The truth behind ‘The Tudors’

An expert on the era, historian Tracy Borman can't help but enjoy the action as she separates fact from fiction in BBC2's scandalous royal drama… This article was first published in August 2009

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The third series of The Tudors hits our screens soon. Surely the prospect should make any self-respecting historian shudder? Not this one. Having been determined to loathe the hugely popular BBC series, with its unfeasibly beautiful actors, dodgy costumes and improbable storylines, I found myself becoming strangely addicted.

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Perhaps it was merely the soap opera effect: the need to find out what happens next (even though, as a historian, I knew what ought to happen next). Or perhaps it was the Jonathan Rhys-Meyers effect.

In truth, I don’t believe it was either. I grew to appreciate The Tudors for its merits as an historical drama. Yes, the scriptwriters may have taken liberties with the facts, but they have also succeeded in recreating the drama and atmosphere of Henry VIII’s court, with its intrigues, scandals and betrayals. And if Jonathan Rhys-Meyers bears little resemblance to the red-headed, bloated image of Henry that we know so well from contemporary portraits, then he does at least evoke the dangerously seductive charisma and magisterial arrogance that kept a court in thrall for almost forty years.

Historical dramas such as this have come in for a great deal of criticism in recent months.  David Starkey blasted The Tudors for ‘bringing shame’ on the BBC for its ‘ignorance of the facts’. Films like Elizabeth: the Golden Age have been similarly derided by historians. But they have undoubtedly stimulated interest in British history. Visits to Hampton Court Palace increased markedly when The Tudors first appeared on our screens, and the series now has its own Wikipedia site which attracts many thousands of hits.

In my view, this is all to the good. Television dramas, films and novels offer a way in to history and can inspire an abiding passion for the subject. Provided that they encourage people to find out what ‘really’ happened, rather than being treated as reliable historical sources in their own right, then they can and should be respected as a force to be reckoned with in the world of history.

In that spirit, here is a brief guide to the real characters and events that inspired the first episode of Series 3.

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Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour

The new series begins with Henry VIII’s marriage to his third wife, Jane Seymour. The King was indeed besotted with his new wife but, in appearances at least, the real Jane Seymour fell rather short of the stunning actress who plays her. It was a source of some astonishment that this archetypal Plain Jane had caught the King’s eye in the first place. True, she had good breeding to recommend her, but she seemed to have little else.

A portrait painted of her in around 1536 (when this episode is based) shows her to have had a large, plump face with a double chin. Her eyes were small and beady, her lips thin and closely compressed, and she wore a cold, detached expression. One onlooker at court dismissed her as being ‘of middle stature and no great beauty’. Even the Imperial Ambassador Chapuys, who was predisposed to favour Jane because of her traditional Catholic beliefs, was at a loss to explain what the King saw in her. He could only conclude that she must have a fine ‘enigme’, meaning ‘riddle’ or ‘secret’, which in Tudor times referred to the female genitalia.

16 minutes in: The King’s new mistress

The first episode introduces a new character: the foxy Lady Ursula Misselden, who succeeds in distracting Henry’s attention from his beloved third wife. I found her a rather annoying character who does little to enhance the storyline – except perhaps to provide the required quota of nudity.

She is also entirely fictional: there is no record of the King being unfaithful to Jane during their (admittedly brief) marriage, and it was only after her death that he began to seek diversion among the ladies at court. But Lady Ursula does have one saving grace: she provides a vehicle through which the scriptwriters introduce us to Sir Francis Bryan, who was a favourite of Henry VIII.

The series accurately depicts him as irreverent and licentious, and he did indeed wear an eye patch after a jousting accident left him with only one eye. It was rumoured that Henry liked him so much that he gave up his pursuit of a lady whom he knew Sir Francis to be interested in. If this inspired the scriptwriters to create Lady Ursula, then they twisted the tale so that it was Sir Francis, not Henry, who ended up the loser in love.

37 minutes in: Princess Mary’s return to court

Henry’s eldest daughter, Mary, had cause to rejoice when he married Jane Seymour. She had been cruelly treated by Anne Boleyn, during whose ascendancy she had been declared a bastard and banished from court, in favour of Henry and Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth.

Even before her marriage to the King, Jane Seymour made no secret of her admiration for Mary’s mother, Katherine of Aragon, and promised to do everything she could to help restore the outcast princess to her place at court. But Henry did not take kindly to her meddling and told her ‘she was a fool, and ought to solicit the advancement of the children they would have between them, and not any others.’

Jane resorted to more subtle means of persuasion from thenceforth, losing no opportunity to praise Mary’s virtues.  Eventually, the King relented and invited his eldest daughter back to court – but only after she had promised to accept the legitimacy of his divorce from Katherine of Aragon and, therefore, her own bastard status.

But Jane was not the saintly peacemaker that she is portrayed in this series (is it me, or does she bear an uncanny resemblance to Princess Diana?). She favoured Mary because it suited her own interests, and showed little interest in her husband’s younger daughter, Elizabeth, who suffered as a result. Even Jane’s supporters admitted that she was ‘proud and haughty’ – hardly the meek and submissive wife that she is portrayed as on screen.

39 minutes in: The Pilgrimage of Grace

One of the most dramatic events in the new series centres around the Catholic uprising of 1536. Known as The Pilgrimage of Grace, this began in Yorkshire and followed hot on the heels of a failed rebellion in Lincolnshire. Like its predecessor, it was sparked by Henry’s break with Rome and the dissolution of the monasteries, as well as various other political, social and economic grievances.

The Pilgrimage was led by Robert Aske, a charismatic lawyer who hailed from a well-connected Yorkshire family. Apart from omitting the fact that Aske only had one eye and was considerably younger than the actor who plays him, the series accurately depicts him as being devoutly loyal to the King; it was the latter’s ‘evil advisers’ that he and his followers objected to.

To emphasise the point, his supporters were termed ‘pilgrims’, rather than rebels, and they adopted the five wounds of Christ as their emblem. The success of the rising was so great that it attracted between thirty and forty thousand men at its height, and forced Henry to open negotiations with the rebels.

As part of the bargain, he authorised the Duke of Norfolk (not Suffolk, as in the series) to offer a general pardon and invited Aske to spend Christmas at court. But he failed to keep his promises and as a result a fresh uprising broke out in January 1537. Robert Aske was immediately arrested and brought back to London, where he was condemned for treason, along with several of the other leaders. He was then taken to York and suffered the agonising torture of being hung in chains for several days until he died of suffocation.

45 minutes in: Rich by name…

One of the most sympathetic characters in the new series is Richard Rich, reluctant right-hand man to Thomas Cromwell. He acts as the conscience to Cromwell’s increasingly ruthless despot, his brows furrowed with concern as his master orders yet another monastery to be dissolved.

Meekly, he asks if perhaps they might forget the whole thing and return England to the traditional Roman Catholic faith. His words fall upon deaf ears: Cromwell is driven as much by reforming zeal as by the prospect of amassing untold wealth from the religious houses.

The truth was rather different. Yes, Rich was a Roman Catholic at heart, but that didn’t stop him driving forward the dissolution of the monasteries so that he might line his own pockets. And he may well have grown to despise Cromwell, but that was more because he coveted his master’s power.

In fact, Rich was an all-round nasty piece of work who trampled many good men on his way to the top. He twisted conversations that he had had with Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher in order to help send both men to their deaths. He also participated in the torture of Anne Askew, a Protestant noblewoman, at the Tower of London, turning the screws of the rack with his own hands. Think on that the next time you see those furrowed brows.

46 minutes in: The jousting accident

In this series, we begin to see signs of Henry VIII’s fallibility: not only does he look older, but he is increasingly plagued by an injury sustained whilst jousting. In his youth, Henry VIII was renowned for his sporting prowess. Among his favourite pursuits was jousting.  Henry loved the spectacle of pageantry and courtly love, and fancied himself as a latter-day St George, dressed in cloth of the finest gold. ‘The King, being lusty, young and courageous, greatly delighted in feats of chivalry’, enthused a foreign visitor to court.

But his jousting career came to an abrupt end when he suffered a serious accident during a tournament at Greenwich Palace in January 1536. The spectators looked on aghast as the King was thrown from his heavily armoured horse, which then fell on top of him. Henry lay unconscious for two hours while his courtiers kept an anxious vigil, fearing the worst.

Henry’s then wife, Anne Boleyn, was said to have been so shocked upon hearing the news that it caused her to miscarry the son that she had finally conceived – thus changing the course of English history forever. Although Henry recovered from the incident, he would never joust again. The leg injury that he sustained would plague him for the rest of his life.  The Tudors rightly portrays the accident as a pivotal moment in Henry’s reign.

Many historians believe that it profoundly affected his personality, turning him from a vibrant, fun-loving King into the cruel, paranoid tyrant of his later years.

Dr Tracy Borman is an author and historian, and also works in heritage. Her new book, Elizabeth’s Women: the Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen, is published in September and will feature as Radio 4’s Book of the Week.

What do you think of the Tudors? Good drama or bad history? Talk about it on our forum.

Coming in September’s issue: Tracy Borman explains Elizabeth I’s jealousy at court, while Sarah Gristwood talks about fact and fiction in historical drama with the creator of The Tudors.

This feature was originally published in the RadioTimes

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