What is it with those Tudors? Showtime is gearing up for the fourth and final series of the epic Henry VIII drama this coming spring; the most prestigious book prize in Britain, the Man Booker, has just been won by Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall", a fictional life of Henry's fixer, Thomas Cromwell, and in recent years Hollywood has enjoyed Tudor hits with the likes of "The Other Boleyn Girl" and Shekhar Kapur's two "Elizabeth" films. Why are we compelled to go on retelling the story of this troubled royal dynasty who lived and loved and fought and shagged and chopped off heads half a millennium ago?
I first fell in love with the Tudor world portrayed in my novel "Heresy" when I was taken to the palace of Hampton Court near London as a child. The appeal of the Tudors, then and now, was partly the way that one family seemed to encompass every human passion on a grandiose scale. There's Henry -- handsome, charismatic, insecure, with his legendary quest for an heir and all the sexual intrigue, jealousy and violence it occasioned. Then there's his murderous elder daughter Bloody Mary, and the bitter wrangling with her half-sister, the virginal and temperamental Elizabeth, whose love affairs were doomed by the weight of monarchy to end in grief and frustration.
Set this heady stew against the epoch-making adventures of the time -- explorers voyaging to new territories, expanding the boundaries of the known world, scientists questioning the very structure of the heavens, dramatists, poets and painters creating new work that would shape our understanding of artistic expression for centuries to come - and it's no wonder that dramatists remain fascinated by the Tudor age. And the real marvel is that the period has been so well preserved, with a rich supply of documents, pictures and -- where I live in England -- beautiful buildings, all enabling historians and novelists to recreate that age in imagination.
I'd wanted to write about the later years of Elizabeth's court since I first encountered Shakespeare. In the 1570s the Pope had given English Catholics a license to assassinate the Protestant Queen in the name of holy war, and Jesuit missionaries were flooding into the country by the dozen in disguise. In response, Elizabeth's Secretary of State, Francis Walsingham, created a network of informers stretching right across Europe and even to the new world, laying the foundations for modern espionage. Every element was ripe for intrigue, but I felt the major players -- Shakespeare, Marlowe, the monarchs themselves -- had already been worked over by writers until there was little left to discover anew.
Then I came across a passing reference to a character I'd read about years ago, been briefly fascinated by and then forgotten: the Italian heretic and philosopher Giordano Bruno. On the run from the Roman Inquisition for his radical ideas about the infinite universe, Bruno ended up living in England for three years, where it has been suggested that he worked as a spy for Walsingham. Immediately I knew I had my hero: Bruno was the classic outsider, who rose in a few years from fugitive to personal philosopher to the king of France and then informer to Elizabeth's government through sheer force of personality, charm and intelligence. He lived in exile, isolated by his dangerously progressive ideas and his attraction to magic, but befriended by like-minded intellectuals and patrons such as the aristocratic poet Sir Philip Sidney. For a man of wit and learning like Bruno, seeking freedom from the strictures of Catholic Europe, Tudor London was a hotbed of original ideas and free thought, the only place to be.
But perhaps the real reason for our enduring love of the Tudors is their humanity, the way they remind us of ourselves. Unlike those serene, remote medieval monarchs and saints of paintings or the stiff-upper-lipped, buttoned-up Victorians, the Tudors let it all hang out. They have tantrums, they lust after people they shouldn't have, they betray lovers, siblings, sons and daughters, they wreak revenge on those who stand in their way, and above all, they love fiercely. They remind us what it means to live, and that's why their world remains a gift to anyone who wants to write a novel about murder, passion, envy and betrayal.