History in the Making press coverage

First coverage at dcathome.com

In the turbulent aftermath of decades of religious and political upheaval, British monarchs waged campaigns to win the confidence of both the Parliament and their public. By carefully promoting or concealing aspects of the historical record, rulers crafted revisionist histories to legitimize their claim to the throne. Authors, historians, and religious figures capitalized on this practice as well. In short, Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries experienced something that easily resonates with our world today–—we call it spin.

Featuring over 100 items from the Folger collection, including some never exhibited before, History in the Making: How Early Modern Britain Imagined its Past looks at how kings, chroniclers, churchman, and scholars wrote and rewrote British history. Curators Alan Stewart and Garrett Sullivan explore legitimacy and the legacy of political power, the British national past, and the provocative power of religion through books, manuscripts, artifacts, and pictures from England’s Golden Age.

“I think we all know that history doesn’t tell the whole story: that it’s told from the side of the victor. But Britain from around 1485 to 1700 is a case where you can see this making of history being done in a very deliberate way, to very specific ends–—to justify a new regime, the Tudor dynasty; to justify a new church, after the English Reformation, and so on. It also happens that this period is where a lot of British and American institutions find their origins, so it’s important to know where they come from,” said curator Alan Stewart.

The Tudors and their successors had a wealth of topics to choose from: civil wars, beheadings, foreign invasions, and assassination attempts provided ample opportunities for monarchs and their supporters to interpret and commemorate events.

In 1485, Henry Tudor defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth, seized the English crown, and founded the Tudor dynasty as Henry VII. Henry tempered this violent overthrow by marrying Elizabeth of York, daughter of the deposed Edward VI. The marriage represented Henry’s attempt to create dynastic continuity out of military victory, and put an end to years of civil strife that had decimated England. Over sixty years later, chronicler Edward Hall—one of several on display—celebrates Henry VIII, Henry Tudor’s son, as the “vndubitate flower and very heire of both the sayd linages” in The Union of the Two Noble and Illustrate Famelies of Lancastre [and] Yorke.

Lineage was important to non-royals as well. In 1665, the Taylors, a gentry family who was ennobled in 1664, produced a family tree tracing their lineage back to the 14th century. In that year nine-year-old Sir Thomas Taylor, who had inherited a baronetcy from his father, was the last living male heir. The delineation and pedigree of the family of the Taylors of Shadoxhurst, Kent—shown for the first time in History in the Making— offers exhibition goers a poignant glimpse into the family’s ascent and vulnerability.

In contrast to the Taylors’ private commemoration of their history, Sir Philip Sidney was celebrated on a national scale. His sudden death at age 32 gave England a hero in their war against the Spanish. Sent by Elizabeth I to lead English troops in the Netherlands, Sidney was fatally wounded within months of his arrival. Although a relatively unimportant courtier, his body was carried back to England, and his stately funeral became a rallying point for English morale. Two years after the funeral, Sidney’s death still carried caché. Philip Lant, who had accompanied Sidney in the Netherlands, created a scroll commemorating the funeral which was subsequently printed in book form, with text in English and Latin and many illustrations. History in the Making marks the first time the Folger has exhibited this remarkable document.

Other monarchs figured in interpretations of present-day events to sway public opinion, either directly or indirectly. James I claimed divine providence after surviving the assassination attempt of the Gunpowder Plot; leaves from the Treveylon manuscript show the primary players in the plot. Supporters of Mary Queen of Scots commemorated her as a Catholic martyr after her execution and a printed portrait of Mary shows angels offering her celestial crowns, while images of her execution appear below. The Eikon basilika, a book purportedly containing the final thoughts of Charles I, was published just days after his beheading and became a phenomenal best-seller; a color frontispiece on display shows the king holding a crown of thorns, inviting comparison to Christ.

“Renaissance literature is filled with interesting parallels to the present. People have pointed out that Shakespeare’s Henry V parallels any president at war,” said curator Garrett Sullivan.

Interpretations of these turbulent yet decisive centuries gained currency not only in the Tudor and Stuart periods, but for subsequent generations as well. Many of our current notions regarding Mary Queen of Scots, Henry VIII, and Elizabeth I can be traced to accounts created hundreds of years ago. From television series to Shakespeare, whose treatment of history owes much to Edward Hall, Hall’s contemporary Raphael Holinshed, and other writers, we encounter the influence of “history in the making.”

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