Category: Tudor England

The Origins of the Unicorn

The Maiden and the Unicorn by Domenichino, 1602.
The Maiden and the Unicorn by Domenichino, 1602.

According to historians, the legend of the unicorn first emerged in 398 BC courtesy of the Greek physician Ctesias.  Ctesias wrote an account of India, titled Indica.  He attests that all recorded within his account are things that he has witnessed himself or that he has had related to him by credible witnesses.  This account of India, though largely lost, has been preserved in a fragmentary abstract made in the 9th century by Photios I of Constantinople.  In the twenty-fifth fragment, Ctesias writes of the unicorn, stating:[…]Continue Reading

Grimalkins, Gothics, & Beware the Cat

“I knewe these things wil seem mervelous to many men, that Cats should understand and speak, have a governour among themselves, and be obedient to their Lawes…” (Beware the Cat by William Baldwin, 1570.)

A Naturalistic Cat by Louis Wain, (1860 – 1939).
A Naturalistic Cat by Louis Wain, (1860–1939).

In the year 1553, during the reign of Edward VI, printer’s assistant William Baldwin penned the first English novel ever written: Beware the Cat.  Before this time, all works of fiction in English of short-story length or longer were not original texts.  They were translations or adaptations from other languages, such as French or Latin.[…]Continue Reading

Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell, and the Power of Popular Fiction

Mark Rylance portrays Thomas Cromwell in the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall. Photograph: BBC
Mark Rylance portrays Thomas Cromwell in the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall. Photograph: BBC

It is fascinating to see the effect that a popular work of historical fiction can have on revising the public’s beliefs about a traditionally reviled figure like Thomas Cromwell.  Of course, one would like to believe that the average everyday reader of historical novels knows the difference between fact and fiction – and the reality is that most of us do.  Nevertheless, popular novels, such as Wolf Hall and The Da Vinci Code, do have a profound impact on how once settled history is perceived by both the general public and even by some historians and scholars.[…]Continue Reading

Wolf Hall and Sir Thomas More: Historical Fact vs. Historical Fiction

Anton Lesser portrays Thomas More in the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall. Photograph: BBC.

Like many lovers of historical fiction, last Sunday night, I tuned in to the Masterpiece Theater premiere of Wolf Hall.  In scope and scale, I was not disappointed.  The sets were magnificent.  The costumes designed with understated accuracy.  And the acting and dialogue quiet, thoughtful, and a great deal less soapy than the last television series to feature this particular cast of historic characters.  (*Disclaimer: Soapy or not, I thoroughly enjoyed The Tudors.)

Somewhat surprisingly, Thomas Cromwell is depicted as the protagonist of Wolf Hall.  We learn about his working class upbringing, his abusive father, and his struggles to fit in at his job.  We meet his devoted wife and angelic daughters.  And somehow along the way, with what can only be described as a hefty dose of artistic license, the Cromwell of history – a man who was both hated and feared – becomes a sympathetic figure.

This novel version of Cromwell should have prepared me for an equally novel version of Thomas More.  It did not.  When More first appeared on the screen, I was astonished.  Could it be that in the fictional world of Wolf Hall Saint Thomas More is the villain?[…]Continue Reading