They’re only hu­man

His­to­rian Tracy Bor­man brings the roy­als to life

EADT Suffolk - - Inside -

WHEN we take a tour of a palace, cas­tle or stately home we ex­pect to be pre­sented with an abun­dance of in­for­ma­tion about ar­chi­tec­ture, an­ces­try and trea­sures, but it’s the peo­ple who once lived there that we’re of­ten most in­ter­ested in hear­ing about.

“Visi­tors of­ten ask, where did Henry VIII sleep? How did he go to the toi­let? How did he wash his clothes?” says Tracy Bor­man, joint chief cu­ra­tor of His­toric Royal Palaces. “It’s the pri­vate side of court life that fas­ci­nates peo­ple. How would we have lived if we were a Tu­dor?”

Re­al­is­ing how she, too, loved lift­ing the rope bar­ri­ers and go­ing through doors marked ‘pri­vate’, in her role over­see­ing Hamp­ton Court, Kens­ing­ton Palace and the other palaces in the group, Tracy de­cided to write a book on the facts lit­tle known about these fa­mil­iar his­toric figures.

“I’ve stud­ied the Tu­dors for many years and it was a com­plete joy to look at them from a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive,” she says. “There was so much ma­te­rial that had been over­looked, per­haps seem­ing triv­ial. But it helps to ex­plain the pub­lic ac­tions of these kings and queens when we can see what they were go­ing through in pri­vate.”

The stereo­types are shat­tered as a re­sult, she says. Henry VII wasn’t the miser he’s con­sid­ered to be. He had a bill of £3 mil­lion for his wardrobe and squan­dered thou­sands on a game of cards, spend­ing money when he felt un­der threat. Mary, who be­came queen while at Fram­ling­ham Cas­tle, may be con­sid­ered the vil­lain­ous ‘bloody Mary’, but led a tragic life, en­dur­ing phan­tom preg­nan­cies and a love­less marriage. And we may think of Henry VIII as stri­dent, self-con­fi­dent and mag­is­te­rial, but in pri­vate he was timid, a hypochon­driac and, in later life, in­firm.

“There were tricks go­ing on in pri­vate to cre­ate the pub­lic im­age of in­vin­ci­bil­ity,” says Tracy of the king. Strug­gling to cope af­ter a joust­ing ac­ci­dent, Henry VIII had to have a stair lift to take him be­tween floors of his privy cham­ber, and he had a fur lin­ing sewn into his un­der­clothes to keep him warm. The royal ser­vants kept ex­traor­di­nar­ily de­tailed records of life in the privy cham­ber, and these house­hold ac­counts are held in the Bri­tish Li­brary and the Na­tional Archive, which Tracy was able to ac­cess for the book, The Pri­vate Lives of the Tu­dors. But what the Tu­dors them­selves chose to re­veal about their lives is sur­pris­ing, she says. While Elizabeth’s sub­jects didn’t know how many hours were taken to con­ceal the queen’s age, through make-up, for ex­am­ple, the roy­als were com­pletely can­did about their love lives.

“It was all about ‘the beget­ting of heirs’, so they wouldn’t have thought it shock­ing that sub­jects were in­ter­ested in what was go­ing on in the royal bed­room,” says Tracy. “I think the se­cret of the Tu­dors’ suc­cess was in hold­ing quite a lot back from the pub­lic. They ap­pre­ci­ated the need to keep one’s pri­vate life (with the ex­clu­sion of their love life) pri­vate, truly pri­vate. This meant they re­tained the mys­tique of monar­chy.”

The book has proved a tremen­dous hit and was turned into a TV series. There will be a se­quel, The Pri­vate Lives of the Monar­chs, to be aired on Yes­ter­day TV this au­tumn, at the time when Tracy will be in Suf­folk at the Lavenham Lit­er­ary Fes­ti­val. This is a re­peat visit – Tracy is a pop­u­lar speaker, pas­sion­ate about her sub­ject and in­fec­tious in her en­thu­si­asm. She has pub­lished six his­tor­i­cal bi­ogra­phies, all fo­cus­ing on el­e­ments of the

‘I think the se­cret of the Tu­dors’ suc­cess was in hold­ing quite a lot back from the pub­lic’

Tu­dor reign, and she will shortly re­lease a book with “a cun­ning new an­gle” on Henry VIII. “I’m not al­lowed to say what it is,” she says. “What fas­ci­nates me, as a his­to­rian, is what lies un­der­neath, not just the pri­vate lives of the Tu­dors, but when I wrote a bi­og­ra­phy about Thomas Cromwell, it was the man as well as the politi­cian that I wanted to find out about.

“When I was at school, my A-level teacher taught me that his­tory is about hu­mans and sto­ries, not only the events that are formed by pol­i­tics and war. She was such an in­spi­ra­tion and it’s thanks to her that I’m do­ing what I’m do­ing to­day.”

De­spite a daunt­ing work­load, Tracy is also now turn­ing to writ­ing fic­tion, with a novel set in Stuart times re­leased in the spring.

“His­tor­i­cal nov­els are what I read for plea­sure, and I have al­ways wanted to write one,” she says. “The sense of free­dom ap­pealed to me – to be able to ex­plore the ‘what ifs’, to be able to use my imag­i­na­tion when sources no longer sur­vive. But writ­ing never feels like work. It’s some­thing that I can’t wait to get back to. Go­ing to the Bri­tish Li­brary for me feels like go­ing to a health spa. I find it restor­ing, al­most re­lax­ing. It’s just bliss.”

Tracy Bor­man is speak­ing at the Lavenham Lit­er­ary Fes­ti­val on Novem­ber 18. www.laven­ham­lit­er­aryfes­ti­val.co.uk

His­to­rian and spe­cial guest Tracy Bor­man

Top, Mary Tu­dor. Photo: Copy­right CIMS on be­half of Ip­swich Bor­ough Coun­cil A por­trait of Henry VIII, painted by Hans Hol­bein, the Younger

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