18 October 2012

Book Review: A Visitor's Companion to Tudor England, by Suzannah Lipscomb


I know Dr. Suzannah Lipscombe for her unmissable television appearances, where she gently challenges preconceived ideas and really makes you think about how people lived.  It was therefore with high expectations that I started reading her new book, ‘A Visitors Companion to Tudor England’.  With an interesting format of fifty carefully selected locations across the UK, Suzannah highlights their contribution to our understanding of Tudor times.

The descriptions of the Tudor sites are sprinkled through with many often gruesome details of the time, several of which had previously escaped my notice. For example, I am currently reading ‘The Constant Princess’ (Philippa Gregory’s novel about the early life of Katherine of Aragon). In the fictional account, the Countess of Salisbury, Margaret Pole is calm and regal – but Suzannah brings her description of Tower Green to life with an account of how the unfortunate Margaret was ‘chased by her executioner, a wretched and blundering youth… who literally hacked her head and shoulders to pieces in the most pitiful manner.’

An example of how this book provokes further enquiry is that I was inspired to fulfil a long ambition and recently visited Hampton Court Palace. I took a photograph of the picture of The Family of Henry VIII in the corridor outside the Chapel Royal:


In the picture, Henry is flanked by Jane Seymour and his son Edward, but Suzannah points out that Jane died two weeks after Prince Edward’s birth.  I was intrigued by the suggestion that the woman to the far left of the picture is of a female fool called Jane.  This led me to John Southworth’s book which explains that ‘Jane the Fool’ was ‘the type of fool known as an “innocent” and wore beautiful gowns but the hose and shoes of a clown  - and had her head shaved regularly at fourpence a time’.

Some details from Suzannah’s visits are poignant, such as seeing that someone had laid pomegranates and fresh flowers at the tomb of Katherine of Aragon at Peterborough Cathedral.  Others, such as the terrible events at Glastonbury Tor and the desecration of Fountains Abbey make you think again about the wider implications of the dissolution of the monasteries.  One of my favourites is the aside that the Tudor Queen Elizabeth enjoyed the sport of bear baiting, with dogs. I’ll spare the details but it does help to underline the importance of appreciating the cultural values of the period – and how much we can still learn by visiting the Tudor sites that remain. 

A Visitor's Companion to Tudor England on Amazon UK and Amazon US  

See Suzannah Lipsomb's Website at http://suzannahlipscomb.com/
and follow her on twitter 


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