Is This the End of an Era for the Tudors?

06/06/2012 17:22 | Updated 06 August 2012

As every vaguely attentive schoolboy knows, King Harold Godwinson was killed by an arrow to the eye at the battle of Hastings in 1066, it was Sir Walter Raleigh who first introduced tobacco to England in the late sixteenth century and the period of history stretching from 1485 to 1603 is commonly referred to as the Tudor dynasty.

However, as every schoolboy also knows, history, and in particular its teachers, can seldom be trusted: contemporary reports suggest Harold was indeed wounded by an arrow, but was more likely killed after being dragged off his horse by Norman soldiers; tobacco was being smoked (or drunk) in England as early as 1564, having been pioneered by Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake (although if John Lennon was susceptible to making this mistake then I don't want to spoil the party); and this week Oxford University historian Cliff Davies denounced the idea of there being a 'Tudor era' as little more than a romanticised myth.

So what's got Dr Cliff all ruff-led (a pun admittedly hackneyed in its over-reliance on bygone neck fashion)? Has he uncovered a conspiracy to add a rogue 118 years to our history, thus extending the misery of every child who's ever struggled to remember which of Henry's wives he ate? Is it some dastardly Hollywood plot to invent a genre that provides a thin veneer of credibility for an otherwise gratuitous parade of quivering bosoms and curmudgeonly codpieces? Or is the whole era a brazen attempt by sometime Crystal Maze presenter Ed Tudor-Pole to challenge the legitimacy of the British throne and supplant himself as our rightful king?

Unfortunately, unless there's some big reveal planned, it is none of these (although personally, I'd much prefer a monarch who danced around excitedly every time I visited a themed room). Instead, Dr Davies' assertion is that our understanding of the expression 'Tudor' is a relatively modern one, popularised by period dramas and prevailing needs to neatly define an otherwise uncertain period in time. According to him, people in the so-called 'Tudor' era would have no more knowledge of the term than we would of, say, 'political integrity' today. But does it really matter how we define points in history, and would an age borne out of the War of the Roses by any other name still smell as sweet?

Of course, hindsight is a wonderful but fickle mistress; I'm fairly certain that the inhabitants of Ancient Europe were referring to themselves as something slightly more dynamic than Iron Agers, for instance. Wouldn't you be if you were the first civilization to have invented the alphabet, perfected written language and developed the itchiest fleece ever to be cut from a mammoth pelt? Not according to modern historians, who instead seem satisfied to classify the whole era based on their most frequently used metal. On that foundation, and with it accounting for over 95% of all metal in use today, our generation runs the risk of being known as, well, the Iron Age. Seemingly, the reasoning behind these decisions owe as much to whim as they do logic.

Furthermore, what may seem twee or overly self-referential generalisations at the time can prove more enlightening in the future. Thus the 1920s, a period that for most of the Western World signalled a return to financial prosperity and cultural vitality, has been characterised as The Roaring Twenties (USA), The Golden Twenties (Britain/Europe) and Les Annees Folles (The Mad Years, France). Whilst the less said about the Dark Ages (a period comprising FIVE HUNDRED YEARS of Medieval European history), the better. Elsewhere, linguistic devices seem to work just as well, such as rhyme (Nifty Fifties), alliteration (Swinging Sixties) and good old truth (Crap Eighties). In a disconcertingly gleeful way, the only consistent thread between this patchwork of aide-memoires seems to be the largely arbitrary nature at which they were arrived.

So where does all this leave us with those pesky Tudors? Well, in a dilly of a pickle if we invent time travel and want to be understood once we go back there. But if that does happen, theoretically it's already taken place so they'd know what we were on about anyway. Deciding we shouldn't call the Tudors Tudors, just because they didn't brand themselves as such, seems to be somewhat missing the point though - dogs don't know they're dogs, but it doesn't make them any less canine. As Mark Twain once put it, "the very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice". Let's not bother getting the Tipp-Ex out just yet.