In the Middle Ages, which did not come to an end on Bosworth Field, the fundamental duty of an absolute monarch was to ensure the survival of his line. The future of a dynasty depended upon a male heir, but the Tudors, the subject of this second instalment of Peter Ackroyd’s lively history of England, produced few boys. The claim of the first Tudor, Henry VII, to the English throne was tenuous and the Wars of the Roses cast a shadow on his reign. The unification of the white rose with the red through his marriage to Elizabeth of York did little to assuage his insecurities, though it did, uniquely among their clan, produce two male heirs. Arthur, named with an eye to legitimacy after the most ancient of British kings, died soon after marrying the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon. She would be passed on to his younger brother, Henry, crowned on Midsummer Day 1509. The consequences were profound.
Religion is, rightly, at the heart of Ackroyd’s narrative, which begins with the case of Richard Hunne, a London merchant who, early in the reign of Henry VIII, declined to follow the custom of offering the christening robe of his dead infant son to his parish rector. Excommunicated, Hunne responded