Carping Corner (Historical Drama Division): The Tudors

There are many things for a history nerd to greatly enjoy about the lush 2007 miniseries of The Tudors, the first season of which is currently showing on cable here in Oz.

The standout for me is Maria Doyle Kennedy as Katharine of Aragon.

This dramatisation tells more of Katharine’s story than most will have seen before, and her regal dignity and strength as she fights for the rights of herself as wife and Queen, and for the rights of her daughter Mary as heiress to the throne, are portrayed with clarity and sympathy. (Also, her voice is fantastic and now I really want to hear her sing.) Despite my earlier doubts about his physical scrawn-to-brawn mismatch for the character, Jonathan Rhys Meyer’s Henry VIII is wonderful to watch, especially as time passes and Henry’s habit of capricious cruelty emerges more clearly. Natalie Dormer’s Anne Boleyn is captivating (although would it really hurt as a general rule to give actresses who don’t have dark eyes some dark contact lenses when they play this part?), and Sam Neill’s Wolsey and Jeremy Northam’s Thomas More are both superb.

Now the carping must commence!

The attention to detail in costuming is remarkable at times – in many scenes it’s as if the Royal Collection of contemporary portraits and sketches by Hans Holbein the Younger has come to life (allowing for a few concessions to the sensibilities of today’s TV viewers).


Sketch by Holbein for a portrait of Sir Thomas More and family

Other times, not so much. Fabulous frocks and doublets and breeches, just decades and a meridian or so out of place. Some of the headdresses given to Katherine and Anne to wear are literally fantastic. At least they didn’t go totally mad and give everybody Elizabethan lace collars.

First carp – the married women are showing way too much hair. They’re nearly all wearing the French Hood rather than the traditional gable head-dress several decades before the French Hood became ubiquitous for a start, but where are the veils at the back? These were Hoods, not Caps.


Holbein sketch of a woman wearing a gable headress, or English Hood, in 1540

Choosing French Hoods is obviously meant to make the women appear more attractive to us, because as even the English eventually realised, the French Hood was indeed far more flattering, but once a woman was a mother it just wasn’t done for her to show her hair on formal occasions.

Second carp – the women show too much hair, the men don’t show enough. Where are the beards? Henry for a start! Portraits of most men other than churchmen in the Henrician court show them bearded, but there’s hardly a beard in this cast, and the beards shown are far to tightly trimmed. In particular, Henry’s close companions seem to have all been bearded in their various portraits, probably at least in part because the King wore one. (See carping re “Margaret” Tudor below for the magnificent beard of Charles Brandon). Pandering to modern tastes for the clean-shaven of course, but a few more whiskers surely could have shown up at court.

Third carp – everybody has way too much privacy. It’s understandable: the crowding of the Tudor court, and the press of people surrounding the King even in his most private moments, would be incomprehensible to those who aren’t history nerds. Holbein drew a sketch of the King dining “alone” in his Privy Chamber – ushers and pages scurry with food and drink on one side of the room, bringing it to the dozen or more King’s councillors and courtiers standing on the other side, who would then take turns to serve the food to the King on bended knee. The series understandably simplifies this melee in order that we can actually see and hear our major characters interacting, but it’s overdone for my taste: this series’ court only bustles in the State rooms on the occasion of great gatherings, and the truth is that it bustled everywhere all the time (which is why it was almost impossible for anyone to keep secrets unless they went to conspicuous lengths to do so, which aroused suspicion in and of itself). Of course there wouldn’t be as much opportunity for trysting in the show if the court were as crowded as it should be.

It also makes dramatic sense to reduce a dozen Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber to three or four, and to conflate their various ambassadorial missions etc. To have only one page sleep in the corners of his room instead of four or six. Modern dramatisations have to simplify complicated histories to allow for a cohesive narrative that the viewers can easily digest, but I mourn the loss of even a glimpse of the polymaths amongst Henry’s close companions, showing us only the roisterers. It also makes it difficult to appreciate just how many nobles and court gentlemen were accused of malfeasance and executed when half a dozen actual courtiers are represented by only one character who falls to the headsman (or is whimsically pardoned). The Continent certainly buzzed with the scandal of Henry’s marital adventures, but it was also his sudden shifts in favouritism, and the number of nobles and lesser courtiers who paid for the loss of his favour with their lives, that made Renaissance Europe eye Henry’s England askance as positively mediaeval.

Fourth and major carp: given that this series is all about the jockeying around the Tudor dynastic succession, and attempting to show us “how the story started” of Henry’s marriages by displaying the politics involved between the shifting factions of the conservative nobles, the evangelical reformers, the King’s minions and the court functionaries (all of which was complicated by the tortuous maze of intermarriages which weighted alliances uncertainly depending on external circumstances), certain choices made by writer Michael Hirst bug me. Hirst defends his choices by saying that he was writing it as a “soap opera…based on historical material” – viewers keep track of all sorts of tortuous interactions and relationships on other soap operas, so why assume that they couldn’t do the same for a historical one? Of course, it’s exactly the same as he did with the various conflations of characters and compressions of time in his script for 1998’s Elizabeth with Cate Blanchett, so Hirst is just going with a proven successful formula and will undoubtedly disregard the carping of pedants such as myself.

Why have the king’s illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy die as a young child when in fact he survived to be married to a great Howard heiress (and then die) after the King himself ever married Anne Boleyn? Obviously it’s because Hirst has compressed the time scale for everything, and he wanted the King’s need for a male heir to appear obviously pressing without getting too weighed down by issues of illegitimacy (even though Henry’s later illegitimising of both his daughters is ironic in that they both succeeded to the throne). Hirst also wants both Henry and Anne to appear younger than they actually were when their marriage eventually occurs, but that bugs me too.

Not dynastic in scope at all, but what’s with the homosexual love affair between Sir William Compton and Thomas Tallis? Did Hirst just feel that they had to have somebody have a homosexual love affair? There’s no evidence that either man was same-sex attracted, although of course either or both could have been, and in any case it’s anachronistic: Compton died of the sweating sickness in 1528, but Tallis’ first recorded musical appointment anywhere was at Dover in 1532 and he wasn’t appointed to a Court position until 1543. This is just prurient sexing up of the narrative.

But it’s every plot distortion dealing with Henry’s younger sister that actually baffles me. Why on earth have they changed any of the following actual facts, which are crucial to understanding later dynastic intrigues among the Tudors?

  • Her name was Mary, so why call her Margaret, which was the name of her elder sister? Did they think viewers would get confused between Henry’s sister and his daughter both being named Mary? Apparently yes.

    And yes, I did conflate Henry’s two sisters into one character. But we already had another Princess Mary, and who needs two Princess Marys on a film set, with all the confusion that would bring?

    Yes, let’s just forget entirely that the elder sister Margaret ended up being the origin of the Scottish claim to the throne of Henry’s daughter Elizabeth, shall we? Margaret was two years Henry’s senior and was married to the King of Scotland years before young Henry VIII came to the throne. James VI of Scotland and I of England was doubly descended from Margaret, from her first marriage through his mother Mary Queen of Scots and from her second marriage through his father Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Margaret had a complicated life even for a Tudor.

  • Mary’s marriage to a European King took place in 1514, long before the 1520 summit at the Field of Cloth of Gold between Henry VIII and the young French King Francis I, but the series shows her marrying after the Field of Cloth of Gold, and to the wrong King. This is not a minor nitpick, because the King she married was in fact the old French King Louis XII, not an old King of Portugal as shown in the miniseries, and the new King Francis I colluded in her elopement with Brandon. For the rest of her life Mary was known at the English Court as “the Queen of France” despite her remarriage (as a matter of further historical curiosity, among her ladies-in-waiting at the French royal court were the two Boleyn sisters, Mary and Anne).
  • By switching the order of her marriage and the Field of Cloth of Gold around, it makes it appear that her marriage to Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk only lasted a few years, and the series mentions no children.


    The marriage portrait of the Brandons in 1515

    In fact, her marriage to Brandon lasted nearly twenty years, and they had three children who survived past infancy. Their elder daughter Frances inherited the Duchy of Suffolk and was the mother of Lady Jane Grey: Mary Tudor Queen of France is the source of her unsuccessful claim to the throne of England.

So that’s two later claims to the Tudor throne, claims that were threatening enough to end in executions, totally having their origins totally swept aside by the conflation of Henry’s sisters Margaret and Mary. At least the series gets it right that his younger sister supported Queen Katherine in the matter of the divorce, but why get it so wrong otherwise? Again it appears to be due to a wish to portray the King and all his favourites as younger than they were at the time of the divorce, purely to sex up the script.

This series had the chance to be so much smarter while still being suspenseful and sexy. What a pity Hirst wasn’t brave enough to do that. I’ll still watch it compulsively of course, so again: I know the carping from me and other nonetheless captivated viewers won’t matter to him (and tut-tutting over glosses in historical dramas is actually quite a fun hobby which adds to my appreciation of these shows), but dammit. Still bugs me.

History nerd links:
Great gallery of Tudor women’s costumes
A Gentlewoman’s Tudor Research: Costuming Myths – Busted! (SCA wenches shouldn’t have to show bosoms, for a start)
Tudorswiki: depictions of the characters through history – paintings and stills from various movies and TV series – comprehensive.
Tudorhistory.org – who’s who, galleries, genealogies, everything.

P.S. Just a shout-out here to one of the great hoyden-sayings in history – Christina of Denmark, the Duchess of Milan, who at age 16 refused to marry Henry VIII after the death of Jane Seymour, supposedly saying that “If I had two heads, one should be at the King of England’s disposal.”. Holbein’s portrait of her in 1538 shows her in mourning clothes, but there is a sense of mischief about her all the same. Even if there’s a third series of The Tudors I doubt she will appear.



Categories: arts & entertainment, history

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17 replies

  1. Aaaah, perhaps Hirst is trying to follow in the Bard’s footsteps, mangling history (if not reversing it totally) to appeal to public and (perhaps more importantly) patrons.
    Dang! You know your stuff. Beards and privacy I would probably have picked if I saw the show, but that’s social history.
    My favorite bit of this post? Your insight by asking “viewers keep track of all sorts of tortuous interactions and relationships on other soap operas, so why assume that they couldn’t do the same for a historical one?”
    Dave Bath’s last blog post..2020 Submission: Topic 9: Australian Governance

  2. BTW: Have they played Greensleves yet?
    Dave Bath’s last blog post..XKCD: Your faves?

  3. Ah yes, the Bard’s “histories”. Don’t get me started on the Scottish Play.
    Sticking with things Scots and royal patrons, by eliding Margaret’s Scottish marriage from history Hirst not only fails to account for the Stuart claim to the throne, but also for the later Hanoverian claim which is the reason that Elizabeth Saxe-Coburg-Gotha currently sits on the English throne. Nice one.
    We have had Greensleeves on The Tudors, but it wasn’t rammed down our throats. We see Henry picking out the notes on his lute and writing them down, and then at a later Court revel we hear the tune playing in the background. I appreciated that level of subtlety.

  4. “see Henry picking out the notes on his lute and writing them down”
    I thought he only wrote a lyric? (And if you get the chance, Loreena McKennitt’s version is brill)
    Dave Bath’s last blog post..XKCD: Your faves?

  5. I’m pretty sure that you’re right that Henry is meant to only have contributed the lyric, and I did have a wry grin that at no point did we actually hear the lyric.
    It’s just possible that Hirst was having a moment of slyness about the whole Greensleeves thang there.

  6. ”allowing for a few concessions to the sensibilities of today’s TV viewers”
    what does this mean?
    I hate politically correct history versions of later eras – as a black fem blogger said, it’s pretty insulting to those who suffered to just Stalinistly airbrush the less palatable parts of history out from modern TV and film

  7. As I was carping on costume only at that point, all I meant was the stuff I later expanded upon, hair etc. The series is so concentrated on the court that there’s little evidence of the lives of the common people, but that’s about as far as the airbrushing of their lives goes.
    One of the main concessions to today’s sensibilities is all the bare shoulders and heaving cleavage of the women. Take a look through some of the galleries on the history nerd links to see that there simply wasn’t that abundance of female bosom on display at the Henrician court – the costumes displayed the clavicle and upper rib area above the top of the cleavage to better offset jewellery against creamy flesh that proclaimed a privileged life indoors, but the breasts were bound down under the bodice, not pushed up over the top of it.

  8. Mind you, at least they did get the Hottness of Henry at around the time of the summit at the Field of Cloth of Gold right. Here’s the suit of armour he was wearing in 1520 – six-foot-four and not an ounce of fat on him.

  9. Can’t say I’m as forgiving as you on the scrawn-to-brawn issue. The young Henry shouldn’t look like a whippet, but like a labrador puppy: he should at least have the bones to suggest a later expansion.
    The show is filmed in Ireland, and I did a bit of work for the PR company looking after it. The PR manager and I were looking through some publicity photo shoot proofs one day and I commented on a girl who was particularly beautiful, and she said “yes, the photographer said he was surprised she wasn’t playing Anne Boleyn”, which peeved me right off for a multitude of reasons. Firstly, it is a matter of public record that Anne wasn’t pretty. Why do people assume that the story has to be about the most beautiful girl? Isn’t any other kind worth talking about? Also, it exemplifies this stupid assumption that almost all stories share that only beautiful people get fallen in love with, which any glance at the real world shows to be ludicrous.
    My main grumble, though, is the same as yours. Why can’t scriptwriters trust an audience to find the truth as fascinating as it is?

  10. I’m unreasonably intrigued by the idea of a young Henry as a gamboling Labrador puppy.
    It’s an interesting argument as to whether Anne Boleyn would have been considered “pretty” by a modern audience. Certainly at the time her dark looks were most unfashionable, with the ideal beauty being fair-skinned and fair-haired, with eyes modestly downcast, and Anne broke every single one of those rules. Still, she was described as having an elegant, slight figure with a very long neck, dark lustrous hair and flashing black eyes: Natalie Portman and Helena Bonham Carter do seem to basically fit the type. Of course the fact that she fell so far outside the beauty conventions of the day made the later charges against her of using witchcraft to enrapture the King seem more credible.
    By contrast Katharine of Aragon, despite how she is usually portrayed as darkly Spanish, was in fact considered conventionally English-pretty with fair hair. The Royal families of most nations at this time did not look all that much like their stereotypical subjects because of the general habit of marrying other royals wherever possible, so their genetic heritage was well mixed.

  11. Actually, the royals of Europe had a genetic heritage that was both well-mixed and inbred. Quite a feat.

  12. Rhys Myers does menace pretty well I think. What about the visible dirt factor, Tigtog? Would we want to watch The Tudors in smell-a-vision?
    Am I right that Maria Doyle was in the Commitments?
    Random personal disclosure: I had a doll of Katherine of Aragon when I was a child. She wore the correct gable headdress too. I balked at the next doll in the series because I knew she’d been beheaded. And this despite spending years of putting Barbies leg where her head should be!

  13. The court looks pretty damn clean, su. No rushes on the floor either, although courtiers do have their pomanders which they sniff ostentatiously every now and then. The very occasional scene with the people in the street reacting to court gossip looks much grubbier.
    Maria Doyle was in The Commitments, which has been on my List of Classics I Must Catch Up On for yonks and has now moved up much higher.
    Love your doll story.

  14. carp away and CARP diem! Deare Tigeth Togethe
    I wish I had seen the thing – I avoid all costume drama precisely because of the non-visible dirt-factor.
    Golden hair and pearly teeth my ass.
    what a stynke there must have been.
    and NONE of them looked a bit like Gwyneth Paltry or Cate Blanketcover.
    I too loved The Doll Story of Su …
    Dysthymiac Bwca’s last blog post..Lord Sedgkozy

  15. The no dirt is probably a concession to modern expectations – after all, grime and dirt everywhere would disgust the average TV viewer.
    As Captain Jack Harkness might say: “If this were the real Renaissance I’d see grime everywhere and cancers eating away people’s faces!”

  16. And black and rotting teeth instead of the pearly whites. Stained clothing, pockmarked and pitted skin, blackheads, no I don’t think I’d watch period drama if it were too period actually. I like the illusion of it all. It’s like playing dress ups while lolling around on the lounge.

  17. One thing I should add with all the carping on historical liberties, the actual narrative structure of the series, where Hirst has set up Henry as being the apex of both a sexual triangle (Katharine, Anne) and a political triangle (Wolsey, More) along with the convoluted Continential politics of continually switching alliances between France and Spain, is very well done.

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