“Anonymous”: Overblown Conspiracy


Released: October 2011

Starring: Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, David Thewlis

History of period in focus: Life of Edward de Vere (1560s – 1603)

(I would like to dedicate this update to my friend Tony Funari, who did a post on Shakespeare author controversy some time ago and lent me a book for research on the film!)

Barring someone going back in time or digging up some kind of miraculous document we’ve never seen, nobody will ever be able to prove or disprove that William Shakespeare wrote or didn’t write his plays.  It’s impossible.  However, I tend to favor the Occam’s Razor approach.  What’s the simplest answer?  Shakespeare got a decent enough education to write, learned the trade of theater through his company, and there is little evidence of him as a man because he lived 400 years ago and a lot of documents have been lost to time.

There.  That’s it.  Conspiracies and theories and all the rest of it complicate things in a way that isn’t worth it and holy crap, does Anonymous buy into some conspiracy theory.

The idea that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, really wrote Shakespeare’s plays is not a new idea in the least.  I think the argument is fairly compelling, although there are several reasons I ultimately reject it (which I’ll talk about).  The rest that the movie asks me to believe, though, seems farcical.  You mean de Vere had an illegitimate child with Elizabeth?  All right, I find it hard to believe Elizabeth would allow herself to get pregnant (although I don’t doubt that she did enjoy at least some sex), but that’s not extremely outrageous.  Oh, wait.  You mean she had multiple illegitimate children and one of them was de Vere and she committed incest with him and Essex’s rebellion was no more than a nasty trick played on a loyal guy by the evil Robert Cecil?

Wait a minute.  A conspiracy is all good fun, but five conspiracies?  The more unbelievable the plot gets, the more questionable it is that the first charge – that de Vere penned Shakespeare’s plays – could be true.  Although, William Shakespeare in the movie as a mostly illiterate buffoon?  AWESOME.

I dare you not to love this man.

Why Edward de Vere?

Historians have found some surviving poems and plays of de Vere and he was considered an accomplished writer at the time.  He was involved in court life, which would explain the scenes in the plays that seem to have an intimate knowledge of the way royalty worked.  He was raised in the house of William Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief adviser, further supporting his knowledge of court workings.  Furthermore, Cecil is thought to be one of the inspirations for Polonius.

The Earl of Oxford also had extensive traveling experience.  He had actually been to Italy and visited places that appeared in the plays.  He would have known the weather, the customs, etc. while as far as we can tell, William Shakespeare never left England.

He was educated by university and the language in the plays is undeniably bright and playful, making a full education the likely culprit for such refinement.

Apparently, if you look at the letters and other things that Edward de Vere wrote as himself there are similarities to lines and passages in Shakespeare plays that are either deliberate or a sign of the way he wrote and phrased things.

There is a whole skein more: people who really want this theory to be true have gone through multiple plays and found instances that related to something that happened in de Vere’s life.  Let’s look at a couple of these examples and you can determine for yourself if they are coincidence or buried fact.

The Merchant of Venice – The Earl of Oxford at been in Venice, so it makes sense he would know details that someone who had never been there would not know.  Such as the fact that baked doves were a not weird gift or that the Duke of Venice got two votes in the city council.

Romeo and Juliet – Oxford himself had an illicit affair with a woman named Anne Vavasour which started a series of duels between her family and the people who followed him.  One of these skirmishes injured Oxford and effectively “lamed” him.  I should also mention that the speaker in the sonnets refers to himself as “lame” on multiple occasions.

Hamlet – In addition to the Polonious as Cecil connection, we also have the fact that Oxford was at one point kidnapped by pirates just as Hamlet is kidnapped in the play.  If you look at the sources for Hamlet, the pirate attack is not included in any of them and must have been an original invention.  Furthermore, after his father’s death, his mother remarried rather quickly.

But wait, there’s more!  If de Vere died in 1604, how is it possible that multiple plays appeared after his death?  Some of the big ones referred to here are Macbeth and The TempestIt’s simple.  Those plays had already been written and performed on some level and after 1604 they were simply revised by other people and staged again.  How else can we explain Shakespeare’s silence on James ascension to the throne unless he was dead and unable to write about it?

“Hello, would you like me to seduce you with some poetry?”

Why not Shakespeare?

We really don’t know that much about William Shakespeare.  He was born in Stratford-upon-Avon.  He was educated (probably) at the local grammar school there.  His father had achieved the fairly prominent position of mayor before he had to withdraw from social life, probably for debt.

We know that Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway and had three children with her.  Then he sort of disappears and reappears in London as an established playwright as part of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  He writes plays and is extremely popular.

He dies in 1616 and seven years later his friends, including Ben Jonson, produce a First Folio of his work for prosperity’s sake.

Why do we know so little about Shakespeare?  We know more about some of his contemporaries.  Christopher Marlowe leaps to mind as a particularly infamous person who dueled and quarreled his way into an early death.  We have dedications that Ben Jonson wrote outside of his theater work.  But there’s nothing of Shakespeare’s aside from his actual work.  No dedications, no personal letters, no diaries, no notes scrawled into the margins of books he loved.

Furthermore, a good number of other playwrights at the time were university educated.  Is a grammar school education enough to give someone the foundations they need to write these brilliant plays?  There’s no specific record that exists that shows Shakespeare’s enrollment in the Stratford grammar school.  It’s possible he never even went.

Surely, this man is a shadowy figure with next to nothing about him because he wasn’t a prominent playwright and someone else was writing plays under his name.  After all, writing anonymously was not unusual at the time and it wasn’t unheard of for someone to adopt a pen name.  It’s possible that de Vere wrote as William Shake-spear, using the hyphen to clue people into the fact that the author was really somebody else.

This is the face of lies. It’s like someone telling you that your puppy is out to kill you. Or that the Illuminati are real and Dan Brown was right.

Bardolatry and academic elitism

Here’s the thing: Shakespeare’s plays are good.  They are clever and witty and contain themes that still concern people today.  That does not mean Shakespeare was the best writer in the entire world and that he was an isolated genius who delivered these plays from on high.  Other playwrights at the time also produced brilliant witty works that we can still read and think of as hilarious and awesome all in their own right.

Shakespeare is totally overrated.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love Shakespeare plays, but the guy wasn’t the BEST WRITER EVER.  He has some plays that sort of suck.  He has some plays where it’s apparent that multiple passages were written by someone else which means he participated in the custom of co-writing at the time.  He and other playwrights constantly borrowed ideas and good lines from each other.  The theater community was tight knit and they borrowed from each other at will, working together to make the best work they could as quickly as they could.

If you read Shakespeare’s plays, they are completely rooted in the Elizabeth world.  You cannot get one scene into a comedy without running into stupid sexual puns.  The man wrote some intricate and meaningful verse, but holy cow did he love sex jokes as much as the next person.



No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip:
she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out
countries in her.


In what part of her body stands Ireland?


Marry, in her buttocks: I found it out by the bogs.

[…nationality jokes, etc…]


Where stood Belgia, the Netherlands?


Oh, sir, I did not look so low.)

The punchline in the above passage is that the Netherlands are like a woman’s vagina.  Come on!  That not terribly sophisticated.  I think too often we are fed this story as Shakespeare as this wonderful elite writer and then all of a sudden it looks like grammar school wouldn’t be enough to create such great writing.  Being a mere actor and writer wouldn’t give someone the sophistication to create brilliant works.

That’s snobbery, plain and simple.

Snobbery? Does this look like the face of snobbery?

By all accounts the grammar school in Stratford was respectable.  This is not the same sort of thing as a modern day elementary school.  Obviously someone leaving the sixth grade today could not write Shakespeare.  In Elizabethan grammar schools, however, the boys would mostly learn Greek and Latin by way of reciting passages from old plays and works.  Anyone with an education would be familiar with these works and that makes the Comedy of Errors less spectacular.  The plot is directly ripped from Plautus’ Menaechmi about a set of twins everybody confuses with each other all day.  Formal education would have stopped at about the age of 15, which gets him into high school range, at least.

The movie’s contention that his father was “unquestionably illiterate” is probably not true.  How did he become a bailiff without any education?  It seems unlikely.

There’s a term coined by George Bernard Shaw (an awesome playwright himself) about Shakespeare: “Bardolatry.”  We idolize Shakespeare’s work and have raised him up to be this magnificent untouchable author that his unquestionably a genius.  That’s why kids read him in school and get bored to death.  Have you ever been hyped to death about a movie and then found it worse than you might have going into it without knowing anything?  Same thing with Shakespeare.  You see a million pop culture references to Romeo and Juliet and suddenly the play is boring.

The movie contributes to the idea of Bardolatry in spades.  Multiple times throughout the other playwrights look at his works in awe, amazed that he could ever write something so magnificent.  The fact that he hands over a play in iambic pentameter blows all their minds.  “Entirely in verse?” Ben Jonson asks in the movie, staring at de Vere like he might want to make out with him.

Oh wait.  They all wrote in verse.  Look at the other plays we still have from the time.  Large portions of them are in verse!

Take Ben Jonson, one of the playwrights in the film who is completely awed by de Vere’s verbal skill.  He wrote the play Volpone, which you might have read in high school or as an English major.  Be honest, could you tell the difference between this play and Shakespeare?  Probably not.

(For example:

   MOSCA: He has no faith in physic: he does think
     Most of your doctors are the greater danger,
     And worse disease, to escape. I often have
     Heard him protest, that your physician
     Should never be his heir.

     CORBACCIO: Not I his heir?

     MOSCA: Not your physician, sir.

     CORBACCIO: O, no, no, no,
     I do not mean it.

     MOSCA: No, sir, nor their fees
     He cannot brook: he says, they flay a man,
     Before they kill him.

     CORBACCIO: Right, I do conceive you.

     MOSCA: And then they do it by experiment;
     For which the law not only doth absolve them,
     But gives them great reward: and he is loth
     To hire his death, so.)

Looks to be in verse, doesn’t it?

This guy is more of a fox than Volpone. /nerd joke

I don’t know why the legend of de Vere scribbling away in solitude holds so much sway.  The Elizabethan theater community constantly borrowed from each other and worked together.  There is evidence that some of Shakespeare’s plays were co-written.  Hell, The Two Noble Kinsmen actually had John Fletcher listed on the cover page as an author along with Shakespeare!  Honestly, it makes much more sense to me that a man who worked with others, borrowed good lines and characters ideas from others, and lived among the people so he understood their particular brand of humor would write some good and popular stuff.  It makes less sense to me to dismiss all these moments of collaboration as people adding to de Vere’s plays after the fact or borrowing from what he had already done.  Shakespeare’s works might have been popular, but there were a lot of other popular playwrights at the time.  They were not completely overlooked.

One last thought here.  According to Bill Bryson:

Only 230 or so play texts still exist from Shakespeare’s time, including the thirty-eight by Shakespeare himself – about 15 percent of the total, a gloriously staggering proportion.

Maybe if we had more plays or fewer of Shakespeare’s, he would need seem so great to us as he is.

Why would he have to hide?

The movie posits that de Vere had to keep his writing a secret because it wasn’t a noble enough pursuit.  This was mostly thrust on the shoulders of the Cecil family, who were strict puritans and forbade him to do any of that nasty writing stuff.

First, congratulations to William Cecil for becoming a villain!  I have never seen this man portrayed as a total dick before, and I was a little proud of him for having reached horrible monster status.

Also, he’s a werewolf.

Secondly, de Vere was known as a poet and playwright in his own time.  He is mentioned on several lists as a respected writer who people knew and whose work got performed!  He was involved in the theater and had his own company he did patronage for, Oxford’s Men.  If people already knew him as a writer, why would he not attach his name to his work?  Why wouldn’t he have his own company perform his stuff?

Anne Cecil, his first wife died in 1588 after they had multiple children together.  His affair with Anne Vavasour was around 1581 and that’s when his son with her was born.  If she was the inspiration for Romeo and Juliet, it took him awhile to write it (unless, of course, he kept it in hiding for awhile).  As his wife Anne Cecil is hugely against him writing in the movie and complains when he begins to focus on it again, the fact that she died 10 years before the movie takes place makes that theory a little weaker.

Lastly, some experts have compared writing styles and suggest that de Vere’s poetry is actually not as sophisticated as Shakespeare’s.  This problem fixes itself if you say the only remaining stuff we have from de Vere is his early work and all the later stuff is under a pen name.  Still, wouldn’t it be hilarious if a university educated man wrote with less sophistication than a grammar school graduate?

My sneezes are in perfect iambic pentameter.

Elizabeth and the many children

This is the part where the movie falls apart for me.  I would like to give the film some credit for not coming up with this on their own (Roland Emmerich at least borrowed silly theories from other people instead of making up his own like Immortal Beloved does).  Despite this, I find it incredibly hard to believe that Elizabeth had at least three bastard children.

I do not doubt that she had one or maybe more lovers in her lifetime.  Her close friendship and relationship with Robert Dudley (later the Earl of Leicester) could have led to something.  She practically married him.  Furthermore, her favor for the Earl of Essex might have led to something.  Yes, the man the movie claims to be her son might have been her love interest.  Which would not be too out of the realm of creepy considering de Vere is also supposedly her lover/illegitimate child.

Why don’t I believe it?  It seems incredible to me that Elizabeth would have been able to have a bastard son at the age of 16 in secret.  She wasn’t queen yet and Mary would surely have been looking out for an excuse to shame her sister and prove why she was a better option for queen.  One illegitimate child while she was at the height of her power and able to have it in secret?  Maybe.  But remember, royalty was surrounded by people at all times.  I feel like there would be some evidence from a lady in waiting or a family who adopted the baby or rumors of her pregnancy or something.

Also, Elizabeth was an intelligent woman.  While she might have fooled around a little bit, she surely would not have allowed herself the risk of getting pregnant multiple times by men who were not married to her.  Her position as queen was tenuous enough as is without throwing morality into the mix.  It would have been far more in her interest to avoid getting pregnant at all costs and I feel like that is much more probable than multiple pregnancies and all of men who would rise up in court favor and power without her ever knowing that they are her children.  Really guys?

You’re my son, you say? Is it weird if I find that hot?

The Earl of Essex

There have been suggestions that Elizabeth was sexually interested in him, which makes the mother-son possibility creepy.  Probably not true.

Other than that, this guy was not a poor blameless victim lulled into treachery by the evil hunchbacked Robert Cecil.  He was sent to Ireland to lead campaigns and take over the land.  He wasn’t doing a good enough job and the queen told him so.  In 1599 she wrote to him and forbade him to leave Ireland without her permission, so naturally he got all his stuff together, left the care of Ireland with another guy and sailed back to London.


When he returned there was a whole intrigue with him.  Hugh O’Neill, a man Essex had been with in Ireland decided that he wanted to march on the queen.  As O’Neill and Essex had some secret conversation a bunch of people started to speculate that maybe Essex was in on the plot to overthrow Elizabeth.

Despite the fact that he had been put under house arrest, Essex decided his best case for defending himself would be a personal audience with Elizabeth, so he naturally broke the arrest and went to court to see her.  This, he realized was not the best idea, so he turned back.  But it was too late.  Robert Cecil had him declared a traitor and he was executed.

At this time, Cecil had gained considerable authority with the queen.  I should also mention that he and Essex hated each other and been jockeying for power for awhile.  So, who knows.  Maybe he did get screwed over a little.

Let the English/History major nitpick!

There are other things not true in this movie that I wanted to point out, even if I largely focused on the authorship question.  They are not all terribly important, but food for thought.

– At the age of 17, de Vere killed Thomas Bricknell, a servant at the house, while practicing fencing with another guy.  He was not hiding behind a curtain after trying to steal de Vere’s writings.

– Macbeth was almost certainly performed for James I after he became king.  It includes reference to him (the play takes place in Scotland and James was king of Scotland first) and deals a lot with witches.  James loved witches and had actually written a book on how to hunt them down.  It’s practically tailor made for him!  If de Vere died before James I became king, did he write the play guessing that he would?

– Ben Jonson had a fixed position with the Admiral’s Men by 1597 and in 1598 was listed by Francis Meres as one of “the best for tragedy.”  Far from the struggling young man he is in the film.

– Kit Marlowe was probably a spy for the crown, and a playful, impestuous person.  He had a quick wit and was quick to draw a sword.  I doubt he was killed by conspiracy and I doubt he was as much of a douche as he is in the film.

– James I might be considered gay by modern standards (although you cannot judge him as such back then because sexuality had not been defined in that way) but I sincerely doubt he was the wince-inducing lisping fool he’s portrayed as in the film.  Thanks for negative portrayal of LGBTQ characters, Roland Emmerich.

– How did de Vere basically show A Midsummer Night’s Dream at court as a young boy and then EVERYBODY FORGOT?

You wrote that – what’s it called? – so long ago and I remember…wait. Who are you and why are you kissing my hand?

– The stabbing scene in Julius Caesar is more or less portrayed as the end of the play.  It happens in Act II.  The play is not yet halfway through.

– When Jonson goes to tell the Master of Revels about this shocking new play, it makes no sense because the Master of Revels would have already known.  He had to approve of all plays that would be staged.

There you have it!  There are a million more things to say, but I’ll leave you at this and maybe come back and revisit the film if there’s enough more to say about it.  When you come down to it, the movie takes conspiracy a step too far.  I would buy the idea of Edward de Vere as Shakespeare more if all the other conspiracies didn’t get in the way.  Still, it’s pretty entertaining.  Like I said, the guy who plays Shakespeare is gold.

PARTING THOUGHT: George Arents, a well known book collector, decided that de Vere couldn’t have written Shakespeare’s plays.  How?  He had a collection of tobacco related works and letters.  Just a mention of tobacco would get it into the collection.  Arents said he would only buy a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio if it had one mention of tobacco in it.  No dice.  Shakespeare never wrote about it.  However! There are some of de Vere’s writings that reference smoking and tobacco.  Good enough for Arents to claim that de Vere couldn’t have written Shakespeare, or there would be some smoking in there.


Stanley Wells. Shakespeare & Co.: Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Dekker, Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton, John Fletcher, & the Other Players in His Story. This is a great look into the collaborative world of Elizabethan theater and why none of those playwrights were standalone geniuses.

Bill Bryson. Shakespeare: The World as Stage. An attempted look at the “bare bones” of the Shakespeare biography.  Paring away all the crap he can.

Mark Anderson. Shakespeare by Another Name: The Life of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, the Man who was Shakespeare. Anderson gives his extensive reasoning as to why the plays must have been written by de Vere.  A fun look into conspiracy, if you like that sort of thing.

Stuff you Missed in History Class. The episode on George Arents for that little tidbit about tobacco and the connection to de Vere.


Shameless Plug

I totally forgot to mention the last time around:

If you like my blog then you should check out my other internet project!  My brother and I have started a book podcast.  We choose one book a week to read and then discuss at length and we have way too much fun doing.  I throw in some history nerd tidbits too.

You can find said podcast at: http://www.novelideaspodcast.com

Hope you like it!  Scroll down to read about Marie Antoinette and go back to your regularly scheduled programming.

“Marie Antoinette”: Good Feel, No Context

Marie Antoinette

Released: 2006

Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman

Period of history in focus: Marie Antoinette’s time in France about 1770 – 1789

Has it really been two months since I updated?  Wow, what do I do with myself?  Perhaps I’ve spent too much time casually lounging about in my garden.

I chose Marie Antoinette because I have recently read an excellent biography on her (by the fantastic historian Antonia Fraser) and I remembered watching the movie in college but not how accurate it was.  Furthermore, this is a movie starring a woman (which I haven’t done since Anne of the Thousand Days) and is directed by a woman!  The film as a whole tends to get a bad rap for several reasons: 1) It was marketed as this totally hip movie with all these contemporary songs in it! 2) When people watched it, was much more historically based. 3) There is very little talking.

Overall, I think the movie is likeable.  It even touches on some wonderful points and gets completely precise and sometimes ridiculous etiquette of Versailles down.  As a viewer you know that Marie Antoinette did not have time to herself, that she was thrown into this society with all these rules she didn’t know, and that her husband was totally awkward.  Seriously, Jason Schwartzman is fantastic as the beyond awkward Louis Auguste (future  Louis XVI).  The movie also does a fine job of making Marie Antoinette a sympathetic character and not some out of touch bimbo, which I appreciate.  I’ll touch on all this in more detail.

Where the movie fails is in context.  It is so focused on Marie Antoinette that it fails to paint a bigger picture for the viewer.  Why did the French Revolution start in the first place?  We get a grand picture painted of the excesses of royalty but never really get a sense of the growing turbulence in the population.  The film ends at a really lovely moment, but: how many of you really know what led to the deaths of the king and queen?  This could have been summed up in an end note, although I would have at least liked to see the attempted escape from the country.  Other inaccuracies that bugged me: the royal couple had not two but three surviving children, one of whom died as a teenager; Louis XVI and one of his brothers were both portly dudes and that could have helped bring out Louis’ awkwardness and almost outsider status; she did not meet Count Fersen at a random masked ball and that affair was probably not held with so little attempt at discretion.  Also, there were three royal aunts, not two.  Although the film defends the erroneous “Let them eat cake” statement I’ll talk about it in more detail.

With that, let’s get started!

The etiquette of Versailles

For someone who only ever sees pictures of Versailles, this part of the movie helps show the grand extravagance of the place as well as the strict rules that everyone had to follow.  Even before Antoinette reaches Versailles and has to the ceremonial handing over where she sheds everything Austrian before entering France officially, the movie is showcasing how precise the French were in all their preparations.  (It should be noted that many other princesses were forced to go through the same kind of process.  Navigating someone to a new country without putting one in front of the other was tricky business.)

Particularly well done, though, are the scenes when Antoinette wakes up in bed and is tended to by a multitude of the ladies.  The first strength of this scene is that royalty were often surrounded by people.  As Fraser says in the biography (which it should be mentioned, the movie is based on) royal people at this time would really have no concept of modern privacy.  You were never alone with your thoughts, and for a dauphine you were not allowed even to dress yourself.  The second part that’s well done is showing that helping the dauphine get dressed is an honor.  The higher the rank you are, the closer you get to the royal person.  Being a lady-in-waiting to a princess or a queen meant that you were close to their person, so these roles always went to the wives of lords.  You would not have a poor servant woman dressing the queen.  She might help dress lower nobility, but certainly not anyone in Versailles.

At Versailles there were a strict set of rules to follow, and if they meant you had to wait as three different ladies entered the room before the correct one could put on your shift, then so be it.  The movie also showcases this well in the scenes of Antoinette and Louis Auguste eating meals together, where they have to be served in a very specific way.  The only thing I would have liked to see here – which I will address in more detail later on – is the fact that life at Versailles was almost like a spectator sport for the less wealthy.  Nearly anyone could waltz onto the premises and see royalty dining.  While those staying at Versailles had to follow strict regulations, the wife of a merchant, for example, could walk in and wander about as she pleased.  The so called “fish wives” of France could even petition the queen without any formality really in place.

Despite this, I thought the movie did a good job showing how someone new to the system would have a strict set of rules to follow and that, often, those rules didn’t seem to make any sort of sense.

So...uh...you wanna...hmm...do I need permission to speak?

Gambling, clothes, extravagant spending

Gambling was not an uncommon way to pass the time.  Marie Antoinette built up her own circle of friends who would spend nights gambling and talking and certainly drinking.  Louis XVI was not very into this kind of lifestyle, but that didn’t mean that he did not spend money.  Everyone who lived in the palace at Versailles spent what we would all consider an exorbitant amount of money on clothes.  For example, Antoinette got about 150,000 livres for her dress expenses (because it is so hard to translate cost throughout time I don’t have an equivalent into today’s money, but even 150,000 dollars would be a lot).  We have some record of the money spent on clothing and fabric:

Bills were sent in for four new pairs of shoes a week, three yards of ribbon daily to tie the royal peignoir (that is, brand-new ribbon) and two brand-new yards of green taffeta daily to cover the basket in which the royal fan and gloves were carried…The extraordinary amount of new outfits order annually – twelve court dresses, twelve riding habits, and so forth and so on – was in part explained by the privileges of her household to help themselves to these garments once discarded but hardly worn.

All of this tied back into the etiquette of the court.  Who needs green taffeta to cover a basket?  The entire royal family was used to spending this way, as Antonia Fraser notes, Louis XVI’s aunts managed to spend 3 million livres in a span of six weeks.  This is mind boggling extravagance.  You can see why the people would grow to resent a royalty they saw overindulging on everything when they didn’t even have the means to buy themselves bread.

It's such a bother that I've had to wear this dress twice now...maybe I'll buy an extra set of diamond earrings this month.

The movie demonstrates this extravagance, although aside from clothes it also focuses on the food and decadence of eating that was going on.  I would have liked some more context so that the viewer is aware this extravagance is a result partly of the way life of Versailles worked and that Antoinette wasn’t the only one doing all the spending.  She wasn’t the first royal to spend more than she needed and she wasn’t the only one with a spending problem.  Another bit I might have liked to see would be her reasons for indulging.  One aspect I think has to do with fitting in and having friends, but one of the reasons Fraser suggests that the Queen threw herself into these gambling circles with friends was to distract herself from her unsatisfactory (or really, non existent) sex life with her husband.


I was watching this movie with my mom and she demanded to know how everyone at court wasn’t enormously fat.  Well, there actually were a number of people at court who might be considered portly or even obese.  Louis XVI was certainly a rotund young fellow, even as young as when he and Marie Antoinette were married.  One of his younger brothers, the Comte de Provence, was even fatter than him, and possibly had difficulty consummating his marriage due to his weight.  Members of the Polignac set who were known for being rowdy and witty would indulge in too much and might be overweight.  Perhaps it comes as no surprise to anyone that Hollywood avoided representing characters who weigh too much, but it is worth thinking about.  The portrait of Louis sent to Marie Antoinette was a bit “prettied up” if you will and the figure he cut in person was not as impressive, made even less so by his extreme social awkwardness.

Then again, the movie did not focus much on the attraction factor from the side of the French male royals.  Apparently Louis XV was an extremely handsome fellow (I’m afraid Rip Torn doesn’t make the cut here) and two of his grandsons were a let down.  Louis’ other brother, the Comte d’Artois was considered the most handsome of his brothers and I thought it could have been interesting to see how a handsome and sexually active man would have been viewed much more positively than the overweight and awkward Louis.  His lack of eager desire for sex and his faithfulness to his wife made everyone think he was weird, not admirable.

When I look at old portraits I have a hard time distinguishing who is supposed to be handsome, but I'm guessing this is a cut of Louis XVI that is supposed to enhance his natural qualities.

Popularity and arriving in France

Marie Antoinette was actually extremely popular with the people when she arrived in France.  They liked how she looked, how kind she was and the charities she pursued.  People viewed the young couple as a chance to refresh the French monarchy and give it the life that had started seeping out the older and less popular Louis XV got.  There are some pretty wild accounts.  When she and Louis went to take a stroll out among the people they were unable to move forward or backward for three quarters of an hour as the people pushed in around them.  When she visited the opera and insist everyone applaud, the did so (a moment shown in the movie).  She was on display for everyone to see and people watched her and wrote numerous accounts of her grace, her charm, her beauty.

I think the movie missed out on an opportunity to really display this popularity, how Marie Antoinette moved among the people and how much they loved her.  She attended opera often and threw money and effort into her favorite composer.  At one performance she attended the show was held up for fifteen minutes while the people cried out their adoration of her.

This would serve a stark contrast to later opinion.  A combination of royal spending and the common libels at the time – essentially little comics that would show the Queen in pornographic and despicable situations – began take away the glow of popularity.  She became the symbol for everything that was wrong with the country and a good deal of the hatred which was directed at the royalty as a whole found its way to direct hatred for the Queen.  Her appearance and manners, which were carefully cultivated to be proper and noble, began to appear haughty.  People thought that Marie Antoinette was laughing at them and looking down on them while spending the country into ruin.

I hate flowers! Look at the Queen, holding a flower! Why must she continue to torment us!?

This would lead to the eventual storming at Versailles (a tame version is shown at the end of the film) and her imprisonment and execution.  Even without showing the later stages of the revolution, the change in popularity of Marie Antoinette had a lot to do with the changing political situation in France at the time.  It would have really helped give the mob at the end more significance.  If we’ve seen the people lavish praise and adoration on her, that makes their rioting all the more significant.

“Let Them Eat Cake”

This is a brief episode in the movie and won’t get a great deal more attention here, but I wanted to draw attention to it.  Most people associate this phrase with Marie Antoinette and I think even a lot of those people know that she never said that.  A woman who had compassion for the people and at least some knowledge of poverty would never say anything so mindless.

There are records of this line being tied to other French women before Antoinette, and it is likely just a tidy piece of propaganda to use whenever the French people were having a hard time buying bread.  Which, it seems, was the case often.  The other point this quote highlights is really how the public opinion turned on Marie Antoinette, to think that she was so callous and foolish to think that they could eat pastries if they had no bread.  It was part of the campaign to dehumanize her and make her seem like someone who had no empathy or sympathy.  I think this quote is probably one of the reasons modern perceptions of Marie Antoinette might still be that she was a complete airhead and should have pulled herself together.  Any other woman in her position probably would have fared the same fate, so let’s cut her some slack.

The cake is a lie.

Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI’s children

They had three.  First, a daughter, Maria Teresa in 1778.  Then, a son, Louis Joseph in 1781.  Another son, Louis Charles, in 1785.  She did have a child die, as demonstrated in the movie, but they left out the third child who did survive.  The focus of the film is so tightly wrapped up on Marie Antoinette’s experience maybe they felt that including the drama of the children would be too much.  This would be an argument I don’t understand, though.  Antoinette loved children.  She was the sort of woman who could be a full-time nanny or a daycare provider and love every minute of it.  She lavished attention and affection on other people’s children and on her own.  They were a huge part of her life, which makes sense considering that she waited eight years after she and Louis married to finally have one.

For anyone wondering, the long drama of trying to consummate the marriage while everyone around the couple gossips about the nature of their sexual relationship and Marie Antoinette’s mother writes scolding letters to her is done really well.  It was a long and arduous journey for the couple to finally have complete sex (according to the time) and all that time Marie Antoinette really was in a precarious position.  With no heir, her position was basically worthless.

What do you mean I kiss you on the mouth? Then where does this go? Wait...I...uh...

The story of her children is rather tragic.  The oldest son, Louis Joseph, fell incredibly ill and died before his eighth birthday after staying basically in a country retreat away from court for several years.  With the death of her oldest son and the fact that her daughter seemed to prefer Louis led Marie Antoinette to take solace in her younger son, Louis Charles.  At the time of the mob at Versailles in 1789 Maria Teresa would have been 10 and Louis Charles 4.  I’m guessing those are the children shown in the movie, but considering how the third son is never addressed and I am not convinced Maria Teresa is anything close to 10 in that scene, this part is one of the worst historical inaccuracies.

After they were forced to live in captivity for years, Marie Antoinette would be separated from her son and the guards in charge of him would not only ply him with alcohol (he was about 7 at the time) but lead him to give false testimonies about the abuse he received at the hands of his mother and aunt.  Maria Teresa lived into adulthood and even got married but it would probably be too charitable to say that she led a happy life.

Count Fersen and the supposed affair

It would be fair to say that historians are still debating whether or not Marie Antoinette had a sexual affair with the charming Swedish soldier Count Fersen.  It would also be fair to say that the evidence looks pretty convincing that they probably did have a relationship.

The shortest version of it works like this: Fersen kept a good deal of personal correspondence and journals.  It seems that he nicknamed the Queen as Josephine in his notes, although at times he is probably talking about a different Josephine.  Several times he makes notes that he spent the night with her, using the same language that he did when he wanted to indicate that he had spent the night with a woman and bedded her.

Any rumors that her children were not Louis XVI’s and actually Count Fersen’s is likely crap.  Fersen had a lot of affairs with a lot of women and probably knew how to not get them pregnant.  Furthermore, it would be unfair to claim that Marie Antoinette did not love her husband.  Despite this depth of feeling for Fersen she remained completely dutiful to her husband and stuck with them through threat of death even when people advised her to leave.  I think it’s fair to say that Marie Antoinette could love both her husband and Fersen and might even be fair to say that Fersen showed her what sexual fulfillment could be, which was probably not a byproduct of her marriage.

This man seduced countless women. I'm guessing it's the eyebrows.

While I appreciate including it in the movie, the affair fizzles out and doesn’t go anywhere.  They meet at a masked ball – not true, in real life they saw each other for the first time at an opera and it is highly unlikely they had a love/lust at first sight connection – commence to the lovemaking and then she basically never sees him again.  Fersen was a steady presence in Marie Antoinette’s life and lived near Versailles when he was in France.  He assisted the royal family in their attempted escape from the country.  He didn’t go off to fight in the war and then feature in a few daytime fantasies courtesy of the Queen.  This plotline was not handled with a good deal of grace, particularly the blatant disregard for using any kind of discretion.  When having a sexual dalliance as the Queen can get you charged with treason, I’m pretty sure you try to keep those things more under wraps than making out with the guy in your private garden.

Female Friendships

From a young age, Marie Antoinette knew the value of female friendships.  She was close to her older sister, Charlotte, and when she got to France, Antoinette formed close relationships with other women.  Notably, she developed friendships with the Princess Lamballe, the Duchesse du Polignac, and her husband’s sister, Elizabeth.  Keeping these friends close would eventually get Marie Antoinette blasted in the libels as having lesbian relationships with these women.

This fact is unlikely.  Close friendships worked differently than they do in the modern day.  You might marry a stranger and be put into situation where you are surrounded by people you don’t know.  The solution to find something you can use as a confidant and draw them close to you.  Marie Antoinette could use these women as solace in an unfamiliar place, and to replace the affection that she wasn’t receiving from her husband.  Men and women would interact, but a woman couldn’t be alone with a man the same way she could with other women.  These intense close and personal friendships would help carry Marie Antoinette through.

Believe it or not, most female friendships are not based around a mutual love of shoes.

The movie shows this to a degree.  The Queen is often seen lounging with her friends, but I wished their names would have been said more often.  The Duchesse de Polignac made a stronger impression because her character was more outspoken, but the Princess Lamballe made almost no impression at all.  I can barely remember her and I saw the movie two days ago.  It would have been nice to see them more fleshed out.  Also, what about the omission of Louis XVI’s sister!  Elizabeth was devoted to her brother and to her sister-in-law and there was a very real affection between them.  This would have helped serve to get Louis some more humanity (his awkwardness is brilliant but does start to wear) and get Marie Antoinette another female companion.

I know that the movie steers away from the actual violent events of the Revolution in France, but knowing the Princess Lamballe better gives her fate more emotional weight.  After she was killed by a mob for the crime of being friends with Marie Antoinette they actually put her head on a pike and paraded it outside the tower were the Queen was being kept in hopes that she would be completely demoralized and distraught by it.  Even if you consider a monarchy outdated, that kind of violence paints a lot of the French Revolution and generates a good deal of sympathy for members for the royal family.

What happened in the end

The family would get passed around to various places where they were kept under a strict watch.  As the movie shows, they sent away most of their friends so they could escape the worst of it.  Louis also packed up his aunts and sent them away.  His sister Elizabeth stayed with them.  Their time being kept under watch was not always unpleasant – they had food, they could spend time together, at some points they had open courtyards where they could take walks.  However, the fact that they were essentially imprisoned would put a damper on any easy feelings and as time wore on it became more apparent that the feelings of the people were more violent than anything.

A combination of spending too much as royal living accorded, going into debt by aiding the American Revolution, and excluding the poor voices from government (in addition to other nuances – sorry for the basic version) led the people to think that maybe kings weren’t the best way to go.  Louis was not a forceful personality and often had trouble making decisions, which didn’t help matters.

The family finally decided they needed to escape France if they wanted to avoid death.  They made plans to leave where they were being held in Paris and escape to Montmedy.  The atmosphere at this time was dangerous – Louis’ aunts had recently escaped and this made the people paranoid.  They set up an intricate plan which consisted of changing carriages at various locations and having loyal soldiers look over their progress.

Unfortunately, pretty much everything went wrong.  Progress was delayed so that the men waiting for them thought that they were not coming.  Everything fell behind schedule.  When the family reached the village of Varennes-en-Argonne they didn’t know where to go to get their new horse and carriage.  This long delay and the fact that they were recognized led to their capture and travel back to Paris.  It should be noted that Count Fersen aided the royal family in their attempted escape.

This bit would have been maybe too action based for the movie, but sounds like it would make for a great piece of cinema.  Again, a footnote at the end of the movie would have been useful.

"By the way, everyone in this film dies and their lives end in utter tragedy. SURPRISE."

Louis XVI was executed January 21, 1793.  Marie Antoinette was executed about ten months later on October 16, 1793.  The King had essentially been forced to sign over his power and maybe it was an attempt of the revolutionaries to keep the royal supporters from rising up against them, but both trials feel incredibly unfair and the deaths of the monarchs unnecessary.  Louis Charles died at the age of 10 in 1795.

The events of the Revolution after the royal family left Versailles are dark and violent scenes that would not fit the dreamy tone and atmosphere of the movie, which focuses more on the tranquility of Marie Antoinette’s garden getaway, the extravagance of royal living, and an overall lighthearted approach.  Still, it feels odd to me to create a movie about such a prominent historical figure and leave out some of the most important details of her life.  Marie Antoinette is undoubtedly so well known because of her tragic connection to the French Revolution and it seems unfair the issues of the people and their relationship with her were ignored to fit the larger version of the movie.

It is certainly worth watching to get an idea of what early life at Versailles was like.  The costumes are completely beautiful and the scenery is accurate – after all, Versailles is still standing today.  After the film ended, however, I couldn’t help but wish that the darker parts and hints had been included.  Marie Antoinette ultimately did not lead a sugar coated life and a film about her should not ignore the sadness and violence that would accompany her at the end.

But she's too pretty! Must keep everything pretty!


Antonia Fraser. Marie Antoinette: The Journey.  I have to admit that this is the only source I really used for the movie.  As it is the basis for the film and Fraser is a well respected historian, I thought I could get away with it.  The book is nearly 500 pages long.  Cut me some slack.

History Channel website, http://www.history.com/topics/french-revolution.  Includes a brief overview of the Revolution, the people and events surrounding it.  This will help you give you some more in depth information than the brief summary included in this article.

For next time!

Anonymous, a tale of intrigue and stupidity about the true identity of Shakespeare.

“The Tudors” Season 1, Eps 7-10

The Tudors

Release Date: 2007

Starring: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Natalie Dormer, Sam Neill

Period of history in focus: Tudor England (specifically the reign of Henry VIII)

You know what they say about excuses, so I won’t make any.  What I will do is try to stay more on top of this blog for the new year.  I’m skipping over Anonymous for the time being because I missed when it was in theaters, but it is sitting in my Netflix queue waiting for release in early February.

Today, instead, I will bring you the end of Season 1 of The Tudors. This show continually confuses me.  There was obviously a lot of effort to make it look good – the sets and the costumes in particular reflect hard work and attention to detail.  Someone read through several biographies and sources concerning these people because characters occasionally drop lines that you find in personal letters and other primary sources.  Why then, I always wonder, did they not bother to make the costumes more correct?  Why do they sometimes swap historical interest for overblown drama?  It annoys me.

I do think these last four episodes contain some of the best moments of the season, particularly the episode the focuses around the sweating sickness.  As I watched the show I was also struck by the writers’ willingness to make Henry VIII continually more selfish and authoritative and ultimately, more unlikeable.  These episodes also showed Thomas More in a light that was more than the saintly man, gave Anne Boleyn a hint of depth, and introduced one of my favorite players in the reign of Henry VIII: Thomas Cromwell.

Seriously. I love this man, and I'm not ashamed to admit it.

With all that said, there are still some pretty silly things going on.

Sweating Sickness

I’ll start with a compliment.  I thought this part of the show was actually done really well.  It did a good job capturing the horror of the illness, the fear people felt at the prospect of getting it, and the sorts of things people thought could cure it or prevent it.  The sweating sickness was a real disease that happened on and off in England over the course of roughly a century.  Scientists today don’t really know what it was, as it seemed to basically go away.  So, it probably relates to some illness that people can get today, but we don’t know what.

An outbreak of the sweating sickness hit England in the summer of 1528.  As the show portrays quite well, Henry was terrified of getting sick.  Whenever something like a plague broke out in London he would immediately make for the countryside to protect himself.  The other part of this arc that I thought well done was Henry’s immediate concern for Katherine when he heard about the outbreak.  Having him yell “Where is my wife?” at the guards while Anne Boleyn stood nearby was nicely done.

It’s also true that Anne and Cardinal Wolsey fell ill with the sweating sickness and that Anne seemed near death at one point at her home in Hever.  It sounds like her brother George was also sick and apart from her at this time, but that’s not the most important mistake.  One significant death they do leave out of the mix concerns Anne’s sister, Mary Boleyn (or at this point, Mary Carey).  Mary’s husband fell ill with the sweating sickness and died in this outbreak.  This death would allow Mary to remarry, and she ended up picking someone completely different than her family would have liked.  I do think the show could stand to show more Mary and develop her character past the easy woman we saw earlier in the season.  Anne must have had some kind of relationship with her sister and not just her brother and it would have been nice to watch the show develop that relationship to heighten the drama when Mary makes her ill-conceived alliance.

What do you mean, "You have to come back to the show"?

There is another problem I have with history left out of this sweating sickness episode but I’ll address it at the end of the post and leave this now by saying I think that this episode was one of the most well done.  The horror overtones worked really well with Thomas More yelling about Lutherans.

Anne Boleyn and Religion

In truth, we do not know if Anne Boleyn was a reformer or not.  Or, if she was, we do not know how strong her feelings were.  There is simply not enough evidence for historians to say conclusively that she bought into Luther or not.  However, I understand the need for a show to take a stance on Anne’s religion one way or another and these episodes do address some of the accounts (which might be true and might not be true) about Anne and her hand in the reformation of the English church.

I’d like to say first off that blaming the reformation in England entirely on Anne Boleyn is not fair.  Granted, the need for a divorce would certainly lead to a break sooner than it might have happened otherwise, but there were other religious schisms going on that had nothing to do with Anne.  I think she gets scapegoated too often as the figure that brought heresy into England and the claim simply isn’t fair.  With that said, let’s talk about why people might think that.

Lutheranism never looked so good.

There are two primary(ish) sources concerning Anne’s religion.  One is a glowing review of her and the other is a scathing account.  John Foxe compiled the Acts and Monuments after Anne’s death, and while he was alive at the same time as her (he was born in 1516), he never knew her.  His first volume was published in 1563, five years after Elizabeth I took the throne.  When Queen Elizabeth took over there was a concerted effort in England to reclaim the image of Anne Boleyn.  It is unlikely that Elizabeth remembered her mother or felt a great deal of sentiment about what happened, but for political reasons she would have wanted her mother’s reputation fixed to help establish Elizabeth’s legitimacy.  As Elizabeth was sympathetic to reformer and a reformer herself, John Foxe’s account of Anne as a pious woman who diligently gave to charity and required prayer and quiet work in her household would have been welcomed and influential to other budding reformers.

It is important not to take Foxe’s word at face value.  After all, he is pushing an agenda.  However, there is evidence that Anne did give to charity.  Whether this was out of Christian duty or in an attempt to make the people like her cannot be determined, but she wasn’t entirely selfish.

There is an episode Foxe describes concerning Simon Fish, which the show plays out.  Wolsey exiled Fish for his work A Supplication for Beggars.  According to the story, Fish sent Anne his pamphlet which she read.  Then George read it and urged her to show it to the king.  She did.  Henry liked the work so much that he recalled Fish from exile and when they met, the men embraced.  We cannot be one hundred percent sure that this encounter happened.  Despite the king’s changing attitude toward religion it still would have been dangerous to bring up issues of reform openly.  William Tyndale had been forced to leave England after writing the first English version of the Bible so he wouldn’t be killed.  Anne might not have given up that pamphlet.  Whether she did, I sincerely doubt her family would have talked to so openly about opposing Catholicism, as Thomas Boleyn does in the open in front of Catholic members of the court.  Remember, Henry used to be a defender of the faith.

Nicholas Sander also wrote an account of Anne’s Lutheranism in his The Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism.  Devoutly Catholic, Sander also would have been writing over the fact.  Unlike Foxe’s piece, which seems to contain some research, Sander embraces rumor and hate to attack Anne at all costs.  She is more Lutheran than Luther himself.  Her mother slept with King Henry and he is her true father so her relationship with Henry is one of incest wickedness.  She has an ugly wen on her neck (a boil or a lump) and an extra finger (which is a sign of witchcraft).  Sander’s account is mostly crap.  Still, a lot of the things he claimed about Anne managed to live on and make it into later accounts because the gossip is just too good to ignore.

SO HIDEOUS, amirite?

My point is, both of these men pin the reformation on Anne.  Foxe says that she helped restore the gospel in England and Sander claims she sent England on a spiral of doom.  The truth is probably far less dramatic.  Anne might have had reformist sympathies – she did get along well with Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell, after all – but she probably still retained some of her Catholic roots.  Not good for television, but closer to the truth.

Cardinal Campeggio and the Divorce Trials

The pope sent Cardinal Campeggio to England to hold the divorce trials there.  He arrived in October 1528, moving slowly due to his very bad gout.  Some people like to claim that Campeggio over-exaggerated his infirmity to piss of Henry and delay the trial, but who knows.

The bit about Campeggio offering Henry a deal concerning his marriage is true.  If they had been able to convince Katherine to retreat to a nunnery the whole matter would have been solved much sooner.  There’s one bit that I think would have helped the show if they hadn’t been so insistent on killing off Henry Fitzroy earlier in the season.  The pope also offered to allow Princess Mary and Henry Fitzroy a legitimate marriage if Henry dropped the case.  He (the pope) would lift the ban centering around the fact that they were half siblings and then they could take the throne together and any children they had would be legitimate heirs.  This proposal would have been intriguing for a man looking to guarantee that he had a son on the throne and I think could have complicated the plot line.  I love Katherine of Aragon.  She was a force of nature and her refusal to budge from justice is admirable.  Still, the show overplays the “Katherine against the world” bit and I got tired of seeing her argue for her marriage over and over again.

For that matter, why does Katherine even want to remain married to Henry?  He sucks.  In real history it seems that Henry drew away from his wife with greater reluctance than he does in the show.  He still slept in her room and probably had sex with her until they were absolutely certain she had hit menopause.  She still dined with him, he still took her on progress.  Leading up the divorce trial at Blackfriars in 1529, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell that anything was wrong on the surface of things.  In the show, he gives her fleeting moments of affection that do not make up for his shitty behavior.

We can never know if Katherine was truly a virgin when she and Henry married.  We have her word on the matter and Henry’s refusal to say outright that he could tell she had been with another man when they slept together the first time.  This is probably enough.  Katherine was a truthful woman and while she might have been clinging to a lie to protect her position, it seems unlikely that she would lie in the face of God, considering her devout religious beliefs.  Henry’s refusal to admit that she wasn’t a virgin also counts in her favor.  Henry was a man troubled by his conscience for all his nonsense talk about his conscience concerning the divorce.  He tended to try not to lie outright.  By refusing to say “Katherine was not a virgin” we can guess that she probably was.  The show takes it a step further by allowing Katherine a confessional moment where she swears to God that she had been a virgin.

Arthur wanted to tap this but I was like, "Not into sick and dying teenage boys, SORRY."

Personally, I would have liked a little more ambiguity on the matter.  Katherine was a badass, but her attitude also damaged politics and public opinion in England.  Her refusal to let go stirred up a lot of turmoil.  Not saying that Henry wasn’t a complete jerk for trying to force her into a divorce, but divorce was not the most uncommon thing in the world.  Henry’s own sister had been divorced over in Scotland.  Would a retreat on Katherine’s part have helped Anne be seen in a more positive light?  Could the people of England have stopped from devolving into chaos?  Maybe.  There is a popular conception of Katherine as the put upon saint, and I’m not saying she wasn’t wronged, but she was the perfect picture of angelic wonder either.

That being said, her moment in court at Blackfriars is completely real.  She refused to talk to the court but appealed to Henry directly and when she was done, she strolled out of court and refused to return.  That is totally awesome.  The attention given the proceedings are also accurate.  Blackfriars was the moment when Henry’s divorce got put all out in the open.  The result of the trial, Campeggio claiming that the matter had to be settled with the papal court in October of 1529, is true.  It is also probably part of the factor that led Wolsey to his sad downfall and death.

Princess Margaret and Death

Quick note here: I feel like the show kills of Margaret because they have nothing better to do with her.  The two episode romance they built up fizzled quickly and became a boring drama marriage.  Also, what fun is it when Brandon can’t run around screwing whoever he wants?  Oh wait, he always does that.

Mary (remember, Margaret in the show is supposed to be the Mary of real life) died in 1533.  Although the show does not directly say dates, she dies around Blackfriars, which was in 1529.  Wolsey died in 1530 and Margaret dies before he does.  The real life Mary had four children with Brandon, two boys and two girls.  The girls lived to adulthood, the two boys did not.  The show’s decision to push back Mary and Brandon’s marriage did not allow them the time to give them children and their insistence that Brandon must be a young, handsome man also hurts the truth.

I would like to point out again that Brandon would have been 46 at this point, so his little dig about being tired of court and its “middle aged men” makes no sense in the context of his actual age.  Furthermore, his next wife, Catherine Willoughby was born in 1520, making her 13 or 14 when his wife died.  Also, it would have made him 36 years older than her.  Gross.

The Margaret plot is bad and handled badly.

"Don't molest any underage girls after I die, 'kay?" "...No promises."

Wolsey Downfall and Death

This is also a subject that contains a lot of guessing and ambiguity that becomes more dramatic when it’s given a significant shape.  Wolsey did fall out of favor with the king, and a lot of that seems to center around the fact that he couldn’t obtain the divorce quickly enough leading Henry to suspect that maybe he didn’t want the divorce to go through at all.  Thomas Cromwell was the man who helped push the idea that would eventually achieve Henry’s divorce and it makes sense that Wolsey would be pushed aside both for his ineffectiveness and his Catholicism, which was going out of style.

However, there is something to be said for the idea that a faction at court was working against him.  As the low born son of a butcher Wolsey received a good deal of abuse from aristocrats who thought him a grasping and greedy man.  It’s possible that Boleyn and his friends saw an opportunity to take over his influence as Anne’s star rose with the king.

Did Anne play a role in Wolsey’s downfall?  It’s hard to say.  Maybe she did murmur to the king that his friend was not as loyal as Henry had thought.  Maybe she let her dad and brother do all the work.  Maybe Wolsey’s illegal activities simply caught up with him (although I maintain that he wasn’t awful as far as officials go).  It’s certainly more fun to imagine, as Cavendish did, that Anne led the crusade against Wolsey for denying her happiness with Henry Percy (remember that guy?).  If the show had chosen to make Anne a Wolsey hater, I would have liked to see the Henry Percy bit in there to give her some motivation aside from doing what her family tells her.

There is one thing we can say for certain.  Wolsey fell out of favor in 1529.  In 1530 he was arrested for treason.  He died on the way to his trial, an old and sick man.  He did NOT commit suicide.  He never reached a cell and had no chance to do so.  This invention is to make the whole thing more dramatic, I suppose, but the change honestly makes little sense to me.

In ancient Rome committing suicide was an honorable way out.  It allowed someone to take control of their own death and also deny an enemy the opportunity of the doing the job for them.  When Christianity began to take hold, however, suicide began an abhorrent thing.  If you committed suicide you can never get into heaven.  It was a one way ticket to hell.  Why would a Cardinal commit suicide, even if he had been a sinner and doubted his status?  Suicide would guarantee him hell, it would go against all his training and beliefs.  I don’t buy it for a second.  The idea that Cromwell and Henry covered it up is even dumber.  Someone working in that jail would have found Wolsey dead and the rumors would have gone a-brewin’ at the very moment.  The quiet poignancy of a sick man dying on his way to a treason trial when he had once moved the hand of the king would have been far more moving, dignified, and true.

I escaped an island full of dinosaurs for this!? Come on, Henry!

Closing Comments

There are some other things I’d like to mention before leaving season 1 behind.  While I think these back four episodes are clearly better than the first six, there a couple things left that baffle me.

The show continues to claim that it is “loosely” based on the reign of Henry VIII around the internet.  However, when you watch the show, it’s clear that somebody did research.  From time to time character’s say lines that you would only know if you had done reading of biographies or the primary material.  Anne’s claim that sometimes she wished all Spaniards were at the bottom of the sea is something that Chapuys reported in his letters back to Spain.  Wolsey’s observation that if he had served God as well as Henry he wouldn’t have been given up in his grey hairs is a recorded line.  The way the show uses these lines, though, seems slapdash.  Like they wanted to increase their legitimacy by throwing in things actual people said but without context and not in an organic way.  Why would Anne announce her disdain for Spaniards in front of the court when everyone was entirely silent and listening to her?  Without provocation?  Why would she sweep away immediately afterward?  It’s like the writer’s wanted Anne to say the line so they had her enter the scene for that express purpose.  It feels like lazy writing and sometimes makes little sense.  In season 2, Anne will continue dropping these snippets of dialogue but in the context of a conversation to help make them sound real.  I don’t get this choice.

While I generally think the sweating sickness episode is the strongest of the bunch, there is something I would have liked to see added to it.  Saved a series of love letters that Henry wrote to Anne.  We do not have her replies and the letters are not dated, but they are incredibly interesting documents that show Henry’s love and devotion to Anne.  One of the letters addresses her illness and how he will send a doctor to her.  We know that Anne had the sweating sickness so it seems this letter was written in the summer of 1528.  Henry also says that it has been a year since he was “struck by the dart of love” which places his infatuation with Anne around 1527, which helps place when he first recognized her.

The other thing about these letters is that most of them are written in French.  Anne was a known Francophile.  When she returned to England from her training in France, she wore the French dress, she loved speaking French or at least throwing French phrases into conversation, and she might have even adopted a partially French accent.  Henry made the decision to write these letters in a language that he knew would appeal to her.  Also, he knew French, which shows off his educated side.  Many representations of Henry VIII show him writing these letters to Anne when she is ill to build up the romance of their relationship.  This is a man, by the way, who normally didn’t write.  He left the writing of letters to his counselors and advisers, so the fact that he hand wrote these says something about his feelings.

I wish the show would focus more on this aspect than the sexual withholding aspect of things.  Anne was not the world’s most attractive woman.  By some accounts, she was plain.  She used her wit and intelligence to snare the men and people around her and make them enchanted until she became just as alluring as more attractive women.  I’d love to see an Anne using her opinion and her wit to entertain people, to speak with Henry so we get an idea of why he was really drawn to her and was so desperate to marry her.  The early episodes show us too much of Anne batting her eyes and sticking out her breasts silently when they could be showing complicated discourse and interesting ideas.  Henry VIII might have been kind of a dick, but he was really smart and I think it says something about him that he was drawn to a woman who was widely known for being intelligent.  In fact, Henry’s first and second wives were both powerful women and that has to say something in Henry’s favor, even he eventually left them out to dry.

There’s more to intrigue than just sex and I feel like the show could really build on that idea.  Show Henry writing to Anne and her lack of response or what she says in her response that intrigues him.  Make her less straightforward, make her more alluring.  Give Henry a purpose on the show other than pissing me off.  That’s really what season 1 could do better, and that is what I leave you all with.

I also leave you with this. What the hell is up with the promotional material for this show?


Nicholas Sander. The Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism. A vitriolic Catholic who hates everything.  The latter part of the book is about how Elizabeth ruins everything.  All the Anne hate is buried pretty early.

John Foxe. Acts and Monuments. Volume Five. Several pages portraying Anne as a virtuous and Christian woman.  Like the Sander book, you will likely only find this in a university library.

George Cavendish. The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey. Cavendish pins the downfall of Wolsey on Anne and her faction at court.  On a good note, he gives her credit for being just as intelligent and manipulative as everyone else.

Antonia Fraser. The Six Wives of Henry VIII.  One of the biographies you can find on Anne Boleyn.  I personally like Fraser, but there are bunch of other books out there.

“Immortal Beloved”: Ode to…what?

Immortal Beloved

Release Date: 1994

Starring: Gary Oldman, Jeroen Krabbe, Isabella Rossellini

Period of history in focus: early 19th century (specifically Beethoven’s life)

All right.  So, I’m going to do what I can not to let this review devolve into madness.  Many of problems with the movie stem from plot tropes that Hollywood loves and not all of them are historical accuracy complaints.  I guess at heart this blog is truly about being a movie critic, but just a heads up.  There might be yelling about women’s rights.

I chose Immortal Beloved because this romantic idea that swirls around Beethoven that has captured a lot of people’s attention.  For anyone who doesn’t pay attention to centuries old gossip: upon Beethoven’s death in 1827 his buddy and first biographer, Anton Schindler discovered a little bundle of three letters – which are also confusingly kind of like one latter – addressed to an unknown woman.  At one point Beethoven refers to her as his “Immortal Beloved” and he lays on this idea of romance pretty thick.  If they were together life would be better, he hates being apart from her, etc.  The letters have months and days on them but no year, so that has leaved subsequent historians to try and figure out when the letters were written, where they were written, and who the heck he was addressing.

Now, it has been suggested to me that movies about composers should focus more on their music.  How did they learn, what motivated them to write, what was behind their compositions?  I agree with this wholeheartedly.  Say what you want about the atrocious historical fiction behind Amadeus (a movie I will review some day), but that movie focuses on Mozart’s obsession behind his music, what drove him to write certain ways, and what other people thought of what he wrote.  In Immortal Beloved by contrast, we have what I like to think of as the Beethoven hat trick – there are other songs but there is special framing given to the Moonlight Sonata, Fur Elise, and Symphony No. 9.  The motivation behind the first one is a woman, behind the second one is a nephew, and the third is…well.  That’s where the movie falls apart.

Essentially, you can be assured that the movie devolves one man’s life into romanticized nonsense.  That’s about all there is to it.  The powerful moments that highlight his increasing deafness and isolation are immediately contradicted by a movie director deciding he has uncovered the real and edgy “facts” behind Beethoven’s secret love.  Blech.

Piano, why will they never understand our love?

Beethoven’s will

The movie begins with Beethoven’s death, and almost immediately lapses into made up facts to create drama.  At this point director Bernard Rose is coming perilously close to treading on Mel Gibson’s toes with throwing “facts” at you right off the bat to help drive his plot forward.

Beethoven’s surviving brother declares that he deserves all of his dead brother’s money.  After all, he has been named on the will and their other brother Kaspar is dead.  Beethoven’s secretary, Anton Schindler, attempts to fend him off.  There is no money.  Calm down.  Then, amazingly he discovers an envelope addressed to an “Immortal Beloved.”  Inside said envelope we see that he has written a new will which bequeaths everything to this Immortal Beloved AND then he finds the letters.  There may not be a recipient, but there is an address.  The hotel in Karlsbad.

Beethoven’s will was written out to his nephew Karl, who he loved with a sort of tormented horror.  So, his brother would have no right to complain about how he deserved money in the first place.  This also means that the change to the will giving everything to his mysterious woman is completely made up.  Furthermore, the letters had no address on them and some scholars think he might have written the letters at Teplitz instead.

If Schindler really had known for certain that the letters were written at Karlsbad, was able to visit that hotel and get an exact date and signature, as well as eye witness testimony from the woman who worked there, would this whole thing really still be such a big mystery?  Historians still debate when he wrote the letters and where.  If they had a signature, would they really not be able to figure it out?  This trip and account of Beethoven’s hissy fit are pure fiction, I assure you.

What do you mean he dedicated all his music to "That one guy" and wanted to be buried next to "The chick I made out with once but never called again"? This guy is IMPOSSIBLE!

Giulietta Guicciardi

Schindler finally decided to the real biography of Beethoven, that Giulietta (simplified to Julia for the film) must have been the woman.  He based this off of some facts that are not complete crap.  Beethoven and Giulietta were involved in some kind of relationship and might have even been engaged at some point.  He also decided that the letters were dated in 1806.  Then, Schindler learned that Giulietta had been married in 1806 and took the whole thing back.  There are two points I am trying to make here: the argument for Giulietta is not bad, and if someone who actually knew Beethoven and wrote his first biography couldn’t figure it out, neither did the director of this movie.

As far as we can tell the relationship between Beethoven and Giulietta all fell apart because of their different social standings.  It did not hinge on a bet to see whether or not Beethoven still knew how to play the piano.  He seems to have acknowledged the fact their relationship didn’t have a future himself:

For two years, I have once again known some blissful moments, and for the first time I’ve had the sense that marriage can make someone happy; alas, she is not in the same social situation as I and, for the moment, I truly cannot marry.

This doesn’t rule her out completely.  Maybe poor Beethoven was forced to pine after her for the rest of his life.  It’s possible.  The movie, however, must give us a definitive answer, and according to the film, Julia betrayed Beethoven by testing his deafness and he left her forever.

It’s also maybe worth mentioning that two of Giulietta’s cousins also appear in the film – Therese and Josephine – and that both of these women have also been mentioned in connection with the composer.  I mostly wanted to point out that it’s highly unlikely these women tore off their dresses in public places to have sex with a musician.  I highly doubt Beethoven was that much of a rock star.  He was a little too creepy.  And mean.

What do you mean, "kinda intense"?

Countess Anna Marie Erdody

I’m a little perplexed as to why the movie goes this direction.  In fact, it is at this point that the movie starts to veer of its point.  Schindler goes to visit the previous countess Erdody in her native Hungary and we get the story of how she saved Beethoven from public humiliation and how he stayed at her place and how much she loved him.  It is pretty quickly established that is not a contender and in the research done by musical historians she is not really a contender either.  We know that she helped pay to keep Beethoven in Vienna when he threatened to leave.  In this scheme of things, that’s about as good as I have.  Her purpose in the movie really seems to be more of a frame for the audience to learn more about Beethoven’s relationship with his brother, Kasper, his brother’s wife, Johanna, and their son, Karl.

Here’s what I don’t understand: the entire frame of the movie is set up so that Schindler discovers who the Immortal Beloved is and the romance of Beethoven’s life.  Then it goes off on a huge tangent about his hatred for Johanna and the custody battles to get control of his nephew Karl.  All of this information is crucially important for a general biography – Karl plays a huge part in Beethoven’s later life.  It is also crucial for the final conclusion of the film and the discernment of who Beethoven really loved.  But at the time, it feels like the narrative is drifting off into a direction that has nothing to do with anything.  It’s just bad movie making.

They really just needed an excuse to give Isabella Rossellini some screen time.

Johanna Beethoven

Kasper Beethoven died in 1515 and from then on Ludwig van Beethoven was obsessed with gaining control of his nephew and shaping into some sort of musical prodigy.  He went in public multiple times and called Johanna a “whore”, questioning her sexual reputation, and therefore her fitness to be a mother.  Once, he found out that she was seeing her son secretly and tried to make sure she couldn’t even accomplish that.  He was completely awful to this woman and it’s likely that Karl had much more resentment against his uncle than is shown in the film.  However, the basis of all of this is true.

The part where the audience is forced to accept bullshit as the truth comes at the end.  Beethoven was really addressing Johanna.  Not only that, but Karl is actually his illegitimate son.  Congratulations, Bernard Rose!  You have out fake paternity-ied Mel Gibson!

The movie’s contention is that they were supposed to meet at the Karlsbad hotel the night that Beethoven wrote the letter(s).  He penned this on the road and sent a messenger out ahead of him, but Johanna didn’t see the letters because she was too ashamed and had to leave.  The two characters literally pass each other on the stairs.

1) These letters were not written on the road and were not written as a sort of, “Hey!  I’ll be running late, but I will be there.  Wait for me, lover!  Smooches, Louie.”  Instead, they were written over the course of two days and at one point Beethoven apologizes they won’t reach her sooner because he didn’t realize the hotel mailing only went out two specific days of the week:

You are suffering, my dearest creature – only now have I learned that letters must be posted very early in the morning on Mondays-Thursdays- the only days on which the mail-coach goes from here to K.

That is not a man writing a frenzied love letter in the rain while his carriage has broken down.  What about this:

My journey was a fearful one; I did not reach here until 4 o’clock yesterday morning.

Yes, he is describing how he already arrived at the hotel and how that trip sucked.  It’s the equivalent to a phone call once you finish a long car trip and complain about traffic.  It has nothing to do with him racing to get there.

2) The way Beethoven treats Johanna makes no sense.  It follows that he might feel spurned and hurt at what she had done.  If we assume that she married Kaspar because of the missed meeting at the hotel, she would have been about six months pregnant (Karl was born three months after his parents married).  She’s not showing in the movie, so maybe she’s still waiting around for Ludwig to make up his mind?  After they split, Ludwig does everything in his power to be horrible to her.  In real life, he said some of the nastiest things he could, in an effort to drag her reputation through the mud.

If he had really been in love with Johanna and secretly knew that Karl was really is son, did the man not have enough common sense to wait until his brother died to marry her?  It might have been a little creepy for some people, but legal enough, and it would have solved all of his problems.  Instead, he decided to abuse and insult her and take her son away from her.  And after all that SHE FORGIVES HIM?  No, no, no.

Not only is this illogical and a complete leap of fancy, but the message is awful.  If a guy treats you like total crap because he feels hurt by something you did for years on end but then realizes that he did wrong then it’s okay to still be in love with him.

Johanna should have spit in his face and told him he was a prick right before he died.

He called me a "slut"! How romantic!

Family Life and Music

There is a little more that I want to address about this film.  After all, people should be interested in more about a composer than who he might have wanted to have sex with, right?

Beethoven inherited the family trade of music, because at the time that he was born, that’s how musicians were made.  His grandfather was Kapellmeister (musical director of a court or church) in Bonn, as was his father.  Beethoven was not a child prodigy to the extent that Mozart was, but it appears he was never humiliated in front of an audience through his poor playing and then beaten senseless by his father.  In fact, he gave his first concert on 8, and based off his musical promise, began receiving more musical instruction than just his father.

Beethoven’s dad was a drunk, but by the time he had gotten really awful, his oldest son was basically supporting the family.  It is not out of the realm of possibility that his father beat him or some of his siblings, but the presence and importance of this might be a little too much.

I do not understand the decision to make the Ninth Symphony an ode to Beethoven escaping the oppression of his father.  The movie is supposed to be about the woman he loves, then inexplicably morphs into his love for his nephew, and the triumphant note is really about his childhood?  It makes no sense!

One of the major faults this movie makes concerns Beethoven’s composition.  Music was his life.  When he began to go deaf, the man considered suicide, but could not bear to leave his music unwritten:

Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that and I would have ended my life – it was only my art that held me back.  Ah, it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me.

This is a man deeply dedicated to his craft.  He loves music.  In the film, music largely serves to frame his biography.  He wrote this musical piece for Julia, and that for Karl.  He explains to Schindler that one of his pieces is about a man trying to reach a woman in the rain.  Art is not entirely biographical.  Beethoven’s music might tell beautiful stories and hard ones too, but they do not all reveal who he talked to or things that he did.  The music helps reveal what he was, what he believed was art, what he believed music should be.  Writing this off as dedications and an abusive father seems entirely unfair to a man who practically created the romantic movement.

He really, really scares me.

For the record, the Ninth was based off a poem written by Friedrich Schiller.

One last fact of note: Beethoven died during a thunderstorm.  This might not be fitting with the tone of the movie, but he fell into a coma several days before his death.  On the night of a huge thunderstorm, he woke up, shook his fist at the sky, and died.  This is the most hardcore way to die ever if you are not a superhero.

In conclusion: read a biography of Beethoven while listening to a couple of his compositions.  Unless you want to see Gary Oldman’s awesome hair.  Then watch the movie.


Philippe A. Autexier. Beethoven: The Composer as Hero. This biography is short and to the point.  You will get a general overview of the man’s life and some about his musical background as well.  Contains documents in the back, including those letters.

Maynard Solomon. Beethoven.  A more complete biography.  Solomon draws a conclusion about the Immortal Beloved that other scholars have turned their noses up at, but he does give a thorough and complete look into the man’s life and music.

Biography.com. Ludwig van Beethoven. Another overall summary of Beethoven’s life.  Good for anyone who doesn’t want to visit a library. http://www.biography.com/people/ludwig-van-beethoven-9204862

If you would like a full transcription of the Immortal Beloved letters to check it out yourself: http://www.all-about-beethoven.com/immortalbeloved.html


Shakespeare and the new film Anonymous!

“The Tudors” Season 1, Eps. 4-6

The Tudors

First season aired: 2007

Starring: Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Sam Neill, Natalie Dormer

Period of history in focus: Tudor England (specifically the reign of Henry VIII)

Hello all, and welcome back to another edition of “What is wrong with The Tudors?”

I touched on a lot of the big issues last time, but I realized that I was a little too angry and trying to cover too much.  This time around I am going to try to address a set amount of things in a set amount of subheadings.  There are couple of changes this set of episodes that I can appreciate being made in the name of drama, but as always, I am an advocate of actual history being more interesting than drama.  We’ll get to that.

This wouldn’t be a post on this show if I didn’t start out with one complaint before I get started on the issue at hand: Henry VIII was tall, athletic, and eventually enormously fat.  I will never forgive him for being otherwise in this show.  Sorry, JRM.

Anne Boleyn and Henry Percy and Thomas Wyatt

I know that I touched on this last time, but I’d like to bring it up for a more complete discussion.  Anne Boleyn grew up in a family that was well off, and definitely considered aristocratic, but they were not important enough for her younger years to be well documented.  This is why we don’t exactly when she was born or know the exact nature of her relationships before we met the king.  It’s why historians (or wannabe historians) have to sift through first hand accounts and try to distinguish rumor from fact.  As most people know, even for those living in the situation, the distinction is not so simple.

We know for certain that Anne had some kind of relationship with Henry Percy, heir to the Earl of Northumberland, sometime in the early 1520s.  We also know that around this time Anne’s father was in discussion to get her married to James Butler, Earl of Ormund in Ireland.  Anne’s grandfather had been a merchant who had raised himself up and her own father was a clever man who married a woman with excellent family connections.  This put their family in a comfortable position, but not yet into a place where they were considered one of the old families.

Henry Percy served under Cardinal Wolsey and through these means met Anne at court, probably while she was serving Queen Katherine.  They had some kind of romantic relationship, but here’s where things start getting muddy.  It’s unclear whether they fully intended to marry each other and whether, in an attempt to solidify that promise, they had sex.  This notion of pre-contract could be incredibly important for a woman at the time (note that the idea of pre-contract doesn’t only mean sex before marriage, but sex with the man you are intending to marry).  Somehow, the news of their intentions got out and Cardinal Wolsey set to persuade Percy not to go through with the marriage.  According to George Cavendish, who wrote a book on Wolsey’s life, the Cardinal called Northumberland to court to berate his son and finally the two of them convinced the young man to give it up.

Oh Henry Percy, why couldn't you be more like Rick Astley? You never would have given her up.

We will never know for certain whether Henry Percy and Anne tried to solidify their betrothal through sex.  However, many people seem to take the romantic notion that Anne, thwarted in her plans by the Cardinal, held a hatred against him for the rest of her life and helped in throwing him down.  Many of the other courtiers already disliked him, for they saw a man who was too powerful with the king, too demanding in the money he took from them, and of low birth (born in Ipswich, Wolsey was the son of a butcher).

Would not it have created better – and more accurate – drama to have Anne hate the Cardinal for what he did to her?  The show instead devises a plan between Anne’s father and her uncle, the Earl of Norfolk, who hate him and begin the plan to overthrow him.  It seems the basis of their plan grows into the idea that Henry VIII will fall in love with Anne, then she can convince him to overthrow Wolsey.  Their outright scheming, however, is ridiculous.  For a man like Thomas Boleyn, who is still proving himself at court, shouldn’t he be trying to make friends with a man who is so close to the king?

Furthermore, the inclusion of Suffolk in the plan is surely fiction.  As favorites of the king, Suffolk and Wolsey would have good reason to support each other.  After Suffolk got himself into hot water by marrying the king’s sister without permission, Wolsey helped convinced Henry not to stay too angry at the new couple (the king apparently contemplated execution at one point) and helped convince him to bring Suffolk back to court.  The Duke would have no reason to hate Wolsey, who by all accounts tried to make sure they were on good terms.

As far as Thomas Wyatt is concerned, it has been rumored that he and Anne Boleyn had a relationship together, but this is highly questionable.  It’s true that he was put in the Tower of London at the same time as some of the other men who would eventually be executed for committing adultery with the queen, but he was released.  If most historians are fairly sure that the men executed on the charge of having sex with Anne Boleyn were innocent, then surely this makes Wyatt innocent too.

I should be impressed the writers didn't try to write poetry for him: "Anne is nice/ Nice as ice/ So are her boobs." I wouldn't put it past them.

One of the main pieces of evidence concerns Wyatt’s poetry, parts of which can be interpreted as being about Anne Boleyn.  One of his famous works “Whoso lists to hunt” is actually about Anne, and describes a deer that deftly dodges hands of other men.  The difficulty here is the assertion that poetry accurately reflects someone’s biography.  Considering the tradition of court love and writing poetry to please richer benefactors, Wyatt could have been following conventions when he wrote about chasing after this elusive deer.  His other poetry is not necessarily about Anne, but interpreted that way from conjecture.  Based on the lack of evidence, Anne and Thomas Wyatt very likely never had a sexual relationship.

Margaret and the King of Portugal

As I already stated, Margaret is a combination of Henry’s two sisters.  Margaret married the king of Scotland, and Mary was married to the elderly king of France.  Royal marriages were made with alliance and power shifts in mind.  Henry married his sister Margaret to the king of Scotland because England and Scotland always had uneasy relations, and it put Henry in the position of having a nephew on throne.  He married his sister Mary to the king France because England and France were always trying to negotiating peace deals and broker peace and war between each other.  Portugal at this time would have been largely out of the picture.  It simply didn’t have enough power on the continent.

One of the things I do like about this marriage, is that it shows how young princesses often had to marry men much older than themselves.  Although Mary was a mere 18 when she was forced to marry Louis XII, who was 52 and 34 years older than her.  This sort of thing happened to princesses all throughout Europe.  It did not always matter if the two potential marriage partners were of similar at age, and it mattered not at all if they were of similar temperament.  The disgust that Margaret feels in the show is likely very real, although she would have been poorly trained to show it so plainly in front of the man she was to marry.  Think of a young teenage girl being sent away from her home, probably forever, to marry a man old enough to be her father who she has never met.  You can imagine the horror and sadness that these young women must have felt?

It would have looked something like this.

Unfortunately, the court at Portugal is portrayed mostly in stereotypes, the king is an awful caricature, and Margaret ends up killing him to escape the marriage.  Never, under any circumstances, could she have gotten away with such a crime.  She would never have been truly left alone with the king.  Perhaps while they were having sex (priests did bless marital beds and courtiers would be up on the sex gossip, but the presentation of them crowding around the bed is a little much), but that’s it.  The king had a man sleep at the foot of his bed in case something happened.  The queen had her own rooms and her own attendants.  She wouldn’t have had the chance.  Furthermore, Margaret was repulsed by the man, but a true Tudor would have thought the king anointed by God.  How can you kill a man who has the right to his throne through God?

After the death of a king it was custom for his wife to be put into seclusion for a set amount of time.  This was to ensure that the queen was not pregnant.  If she was, then she potentially carried the king’s heir.  The presentation on the show makes it seem as if Margaret left England, arrived in Portugal several days later, married the king and several days later killed him, immediately left and married Suffolk all before a full two weeks was up.  I call shenanigans.

Bessie Blount and Henry Fitzroy

Henry Fitzroy was granted positions as Duke of Richmond and Somerset in 1525 at the age of six.  The show makes a display of this ceremony, but it is unclear how old the young boy is intended to be.  I was also confused, as he was born three episodes ago.  There has evidently been sort of time skip, but the show does not announce, nor do the characters seem to address it.  The actress who plays the young Princess Mary has been switched out for a slightly older version, but that’s about all we get.

So, Henry Fitzroy now had titles he has been granted and must be sent away to his own household.  Correct.  His mother is sad that he’s going, which is fine.  What irks me about the portrayal of Bessie Blount is that her character is sad, silent, and stoic.  She almost never smiles, has a good time, anything.  From all accounts, Henry was attracted to her because she was so young and friendly and flirtatious.  Her entire purpose on the show seems to be looking entirely serious before she bursts into tears.

"What's the matter Bessie?" "I hate fish and they keep serving it at dinner!"

Aside from that, Bessie Blount was married after her affair with Henry and the birth of their son.  Not, as the show claims, before her affair.  If the king slept with a woman for some amount of time and she was unmarried, it was part of his job to find her a husband who didn’t mind too much once the relationship had ended.  Aside from a mention of her husband in the first episode, we hear nothing about him and see nothing him.  This is a little fishy.  Women wouldn’t be able to run their own households unless they were of an incredibly high status, and Bessie Blount certainly was not.

Henry Fitzroy did not die as a child.  He died as a teenager in 1536 at the age of 17 (only two months after Anne Boleyn was beheaded).  The show suggests that the death of the son means Henry’s effort to find an heir is now even more desperate.  There is only problem with his portrayal.  That is the assertion that by being promoted to Duke of Richmond and Somerset, Henry Fitzroy was the presumptive heir.  Henry would never have been able to get away with an attempt to make his bastard son heir to the throne, and I honestly think he wouldn’t have tried.  He would certainly promote the boy, give him a position at court and a good marriage, but not the throne.  It’s simply not how things were done.  As the legitimate child, Mary would have been above Henry Fitzroy no matter what.  The conversation between Katherine and Henry when she demands to know if he is now heir would not have happened.  The only case I know of where bastards were considered as heirs in the line of succession was with Louis XIV and he only did this after the mass deaths of his relations.  Even then, the bastard children were down the line after all the legitimate possibilities.

Queen Katherine and Princess Mary

In the same episode Henry promotes his bastard son, he decides to upgrade Mary to Duchess of Wales, and send her off to her own household.  When Katherine is informed of the appointment, she flies into a rage.  “You would take my child from me?”  Henry sounds like a monster who cares nothing for his child and is intentionally slighting his wife without callous calculation.

Royal parents rarely raised their children or even saw a great deal of them.  Princes were traditionally whisked off and given wet nurses, tutors, household controllers, etc.  A princess would be allotted many of the same things, just not with as much urgency or as grand a style.  Elizabeth, Anne’s child, would be running her own household at the age of 2.  It’s just how things worked.  Courtiers had to be given positions, and able to ascend or descend the chain of command, and one of these opportunities lay in serving the royal children.

Remember, Mary, make sure the servants are paying the bills on time. Keep an eye out for ill doing. You know to call if the chimney leaks, right?

For a modern audience it is completely understandable that a mother would get so upset.  A lot of mothers directly raise their children, and the idea that somebody would send them away sounds like a nightmare.  But this is the reality of Queens.  They did not breast feed their children, they did not raise their children.  It’s true that Katherine had a particularly close relationship with her daughter, but still, this news would not be an insult or a surprise.

George Boleyn

Anne’s brother mysteriously appears.  The king sees Anne talking to him and thinks they might be involved and chokes her, demanding to know who it is.  Aside from this scary moment of domestic abuse, the situation could never have happened.  George was not some new figure on the court, there solely because his sister was gaining favor with the king.  He grew up in England and seems to have been sent to court when he was around 10 years old.  He received a joint land grant with his father in 1522 (possibly for his 18th birthday), and his own land grant in 1524.  This would have been before Anne’s influence, although it would have been after Mary’s.  George was created a gentleman of the privy chamber in 1525 – a position like a lady-in-waiting for a queen.  From what we know, it seems that George was intelligent and charming like his father and sister, Anne.  He was rising to prominence on his own merits and would have been known by a great number of people at court already when his sister started to rise to prominence.

Therefore, his appearance and random approach of the two girls who he later has a threesome with, makes little sense.  Not only because he would already have been established at court, but because his offer to the girls is far too bold for the time.  “You tell me who you’re fucking,” he says, “and I’ll tell you if it’s a good idea.”  Would these two young women ever admit to having sex with anybody to a complete stranger?  I’ve mentioned it before, but women at court under no circumstances could be so sexually free as they appear in this show.  Having sex without somebody who was not your husband constituted a great risk – too great a risk for most women.  Their freedom and appearance in George’s chamber is nonsensical.

The man has a face you just want to punch.

George has not yet been married in the show, but in his life, he was married to Jane Parker sometime in 1525 or 1526.  If we can assume that Henry Fitzroy was given his titles in 1525 on the show, and that annulment proceedings start in 1527 as they did in real life, George should already be married.  I’ll wait to discuss the nature of his marriage until it happens on the show.

Alone time

There are various instances in the show when we see characters completely alone together.  Henry sits in a room writing by himself and has completely private councils with Wolsey.  He arms wrestles away from everybody else with Suffolk (this stupidly masculine display of pride is horrible and I wish the writer who came up with it got fired) and makes out with Anne.  Katherine sends away her ladies to talk to Mendoza in secret.  Margaret sends her ladies out so she can have sex with stupid – the most incomprehensible decision on the show.

The modern concept of privacy is not a thing that a member of the court would have comprehended in Tudor England.  Privacy would be a small number of people in the room.  You could pull somebody aside and have a conversation with them in a corner at a whisper.  But as a king or a queen, you would not been in a room by yourself.  There were a number of reasons for this, and some of those were to prevent things we’ve seen on the show.  Margaret’s attendants would not have left her and she would not have had sex with Suffolk.  Henry could not have spent so much alone time with Anne, and as a result, they would have had to be a little more appropriate in their behavior.  The historical Anne captured Henry’s attention through vivacity and intelligence, and this applied to the people around them as well.  She wasn’t just entertaining the king, she was entertaining the court.

Pay no attention to my butler. He's used to watching.

In the show, the people at court seem shocked when Henry stops and talks to her.  By the time divorce proceedings were going through and Henry intended to marry Anne at the end of them, good courtiers would have recognized where the king’s affection was trending.  Anne would be constantly surrounded by friends and ladies – she would not be able to lie alone in the dark by herself.

It might seem a little amazing then that Wolsey does not know about Anne until he hears the news from Dr. Knight.  This actually did happen to him to a degree.  The historical Wolsey thought Anne another distraction for the king, a mistress that would eventually be pushed aside.  He thought that after Katherine was in a convent or somewhere else then he could promote a French princess to marry Henry.  He did not consider that he was obtaining a divorce for Henry to marry Anne Boleyn.  The episode where Wolsey returned from a trip away and was forced to give council to Henry with Anne in the room did happen!

Yes!  The show did something accurate.  Aside from that stupid crown Anne is wearing.

Not that this show always makes good fashion decisions.


George Cavendish. The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey. Gives the account that Anne Boleyn and her friends at court overthrew the innocent Wolsey, as well as the account of her affair with Henry Percy.  He’s a biased source, but a valuable one considering he actually worked for Wolsey.

Antonia Fraser. The Six Wives of Henry VIII. As I said last time, I like her.

E.W. Ives. Anne Boleyn. Presents a portrait of Anne Boleyn as being at the center of a court obsessed with political machinations.  A valuable source for the show, which tries to do some of the same.  He has some good insight on the Percy/Wolsey affair as well.

Lacey Baldwin Smith. This Realm of England 1399-1688.  Still a good survey.


The film Immortal Beloved about Beethoven and this mysterious love letter that he wrote!

“Gettysburg”: A film worthy of praise


Released: 1993

Starring: Martin Sheen, Jeff Daniels, Tom Berenger

Period of history in focus: American Civil War (specifically July 1-3 1863)

I chose Gettysburg for multiple reasons: to focus on American history, because it is so epic and ambitious in scope, and for the beards.  All right, so maybe not that last part.  Although you have to admit the beards in the movie are all fantastic – even the terrible ones are so obviously terrible that they become amusing.

The first of many shots of facial hair that will bombard you.

The movie is based on a book by Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels, technically a work of fiction, but a lot of research went into it.  The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974 and covers the battle of Gettysburg from both sides of the war as well as various officers.  The movie attempts this same scope, and it’s an impressive piece of work, but at four plus hours you have to start to wonder: couldn’t they have cut something out?  In the preface to his novel, Shaara acknowledges that he excluded some minor characters in interest of condensing everything and making it simple enough to follow.  The movie, it seems, tried to almost exactly follow the book and in moments suffers for this attempt to leave no novel character behind.

There are some small inaccuracies, but largely these don’t matter.  Many of my complaints surrounding the film (and these are mostly small complaints) focus more on the content of the movie and trying to view it as a real movie, not strictly as a history film.  However, Gettysburg deserves praise for its ambition and its accuracy, particularly:

– The careful attention that went into representing both sides and not demonizing one or the other

– Showing the grounds, having characters discuss why certain parts of ground and certain battle attacks work so the audience understands how the battles work and the advantages and disadvantages each side had.

– Allowing characters to speak their opinions about the war.  While I still believe that the root of the war cannot be divorced from slavery, I appreciate characters speaking out about what they believe and why they’re fighting.  Of course not everybody is obsessed with slavery, and it’s important to note that all conflicts contain complexity.

Let’s start with a couple of complaints.

Seeing as how the movie intends to focus on the officers surrounding Gettysburg and how the decisions they made affected the battle (and perhaps…the outcome of the war?) there is barely any of the “common soldier” in the film.  We do get a brief glimpse when Chamberlain deals with the mutineers at the beginning of the film, but the men who volunteer to join the group after an inspiring speech are quickly forgotten, and everybody else mainly serves as cannon fodder.  I understand the decision – the movie is so crammed with characters and fights already that putting in an additional storyline might feel like too much, but could we get a little more aside from mass mobs yelling?

The Chamberlain brothers had the best facial hair. Focus the movie solely on them.

In an attempt to narrow the focus of his novel, Shaara focused on a core group of men, but the result in the movie makes this disjointed.  Early on we get Chamberlain marching with his men and Buford moving in to defend the high ground.  After this battle, Buford essentially disappears from the film and after the battle at Little Round Top, Chamberlain doesn’t get much of anything to do.  While Longstreet and Lee pull through the entire film on the Confederate side, I felt like connecting with the Union side was more difficult and we never really get to see Meade or any of the other big players in action.  Another result of this decision means that certain aspects of the battle had to be truncated.  Certainly Chamberlain defended Little Round Top (and he deserved his Medal of Honor, HOLY CRAP) but he wasn’t the only one who did.  The battle on day one, where Buford positions himself and his cavalry against bad odds was a moment of great battle planning, but the day wasn’t a resounding victory on the side of the Union.  They lost one of their best generals about half an hour in, and a great deal of men had to retreat through the town proper of Gettysburg, attempting to barricade the streets while civilians crouched in their cellars.  The movie tends to lean toward a view that the South’s mistakes cost them every day, whereas the first day might have almost been considered a victory on Robert E. Lee’s end.

Speaking of the Lee’s mistakes, he certainly acted too brashly at Gettysburg.  However, I didn’t feel like the movie did a good enough job driving a couple points home: the Southern army had won a huge battle Chancellorsville in Virginia only a couple months before.  Going on the offensive had helped Lee to win huge (despite the loss of right hand man, Jackson) and also aided in his decision to move north and try to end the war by bringing battles into new territory.  If Lee had won Gettysburg and managed to swing down into Washington DC before the Union army could get there?  Who knows what might have happened.  Longstreet, who advises caution and defense throughout the film, was not at Chancellorsville and he did not understand Lee’s enthusiasm and complete confidence in his army’s ability.  The Confederate army did view Lee in a form of hero worship.  They loved him and their willingness to fight for him was a definite advantage over the Union army, who had been under several rather ineffective generals.  For people who have not researched the battle or the war, I think Lee can come across as foolish and make a modern viewer wonder why the heck everyone loved him so much.  These psychological factors could be further explored.

Don't worry about the loss, sir. One day you'll be president.

If we explore the psychological ramifications of battle plans (I am sure you are asking) wouldn’t this cause the movie to balloon to five or six hours?  Most likely.  Here’s my suggestion: cut some of it out.  Usually I complain that there’s not enough, they should be more accurate, but in the case of Gettysburg, I think the movie could benefit from less.  Cut out a couple of officers and allow us to really connect to these men.  Longstreet is great, but they don’t ever mention that his three children had died and what cause this had on his personality.  We get only a little bit of Buford and he disappears.  Hancock and Armistead are largely reduced for pining after each other.  The first time I ever watched this movie, I had a hard time telling people apart and remembering their relationships.  The second time, I think I only knew because I’d done the research.  We should get to know some of these men better.  The spy is a fun touch, but is he needed?  What about the single scene Stuart appears in?  What about the single scene the disgruntled mutineer appears in?  Or the single scene the man complaining about Ewell appears in?  These men come in and deliver information and flit out again, surely there’s a better way to center everything.

One final bit before I move onto the (many) admirable qualities of the movie.  This a film mostly about battle, but for that there are maybe two shots of women and a single black character.  One woman speaks and she only gets one line, “I thought the fighting was in Virginia!”  The runaway slave?  Says nothing.  My brother argued that if he spoke they would have had to pay him, but then why include him at all?  Chamberlain and other men on the Union side claim they are fighting to end slavery and free a people, but then when you show a man desperate to gain his freedom you don’t let him speak?  I am uncomfortable with white people discussing the plight of slaves in the first place, and then not letting the one slave in the movie speak seems horribly wrong.  If he’s not going to talk, don’t show him.  There is some role some woman could play somewhere.

Wait.  One more thing.  Why is Lee wearing a blue coat?  I don’t believe this is gray.  Somebody please explain this to me.

Pictured: Blue, blue, and more blue. How is that not blue!?

All right!  Let’s move on.

Showing both sides of the conflict

This is the greatest strength the movie has.  We have to remember (especially me, from a northern perspective) that the southern side was not some demon army full of horrible slave abusing assholes.  Sure, they were in there, but the Union army had it’s share of complete jerks.  Allowing a solid half of the movie (possibly more) focus on Longstreet and Lee gives the audience the perspective that both sides of this army are entirely human.  The movie is not graphically violent in the sense that many modern war movies are – such as Saving Private Ryan – but it does give an idea of the toll both sides endured.

For the South, I was particularly struck by Longstreet’s comments about how the men were running into slaughter and in the aftermath of the battle when Lee tells Pickett to rally up his division, we get what might be the most stand out line in the movie, “Sir, I have no division.”  The look on Lee’s face as it dawns on him what he has done to these men who are completely loyal to him is fantastic.  The solidarity of the men of Virginia gives us a sense of how cohesive the Confederate army really was.

Obviously, this was before the battle. Either that, or George Pickett is Satan.

On the Union side, I think the best bits go to Chamberlain, played wonderfully by Jeff Daniels.  We learn he was a professor, why he feels it is his duty to fight, and a true sense of his character.  While he does a great job playing soldier, I couldn’t help but feel the gentleness inside Chamberlain.  The battle at Little Round Top is a great moment that shows the desperation of the Union side and the horrible position Chamberlain’s men face.  When a couple of the holdout mutineers agree to fight in the middle of this battle and Chamberlain orders to get them guns, his brother replies that there are no guns.  Chamberlain’s response: Wait for a minute, and then there will be some available.  Because the men with the weapons will die.  That filled me with such a sense of horror at war really can be.

The ground and battle tactics

Somebody coming to this movie for mindless action fun is guaranteed to be disappointed.  Part of the interest of the film stems from tactics.  When Buford arrives at Gettysburg with his cavalry (as the first one to establish himself there), he makes sure that his army takes the high ground and positions themselves in a way that the Confederates are forced to basically run down a lane single file before they can arrange properly.  He harps on this point pretty hard, and I laughed a couple times at Sam Elliot’s shouting “HIGH GROUND!” but he got the point across.  Where they position themselves is crucial, especially considering how outnumbered Buford and his men are.  Divisions in the Confederate army were also larger than in the Union, so what might appear to be about an equal fight (say five Confederate to four Union) is actually a substantial man advantage for the Confederates.  The Union divisions marching their way will be traveling quickly and early and will likely be tired upon arrival – particularly Chamberlain’s men.

(Fast forward to about 3:30 to hear Buford)

There is another moment where the audience receives a quick glimpse about the importance of high ground, which concerns Ewell and Cemetery Hill.  This is the man who insists he could have taken it with a small number of men.  The situation went something like this: Lee ordered Ewell to take men to the hill and determine if he could take it.  If not, then he should not charge.  When Ewell approached it was already dark and there were men up there.  He didn’t feel that losing the men he would have to lose to charge up and take the hill would be feasible.  Some people have wondered whether this changed the outcome of the battle.  Having a hill is incredibly important.  It’s why the South also fights so hard in an attempt to take Little Round Top, which brilliantly shows the desperation and loneliness of Chamberlain’s troops.

The final battle in the film also gets into the issue.  Lee wants to charge straight ahead and attack the center.  Longstreet wants to move into a defensive position.  The Union army expects attacks on the right and left.  Lee’s plan here might seem a little suicidal – as Longstreet says multiple times, the Confederate soldiers have about a mile across broad field and THEN they have to climb a fence.  How could this possibly work?  There is one piece of the plan that might have changed the tone of the battle if it had gone as planned: the artillery.  Lee wants to use his cannons to weaken the Union artillery so the charge is not as dangerous.  Unfortunately, he could not foresee that this would not work.  Apparently, the cannons were working off a Virginia made fuse, and the men were used to working with a fuse that was more slow burning, which made their aim all wrong.  Whether they realized this up for question.  The other reason Lee decided on this course of action dealt with Chancellorsville – something that really should have been mentioned more in the film – where Lee had won a resounding victory by sending his soldiers directly into the central flank of the Union army.

You want me to what? Aw, crap. I mean, yes sir!

Longstreet’s defensive suggestion that the army pull back and cut off the Union from Washington DC might have been the more prudent decision, but he hadn’t been at Chancellorsville and Lee was ready to end the war already.

In the end it’s difficult to claim that the Union army won the battle, seeing as how both sides suffered brutal casualties, but Lee was the one who retreated and withdrew to the south.

Why are they fighting?

This is something the movie touches on multiple times, and I think it was a great idea.  As I said earlier, I believe that the root of the Civil War does boil down to slavery, but it was more complicated than that.  The movie starts with Chamberlain giving his speech about freeing slaves, but moves onto a deal of other perspectives.

It’s not entirely fair to call BS on the southerners who claim they are fighting for their rights.  Particularly the poor white men fighting for the Confederates.  It’s easy to think of the antebellum south as the land where everybody owned a plantation and dueled each other.  In truth, an incredibly small portion of people owned that many slaves.  Most slave owners had fewer than ten, and many more than that had none at all.  Poor whites were treated badly.  They were looked down on by “gentlemen” and struggled to keep up their farms.  For awhile, poor white men couldn’t vote because they didn’t own land or didn’t own enough land.  To help rally these men to their cause, the richer white men began to draw in the poor men with promises of having a voice in the government and being a unified people.  Many of the men who ended up fighting wanted to protect their homes.  Keep in mind that most of the fighting happened in the south and the mindset of their culture.  A man was the master of his own little universe.  In his household he had complete control to do whatever he wanted.  So the idea of some foreign government trying to get involved in their personal lives was a slap in the face.

My favorite comment made on this side of the argument comes from Longstreet: We should have freed the slaves before ever declaring war.  What would have happened then?  Could the south have let go, or was it just the men truly fighting for a Cause?  (Fun fact: Robert E. Lee owned no slaves.)

This is an ultimate cause of us vs. them mentality and all of it is intertwined with fighting for basic civil rights and the freedom of people too long oppressed.

Watch the movie!  But only if you have four hours to spend.  I would also recommend getting a simple guide to the battle before watching the movie as it makes everything easier to follow.  And stay true to the beard.

If you don't, General Pickett's scary new Avatar persona will beat you up. (Yes, that is the same guy.)


Michael Shaara. The Killer Angels. The novel the movie is based on.  The writing can be a little off putting at times, but it is a fantastic layout of the characters and setting for the battle.

James McPherson. Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg. The shortest book you will find on the battle, McPherson leads the reader on a fake tour of the battle ground, explaining various aspects and tactics of the battle.

Stephanie McCurry. Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country. The title might be intimidating, but the book is interesting.  McCurry focuses on the poor white population and explains how their lives worked to help give the reader an idea of what they might have been fighting for when the war started.

Mastervision American History Series. Smithsonian’s Great Battles of the Civil War. If you don’t want to read and see it all laid out before you, watch this!  Includes all of the large battles you could ever want to know about.


The next three episodes of The Tudors while I figure out what to watch.  Suggestions welcome!