434 pages, Viking, ISBN-13: 978-0670899852
The old adage is true: you can never judge a book by its cover; and that goes for more than just the cover, for a beautiful and well-made book is no more a good book than a handsome man is necessarily a good man. New Worlds, Lost Worlds: The Rule of the Tudors, 1485-1603 by Susan Brigden is the fifth book in the Penguin History of Britain and was first published in 2001, and it is indeed an attractive book, with thick expensive pages, a masterful binding and an attractive book jacket…all of which are little more than the feints of a weak man-at-arms in gorgeous armor. In The Parable of the Talents the worst punishment was reserved for the son who, instead of investing his inheritance, buried it, thereby preserving it from both decay and interest, and also from harm or loss. For the same reasons, Brigden deserves to be in that place with him because with an inheritance of characters like Essex, Raleigh, the Henrys VI and VIII, Shakespeare and Mary Queen of Scots, she does nothing much more than reiterate a lot of dates. She has no facility for whetting an appetite: not only does her book open with a needless and lengthy retelling of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (seven of the first pages), next we are retold early stories of the Old Testament, including Adam and Eve, Noah and Cain and Abel (eight pages more) before we get anywhere close to the Tudor Age. Great swathes of workaday text pull the reader down until the bog-standard of it all is revealed beneath the heathers of Scotland.
Perhaps the greatest value of histories is that by them we may better understand our own times; thus, when we read that Henry VIII developed “ways of having many persons in danger at his pleasure” we may understand why it is that we today live in fear for our own government, with its out-of-control government institutions, its nanny-state frame-of-mind, and its inability to tell its asshole from a hole in the ground. Brigden points out that “non-parliamentary taxes” in Tudor times were couched in appeasing terms: a “loving contribution” or a “benevolence”; today our betters in government command us to purchase unaffordable health insurance for our own good (made unaffordable by government’s actions, to boot) while spoilt celebrities invite us (as if we were all together with them we were united against a common foe) to reduce our “carbon footprint” while theirs is immense. Brigden never draws such illustrative parallels and this makes her book inoffensive, but boring; it’s too much Lollards and Eucharist and not enough Renaissance and Protestants. There is no amazement at any level at evil or of predatory power: “Wolsey counselled the judges to advise the King that a lawful right might not always accord with justice” on pg. 163, while “It was characteristic of this regime to bring in starker changes under cover of moderation and traditionalism, and then, having offered reform, to attempt to suppress the diversity and license which that reform had encouraged” on pg. 189. I was more enthralled reading the phone book than New Worlds, Lost Worlds.