Tracy Borman is a historian and author of many books, particularly focussing on the Tudor period. Tracy’s most recent book is The Private Lives of the Tudors: uncovering the secrets of Britain’s greatest dynasty. She is also Joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces.
1. Where did you first develop your interest in history and particularly the Tudors?
According to my parents (neither of whom are great history fans), my love of the subject comes from my paternal grandfather. He was always transcribing articles from local journals and newspapers about the history of his locality, and also took a real interest in parliamentary records. He died long before I was born, so I’m sad that I never got to meet him. I think we would have had a lot to talk about!
My interest in the Tudors is thanks to an inspirational teacher. Mrs Jones taught me A Level history and she had pictures of the Tudors all over her classroom so that we could see who she was referring to. That helped to bring things to life, but the real difference that Mrs Jones made was to make me realise that history is about real people with real emotions and often very personal motivations, rather than just grand political strategies and seismic events.
This transformed the way I studied the subject and still influences me to this day - particularly with my latest book, The Private Lives of the Tudors, which is all about how the life these iconic monarchs lived behind closed doors influenced their actions in public. For example, Henry VIII is often depicted as a tyrant during his later years, but when you discover what he was going through in private, you have a whole new sympathy for him!
2. You work from an office at Hampton Court which sounds very glamourous. What is it like having a royal palace as a workplace?
I can’t pretend that, as a Tudor historian, it’s anything other than completely wonderful - and a huge privilege - to work in the greatest surviving Tudor palace in the world. Even though a great deal of my working day is spent in meetings or behind a computer, the fact that I’m in a palace makes all the difference.
One of my favourite parts of the job is getting to go through the doors marked ‘Private’. Even though a lot of them have something like a store room or broom cupboard on the other side, it still gives me a thrill to go to a part of the palace that not many other people get to see.
3. You have written about huge historical figures like Elizabeth I and Thomas Cromwell. Is it a challenge as a historian to find a new angle or are we discovering new information all the time?
It is true that for popular subjects such as the Tudors, the challenge can be to find something that is genuinely new to say. But I am passionate about going back to the original sources for my research, and the archives always turn up something unexpected.
Of course, the dream is to find that piece of evidence that unlocks a great historical mystery - such as whether Elizabeth really was the Virgin Queen, or who murdered the Princes in the Tower. But even the minutiae of history is fascinating and can transform people’s perception of a person or event.
For example, while researching Thomas Cromwell, I went through his account books. They might not sound very interesting on the surface, but they provided a startling new insight into the character of the man: how he liked to spend his leisure time, which books he had in his library, how much he spent every year on wine (a great deal!) and even the fact that he kept what was only described as a ‘strange beast’ in his back garden. It is details such as these that, when pieced together, really bring historical characters to life.
4. If it was possible to somehow meet one historical figure from the past who would it be and what would you like to ask them?
It is so difficult to narrow it down to just one! But I think it would have to be Cromwell, and I would ask him if he really was behind the downfall of Anne Boleyn.
5. What is on your list of books to read at the moment?
For research, I have a large pile of books about Henry VIII as he will be the subject of my next non-fiction book.
For pleasure, I always read historical novels. I have recently discovered SJ Parris and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel to Prophecy. Having hugely enjoyed Robyn Young’s new novel, Sons of the Blood, I am going to look through her back list for more books to devour.
But the most eagerly anticipated book on my list has to be the third and final instalment of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall series. Even though I know Cromwell’s fate, I’m still somehow hoping for a happy ending!
6. Do you have a message for your many readers in Suffolk Libraries?
I would like to warmly thank all my readers at Suffolk Libraries for the interest that they have shown in my books. I am a passionate supporter of libraries: from active local libraries such as those in Suffolk, to national institutions such as the British Library, where I do the bulk of my research and writing.
Libraries are an invaluable part of the community so I hope that they will secure all the funding and support that they need to keep them thriving long into the future.
7. You are visiting Suffolk for the Lavenham Literary Festival in November. Can you give us a small taster of what to expect?
I will be giving the audience the Tudors as they’ve never seen them before - and I have to warn them now: it won’t always be a pretty sight! My talk will explore the lives that each of these famous monarchs lived behind closed doors, and there will be quite a few surprises along the way.
Without exception, every single one of the Tudor monarchs changes dramatically when you look at how they lived their lives away from the glare of the public court. I can’t wait to return to beautiful Lavenham and be part of its fantastic literary festival. I know that I’ll be in for a treat.
Tracy is visiting Suffolk in November to speak at the Lavenham Literary Festival. For further details on Tracy’s visit or the rest of the programme visit the Lavenham Literary Festival website.