I haven’t seen the HBO series on the Tudors yet (HBO Asia is a year behind the US), but I find it interesting that the story is being revived and retold for today’s audience.

The story of Henry and his six wives is one that has held the fascination of people for hundreds of years. Is it the “soap opera” that interests people? An escape into a juicey story where reality echoes the dramas of Danielle Steele?

Or are there parallels into our present day that make one wonder?

So those who are watching the series might want to check out some other films that give different points of view on the shennanigans of the Tudors.

The latest Hollywood movie on all of this is “The Other Bolyn Girl”, a depressing costume romp despite the brilliant performance of Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn.

The screenplay is based on the Philippa Gregory series of books, and the movie stressed the scheming ambition of the Boleyn family (and by extension the Howards, her mother’s family). The movie implied that Anne was a heartless schemer who did all the bad things (incest, adultery) that she was accused of doing by Henry’s kangaroo courts and probably deserved to die a traitor’s death.

In the film, when the “other sister” Mary gets pregnant (and is placed on bedrest), so the ambitious family brings Anne back from France to seduce the king and take her place. There is no love, just manipulation, and when Anne miscarries a second time after producing one daughter, she is worried that the king will divorce her, hence the suggestions she decided to replace the fetus with her brother’s cooperation. The “other sister” Mary walks out at this point, but the brother’s wife betrays the plot, hence the execution of Anne Boleyn.

This goes along with Gregory’s picture of court intrigue in her other Tudor books, where those around Henry are always scheming to get what they want, and the Bolyns are manipulated by the Duke of Norfolk (Thomas Howard) to get one of the Howard blood on the throne of England. (A later book, the Bolyn Inheritance, is about Katherine Howard, the 16 year old bimbo who also lost her head literally over love).

In contrast, the more famous movie on all of this is Anne of A Thousand Days, starring Geneviève Bujold, is a more sympathetic portrait of Anne and her motives.

In this movie, Anne is not in love with the king, nor did she seek him out. But he persists, and she is eventually agreeable, and eventually she does fall in love (or maybe in lust) with the king. But she won’t marry him because of her sister’s fate, so she denies him intercourse with the caveat that he make her queen first. Which he does.

But with time, Henry finds having her as a wife is not as wonderful as having a more compliant girlfriend, and he tires of her tirades, and her failure to have a male child, his eye strays. When the court schemers devise some convincing lies for the king, she ends up executed although innocent of the monstrous charges.

But on the scaffold, she declares that her daughter will one day rule England.

Which is of course what happens. Don’t say God doesn’t have a sense of humor, because the greatest “king” of England is Henry’s daughter, not his son.

Henry’s wish for a son is often seen as a sexist wish to Americans who are not familiar with the War of the Roses. There is a good argument that even if Henry married his daughter Mary to a nobleman or the king of Scotland so that she could reign, another bloody civil war could result.

Nor is it all ambition on the part of the wives. As Antonia Frasier’s book on Henry’s wives shows, all of his wives have one thing in common: that they were all strong minded women trying their best to live their own lives in the rough seas of court intrigue, religious changes, and love.

So how does Henry keep poplar with ordinary nobility, despite all these shenanigans?

Bribes.

But again, the books leave out that by getting rid of the monasteries (not just the bad ones, as the church had done periodically in the past, but the good ones too) and confiscating the land and wealth enabled Henry to give money/bribes to the important families of England.

One result of this, as Fraser notes in her history of women in Elizabethan times, is that upper class girls no longer could get an education unless their families sent them to Europe or they attended classes with their brother’s tutors.

Since history is written by the winners, usually the Catholics are made the “bad guys” or ignored in all the Tudor stories. So the religious revolts of Catholics in Northern England are rarely mentioned in any of these books, and the martyrdom of two major enlightenment figures, Thomas More and John Fisher, are also given short shrift.

This one sided history is somewhat corrected by A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt’s play and the two films on Thomas More,  especially the film starring Paul Scofield.

In this play, More is shown as a lawyer who holds his own conscience above the commands of the king.

The king is shown as a cheerful man who is just at the start of being corrupted by the “Yes men” around him, and Anne Boleyn is seen merely as a bimbo that the king wants– and the change of religion is seen more as a way for Henry to get an heir than one enthralled by lust. And in the book, it is Henry’s obsession in having a son, and his willingness to destroy the laws of God and men that is behind his descent into tyranny.

More admonishes his son in law about the importance of law in one passage, where Roper wants to stop a traitor by bending the law a bit:

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

Which, of course, is why Henry did descend into tyranny: Because he placed himself above the law and destroyed the laws to get his own way.

So, ironically, while the soap operas of the king’s love affair with Anne Boleyn will always make good movies and miniseries, A Man for All Seasons will last, because like all classics of literature and film, it speaks to our present day dilemmas, where Presidents bend the laws for a higher good.

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Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her webblog is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

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