The Tudors in Love: The Courtly Code Behind the Last Medieval Dynasty
by Sarah Gristwood
Oneworld, £20, 400 pages
Sarah Gristwood is one of our finest historians, and a great writer. Her latest book is a masterclass in marshalling a vast canon of research into a riveting, pacy page-turner. She takes us on a virtuoso romp through the loves and tropes of medieval and Tudor royalty, all seen from the novel perspective of courtly love.
It’s hard to comprehend that anyone could come up with a new angle on England’s most famous and chronicled dynasty, but here are the Tudors (and a good few others) as you have never seen them before. No one has ever studied the Tudors in this context, which is why this book is so fresh and compelling. Gristwood’s inimitable style is elegant, her approach concise, measured and incisive. This is a treasure of a book, an important milestone in our understanding of how love – or the courtly ideal of it – informed the acts of royalty.
From the 12th century onwards, courtly love (“amour courtois”) had an immeasurable impact on relationships between aristocratic men and women. The term was rarely used in medieval and Tudor times, but, since the 19th century, it has been widely deployed to describe medieval scholars’ cultural understanding of love and the game and play of it in the age of chivalry. The courtly lover existed to serve his chosen lady, who was (theoretically, and in the highest ideals of chivalry) unattainable. Initially, he worshipped her from afar, vowing eternal fidelity. If he proved his love with passionate devotion or deeds of chivalry, she might allow him to be her servant, and become his mistress in the sense of having mastery over him, as opposed to going to bed with him. Such relationships were expected to be chaste, for the object of courtly desire was often marriage and higher rank, and, although it was argued that courtly chastity could even extend to sleeping naked together, sex was not supposed to be on the agenda. Needless to say, consummation was the lover’s ultimate reward in many cases, and one that called for secrecy and subterfuge.
The cult of courtly love flowered in the wake of the cult of the Virgin Mary, and both did much to improve the lot of women, whom society regarded as infants in law and chattels in the marriage market. Needless to say, the Church, while wholly encouraging the worship of Mary, had an ambivalent attitude towards courtly love.
Gristwood explores the codes that governed desire and power and shows how courtly love played a significant role in the affairs of medieval royalty, from Eleanor of Aquitaine onwards, which gives valuable context to her groundbreaking account of the Tudors, from the many marriages of Henry VIII to the masterful courtships of Elizabeth I. When, in his eloquent letters, Henry urged Anne Boleyn to become his acknowledged mistress, he was asking her to permit him to be her servant in the courtly sense: “I and my heart put ourselves in your hands, begging you to have them suitors for your good favour, and that your affection for them should not grow less through absence… This by the hand of your loyal servant and friend, H. Rex.” Joyfully abasing himself, he was a new Arthur, acting out the roles laid down in the chivalric romances of the past. And so it continued for many years, until the couple finally married and Anne found it impossible to make the transition from mistress to submissive wife, and ultimately experienced the dark flipside of the play of love. It is significant that there are as many versions of her life as there are of Arthur’s Queen Guinevere’s. (And, of course, Henry VIII invoked Arthurian myth to sanction his break from Rome – another king setting himself up against another Roman empire.)
Elizabeth I, however, used every aspect of the game of courtly love to keep her suitors hooked for years on end, transforming the role of a mistress into that of a goddess to be worshipped rather than courted, and demonstrating how sex and power can be artfully linked. It was no coincidence that the cult of the Virgin Queen was deliberately promoted to replace that of the Virgin Mary.
Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens: Katherine Parr, the Sixth Wife (Headline) is out now
This article first appeared in the September 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Make a Donation
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund