Monthly Archives: August 2013

Is Elizabeth Woodville Philippa Gregory’s Apology to Anne Boleyn?

ElizabethIn “Having it All in the Fifteenth Century” I looked at the first episode of BBC/Starz’ “The White Queen” as a 21st century fantasy played out through the ever-flexible genre of the historical drama.  In the world of Elizabeth Woodville the would-be rapists turn out to be tender royal husbands, mom and dad tease each other affectionately across the dinner table, and family ambitions never descend into ruthless scheming.  A little white magic, yes—but no evil motives.  Family life is as cozily domestic as in a Jane Austen novel, as Jacquetta (Janet McTeer) delightedly plans which daughter should marry which royal prospect and Baron Rivers (Robert Pugh) looks on with tolerant amusement.  Its every girl’s dream family—supportive mom, loving dad, protective brothers.

It could even get kind of boring, were it not for the Woodville’s enemies:  Lord Warwick (James Frain), who I’m sure would be in a better mood after a decent shave (preferably by Sweeney Todd), and Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale, an attractive actress elsewhere, here she reminds me Margaret Hamilton as the wicked witch of the west in Wizard of Oz.) Even at this early stage, Beaufort is beginning to look as though she needs to be locked up in the attic, providing no little support to Kyra Kramer’s theory that Henry VIII’s personality problems were genetic.

This world of fairytale heroines and plotting relatives is the stuff of archetypal pleasure, as delicious as a bedtime story and a nice escape from the complexity of real life, where the villains are often clean-shaven and the rapists are rarely marriage material.  It’s also, as I suggested in “Having It All in the Fifteenth Century,” very much a female fantasy—unlike “The Tudors,” for example, a much better written show, but one whose creator and head-writer Michael Hirst had to be poked and prodded by Natalie Dormer to turn Anne Boleyn into someone with whom women could identify.

Elizabeth and EdwardWatching episode two, I was especially struck by how much Edward IV-as-dream-husband (at least at this point in the series) seemed to be constructed as the very opposite of Henry VIII in “The Tudors,” whose tenderness toward Anne declines steeply once he’s caught her, and plunges disastrously when the desired male heir does not appear.  Of course, “The Tudors” is not alone in this—for this is the story countless historians, novelists, and film-makers have told about Henry and Anne’s post-marriage relationship, basing their narratives largely on the not-exactly neutral reports of Eustace Chapuys.  In fact, we don’t know much more about Anne and Henry’s intimate life together than we do about Elizabeth Woodville’s and Edward’s—except that Elizabeth and Edward produced many children and had a long life together, and Anne and Henry…. well, we all know how that ended.  In between the beginnings and endings of both relationships, the cultural imagination, wending its way through different eras and different agendas, has filled in the dots according to fantasy and fable.

Edward and babyThe story of Queen Elizabeth’s birth, for example, although challenged by the most responsible historians, almost always has the Henry bitterly disappointed and beginning to simmer with anger at the birth of a girl.  Edward’s reaction, in “The White Queen” is virtually the mirror image.  Presented with his firstborn girl, the briefest flicker of disappointment crosses his face.  But he is quick to reassure Elizabeth, drenched with sweat and anxiously promising him that the next will be a boy, “You’re so lovely; I cannot do without you,” as he lovingly nuzzles the baby. The next scene, meant to be three years later, shows Elizabeth happily herding three little daughters through court and field.  And Edward’s tender love for his wife (you can tell from the sincerity of his kisses) has clearly not abated, despite the fact that her womb had yet to prove itself heir-friendly.

Jacquetta and ElizElizabeth’s life (in “The White Queen”) would be envied by Anne Boleyn (in “The Tudors”) in other ways, too.  In “The Tudors” Anne is coldly manipulated and used as a sexual lure for her father’s ambitions.  In “The White Queen” it is Jacquetta who is the ambitious one, but protectively, like a mother hen, with her daughter’s future in mind and never at the expense of Elizabeth’s honor or agency.  Baron Rivers, on his part, is just a big cuddle-bunny: “You’ll always be my Elizabeth,” he tells his daughter more than once, before he is cruelly eliminated by Warwick. Papa Boleyn, in contrast, remains cowardly and coldly detached as his own children are put to death.

scheming womenIt’s fascinating to consider the fact that the same writer who gave us the nastiest Anne Boleyn since Nicholas Sander went on to create Elizabeth Woodville—and gave her a family and husband befitting her goodness.  You might think her the direct descendant (imagination-wise) of Gregory’s virtuous Mary Boleyn—except Mary had no ambitions, which created a problem for Gregory’s famous claims to being a feminist writer.   “The Other Boleyn Girl” punishes female ambition and rewards more modest aspirations to a non-royal home and hearth.  So far, that isn’t the case in “The White Queen.”  Indeed, at times, Gregory seems to use her characters to explicitly oppose that formula—by having the arch-villain Warwick, for example, represent it.  In one arresting scene, he startles Elizabeth: “Burn her!” he orders a servant carrying Margaret of Anjou’s portrait; “I have no truck with a queen who seeks to rule her husband. There’s no need for scheming women here.”  (Elizabeth, for a second, thinks the “Burn her!” is meant to refer to her; it’s a great touch, and one of the few truly fresh moments in the episode.)

Of course, there will be scheming women.  What fairy-tale can do without them?  But for the time being, at least, Elizabeth, adoring husband by her side, rules.   Ah, Anne, would that you had been so lucky.


Filed under Uncategorized

Gender-Expectations and Mother-Judging from Anne Boleyn to Kate Middleton: Why That “s” Still Matters

Elizabeth I's birth announcement, with the added "s"

Elizabeth I’s birth announcement, with the added “s”

The following post is from Natalie Sweet, research assistant to Susan Bordo. She is the creator of Semper Eadem: An Elizabeth I Blog, and is currently at work on a book project that focuses on life within Abraham Lincoln’s White House. This post is a part of the guest blog series, “Across/Beyond Genres with The Tudors: Guest Posts by Novelists, Historians, Cultural Observers, Poets, Memoirists, Artists, and Bloggers.”

Almost half a millenia ago, various persons throughout England anxiously waited for news from Greenwich palace. Within its walls, Anne Boleyn labored to bring a new royal child into the world. The flurry of gossip around Henry VIII’s new queen was undoubtedly as heavy as it had been in the months since Anne’s coronation, during which onlookers could not miss the swell beneath her gowns. Those close to the court anticipated Anne “tak[ing] to her chamber” as early as August sixth in 1533. (1) From the time that Anne exited from the public eye of the court, the question that was likely on everyone’s mind was whether or not a prince would emerge from that most feminine of circles, the birthing chamber. Certainly, the signs seemed to suggest that a prince’s birth was imminent – astrologists had predicted the birth of a prince, and thus, announcements had already been drawn up to proclaim the male heir’s birth. At the close of September 7, 1533, however, an additional “s” had to be added to the announcements. A princess had been born.

I couldn’t help but think of those nearly 480 year-old announcements a few weeks ago, when the birth of Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge was announced to the world on July 22, 2013. As anachronistic as it may seem, we were all a bit like those who waited just within reach of Anne Boleyn’s birthing chambers, for thanks to modern technology, the world was bound to learn of young George’s arrival within hours of his birth. Thus, in a sense, those who waited on the news (myself included) became the nosy courtiers waiting outside of Duchess Catherine’s chambers.

Our proximity to The Big News wasn’t all that made me think about the old Tudor announcements. For the first time in European history, perhaps in all recorded history, a significant majority of the population had wished for a royal birth to result in a young princess, not a prince. After the nearly five-hundred years since Queen Elizabeth I’s birth, there were many people who would now have to strike rather than add the “s” from their Facebook and Twitter announcements.

The day's most popular joke.

The day’s most popular joke.

Not that the old preference for a male heir was utterly absent. One CNN royal commentator called Kate “brilliant” for delivering a male child (as if she somehow willed his anatomy into cooperation), and the Internet was littered with jokes about Kate being allowed to “keep her head” (in an obvious reference to Anne Boleyn).

And yet…there was a decidedly subdued tone after it became clear that the baby was a “George” and not a “Georgina” (or perhaps, better to say a “George Alexander” and not an “Alexandra,” as certain bookies predicted). I hadn’t even realized how invested I was in the topic until I reviewed my own social media posts leading up to the event. On Facebook, I posted my preference for the name “Mary Catherine” as the child’s name, as the delivery was on that day the Feast of Mary Magadalene (I felt like bestowing a name medieval-style that day) and because that was my great-grandmother’s name. In a texting back-and-forth with friends, I noticed that several Anglophiles eagerly hoped the baby would be a girl – it would be historic, for as had been decided in 2011, a girl would become the United Kingdom’s future Queen whether or not any brothers followed her.

The Internet proclaimed its desire for a girl child, too. It fairly bounced with hope in pieces that squeed, “Kate Middleton Hints She’s Having a Baby Girl!” . Little “Keep Calm” rompers in pink proclaimed, “My Granny Is The Queen” (although, you can now replace that with “One Day I’m Going to Marry Prince George.”). Even the bookies’ marks reflected the national desire – when news of the pregnancy first was announced, Ladbroke’s posted 8/1 odds that the royal baby would be female and named “Elizabeth.”

When the news finally broke that the baby was a boy, attention turned to his name, as was to be expected. However, a Jezebel piece spoke for many when it admitted in its headline, “We Kinda Wanted the Royal Baby to Be A Girl.”  Within it, a Time piece by Belinda Luscombe was also quoted: “dammit, I wanted a queen. I wanted a royal baby girl.” Her reasoning? Not because of “a feminist impulse,” but because “female monarchs are like male emerald swallowtails: more rare and fun to look at.”

In many ways, those of us who hoped for a princess speak positively to the evolving ways that women are being viewed by society. However, our investment in the baby’s sex/gender also places us squarely in the age-old tradition of heaping expectations and judgment upon new mothers. I vividly remember when my own son was born the countless people, both friends and strangers, who pried for news of whether I wanted a boy or a girl. Which was fine, as it was a natural way of connecting to a new mother in her excitement about a pregnancy. What wasn’t fine, however, were those who looked at me sadly after I said I was having a boy and said, “Aww, didn’t you want a girl?” I’m certain that these comments stemmed from a reaction to my very obvious stance as a feminist, and a mistaken assumption that feminist = desire for girls. In reality, I actually didn’t know whether I wanted a boy or a girl; I had already drawn up a substantial list of hopes and fears about my child, whether it be a girl or boy, prior to the big reveal, thanks in part to an unknown medical condition that could have complicated my pregnancy. What I did know, however, once I knew that I was having a boy is that I would love him tremendously no matter what. It’s a bit hurtful to a new mother to hear another person speak to her “in sympathy” about the upcoming birth of her child.


Intrusive comments about the baby’s gender are, of course, the least of it. Just as hurtful to new mothers are the endless discussions of whether or not they are doing the right thing in the manner that they raise their children – a mother’s every decision about feeding, diapering, and disciplining comes under the close scrutiny of others.  If you have ever been on a mother’s forum within the past five years, you know of the arguments that can break out over the seemingly slightest of parenting decisions. And the judgment doesn’t end once the diapers are dispensed with – what you feed your child, when you put them to bed, what afterschool activities they attend – each one of these actions and more come under fire from the Internet, your television, and your regularly scheduled playgroup that meets at the park every Friday morning (and if your kid isn’t in a playgroup, well, there’s another mark against you. But don’t worry – there’s a mark against you if your child is in a structured playgroup, too). A mother exists under a cloud of judgment from the moment her pregnancy is announced. Kate is already getting a taste of this mother-judging – look no further than the gossip about whether or not George was placed properly in his car seat or the fact that Kate was spotted wearing a dress designed for breastfeeding. So in this way, perhaps, we are not as evolved as we could hope to be; we may eagerly welcome the birth of a princess, but we continue to heap judgment and scrutiny upon the child’s mother in more modern, but no less significant, ways.

Today's Modern Royal Birth Announcement

Today’s Modern Royal Birth Announcement

As time goes on, the memory of the public’s desire for a baby girl this go-around may fade. Or perhaps it won’t. I only have this to say to Prince George in the event that he one day goes cruising around the Internet for public reaction to his birth: That jump-the-gun announcement on the royal baby’s gender has happened before. The result was pretty rocking awesome.

(1) Sir John Russell to Lord Lisle. James Gairdner (editor), “Henry VIII: August 1533, 1-10,” Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 6: 1533, British History Online, 1533


Filed under Across/Beyond Genres with The Tudors: Guest Posts by Novelists, Historians, Cultural Observers, Poets, Memoirists, Artists, and Bloggers

Having It All in the Fifteenth Century

  attachment-3Ever since Thelma and Louise clasped hands and took fatal flight into the Grand Canyon, there’s been no shortage in pop culture of fierce women willing to risk it all for their integrity, freedom, or justice.  Has anyone noticed, however, how unlucky they are in love?  Recently, we even seemed to have generated a new genre of crime-fighting heroine—we might think of them as the daughters of Jane Tennison, Helen Mirren’s professionally steely but personally unstable chief detective in “Prime Suspect”—who quite explicitly pay for their power with disastrous relationships, mental break-downs, and infinite sadness.  The heroines of “The Killing,” “Homeland,” “Top of the Lake”—what a depressed, driven crew!  The only female detective with a cozy home-life is steel magnolia Brenda Leigh of “The Closer,” (Keira Sedgwick), who has now gone off with her beyond-belief supportive FBI hubby and whose successor is “Major Crimes”’ coolly contained Sharon Raydor (Mary McDonnell.) That neck doesn’t move—her stiffness is part of her charm–let alone bend to receive anyone’s kisses.

 The twenty-first century, it seems, is power-friendly to women but cruel to their love lives.  That’s an old trade-off, of course; we’ve seen it in countless female protagonists from Joan Crawford on (usually minus the “friendly” part): the price of standing up to men or a masculinistic system is an empty bed.  The difference now is that these women are no longer misogynist caricatures (for that we’ve got reality television.)  Women like them, root for them and feel an uneasy but undeniable sisterhood with them.

 For relief from this grim state of affairs, which makes for powerful television but doesn’t exactly attachment-6feed female sexual fantasies, we must turn, it seems, to yesteryear. Or rather, yestercentury—and a time, apparently, when the would-be rapists were gorgeous and a woman could turn a knife on one without, like Louise (of “Thelma and…”), having to pay with her life.  Wait; did I say not paying with your life?  It’s better than that: tell him off, turn the knife on your own throat, and he’ll find you irresistible and make you queen.

 This is “power-feminism” Philippa Gregory style, and despite a pretty unanimous critical thumbs-down, women are loving the BBC/Starz production of “The White Queen.”  From the first episode (the only one I’ve seen, as I live in the US), it’s not hard to see why.  By any of today’s standards, Lancastrian beauty Elizabeth Woodville/Grey (Rebecca Ferguson), having met with victorious Yorkist King Edward (dreamy Max Irons, Jeremy’s son) to ask him to return her (dead) husband’s lands to her, breaks all the rules: engages in seductive behavior that can only (political correctness be damned) be described as “leading him on,” humiliates him by unceremoniously throwing him off when she’s had enough, challenges his manhood by daring him to “doubt her courage” and declaring herself “match for any man,” and—most envy-inspiring of all—her hair maintains its perfect crimp throughout.  And, oh yes, then she gets made queen.

 “But it happened!” Phillipa Gregory, who prides herself on her historical rigor, might say.  Well, yes, sort of…perhaps.  That Edward wanted to make Elizabeth his mistress and Elizabeth declined, inflaming the king’s desire for her, is well known, if the exact details are shrouded in mystery. Thomas More and Shakespeare both recount the tale, although minus the knife; their Elizabeth refuses Edward (as Shakespeare put it) with a “good manner” and “words so well set.”  The knife detail comes from the Italian traveler Mancini, writing in 1483, but in his version it is Edward who brandishes the knife, and holds it to Elizabeth’s throat.  The knife only makes it into Elizabeth’s hands in Antonio Cornazzano’s “Of Admirable Women”; in that version she does not hold it to her own throat, threatening to slice herself, but uses it to hold off Edward. 

attachment-8Clearly, writers have been playing with this story for centuries, and I’m not here to complain about historical accuracy, but to explore the current re-creation.  “Don’t doubt my courage,” Elizabeth declares, already drawing a bit of blood from her translucent neck, “I’m match for any man.”  Female strength and courage that is as potent as any man’s is a theme that is trumpeted in ads for the series (“Men Go to Battle; Women Wage War”), that is underscored by Elizabeth’s mother Jacquetta (descended from a river goddess as she reminds us several times, even her husband says he is sometimes scared of her) and by the audacity of both Jacquetta and Elizabeth when they meet Edward’s proud and disapproving mother Cecily.  Jacquetta (Janet McTeer) soundly puts her in her place by reminding Cecily of some nasty gossip about her affair with an archer, but little Elizabeth is no slouch either, telling the King’s mother (!!) to curtsy to her.

 Rebecca Ferguson, who plays Elizabeth, was drawn to the role because Woodville “was a woman attachment-7who had power.  She was devoted, strong [and] intelligent”; “She’s a medieval rebel.” Arguably, the same might be said about Anne Boleyn, who, as played by Natalie Dormer in “The Tudors,” also won a large female following.  But notice how differently Boleyn’s refusal of Henry VIII is imagined (by Michael Hirst, whom Natalie Dormer criticized for his male “mind-set” and who later regretted his hyper-sexualizatization of Anne) from Elizabeth Woodville’s, as imagined by two women: Gregory and screenwriter Emma Frost.  Boleyn is depicted as refusing Henry in order to lure him into marriage (a ploy concocted, in the series, by her power-hungry family—and Hirst, of course, isn’t the first to follow this scenario); Elizabeth refuses out of pride in her own integrity.  Anne (in season one, at any rate) is a sexy tool; Elizabeth is “her own woman.” Anne is a temptress (“Seduce me!” she tells Henry, albeit in a dream), while Elizabeth, who is no less flirtatious with Edward, her eyes smoldering and her kisses steamy hot before she throws Edward off her, escapes any condemnation for slutty behavior.   She’s a post-feminist girl; she has every right to get carried away by passion and then say “no.”

 attachment-12My point is not that this is a better show than “The Tudors.” In fact, although I will no doubt become addicted to “The White Queen” (I also haven’t missed an episode of “Dance Moms”), I wouldn’t rate it very highly among historical dramas.  Nor have I ever been a big fan of “power feminism”; Philippa Gregory and I have very different ideas about what constitutes “power.”  I would, however, like to see Carrie Mathison of “Homeland” (Claire Danes) be given some time under a tree with a gorgeous, untormented, exuberant lover like Max Irons’ Edward.  Until that happens, I guess women will have to pay for our fantasies with a ticket back in time, where we can enjoy preposterously bold, “talking back” historical heroines “having it all” with their equally preposterous, strong-woman-loving hunks.  


Filed under Uncategorized


henryviihorizontal2The following post is a composite of a chapter that comes from Barb Alexander, who is the creator and author of and its associated social media outlets. Her book, The Tudor Tutor: Your Cheeky Guide to the Dynasty, will be published late summer 2013.  Please  do not quote, cite, copy, or distribute this excerpt from The Tudor Tutor: Your Cheeky Guide to the Dynasty without Barb Alexander’s permission. 

What is arguably the most interesting dynasty in English royal history may have never come to be. Before the Tudors of Wales became the Tudors, Richard III sat on the throne, head of the house of York. But during one little battle, Henry Tudor and his guys swept in and had the monarch knocked off his horse and onto his noggin. When his bones were discovered under a Leicester car park in 2012, they showed evidence of fatal blows: It seemed a sword had entered his skull on one end and came out the other after slicing through his brain, and another segment of his skull had been whacked clear away. The king was dead, long live the new king!

Henry VII was clever enough to wrap up the Wars of the Roses by marrying Elizabeth of York, Richard III’s niece and the only heir left on the York side. It was an opportunistic move at first: Pair up with the girl from the other side of the conflict, relocate her mother to a nunnery, bring peace and happiness to all of England (except, of course, the mother in the nunnery, as well as Richard III’s supporters).

Seventeen years and seven babies later, Elizabeth of York succumbed to complications of childbirth. Understandably, the royal widower  was heartbroken and ducked out of public view completely for six weeks. He came down with an illness similar to tuberculosis and it nearly killed him. However, he bounced back and got on with the business of raising his new heir, Prince Henry.

In time, the king was encouraged to remarry for diplomatic reasons. Sensing that her daughter (none other than Henry VII’s widowed daughter-in-law) Catherine of Aragon might be in his line of vision, Queen Isabella of Castille tried distraction: “Hey look, over there, something shiny! It’s Joan, Queen of Naples!” Henry VII was interested enough to send his ambassadors to get the goods on Joan; he clearly wanted to know what he might be getting into. Aside from needing to know the height of her forehead and the possibility of hair on her upper lip, he had the ambassadors report on:

•How was her complexion?
•Were her arms big or small, long or short?
•Was the palm of her hand thick or thin?
•Were her hands fat or lean, long or short?
•Were her fingers long or short, small or great, broad or narrow?
•Was her neck long or short, small or great?
•Were her breasts and “pappes” big or small?
…you know, the usual concerns. The answers were promising:
•Her complexion was clean, fair, and sanguine
•Her arms were somewhat round and not very small, but “of good proportion to her personage and stature of height”
•Her hands were somewhat full, soft, fair, and clean-skinned
•Her fingers were fair and small
•Her neck was full and comely, not misshapen, not very short nor very long. However, her neck appeared shorter “because her breasts were full and somewhat big.”
•More on the breasts! They appeared to be somewhat great and full, as they were “highly trussed.”
It just didn’t work out in the end, money and politics and all. There’s no word on whether Mr. Tudor gave Joan the “It’s not thee, it’s me” reason.
Before long, his tuberculosis was back with a vengeance. His breathing was labored and his joints were racked with arthritis. This well-organized micromanager had been planning for his death ever since that first bout with TB, a decade prior. He left England in a strong financial position, with a promising heir. What could possibly go wrong?


Filed under Across/Beyond Genres with The Tudors: Guest Posts by Novelists, Historians, Cultural Observers, Poets, Memoirists, Artists, and Bloggers

Would Anne Boleyn Have Enjoyed Living in a Tudor Revival House?

Tudor1An irreverent romp through the “old-world charm” of these buildings and why we are so enchanted by them. 

Binnie Klein’s memoir, Blows to the Head: How Boxing Changed My Mind (SUNY Press, 2010) is available here.  Here’s a 2 minute fun trailer. She hosts a weekly music and interview show on WPKN-FM. You can hear some of her radio interviews here. She’s working on a concept for Public Radio on the psychological meanings of our homes. She can be reached at

When was the last time, if ever, you used the word “enchanting?” It’s a term that connotes a dreamy, whisked-away to a never-neverland adventure, with hummingbirds that speak to you in profound haikus as you skip into a fresh, virginal future, the world drenched in a soft glow, like a big orange creamsicle.

When you think of the Tudor era, with its bellowing monarchs, betrayals, lack of indoor plumbing, and yes, beheadings, do you think “enchanting?” When you think of medieval times, do you think “charming?” Do you think “creamsicles?”

Google Image Search is a quick Rorschach test. Try “Medieval.” I don’t see “enchanting,” I see, um, dead people.  That is, armies, armor, horses, fighting, swords, castles, shields, skeletons, moats, men, lots of men, and more men, weapons, crowns, battles, feasts, stiff collars, public births, religious icons, maps, more men– anything remotely “charming” or “enchanting?”  Tudor image search is a little better – more people, less horses, kings, queens (more women now), and buildings reaching to the heavens like cathedrals.

But would you say these look enchanting?

Tudor2 Tudor3

These are Tudor Revival houses.

Chances are you’ve seen pictures of buildings like this, and they have been described as romantic, charming, storybook, fairy-tale, elegant, enchanting, cottage-y, historic, or special, and you’ve imagined yourself inside sitting by an imposing fireplace inlaid with pictorial tiles that tell the story of your ancestors (aunts and uncles appearing shockingly beautiful and important), warming yourself with a mug of steeping hot cider bigger than your head.

For many of us outside of England, we may have only seen “Tudor Revival” structures, and in fact, although the name “Tudor” originally described certain houses and manors built in the late 15th and early 16th centuries in England, during the Tudor Dynasty, in architecture today the term “Tudor” refers to a style popularized in the United States during the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.  The style itself also uses decorative elements from earlier centuries (which is why you sometimes see the term “Medieval Revival”). Sometimes the style is called “English Cottage,” sometimes “Tudorbethan.” (For a thorough-going and historically reverent exploration of Tudor architecture and Revivals there are many excellent resources elsewhere, like this National Geographic Documentary of Tudor Buildings.)

Why I’m Predisposed to See Tudor Revivals as Enchanting

What do you think when you see this picture of author Philip Roth’s childhood home,


a 2 & 1/2 family apartment building?  I show you this because I grew up in apartments in Newark that were quite similar. Most buildings on my street were all clapboard or vinyl-sided non-descript structures, aggressively unadorned. Squirrels gnawed on chain link fences. Grass grew wild and high, as if it were the main natural attraction; I don’t recall any flower gardens. We had the convenience of living behind the high school and grade school, but it was of little value to me that I had, with that proximity, the joy of sleeping until the first bell.

I grew up in that young country, America, and I had a limited sense of architecture. Styles? Chimneys? Manicured Lawns? Beckoning entryways?  They existed in my imagination, or even further away, in the suburbs, glimpsed on the occasional Sunday Drive of Longing.

When I walked far enough down Vassar Avenue, past Parkview Terrace, and onto Keer Avenue, I’d stand mesmerized by a house that stood out amongst the rest; The Tudor house. I knew that stylistic name, and that name only. There were a few in an adjoining neighborhood, and certainly more in the suburbs. What could possibly go on behind the dark, wooden-arched door, with its tantalizing little windows? Serious life, surely, with a library and a fireplace. Constance Mitchell, writing for the Wall Street Journal, bought herself a Tudor-revival because it reminded her “of the homes owned by nice middle-class families in old novels and black and white movies from the 1950s.” Inside she imagined “refined couples with the clever and well-mannered children.”

I shared her fantasy, and more. A Tudor revival house was the portal to a fairy-tale. With their steeped roofs, leaded-glass windows, and elaborate entrances, these houses meant one thing:  these people must be rich.  And there was one other detail that hummed like a sub-frequency on an alien transmission:  these houses are dark inside.  It may have been something I heard my parents say on the Sunday Drives of Longing.

Writer June Edelstein, who grew up in a Tudor-style house in a planned neighborhood chockfull of historical revivals in Syracuse, New York, confirms that her house WAS dark, although she never heard the same claim while living in it. She attributes it to the smaller windows, the dark wood inside, and being surrounded by trees.  But dark or not, she absolutely loved her house (and her childhood), and she always knew it was called a “Tudor.” “I made no connection between the style name and the actual Tudors,” she said, “but remembered being inside the house reading books about Anne Boleyn which were “right up my teen-girl alley. Betrayal! Romance! More Betrayal!”  I see her curled up on a window seat, under a patchwork quilt, reading about the notorious queen from a hard-cover book with illustrations.

Just The Facts, Ma’am

Usually there were four defining features of the original Tudor houses:

Half-timbering — This is what creates the distinctive black and white Tudor. Yummy, like a big Black and White Cookie.

Tudor5 Tudor6


They were constructed using a frame of hand-cut lattice beams (the dark part), then the gaps between the beams were filled with a mixture of clay, sand, straw, and sticks. After drying, it was painted white. The beams were coated with black tar to prevent rot.

Chimneys — Tended to be built out of brick, were tall, narrow, often with intricate carved designs.

Jetties — The advent of chimneys meant you could control indoor smoke, so a large, full-sized second floor could be built and kept warm. Tudor buildings often have a second floor that juts out over the street below and the buttresses that support these overhangs are called “jetties.”

If you listen to this kids’ radio show from England about Tudor houses you will be charmed (and possibly enchanted), as they tell you, in their lovely and innocent voices, a secret about those second floors. (Be patient; it’s in there.)

Windows — Before the advent of pre-industrial glassblowing technologies, glass was only created in tiny panes. That’s why we see the latticed casement windows in Tudors, with dozens of small panes.

Ever Wonder Where YOU Would have Lived in Tudor Times?

Here’s a game to help you find out (it will help if you are a carpenter, weaver, or cordwainer).

If you’d like to peek inside a Tudor Revival, perky decorator Meghan Carter will lead you on an enthusiastic journey.  She will excitedly tell you that the interior of Tudors can be dark and warm all at the same time! She interviews a serious expert with a notebook who tells her the message of the Tudor Revival was, “we’re older, we’re established, we’re not the new immigrants coming in.”

So why are we so fascinated with all this “old world charm?”

“Each one desireth to set his house aloft on the hill, to be seen afar off, and cast forth his beams of stately and curious workmanship into every quarter of the country” (William Harrison, 1577).

We love to belly up to the Heritage Bar. We want legacy. And if you don’t come by your gravitas via genetic legacy, if you build it, it will come. At least that’s the hope.

“We built our capital, DC, on a Francophile Empiricist Vision, with buildings trying to evoke, Greece, Rome and hubris, says author/architect Duo Dickinson. “Most look back,” he says, “not forward when it comes to claiming gravitas in built form.” We may be inventing the ancestry, but so what! Dickinson: “Legacy is accrued by hundreds of years of evolving tradition and history.” But sometimes, he says, “families grasp at architectural straws to let those around them know how much they are worth – not just monetarily but in the greater social sense.”

Why did the Tudor style become so enormously popular in the 1920s and 1930s in the United States? With their expansive entryways, “great rooms” and high ceilings, the Tudor Revivals evoked wealth. The style was often called “Stockbroker Tudor,” as financiers began to put their wealth into their houses. They wanted homes that would stand out.  The Stockbroker Tudors were an attempt to separate and distinguish the newly wealthy from the immigrant populations, with their overflowing pushcarts and street-life.

But over time, the styling took on a variety of forms; some elaborate mansions, some more modest suburban homes with mock masonry veneers.

Want to Build a Tudor-Revival House?

If you want one, you’ll need a useful course in the Tudor’s distinguishing features and a good set of blueprints, one that offers.  But be forewarned. You’ll want skilled architects and contractors, because as Dickinson says, “it’s a bitch to build if you do it ‘right.’ Building a heavy timber frame (like a barn) with a brick/masonry infill is excruciatingly arduous and expensive involving multiple skillsets.”

Want to Buy a Tudor-Revival House?

Actress Andie McDowell’s Tudor House, offered for sale in 2011, was described as a “magnificent four-story, storybook Tudor with Art Nouveau and Arts & Crafts influences” in Asheville, North Carolina.


There are many available. Here’s the interior of one in New Hope, Pennsylvania, available for over one million. Built as a hunting lodge for “a prominent early-American from the area” it has a great-room fireplace that depicts the story of Rip Van Winkle.


Need a Few More Tudor Goodies?

Here’s a 1927 Stockbroker Tudor in New York that needed lightening up.  Designer Steven Gambrel  made it “friendlier.”

Here’s an Assortment of Tudor Houses to drool over, like a box of chocolates.

Here’s the story of two really old landmark Tudor Houses that were restored, one from the 1660s, restored in the 1960s. The second Tudor is Crispin House, in St. Albans, built in 1480.

My days of longing for living in a Tudor Revival may have passed, but I have found something else to fantasize about. There are endless varieties of dollhouses, doghouses, playhouses, and hobbyist villages with details that send you squealing with glee. That could be me at the playhouse– watering chrysanthemums. These Tudor facsimiles may not represent centuries of wealth, but to me they are perhaps even more enchanting.

Tudor9 Tudor11 Tudor10

So would Anne Boleyn have enjoyed a Tudor Revival? Unfortunately, she didn’t live another 400 years to see if she’d prefer something more Frank Lloyd Wright. Maybe she’d enjoy the freedoms and cache of an industrial loft in Brooklyn. But with a Tudor Revival, she’d have the familiar Old World Charm (although it wouldn’t be “Old World” to her), some prestige, a larger bedroom than the one of her childhood, and she’d have indoor plumbing.



Filed under Across/Beyond Genres with The Tudors: Guest Posts by Novelists, Historians, Cultural Observers, Poets, Memoirists, Artists, and Bloggers