We are excited to return to our interview series today as we speak to Sylvia Barbara Soberton. Sylvia is a writer and researcher specialising in the history of the Tudors. She debuted in 2015 with her bestselling book “The Forgotten Tudor Women: Mary Howard, Mary Shelton & Margaret Douglas”. Sylvia’s other best-sellers include “Golden Age Ladies: Women Who Shaped the courts of Henry VIII and Francis I”, “Great Ladies: The Forgotten Witnesses to the Lives of Tudor Queens”, “The Forgotten Tudor Women: Anne Seymour, Jane Dudley & Elisabeth Parr” and others. You can find Sylvia on Goodreads, Facebook and Twitter @SylviaBSo. Sylvia’s new book, Medical Downfall of the Tudors: Sex, Reproduction & Succession has just been released.
Hi Sylvia, thank you for talking to us today! Your first book was published in 2015. What made you want to put pen to paper and become an author?
I always loved the Tudors, and by the time I decided to write about them, I’d read almost every book about them that I could get my hands on. Henry VIII, his wives and children are subjects of countless biographies, and there are also bios of famous Tudor personages such as Walter Raleigh or William Cecil. I wanted to shift the perspective and go behind the scenes, writing about the lesser-known people.
You mention your love for the Tudors, has history always been a passion of yours, or did you come to it later on?
I always loved history; I’ve been reading historical books and biographies since I was a child. I also loved writing, so I guess it was inevitable that one day I would become a writer.
You’ve written over half a dozen books now, and there is definitely a strong focus on women! What made you want to focus on women’s history?
I am a woman, and so it makes me interested in the lives of other women across the centuries. In historiography, the focus is usually on men, but this slowly changes. There were women who played significant roles in the Tudor period, and I thought it was a great idea to make them more than just footnotes in history, to tell their stories. It’s astonishing that some women, like Anne Seymour, were confined to the footnotes for so long because there’s a wealth of material to sift through and build a strong biographical narrative.
Your new book, Medical Downfall of the Tudors: Sex, Reproduction and Succession, has just been released – what was the inspiration for it?
The Tudor dynasty ended because there was no male heir to succeed to the throne. The dynasty started with the fertile Elizabeth of York, mother of seven, and ended with the barren Elizabeth I, who died as the iconic Virgin Queen. Some of the Tudors, like Henry VIII or Mary I, were obsessed with having children to succeed after them. I felt the end of the Tudor dynasty was really down to their inability to produce healthy male heirs, so I wanted to examine their medical records, concentrating on their reproductive health.
Elizabeth of York (16th century copy of a 15th century portrait) and her granddaughter and namesake, Elizabeth I (The Darnley Portrait, c1575)
So, what was the most interesting thing you found whilst writing the new book?
There were so many! In light of the current situation with the pandemic, I found it interesting that people in the Tudor period had quarantine regulations. Epidemic diseases were rife throughout the sixteenth century. A sick person couldn’t enter the royal presence, so the rules were strict. I also found it interesting that the entire tenure of Jane Seymour’s queenship was blighted by an outbreak of the plague. Henry VIII planned to crown her on 29 September 1536 and cancelled the coronation only two days earlier because of the plague raging in London. It’s sometimes claimed that Henry didn’t crown Jane because he wanted to see if she was able to become pregnant, and indeed such a view was propagated by the Imperial ambassador Chapuys in his dispatches. The truth is different.
There are certainly striking similarities to today. There are many controversies and myths surrounding the Tudors and their health. If you could pick just one to correct, what would it be?
There are several, but if I had to pick just one I would say that it’s the often repeated myth that by the time Henry VIII initiated his annulment proceedings, Katharine of Aragon was menopausal and Henry stopped sleeping with her in 1524. I found this was not the case. There’s written evidence that Katharine and Henry stopped sleeping together after 1524, and Katharine was most likely not menopausal at that time. Also, historians repeat that Katharine had numerous miscarriages, which also is not the case. I found no written evidence that she had miscarriages. She usually experienced stillbirths, and it seems that not all historians differentiate between miscarriage and stillbirth.
What has been the hardest book that you’ve written so far?
In the beginning, I struggled with Medical Downfall of the Tudors, rewriting some of the early chapters to make the entire narrative flowing and cohesive. It’s a long book, covering the entire dynasty, so I’d say this one was the hardest but also the most rewarding to write.
It certainly seems to have paid off! Do you have a routine for your writing?
I used to have a routine before I had my daughter, but now I write whenever I can, usually in the evenings. I’m always at my most productive at night, when it’s quiet and peaceful.
Now that Medical Downfall of the Tudors is out, do you have any other projects in the works?
I have many ideas, just not enough time to write! I always wanted to try my hand at fiction, so I’m currently working on my novel about Elizabeth of York.
I’m certainly excited to see what Sylvia comes out with next, and have enjoyed what I have read of her new book so far. If you want to check out Medical Downfall of the Tudors, then you can purchase it here. A huge thank you to Sylvia for talking to us today, and we wish her luck in her future writing!
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