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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
FOR NEXT TIME:
The film Immortal Beloved about Beethoven and this mysterious love letter that he wrote!