Shakespearean Spin


Early Modern Britain’ Reveals How Country Reshaped its Past

We all know Shakespeare’s Falstaff, the jolly knight, drunkard and boon companion to Prince Henry in “Henry IV” and the buffoonish chaser of women in “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” We all know Queen Elizabeth I and her various modern-day portrayals by legendary actresses from Bette Davis to Dame Judi Dench to Cate Blanchett to Helen Mirren, who also gave us a recent film performance of present-day Queen Elizabeth II. And of course we all know the different guises of Henry VIII, from performances by Charles Laughton to Richard Burton to Robert Shaw to the much thinner and younger version we see on television today in the Showtime series “The Tudors.”

These are the famous characters that make up the historical underpinnings of Shakespeare’s England—all those princes, kings, queens, lords and ladies that make England so English—but do we really know as much about British history as we think we do?

Over the years, the history of England has morphed into modern fact through novels, plays, books, films and television series. In fact, the English themselves have been reshaping and rewriting their own history far longer than we may realize. That’s the fascinating premise behind “History in the Making: How Early Modern Britain Imagined its Past,” a wide-ranging exhibition now at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

The display covers a period roughly from 1485 to 1700, or from the ascension of Henry VII and his Tudor dynasty to the end of the Stuart lineage as rulers in England. That’s a lot of territory not only for England but also for all of Europe—a period in which religious wars raged on the continent and two dynasties fought for legitimacy and dominance in England. This was the time of Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I, Charles I, Oliver Cromwell and Charles II, to mention but a few of England’s heavy-hitters.

Great events, triumphs and tragedies occurred as British monarchs tried to win the favor of both the public and Parliament, resulting in a wave of change—not all of it good, or welcome. And just as politicians today try to put a favorable “spin” on everything, the Folger shows us how kings, clergymen, scholars, historians and others tweaked the historical record to mold Britain’s legacy in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Let’s start with Henry Tudor, who, after his triumph over Richard III, had to establish the validity of his newfound Tudor dynasty. He did so by marrying Elizabeth of York, thus ending the War of the Roses and uniting the Houses of Lancaster and York. According to the Folger, Henry wanted “to create dynastic continuity out of military victory, and put an end to years of civil strife that had decimated England.” But this political victory was followed by religious upheaval: In his pursuit of a male heir, Henry VIII ran afoul of the pope and the Church of Rome and created the Church of England as one offshoot of the English Reformation.

The Tudor eminence lasted until the death of Elizabeth, Henry’s daughter with Ann Boleyn—the woman for whom Henry had defied the Roman Church and whom he would later execute for essentially failing to provide him a male heir. Elizabeth herself left no successor or offspring, except perhaps the dramatic legacy of her colorful reign as queen. That reign, which overlapped with Shakespeare’s time, provided the cultural basis that elevated the country’s language development and helped writers such as Shakespeare transform the literary landscape.

Shakespeare may have also been one of the originators of the contemporary craft of spinning. For instance, his “Richard III” not only helped cement Henry VII’s claim to the throne, but also vies with the historical record as to how we remember that king.

But Shakespeare wasn’t the only spinner of the day. For instance, to validate the newly formed Church of England, antiquarians and historians re-examined the country’s roots, even beyond the Roman presence, to suggest that a true English source for the church did indeed exist—as opposed to the pope’s version.

Likewise, heroes—a byproduct of both popular and unpopular wars—were always good for maintaining those wars. So England, with its less than exemplary foray into war with the Netherlands in the 1600s, produced itself a hero—one Sir Philip Sidney, who was killed within months of his arrival in the Netherlands. Although a relatively unimportant figure, Sidney was given an elaborate, spectacular and emotional funeral that would go down in history—the procession of which was recorded on a highly detailed scroll featured in the exhibit

Want more “history in the making?” Leaves from a manuscript reveal the primary players behind the so-called Gunpowder Plot, formed to displace Protestant rule by killing King James I and the entire Protestant aristocracy. After foiling the assassination attempt, the king used his survival to suggest that he and his progeny were blessed by providence, although whether it was a Protestant providence or a Catholic one, we do not know.

James himself was actually Catholic, like his mother, Mary Queen of Scots—Elizabeth I’s rival for the throne—who was beheaded after 18 years of confinement. James’ son Charles suffered a similar fate after a showdown with Parliament, as we see in this exhibition. “Eikon basilika,” a book purportedly written by Charles just days prior to his beheading, quickly became a phenomenal bestseller, although challenges disputing its authenticity quickly surfaced.

England’s own dramatic history—full of taciturn maneuvers, peril and the violent pleadings of religious and dynastic ambitions—was of course ideal writing material for Shakespeare and many others throughout history. In fact, historical interpretations came from all walks of life—merchants, aristocrats, statesmen, soldiers, Tudors, Stuarts, Catholics and Protestants—each defining what it meant to be English.

Their period books, poems, parchments, scrolls, illustrations and drawings from the vast holdings of the Folger Library reveal how the English attempted to control the history of their times, which were clearly changing, for better or for worse.

History in the Making: How Early Modern Britain Imagined its Past through May 17 Folger Shakespeare Library 201 East Capitol St., SE For more information, please call (202) 544-4600 or visit

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.