Susan Bridgen is a rare creature among Tudor historians writing for a general audience. Her style is spare, her manner cool and impersonal. Not for her the luxuriant prose, the passionate engagement with the red-haired monarchs who first gave the English a sense of national pride. Yet out of this quietness she has produced a book of rare imagination and power. Her voice gains in authority as she explores the old world of monolithic religious certainty and the new worlds of adventure, conquest and choice. This fifth volume in The Penguin History of Britain deserves to become a classic.
The Tudors were not only our most glamorous dynasty, they were the luckiest, too: lucky to preside over two great interrelated movements of human will and intellect, the Renaissance and the Reformation, already in spate across mainland Europe. This irresistible force for change, for self-expression and discovery, would have found its way regardless to these outlying islands, but the Tudors, with the exception perhaps of Mary, managed through good fortune and judgement to navigate the tide and claim it for themselves. They were lucky, too, to be succeeded by the mostly arrogant and incompetent Stuarts, whose age was convulsed by civil war and stained by regicide: with what nostalgia many in the seventeenth century looked back on the golden age of the sixteenth.
In a period so dominated by remarkable characters, Brigden concentrates more on describing the background and the context. Her use of the fine detail of individual experience to illuminate the broader picture is masterly. She starts with the land. When Henry Tudor picked up the crown on Bosworth Field he