Prolific British novelist, biographer and critic Ackroyd launches the second volume of his sweeping history less than two years after beginning with Foundation (2012).
Readers curious about 16th-century British daily life or culture must look elsewhere; Ackroyd concentrates on Britain’s ruling Tudors—minus the first, Henry VII, covered earlier. This installment opens with the 1509 accession of Henry VIII (1491–1547). Few mourned his harsh and rapacious but also unwarlike father, who left a full treasury which Henry soon emptied in wars with France before plunging into the dynastic and religious quarrels that dominated his reign. Obsession with having a male heir, not lust, was responsible for his plethora of wives. No fan of the Protestant Reformation, Henry broke with the papacy over its refusal to grant a divorce from his first wife. Once he had destroyed papal authority and looted its property, he disappointed reformers by largely preserving Catholic credos such as priestly celibacy and transubstantiation. His death and the accession of 9-year-old Edward saw the Anglican Church’s transformation into a recognizably Protestant body, which his Catholic sister and successor, Mary, could not reverse in a stormy five-year reign. By this point, readers may be wearying of interminable, fierce and bloody religious controversy, a feeling Elizabeth shared. But religion obsessed 16th-century Britons, so her efforts to cool matters were only partly successful, but she proved a prudent, less bloodthirsty ruler and the most admirable Tudor. As usual, Ackroyd is a fine guide.
A solid multivolume popular history: readable, entirely nonrevisionist and preoccupied by politics, religion and monarchs—a worthy rival to Winston Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples.