They’re only human
Historian Tracy Borman brings the royals to life
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
Top, Mary Tudor. Photo: Copyright CIMS on behalf of Ipswich Borough Council A portrait of Henry VIII, painted by Hans Holbein, the Younger