The Tudors

May 16, 2010

Showtime Productions can’t fool me into believing that Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays an accurately aging interpretation of King Henry VIII in ‘The Tudors’ simply by making the side of his hair a little bit grey, and giving him a bit of a beard. He still looks about 18.

I wouldn’t usually blog about a TV show, because there are no shades of grey with TV for me. It’s either great, or shit. And so I can’t really write much on it. I’ll show you………. Have I got news for you, is great. The Sopranos, is great. The West Wing, is great. One Tree Hill, is shit…….. You see?

The Tudors is an oddity. It is both great and shit at the exact same time. I don’t know how this has happened. I cannot explain why it’s so great, apart from saying that it brings the tumultuous time period to life in quite a creative and modern way. By making Henry some sort of male model, and his wives; sex crazed power hungry venom, they have simultaneously distorted the truth so much so that Fox News should consider taking tips, but also made it easy to look past the horrendous inaccuracies and just watch it as a piece of entertainment, rather than historical fact. However, if it were that simple, then I could just say that it’s a great TV show. It isn’t that simple. Which is why it’s also shit, for me.

I studied the reign of Henry VIII for A-Level, and half of my book collection are studies of that time period. Not necessarily just Henry VIII, but also studies on Henry VII, Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, The Wars of the Roses, the Reign of Mary Tudor, the Reign of Edward VI, the Reign of Elizabeth I, The English and European Protestant Reformation, Kett’s Rebellion, Renaissance Florence, Emperor Charles V, and the rise and fall of the Medici. I have taken a greater interest in 16th Century England and Europe, than I did when I actually studied it. I know the subject pretty well. And so, when presented with a TV show that tries to commit itself to the subject, throwing thirty years worth of reality into four seasons of Americanised TV, I get horribly frustrated, yet can’t stop watching. I then get frustrated with myself, for continuing to bother watching a show, that makes me frustrated in the first place. But there’s the paradox; whilst it makes me frustrated, I absolutely love it. WHAT IN GOD’S NAME DO I DO!!!!! ARGH!!!

I will give you a few reasons why The Tudors frustrates me.

  • Charles Brandon, in the 1530s, was in his 50s. He was married four times previously. He married a girl who was then just 15. It is true that he was perhaps the King’s best friend, and most trusted confidante. But in the show, he is about 25, for about thirty years, and marries early on, and doesn’t get divorced at all.
  • Henry had two sisters, not one.
  • There are an entire two episodes based on Pope Paul III signing off on an assassination attempt on Ann Boleyn. This never happened. Totally invented by Showtime.
  • George Boleyn, Ann’s brother is depicted as gay. Sleeping with Mark Smeeton. This never happened. There is no evidence that George was gay. Someone at the production meeting must have said “I know, let’s make George Boleyn into a raving homosexual.”…. “why?”….. “We’ve made the fattest monarch in history into a toned male model, so making an easily forgettable character gay for a couple of episodes isn’t going to be much of a problem.” Oh, and they made him a rapist. George Boleyn, was not a rapist.
  • Imagine in 500 years from now, someone depicting Elvis as making his rock n roll debut, in 2010, or the first moon landing in 2019. It’d be ridiculous right? In an episode of The Tudors, Thomas Cromwell shows a few people the Printing Press and introduces it as a new invention that will change the World. The Printing Press was brought to England about fifty years before the date depicted, and everyone, even the commoners who got by in life from burning witches and pooing in holes in the ground, would have heard of it.
  • The Vatican in the show, has Bernini’s statues in front of it. Bernini was born in 1598. Sixty years after the time depicted. Pope Urban VIII commissioned Bernini to work on the Basilica in 1626, almost 100 years after the time depicted in the show. That’s the equivalent of someone saying “Titanic DEFINITELY sunk in 2012.” Why even go that far? Bernini’s statues around St Peters are not essential to the show. Surely you’d just leave them out, for continuities sake?
  • By Season 4, we are well into the 1540s. Henry died in 1546. He was morbidly obese, brought on from a horrible leg injury some years prior. His weight supposedly prevented him from even getting out of bed, without assistance. In the show, Henry is still a lean, well toned, very good looking, 20+ man, with a few grey hairs and a beard.

    Having said all of that, I still love the show. It’s shaming. I’m actually magnificently disappointed that they are ending it after season 4. It’s epic sets, and it’s costume designs are incredible. I particularly love the sweeping sky shots of 16th Century London. The acting is enticingly top class, and the storylines, whilst distorted factually, are captivating. I would like to see it carry on, into Edward’s reign. The last few years of Henry’s life were not even half as interesting as the entire reign of his son, Edward VI and the Protectors Somerset and Northumberland. I’d even quite like to see Mary’s reign portrayed. The actress who plays Mary is fantastic. It should end, at the coronation of Elizabeth; considered the greatest Monarch England has ever had. Watching a time period you adore, come to life, makes for exciting viewing. The makers of The Tudors have certainly found a winning formula. It’s just a pity they made ridiculous, unneeded historical mistakes. I do think more could have been made of the Reformation Parliament, and the massive and swift change it would have brought to ordinary people. To gloss over in two or three episodes, a part of our history that set the course for the religious settlement of England for the next five hundred years, was weak and disappointing. Also, the portrayal of Thomas Cromwell is acted brilliantly, but I would have liked to have seen him more involved. Cromwell, according to pretty extensive research by one historian in particular, changed Government forever. He introduced a bureaucratic style of government, with departments, and auditors, rather than a one man strong council that existed previously. Crowell was massively important for his political and religious reforms. He wasn’t depicted this way at all. But even then, I am still enticed by the show.

    I hope next, they depict World War II, and how the tall, skinny Winston Churchill; the compassionate, articulate truth teller George W Bush, and tall, definitely-not-crazy, magnificent actor Tom Cruise defeated the evil Nazi’s in Russia, using the giant moon laser. Surely, that’s next? I’ll probably love it =(

  • The 500 year old conspiracy

    April 19, 2010

    England in 1549 was a pretty bleak picture. Even in comparison to earlier times. Edward VI was the king, and was only twelve years old. He obviously couldn’t rule the entire Country at twelve, so a de facto leader named Edward Seymour (The King’s uncle) was named the Protector Lord Somerset. He became hugely unpopular at Court for his ridiculously expensive war against Scotland, which had proved successful but costly. Inflation at record highs, and his mismanagement of religious affairs. He was also considered a friend of the poor, which in 1549 (much like today actually) the ruling classes do not like.

    By July 1549, the peasantry in Norfolk were becoming agitated by what they perceived as their land being enclosed by the richer members of the community. And so, they took up arms and started to destroy enclosures including that of Robert Kett. Kett, oddly, then joins the rebels, destroys his enclosure, and becomes the leader of the rebels.

    By July 11th, the rebels numbered close to 15,000 men and were growing daily. They entered Norwich on 22nd July and assumed control of the city. And so the Protector in London responded.

    And this is where the story gets a little bit odd.

    Firstly, William Parr, 1st Marquess of Northampton was sent by the Protector Somerset, with less than 2000 men to attempt to quell the rebellion. He promptly failed. The Protector then sent John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, with 14,000 men. Eventually, Warwick succeeded and defeated the rebels. Kett was hung until half dead, his stomach was opened up whilst still alive, and his entrails burnt in front of him. He was then beheaded. The Tudor period was nothing if not gory.

    That’s the official – if somewhat rushed – version of the story. But it seems to go a little deeper than that. And it all centres around John Dudley, Earl of Warwick.

    For those of you who have seen the film “Elizabeth“, John Dudley is the father of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who seemingly has a bit of crush on Elizabeth and vice versa. Little is known about Robert’s father.

    Chris Skidmore in his book “Edward VI: The Lost King of England” briefly touches upon, but does not expand too much, on quite a vast conspiracy. He suggests the idea that John Dudley may have actually had more to do with the rebellion than the official story suggests.

    Dudley was no friend of the Protector, and when Somerset’s government finally fell……. Dudley was proclaimed the Duke of Northumberland, and the new Protector in 1550. However, before all of that, on the 12th July 1549, as the rebellion was gaining force, Dudley was at home having written to the Protector that he was “ill” and so he stayed at home. His home, happened to be right next to the heartland of the rebellion. When he finally rode out to face the rebellion with his men, he offered the rebels a full pardon. Kett, oddly then rides out of the city to meet with Dudley, but is held back by his own men.
    If we go back further, to 1543, we see that Kett himself had purchased land directly from Dudley. The two had met on several occasions in fact. Dudley was in the area on July 12th having “phone in ill”, and Kett had wanted to meet Dudley as the rebels and the kings forces sat in wait for battle. Why? What did Kett want to know? He’d got a pardon if he wanted it. What did he need to talk about? Perhaps…. what to do next?

    Another figure enters the fray. Sir Richard Southwell was a keeper of the Howard lands in Norfolk at the time. He was a very close friend of Dudley. Southwell’s will, written in 1564, leaves £40 (which was a large sum of money in those days) to Richard Kett…. the son of Robert. When Kett was in the Tower of London in August 1549, no one came to visit him, except Sir Richard Southwell. Not only that, but during the time of the rebellion, Southwell’s deputy-baliff, was the brother of Robert Kett. Southwell’s implication in the rebellion is even further suggested by a man named Sir Edmund Knyvett, who wrote:

    … of such money as Robert Kett principle leader of the rebellion had from Sir Richard Southwell then having charge of the king’s treasure sent down by him for the surpressing of the said rebels and tried out by the said earl upon examination of diverse the said rebels t be conveyed in particular sums amongst diverse persons which was by the said earl gathered together and delivered over to this accomptant….£497 15s

    …. which, according to Skidmore, means that Southwell was funding the rebellion from day one, out of the King’s treasury.
    Southwell then broke into the office of William Cecil who held this disposition, and stole it. He was effectively off the hook.

    It goes without saying, that Dudley benefited the most from pulling the strings of both the rebels and the Protector. He seems to have played both sides off against one another beautifully, and used it all to his own benefit having secured his place as Protector less than half a year later. After Norfolk, Dudley found himself with a huge army of men, and linked up with another leader named Thomas Wriothesley, 1st Earl of Southampton, and forced Somerset from power. The whole rebellion fiasco ended with the Council supremely unhappy with Somerset’s leadership. Was this Dudley’s intention? Did he know a rebellion would fail, did he instigate it, and then destroy it to make both himself look like a saviour and the Protector look weak? Did he plan it, knowing by the end of the rebellion, he would be left with thousands of troops? If so Dudley has quickly became my favourite character in Tudor history, surpassing Thomas Cromwell as the most devious.

    There are no biographies of which I can find at least, of John Dudley, except that of Loades. Loades’ book costs £95 on amazon and I simply don’t have that kind of money. I would like to investigate Skidmore’s allegations in depth, because it appears fascinating, and it is a largely unexplored direction to take with regard to Kett’s rebellion. It intrigues me to know that a man who had relatively no power in Council, was pulling the strings behind the scenes and in fact had quite immense power. It would make for an interesting research project. It makes me wonder what else Dudley was involved in, throughout his career.

    We often focus on the Monarchs themselves throughout history, yet the most impressive and intriguing characters are the players behind the scenes. Thomas More, Francis Walsingham, Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Seymour, and John Dudley all do not have all that much written about them, and yet they play pivotal roles in the development of the Tudor state during the 16th Century. Fascinating to contemplate.

    Elizabeth I

    March 24, 2010

    Four hundred and seven years ago today, Elizabeth I of England died, and was replaced by James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England and Scotland.

    I studied the early reign of Elizabeth I, her religious policies, her use of council, and her relationship with Europe but I only really started to sit up and take full notice of her reign, when I read “Elizabeth” by David Starkey. A biography of the Elizabeth from her birth, to her coming to the throne. I have since read it twice more, it is a great read and supremely recommended.

    Elizabeth, in my opinion, was the greatest monarch this Country has even seen. She reigned at a time when the country had spent the past 150 years in turmoil. The disastrous period of the wars of the roses, followed by the horrendous upheaval of Henry VIII and Edward VI’s attack on Catholicism, Mary’s attacks on Protestantism meant that England was at boiling point. Elizabeth created stability and prosperity, a sense of brotherhood, that did not exist prior to her reign. This relentless panic to produce an heir, plagued the Monarchy from Henry VIII, through to Mary, and the power hungry obsessiveness of the Seymour family after Henry died, needed to come to an end. I’d recommend reading “Edward VI: The Lost King of England” by Chris Skidmore for a detailed analysis of Edward’s reign. It’s a great read. The Seymore brothers, and Thomas in particular have become my favourite characters from Tudor history, since reading that book.

    As a child, Elizabeth was brilliant. She was taught Latin, French, Philosophy, History, Maths and Greek from an early age, and according to her teacher, Roger Asham (one of the most formidable scholars of the day), she was one of the best and brightest students he’d ever taught.

    I think perhaps Catherine Parr, last wife of Henry, gets overlooked in her significant role as step mother to Elizabeth. Starkey points out that:

    “Catherine, in short, was running a Tudor Open University course in religion at Henry’s Court. Elizabeth was certainly a receptive student. We can imagine her listening, intent, and white faced, to the lectures in the Queen’s privy chamber. In religion at least, Elizabeth was the student, and Catherine was the tutor”.

    This suggests that the religious turmoil that came to an end with the religious settlement that Elizabeth ingeniously put in place during her reign, can be traced back to her education under Catherine Parr.

    Elizabether seems to embody Niccolo Machiavelli’s statement that a Renaissance ruler should strive to be both loved and feared. Machiavelli saw this as a bit of a Utopia; unachievable, and so he goes on to point out that whilst one cannot be both loved and feared, one should strive to simply be feared. This position has been rather manipulated over the years.

    Elizabeth, as a woman, was expected to marry. As the daughter of the King, she was expected to marry a rich noble perhaps of foreign descent, whom would then rule England, and she would take a merely ceremonial position. She refused. She wanted to rule. During her early life, she had lost her mum, two step mums and another step mum was gone. She had witnessed the 16 year old Jane Grey become the pawn in a game of power between her young brother’s protectors, and the power hungry Grey family, that resulted in Lady Jane’s beheading at only 16 years old. All because of Royal marriage. She knew how Royal women get treated. And given the pain of the previous Tudor monarchs (although, Edward was far too young to have much influence, it could be argued that his reign, was the reign of Somerset and Northumberland), it was a miracle that she managed to achieve what she did. An acceptable religious settlement in 1559 that put to rest the problems between the Catholics and Protestants who’d spent the past thirty years at war throughout Europe. Although, it may be said that it was far more Protestant than Catholic, given that Pope Pius excommunicated her for it. But still, it was an acceptable religious settlement for most of the Country, and so she was loved for it.

    She established close relations with the Russians and the Ottomans, effectively attempting to explore the World further than ever before. She even considered an alliance with the Muslim world, because she, like they, believed they were both under threat from the Catholic Church at the time. She oversaw the first English expedition to Japan also. The theatre flourished, English culture had witnessed a golden age because of a Queen who seemed far less narcissistic and power hungry than her predecessors.

    She became feared across the known World, after the ruthlessly powerful Philip of Spain (ex-husband of the now dead Queen Mary of England, and so brother in law of Elizabeth, and staunch Catholic) attempted again to overthrow his sister-in-law because he believed he should be the true ruler of England, and reunite the Country with Rome. Philip, and Spain, lost. We won. Howard and Drake are largely unknown as military geniuses, but in my opinion, for their defeat of the Spanish Armada, they’re the best Britain has ever seen.

    “Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated.”

    Here, Machiavelli describes how a feared leader, must not cross the line into a hated leader. It can be supposed that Machiavelli’s contemporary, and ruler of Florence, Giovanni de’ Medici, was hated. Supremely hated in fact. He had destroyed the Florentine Republic and the liberties upon which it stood. Giovanni become Pope Leo X in 1513, and was so hated, that an entirely new sect of Christianity (Protestantism) arose because of widespread disillusionment with the Catholic Church, on Leo’s watch. Perhaps Machiavelli was describing, subtly, the inadequacies of the Medici, in his writing. He goes on to describe how a ruler should not be cruel.

    Elizabeth was neither hated nor cruel. She could so easily have been dismissed as the daughter of an adulterous mother who almost tore England apart. But she escaped that, owing to her own ingenuity in never mentioning her mother’s name in public. No doubt Elizabeth was influenced by the Protestant World she had been brought up around; if she had, she kept it to herself. Her father and her sister were cruel, and history has judged them to be tyrants. Elizabeth however, never crossed that line. She remained in power for close to fifty years, and was loved throughout. There has been no Monarch before her, or since, that has commanded that sort of respect and admiration.

    Elizabeth I, who died on this day, 407 years ago, is the closest any ruler across the World, since her day, has come to being the Machiavelli Utopian ruler.