Hello from incredibly snowy New England! We’re still feeling the aftermath of Winter Storm Nemo, which kept me either locked in my apartment or battling mountains of snow with a shovel in hand. I am one sore puppy today. But not too sore to review the 1970 BBC miniseries The Six Wives of Henry VIII — which I watched in its entirety from Thursday-Saturday.
The BBC miniseries is composed of six (of course) episodes, each 90 minutes in length, each devoted to one of Henry’s unfortunate queens, and each written by a different screenwriter (it’s obvious). It stars Keith Michell as Henry VIII, and I have to say right off the bat that as much as I love The Tudors and Jonathan Rhys-Myers, I have to give Michell (and his makeup artists) extreme credit for the way they aged him up to look like the overweight, ungainly, and supremely unattractive Henry VIII towards the end of his life.
I’m just going to go through the episodes and give my opinion on each. I will note right here: to my own surprise, there are times when I am okay with historical inaccuracies. For example: I could live the rest of my life without seeing another codpiece after this film. *shudder* I really wonder who came up with that. Nothing like entering a room looking like you’re shouting “LOOK OUT WORLD, HERE COMES MY DONG!”
Part I: Katherine of Aragon
Since most films or miniseries about Henry VIII begin somewhere around the end of his marriage to Katherine and the beginning of his love affair with Anne Boleyn, I was pleasantly surprised to see that TSWOHVIII begins with the betrothal of Princess Katherine to Henry’s elder brother, Arthur, who died shortly after their wedding. The actress who plays Katherine (Annette Crosby) is one of the most accurate-looking depictions of Henry’s first wife ever. Katherine is usually depicted as extremely ethnic-Hispanic; in reality, she had red-gold hair and blue eyes, and very pale skin. I was also pleased that the director chose to show Henry and Katherine at the height of their wedded bliss — although the scenes of Henry and Katherine dancing in their chamber while in their nightclothes were just plain weird. I was rather skeptical of their decision to make Katherine completely oblivious to Henry’s love affair with Anne Boleyn; I highly doubt that she was unaware of what was going on under her nose, though by all accounts she was shocked when Henry told her that he wanted a divorce.
SPEAKING OF. THAT SCENE. The scene where Henry finally gets the cojones to tell Katherine that he’s planning on leaving her? You expect tears, of course. I was expecting, perhaps, the drop to the knees, hysterical sobbing of Maria Doyle Kennedy from The Tudors. I was NOT prepared for an open-mouthed, tearless, braying like a donkey. Holy crap. Katherine of Aragon looked JUST like Miss Rhode Island from the first Miss Congeniality film where Sandra Bullock rips the tiara off her head.
Most of Katherine’s episode, since it is shown from her POV, is pretty boring. You don’t see Henry again much, and you keep hearing, via her ladies or other courtiers, that Henry has left her, that he’s married Anne, that he’s had a daughter, blah blah blah. The end of the episode is pretty boring. But I have to give them credit for extreme accuracy during the first half. I can overlook the boredom factor.
Part II: Anne Boleyn
We are first introduced to Anne Boleyn (Dorothy Tutin) in Part I, as a devious little twat intent on stealing Henry away from Katherine. Again, credit to the directors for finding someone who looks like the historic record of Anne. Tutin has dark hair and dark eyes, and she’s not conventionally pretty, but she has the charisma that reportedly made Anne so irresistible to men. Because her debut to the series is so abrupt, no mention is made of her faux-engagement to Henry Percy or her rumored love affair with Thomas Wyatt. Anne just appears, ready to steal Henry away, and that’s somewhat disappointing.
In Part II, Anne is queen and has already given birth to Princess Elizabeth. The episode begins, not at Anne’s peak (her coronation), but the beginning of her eventual downfall. Her first miscarriage is somewhat glossed over, as well as her interactions with the men of her court who would eventually be condemned as her lovers. Henry and Anne’s relationship is breaking down, due in part to Anne’s inability to carry a male child to term, and Henry’s continued infidelities. When Anne miscarries a second time, Henry decides he is ready to get rid of her. I thought the BBC version put a lot of the blame for Anne’s death on Cromwell, who seemed all too ready to be rid of her. In reality, Cromwell was originally a friend to the Boleyn family; he certainly helped to orchestrate her trial and conviction, but it is doubtful that he would have done so of his own accord. And I laughed when he claimed that Archbishop Cranmer was on board — Cranmer was a lifelong friend of Anne’s and was incredibly dismayed when she was put to death.
I thought that the inclusion of Anne’s trial was a neat touch. It was completely glossed over on The Tudors and fabricated to the point of ridiculousness in Anne of the Thousand Days. The execution scene was…bizarre. For some reason it was filmed in a studio and not outdoors. Anne knelt and put her head on the block, which she would never have done — execution by sword had to be done with the convicted kneeling upright. I was very disappointed overall in this episode. Brilliant acting by Tutin, but the scriptwriters didn’t give her much to work with.
Part III: Jane Seymour
The Jane Seymour episode was the only episode written totally in flashback mode. It was definitely, IMO, the best-written episode. It begins with Jane (Anne Stallybrass) on her deathbed, a mere two years after the death of Anne Boleyn, thinking back to meeting Henry at her father’s estate, the breaking of her engagement (there is no proof that Jane was ever betrothed), and her return to court in Anne’s services. Throughout her meteoric rise to fame, Jane is racked with guilt over Anne’s death, convinced as she is that Anne was innocent and only put to death so that Henry could marry her. Her relationship with Henry is tenacious; he makes it clear that she can only please him if she provides him with a male heir. When she does, Henry is all smiles and good will, but it’s short-lived; Jane dies only days after her son Edward is born. As his advisers push him to enter into a new marriage, Henry kneels by Jane’s body and cries.
Part IV: Anne of Cleves
Because Anne of Cleves’ marriage to Henry VIII was the shortest and of the least political importance, I was not surprised to see the writers of Episode IV taking major liberties with history in order to beef up the episode. Anne of Cleves (Elvi Hale) is a minor German princess whose marriage to Henry is arranged by Cromwell. She is vivacious and excited to be leaving the Duchy of Cleves to marry Henry, eager to throw off the overbearing yoke of her German family, who is dismayed that she knows more about politics than most men her age. There is no evidence that Anne was politically-minded, or knew anything at all about politics. When Anne arrives in England, Henry arrives to visit her in disguise as a messenger. Confronted with this fat, bawdy, messenger, Anne makes her distaste known, only to be horrified when she discovers that the messenger is really her betrothed. Hurt and insulted, Henry declares that he “likes her not”. The marriage takes place under duress, with both Henry and Anne disappointed and eager to escape the marriage. Afraid that her husband’s dislike for her will be her undoing, Anne uses her quick wits and her political know-how to coax Henry into annulling their marriage, even going so far as to suggest that he call her his “Beloved Sister”.
While I’m a HUGE fan of Anne of Cleves and will always be impressed by the handling of her annulment, there is no evidence that Anne orchestrated any part of the undoing of Henry’s fourth marriage. Her acceptance and amiability, especially coming after the stubbornness of Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, made her extremely likeable and definitely had some part in prolonging her life, but I do not think she was as active in her annulment as the writers would have you believe.
Part V: Katherine Howard
Oh good. Another depiction of Katherine Howard as a devious, conniving hobag. Katherine (Angela Pleasance) is a mere 17 years old (sounds young, but in real life she was only 15) when her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, puts her before Henry with the intention of making her his fifth wife. Katherine is ecstatic to be queen, but not so excited when she realizes she must actually have sex with an aging, stinky king, and she cries like a petulant child. She also makes the incredibly stupid decision to hire one of her former lovers, Francis Dereham, as her secretary. When Norfolk finds out, he insists that Katherine must get herself pregnant before the king discovers that she lied about her virginity, but Katherine despairs of becoming pregnant since Henry is, by this time, all but impotent. In order to get herself knocked up, she begins an illicit affair with one of the king’s grooms, Thomas Culpeper, who has been carrying a flame for her ever since she arrived at court. When Norfolk finds out that the secret is out, he exposes Katherine to the king in the interest of saving his own skin. Katherine and her lady-in-waiting, Lady Rochford (who orchestrated the meetings) are arrested, Dereham and Culpeper are tortured and put to death, and Katherine rehearses her own execution as Henry warns Norfolk to leave court, for he will execute him if he ever looks on him again.
I’ve always found Angela Pleasance to be kind of scary-looking. While Tamzin Merchant played an equally spoiled and selfish Katherine on The Tudors, there was no doubt that she truly loved Culpeper, which made her adultery understandable if not forgivable. Pleasance’s Katherine, however, is certainly not in love with Culpeper; rather, she uses his lust for her in order to try and get pregnant and pass off his child as the King’s. She is irredeemable, and while the episode is exciting, there’s literally no likeable character in it. Also, Norfolk would NEVER have turned Katherine in; as his niece, put before Henry at his own fault, he would, after Katherine herself, stand to lose the most by outing her. The person who informed the King of Katherine’s infidelities was Archbishop Cranmer, who viewed the downfall of Katherine Howard and her Catholic family as divine intercession.
Part VI: Katherine Parr
The last episode was, to me, the most dull. And it usually is. As much as I love Joely Richardson as Kate Parr on The Tudors, nobody can deny that the series got infinitely more boring after Katherine Howard’s death. Katherine Parr always seems to be a placeholder, the last gasp of a desperate king to find someone to stick by him in his old age. Katherine Parr (Rosalie Crutchley) is his reluctant sixth bride, who is already twice a widow when she is crowned queen.
The episode made very little of the love affair between Katherine Parr and Thomas Seymour (brother to Jane). In real life, Katherine and Thomas were very much in love prior to Katherine’s wedding; Henry sent Thomas to Brussells as an ambassador in order to keep him out of the way while he wooed Katherine. Katherine is resigned to her marriage, and attempts to be a good wife, using her influence in order to champion the Protestant agenda. But Henry, Catholic in all things except his loyalty to the Pope, balks, and becomes incensed. When Katherine is confronted with the possibility of her arrest and execution, she holds her tongue and makes amends with Henry, saving her own life. But Henry’s health is failing, and he dies shortly afterward. Thomas Seymour arrives to inform a grieving Katherine that she must marry him, if not for her own sake, then for the sake of Henry’s children, whom he fears will be manipulated by his elder brother, who has been named Lord Protector. Katherine reluctant accepts his proposal.
In truth, Katherine and Thomas Seymour were very much in love (at least, Katherine was in love; during their marriage, Thomas entertained a brief love affair with Princess Elizabeth, which tore their marriage apart). There is no evidence that Katherine Parr made her fourth marriage for any reason other than personal affection.
Final Thoughts: The series on a whole was interesting, but lacked the sweeping dramatics of The Tudors. It probably would have benefited from having one or two writers, rather than six, since the episodes lack cohesiveness. The costumes and headpieces are the most historically accurate Tudor replicas I’ve seen, with the exception of Anne of the Thousand Days. Cinematography would have been better if more of it had been filmed outdoors rather than on a set.
Rating: *** of five stars.