Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.
The six wives of Henry VIII have gone down in the annals of history, though people don’t often stop to think about them. Who were they? What led them to their eventual fates? For the past three years, The Tudors has been answering those questions.
As the name suggests, the show is about the Tudors, specifically about Henry VIII. It chronicles his tumultuous reign, from the decade spent trying to secure a divorce, from his first wife to the formation of the Church of England to a twisting plot of uprisings, intrigue and executions. Oh, so many executions. But the heart of the story is Henry’s wives, falling like dominos, getting pulled into his bed and snatched out just as quickly.
The fourth and final season, which begins on CBC this week, picks up after Henry’s divorce from the unattractive Anne of Cleves and the downfall of his first minister, Thomas Cromwell. From here, it embarks on his ill-fated marriage to Katherine Howard, his final marriage to Katherine Parr, an attempted invasion of France and his eventual death.
History majors may roll their eyes. The show does not follow fact to the letter: events are telescoped and characters may be altered, omitted or combined. Changes are forgivable, though, because The Tudors never deviates from its central purpose, which is to showcase the drama of the intense personal conflicts that characterized the period. It is not meant to be taken as a road map to the history of 16th century England. It is a drama about the mercurial relationships among the nobility and British Parliament, the vanity of European monarchs and the struggles for personal power that precipitate major changes in society.
The main focus of the narrative is King Henry and his wives. It has followed his mission to divorce from his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, his prolonged courtship of Anne Boleyn through their unpopular marriage, the birth of Elizabeth and Anne’s messy end. Then his brief but pleasant marriage to Jane Seymour and his briefer and less pleasant marriage to Anne of Cleves. Amidst this, the show follows the anger provoked by Henry’s decision to break from the Catholic Church and the unsuccessful uprising in Northern England. As well, it examines love and war with other kings of Europe, not drawing a perfect historical framework, but illustrating the way alliances could shift in the blink of an eye.
The Tudors draws upon many historical figures and plays out their (often tragic) stories. One ongoing story is Henry’s relationship with his best friend, Charles Brandon, a carefree lothario turned weary elder-statesmen, finding his relationship with the king strained as he is increasingly forced to do things against his conscience. It deals with the downfall of Sir Thomas More, who refuses to relinquish his Catholic faith, and the rise of Thomas Cromwell, the protestant reformer who manipulates himself into Henry’s good graces. Perhaps most poignant of all is the emotional turmoil suffered by Princess Mary, in the years leading up to her reign as one of the most brutal dictators in English history.
King Henry VIII is a complicated character. In many ways, he just never grew up. He’s impetuous, hot-tempered, obsessive, self-serving and never short of someone to blame for all his problems. But he is also shown as a vulnerable character, insecure and uncertain of his actions. He allows himself to be swayed by the counsel of others but then lashes out when things start to turn. He earns the audience’s hatred but he is still very compelling.
Out of all creative license taken in this show, the most obvious is that the traditional image of the grey and obese Henry VIII that is so well-known today has been replaced by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers with a moustache. Meyers began the show as a young and athletic Henry, but with only three years passing for the 22 that have passed in the show, there is a resulting disparity. But frankly, dressing him up in a manner more historically befitting would only serve as a distraction. The character is located in his fiery emotion and that’s all we need.
The Tudors is not a documentary. It is a drama about the intrigue and conflict of Renaissance England, about the hypocrisy of religious prudence and sexual licence, and about the violence and terror that afflicted those of the time. Perhaps it is not for everyone, but it is television at its finest.