troublemakers.

BOGAEV: Well, bringing this up some more to modern times, I’m, I’m thinking the Tudors had just been getting so much pop culture airtime lately. You have Hilary Mantel’s novels and the spinoffs on TV, and then on stage, and The Tudors on Showtime. So why do you think there’s this particular interest in the period right now?

WOODING: I’m not entirely sure. That’s a very good question, and I ask myself that question quite often. I mean, obviously I think this period is utterly fascinating. But you know, this is what I do for a living, so I would say that.

I think that they did live through times of trial, and I think we’re experiencing times of trial. I think some of the resourcefulness with which they responded to that is perhaps an inspiration for a modern audience.

I think it’s encouraging to see the first two female heads of state. I think, you know, our fascination with Mary and Elizabeth is deserved. They did an extraordinary job against, you know, some obstacles.

I think that this is also an age of such sort of vivid imaginative communication. It’s such a great age of literature, that so much of that still shapes our imagination today. And that has a kind of universal appeal still. I mean, you know, Shakespeare’s never really lost his ability to inspire.

So… I don’t know. Other than that, these are possibilities.

BOGAEV: Well, we’ve barely scratched the surface, but how could we? It’s been so interesting. Thank you so much for talking today.

WOODING: We’re lovely to talk to you. And thank you very much for the invitation. Bye-bye.


WITMORE: Lucy Wooding is a Langford fellow and tutor in history at Lincoln College, Oxford University. Her book, Tudor England: A History is out now from Yale University Press.

This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez. We had technical help from Tiffany Cassidy at Oxford, and Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.

If you’re a fan of Shakespeare Unlimited, please leave us a positive review on your podcast platform of choice.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library.

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Thanks for listening for the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Whitmore.