Over the years, I’ve read most of the Tudor books, fiction and nonfiction, I could find. Countless books. Good books, a few great ones, and lots of bad ones. This page currently lists my favorite Tudor works.
When people ask me what Tudor-related books to read, these are the ones I list:
PAVANE by Keith Roberts
Eventually I will be at a loss for superlatives when describing my favorite books. PAVANE is a beautiful book, written by one of the masters of 1960s science fiction. It is a work of alternative history, one of the first of that genre and perhaps the best. It begins in 1588 with the assassination of Queen Elizabeth I and the subsequent supremacy of the Catholic faith in England. From there, PAVANE evolves into a truly entrancing book which explores freedom, communication, religion, etc Like The Fifth Queen, it has a superb ending. If you haven’t read this, please please please check it out. It’s recently been reissued and it’s simply wonderful. Few books strike me as deeply imagined, most walk over familiar ground – PAVANE is a true original.
THE FIFTH QUEEN by Ford Madox Ford
I love this book. Ford uses the life of Henry VIII’s fifth queen to explore the culture of fear, treachery, and paranoia which characterized the Tudor court. Catherine battles Thomas Cromwell in an attempt to prevent further religious and political change. The book is divided into three parts and contains engrossing portraits of familiar Tudor figures; Princess Mary, Henry VIII, Cromwell, Norfolk, Catherine herself – all are beautifully brought to life. Ford spent years researching this book but it is a work of fiction; liberties are taken, characterizations may not be historically correct, etc I think it’s one of the best works of historical fiction ever written – and the ending is fantastic. As for the ‘character’ of Catherine, Ford creates an interesting / complex figure from scant historical sources.
THE CANDLEMASS ROAD by George MacDonald Fraser
Fraser is justly famous as author of the Flashman novels, among the best (and certainly the funniest) historical fiction ever. But his talent is more expansive than even Flashman would suggest. Everything he writes turns to gold, at least in my opinion (even the flawed ‘Pyrates’ had great moments.) Long fascinated by the history of his native Scotland, in THE CANDLEMASS ROAD, Fraser recounts the story of Lady Margaret Dacre and her perilous life along the English-Scottish border during Elizabeth I’s reign. The writing is superb; I expect nothing less from Fraser. My one quibble is that the book is so short – I didn’t want it to end.
THE STEEL BONNETS by George MacDonald Fraser
This work of history is concerned with the outlaws and Border lords (reivers) who fought along the English and Scottish frontier for several hundred years. It’s a wonderful work of history and makes me wish more great writers would turn to the genre; if nothing else, you’re guaranteed good writing. And this was such a fascinating time period – I’m thrilled that one of my favorite novelists wrote its definitive history.
And if you haven’t read any Flashman, it’s never too late to start….
THE SUCCESSION: A NOVEL OF ELIZABETH AND JAMES
ENTERED FROM THE SUN: THE MURDER OF MARLOWE
DEATH OF THE FOX: A NOVEL OF ELIZABETH AND RALEIGH
by George Garrett
It’s not enough for me that a book is set in the 16th century. I want it to be a great book which just happens to be set in the 16th century. Every time I slumber or groan my way through the latest awful Tudor fiction full of heaving bosoms and Egads!-worthy dialogue, I think fondly of Fraser and Ford and this trilogy by George Garrett….
Garrett’s books should be read by anyone with an interest in 16th century England. But they aren’t read by many, which I think is very sad – even more so when one considers the popularity of terrible Tudor fiction. Of this trilogy, my favorite is DEATH OF THE FOX; Garrett brings the complex and fascinating Walter Raleigh to life. But all three works are wonderful. ENTERED FROM THE SUN is a nice companion piece to Anthony Burgess’sA DEAD MAN IN DEPTFORD, another good work of historical fiction. (Burgess also wrote NOTHING LIKE THE SUN, a fictional look at Shakespeare’s love life.) And though THE SUCCESSION has less to do with Elizabeth and James than the title implies, it’s still a fun exploration of Tudor life. I can’t do these books justice – just read them.
A TUDOR TRAGEDY: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF CATHERINE HOWARD
HENRY VIII: THE MASK OF ROYALTY
ELIZABETH TUDOR: PORTRAIT OF A QUEEN
by Lacey Baldwin Smith
I’ve been raving about LB Smith since I started this website. When visitors write and ask what is essential to read, I point them to Smith’s work. Unfortunately, two of the above works are out of print. Yeah, I know – there’s plenty of room for junk on bookshelves but apparently no room for great works of history. Well, go to Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.com and order them used. Smith’s bio of Catherine Howard is the only one ever written which concerns Henry VIII’s ill-fated ‘Rose Without a Thorn’. He collects the scant historical knowledge of her life and creates a compelling portrait of a misguided girl and her ambitious family (the sprawling Norfolk clan). His bio of Henry VIII is simply the best available on the second Tudor king. It has great psychological insight and a sharp sense of humor. After a lifetime of studying Henry, Smith is still fascinated by the king and determined to understand his contradictory character. But read it only after reading a general bio of Henry VIII; the author assumes some knowledge of the Tudor court and its cast of characters. And his brief bio of Elizabeth Tudor is a persuasive sketch of England’s most fascinating and accomplished queen.
THOMAS CRANMER by Diarmaid MacCulloch
This is the definitive biography of the father of English Protestantism. Cranmer was the archbishop of Canterbury from 1533 to 1556; he presided over the Reformation and the creation of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. He was burnt at the stake as a heretic during the reign of Mary I. MacCulloch’s book is dense, literally and figuratively. But it is also a beautifully written study of one of the most compelling lives of the 16th century. Cranmer was a conflicted and courageous man, and deserved such a monumental biography. MacCulloch uses sources never mentioned in previous studies; he charts the evolution of Protestantism with an eye for the telling detail. Personally, I am always surprised by the number of Tudor enthusiasts who are familiar with the story of Thomas More but have only a vague idea of Cranmer’s life. Perhaps it’s the enduring popularity of A Man for All Seasons? I don’t know. But both men deserve recognition and study.
THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER by Mark Twain
This is Twain’s famous tale of Prince Edward, only son of King Henry VIII, and Tom Canty, a pauper boy who is his physical twin. Twain wrote my favorite book of all time (Huckleberry Finn) so I am biased, but this is still a great book. The story is very entertaining and fun and there are moments of genuine suspense and pathos. Some people classify this book as children’s literature; in fact, they say that about lots of Twain’s work. Why? He’s a natural storyteller and perfect for adults.
ELIZABETH, CAPTIVE PRINCESS
ELIZABETH AND THE PRINCE OF SPAIN
by Margaret Irwin
Elizabeth Tudor has brought out the best in many writers, but perhaps none more so than Margaret Irwin. This trilogy has recently been reissued, thus earning the publisher my enduring gratitude. She creates a vivid portrait of Elizabeth’s entire life and there is the usual colorful cast of supporting characters. Of the three books, my favorite is the last but all are excellent. Her writing is evocative and often very beautiful. I’ll be reading along and think, What a perfect sentence! If you want a persuasive and compelling portrait of the Virgin Queen, read Irwin. No one else comes close.
ELIZABETH AND ESSEX: A TRAGIC HISTORY by Lytton Strachey
This is one of my favorite books about Queen Elizabeth I. Strachey always writes like a dream, with style and wit, and in this work he explores the complex relationship between the Virgin Queen and the infamous earl of Essex. Essex was the great favorite of Elizabeth’s later years, but he rebelled against the queen (his petulance was exceeded only by his ingratitude.) Like Strachey’s equally good Eminent Victorians, this biographical study is primarily psychological. Strachey wants to know why Elizabeth and Essex acted as they did – their motivations, desires, flaws…. There is much room for disagreement and often his analysis of Elizabeth’s personality makes one want to analyze Strachey himself, but this is still a great book. It brings Elizabeth and her court to life and it pulls you deep into the story of the queen and Essex. It also discusses the always intriguing Sir Francis Bacon. What a fascinating bit of history!
And once again, let me emphasize the beautiful writing. Style counts with me. If I want a dry, boring recitation of facts, then I can pick up an encyclopedia or, sadly, most modern histories/biographies. It’s like that famous Mark Twain quote – ‘The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter; it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.’ Exactly. All of the books I’ve listed here are full of the right words. Anyone can tell you that Elizabeth Tudor was born in 1533 and her mother was executed in 1536 and blah blah blah. It’s easy enough. But can the writer create a compelling story worthy of their subject? Can they bring history to life? I hate picking up books which are full of facts but written like – oh, they’re written in a perfectly acceptable manner. But who wants perfectly acceptable things all the time? You want a gripping, fun, fascinating book.
ELIZABETH I: COLLECTED WORKS
The great queen in her own words – letters, poems, and speeches are gathered here for our admiring perusal. This selection is arranged in chronological order and reasonably priced.
TUDOR COSTUME AND FASHION by Herbert Norris
Most people believe that Janet Arnold’s ‘Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d‘ is the best work on Tudor fashion. And it is certainly the best guide to making an Elizabethan costume. But it’s also very expensive. Norris covers the entire Tudor dynasty and includes several color sketches; the book is published by Dover so it’s reasonably priced. If you want to learn about all the different styles of hats/hoods and skirts and shoes, etc, this is the book for you. If you actually want to make a Tudor costume, search out Arnold or any of the excellent Renaissance Festival sites.
ERASMUS AND THE AGE OF REFORMATION by Johan Huizinga
This is the best biography I have read of Erasmus, the great Dutch philosopher and friend of Thomas More. He also spoke for many bookworms when he wrote, ‘When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.’ Those are nice words to remember when you’re torn between purchasing the Bernini catalogue or a new outfit. Go with the books. You can always borrow clothes from more fashionable friends and relatives. And there are already enough well-dressed people out there. Wouldn’t you rather have a nice personal library?
Often you finish a biography and are happy you’ve never met its subject (I always finish biographies of Bluff King Hal in that mood), but sometimes it’s different. Huizinga brings Erasmus and his times to compelling life. The book includes numerous letters and illustrations, and these are especially valuable since Erasmus corresponded with many 16th century luminaries.
THE ROYAL PALACES OF TUDOR ENGLAND and other works by Simon Thurley
I enjoy all of Thurley’s work – his most recent is a comprehensive study of Hampton Court – but this is easily the best study of Tudor royal architecture ever. It is beautifully illustrated and includes floor plans of various palaces. It also has a brief glossary. This book isn’t simply indispensable, – it’s also well-written and entertaining. There are lots of quirky facts interspersed throughout, and it does a wonderful job of explaining various aspects of the royal household. It’s expensive, yes, but worth it. And it will make you read most Tudor fiction with a jaundiced eye.
here are some works I haven’t listed, like Tillyard’s Elizabethan World Picture and AL Rowse’s two-volume study of Elizabethan society. I’ve also left off Alison Plowden’s ‘Elizabethan Quartet‘, which are wonderful introductory books on Elizabeth. Plowden wrote the best book I’ve read about Mary Tudor and Jane Grey, but it’s out-of-print. And I haven’t mentioned Roy Strong’s entertaining study of Tudor portraits. There are lots that I enjoyed which I haven’t listed. I will add them eventually.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Tudor England Bibliography" https://englishhistory.net/tudor/tudor-england-bibliography/, February 24, 2015