Tudor to Stuart

From Tudor to Stuart: review and author interview

Professor Susan Doran is a Senior Research Fellow at Jesus College and one of the foremost authorities on the reign of Elizabeth I and Tudor history in general. Her latest book, From Tudor to Stuart: The Regime Change from Elizabeth I to James I, is her first foray into the Stuart period.

Exploring the first ten years of James VI and I’s English reign, the book examines the conscious presentation of the Jacobean royal image as compared to that of Elizabeth, who famously styled herself as the Virgin Queen. Doran takes an interdisciplinary approach, incorporating a vast array of literature, portraiture and other aspects of material culture to illustrate James’ early years as an English monarch.

The care with which Doran treats her historical subjects is palpable. This is clear from surveying the bibliography, which demonstrates the substantial attention she pays to the most recent scholarship, but also from the conscious choice of referring to James’ queen as Anna, as she called herself, rather than using the established Anne. The author of more than ten monographs and countless articles and book chapters, Doran might be an old hand at historical writing but it is clear that she gives each work fresh treatment.

Without Doran announcing in the acknowledgements that the study of the Stuarts is a new historical pursuit for her, it would be difficult to tell that she has spent the past few decades researching another time period. Granted, a substantial part of the book discusses the bridge between Elizabeth and James during the crucial succession year of 1603. However, such a focus should not be read as a historian of Elizabeth sticking with what is familiar. As Doran makes clear, the early Jacobean regime was very conscious of the memory of Eliabeth and chose to represent the new monarch in ways explicitly similar and different to his predecessor. It only makes sense for somebody who has published extensively on the life and afterlife of Elizabeth to build on that work by discussing the use of her image in the early Stuart period.

To find out more about her approach to a new period of study, I spoke to Susan Doran at Jesus College in advance of the book’s publication.

Charlie Bowden: What inspired you to shift your focus to the Stuart period after so many years writing about the Tudors? Why was now the right time to challenge yourself?

Susan Doran: I did it because I thought I needed a fresh challenge. I’ve been working on the Tudors for a very long time and I was worried I might be stale. I had been studying James VI of Scotland in relation to Elizabeth I and the succession question, and I love stories, so it felt natural to explore what happens after the question is resolved.

I wanted to see how James actually does once he’s on the throne of England, and whether 1603 was a watershed moment in English politics. I’d say that’s the key question of the book.

CB: How did you come to decide on the book’s structure?

SD: It happens when I write books that they’re organic. One has to present a proposal to the publisher, but what happens with me is that my finished product is nothing like the proposal. I always knew it was going to be thematic and that I wanted to say something about whether various aspects of English government changed when James came to the throne. I particularly wanted to focus on religion as that has always been important to me as a historian.

It was as I was reading both the secondary and the primary sources that new scenes came up that steered me a certain way. The first part of the book is six chapters, which is longer than the other two, and that was simply because I couldn’t contain the material that I had found interesting in anything less.

The structure came to me organically, but the book itself also grew in length. The original contract was for 150,000 words but the final product is nearer 250,000 including the bibliography and the notes. As I said, I’m very bad at proposals, because I like the project to grow as the research develops.

CB: Did your interdisciplinary approach to this book differ from your previous work?

SD: It’s very similar. I was asked once if I have a methodology, and I like to refer to my approach as ‘saturation empiricism’. I try to read as much as possible, and I’ve always enjoyed looking at different types of sources. I’ve always been interested in paintings and I’ve grown an interest in drama and poetry over the years. My work with Paulina Kewes [Professor of English Literature at Jesus College] has really helped me develop the confidence and the skills to study literature in a way I don’t think I could have 20 years ago.

Tudor to stuart
Henry, Prince of Wales by Isaac Oliver, c. 1610-12

CB: Which illustration featured in the book is your favourite?

SD: Sadly the illustrations are not in colour, but had they been in colour, I think I would’ve gone for the Isaac Oliver miniature of Prince Henry because it’s absolutely beautiful.

In the way that they are at the moment, the ones that do well in black and white are the frontispieces of books. The one I think I enjoyed most was the frontispiece to the poem “The Phoenix” by James when he was 26. It was written almost in memoriam for Esmé Stuart, who he felt had been hounded out of the country. The frontispiece looks like a funeral urn and has an acrostic going down the side, and it’s my favourite just because it’s unusual. It’s definitely not as well-known as the Oliver miniature.

CB: Has your study of the Stuarts revealed anything about the Tudors you hadn’t considered before?

SD: Yes, I think it has actually. I still do a lot of undergraduate teaching and I’ve always taught about James VI and I, but I’ve realised just how superficial my understanding of him was. I tended to make a much greater contrast between Elizabeth and James in a whole range of ways, usually to the detriment of James.

I think the book has shown me that Elizabeth is not unique. She’s not quite as special as I thought she was in terms of her ability to relate to her subjects in terms of image and presentation. She does it well and she does it for a long time, but James is just as acute and just as attuned to it. It puts a bit of a shadow on the way I look at Elizabeth.

I also think that the continuities between the two of them make me appreciate far more that Elizabeth is a pragmatist just as James is, and indeed as most of their forebears were. I would emphasise that part of their reigns even more than I have done in the past.

CB: Do you have a favourite story you pulled from the archives to use in the book?

SD: I’m not very emotional in terms of the way I approach history, but two stories really did move me.

One was the trial of Walter Ralegh, where he was clearly innocent of charges in my mind. He may have spoken without due thought, but I certainly don’t think he was plotting with Spain to kill the king. The way he defended himself while all the odds were against him, that really moved me.

The other was the Gunpowder Plot. I didn’t know much about it going in, even though it’s a common topic for popular history. I found the story of what happened after Guy Fawkes was discovered and the conspirators were on the run incredibly moving, even though the bare outlines of the story were known to me.

CB: Will your future historical projects see you continuing to explore the Stuarts?

SD: I did think of taking the story on. I stopped in 1612 both because of the crucial deaths of Prince Henry and Robert Cecil, and because the period post-1612 is very different and much more factional. James isn’t as in control and as politically adept as he once was. However, I know that there are several biographies of James coming out this year and next year because 2025 is the 400th anniversary of his death, so in some ways I think the moment has passed for me.

I think I’ll go back to the Tudors. I’ve been commissioned to write a book about Elizabeth’s image. After that, I’m thinking of taking the same approach as I’ve done here, of looking at a restricted time period, and applying that to the reign of Elizabeth. I’m thinking of looking at the period between the arrival of Mary, Queen of Scots in England in 1568 and the Treaty of Bristol in 1573. An awful lot happens in those five years.

The great advantage of studying the Stuarts is that their handwriting is so much clearer, so I’ll have to swallow hard and return to the palaeography of the Elizabethans.

CB: What would you like readers to take away from your book?

SD: I want them to enjoy it. I want them to realise that the Stuart period is as interesting as the Tudors. I want them to also appreciate the holistic nature of historical study, that everything is entangled: you can’t separate the drama from the politics or the paintings from the context in which they’re produced.

As I said, lots of people are currently writing about James, so I want readers to better appreciate some of the qualities he had. Like Elizabeth, he was very concerned about his image. His court wasn’t the drunken den it’s sometimes portrayed as in the media. The importance of Anna of Denmark has also been underrated, she’s a very key supporter of James in this early period.

This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.

From Tudor to Stuart is published by Oxford University Press on 6th June 2024, priced at £30.00.