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