Dr. Richard Rex
What is your field of history?
The English Reformation, especially the reign of Henry VIII. More generally, I have interests in Tudor and European Reformation history.
How did you come to specialise in this area?
My interest in early modern British history was caught at A-Level, while studying the debates over ‘King or Minister?’ between G. R. Elton and J. J. Scarisbrick, and the debates over the causes of the English Civil War (as it was then called) provoked by the ‘revisionist’ approaches of Conrad Russell and Nicholas Tyacke. I was fortunate enough to have A-Level teachers who kept up with the latest developments in the main historical journals, and who inspired us with a sense of the possibilities of different interpretations. Dividing my undergraduate studies between medieval and early modern, I eventually focussed back on the area that first fired my enthusiasm when I started doctoral research on John Fisher, one of Henry VIII’s bishops.
How has your field developed over the course of your career?
The historiography of the English Reformation has seen ‘Whiggish’ notions of the popularity and inevitability of the process give way before the onslaught of ‘revisionism’, which is seen at its most powerful in the works of J. J. Scarisbrick, Christopher Haigh, and Eamon Duffy. Since the high tide of ‘revisionism’ in the early 1990s, several attempts have been made to identify or establish a ‘post-revisionist’ trend in English Reformation scholarship, but as yet without obvious success.
You have written some history which has had a more general audience as well as an academic one. What is your book The Tudors about?
One guess. That’s right – the Tudors.
How did you come to write The Tudors?
I had always wanted to write such a book, which I envisaged as a modern replacement for Christopher Morris’s The Tudors (Fontana), which had gone through many reprints and which I, with several generations of students and general readers, found an elegant introduction to the subject. One day I happened to mention this to a publisher, and he harried me until I actually produced it.
What contribution do you feel The Tudors makes to your field?
It’s a handy introduction, which I like to think is written in a direct and lucid style, that attempts to introduce readers to the main issues and problems of the Tudor era and to illustrate its narrative with illuminating and at times little-known and even entertaining anecdotes.
What were the main sources you used when researching it?
Surveys of this kind are chiefly based on wide reading and general knowledge, though many of the most interesting passages derive from closer engagement with original sources. But it is important to realise that there is a difference between books which depend on the accumulated labours of many other historians and those ‘monographs’ or interpretative analyses which depend primarily on the historian’s own encounter with the sources or deep reflection upon the problems and issues.
What were the most significant challenges you encountered when writing it?
Dealing with the reign of Elizabeth I. This was partly because ‘the story’ of Elizabeth, whether told by those who are ‘for’ her or those who are ‘against’, seemed to me to have become so formulaic as to exclude that freshness of approach that I sought; and partly because the records for her reign are so voluminous that it was simply impossible, for a project of this limited scale, to do what really needs to be done: to go back to the raw materials and put the story together afresh, from the ground up.
What characterises good history?
First and foremost, the realisation that the past is different – not ‘odd’, ‘quaint’, ‘weird’ or ‘funny’, as in the Horrible Histories, which, entertaining and instructive as they are, ultimately encounter the past with bafflement and incomprehension – but different. This is why it is so important that students should study pre-modern history properly: modern history on its own cannot teach you clearly enough that the past is different. Then what? Moderation, humility before the sources (which can so often force us to alter our preconceptions), fairness in argument, clarity in expression. And yet with all that, some kind of passion. The best history is written by people who care.
Where should somebody interested in your area of history go for further information?
Books, written by historians. So, for example, if you want to know about Anne Boleyn, read Eric Ives. If you want to know about Mary Queen of Scots, read John Guy. Historians do not have to be academics, but their work should conform to the standards that academics set in the various genres – articles, monographs, textbooks, biographies, or surveys. I say books because of the lure of the web. There is a lot of poor stuff on the web, which is itself at its most useful in helping you to find and read the right books and, increasingly, in enabling you to consult in digital form original sources that would otherwise be available only to scholars in research libraries.