Holiday Weekend Historical Fiction Roundup: Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots

Catching up on some reading on the book shaped bench in the lobby of the British Library in London, 2009.

As a historian, I am often asked to recommend my favourite historical fiction novels, which dramatize the lives of past European royalty. There is an enormous variety of approaches to this genre from plots loosely inspired by past events to fictionalized biographies of actual historical figures. A number of current historical novelists who dramatize the lives of past royalty conduct archival research and include an afterword separating scholarly consensus from dramatic license. My criteria for a great historical novel is a story that could not possibly take place in any other setting, scrupulous attention to known facts, a distinct literary voice and a plot that keeps the pages turning. Here are some of my favourite novels about British royal history set in Tudor times. I’ll follow up with more fiction recommendations set in various European royal courts over the next few weekends.

England during the reign of the Tudor monarchs (1485-1603) is currently a very popular setting for historical novels. For the reign of Henry VIII, my favourite novel is Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. While there a numerous works from written from the perspective of Henry VIII’s wives, Mantel takes the unique approach of looking at the king’s reign from the perspective of his lawyer and eventual chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. The novel provides an evocative portrait of Cromwell’s rise from poverty to power and his complex response to the political instability of Henry VIII’s reign. Mantel’s Cromwell secretly admires Catherine of Aragon’s determination to prove her marriage to be legitimate while committing himself to helping Anne Boleyn become Queen. The sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, covering Anne Boleyn’s fall from grace, will be published this year.

For readers who prefer the reign of Elizabeth I, Margaret George’s recent work, Elizabeth I: The Novel, provides a dramatic retelling of the final decades of Elizabeth I’s reign, including all the major historical and literary figures of the period. George has plenty of experience writing about sixteenth century British royalty having previously authored The Autobiography of Henry VIII: With Notes by His Fool, Will Somers  and Mary Queen of Scotland & The Isles: A Novel.

While many novelists imagine improbable love affairs for the Virgin Queen, George’s Elizabeth I has sacrificed personal happiness with Robert Dudley for her political ambitions and contemplates the consequences of her choices throughout the novel. The challenges and triumphs of her reign are dramatized in vivid detail, and her complex relationship with the Earl of Essex is viewed through both the Queen’s perspective and that of her estranged cousin, Dudley’s widow Lettice Knollys. Fans of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl will be interested to read about the adventures of Mary Boleyn’s children and grandchildren, who were prominent figures in Elizabethan England.

Mary, Queen of Scots has been the subject of historical novels for hundreds of years. Reay Tannahill’s Fatal Majesty: A Novel Of Mary Queen Of Scots stands out from the rest because it does not present Mary as a romantic heroine but as a political figure navigating the complex factions within the sixteenth century Scottish aristocracy. Mary’s disastrous second and third marriages are placed within this context, providing an explanation for the queen’s seemingly rash decisions.

Tannahill also provides a clever explanation of Elizabeth I’s apparently inexplicable offer of her favourite, Robert Dudley as a husband for her cousin Mary, and includes numerous evocative details of Scottish court life in the sixteenth century. Observant readers will even learn a few new facts about the history of golf as a scheming Scottish noble attempts to putt his feather filled leather ball before concluding that “Hitting wee balls into holes nae be a fit occupation for a grown man!” Fatal Majesty: A Novel Of Mary Queen Of Scots is a page turner from start to finish.

Next weekend: The best historical fiction set in the eighteenth and nineteenth century French courts.

4 thoughts on “Holiday Weekend Historical Fiction Roundup: Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots

  1. Awesome, Carolyn! I also really loved Wolf Hall. Don’t know if you ever want to do a parallel roundup on fiction about the French Revolution, but Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety is also excellent. Disturbing, actually, but I think that’s a sign of its excellence, as you understand how absolutely everything certain is falling apart.

    But really, my favourite Elizabethan novel is Rosemary Sutcliffe’s children’s novel The Queen Elizabeth Story. Out of print, I realize now. I wonder where my copy is?

  2. Thanks Bronwen – next week will be France!

    Also, I’ve tweeted your blog – hope you get lots of readers!

  3. Have you read Elizabeth Byrd’s “Immortal Queen?” I think that’s not only the best fictional treatment of Mary Queen of Scots, it’s possibly my favorite historical novel, period.

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