Alison Plowden on Tudor Women
Being frankly unfamiliar with a great majority of British history, I'm not in a good position to assess the claim on Alison Plowden's book that the Tudor era was particularly packed with relevant, characterful women. I did think that the 'commoners' bit of the title was a push at best, as this shortish book really focuses on the women who shaped the politics of the sixteenth century. The most significant is Elizabeth by a margin, but there are some women who perhaps don't get the recognition they deserve. I think Margaret Beaufort probably stands as the one who made the biggest difference, being as she was central to the foundation of the Tudor dynasty, even more so than Mary, who became queen, or any of Henry's wives. One might argue for Anne Boleyn being the single most history-changing woman in the whole of English history on the basis of Henry's invention of the Royal Supremacy and thereby the Church of England as he pursued her. In any case, it is good to read a book focused on the women, their achievements and their personalities, because even the great Elizabeth - who may justifiably be described as the greatest English monarch of them all - is often written about through the lens of marriage, suitors, infuriated advisers, in short, men.
That is not to say that men don't deserve their space in the record, because history is about all of these stories, all of these characters. The thought is roughly that it is a shame that so much history writing is bereft of the things that make these women who they are, whether the various wives of Henry VIII or a real commoner doing whatever she did from day to day. One can't help but think of Anne Askew (Kyme seems to be her married name), a fiercely Protestant woman who was well-read, progressive, intelligent and unfortunately rather too good at getting herself noticed, which in the end led to her execution by burning. She deserves to be written about, not because of individual brilliance (although she may have possessed her share of that) but because she represents the time, she embodies the struggle both of the emancipation of thought from medieval Catholicism (this is not a criticism of Catholicism in and of itself, just an observation about individuals and their understanding of their faith) and the idea that women could exist as equals to men.
John Knox wrote his attack on the notion of female monarchs right in the middle of the period. I haven't (yet) read it, although it is of course quoted, mentioned and cited in just about every book I've read. It is impossible for us now to recreate the conditions of four-hundred-odd years ago, and most would not want to. It is very hard for us modern folk to see just how different it would have been for women then compared to now. It is still the case that women are in some situations undervalued, underpaid and under-represented, but there is - in general, if not in all cases - a drive to correct these wrongs. Then, the idea that the best king for ten generations would in fact be a queen was almost unthinkable. I have tried to show one idea about how Elizabeth got started, and for those that have read the first three and the various extracts from book IV on here, it is no great feat of imagination to think how, given this theory of mine, she might have ended up unmarried for all of her seventy years. My great project is to imagine from scratch a female character with as much richness, subtlety and emotion as the Elizabeth of These Matters so far. I haven't, yet, but I hope that I have sowed the seeds.
So, a review of Alison Plowden's book: it's a good read, and I would thoroughly recommend it to newcomers to the Tudor period. It's not deep enough to really reveal anything new about the individual women if you already know them, but it does bring some insight into the what-it-was-like and lends weight to the idea that “History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket.”
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