Tudor by Leanda de Lisle

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Authors: Leanda de Lisle
    Take but degree away, untune that string,
    And, hark, what discord follows! each thing meets
    In mere oppugnancy . . .
    Power into will, will into appetite;
    And appetite, an universal wolf,
    So doubly seconded with will and power,
    Must make perforce an universal prey,
    And last eat up himself.
    IN SEPTEMBER 2012, RICHARD III’S REMAINS WERE FOUND UNDER A Leicester car park. The monastery where he was buried had occupied that spot, and had been destroyed during the Reformation period, along with medieval libraries, art and music. One consequence of this cultural terrorism is that our sympathy with this past is cauterised: because it was destroyed it is unfamiliar, and so we try to make it fit what is familiar, viewing it through our own lenses. To understand the Tudors we must remember their context, which was shaped by their fifteenth-century past, not the post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment era which informs our view.
    The fact that Richard’s world could be brutal is evident in the broken bones that were dug out of the ground where his body lay.They bring a sense of immediacy, even to us, of the very real violence of the late fifteenth century: Richard’s skull was smashed and his brain exposed by a soldier of the Tudor army, a blade thrust into his buttocks. Here are echoes of the desecration of the corpse of that ‘noble knight’ Warwick the Kingmaker in 1471, and of the shattered bones of the thousands killed at Towton in 1461. They are also evidence of Richard’s failure as a king, for ensuring peace and harmony was a vital duty of kingship. It would become the very raison d’être of his Tudor successors, symbolised in the striking image of the union rose, a visual representation of national reconciliation and redemption.
    Today we aim to establish peace and harmony by other means, through the workings of democracy. We have learned to trust that elected governments will rule for all – not just the majority – and in accordance with established law. This is not true in other areas of the world, and was not true for our ancestors. For people of the Tudor age the king was seen as a protector, a bulwark against anarchy. We are fortunate that nowadays we are given only rare insights into the horrors of disorder. As Baghdad was looted in 2003, Donald Rumsfeld commented breezily that ‘freedom’s untidy . . . and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things’. Fifteenth-century Englishmen would have recognised immediately the seriousness of what was happening in Baghdad: it was not freedom but licence, the strong taking what they want from the weak according to their appetite – Shakespeare’s ‘universal wolf’. And for them, law and order went well beyond modern associations with courtrooms and policemen.
    The law was revered, for its origins were divine. They lay in an ordered, rational and interconnected universe in which God had ranked everything from grasses to trees, from peasants to princes. This great chain of being did not fix a person’s status at birth, however. It was part of the duty of care of higher ranks to advance chosen men through patronage. God’s intervention on earth – divine providence– might also raise a man up. At the apex of the earthly hierarchy, the king stood over everyone, divinely ordained down the ages to rule above personal interest or tribal quarrels, and above those with the sharpest elbows or most grasping hands. What we might call human rights – justice – lay in each man being given his due, while the sin of ambition lay in taking what was not due to you. For the ambitious to take a crown, or for the disgruntled to rebel against a rightful king, was akin to the revolt of Lucifer. It risked opening the gates of hell, and releasing chaos into the world. That was why the enemies of Henry VI and

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