Non-fiction Review: An Alternative History of Britain: The Tudors, by Timothy Venning

book coverSynopsis

Continuing his exploration of the pathways of British history, Timothy Venning examines the turning points of the Tudor period, though he also strays over into the early Stuart period. As always, he discusses the crucial junctions at which History could easily have taken a different turn and analyses the possible and likely results. While necessarily speculative to a degree, the scenarios are all highly plausible and rooted in a firm understanding of actually events and their context. In so doing, Timothy Venning gives the reader a clearer understanding of the factors at play and why things happened the way they did, as well as a tantalizing view of what might so easily have been different.

Key scenarios discussed in this volume include:

Did the pretenders Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck ever have a realistic chance of a successful invsasion/coup?

If Henry Fitzroy, Henry VIIIs illegitimate son, had not died young, might he have been a suitable King or at least Regent on the Kings death?

What if Edward VI had not died at 15 but reigned into the 1560s and 70s?

How might the Spanish Armada have succeeded in landing an army in England, and with what likely outcome?


Disclaimer: Although I received an electronic copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, the words and opinions below are my own.

Ah, the Tudors. What a dysfunctional family. They came to power during the Wars of the Roses and were determined to stay there. Henry Tudor, a member of the House of Lancaster proclaimed himself king in 1485, and strategically married a member of the House of York. They had four children who lived past infancy, including two sons. With the warring houses united, England should’ve been set for peace. Instead, the family gave it almost nothing but turmoil for over a century, and millions still feel the repercussions today.

I’m not familiar with Dr Venning’s previous works, but I have read works regarding alternative histories before. I’ve usually found that the author will pluck one “What if” question out of the air surrounding an event and run with that. For example, what if Robert E Lee hadn’t resigned from the United States Army in 1861? There is enough of a ripple effect that an entire book can be written, and possibly a sequel as well. To take the above example: would we have Arlington National Cemetery today if not for Lee’s resignation? Where would the Kennedy brothers have been buried? Which battles of the Civil War might have turned out differently? Would the war have ended sooner… or later? And, in our current review of civil rights and social justice, would there be the same level of outrage over statues of the man himself?

Instead of this methodology, Dr Venning looks at several “What if” scenarios, and provides more than one possible outcome for each. The book starts off simply enough: what if Henry VII’s son, Arthur, had not died at age 15 shortly after his marriage to Catherine of Aragon? Would he have had enough heirs to prohibit his brother from taking the throne? There’s also the possibility he could’ve died several years later, long enough to have seen his brother married to someone other than the Spanish princess. The non-existent reign of Henry VIII could’ve quite possibly made the world a vastly different place to the one we see today. Although not mentioned, I wondered if there would be a Church of England, for example. From there it gets more complicated, especially once various international alliances and power-hungry English nobles are brought into the picture.

Perhaps this is a book more in-depth than I can easily comprehend. Although a mere 240 pages, I found myself bogged down early on and it took three months to read half of it on an e-reader. So many people are mentioned that I wished for a “Who’s Who” section to understand how each person connected to the royal court. My mind faltered over arguments as to whether it was more advantageous to ally with French or Spanish rulers at this time or that, or how perhaps the Holy Roman Empire might’ve been a more influential bloc to have on side. Perhaps part of my problem lies in the formatting of the e-document. Large blocks of text with few gaps doesn’t make for scintillating reading, at least in my experience. There is a Contents page, listing the chapters and containing hyperlinks to jump to them. Perhaps it’s better to take each chapter as an individual read, rather than as part of a whole. Should I read it again, that’s probably how I’d approach it.

Formatting and the consequential readability issue aside, this look at alternative histories during the Tudor era is a fascinating read. It made me examine not only this part of my birth country’s history with a new perspective, but also my life. Would I be the person I am today if there wasn’t a Church of England and its schools I attended? What if there hadn’t been ruins of monasteries and abbeys for my family to visit? If the Armada had been successful, would I have spoken Spanish as a child? (And even the chapter on the Armada confused me as I ploughed through the reasons for or against Philip II raising it in the first place!) What if England and Scotland had remained separate countries and James VI of Scotland had not become James I of England due to the end of the Tudor dynasty? Would my Scottish Protestant mother and my English Catholic father had met? That’s a lot to take in and maybe that’s why my mind hurt as I tried to read this book.

Product Information

Publisher: Pen and Sword

Publication Date: 19 October 2020 (Paperback)

Book Information

Author Information

Dr Timothy Venning is a freelance researcher and author. He studied history at Kings College, London to PhD level, winning the London University History Prize in 1979. He has written articles for the Dictionary of National Biography, as well as a book on Oliver Cromwell and reference works on British office-holders and the chronology of the Byzantine Empire. He also contributes to major biographical publications and his research forms the basis for many other publications.

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