Review: A Visitor’s Companion to Tudor England by Suzannah Lipscomb

It was with a certain amount of trepidation that I approached Suzannah Lipscomb’s latest book. Was it really necessary? Did the world need another guide book to the historic buildings of England? Would she not be forced into tiresome iterations of ‘We can imagine…’ or ‘If one closes one’s eyes one can almost hear…’ and so on.

Well, so much for my judgement: I stand corrected. A Visitor’s Companion to Tudor England is not only a first-class and fascinating guide to the most important of what survives of Tudor England, it also doubles as a deceptively thorough history of the period – and indeed a fine introduction to the complexities of life in sixteenth-century England.

Readers expecting a comprehensive guide to the buildings of Tudor England should look elsewhere: Lipscomb offers something else. Although on paper this may look a more limited work of reference, Lipscomb has used that limitation to create something far deeper and more worthwhile than any mere gazetteer could ever hope to provide.

In essence, A Visitor’s Companion to Tudor England takes the reader on a journey through fifty English locations with strong associations to Tudor history. Most of course are buildings – churches, castles, houses and so on – but Lipscomb’s survey also encompasses, among other things, a ship, a park, a battlefield and a solitary tree. These entries are organised geographically by region and are interspersed here and there with sections on other more elusive aspects of Tudor life, covering everything from food and clothing to the purpose of royal progesses and the development of the theatre.

In her introduction, Lipscomb sets out the criteria governing her selection: that there must be something that is actually still worth seeing; that each site should have a story to tell about a significant person or event in Tudor history; that as wide an area of England should be covered as possible; and that the entries should taken together offer a balanced overview of Tudor history as a whole.

Written out like that, I think the difficulty of the task Lipscomb has undertaken becomes apparent. I’m not wholly sure it ought to be possible to tick all those boxes, never mind do it with such elegance and wit. Lipscomb is now an academic historian and a writer – her previous book, the excellent 1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII, was published in 2009 – but she also worked as a curator at Hampton Court Palace for three years. That experience shines through in the text, since she has a superb eye for telling architectural detail and a subtle, evocative sensitivity to place: the cold winds at Ludlow, say, or the desolation of Pontefract Castle.

The book is aimed at the general reader, but Lipscomb is a clear and insightful writer and there is much for everyone to enjoy, from the judiciously chosen stories she recounts – the public triumphs and private tragedies of an extraordinary period of English history – to the vivid and revealing portraits she draws of the lead actors. Moreover, although of course all the figures one would expect to be here are covered, from Sir Thomas More to William Shakespeare, there are many less well known men and women with fascinating lives. I knew next to nothing of poor Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister, for example, and certainly not of her year of five weddings; I loved the workmen at Hampton Court suddenly having to replace Anne Boleyn’s heraldic falcon with the panther of Jane Seymour, working under such pressure that they missed a few up in the roof.

Lipscomb is empathetic in her portrayals – the account of Mary I’s marriage to Philip of Spain at Winchester Cathedral, for instance, is gently moving. But her judgements are no less sharp for all that. I particularly liked Jane Seymour’s “cheerful, bovine tractability”, for instance.

Caveats? The only criticism I can really think of relates to my point about the book being an excellent introduction to the history of the period. There is a timeline of important dates tucked away in the introduction, but it is fairly cursory. A fuller timeline, cross-referenced as appropriate to the relevant buildings and chapters would, I think, be helpful to readers trying to piece 16th century England back together in their minds. But it is a minor quibble, perhaps even a graceless one given how much else here there is to enjoy.

To return to my initial question. Is this book necessary? Emphatically, yes. It is hard to think of a book that offers such a rich, pleasurable and illuminating guide to Tudor England. It should surely be essential reading for anyone traveling to any of the sites it covers, but it would be no less valuable as a companion for anyone simply setting out to explore the history of the period.

NOTE: This review first appeared last month on the excellent London Historian’s blog.

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