The Would-be Medici.

It is the desperate moment when we discover that this empire, which had seemed to us the sum of all wonders, is an endless, formless ruin, that corruption’s gangrene has spread too far to be healed by our sceptre, that the triumph over enemy sovereigns has made us the heirs of their long undoing.

        Calvino, Invisible Cities.

It can hardly be a secret that all things medieval fascinate me right now. Inveterate telly hound that I am, showtime’s recently deceased Tudors was almost the first thing devoured. I might have started Wolf Hall before, but there is no doubt which was finished first (as well I could, given the final season had barely begun back then).  I wasn’t really interested in the television show post Cromwell’s execution (the end of the third season). Besides, even Michael Hirst began to think it was unconscionable to make Henry look like the delectable Jonathan Rhys Meyers by 1540; and Henry finally got crotchety and fat, which was my cue to exit. He had run through four wives by then, the onset of the fifth being well underway.

The Tudors has Katherine Howard (wife 5) played like the original valley girl, though contemporary portraits indicate a rather more sober woman. She was the one who infamously cuckolded Henry with his valet, and who can blame her? Imagine being 17 and married to a man three times your age. An obese man with a stinking leg wound; who, in words of a contemporary Reformer “celebrates each wedding by burning someone at the stake” and has a history of disposing of wives like so much short change. This Katherine must have realised her young life was not long for this world, and proceeded to enjoy it as best she could. This is, of course, assuming that the charges against her weren’t as trumped up as those against her Boleyn predecessor.

The Tudors, being television, prettifies all of its characters (there is a slideshow below as proof), Henry most of all. He is palpably younger, for one, skinnier for another. Henry would have had to be married at birth to have met Anne Boleyn in his late twenties. Given the legal/theological case proposed for his divorce in the papal courts, it is safe to conclude this was unlikely. Unlike Ray Winstone in Portrait of a Serial Killer, who conceived the role “like an east-end gangster”, Rhys-Meyers projects the early Henry (who lasts a very long time, leaping gracefully right through middle-age) as a sprightly and vivid king; fond of fresh air, fresh women, and fresh horses.  His affairs of state are conducted by the most unholy Cardinal Wolsey, one of the few characters the show draws out remarkably well. This is the fun-loving, corrupt, and benevolent “Master” Thomas Cromwell loved in Wolf Hall, and one of my great disappointments was the way their relationship played out in the Tudors.

Here, Cromwell  and Thomas Wyatt plot with the Boleyn and Norfolk to be rid of Wolsey, an act of betrayal that would have horrified Mantel’s Cromwell. Another useful slippage happens in the story of Cromwell’s rise to power- in Mantel (and, far as I can tell, history) Cromwell only grows truly powerful in the years after Wolsey’s death and Anne’s marriage, while Stephen Gardiner, his nemesis, is secretary to the king in the crucial year between Wolsey’s disgrace and death.  Before 1533/34, as a man of many trades and no land or title, he largely lives off his wits and accumulates hosts of enemies in noble ranks suspicious of his origin and his wealth. In the Tudors, Cromwell’s obscure past is acknowledged but never explored, and his ascent to power incredibly smooth. Long before Wolsey’s disgrace, he is well installed at the ear of the king.

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Convenient villainy aside, I like James Frain as Cromwell- in a show full of celebrities, he radiated intelligence and commitment, and is one of few screen-Cromwells to be as complex as the real man must have been. The show comes out in favour of More during their tussle (though it indicts Anne and Henry as much as Cromwell), a plot-point Roger Bolt seems have carved indelibly into the official Hollywood playbook on all things Tudor. Yet, here is a Cromwell with a family, humour and warmth, unlike the callow lawyer most popularisations make him out to be (where they bother with him at all). A brief, eloquent scene in the show has him eating lunch with his son in the weeks before his arrest.

One of the things I liked most about the Tudors was that it did not make it seem like the king woke up one morning and decided to divorce his first wife (I give you The Other Boleyn Girl) however spontaneous some of the later ones might have been. It took a long, bloody seven years, a vicious fight, and much hysterics to get him married to Anne Boleyn, and it was her victory (or fault) as much as his. This Anne is not as spirited as the Anne of a Thousand Days (“You make love as you eat: with a great deal of noise and no subtlety”) or as grounded as Helena Bonham Carter in The Portrait of a Serial Killer (which would have made an excellent show had it not cut all the politics out of its script to focus exclusively on the wives), but Natalie Dormer portrays an extraordinary woman- witty, skilled, enigmatic (not to mention gorgeous). She keeps her humor under fire, and my favorite scene from the entire show is Anne Boleyn’s famous line when she hears her execution is to be postponed: “I have only a little neck” (I seem to have a morbid fascination for pre-execution scenes, eh?)

The Tudors got most interesting after Anne’s death (the season 2 finale):  Anne’s presence had the effect of making Henry VIII look like less of a spoilt brat and more like someone an intriguing woman might love. Cromwell’s presence does much the same in Wolf Hall, but he is not around Henry as often nor does he observe him closely in the course of the book; besides, when he does judge Henry it is as a performer rather than a lover.  So far, much of his information is gathered in whispers, and that automatically makes Henry a source of amusement rather than adulation. This will change during The Mirror and the Light,  Mantel’s forthcoming book about the ascendant Cromwell,  and their interaction is something I am eagerly awaiting in that novel.

While both have Henry to thank for the power they enjoyed and for their deaths, Anne’s role demands a level of submission and involvement Cromwell’s doesn’t. I find myself amazed all through that a woman as astute as this Anne Boleyn didn’t know what a fragile trap she was baiting and abort it while she had a chance. Unlike Bonham-Carter’s repulsed Anne, jolted along by circumstance, Dormer allows the queen to fall in love with her king fairly early on (and not just his power, which also she unabashedly enjoys).  Alongside the sheer aesthetic pleasure of Jonathan Rhy-Meyers, the tone is more electric royal couple and less despotic monarch. It is only when Henry begins the process of discarding Anne that the fickle Henry so familiar to us comes forth. As the Tudors allows its protagonist to slip into his confused, paranoid megalomania (that Anne had done much to ferment, but she was never its cause) the story becomes the dark tale I recognised from other Tudor-inspired fictions.

Mary Tudor
The Improved Mary Tudor

Hirst’s most curious revisionism is in the characters of Charles Brandon, the first duke of Suffolk, and the formerly bloody Queen Mary. Mary, unmarried during Henry’s reign, is its favourite virgin, and since this is a show about Henry VIII it is riddled with sex and obsessed of virgins. She married Phillip of Spain quick as a shot after her accession, probably because Mary appears to be the only person in England not getting any past the age of 15. Besides, she is the only woman after Anne Boleyn who sticks around long enough to be registered. Though it makes appropriate noises towards Elizabeth, her youth renders her narratively useless, ensuring Mary has the sympathetic princess vote cornered. It is only in the last season Mary displays the claws which will make her famous, when she encourages Stephen Gardiner in his misbegotten persecution of the last Queen, Parr (yet another Katherine), a pursuit which took the life of Anne Askew.

The much-married duke (the show only accords him two of the original four wives, though it allows him to remain a vibrator-in-breeches), dismissed in an earlier post as “large and bland”; this unlikely Charles Brandon is the show’s beloved boy. Brandon is Henry’s longest love, despite the ten wives they share between them. Hirst belabours it rather by implying that Henry died within two breaths of Brandon, when it took two years; but if his point was that all Tudors had creative sexualities it did not go unnoticed (his Elizabeth too is fonder of Bess Throckmorton than she is of any suitor). For his part, Brandon gets the sympathetic outsider treatment, in preference to Cromwell, having been Henry’s horse-master (and a nobleman’s son) before he was the realm’s foremost peer (as was Robert Dudley, Elizabeth’s beloved Leicester).  

Like Henry, Brandon is preternaturally young for most of the show.Unlike Henry, he ages  gracefully and takes a shine upon Queen Katherine (of Aragon, the first one). His wife at the time is Henry’s composite sister, MaryMargaret Tudor, who does not want to kowtow to the Boleyn putain and dies at a critical point during Henry’s “Great Matter”. Quick he might be on the rebound, but he retains her disdain for the new queen and her new coterie at court. He is also of what he calls the “old faith”, better described as fluctuating Henrician Catholicism, and is contrite about the Pilgrimage of Grace and his part in oppressing it. It makes him eager to dispose of Cromwell when he can, and he finds further excuse in the homely Anne of Cleves (though I do think her portrait prettier by far than Katherine Howard’s, but maybe that was Holbein’s genius and clearly Henry and I have little in similar). Brandon is the very embodiment of the liberal catholic (‘high church’, the Brits call it) spirit of the show. Even old Brandon is sexy Brandon, now dignified and composed where once he was amorous and impulsive (though he retains the Hot Young Thing on his arm).

A pedantic historical point to close, saved to the end because it is not about iffy questions of character and motive. Micheal Hirst’s strong suit has never been accuracy (unlike, say, histrionics) and he has made it quite clear is willing to sacrifice timelines and events to suit his fictions rather than the reverse. This was the man, after all, willing to advance Elizabeth’s alliance with the duke of Anjou by twenty years, and caricature the Hero of the Netherlands into a simpering incestuous cross-dresser. He abruptly shifted Michelangelo’s life by a few decades, and collapsed several popes into one. That said, I found the ascription of Huguenots in the destruction of monasteries- thirty years before they (Huguenots) existed- beyond the pale. In 1532, iconoclasm was tremendous heresy (unless one lived in Geneva or Strassburg) and Calvin was still a small man in Paris. If the English had such a rash of it as is made out, it was almost certainly native-bred. But then I get extremely excited (underlined and highlighted in my notes) by the discovery that Anne Boleyn was Reformed and not Lutheran; while I guess all facts are up for grabs in Hirstland  .

If your Tudor of choice is Elizabeth rather than Henry (and really, how could she not be?) there are better popular authorities than Micheal Hirst, though they are predictably stuck upon the gloriana-regina routine. My definitive Elizabeth is Glenda Jackson-Elizabeth R., Mary Queen of Scots (in one of those quirks of casting, Vanessa Redgrave played Mary Stewart in the latter where she had earlier played Anne Boleyn in A Man for all Seasons). However, it took Helen Mirren’s brilliance to be a convincing late-Elizabeth. It will take a dramatic shift in popular history for Elizabeth to be dislodged from Good Queen Bessville, but Mirren does succeed in humanising her and Jeremy Irons (as Leicester) in wooing her, even thirty years into their long, complicated courtship.

Leicester finds out Elizabeth is.. dating (?) Anjou..

…and promptly gets married.

Luckily, Elizabeth was articulate and better able to record her own life, and I leave you with her allegedly farewell poem to the Duke of Anjou.

On Monsieur’s Departure

I grieve and dare not show my discontent,
I love and yet am forced to seem to hate,
I do, yet dare not say I ever meant,
I seem stark mute but inwardly do prate.
I am and not, I freeze and yet am burned,
Since from myself another self I turned

My care is like my shadow in the sun,
Follows me flying, flies when I pursue it,
Stands and lies by me, doth what I have done.
His too familiar care doth make me rue it.
No means I find to rid him from my breast,
Till by the end of things it be supprest.

Some gentler passion slide into my mind,
For I am soft and made of melting snow;
Or be more cruel, love, and so be kind.
Let me or float or sink, be high or low.
Or let me live with some more sweet content,
Or die and so forget what love ere meant.


A List for Today

The Emperor, Card 4 of the standard Tarot deck.

15 Almost-Lords I like from our centuries

  1. Bertrand Russell
  2. Tagore
  3. Yeats
  4. John Galsworthy
  5. Roald Dahl
  6. Evelyn Waugh
  7. Aldous Huxley
  8. Doris Lessing
  9. Robert Graves
  10. JG Ballard
  11. John Lennon.
  12. Benjamin Zephanaiah
  13. Nigella Lawson
  14. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
  15. Helen Mirren.

Some of these people didn’t decline the Honour in principle; some of them repented and got later Honours, others repented and returned Honours they had accepted. All the same, they showed some spine at some stage in their lives, and should be remembered for it. As they have been.

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