A young, handsome actor, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, is currently playing Henry VIII of England as a young, handsome king on the Showtime television series, “The Tudors.” It’s a startling new angle for the oft-told tale. It seeks to erase the classic image of Henry VIII as a fat, middle-aged monarch, an image made famous by Hans Holbein’s brilliant portraits and carried into the 20th century by several movies and TV miniseries.
So far this new version is getting half the facts right, and half of then wrong. In his youth, Henry was handsome, athletic, and a devil with the women. He went at life with great gusto; it was always a party when Henry was around. He even wrote poetry and composed songs. So in this series Henry is sexy and charismatic. That’s fine and it’s the truth, too.
But there are lies in this TV series. In it, Henry has a sister Margaret who is forced to marry the old king of Portugal and promptly smothers him with a pillow. How jolly! How completely untrue! Wrong sister! Wrong decade! Wrong old king!
What’s going on here? Somehow the name and the actions of Henry’s favorite sister, Mary, have been fouled up and conflated with the name of his other sister, Margaret, who married the king of Scotland. The real Margaret just happened to be the grandmother of Mary Queen of Scots, so if this series is going to continue into the next generation, things could get awkward historically. Why? Because the real Mary Tudor became the grandmother of Lady Jane Grey, a different claimant to the English throne. And Lady Jane sure wasn’t Queen Mary’s sister. Whoops.
But what’s more depressing from a romance standpoint is that Mary Tudor’s true story is a genuine romance that actually ended with a happily ever after. She dutifully married the old king of France, who promptly died all on his own. Then while still in France, she secretly married Charles Brandon, Henry’s good jousting and hunting buddy with whom she had grown up and with whom she was already in love. The new king of France even helped them. This did not please Henry, but he eventually forgave them after exacting a huge fine. Mary and Charles returned to England and remained popular figures at court for many years. The story was retold in Charles Major’s When Knighthood Was in Flower and has been the subject of a couple of romantic movies, too. And it really happened.
So why tell lies about it? I don’t know the answer to that one, other than to speculate that the series writer wanted to shape Henry’s story differently from how it unfolded in real life. There is a line between history and fiction that has been repeatedly crossed by writers, and not just recently on TV miniseries. William Shakespeare’s “Richard III” is now considered to be a politically inspired hatchet job from beginning to end. But most people still think that Richard III murdered all those people Shakespeare had him killing. Sometimes writers want to make a real person nobler than he was, as when Friedrich Schiller wrote the play, “Don Carlos” and fabricated an idealistic personality that the historical Don Carlo (the mentally deficient son of the king of Spain, circa 1560) did not have. And then Verdi turned that play into an intensely moving opera that was equally historically inaccurate, and so on. “Alt history”—alternate history—science fiction is quite a popular subgenre. In such stories, writers openly explore worlds in which key historical facts are different, for instance, that the south won the Civil War instead of the north. But alternate history based on a cavalier treatment of historical fact—very common in movies and TV shows—is another kettle of fish. It’s historical fiction, and it purports to be the truth while twisting the truth, sometimes only a little bit, but sometimes almost beyond recognition. Hence Margaret instead of Mary, and Portugal instead of France.
Where to draw the line between history and fiction, while still telling a good story, has usually been a matter of altering the mundane real events of history into something consistently dramatic. It’s hardly necessary to do that with Henry VIII, who led a fascinating life (we’re still talking about him 500 years after his birth). Even though we know what will happen to Anne Boleyn, we are mesmerized all over again as the awful tragedy unfolds. Do we need the lies to make this a spectacular story?
Recently, author Phillippa Gregory has been very successful with a series of novels about the Tudors that she explicitly admits are not always strictly historically accurate. “It probably didn’t happen quite this way, but it could have,” is basically her rationale. (Not a direct quote.) We’re so used to this approach in the media that we all think Henry VIII was born fat and middle aged. Why? Because there was a Charles Laughton film, “The Private Life of Henry VIII,” that gave the public wide familiarity with the Holbein portrait. Which is the lie that this current TV series is trying to undo. The fat old king has to be turned back into the sexy young king. Are we going in circles, or what?
What surprises me is that with all this meddling with the truth nobody bothers to just go all out and give the Henry VIII story a happy ending. I mean, why not? It’s just a gloss on history, not the real thing, so why not have Katherine of Aragon accept a polite divorce? And why not have Anne Boleyn give birth to a son instead of getting beheaded? Why is it okay to tamper with and obscure a real romance and yet leave in a real tragedy?