King Henry VIII and daughter Elizabeth are just two of the sadists animating the lively new history by G.J. Meyer, "The Tudors: The Complete Story of England's Most Notorious Dynasty" (Delacorte, $30). The king died, a suppurating blob, in 1547, but not before chopping the heads off two wives and thumbing his nose at the pope in pursuit of a male heir.
Meyer is splendid describing the many ways Henry raged against his countrymen and women, destroying the Catholic Church of England and killing virtually anyone who stood in his way (but not his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, who survived his sneaky attempts to cast her aside). Nor is Elizabeth I painted in the flattering colors she demanded from her smarmy poet publicists.
Meyer spoke to us from his home in Goring-on-Thames in Oxfordshire, England.
Why didn't Henry arrange to have Catherine pushed out a castle window?
No one can say for sure why not, but she probably had a substantial hold over him. The other factor that probably had some weight is that she was a very popular queen.
Would an annulment have changed English history? England would not have broken with Rome, for instance.
An early annulment, I would guess, and the whole thing might have turned out differently. But once Cranmer was there as his adviser, he showed Henry how much money would be gotten out of the church. This was a huge redistribution of wealth. Even so, Henry proceeded to ruin the country financially. It is almost unbelievable - financial irresponsibility on such a scale. He blew it all.
Who got all the land and property owned by the church?
The buildings were stripped bare and everything was carted off to London: vestments, chalices, livestock, even the roofs, which were typically of lead. Henry sold the land off, often at bargain prices, to build his palaces and pay for his wars.
When and why did drawing and quartering get to be such a popular form of execution? Every few pages, some poor guy is getting his entrails removed.
It is an English invention, started in the 1300s by Edward I, but not used on his own people. Here's the shocker: it wasn't outlawed until the 19th century, though after 1820 you couldn't quarter anyone while they were still alive.
If you had to sum up Elizabeth in a word.
Selfish. You have to give the woman credit. She inherited the throne at a dangerous, difficult time, and she held on to it for 45 years. But she repeatedly showed through her life that she cared for little except her own survival. Even on her deathbed, she wouldn't say who she wanted to succeed her.
Was she really the Virgin Queen?
I'm inclined to think she was a virgin all her life, and if she wasn't, the only person I could imagine as her lover is the earl of Leicester, clearly the only man she ever loved.