Season one aired: 2007
Starring: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Sam Neill, Natalie Dormer
Period of history in focus: Tudor England (specifically reign of Henry VIII)
First, I’d like to apologize for the ridiculous delay in posts. I shouldn’t have tried to promise a post over a four hour movie that required a bunch of research at the same time I started a new job. But! Now that I’ve settled in and started working things out, I can say that there shouldn’t be another delay so long. Hopefully I will continue being able to put out a post a week, but this might change depending on how much I have to do.
With that said, let’s move onto the show!
For anybody who has seen The Tudors but doesn’t know anything about the time, I’m sure you still managed to discern that most of what happens in the show is fantasy. It’s really a pretty show, and some effort was taken to determine characterization and drama, but it seems the writers took no efforts to make those characterizations accurate to what we know about the historical figures. Some facts in this show are wrong on so basic a level I have to question what the writers and producers could have been thinking. Why change what Henry VIII looks like when we clearly know what he looked like? I’ve heard a rumor that Jonathan Rhys Meyers refused to wear a fat suit for the show and that is why he doesn’t gain any weight in the later seasons. Who thought this an acceptable decision? Aside from all his marriages the thing people know about Henry VIII is that he was hugely fat. WHY NOT MAKE HIM FAT? It’s so inane it infuriates me.
In these first three episodes of the series we already get a look at some absolutely ridiculous storytelling that falsely portrays a good deal of things that we know happened. Let’s start with the basics.
We’ll start with the guy who is the focus of attention: Henry VIII. When he was younger, he was considered the “golden prince.” Athletic, tall (more than six feet), golden haired (with tinge of red), Henry was attractive and intelligent. Why then would they cast a guy who doesn’t reach six feet, has dark hair, and – while he’s not scrawny by any means – isn’t an impressive muscular force? This is exactly the wrong type of casting. It’s just awful. Not to say that I don’t like Rhys Meyers, but he looks nothing like he’s supposed to.
Katherine of Aragon
She may have been Spanish, but Katherine of Aragon didn’t look it. With blonde hair and fair features she would have looked more English (perhaps even moreso than the actually English Anne Boleyn) than Spanish. Antonia Frasier suspects this might be a reason for why the English people took to her so quickly. In addition to being fair, Katherine was quite short – but this did not make her petite. She would have had attractive curves in youth that would become plumpness with age and pregnancies. Katherine was six years older than Henry VIII and repeated failed pregnancies might have made her look even older than that. The show doesn’t officially state in what year it begins, but because they begin planning for the Field of Cloth of Gold in episode one, it’s safe to assume 1520. Katherine would have been 35 years old, Henry 29, and their daughter Mary 4. The Katherine in this show plays her part well, but is too tall and dark haired.
Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk
Born in 1484, Charles Brandon was a year older than Katherine of Aragon and seven years older than the king. At the start of the show he would be about 36 years old, and by that time, already sporting an impressive beard. Brandon was attractive to women his entire life, and the Henry Cavill, the actor who plays him the show, is good looking enough for the role, but has no beard, is too young, and generally goes about like a leering frat boy. How is his character in the show attractive to anybody with all his betting over whether or not he can sleep with somebody? It creeps me out.
I talked about this in my post on Anne of the Thousand Days, but there is some to debate about Anne Boleyn’s age. If she was born in 1501, she would be about 19 at the start of the show. If she was born in 1507, then about 13. For the sake of avoiding creepy thoughts, let’s go with 19. Her sister Mary was probably about a year older than her. For the most part I like the casting for Anne, but wanted to point out one thing. We know that she probably wasn’t super attractive. Certainly, for the standards of the time she didn’t fit the bill for beauty – women were supposed to be blonde and fair and Anne Boleyn was brunette with an olive complexion. Her great physical piece of attraction, it seems, were her eyes, which were described as “black and beautiful.” Anne Boleyn in this show has blue eyes, which counteracts the appeal of her dark gaze, but it’s not as big a deal as the other roles. I will say that it’s difficult to pick someone who needs to look 19 in the first episode and look 35 a year later.
The costumes in this show are rather gorgeous and well made, but they are not accurate. I speak mostly of women’s costumes here. Men would have worn tights and silly puffy pants – but it seems that in an attempt to make the show appeal to the modern viewer it has over-sexualized the time. In Tudor England, as well as pretty much any period of time, young people flirted and fell in love and probably partook in an inappropriate dalliances outside of marriage. However, the amount of sex had in the show starts to reach ludicrous levels, and the amount of cleavage shown is absolutely absurd. Having grown up in Spain, Katherine of Aragon was used to a strict household. This would have included behavior and religion, but also in dress. Women must dress modestly and not too ostentatiously, which meant that dresses were not too low cut and would have lace or other kinds of fabric on the bust to hide any cleavage. Every dress in this show seems designed to show off any boob that the women have. Particularly the dresses that come off the shoulder, which would have been far too scandalous for Katherine’s lady, and for the sensibilities of the time.
Other than dresses, headgear was also important. The Spanish headgear would have been in the form of a hood, which covered most of the hair. The French hood, on the flip side, sat farther back on the head and showed more hair. Anne Boleyn preferred the French style, which the more strict women did not approve of, but no woman would have gone around with no head covering at all. The number of young ladies wearing only pearls in their hair is not accurate, particularly for the strict rules of clothing and etiquette at court. This is not as pleasing or natural to the modern eye, of course, but it’s the way things were.
All those scenes of Henry looking down women’s dresses as they curtsy to him and then summoning them to his room for some sex? That is what the male writers of the show dreamed they would have been able to do if they lived in the past.
Where to start? I have never been a big fan of Henry VIII, and I don’t try to hide the fact that I think he was a jerk. However, the show starts him on such an unlikeable bent that even I think it’s unfair. We know that in his later years Henry VIII became a horrible person: he executed people who probably weren’t guilty of much, threatened and executed advisers closest to him, fell into terrible fits of rage, and demanded that everything go his way. Having an open festering ulcer on his leg and his growing weight probably did not help this temper. Before he began divorcing and beheading wives and gaining weight, however, he seems to have been a content and even happy man. He cared for Katherine of Aragon for many years and their marriage would have been largely peaceable (until the end of it). He trusted in the fact that his wife could bear him more sons. He was intelligent and well-liked. Why should he be in a bad mood?
From the first moment, this Henry is serious and making moody demands of people. Unfortunately, he doesn’t come across as intimidating or imperious, but mostly whiny and overly cruel. His treatment of women is abhorrent – from his abusive undertones toward Katherine, to his seducing women on a whim before ignoring them completely. The fit he throws in episode 2, where he tears apart an entire room at the Field of Cloth of Gold most certainly did not happen. Henry was quite capable of losing his temper, of yelling at people who annoyed him, or crying over emotional hardships, but he would have known better than to throw a temper tantrum.
I understand that show wants to start when things are going bad: showing a happy marriage and a confident king does not make for great drama. If the writers had followed true chronology as opposed to their fantasy timeline, they could have succeeded in producing drama without turning Henry instantly into a complete jerk.
My other main complaint of characterization in these first three episodes lies with Mary and Anne Boleyn. It does seem that Anne was more serious minded and more intelligent than her sister, but this does not mean that Mary has to become a giggling idiot. Nor that she has to be as sexually promiscuous as some rumors seem to suggest. Would the king of France really lean down in front of a great deal of people and tell Henry that he was having sex with Mary? At a political event where both men were paying tribute to their wives? Absolutely not. In the first sexual encounter between Henry and Mary did the writers really have to turn that into a scene of oral sex, being a trick that Mary had learned at French court? It’s disgusting. Mary should be developed into a real person, who might be a little dim witted and fun loving, but who has feelings other than mindless flirtation.
Anne, on the other hand, is sultry and sly. She gazes at the people around her mysteriously, a smile playing at her mouth. If we know that Anne wasn’t a great beauty, and that her main appeal was her wit and ability to use her knowledge to attract the men around her, why doesn’t the show let her do this? In episode 2, Anne largely stands around and stares at people, and in episode 3, Henry falls in love by looking at her (and that obscene dress she wears). I don’t think they exchange any dialogue other than her telling him her name. I really wish the show would have allowed her to show her charm and wit and how a man can fall in love with a woman for something other than her looks.
I would have also appreciate more characterization from Bessie Blount. Henry sleeps with her in the first episode, but she gets so little screen time, and so little personality, that it’s hard to recognize her when she appears again. By all accounts, Henry was attracted to Bessie because she was vibrant and fun, but the Bessie in this show is so serious and mopey it’s difficult to get a read on her. She stares blankly and cries and claims she loves the king, but that’s hard to determine from seeing them together for all of a minute or two. As a side note: the sex scene between Bessie and Henry quickly devolves into what we know in the common parlance as “doggy style”. Sex at the time was considered appropriate only in the missionary position. Other positions were a sin and shouldn’t be done. If a woman had a miscarriage, she could be blamed for it if she had sex with husband with her on top instead of him. Henry, as a religiously minded man, probably would have followed this trend. Not to say that nobody in Tudor England ever had sex in any other position, but mostly they would have stayed with what the church accepted.
It should be noted that I love the casting for Cardinal Wolsey, and I think his characterization is good too. He might not have been quite as grasping as he is in the show, but his character is dynamic and – I think – likeable. Same goes for Thomas More, although he tends to be pitched as a little too good in the first three episodes. His comment that he thinks it will soon be common for all girls to learn? He might have agreed with that, but he did comment that he wished his oldest daughter would have been a son. Despite her intelligence and his favoritism to her, More did still think men more capable of intellectual feats.
This is also, unsurprisingly, screwed up, but I’ll do with it what I can.
The Field of Cloth of Gold took place in June 1520, and the Duke of Buckingham was executed in 1521. The show follows these events in the correct order, although it is unclear if a year has passed. One of the main problems with the chronology is that the show does little to inform us of the passing of time. From Henry declaring war with France to deciding on peace, to executing Buckingham, to being entranced with Anne Boleyn it’s unclear whether weeks or months or years have passed. I’m going to give some landmark years and explain what happened.
1514 – Mary Tudor married to Louis XII
Henry VIII had two sisters, not one. Their names were Mary and Margaret. Margaret was married to the King of Scotland, and Mary was married to the old and ailing King of France. She was about 18 when this happened. Henry NEVER had a sister who married the King of Portugal – he wasn’t even in the discussion. Mary went to France to marry the old king as was her duty, although it seems Henry had promised her she could marry whoever she wanted after he died. It didn’t take Louis long to die, as he was incredibly sick, and Mary was widowed. Within the year she married Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, in secret, which infuriated the king. Couldn’t the show have opened with this event? Katherine had a son in December of 1514, but he did not live long. The opening episode could deal with the marriage, the death of Henry’s beloved and long awaited son, the death of Louis and the secret marriage. That’s some drama.
1516 – Princess Mary is born
Mary was the only surviving child of Katherine and Henry. Her birth came right around Katherine’s 30th birthday, and would not have heralded doom, but hope. If Katherine had finally given birth to a surviving girl child, surely she could do the same with a boy. Henry, who loved his wife, would not have given up hope, and as far as we know, continued to visit Katherine’s bed often, even into the 1520s. His first course of action would be to do everything he could to get his wife pregnant and have a son, not to sleep around with other girls or look for a new woman to marry.
1519 – Bessie Blount gives birth to Henry Fitzroy
Unlike how it is depicted in the show, Bessie Blount gave birth before the Field of Cloth of Gold and well before the Duke of Buckingham was executed. Henry did recognized the boy, but that would not have been shocking or scandalous. At this point, Henry and Katherine had not fallen out yet. He continued to show his wife attention and try to produce a legitimate son.
1520 – The Field of Cloth of Gold
Even if Mary and Anne Boleyn attended this, they would have been especially pointed out. We cannot be sure Anne was there, and if she was, she garnered no attention, as there is no record of her attendance anywhere. Henry and Mary’s affair was after 1520, probably in the 1523-24 range. It appears in the show as if they sleep together for only a week or two before he decides to throw her off, where it was probably longer than that. It’s impossible to know how many mistresses Henry VIII had, but it seems like he didn’t have many, and the only two that we can be entirely certain of are Bessie Blount and Mary Boleyn, so they must have been around at least a little longer than the others. If, in fact, there were any others. (Some people like to say that Henry VIII is the only king who has more wives than mistresses.) At the time of this meeting with Francis, Henry and Katherine had already been talking to Emperor Charles V, which makes the engagement of Mary and the dauphin questionable. Henry might have already been looking to engage her elsewhere, and he certainly didn’t petulantly make the decision to talk to Charles.
1521 – Execution of the Duke of Buckingham
The Duke of Buckingham did seem a real threat to the king. As a wealthy man who owned a good deal of land and had royal blood he would have served as a real threat to the Tudor dynasty. Henry VII had won the throne in battle and his claim was not as secure as it might seem. If Henry VIII didn’t have a son and really secure the Tudor line, other nobles with royal blood could step forward and attempt to take the throne for themselves. However, it seems unlikely from the evidence we have that the Duke of Buckingham was actually foolish enough to try to create assassination plots against the king, and his execution was more likely the result of his uppity behavior and threatening ancestors.
As for Henry and his wife – there is no sign he thought about divorcing her until 1526-7, when he was entirely enthralled with Anne Boleyn and Katherine had almost certainly gone past child bearing age. He would not have raged about not having a son and refused Katherine’s bed so cruelly in 1520, and for a number of years it seemed he would try to marry of his daughter in the best way he could to secure the throne without the need of a son. Katherine NEVER would have suspected that Henry might divorce her. She didn’t believe it when he did tell her and spent the following years fighting it with everything she had. The idea of divorce probably seemed impossible, and for a number of years Katherine truly believed that if Anne Boleyn went away, Henry would come back to her and forget all about the divorce.
As for Anne Boleyn – there is no way she captured the king’s attention so soon. In the early 1520s her father was trying to arrange her engagement to James Butler in Scotland, and after that fell through she and Henry Percy entered into a tentative betrothal. It is beyond me why the show decided to put in Thomas Wyatt instead, who was rumored to be romantically involved with Anne, but it was was never proven. Henry Percy is a solid dalliance – although we will never know whether they consummated the relationship – and she did not catch Henry’s eye until after that affair, which would have been in 1524
For the first three episodes, there is almost nothing right. Wolsey is pretty good, Thomas More is good, and everything else should be looked at with a highly raised eyebrow.
Antonia Fraser. The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Fraser looks at each woman in Henry’s life, digging into great primary sources and taking everything with a grain of salt. Recommended.
Lacey Baldwin Smith. This Realm of England 1399-1688. Helps gives context to England at the end of the Medieval era, how the Tudors rose, and the culture and religion at the time. A good survey for positioning anyone unfamiliar with the time.
I am going to try really really hard to get a post up on Wednesday to set up Gettysburg.