Representing the Tudors

Representing the Tudors

On Friday 10th July University of South Wales hosted Representing the Tudors, a multi-disciplinary conference covering the history of as well as fictional representations of the Tudor period. The conference aimed to ‘bring together scholars working in a variety of fields to encourage dialogue between different perspectives and methodologies when engaging with the question of “representing the Tudors.”’

As one of the most popular periods of history, seeing countless historical novels along with television and film adaptations, it is certain that the Tudor’s captures the imagination of both academics and the wider public alike.

The conference covered a range of topics, from the opening keynote from Jerome de Groot (University of Manchester) entitled ‘The Discreet Sigh of Flesh Against Flesh: Affect Materiality and Ghostliness’; and the evening Creative Keynote (open to non-conference attendees) novelists Vanora Bennett, Suzannah Dunn, and Elizabeth Fremantle.

A panel on Friday afternoon considered ‘Wales and the Tudors: Cultural Heritage’, looking at particular links to Wales and Welsh cultural projects on the Tudors. Delivered by University of South Wales faculty members, the panel showed the commitment of the University to local culture and history across the spectrum.

Firstly, Professor Madeline Gray, a medieval historian who works closely with a number of heritage organizations including being an honorary research fellow of the National Museum of Wales. Her paper ‘Representing the Early Tudor Church’ explored the work of the National History Museum South Wales and the restoration of St Telios Church. The church, originally built in Pontarddulais in the Swansea valley in the 12th or 13th Century has been moved and restored featuring its early Tudor wall paintings. These paintings were discovered in the church by a fortuitous accident; the roof of the then abandoned church was stolen when it was still in its original location. The consequent rain leaking into the building revealed the remains of paintings as the top layers of paint were washed away.

Professor Gray talked about the challenges of this project, not just in physically re-creating the paintings but also in challenging what museum visitors expected in terms of Tudor-style paintings. Showing examples of the brightly-coloured wall murals, she explained the dissonance between these and what visitors expect from popular depictions of the Tudor period. The Tudor era existed for 50 years before the Reformation, and with it the more familiar aesthetic of buildings and churches. What the St Telios reconstruction does is show the blurred lines between late-Medieval and early-Tudor art and worship in Wales. As Professor Gray noted, ‘if we start thinking of Tudors at the Reformation we lose sight of what had already taken place.’ What the project has allowed historians and visitors to St Fagans alike to discover is this previously neglected point in Welsh Church history.

This restoration project was an important one for the museum and academic collaborators-from a variety of Welsh institutions including University of South Wales and Bangor University. This collaboration led to the ‘Experience of Worship’ event, whereby the practices of the medieval church were reenacted within the restored church. These took place across other churches within Wales and were made available through the Bangor University website.

These services and the associated web project combine performance, history and preservation and provide a detailed resource alongside visiting these historical sites.

What Professor Gray’s paper highlighted was firstly the restoration (in literal and academic terms) bringing early Tudor history into cultural narratives. The combination of performance elements bringing the church and the Tudor past to life illustrates engagement and appetite for Tudor history in Wales.

Madeleine Gray’s paper was followed by exploration of cultural representations of the Tudors in Wales via the Welsh National Opera’s 2013 Tudors season. Rachel Grainger and Marta Minier presented ‘Marketing the Tudors: Interactivity and Historical Interpretation in Marketing Strategies: the Welsh National Opera’s Tudor Trilogy (2013)’. Rather than considering the physical historical legacy of the Tudors in Wales, Minier and Grainger considered the cultural representation via WNO, reflecting on a season which included three Donizetti operas and a major re-branding of the company. Minier and Grainger explored the significance of staging Tudor-based operas and the impact of arts marketing on this.

Minier began by exploring what she described as the ‘current penchant for both Tudors and the historical narrative generally.’ The Tudors, she speculated, are a ‘canon’ of famous personages, including a range of iconic women. These attributes make them ripe for cultural production – as the theme of the conference showed – and in particular for opera. The association with ‘sex, blood, guts and gore’ within the Tudor tales mean they are ripe for operatic conversation. Minier cited Anna Whitelock of the WNO in saying that the Tudors were the ‘first celebrities’ and they captured the public imagination. The Tudors season for the WNO marked a radical departure from the traditional programming which usually involves a ‘traditional’ or ‘well known’ opera likely to be popular with a range of audiences. That the WNO could programme a season based entirely on Tudor narratives was a testament to the cultural popularity of the period.

Minier and Grainger went on to discuss the systematic re-branding of the WNO that was launched with the Tudor’s season. The WNO saw the re-branding, and the use of the Tudor’s as a strategy for fitting the challenges of the current arts environment, Grainger explained. The discussion went on to explain how the WNO used the Tudor narratives to bring new audiences into Opera, drawing on collaborations with historic sites in Wales and in proximity to the company’s touring venues in England. This theatre and historic collaboration showed the power of Tudor narratives – these ‘first celebrities’ – for injecting new life into contemporary arts and cultural experience. What the combination of re-branding and Tudor programming did, Grainger explained drawing on interviews with the company, was a way to experience opera, and WNO’s work in new and unexpected ways.

What these two papers showed is the present engagement with Tudor historical narratives within contemporary culture in Wales. Whether it is through the more traditional heritage engagement of museums or cultural narratives. The integration of history and cultural narratives and the interest in the Tudor period was demonstrated across the conference. The two papers by Professor Gray and Minier and Grainger illustrated the strong cultural and ongoing artistic ties to Wales and Tudor history. The ongoing appetite for Tudor history narratives within the National Museum of Wales, and the cultural appetite shown by the WNO’s season indicate that links to the Tudors are a strong historical and cultural feature in contemporary culture for Wales.