HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Tudors in Love: The Courtly Code Behind the Last Medieval Dynasty’ by Sarah Gristwood

Why did Henry VIII marry six times? Why did Anne Boleyn have to die? Why did Elizabeth I’s courtiers hail her as a goddess come to earth?

The dramas of courtly love have captivated centuries of readers and dreamers. Yet too often they’re dismissed as something existing only in books and song – those old legends of King Arthur and chivalric fantasy.

Not so. In this ground-breaking history, Sarah Gristwood reveals the way courtly love made and marred the Tudor dynasty. From Henry VIII declaring himself as the ‘loyal and most assured servant’ of Anne Boleyn to the poems lavished on Elizabeth I by her suitors, the Tudors re-enacted the roles of the devoted lovers and capricious mistresses first laid out in the romances of medieval literature. The Tudors in Love dissects the codes of love, desire and power, unveiling romantic obsessions that have shaped the history of this nation.

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When I saw this book advertised, I thought three things – 1. ooh, a new book from Sarah! 2. It’s so pretty! 3. Can any book really live up to the hyped early reviews they receive? I had to roll up my grumpy covid-outbreak words and bake them into a humble pie, because, yes, The Tudors in Love really is a wonderful book.

Love is not a subject of which I am especially fond or enjoy reading, and while I understand the concept of courtly love in the time of the Tudors, I have always found it to be, well, a bit dumb. I mean, look what happened to Anne Boleyn as an example. But here is a book that can make even a cynical asexual like myself appreciate its place at court.

I have always found the concept of courtly love misogynistic; a man wants to woo his object of desire, and if she gave in to his affections, she was a whore. If she did not, she was frigid and cruel. Gristwood writes about this particular issue in medieval literature and points out even they could see the flaws in the imagined game of romance. The games of love and romance then leaked into a concept that one should love the person they marry. Edward IV’s foolish marriage to Elizabeth Woodville is a classic example of how quickly romantic love can cause disaster, while their daughter Elizabeth married Henry Tudor and had an honest, loving relationship born out of more than foolish love/lust at first sight. Henry VII and Queen Elizabeth may have had something of a perfect marriage with dynastic ties and genuine affection but would prove a hard, nigh impossible, act to follow.

Perhaps Henry and Elizabeth wished the same for their children, Margaret was given in marriage to gain an alliance, only to then be free to make love matches later, Margaret a classic example of seeing love burned to ashes by the realities of marriage. Mary fared better; she was sold in a disgusting political marriage, only to have her old husband drop dead and the man of her dreams come to her rescue immediately after. Mary’s stolen chance to marry for romance and having things work out was a rare case indeed.

Their brother Henry VIII cannot for a moment take a back seat in the tales of courtly love in the 16th century. He loved his wife, Katherine, nicknaming himself Sir loyal Heart and waxing lyrical of his admiration for his wife. It should have been perfect; Henry and Katherine were an excellent political match and could have been as in love and happy on the throne as his parents before them, had the constant loss of their children not hardened Henry’s heart and broken Katherine’s.

While Katherine was openly loved, Anne Boleyn suffered from the pain of courtly love from Henry. Free of the burden of politics and marriage, Henry could chase Anne, declare love, write love letters, he Anne’s servant and she Henry’s sovereign. Henry could not tell the difference between courtly and marital love and married Anne, sucking the fun and thrill of the chase from the game. Anne, now a married birthing machine, still had to play the foolish games of courtly love with other admirers, only to have her words twisted against her when Henry confused his game of courtly love with Jane Seymour for a desire for marriage yet again.

While Henry’s three final marriages were a mixture of manchild tantrums, impulsive mistakes and wavering affections, and his son Edward too young to ever play the game  before his demise, Queen Mary came next. The game of courtly love was not one really played by Mary, with her marriage a political choice with no winners. Perhaps if Mary and Philip had indulged in some courtly love, at least some mild affection could have blossomed.

But it was Queen Elizabeth who had watched the games of court long enough by the time she took the throne. No one could play the game like Elizabeth. Fluttering lashes, poetry, majestic parties, smouldering glances, all the detailed images of courtly love were prepared for the beautiful queen, who had her hands full with constant favourites and men trapped in a web of their own making. Elizabeth’s ability to play men off one another and string them along without making the mistake of marriage made for many interesting scenarios, only for the misogyny of the whole concept to again rear its ugly head when Elizabeth became too old to beguile anyone. But even as Elizabeth’s games of courtly love started to lose their appeal, even to her favourites, she had already solidified her real power enough that the games no longer mattered, and she could defeat any man who dared threaten her crown. Only Elizabeth, the one to understand courtly love and the strings which made men her puppets, and who never confused the game with marriage and duty, could ever call herself the winner.

The Tudors in Love is an excellent book because it does what many fail to do; find a new angle on the subject of the Tudors, and carve out a new story without wandering off-topic. The concept of courtly love, its origins, its meanings and the implications, are all clearly laid out and explained in context. It is so easy to get lost in the webs of Tudor history and sources, and yet Gristwood has kept the theme throughout the book, leaving anything unnecessary on the editing room floor. If only all authors could be as singular minded when delivering a unique narrative.

no free book or money changed hands in return for this review