A Non-History Lesson

NUVO | March 19, 2008
By Marc D. Allan

I grew up on a strict diet of pop culture, so my knowledge of the Tudors is limited to the Monty Python sketch Mary, Queen of Scots, Rick Wakeman's 1973 solo album The Six Wives of Henry VIII and the Herman's Hermits song I'm Henry VIII, I Am. In other words, I know as much about the Tudors as George W. Bush does about the price of gasoline.

But as a member of the media who's paid to spot trends (or write about them when an editor asks), I can confidently report that there seems to be a boomlet in interest about the Tudors, who ruled England from 1485 to 1603, according to a helpful web site calledhttp://www.brims.co.uk/tudors/ and probably my high school history teachers, although I'm sure I wasn't listening.

Showtime's dramatic series The Tudors returns for a second season March 30, and the movie The Other Boleyn Girl was showing in more than 1,100 theaters and had made $14 million as of this writing. With Cate Blanchett having played Queen Elizabeth I last year in Elizabeth: The Golden Age and Scarlett Johansson set to star as Mary Stuart in Mary, Queen of Scots, what we have here is definitely a trend.

But this really isn't new. The Tudors have been a public fascination forever. Tudorhistory.org lists 55 movies/mini-series about the Tudors, beginning with 1895’s The Execution of Mary Stuart, directed by Thomas Edison, one of the first movies ever made. Laurence Olivier (as Richard III), Bette Davis (as Elizabeth I) and Katherine Hepburn (as Mary, Queen of Scots) are just some of the legendary actors who've played a role in a retelling of the Tudor stories.

Not a decade goes by when someone isn't dredging up the Tudors for fun and profit. But why? For the answer, I turned to Robert Bucholz, professor of history at Loyola University of Chicago, whose books include Early-Modern England 1485-1714: A Narrative History with Newton Key (Blackwell, Oxford , 2003).

"I think the Tudors are always in fashion because it is easy – if wrong – to boil down this story into one of raw sex and power," he said via e-mail. "And who doesn't find that interesting? In fact, the real Tudor story is far more complex AND interesting, involving the haunting memory of the Wars of the Roses, Reformation era theology, foreign policy, even the price of bread, in ways that actually affected real people’s lives.

"Instead, those responsible for these films have turned the Tudor tale into a Harlequin Romance or Desperate Palace Wives. That's fun and possibly entertaining – I especially like seeing the costumes – but not to be taken seriously."

Bucholz is hardly the only one to see these productions as what he calls "bad history." Someone posted a lengthy critique on The Tudors at imdb.com, taking on the casting as well as the history accuracy or lack thereof. Another poster left a pithy comment under a San Francisco Chronicle review of The Tudors that said: "C'mon. Only if Henry VIII lived on Melrose Place."

Season two of The Tudors picks up in 1532 with Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) becoming head of the Church of England– "but only as far as the law of Christ allows." He's about to divorce Katherine (Maria Doyle Kennedy, who does a terrific job playing the spurned wife) and marry Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer), which doesn't sit well with the Vatican. Not that Henry cares.

In keeping with the show's reputation, there's some nookie (the women don't lay back and think of England) in the season opener, but only a bit of nudity. Meyers opens up a big ol' can of Tony Soprano-like whupass on a messenger delivering the soon-to-be-ousted queen's demands and, for good measure, someone is boiled alive as punishment for trying to poison members of the church hierarchy. I wouldn’t go to The Tudors for a history lesson, but it’s sure entertaining.

Bucholz suggested the real problem with paying so much attention to the Tudors is that we ignore their successors, the Stuarts, who tried to rule England absolutely. Their political and cultural battles – the right of habeas corpus, the right against unreasonable search and seizure, parliamentary (congressional) power of the purse, the religion of the ruler and, above all, whether he is above the law – mirror our own. In fact, he said, "I would argue that presidential signing statements are merely the Stuart claim to be able to dispense with the law in individual cases."

"These are all debates that Englishmen and women argued, fought and settled under the Stuarts, culminating in the Glorious Revolution of 1688/89 and the English Bill of Rights, the foundation of our Bill of Rights," Bucholz said. "But nobody seems to want to make a movie about that."


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