'Tudor era' is misleading myth, says Oxford historian

Henry VII Costume dramas have often depicted the Tudors: How the BBC represented Henry VII in the 1970s

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The idea of a "Tudor era" in history is a misleading invention, claims an Oxford University historian.

Cliff Davies says his research shows the term "Tudor" was barely ever used during the time of Tudor monarchs.

There are also suggestions the name was downplayed by Tudor royals because of its associations with Wales.

Dr Davies says films and period dramas have reinforced the "myth" that people thought of themselves as living under a "Tudor" monarchy.

"The term is so convenient," says Dr Davies, of Wadham College and the university's history faculty. But he says it is fundamentally "erroneous".

Missing name

During the reigns of Tudor monarchs - from Henry VII to Elizabeth I - he said there was no contemporary recognition of any common thread or even any recognition of the term "Tudor".

Henry VII Henry VII was the first of the line of Tudor monarchs

Dr Davies, who specialises in 16th-Century history, says "the rather obvious thought occurred to me" of investigating whether there had been any references to "Tudor" during the years of the Tudor monarchs.

His years of trawling through contemporary documents yielded almost no references - with only one poem on the accession of James I (James VI of Scotland) recognising the transition from Tudor to Stuart.

Surprised by this absence of any contemporary usage, he says he expected "clever American professors to come up with examples to prove me wrong" - but so far there has been no such evidence.

There might also be suggestions that the use of "Tudor" was deliberately omitted - as monarchs, always sensitive to rival claims, wanted to assert their legitimacy.

"I do think that Henry VII was defensive about his past and wanted to downplay 'Tudor', which might have been used by his opponents."

He says that in Welsh documents the name of Tudor is "celebrated" but it was "considered an embarrassment in England".

Henry VIII preferred to represent himself as the embodiment of the "union of the families of Lancaster and York", says Dr Davies.

False memory

Dr Davies suggests that the idea of a distinct Tudor period of history was first established in the 18th Century by the historian and philosopher, David Hume.

Start Quote

The word 'Tudor' is used obsessively by historians. But it was almost unknown at the time.”

End Quote Dr Cliff Davies University of Oxford

This has proved a very "seductive" way of approaching history, he argues. It also helps to create the idea of a separate historical period, different from what came before and after.

But the text-book writers and makers of period dramas should re-think their terminology, as he says that talking about "Tudor men and women" introduces an artificial concept which would have had no contemporary resonance.

If historians aim to "recover the thought processes" of past generations - he says it means understanding how they saw themselves and their own times.

Dr Davies says that in the late 16th Century people in England would have understood the idea of living in the reign of Elizabeth I - but would not have identified her as a Tudor.

"The word 'Tudor' is used obsessively by historians," says Dr Davies. "But it was almost unknown at the time."

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