For the past 8 or nine weeks or so I've been watching the second season of The Tudors, Showtime's dramatization of the life and times of Henry VIII of England, who reigned from 1509 to 1547. The show stars Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry, Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn, and Henry Cavill as the very delectable Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk. At the end of the second season, both Katherine of Aragon (Henry's first wife) and Anne (his second) have both died, Katherine of neglect and Anne by beheading. It was a bloody time in the history of England - some estimates put the number of beheadings during Henry's reign at some 70,000!
I have enjoyed the show for a number of reasons. First, I like historical dramas. I love the period peices and I almost don't have a preference for which period. Dangerous Liasions, Elizabeth, The Tudors, all pay attention to the details of style and dress. I'm no expect and I'm sure they don't get everything right, but it's so good to see that people are taking the time period seriously, and not just as a setting for an otherwise independent story line.
I also like The Tudors because, like it or not, Henry was the impetous for the Reformation in England. Essentially - and the show gets this pretty much right - Henry got to be worried during his marriage to his first wife Katherine (he ended up with six) that he had no male heir. Now England had just come through the War of the Roses with the Tudor family victorious, and Henry was well aware that no heir menat quite possible civil war. He had his daughter Mary, who had been borne by Katherine, but several others had been stillborn. Now Henry came to the throne by accident; his older brother Arthur was heir apparent but died of an illness before he could assume the throne. He had just married Katherine of Aragon but he apparently never consummated the marriage before he died. The English court received a dispensation from the Pope (ironically!) and Henry married Katherine instead. Well, after nearly 20 years of marriage, Henry came to believe his marriage to Katherine was a sin because he married his brother's wife. The proof? No sons! All of the first season has to do with the backstory of all this, and how Henry came to conclude he needed to divorce Katherine. The English Reformation came about in no small part because Henry wanted a male heir. Since the Pope wouldn't let him divorce Katherine, he declared the Cof E independent of Rome and got the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, to declare his marraige null instead. There were lots of other reasons that played into the Reformation in England, but I think it's important to make clear what one of the prime motivators was: yes, Henry was randy, but at least as important he cared for the continuty of the kingdom. And since the Episcopal Church is in a sense descended from the Church of England, I have an interest in making sure the facts are right.
What do I miss most? The drama. of course we know what's going to happen. You can look it up in Wikipedia episode by episode and double check everything. Assuming Wiki is right, the show is too, mostly. (There's even a blog on the show's website where you can debate the accruacy of the storylines, and I've been double checking some of the facts in the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.) The last episode, where Anne goes to her death, is gut-wrenching and very well done. It was hard to keep from crying as Anne was taken to the executioner's block. It was especially painful to watch Anne's father, Thomas Boleyn, walk out of the Tower a free man just hours before Anne's death, as he totally disavows her to save his own skin. According to Wiki, he even served on the "jury" that condemned her to die for treason. The show is doing a lot of things very well.
My biggest beef, though, is that of the character of Archbishop Cranmer. Of course I take an interest in all the clergy depicted in the series; there's Cranmer and also of interest especially is Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop of York, in the first season. I don't know if there's much record of Cranmer's personality. But he was a true reformer and principal author of the first Book of Common Prayer of 1549. He's a giant in the English Reformation. In the series, though, he's porrayed almost more as a toady than anything else. Yes, he was the Boleyns' family chaplain before Henry got him confirmed as Archbishop. Yes, he was agreeable to Henry's various marriage shenanigans. And he did have a wife from Germany that he kept in a box when he traveled. But that's all they show! Now maybe it's because the date of the last episode is May 19, 1536, and Cranmer didn't come into his own, perhaps, until later. But I'm still annoyed at the almost cavalier dismissal of one of the most important figures of this time next to Henry himself. After all, unlike so many of his contemporaies, he never lost his head to Henry's whims! (He was burned as a heretic under Mary, the last Roman Catholic monarch of England, in 1556.)
So next is Jane Seymour, who next season will become Queen and will bear Henry a male heir, finally. We'll have to see how they play all that out. In the meantime, there are the reruns!
Here's some music from the Court of Henry VIII to keep us in the mood till then.