Just in case you missed the endless hype over the last few years, The Tudors is a series, featured on the Showtime movie network, that is based (loosely) on the life of Henry VIII. It has been marketed as Showtime's attempt to compete with HBO's home-grown programming, complete with that historic feel created so brilliantly by the BBC and Masterpiece Theater. The show has run for four seasons, completing its fourth and final season this past spring.
No one is going to claim this is historically accurate, not even the series creator, Michael Hirst. If there is ever a choice between historical accuracy and soap opera-like drama, I'm sure you know where the decision fell. Overall, the series is extremely interesting, even to the strictest of historians (like myself). However, it does have its drawbacks--the series stays true to the changing cast of characters surrounding Henry throughout his reign to the point that the only constant characters are Henry (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk (Henry Cavill). If you don't like their characters or absolutely love someone else that gets absented, you're out of luck. For example, the first season incorporates the incomparable talents of Sam Neill (Cardinal Wolsey) and Jeremy Northam (Thomas More), but anyone who knows the history is aware from the first episode that they will not stay with the series for its duration. The length of time certain characters remain in Henry's life works against the series in the opposite way as well. In a program about a man with six wives, you already know that Catherine of Aragon (Maria Doyle Kennedy) and Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer) will meet their ends before long, but since they remain with the series through the second season, viewers will miss them when the series enters its third.
What's the History?
Season one roughly focuses on most of the 1520s. Henry VIII is married to Catherine of Aragon and has been for "a while," although this period of time is never defined. It is clear that the product of their union is a single daughter, Mary, and that Henry is dissatisfied with this. Of course, there is a lot of womanizing involved in this, mostly focusing on Henry and his friend, Charles Brandon, who Henry creates Duke of Suffolk. Henry is advertised as being "25," but having been born in 1491, he would have been 29 in 1520.
A few things occur that encourage Henry to run headlong toward divorce with Catherine. First, his mistress, Elizabeth Blunt, has a son, Henry Fitzroy, who dies around the age of five or six. There is some implication that Henry considered designating Fitzroy his heir, given he was his only male child. Henry nearly drowns at one point, forcing him to reconsider his reckless lifestyle and lack of a male heir by Catherine. Then, of course, enter Anne Boleyn, beautiful and captivating, and motivated by her grasping family to enthrall the king beyond becoming one of his string of cast-off and soon forgotten mistresses. At the end of the first season, Henry is pursuing a divorce with Catherine through Cardinal Wolsey, desperate to marry Anne.
History Fact Check
The Duke of Buckingham
Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham, is played by Steven Waddington in the first season of the series. He is frustrated, being a claimant from the previous Plantagenet dynasty, overthrown by Henry's father. Although he doesn't last long in the series, a few things happen to him--first, his daughter is "corrupted" by Charles Brandon, Buckingham discovering them having sex; second, he hates Cardinal Wolsey, "accidentally" dropping a washing tray of water on him; and third, he is executed by Henry for plotting his assassination.
Indeed, there was an Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham, and his appearance in the series around 1520 is accurate. He was a claimant to the throne, but the reference to Edward II is an odd one--Edward II was not a well-liked king. Edward II was overthrown by his wife, Isabella of France, who was subsequently overthrown by her son, Edward III. The Wars of the Roses was based on rival claims to the throne by different descendants of Edward III, so a reference to him would have been more appropriate.
The 3rd Duke of Buckingham was descended from the youngest son of Edward III--Thomas of Woodstock. His daughter, Anne of Gloucester, had a son, Humphrey Stafford, who was created the 1st Duke of Buckingham in 1444. The Buckinghams supported the Yorkist claim to the throne, represented by Edward IV and his children, and the notorious Richard III, Edward's brother.
Although Richard III died in battle at Bosworth Field in 1485, defeated by Henry VII, this didn't mean that the Plantagenet line was entirely extinguished. Edward III had a big and unusual problem in the size of his family--he had many children and nearly all of them survived to adulthood and had children of their own, and to further complicate matters, subsequent generations of his family intermarried, so certain individuals actually had claims to the throne through more than one of Edward III's children. Henry VII knew he was essentially considered a usurper, not only by his own people, but also by monarchs abroad. Henry VIII had an easier time--his father's rule was successful in that it calmed the hostilities that had been fueling the Wars of the Roses, and the English were more than happy to bid farewell to the days of instability and war. By Henry VIII, most had reconciled themselves to a new dynasty as it continued to bring these essential elements to the table.
The supposed liaison between Charles Brandon and Buckingham's daughter is a rewriting of a short-lived relationship between Henry VIII and Buckingham's sister, Lady Anne Hastings. Their sister, Elizabeth, reported this affair to Buckingham in 1510, too early for the series, who immediately told her husband. Her husband, in turn, withdrew her from court and threw her temporarily into a convent. Henry blamed Elizabeth for the loss of his mistress, and he dismissed her from court. This angered Catherine of Aragon, and Henry and Catherine had a very public falling-out as a result.
The 3rd Duke of Buckingham was executed, but not for plotting against Henry in a direct way. The Duke's son, Henry, Lord Stafford, married Ursula Pole, and this presented Henry VIII with a problem. The Poles, like the Staffords, were descended from the Plantagenet line. Ursula's mother, Margaret Pole, was the daughter of the Duke of Clarence, brother to both Edward IV and Richard III. This marriage united both of these pre-existing claims to the throne. This only added to the fact that Buckingham had interfered in Henry VIII's liaison with his sister and his apparent dislike of Henry VIII's favorites, in particular, Cardinal Wolsey. In May 1521, Henry VIII had Buckingham arrested, accused of "witchcraft," attempting by these means to discover how long Henry VIII would live. He was condemned and executed four days later--much to the dismay of Catherine, who was close to his family. The people of London rioted in reaction, but he wouldn't be the last of Henry's victims.
The series opens with the introduction of Henry VIII's latest mistress, Elizabeth Blunt. She approaches Cardinal Wolsey, explaining to him that she is pregnant with the king's child, and Wolsey makes arrangements for her to leave court in an appropriate fashion. Matters are further complicated by Catherine of Aragon who tearfully confides in Elizabeth regarding her troubled relationship with the king and her inability to have his children.
Elizabeth has a healthy son, who she names Henry. Henry VIII acknowledges that this is indeed his son, and is encouraged by his safe delivery and healthy state. He confers several titles on him later, prompting Catherine to question whether Henry intends to make Fitzroy his heir over her daughter, Mary. Fitzroy dies suddenly, between the ages of five or six, in a personal household provided by the king.
Henry VIII indeed had an illegitimate son he acknowledged named Henry Fitzroy. His mother was Elizabeth Blount, the daughter of a minor noble, who served Catherine of Aragon as one of her ladies in waiting. She was supposedly one of his longer-term mistresses, beginning an affair with him as a teenager. "Bessie" Blount was not married at the time of her affair with Henry, and this diverts from the series (the series shows a young woman in her mid-twenties who is married). In 1519, somewhat before the series is supposed to begin, she gave birth to Henry, called "Fitzroy" in acknowledgement of his parentage (Fitzroy translates to "son of the king"). Her affair with the king supposedly ended after this, and in the series, she is very distraught by his apparent lack of interest in her. In 1522, she married Gilbert Tailboys, whose family was supported by Cardinal Wolsey and who was probably chosen for Bessie as a suitable husband after her affair with the king concluded.
Henry Fitzroy was indeed given several titles, including Earl of Nottingham, Duke of Richmond, Duke of Somerset, but the most telling was his affirmed place as Warden of the Marches toward Scotland. This basically entitled him to govern the north of England. This was a big deal--the only comparable position was given to his daughter by Catherine, Mary, who was sent to the Welsh Marches in the fashion of all those previously given the title "Prince of Wales." Not surprisingly, many people thought this was a sign that perhaps Henry would acknowledge Fitzroy as his heir. However, Henry was indeed aware that setting an illegitimate child on the throne could potentially provoke civil war in favor of any of the remaining Plantagenet claimants to the throne or in favor of his daughter's birthright, so if he ever considered this course of action at all, it was short-lived at best.
Fitzroy did not die as a young child. He was married in 1533 to Lady Mary Howard, daughter of the Duke of Norfolk and member of the Boleyn faction at court, then in favor with the king. However, Fitzroy was sickly, dying of consumption in 1536 without any children.
The end of Cardinal Wolsey
Cardinal Wolsey is introduced in the series as Henry's most trusted advisor. He is clearly looking for advancement, and is willing to sacrifice his moral well-being to do so, which is in direct contrast to Thomas More. He is charged with the task of getting a divorce for Henry VIII so he can marry Anne Boleyn. Since the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, successfully invaded and occupied Italy, the Pope was in his control, and being Catherine's nephew, a divorce would be next to impossible to grant. Wolsey sets up several means to examine the matter, including a local examination with English churchmen, a trial presided by Cardinal Campeggio from the Vatican, and an attempt to solicit the support of the French clergy in favor of his being able to administrate on the matter himself. Through all of his varying successes on the matter, Thomas Boleyn, the Duke of Norfolk, and the Duke of Suffolk conspire to bring him down. Unable to achieve the divorce, Henry strips Wolsey of his titles and authority, sending him to York to live out the remainder of his days in obscurity. Some of his double-dealing is discovered and reported to the king, upon which Wolsey is dragged from York back to London and imprisoned. Presumably while a comedy satirizes Wolsey's life, Wolsey takes his own life in prison.
Cardinal Wolsey climbed up the ranks to become Henry VIII's Lord Chancellor, coming from somewhat unclear but perhaps modest origins. He was the Archbishop of York, but after becoming a cardinal of the Catholic Church, he had precedence over the Archbishop of Canterbury, traditionally the chief churchman in England. Wolsey made a number of enemies while he was in favor, and in addition, he was unable to firmly deliver the divorce from Catherine that Henry so desired. Cardinal Campeggio, sent by the Vatican to preside over the proceedings to decide the validity of Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine, decided that the trial would need to be heard by the Pope himself in Italy rather than decided in England--probably with the Pope's encouragement. Anne and her family managed to convince Henry that this was a sign that Wolsey was deliberately slowing the proceedings. As a result, he was stripped of his offices, but he was allowed to remain the Archbishop of York and ordered to return to his see.
Wolsey's main problem was his addiction to power. He had held it, in increasing increments, for many years, and he was unable to view his fall from it as his having gotten off very easy. Anne and her family were aware that as long as Wolsey was around and kicking, he could return to power, and if he did, it was very likely he would work against them. In the meantime, Wolsey offered his services to Chapuys, Charles V's ambassador to England, and to di Passano, Francis I's (of France) ambassador to England. He seemed to be advising them on how best to work against Henry, and this was dangerously close to treason. Henry was, at first, reluctant to proceed against Wolsey, but a coded letter intercepted from Wolsey to the French ambassador in 1530 sealed the deal. On November 5, Walter Walsh, Groom of the Privy Chamber, and Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, arrested Wolsey for high treason. He began the long progress to London, but he never made it--he died on November 29, 1530 in Leicester. He addressed a letter to Henry VIII, warning him against his divorce proceedings and the coming threat of Lutheranism. Although neither Anne Boleyn nor her family were mentioned, his hatred of them was certainly implied.
Season 1 lacks a lot of historical content, compromises history for drama, and simplifies many issues and personalities for the sake of translating history to the TV screen, but the program is still enjoyable to watch. One thing is certainly done very, very well--each program ends on a note that drives the viewer to see the next episode as soon as possible to discover what will happen. That is quite an achievement.
However, I do not recommend ANYONE watch The Tudors in the hopes of learning the history outside of the book. Tudor history is extremely popular, and there are many historians who cover it admirably in very well-written books.
Want to learn more? Here are some suggestions:
Most books on the Wars of the Roses are good, so type it in on the subject line in the library catalogue and see what comes up.
The end of the Plantagenets:
Richard III by Paul Murray Kendall. Probably the most iconic biography of the ill-fated king. If you want to learn about the discrepancies between how we perceive Richard III (see Shakespeare's Richard III if you need to read up on exactly what I mean by that), Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time explores these, but is certainly biased towards clearing his character.
The early Tudors:
The Making of the Tudor Dynasty by Ralph A. Griffiths and Roger S. Thomas fully explains the origins of the Tudors, and is a short, quick read.
Henry VII of the Yale English Monarchs series by S. B. Chrimes is a little dry, like most of the series, but is a very, very good reference for Henry VIII's father.
Catherine of Aragon by Garrett Mattingly is the only biography of Catherine out there that I am aware of. It was first published in 1941 and reprinted in 1990, but will probably be hard to find. However, it is very comprehensive and actually explores many things that other historians gloss over in their general histories about Henry VIII and his wives. If you can find it, read it.