Like everyone else born in England, I am a direct descendant of King Henry VIII.

Actually, that’s almost certainly not true, but Henry does have a bit of a reputation (those six wives, of course, and goodness knows how many mistresses), and details of the exact number of progeny are vague, to say the least. But any notion that Henry fathered the equivalent of a small hamlet’s worth of Tudor brats is one of many misconceptions about Britain’s “greatest dynasty” that Tracy Borman is keen to dispel in her comprehensively researched and compulsively readable history, “The Private Lives of the Tudors.”

Near the end of his life, for example — despite his reputation for manliness and virility — Henry was almost certainly impotent and probably had Type 2 diabetes, neither of which could have helped with the production of more heirs to the throne.

Could the Tudors really have had any kind of private life at all? This was an age, after all, in which a new bride’s bloodstained sheets were publicly displayed the morning after the wedding night to prove her prior virginity, and a time when the king had an official Groom of the Stool to attend to his nocturnal ablutions and “wipe the nether end.”

The Tudors did their best to limit the number of prying eyes (Henry VII, in particular, was guarded to the point of paranoia), but as with the royal family today, their private lives were a hot topic of public speculation — understandably, when the ability of the king and queen to produce an heir was a matter of national security.

Little was secret, and nothing was sacred; Elizabeth I complained of the “thousand eyes” watching her constantly. Edward VI’s final illness was recorded in excruciating detail — bile, scabs and all.

Speaking of illness, the descriptions of Tudor medicine are in turns hilarious and horrifying: Stomach pains were treated with a mix of “wormwood, spearmint, vinegar, rose water and a dead chaffinch.” And let’s not even think about Henry VIII’s enema.

The potions, plots, liaisons and marriages described in this book are thoroughly entertaining, but for the Tudors, the consequences were rather more somber. The indiscreet Lord Seymour, caught in compromising circumstances with the young Elizabeth, eventually faced 33 charges of treason and “had his head chopped off,” as Edward VI rather dryly noted in his diary. For Elizabeth, writes Borman, it was “a brutal but invaluable lesson: for a person of royal blood, private desires could have deadly outcomes.”

For us, however, it just makes a bloody good read.


Paul Duncan is an international business development consultant specializing in the United Kingdom. He lives in St. Paul.

The Private Lives of the Tudors
By: Tracy Borman.
Publisher: Grove Press, 448 pages, $27.