He is slight, impetuous, surly, speaks with the hint of an Irish accent and is a satyr who hops from bed to bed with the effortlessness of a rabbit and the conscience of a gigolo. Who is he? None other than King Henry VIII, the 16th Century monarch of England whom we meet in the BBC/Showtime drama The Tudors. But the real Henry was neither Irish accented, dark haired nor 5′ 6”.
Nor was he, at least for the greater part of his life, the womanizing, carousing libertine we encounter in the first episodes of the series. These are the first among many facts that the The Tudors gets wrong – and it only gets worse from there. The political machinations of Henry and his counselors concerning European politics are hopelessly mangled; Cardinal Wolsey, Henry’s primary adviser for the first 20 years of his monarchy, did not commit suicide in 1530 but died en route to the Tower of London; Henry did not send his sister, Princess Margaret, off to the King of Spain to be betrothed in a morganatic marriage but rather to Scotland where she became mother to the eventual Mary, Queen of Scots; It was Mary, not Margaret, Henry’s second sister, who first married Louis, the King of France and later Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. There were several years, not days, between those marriages and Mary certainly had no hand in the death of her husband, let alone any responsibility for his asphyxiation on their wedding night.
Okay, okay, the producers and actors tell us, this was never meant to be serious history, but rather an attempt to bring to life a vital period in the life of the British nation, which was dominated by an outsized king and whose story is juiced with lubricious detail.
But here, on the quincentenery of Henry’s ascension (April 22, 1509) to the throne of England, one does have to wonder whether anything like truth and honesty should be the province of televised drama and what the corruption of that truth means for national identity.
The Tudors is, of course, not the first depiction of Henry to characterize him as either a skirt chasing rake or as a cruel, self -centered hedonist . For generations the Hans Holbein portrait of the aging monarch – obese, weak eyed and balding, has dominated our visual memories of the man, and, as a result of a string of 20th Century popular books and movies, the only thing we can now think of him wielding is neither scepter nor sword – but a drumstick.
Poor Henry. Who is now to know that the young King was once a dashing athlete, a brilliant scholar and deeply religious man who took his monarchical duties with the utmost seriousness? At 6′ 2″, extraordinarily handsome, and according to the measurements of his armor from 1522, possessed of a 32 inch waist – the new king was the ultimate renaissance man, passionate about the arts, devoted to developing institutions of higher learning and a careful strategist who understood exactly England’s military and political position vis-a-vis the rest of Europe. More surprising, perhaps to most, will be the knowledge of the years-long deep affection and commitment Henry bore his queen, the Spanish princess, Catherine of Aragon who was, in fact, the widow of his older brother who had died several years before the succession.
Where the story of Henry begins to drift into the realm of soap opera is around 1527 when he first meets Anne Boelyn. Boelyn, according to contemporary accounts, beguiled the king not with her looks, which were quite ordinary, but with her vivacious personality. Catherine had failed, after several miscarriages and the death of three infants, to produce a surviving male heir to the throne of England. Like most medieval kings, Henry understood that the security of his own rule depended on the production of a male heir, for without it, as English history itself had clearly demonstrated, rivalries which anticipated the King’s eventual death might develop to foment an early rebellion. With only a tenuous claim to the throne of England, the Tudors were acutely aware of the dangers of an heirless monarchy.
The younger woman offered an escape from this unhappy scenario and her six year long involvement with the King, before their eventual marriage in 1533, began a train of decisions which were to unalterably determine the course of English and world history. The Reformation, which began with Martin Luther in Germany in 1517, was triggered almost by accident in England when the Convocation of Canterbury agreed in March,1531 to accede to Henry’s demands that the clergy recognize him as head of the English church and remove Papal authority of Rome. This sparked a revolutionary process of such profound economic and political change that even today there is dispute about the full extent of its consequences.
But there seems to be little doubt that without the English Reformation we would not have had the growth of an educated middle class, powerful enough to initiate an industrial revolution; without the removal of Papal authority, we would not have had the strengthening of the role of Parliament and hence the rise of constitutional government which resulted from the civil wars of the next century. Nor would we have had the dramatic expansion of English land and naval power that the sequestration of the Catholic monasteries’ wealth facilitated. Therefore there would have been no British empire, no spread of the virtues of liberal democracy and no exportation of the concept of human rights and the notion of individual freedom.
You will learn none of this from the The Tudors. The monarchy of Henry VIII in the Showtime drama is bathed in very little historical context and the soap opera which engulfs the King, ironically parallels the plot line of another recent Showtime offering – Californication. It came as no surprise then that a bonus trailer for that very production accompanied my DVD copy of The Tudors.
Why should any of this matter? After-all, the producers and director have laid no claim to historical authenticity (a fact underlined by the costuming which is Elizabethan, not Tudor) and have repeatedly insisted that the show is entertainment, not educational material.
This is answered by a simple truth. A civilization’s continuity is predicated on a unified understanding of its past. Reduce that past to a mere pandemonia of sexual politics and bedroom acrobatics, in an attempt to mirror the mores and license of the contemporary world, the glue that binds that civilization together begins to come unstuck. Britain‘s national identity is largely dependent on the remembrance of the greatness of its achievements. But neither the British educational system, its media nor its bureaucracy seems to value them much any more and the pernicious results can be seen in the collapse of respect for authority; the impugning of Britain’s prior imperial ambitions, the replacement of patriotism with a reverence for multiculturalism and the consignment of such world changing works by Shakespeare and other ” dead white males” to irrelevance.
The United States suffers from a similar malediction, with movie makers and television writers and directors seeking to rip apart the reputations of some of America’s greatest and most inspiring figures – from Thomas Jefferson to Harry Truman. This kind of revisionism and the supposed honest drive to reveal these men as human beings – warts and all -might be an expression of artistic license, but it is extraordinarily harmful to the embrace of a proud and unified national memory.
Henry VIII may have been dead for five hundred years, but for whatever his flaws, his legacy to England and the world, accidental or not, should never be forgotten. Unfortunately,The Tudors does much to subvert that legacy and in the process contributes to the gradual collapse of national cohesion – a fact all of us, British or not, should mourn.