I’m back teaching this semester after a productive sabbatical, although I’m a bit out of practice. Thankfully I’ve got my favorite Tudor-Stuart survey scheduled, a course that I’ve taught many, many times but always in a different way. This semester we are focusing on “disorder” in general and crime in particular and they are reading accounts of sensational crimes interspersed with the usual narrative of Reformation and Revolution. Before we get to any of that, however, I drag my students through a lot of historiographical and cultural context, because I find that they already have so many preconceived notions about this era, even those who have never really studied it, from films and television…..and Shakespeare, even though they don’t know that their “history” is Bard-derived. Yesterday we were examining how the Victorians perceived the Tudors, as you generally have to burst through Victorian interpretations to get close to anything resembling the historical truth, and we ended up with these wonderful Edwardian murals, installed in the East Corridor of the House of Commons in 1910. They are images of Tudor monarchs (for the most part), of course, but they are also Edwardian projections, chosen to represent the ideals of that time: a more popular-based sovereignty, empire, education, and the long-term consequences of the Reformation. What is so interesting is that several of the murals are not based on any documented historic event, but rather on Shakespeare’s depiction of an historical event: with their prominent situation in Parliament, they represent a multi-layered representation of the past.
Henry Arthur Payne, The Origin of Parties. Plucking the White Rose in the Old Temple Gardens
Let’s take the first East Corridor mural as a case in point: Henry Arthur Payne’s The Origin of Parties. Plucking the White Rose in the Old Temple Gardens, which depicts a scene taken from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part I in which the noble factions about to wage what would become known (much later) as the War of the Roses are choosing sides/roses. This is a pre-Raphaelite depiction of a pre-Tudor “scene”, and a bit of a stretch to consider the York and Lancaster factions as the “origin of parties”. Apparently even the artist questioned the first subtitle given to his work, but as the murals project was being overseen by the American artist Edwin Austen Abbey of the Royal Academy, who most definitely looked upon Shakespeare as his muse, the inclusion of this scene is understandable. Abbey was also responsible for the homogeneity of the East Corridor murals, as he specified the red, gold, and black color scheme which unites all six murals, as well as the uniform height and perspective of the characters portrayed.
Denis William Eden, John Cabot and his Sons Receive the Charter from Henry VII to Sail in Search of New Lands 1496
Frank Cadogan Cowper, Erasmus and Thomas More Visit the Children of Henry VII at Greenwich, 1499
Frank O. Salisbury, Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon before the Papal Legates at Blackfriars, 1529.
Ernest Board, Latimer Preaching before Edward VI at St. Paul’s Cross, 1548.
John Byam Liston Shaw, The Entrance of Mary I with Princess Elizabeth into London, 1553
And there you have them: representatives of Tudor history from an Edwardian perspective. The emphasis seems to be on: the story, empire, the “new learning”, and the relationship of the royal government to the people. We have an equal representation of both Protestantism and Catholicism, hinting at the secularism of the era. I’m happy to see that my favorite Tudor, Henry VII, has a larger role in this story than Henry VIII, but surprised to see such a supporting role for Elizabeth: perhaps she was too powerful an opponent of parliamentary power.
Images and more information about the murals here: https://www.parliament.uk/worksofart/collection-highlights/british-history/tudor-history.
and more context here: https://www.paul-mellon-centre.ac.uk/publications/browse/9780300163353.