I have mixed feelings about the Tudors, and people who write about them. I spent the first two terms of my degree attempting to dissect the infuriatingly pedantic historiography of the Tudor period—a process from which I gained, paradoxically, both a very low threshold of frustration with academic history, and a genuine taste for the narrative and nuance of the early modern period. Mostly, however, I came to the conclusion that I had had enough of the Tudors for a while.

So when, last November, I read a piece by Andrew Marr in which he wrote, “If I never read another biography of bloody Henry VIII, it will be far too soon,” I was inclined to agree. When I present the quotation to David Starkey, however, he is unfazed.

“Obviously there is an overdone-ness about the Tudors as a whole. But equally, of course, that’s a reflection of the fact that the Tudors are the English Greek myths. No other period exercises that fascination or can hold people in the same way.

“I’d be very interested [if Andrew] could list the number of biographies, because there actually hasn’t been a biography of Henry VIII since Scarisbrick [1968].”

“Dear me,” he finishes, “friends and rivals, you know. Off the cuff remarks are really a little bit like a flat soufflé.”

Starkey, who is the premier popular historian of the Tudor period, studied History at Fitzwilliam College. After attaining a First, he stayed on to write a PhD in which he examined the culture of the Tudor court. He then earned a Fellowship, and remained in Cambridge for several years, before taking off abruptly in 1972 for the more exciting realm of LSE. (“I used to say I knew exactly what an ingrowing toenail felt like,” he has famously commented of Cambridge.)

By the time he left LSE in 1998, Starkey had already embarked upon what has become a blockbuster career in broadcasting, television and the writing of popular non-fiction. He is now renowned for both his historical enterprise and his strident personal style (the Daily Mail once called him “the rudest man in Britain”). Episodes of his most recent television series, Henry VIII: The Mind of a Tyrant, he tells me, reached audiences of between 2.5 and 3 million.

Indeed, Starkey’s immense success is one of the most potent proofs of the Tudor court’s enduring appeal. If we take sex out of the equation – that means discounting the practically pornographic BBC series The Tudors and Philippa Gregory’s bodice-ripper novels - why are the Tudors so attractive to people in the twenty-first century?

“With Henry VIII, the sheer impress of the personality comes across over five centuries. Then there is the fact that Henry and his daughter Elizabeth were very conscious stars. They’re interested in truly modern – well, truly ancient – ideas of fame. We respond to that.”

This idea is compelling. But Starkey goes on to make an even more striking judgment about why the Tudors retain a tight grip on our collective conscience.

“I think there is a genuine recognition, in spite of Andrew, that the 16th century is the central century in English history, and I choose my word ‘English’ quite deliberately. It is the moment at which we cease to be a pretty ordinary Catholic country, part of the broad mass of Christendom, and turn into something very, very different. Maybe obscurely people realise this.”

I still think it might have something to do with the racier passages of Philippa Gregory, but Starkey is insistent. “The twenty-first century looks like it will be the century when most of what Henry did will be reversed. If we really do finish off as part of post-Lisbon Treaty Europe, if the Church of England is re-absorbed into the Church of Rome, then the extraordinary changes of Henry VIII’s reign will largely have been reversed.

“I think England itself will essentially become a place of the mind, as it retreats into being a rather disgruntled province of Europe. And it will be the successor states, the offshoots of the various English and British empires, that will continue to fructify and create.”

This is beginning to sound a little too much like a paean to England, perhaps because I can recall something I’ve read in one of Starkey’s published speeches about the need to teach “celebratory” rather than “critical” history in schools.

In the speech, he said, “I think we have overdone the critical element of history. I think there is a very powerful place for the celebratory…. I do think that English history, in particular, has a fundamentally optimistic message.”

Can’t this lead us down a dangerous path? I ask. In Russia, even in the past two years, authors have effectively been banned from including criticisms of Stalin in school textbooks. What is to stop us from eventually trying to censor unsavoury, but essential, elements of our history, if we extol too fervently the virtues of the “celebratory”?

Starkey responds thoughtfully. “When I use the word ‘celebratory’, what I really mean is a recognition of the importance of national history, which implies, by definition, that you think there is something positive there.

“But what I’d be much happier with saying is that I want a history, particularly when it’s being taught at school and even at the undergraduate level, which recognises the importance of narrative. It really is about saying, ‘What actually happened?’ Which I think is so much more interesting than teaching people what historians squabble about.

“Historiography is just, and you are entitled to quote what I am about to say directly, fucking deadly. It is awful, it is boring, it is reductive. It is a totally second-tier activity. It’s scholiastic, it’s the equivalent of the worst aspects of medieval philosophy. And to pretend that that is the most intellectually stimulating thing there is about the past seems to me to be a confession that practicing the subject has frankly lost any interest.

Something did happen. There is evidence of what happened. What drives me is wanting to know what happened.”

I am tempted to test Starkey’s theory. Since he dismisses historiography so easily, would he be disappointed if, in a century’s time, no one read his work?

“I wouldn’t be unhappy. I would hope that what I write is not only good history but is readable.

“My view is that the only immortality is here. The only immortality is, if you like, the fame, or the continuing readability of your own work. That is the only reason that anybody will be remembered. Memory is immortality.”

Starkey has left me taken aback with his honesty. Everyone, not least the man himself, knows that Starkey can be flamboyant and outspoken, that he is obsessed with his own wealth (“you’ve got to earn your crust, which in my case is gilt gingerbread”), and that he is extremely proud of his accomplishments. What are only rarely revealed, however, are his intense introspection and his very real convictions. He is a man who believes that fame brings immortality, but – like any good creature of the sixteenth century – he is sensitive to the ephemerality of his appetites.

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