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Best 5 Tudor era novels

Updated on January 3, 2016

Here are my top 5 Tudor Era novels


Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir

Innocent Traitor is about Lady Jane Grey, fated to be England’s queen for just nine days. Jane was the reluctant pawn in two attempts to create a monarch sympathetic to the protestant cause. However, both plots were unsuccesful and ended with Jane’s execution at the age of 16 years old.

Weir is a popular historian and this was her first foray into fiction. The benefit for the reader is that Weir uses her extensive knowledge to craft a solidly detailed story. Jane’s essentially tragic tale is told thoughtfully and sympathetically. Weir tells the story through the eyes of a range of characters in Jane’s life. Some of these include other well known figures in Tudor history. These include Queen Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth wife, and Jane’s cousin Queen Mary I, who was responsible for ordering Jane’s execution.

The book portrays Jane as a highly intelligent, principled and moral young woman. She was the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister Mary and was briefly touted as a suitable bride for her cousin Edward VI. She had an unusually sophisticated education, particularly so for a woman of her times. She used study and religion to take refuge from an unhappy family life and a dysfunctional arranged marriage. This included corresponding with “some of the finest minds”of her age.

Tudor history tends to focus on Jane Grey’s relatives, particularly Elizabeth I and the turbulent relationships of Henry VIII and his wives. Jane’s short life was dramatised in a film but apart from this there have been few modern attempts to fictionalise her story. It is a pleasure that Weir has put this matter aright.

Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman

Primarily the Sunne in Splendour details the rise and fall of Richard III during the Wars of the Roses. However, I rank it as a Tudor novel for the interesting background details it gives on the formation of the Tudor dynasty.

The novel begins during Richard’s childhood. During a brutal struggle for the English throne, Richard’s father and brother are killed. After a series of battles, Richard’s elder brother Edward IV attains the throne. Edward IV was handsome, highly charismatic and a brilliant battle commander. These are cruel times. There are many battle scenes and gruesome acts.

Edward and his wife Elizabeth Woodville were the parents of the two young princes who famously disappeared from the Tower of London. Although very beautiful, Elizabeth was the daughter of a minor noble. It caused a scandal when King Edward IV married Elizabeth in secret for love. Although Edward was a well known womaniser he always returned to Elizabeth. When Edward died of natural causes his younger brother Richard claimed the throne. He contended that Edward and Elizabeth were not properly married and that their children were illegitimate.

Richard III is synonymous for being an evil, disloyal monster responsible for the murder of his young nephews. in contrast, Penman’s Richard is loyal, intelligent and compassionate. In the novel Richard has a very touching relationship with his cousin Anne, whom he marries for love. He does not wish to ascend the throne but is forced to do so by circumstances.

The end of Richard’s reign marked the beginning of the Tudor dynasty. Richard was defeated in battle. The battle’s victor, Henry VII claimed the English throne. Henry VII married Elizabeth of York, the daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. Henry VII and Elizabeth were the parents of Henry VIII.

Penman writes beautifully. She includes lovely historical details and her characters are well rounded. The Sunne in Splendour also makes my list of best medieval novels. A highly enjoyable and thought provoking read. This novel also includes Penman’s take on who was responsible for the murder of the two young princes in the Tower.

The Other Boleyn Girl by Phillipa Gregory

This highly popular novel focuses on Mary Boleyn the sister to Anne Boleyn. Anne of course was Henry VIII’s second queen.

At the beginning of the novel Henry is attracted to Mary who is already married. He initiates an affair with her. This is condoned by Mary’s family, who see the relationship as a path to increased political influence. Their affair is short lived although afterwards Mary and Henry enjoy a long lasting affection for each other.

Later Henry becomes passionately attracted to Anne. The sisters are portrayed as opposites. Mary is beautiful, well meaning and innocent. Anne is seductive, sophisticated and calculating. Mary watches as Anne spends years firing Henry’s passion. Eventually, in the absence of a male heir from his first marriage, Henry decides to divorce his queen in order to marry Anne.

However, Anne is unable to give Henry the heir he craves, and their marriage ends in disaster. Without giving away too much of the plot, Mary grows to become increasingly self reliant. To preserve her own happiness she must be strong enough to look after her children and to forge new relationships.

Some of the historical details are questionable so the novel should definitely be enjoyed as a work of fiction. However, there is so much to attract many readers here. There is the love triangle between the two sisters. There are political power games. There is seduction, manipulation and romance.

Gregory has written a series of books set in the Tudor court, but this is the best one. The characters have depth, there are plenty of historical details and the story is compelling. The prose is well written and easily read.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

This book centres on the rise to power of Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell came from humble beginnings to be Henry VIII’s Chief Minister. This was a position of great political influence and power.

Cromwell is remembered by history as Henry VIII’s coldly calculating right hand man. He was responsible for administering some of the most controversial acts of Henry’s reign. These included overseeing religious and taxation reforms. These reforms appointed Henry VIII as head of the Church of England and discarded the Catholic Church. Cromwell’s laws were also responsible for the dismantling of England’s monastaries with their wealth being absorbed by the Crown. Like his king, Cromwell also had his own confrontations with Sir Thomas More. Famously, More was Henry VIII’s close friend and Chief Minister. However, More oppossed Henry’s dissolution of the Church and was eventually executed for his opposition.

Mantel’s Cromwell is loyal and loving to his family. He acts compassionately to those less well off. He is highly intelligent, acts calmly under pressure and has a superb memory for details. As the son of a mere blacksmith Cromwell is viewed with contempt by many of the nobles in Henry’s court. The Tudor court is a place full of danger and ruthlessness. Men can be executed for professing the wrong religious opinions or loyalties. In Mantel’s novel Cromwell too is capable of ruthless acts but not acts of wanton cruelty. He lives in dark and dangerous times.

Mantel manages to successfully craft a believeable character from the details we know of Cromwell’s life. A richly crafted and imagined work, this book won the Booker Prize in 2009.

Wolf Hall

The autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George

This lengthy book presents the imaginary memoirs of Henry VIII. George examines what Henry was thinking and feeling through the emotional and political tumult of divorcing, executing and outliving five of his six wives.

So much has been written about the thoughts and views of others who had relationships with Henry. This book imagines Henry’s thought processes and self justifications for his actions.

Henry was full of contradictions. He was self pityng, proud and powerful. In his youth he visualised himself as a charismatic king, devoted husband and champion of the Catholic Church. Then he became infatuated with Anne Boleyn. Henry spent years pursuing her. He was willing to discard his wife of over 15 years and braved enormous resistance in order to marry her. However, Anne was unable to produce a male heir. So just a few brief years after their marriage, Henry approved Anne’s beheading.

Henry not only executed two of his six wives. He is also well known for executing his close friend and Chancellor, Sir Thomas More. More famously refused to support Henry’s separation from the Roman Catholic Church. Henry wanted to separate from the Catholic church so he could divorce his queen, Catherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn. After refusing to support Henry’s new church and remaining loyal to the Catholic Pope, More was executed as a traitor.

The book follows Henry’s views on his misfortunes in marriage. It contrasts his desparation for a legitimate son with the neglect of his two legitimate daughters. Henry was a man of immense passion and the power to live out his passions. He could love deeply, but he could also hate deeply. The book traces Henry’s journey from a youthful, handsome prince, full of potential to an obese, lonely old man.

An enjoyable, but long read.


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    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 

      2 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      I've read three of these five and endorse them whole-heartedly. The story of Lady Jane Grey is difficult. How parents of any era could be so uncaring and calculating is beyond understanding.

      Glad you included one of Philippa Gregory's works. I'd recommend all of them. Try to read them in chronological order, though she didn't write them that way.

    • mactavers profile image


      7 years ago

      Thanks for the interesting reading selections from the Tudor period.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Except The Other Boleyn Girl I have not read other books. I hope to read at least one of the listings. Thank you this great hub.


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