On this day, in 1522, Anne Boleyn made her first public appearance at the English court. The occasion was a pageant and masqued ball to mark Shrove Tuesday. In anticipation of Lent, this was a sumptuous and probably debauched affair, people enjoying acting incognito behind their masks. They also feasted as if there was no tomorrow – as if London, and indeed all of England, was not awash with paupers.

Anne Boleyn did not emerge centre stage like Botticelli’s Venus, but some believe it was here that Henry VIII first caught sight of her. The rest, as they say, is history. Except, in the case of the Tudor dynasty, this is a period that’s never allowed to die. And in Henry’s case, as everyone knows, Anne Boleyn was only the second bite on his kebab.

The publication of the final part of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror & the Light, has been treated as if it’s breaking news. The antics of the rapacious Henry VIII and his Machiavellian chief minister took place nearly 500 years ago, yet the airwaves, review and feature pages, and even fashion spreads are dominated by talk of the Tudors. Whether it’s their backstabbing ambition, headbands and bodices, or iron-fisted bureaucracy, we return to them again and again, like birds to a hollow coconut shell, hoping for another flake.

Mantel’s work is as thorough and intense an exploration of the political mind as you’ll find. That the previous two books in the series won the Booker Prize indicates their artistic merit as well as their accuracy. Those who don’t feel Cromwell merits so many pages might be surprised to find themselves hooked. And, although the factual detail is so well-founded the trilogy could become set texts for students, this is the past recast by the author’s imagination. Official, dispassionate, unspun history it is not.

Mantel’s portrayal of Henry’s sleekit, ruthless, tight-lipped consigliere has parallels with people in power today. Those echoes, and the entanglements of a murderous but exquisitely dressed court, are where the perennial fascination with Henry’s entourage lies. That his time on the throne was soon to be followed by Elizabeth I’s long tenure has ensured that, if this era is to your taste, there’s enough to chew on for a lifetime. Yet dramatic and richly brocaded as all this is, haven’t we now had enough? Isn’t it time to look elsewhere, and bid the Tudors farewell?

Historical fiction sounds like a timeless niche, untroubled by tides of fashion. As Mantel’s supremacy shows, however, it is as susceptible to fads as everything else. There was a time when the Tudors were considered dusty and tired. Mention of Henry’s six wives or the Spanish Armada conjured up Jean Plaidy and school lessons: interesting if that was your kind of thing, but hardly thrilling or new.

Writers in this genre are in a tricky situation. Publishers want them to be original yet follow the road more travelled, to mine a popular seam but make it their own. If nothing else, Mantel’s oeuvre is a masterclass in how to go about this. Yet some years ago, before her meteoric rise, it seemed the appetite for Tudor was waning. The German market, a literary agent told me, had overdosed and lost interest in buying the rights to anything further from this era. Then Mantel rekindled the flame to such an extent that today, from Hamburg to Heidelberg, she will be in bookshop windows, kept company on the shelves by best-selling Alison Weir and Philippa Gregory, both of whom have also made Hampton Court their second home.

And, just as the pitiless English royals in farthingales and ruffs are enjoying their moment in the sun, so too is anything set during the two world wars, or in Victoria’s later years. Like children who ask for the same story every bedtime, it seems that readers love nothing better than retreading old ground before they douse the lights.

Most genre novels are looked down on by the literati as second class citizens. That is why Mantel’s Booker victories offered such encouragement for others ploughing a similar furrow. Yet having written historical fiction myself, set in the early 16th-century Borders, I have reservations: not about the calibre or worth of the genre, but about how it ranks with fiction that comes almost entirely from the writer’s imagination.

As Andrew Marr said of The Mirror & the Light, the ending is never in doubt. The same goes for aspects of all books in which real-life figures play a part. When it comes to plotting, these fixed points become the beads on the rosary between which the narrative is threaded. They might cause problems when interweaving made-up with documented events, but they provide an off-the-peg outline around which to build a story. Writers portraying modern life through invented characters do not have this luxury. All they can rely upon are their powers of invention and the quality of their prose. To my mind, despite the spadework needed when researching previous centuries, that is a much harder act to pull off.

The difficulty when evoking a distant age lies in not overdoing the colour of how people lived, ate or dressed, but not forgetting either that readers need to navigate unfamiliar territory. Finding the balance between replicating an antique atmosphere and telling a readable story is not easy. Henry James believed it was impossible to get into the minds of our predecessors, and called all such attempts “humbug”. Yet as Sir Walter Scott, the godfather of the genre, proved, it is possible to present the past as convincingly and freshly as if it were today, and make it seem a great deal more alluring. Regardless of what anyone says, this requires as much artifice and skill as any contemporary novel.

With the Tudors dominating the bestseller lists, what astonishes me most is how little of our history fiction has yet covered. In this country alone there is material for libraries of new novels set in the centuries before the Stewarts claimed the throne, and long after the Jacobites retreated to their peaty hovels. The past might well be a foreign country, as L P Hartley wrote, but some areas seem to attract package holiday tours, leaving tumbleweed to roll through the rest.