Monthly Archives: July 2013

Tudor “Justice” in a Florida Courtroom

O'Mara and Cromwell

O’Mara and Cromwell

On May 13 in 1536, preparations were made for the trial of Anne Boleyn and her brother George, on charges of adultery and treason. Ralph Felmingham, sergeant-of-arms, summoned twenty-seven “peers of the Queen and Lord Rochford, by whom the truth can be better made to appear” and physical preparations were begun to make the King’s Hall in The Tower of London amenable to two thousand spectators, with benches lining the walls and a high platform for the interrogator and the condemned, so that all could see. “The King was determined,” Alison Weir writes, “that justice would be seen to be done” and was sure of the judicial strength of the evidence.

Today, the notion that the Tudor court delivered “justice” in the case seems a stretch, to put it minimally. The overwhelming number of the sexual encounters of which Anne was accused not only could not be proved, but would have been virtually impossible. Moreover, the jury had been handpicked to exclude those who might be favorable to Anne and the accused men.  Those who were picked were well aware of the verdict that Henry, eager for marriage to Jane Seymour, wanted.  And—as Wolsey once had remarked—if the Crown wanted it, justice could be found “in a verdict that Abel was the murderer of Cain.”

Yet, as Weir goes on, “This was not to be quite the farcical trial that some historians have claimed it to be.”  What gave it “the appearance” of justice was the law, which had been generously tweaked in 1534 by Thomas Cromwell so that “treason” now covered a vast range of activities, including the “wish, will or desire by words or writing” to harm the king or “deprive [him] of [his] dignity.”  This extension of treason to encompass wishes and words as well as actions gave the already biased jury just the tools that they needed to turn flirtatious behavior that formerly would have been dismissed as courtly banter into proof of treachery against the king.

On the face of it, it seems absurd to compare the George Zimmerman trial to the proceedings of a Tudor court.  Yet, some comparisons are deadly apt.  The jury was not hand-picked to be sympathetic to Zimmerman, but they may as well have been, not so much by virtue of who they were but who they weren’t.  You didn’t need the edict of a monarch to make this happen. Given the requirement of obliviousness to media or social media discussions of the case, most African-Americans, and also those with “progressive” inclinations (both most likely to have followed the case with interest) wouldn’t make the cut.  And the notion that living sealed off from current events insures “neutrality” is a mistake; indeed, it may more likely insure a jury that is under-informed about a whole raft of relevant moral, social, and racial controversies.  Just how equipped were they to examine this case?

It’s painfully clear, from the testimony of juror B29, that although she thought Zimmerman “got away with murder” but was hamstrung by “the law,” she was fundamentally clueless as to what the law was in this case, believing that the killing had to be “intentional” in order to qualify even as manslaughter.  I think that by “intentional” she meant something like “done knowing that Trayvon Martin’s death would result.”  But of course, that isn’t required for manslaughter.

Juror B37 (although married to a lawyer) was confused in a different way. The defense had not defended Zimmerman on the grounds of “crime of passion” or as a “stand your ground” case.  Nonetheless, that’s how juror B37, in her interview with Anderson Cooper, explained her finding of “not guilty”:

“…[B]ecause of the heat of the moment and the stand your ground. He had a right to defend himself. If he felt threatened that his life was going to be taken away from him or he was going to have bodily harm, he had a right.”

It may (or may not be) that Juror B37 was looking for any excuse.  She was amazingly upfront about her biases, as she declared Zimmerman an “overeager helper” whose heart was “in the right place” and, incredibly, felt as “sorry” for him as for Trayvon Martin.  She readily admitted that she believed all the defense’s witnesses and found none of the prosecution’s credible.  The baseline assumption governing her “examination” of the evidence was that Zimmerman’s account of what happened that night was accurate.  She seemed to be conflating “presumption of innocence until proven guilty” with “presumption of truthfulness even when proven to be lying.”  When it came to Zimmerman, that is.  The testimony of key prosecution witnesses, such as Rachel Jeantel, was dismissed on the most spurious (and disgusting) of grounds—lack of “education” and “poor communication skills”—except, tellingly, when Jeantel’s testimony confirmed Zimmerman’s (Juror B-37 felt “the most important thing” in Jeantel’s testimony was the time of the phone call “coincides with George’s statements and testimony of time limits and what had happened during that time.”)

But it’s also true that although “stand your ground” played no part in the defense’s case, it was certainly there in the instructions to the jury, which included:

If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

images-4Apparently, at least some of the jurors felt trapped into their verdict by this instruction.  But the jury instructions—I’ve read them myself, several times—were convoluted beyond belief.  Clearly, the jurors had problems with the criteria for “manslaughter,” as evidenced not only by Juror B 29’s confusion but by the fact that the jury asked for clarification.  When the court returned the message to them to be more specific, they did not do so, but instead returned their verdict of “not guilty” suspiciously speedily, given the fact that they obviously had unanswered questions.  I believe that they were so fundamentally confused by the instructions that they were not able to formulate a more specific question.

ANDERSON COOPER: Did you feel like you understood the instructions from the judge? Because they were very complex. I mean, reading them, they were tough to follow.

JUROR: Right. And that was our problem. I mean, it was just so confusing what — with what and what we could apply to what. Because I mean, there was a couple of them in there that wanted to find him guilty of something. And after hours and hours and hours of deliberating over the law and reading it over and over and over again, we decided there’s just no way — other place to go.

Of course, there was another place to go: They might have dismissed Zimmerman’s account on the basis of inconsistencies, physical impossibilities, and lack of credibility, due to his numerous lies.  They might also have thought more carefully and deeply about the notions of “regard for human life,” “ill will” and “hatred” and how they might have indeed applied in the case.  They might have sent the instructions back to the judge and told her: “These are an incomprehensible mess, and no one—neither prosecution nor defense nor you, judge—has clarified them for us.”  They might have asked, for example, about that arcane phrase “depraved mind”—which amazingly, still appears in the criteria for murder two.  It’s unlikely that a person in 2013 (who wasn’t also a lawyer) would see this description as applying to anyone except a psychopath or career criminal.

Although it wasn’t mentioned in either Juror B37 or B29’s remarks, I would be surprised if the jury was not also confused by defense lawyer Mark O’Mara, who in his concluding statements, gave the jury his own “instructions” as to how to determine reasonable doubt. It’s very simple, he said. When you get into that room, he said, just ask yourselves: “Do we think that he might have acted in self-defense?” O’Mara then scripted some possible thoughts a juror might have in considering that question: “I’m not convinced. I have some doubt, have some concern, that he just may have acted in self-defense.”  And then the punchline: “Well, if you reach that conclusion, you get to stop. You really do.”

“Might have”? “Some” doubt? “Some” concern? “Just may have?”

I thought “reasonable doubt” and “beyond a shadow of a doubt” were two very different things.  What about the “reason” part? Isn’t it supposed to play some role here?

Not according to the jury instructions, which specify that doubt is “reasonable” only if it is able to topple a juror’s “abiding conviction of guilt.” But to have an “abiding conviction,” unfortunately, does not necessitate the application of reason. Webster’s defines it as “a firmly held belief or opinion.” And that corresponds, pretty much, to ordinary usage. We have all come across people who are “convinced” of irrational beliefs, errors of judgment, mistakes about facts.

 Convictions, to be worth anything, have to be subjected to logic, examination of physical possibility or impossibility of various narratives, credibility of the testimony on which ones convictions are based. .

The prosecution, remarkably, (and for reasons that I cannot fathom) did not choose to counter O’Mara’s torqued conception of “reasonable doubt.” And so, whatever ideas, assumptions, perceptions, biases those jurors brought with them into the deliberation process were provided a legal “hole” through they were permitted entry and authority.

images-3Social historians know that “the law,” even when applied correctly, does not always bring “justice” with it. It’s easy to fall in love with the word and, as in many love affairs, stop thinking. I suspect that the 1536 jury who found Anne Boleyn guilty believed that they had followed the letter of the law, and perhaps they had. For the legal definition of treason had been twisted out of shape by Cromwell, and so had the composition of the jury.  They had no problem dismissing physical impossibilities, because their sympathies were bent and their “convictions” trumped logic and fact.  So, too, the Zimmerman case was surely among those in which the appearance of a judicially “correct” verdict, aided and abetted not only by the skewed composition of the jury, convoluted instructions, and a politically motivated revision of the law, working in a surreptitious but deadly way —the “stand your ground” concept—trumped actual justice.

“The Law.” It’s time to stop invoking it, blaming it, or using it to excuse the verdict in the Zimmerman case.  Let’s admit it simply didn’t function here (or undoubtedly in countless other cases) in any kind of coherent or effective way, and start cleaning up our act.

Source: (


Filed under Uncategorized

The Creation of Katherine Howard

Image credit: Wikipedia

Image credit: Wikipedia

The following post is written by Conor Byrne, a British university student interested in cultural, gender and social history, focusing in particular on English history 1450-1600 in relation to aspects of gender, society, and culture.

Tudor history enthusiasts will be excited to discover that a very interesting book has just been published, written by Susan Bordo: The Creation of Anne Boleyn. This is not a historical biography, but instead, Bordo explores how Anne has been ‘created’ throughout history by different people, according to their prejudices, beliefs and culture, through a variety of mediums including film, theatre and novels. As someone who has been researching the life of her tragic, but much less famous, cousin and fellow queen Katherine Howard, I thought it would be interesting to explore how Katherine herself has been ‘created’ over the years according to different beliefs and prejudices.

Image credit: CBC

Image credit: CBC

From the time of her execution in 1542 until the nineteenth century, unlike Anne (who enjoyed long-lasting fame due to her status as the mother of the Protestant queen Elizabeth I), Katherine was a non-entity, ignored and forgotten by almost everyone; even her own family had rapidly disowned her at the time of her death. However, with the rise of the study of history in the Victorian period, writers began to pay much greater attention to the reigns of Henry VIII’s queens, lamented by Jane Austen.

The austere moral values and the condemnation of ‘fallen women’ in contemporary Victorian society, unsurprisingly, influenced understandings of Katherine’s story as a lesson in morality, as something to be learned from. In relation to Katherine herself, Victorian historians were either hostile, or viewed her with pity – Agnes Strickland, perhaps the greatest female biographer of the age, characterised her as ‘a sheep being led to the slaughter’, but shied away from her shocking career, due to her stifling moral values.

In film, Katherine first appeared in the successful 1933 Oscar-winning The Private Life of Henry VIII, with Binnie Barnes presenting her opposite Charles Laughton as Henry VIII. The film centred around the relationship between the king and his fifth wife, marginalising his affairs with his other queens. The result was that Katherine was presented as a more influential and, in a sense, important wife to the detriment of the others than she had ever been in reality. This Katherine was worldly-wise, sophisticated, and incredibly beautiful, but her charm and qualities seemed far more nuanced than the real Katherine’s probably were.

The publication of the only academic biography of Katherine, written in 1961 by Lacey Baldwin Smith at a time of the beginning of rebellious feminist politics and swiftly changing views of women, was heavily critical of Katherine, condemning her as ‘a juvenile delinquent’ and a ‘common whore’ who was childish, rash and given to fits of hysteria. Again, we see how the context of the times shaped this interpretation – heavy moral values and the actual imprisonment of juvenile delinquents at the time for crime influenced this historian’s understanding of a queen executed for adultery.

Baldwin Smith’s interpretation was very influential in the next portrayal of Katherine in film/TV, in the television series The Six Wives of Henry VIII (BBC, 1970), where she was played by Angela Pleasance. This series was very unsympathetic to Katherine, where she is depicted as a violent, manipulative, hedonistic teenager who threatens her cousin with poison and physical violence and acts in a cruel manner to her ex-lovers.

Two years later, however, the most accurate presentation of Katherine emerged in the film of the same name, where the young queen was played by 18-year old Lynne Frederick (tragic in itself, since Frederick died at a very young age). The film perhaps represented growing sympathy to Katherine within England, in highlighting her youth, innocence and naivety, and her hysteria when imprisoned. Indeed, this can be seen as the beginnings of the ‘creation’ of Katherine’s status as victim, continuing into our own day. In David Starkey’s television series (2001), all six wives are presented with a label at the beginning of the program – Katherine’s is ‘victim’.

It’s not hard to see why this has happened. The rise of women’s history, feminist politics, and a greater awareness of domestic violence has shaped the creation of Katherine in modern times. Historians have suggested that she was a victim of sexual violence from ruthless predators at court. Her status as victim was exemplified in the British TV movie Henry VIII (2003), where Emily Blunt gives a poignant depiction of a sobbing and screaming Katherine on the scaffold – but again presents her as selfish and driven by her own pleasures.

Most recently, in the successful Showtime series The Tudors, Tamzin Merchant gives a very modern portrayal of Katherine as a girl who just wants to have fun. We are encouraged to sympathise with her, but the series presents what people see as a problem in contemporary society – promiscuous girls who think of nothing but their own pleasures. This has shaped people’s views of Katherine. One person I know, who adores The Tudors and Anne Boleyn, once told other people that Katherine was the only ‘slutty’ wife, while defending Anne at every cost. But is this an accurate depiction of the real woman, or merely a view of how she has been presented in film and TV?


Filed under Across/Beyond Genres with The Tudors: Guest Posts by Novelists, Historians, Cultural Observers, Poets, Memoirists, Artists, and Bloggers

Anne Boleyn, George Boleyn, and the Ghost of Gay Rights

"The Abduction of Ganymede" (mid-17th century) by Eustache Le Sueur

“The Abduction of Ganymede” (mid-17th century) by Eustache Le Sueur

The following guest post is from Gareth Russell, author of the comic novel Popular and blogger extraordinaire at Confessions of a Ci-Devant. It is a part of the guest blog series, “Across/Beyond Genres with The Tudors: Guest Posts by Novelists, Historians, Cultural Observers, Poets, Memoirists, Artists, and Bloggers.”

Same-sex attraction was a dangerous affair in the early modern period. Within Anne Boleyn’s lifetime, her husband introduced legislation that made buggery an offence punishable by death and even monarchs suspected (correctly) of having male lovers themselves, like James I (he of the Great Bible fame), felt moved to condemn it in the strongest possible terms. Given the secrecy that surrounded it by virtue of necessity, speculating who among the famous long-dead was gay, bisexual, bicurious or whatever post-nineteenth century label you want to give it, is a rich imaginative field for modern-day history enthusiasts. Ever since the publication of Professor Retha Warnicke’s academic work in the 1980s, where she hypothesized that Anne Boleyn’s brother George had been sexually or romantically involved with the palace musician Mark Smeaton, the idea that George Boleyn, viscount Rochford, was what we would now recognize as gay or bisexual has never really gone away and in modern dramatizations of his family’s story, he is almost invariably presented that way.


We know relatively little about George Boleyn’s life, but just enough to flesh out the few bare narrative details. Born sometime around 1504 to Sir Thomas Boleyn, an English diplomat with a strong claim to be heir-apparent to the Irish earl of Ormonde, and his aristocratic wife, Lady Elizabeth Boleyn (née Howard), George Boleyn joined his father at court at an early age and there is an unsubstantiated story that he was briefly a student at the University of Oxford. He was said to be uncommonly handsome, with a talent for languages, poetry and music, but he also had a pride that bordered on the arrogant. He followed his father into a career in diplomacy and he married the well-connected Jane Parker, Lord Morley’s daughter, in the early-to-middle part of the 1520s. He was known to be particularly enthusiastic about the emergence of Protestantism; he enjoyed debating theology and philosophy and from what we can tell, he was far more religiously radical than Anne or the king. During his sister’s time as queen consort, he was given de facto use of the sumptuous Beaulieu Palace in Essex, where he lived splendidly before being arrested on a charge of committing incest with the queen and subsequently being executed on May 17th 1536, in his early thirties.


It was George Boleyn’s love of music and the arts that first led to the suggestion that he may have preferred the sexual company of men. A satirical book mocking the institution of marriage, inscribed in George’s own hand, was allegedly given as a gift to Mark Smeaton, prompting Professor Retha Warnicke to speculate that such a gift was a sign of intimacy between the two. Many criticized this conclusion, often by citing a biographical sketch left of George by one of his contemporaries, the thoroughly-unimpressed George Cavendish, a loyal servant of Cardinal Wolsey, who had (at least in Cavendish’s view) lost power thanks to the machinations of George Boleyn’s family. Cavendish described Boleyn as a compulsive bed-hopper, with little discrimination about what kind of woman he went to bed with, which has led to some writers swinging to the opposite extreme to paint George Boleyn as not only heterosexual but also an habitual rapist as well. Which, as ideas go, seems to be built on even less evidence than the theory that he was gay.


Whether or not George Boleyn was actually gay or bisexual, to use words that did not exist in the sixteenth century, is unfortunately unknowable. There does seem to be enough evidence of his interest in women to rule out the idea that he was definitively homosexual; his bisexuality, however, cannot be dismissed with equal certainty and while it would be unwise for an historian to make pronouncements about it based on how little evidence we have, it is perhaps understandable that a dramatist, who must take a decision about their character’s psychology, would chose to dramatize George Boleyn as someone who was romantically or sexually interested in both genders at different stages of his life. Two royal lives, those of Edward II and Marie-Antoinette, stand out as two that were bedeviled to the point of death by homophobia. In Edward’s case, probably accurately, and in the case of Marie-Antoinette and her poor murdered confidante, the Princesse de Lamballe, almost certainly not. In contrast, if George Boleyn did sleep with men, and/or fall in love with them, it seems to have had precious little subsequent bearing on his life. This was a man, after all, who perished for allegedly having sex with a woman. George Boleyn, the person, therefore tells us very little (if anything) about the realities of homosexual or same-sex love in the early modern period, but George Boleyn, the ghost, the symbol, can tell us an awful lot about our own society’s evolving, if often unsettling, attitudes towards homoeroticism.


Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn and Pádraic Delaney as George Boleyn in "The Tudors." (Showtime)

Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn and Pádraic Delaney as George Boleyn in “The Tudors.” (Showtime)

In the successful television show “The Tudors,” George Boleyn was played by the Irish actor Pádraic Delaney. In season one, the wild-living George is shown enjoying a threesome with two palace servants (both women), but in season two, he is miserably married to a sour-faced Jane Parker (Joanne King) while pursuing a passionate love affair with Mark Smeaton, played by the Canadian actor, David Alpay. On his wedding night to Parker, things get off to a rocky start when she notices a provocative painting on her husband’s wall showing the kidnap of Ganymede, the beautiful mortal male abducted, raped and seduced in Greek mythology by Zeus, king of the gods. As Jane’s revulsion at her husband’s less-than-subtle advertisement of his sexuality spirals, George snaps and sexually assaults her, setting in motion a chain of events that will see Jane betray him in the crisis that took his life in 1536. At best, this portrayal of Boleyn’s romantic life could be described as confused and a meager defense can be mounted by pointing out that many people’s sexual identities are often confused and thus confusing; as Dr Kinsey would no doubt hasten to remind us, sexuality is an enormously complicated spectrum of desires, both fulfilled and repressed, and that there is therefore no reason to suppose that like billions of men and women throughout history, George Boleyn, as imagined in “The Tudors,” had a complex series of romantic and sexual feelings. He could have despised his wife, while enjoying the sexual company of other women and falling in love with a man. Michael Hirst and Pádraic Delaney’s presentation of George could tentatively be seen as fluid and devoid of an agenda, beyond spicing up the dramatic narrative of a supporting character. Boleyn fans perhaps fairly queried the need to show George’s graphic and demeaning assault on his bride in such excruciating detail; it implicitly suggested that there was some kind of link between sexual repression and sexual violence. However, by and large, it is difficult to look at “The Tudors” and see that it is guilty of anything more sinful than trying to balance the competing historical theories about the modus operandi of George Boleyn’s nether regions.


A far more insidious view of Boleyn’s sexuality comes in the 2001 bestseller “The Other Boleyn Girl” by Philippa Gregory. In both the 2003 BBC television adaptation and 2008 movie version of the novel, nothing is made of the subplot in the book which sees George Boleyn becoming romantically involved with Francis Weston, a handsome and athletic courtier who, in historical fact, was also one of the men executed in 1536 for allegedly committing adultery with Queen Anne. (Part of Professor Warnicke’s theory was that sixteenth-century ignorance of the psychological realities of homosexuality led to people incorrectly assuming that someone like Boleyn, Weston or Smeaton, who was capable of going to bed with their own gender was automatically capable of a plethora of other sexual vices, such as adultery with the queen or incest with a sibling. Thus, the six people sent to the block by Henry VIII in May 1536 perished due to ignorance, superstition and pornographic paranoia.) Philippa Gregory builds on this in her novel to suggest that most of the men who died as Anne Boleyn’s accused lovers were gay and the portrait she paints of them is not a pleasant one. After its publication and its commercial success, so much was made of the novel’s demonization of a remorselessly unlovely Anne and of concerns that by presenting Anne as a promiscuous sociopath against her doe-eyed, ambition-fearing, love-obsessed sister Mary, Gregory had effectively produced a novel that was about as feminist as a swimsuit pageant, that its portrayal of its male characters’ sexuality has gone almost unnoticed. Perhaps this is also because that aspect of the storyline did not make it in to either screen adaptation of “The Other Boleyn Girl” and thus garnered less attention.


Steven Mackintosh as George Boleyn in the 2003 BBC adaptation of "The Other Boleyn Girl" (BBC).

Steven Mackintosh as George Boleyn in the 2003 BBC adaptation of “The Other Boleyn Girl” (BBC).

In the first place, Gregory effectively has George Boleyn choosing to be gay. At one point, his sister Mary relates that George has had enough sexual experience in the course of his short life to be intimately familiar with the techniques of ‘French whores, Spanish madams, and English sluts,’ but in the spring of 1525 George reveals that he has fallen in love with Francis Weston, through a conscious decision to distance himself from the schemes and wiles of his female relatives – ‘It’s no wonder I am sick of it. The life I live makes me weary to the soul of the vanity of women.’ (Women seem to be at fault for most of the heartbreak in “The Other Boleyn Girl.”) How George Boleyn could possibly have looked upon men and been in any way inspired to see them as the nobler sex is baffling, since in “The Other Boleyn Girl,” the leading male characters emerge almost without exception as craven, sociopaths, rapists, spoiled children, moronically stupid or glorified pimps. But perhaps an even bigger psychological question mark is raised by the fact that George seems to have made the decision to embark upon a love affair with a member of his own gender simply because the women he has been exposed to are so exhausting, unlikable and uninspiring. This raises the ugly specter of the corollary of that idea: that had George Boleyn been able to spend time with more “natural” women, he would therefore have chosen a more natural sexual path and thus “The Other Boleyn Girl” stumbles right in to one of the most fraught areas of the modern civil rights debate – the allegation, at once both ludicrous and harmful, that homosexuals choose to be gay and are therefore abdicating the right to expect certain civil rights as a result of that choice.


Secondly, Gregory does not seem at all interested in presenting her gay characters in any way other than the most reductive of stereotypes. Henry Norris, one of Henry VIII’s closest companions before 1536, is in conversation with the queen and her family before he ‘minced back to Madge’. As mentioned, the idea that Henry Norris was intimate with his own gender is part of the historical thesis that Gregory allegedly used to inspire her storyline, but there are also ample descriptions of Norris from the books cited in the author’s bibliography that reference not just his charm and kindness, but also his intelligence and his sporting prowess. There is obviously absolutely nothing wrong with someone who minces or who is as naturally camp as New Orleans during Mardi Gras, but to shorthand it for the audience that Henry Norris is supposed to be gay by having him flamboyantly sashay across Anne Boleyn’s apartments suggests that every other trait can be swept away by the word “gay” and the stereotypical behavior that comes with it. In this world, we do not have to imagine the complexities of sexual identity, because often there are none.


But perhaps the most unsavory aspect of how “The Other Boleyn Girl” presents George Boleyn’s sex life is the way in which somehow everything about it is thoroughly sordid. George regularly invades his sisters’ rooms while they are in the bath or getting changed, his conversation with them is usually crude to the point of graphic, he apparently has no concept of boundaries, even when he hugs the girls there is something quasi-erotic about it, he jokes about sexually desiring Anne and at one point he French-kisses her in front of a horrified but transfixed Mary. Later in the novel, his wife remarks, ‘But of course, you don’t really like to kiss women at all unless they are your sisters.’ In this light, George’s infatuation with Francis Weston is nothing more than part of a series of sexual aberrations from the novel’s most sexually aberrant character (a tough race to win.) There is something unrelentingly unnatural about George Boleyn’s homosexuality and the reader is left with the inescapable conclusion that this is someone whose sexuality is so flexible, so fluid and so easily reduced to the lowest form of sexual infatuation that he could indeed willingly commit incest with his sister. (Later, Mary Boleyn recalls hearing George cry out in guilt, but the guilt seems shoehorned in to appease the reader, or the narrator, since there is absolutely no indication given his behavior with Anne over the previous five hundred pages that George would feel any form of guilt at toying with her. Indeed at one point, the novel describes an equally-unhinged Anne ‘giggling’ like a schoolgirl at jokes about her brother’s rampant perversity.) And thus the theory put forward by Professor Warnicke, that George Boleyn was harried to his death because of gross societal ignorance about homosexuality, is suddenly turned on his head. The paranoia becomes understandable, the prejudice and the bigotry are not so much contextualized as justified; every allegation that brought George Boleyn to his untimely death in 1536 is made understandable and even, when viewed in the context of the novel, utterly reasonable.


The story of history, I have often thought, is really two stories – what it tells us about the past and what it tells us about ourselves. It is fundamentally the study of human nature. Marina Warner’s musings on Western veneration of the Virgin Mary, seeing it as something like the Lady of Shalott’s mirror, reflecting undulating shadows of the society gazing into it, strikes me as true of so much of history, particularly when it comes to gender and sexuality. Susan Bordo’s book “The Creation of Anne Boleyn” looks at how the spectral ghost of Anne Boleyn illuminates so much more than simply the story of a sixteenth-century queen; it tells us a great deal about the twenty first century’s attitudes to femininity, feminism and gender. It is tempting to look through that lens at George Boleyn and wonder what presentations of him tell us about our attitudes to homosexuality or bisexuality. When discussing a modern figure like, say, openly gay characters in “Glee” or “The New Normal,” an author might hesitate to portray them in a way that pandered to negative stereotypes; there is an expectation that, in 2013, people do not behave that way and therefore cannot or should not be dramatized like that. And yet, when it comes to historical personages, our old prejudices do not quite seem to be as completely banished as the glorious, brightly-colored world of “Glee” suggests. In the world of historical dramatizations, stereotypes all too often resurrect themselves, masked thinly and disingenuously by claims that it’s in the name of context. When historians posit the theory that George Boleyn was gay (which, as I have suggested, is an idea I find unconvincing historically), a particularly interesting word used on Tudor chat rooms and websites to refute it is the declaration that they want to “defend” George Boleyn against the “accusation” that he was homosexual. The idea that to be gay is still an insult, rather than simply an inaccurate adjective in Boleyn’s case, has not gone away. Equally, in drama and literature, the very worst of the old stereotypes – mincing, vicious, self-absorbed queens, sexual ambiguities, rampant promiscuity, gay as a dominant character trait, debilitatingly confused bisexuals and the permeable boundaries between homosexuality and other kinds of sexual perversity, be they rape or incest – flow unchecked and uncensored. Maybe someday a brilliant novelist will come along and write the story of George Boleyn or Francis Weston or Mark Smeaton as people who maybe did fall in love with their own gender, but who also actively pursued and promoted the Protestant Reformation, who discussed politics, who played sport, wrote music and dabbled in international diplomacy. Maybe, at some point, it will cease to be all about their sexuality and, when we begin to see that happening in popular culture presentations of them, we will begin to know that at long last we will have stopped reducing our own cultural expectations as well.


Filed under Across/Beyond Genres with The Tudors: Guest Posts by Novelists, Historians, Cultural Observers, Poets, Memoirists, Artists, and Bloggers

Blazing Tudors: Comedy and ‘History’ on Film and Television

Henry 8.0

Henry 8.0

Bill Robison is co-author with Sue Parrill of The Tudors on Film and Television, maintains the associated interactive website, and is editing a volume of essays tentatively titled ‘The Tudors,’ Sex, Politics, and Power: History, Fiction, and Artistic License in Showtime’s Television Series. He is Professor of History and Head of the Department of History and Political Science at Southeastern Louisiana University.

The Tudors have excited filmmakers and moviegoers since the development of movie-making technology in the 1890s and have exercised a similar appeal on the small screen since televisions became widely available in the 1950s. Scholarship about Tudor films is a more recent phenomenon and hitherto has concentrated on ‘serious’ cinema; however, comedy is also worthy of study, for—like drama—it both shapes and reflects popular conceptions about Tudor history.

The majority of Tudor films focus on Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Portrayals of Henry typically reflect three interlinked influences: (1) Hans Holbein’s iconic portrait; (2) William Shakespeare and John Fletcher’s Falstaff-like character in The Famous Life of King Henry the Eight; and (3) Charles Laughton’s tragicomic portrayal in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). Henry’s outsized personality and scandalous career make him ideal for comedy, and he gets the lion’s share of funny roles. Films about Elizabeth often resort to the stereotypes of ‘Good Queen Bess,’ ‘Gloriana,’ and the ‘Virgin Queen,’ and while they may include genuine elements of political intrigue, religious conflict, war, and English Renaissance culture, filmmakers seldom can resist romanticizing her relationships with Robert Dudley, the Duke of Alençon, Walter Raleigh, and the Earl of Essex, or the exploits of adventurers like Francis Drake and John Hawkins. Her propensity for bawdy speech appeals to comedy writers, though some comic treatments play against her reputation as a chaste intellectual.

Some films are unintentionally funny: Catherine of Aragon driving Henry from a room with a cross as if he were a vampire in Cardinal Wolsey (1912); Sarah Bernhardt overacting in Les Amours de la reine Élisabeth (1912) ; the bizarre apparitions of the Spirit of Windsor Forest in Anne de Boleyn (1913); Eric Bana’s costuming in The Other Boleyn Girl (2008), meant to emphasize his broad shoulders, but reminiscent of Carol Burnett’s Scarlet O’Hara; Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ Henry wrestling with the taller Emmanuel Leconte’s Francis I in Showtime’s The Tudors (2007-10). In that series Sebastian Armesto evokes the wrong image as Charles V, and in Elizabeth the Virgin Queen (2005) the youthful cast (Anne-Marie Duff, Tom Hardy) induce incredulous grins rather than suspension of disbelief—in both cases my tampering with the soundtrack only enhances an already silly scenario.

Many serious Tudor films include intentional comic relief. Ernst Lubitsch’s silent masterpiece Anna Boleyn (1920) has a scene where a scantily clad girl comes out of a cake [at 11:30], and later the king leers and flirts in a comic manner with the coy Anne [at 15:40]. Emil Jannings’ portrayal of Henry influenced Laughton’s performance in Private Life, which firmly established Henry’s cinematic image as a jolly gluttonous lecher and has many humorous moments, including the king’s discourse on the decline of manners [ at 28:00], his quasi-adolescent courtship of Catherine Howard [at 38:00], and his awkward interaction with Anne of Cleves [at 45:30]. Anne of Cleves reappears in a comic role in The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970) [e.g., at 7:00] There is abundant dry humor in the BBC’s Elizabeth R (1971) and more risqué comedy with the cross-dressing Anjou in Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth (1998). Even A Man for All Seasons (1966) has lighter moments, including Cardinal Wolsey’s wryly cynical take on politics and Henry’s preening encounter with Thomas More’s daughter, Margaret.

However, the main focus here is on Tudor films that are deliberately funny. Regrettably, Good Queen Bess (1913), with music hall comedian George Robey singing a comic song, is lost, as is the Hysterical Histories episode about Raleigh (1925). In Old Bill Through the Ages (1924), Old Bill (Syd Walker) overeats while reading history and then dreams. Elizabeth sends him to fetch Shakespeare, who is surrounded by girls in tutus but dismisses them, saying ‘Get thee to a nunnery.’ Later, as he deliver’s Hamlet’s soliloquy, Bill throws a hand grenade at him, and he vanishes but reappears behind the throne, where he talks until everyone falls asleep.

The Looney Tunes cartoon, Book Revue (1946), set in a bookstore where the books come to life, features two Tudor characters . It offers viewers a visual pun with the clock-like ‘works’ of Shakespeare, sends up contemporary stars, and presents a multivalent joke with Henry VIII’s appearance. First, when the Indian maid begins a striptease, the oversexed king joins in the catcalls and wolf whistles. Second, his outraged mother is from The Aldrich Family, a radio sit-com that opened with Henry Aldrich’s mom calling ‘Hen-reee’ and the boy answering, ‘Coming, Mother!’ Third, the cartoon Henry is a caricature of Laughton, whose portrayal of the king in Private Life remained well known.

Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends (1959-64) had a recurring feature, Peabody’s Improbable History, in which Mr Peabody, a talking dog with genius-level intelligence, educates his pet boy Sherman about the past using the time-traveling WABAC machine. The stories are absurd, but knowing the actual history helps viewers get the jokes. There are three visits to the Tudor period: (1) Raleigh throws his jacket into the queen’s path not to cover a mud puddle but to obscure what he had just written in the dirt, i.e., ‘Elizabeth is a schnook’; (2) Shakespeare, who quarrels with Francis Bacon over authorship, has a play titled Romeo and Zelda, and when Peabody suggests ‘Juliet’ instead, he changes the name to Sam and Juliet (presaging the gag from Shakespeare in Love, in which the play is called Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter); and (3) the gluttonous Henry sends Peabody and Sherman on a quest to find jelly. The Canadian cartoon series, Max, the 2000-Year Old Mouse (1967) included episodes on ‘Elizabeth’ and ‘The Spanish Armada.’

Irreverent British comedies also had a go at the Tudors. Terry Jones and Michael Palin’s The Complete and Utter History of Britain (1969) had two Tudor episodes, ‘From Perkin Warbeck to Mary I’ and ‘The Great and Glorious Age of Elizabeth,’ and Henry VIII appears in the long-delayed sequel, The Nearly Complete and Utter History of Everything (2000). The star of It’s Tommy Cooper (1969-71) regularly dressed as Henry. Monty Python’s Flying Circus lampooned Elizabeth R (1971) with ‘Elizabeth L’ (1972), in which actors reverse the letters ‘L’ and ‘R’ with very silly results, e.g., a dispatch arrives from ‘Prymouth’ to inform ‘Erizabeth’ that the Spanish ‘Freet’ has been sighted. The Pythons’ ‘Tudor Job Agency’ purports to have supplied employees to Drake and Raleigh but turns out to be a pornographic bookshop.

Carry on Henry, or Mind My Chopper (1971)—rife with cleavage, testosterone, general bawdiness, and horrible puns—makes a hash of history, giving Henry extra wives, including the garlic-eating Marie of Normandy, and blowing up an anachronistic Guy Fawkes. Surprisingly, the sets and costumes in this burlesque are actually appropriate—Sid James’ Henry even wears a cloak that Richard Burton wore in Anne of the Thousand Days (1969). The latter film and other recent Henrician epics, A Man for All Seasons (1966) and The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970), help explain why Carry On Henry worked at the time. The Carry On franchise moved to television in 1975, and in an episode called Orgy and Bess (1975), Elizabeth (Hattie Jacques), Drake (James), Lord Burleigh, Raleigh, and Philip of Spain indulge in one sexual innuendo after another, as well as the usual awful puns, e.g., at one point, as Drake urges his sailors to greater speed so that he can get to London and Elizabeth, a lookout in the crow’s nest cries ‘Avast behind,’ and the captain replies, ‘I know she has, but she’s still the queen.’

Tudor history suffers considerable abuse in the multiple Black Adder series. The premise of the first Black Adder (1983) is that Richard III defeated Henry Tudor at Bosworth, only to be slain accidentally and succeeded by ‘Richard IV’ (‘reigned’ 1485-98), Duke of York, younger son of Edward IV, and the younger of the two nephews whom Richard III had confined to the Tower of London in 1483. Remarkably, York—nine years old in 1483—is two years later a lusty warrior with a wife and two grown sons—Harry Prince of Wales and Edmund the Black Adder. Once again, knowing the real history that is being skewered here makes it even funnier. The initial episode has a faux-documentary introduction that accuses Henry VII of rewriting history to portray Richard III as ‘a deformed maniac who killed his nephews in the Tower,’ which is the same argument favored by Ricardian apologists like the novelist Josephine Tey. Prior to his death, Richard delivers butchered versions of speeches from the Shakespeare plays, Richard III and—more incongruously—Henry V. The Black Adder also sports an enormous and ridiculously phallic codpiece that obviously owes its inspiration to Henry VIII.

Black Adder II (1986) turns the traditional depiction of Elizabeth upside down. The premise is that Edmund Blackadder is a leading courtier and sometime paramour of an extremely ditzy Elizabeth, aka Queenie. Whereas Elizabeth was a learned and multi-talented intellectual, actress Miranda Richardson portrays Queenie as a complete bimbo, though she shares with the real queen two characteristics: a fondness for handsome courtiers and an inability to make up her mind. Once more, however, familiarity with Elizabeth’s reign enhances the humor, for the plots twist real historical situations into ludicrous lampoons. Because there are too many Catholics in prison, Blackadder becomes Lord High Executioner or, as he puts it, Minister of Religious Genocide. In other episodes he matches wits with an arrogant Raleigh, the moronic Lord Percy practices alchemy, and there are corrupt clerics and strict Puritans galore. A particular funny incident involves a Shakespeare-like case of mistaken identify, when the virile heterosexual Blackadder falls in love with a girl disguised as a boy named Bob. This scene works at a number of levels. Bob is a girl; Nursie, has a boy’s name (Bernard); Lord Melchet, played by the openly homosexual actor Stephen Fry, condemns Blackadder for his relationship with a ‘boy’; and it highlights in comic fashion that Elizabeth was intensely jealous of other women and at times suffered loneliness in order to remain single and thus the ‘Virgin Queen.’ In Blackadder: Back and Forth (1999), in turn a send-up of Doctor Who, a future Blackadder and Baldrick (Tony Robinson) travel in a TARDIS-like time machine to Elizabeth’s court, where Blackadder bumps into Shakespeare (Colin Firth), who is carrying a new play, gets him to sign the title page, steals it, then punches the playwright on behalf of ‘every schoolboy and schoolgirl for the next four hundred years,’ berates him for the misery he has caused, and kicks him ‘for Ken Branagh’s endless, uncut four-hour version of Hamlet [at 13:00].

Not surprisingly, NBC’s Saturday Night Live has gotten into the act. In ‘Anne Boleyn, Part XI: The Final Chapter’ (1987), an obvious satire of the BBC’s various mini-series, Anne (Candace Bergen) quizzes Norfolk (Phil Hartman) about what will happen to her head after her execution. ‘The Other Boleyn Girls’ (2008) featured no less than five Boleyn sisters competing for Henry’s affection, one of them a robustly male African-American actor in drag [ and scroll down].

Henry has cameos in I Dream of Jeannie (‘The Girl Who Never Had a Birthday, Part 2,’ 1966), where he flirts with a French maid, though Sigmund Freud—also present—excuses this as completely normal [at 16:15]; in Bewitched (‘How Not to Lose Your Head to Henry VIII,’ Parts 1 and 2, 1971), in which an evil witch sends Samantha back in time to the Henrician court, where the king puts the make on her before her mother Endora and husband Darrin rescue her; as a testament to the horrors of the pox in the unintentionally funny sex-ed film It Could Happen to You (1977); in U.F.O. (1993), in which the Starship Eve from Planet Clitoris captures sexist ‘heretics’—Casanova, Dracula, Genghis Khan, and Henry, all played by midgets—and comedian Chubby Brown; in Julia Jekyll and Harriet Hyde (1998), in which he visits the Rocket Academy; and in The Timekeepers of the Millennium (1999), where he stuffs himself while hanging out with animated characters Coggs and Sphinx. Anne Boleyn has an ignominious role in a teenage sexual fantasy in Kevin and Perry Go Large (2000), and ‘The Terrible Tudors’ are a regular feature in Horrible Histories (2001-03, 2009-present).

There were few serious Tudor films between the early 1970s and the late 1990s, but at the turn of the 21st century they were suddenly in vogue again. Interestingly, serious productions featuring Henry have abandoned the Holbein-Shakespeare-Laughton image. Granada’s Henry VIII (2003), starring Ray Winstone, is what director Pete Travis called ‘The Godfather in tights’; both versions of The Other Boleyn Girl make Henry a rather vapid soap opera character; and in Showtime’s The Tudors, Jonathan Rhys Meyers bears little resemblance to Henry physically or otherwise. But, the comic Henry remains very much in the traditional mold.

An oversexed, overweight cartoon Henry appears in an episode of The Simpsons called ‘Margical History Tour’ (2004), in which Marge narrates various stories from history, beginning with Henry’s marriages. Homer appears as Henry, Marge as Margarine of Aragon, Lisa as Princess Mary, Lindsey Naegle as Anne Boleyn, and Ned Flanders as Thomas More. Henry 8.0 (2009), a series of sketches on the BBC comedy website for the quinquicentennial of Henry’s accession, reinforces the traditional image despite a completely ahistorical setting in which the king (Brian Blessed) lives in the present-day suburbs with Catherine Parr, is addicted to the internet, conducts acrimonious exchanges with the Pope and the King of France on Facebook, watches sports on television, goes on vacation in a caravan, spies on the neighbors, and eats too much. Finally, Love Across Time (2010) features the unfortunate Henry on a talk show with all six wives (2010).

Aside from Blackadder, Horrible Histories, and an episode of Historyonics (2004) on ‘Mary Queen of Scots,’ Elizabeth has had fewer comic roles than her father in recent years, though she does appear in the gender-bending film Orlando (1992), played by drag queen Quentin Crisp. But she does appear in the most sublime and the most ridiculous of recent Tudor films, both of which concern Shakespeare. Neither is remotely accurate, yet they have received a very different reaction from critics and historians. The later of the two, Anonymous (2011), is not meant to be humorous—it takes itself very seriously—but is certainly ludicrous, resurrecting and taking to even more absurd lengths the theory that the 17th Earl of Oxford wrote the bard’s plays and poems. Critics and historians have been sharply and justifiably critical. By contrast, practically everyone loves Shakespeare in Love (1998), which is deliberately and delightfully hilarious. The story is almost completely made up, though Will Kempe’s comic performance before the queen is reasonably authentic. But it engages in very obvious self-mockery throughout, and there is a sense that the writers, director, actors, and audience are all in on the joke together. It assumes that the audience knows Shakespeare’s works and the social context in which they arose, and it uses that to make us laugh.

            In conclusion, blazing Tudorism may do as much as more serious appropriation of the Tudors to reflect and reinforce popular notions about the Tudors, especially Henry VIII. Indeed, anyone who has lectured about history knows that students and other audiences are more likely to remember a point reinforced with a joke. One could even argue that while comic films about the Tudors do not reach the aesthetic heights of A Man for All Seasons or Anne of the Thousand Days, they are more consistently successful than serious films in engaging and entertaining viewers. To paraphrase Philip Henslowe’s most famous remark in Shakespeare in Love, the natural condition of making a serious film about the Tudors is often one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.  Strangely enough, though, comic films almost all turn out well. How? I don’t know. It’s a mystery.


*Readers can get information at on where to find films discussed here but for which neither clips or online links are available.

Leave a comment

Filed under Across/Beyond Genres with The Tudors: Guest Posts by Novelists, Historians, Cultural Observers, Poets, Memoirists, Artists, and Bloggers

Boleyn “Birthers”

Do you belong to the "1507” camp, or to the “1499 to 1501” camp?

Do you belong to the “1507” camp, or to the “1499 to 1501” camp?

The following guest post is from Nell Gavin, award-winning author of Threads: The Reincarnation of Anne Boleyn and Hang On. It is a part of the guest blog series, “Across/Beyond Genres with The Tudors: Guest Posts by Novelists, Historians, Cultural Observers, Poets, Memoirists, Artists, and Bloggers.”

If you’re a fan of Anne Boleyn, you undoubtedly fall into one of two camps: the “1507” camp, or the “1499 to 1501” camp. You know who you are, and whichever camp you belong to you are probably vehement and passionate, and equipped with arguments.

I have seen Internet fistfights degenerate into brawls on Tudor forums, multiple times, over the question of Anne’s birth year. I have received numerous frothy email messages in response to my essay, “Anne Boleyn’s Birth Year: 1501 or 1507?” We’re sort of like football fans wearing different jerseys and shouting insults at the other team. The problem is, neither team can conclusively “win” because there is no way of proving anything. There is no record of Anne Boleyn’s birth, so nobody really knows, and probably nobody ever will.

Why does it matter so much how old Anne was? It’s part of her mystery, certainly, but why do we care? After all, she has been dead for four hundred and seventy seven years. Why have so many people invested so much emotion in declaring her age at the time of her marriage to Henry VIII? She was at least eight years younger than Henry VIII, and possibly as much as twenty-one years younger, if you believe the fringe birthers who cite a birth year of 1512. Granted, there are fewer members of the “1512” camp, but they do exist.

If Anne was born in 1507, she would have been about sixteen years old when Henry VIII set his sights on her in the early 1520s. This makes Henry VIII more of a villain or a creep by today’s standards. Or a ridiculous old fool. Or he was a man who was understandably smitten by her youth. It all depends on your view of thirty-five-year-old men chasing teenagers. But if you add a few years to her, Anne was still not quite an old crone in her early to mid-twenties, even by Tudor standards, particularly since she was thin, and vivacious, and not at all matronly-looking.

Do we want Anne to be young because we favor anything that makes Henry looks like a fool or a creep, and an even more horrible husband to Katherine of Aragon than he might have been, had he dumped her for a more age-appropriate woman? Do we want Anne to be so brilliant and intelligent that she could play Henry like a harp, overthrow the queen, and earn a crown when she was still a girl? Do we want the contrast between Henry’s two women to be so wide that Queen Katherine’s ultimate defeat is sadder and more pitiable, and Anne more instinctively evil and treacherous? Or do we want Anne to be young because it makes her more innocent and victimized, and ultimately more desirable? Is that ageist of us?

The 1501 and 1507 camps are about evenly split. This may be because the information we have access to is about evenly split, leaning sometimes this way and sometimes the other, based on popular media. We tend to accept as “fact” the first information we receive, and then afterward reject everything that contradicts it – psychological studies indicate that this is how humans operate. Apparently the information that reaches us first is the information we trust the most, and we’re less apt to question it. So we may have chosen our camp based on the first movie we saw, or the first book we happened to read about Anne Boleyn. We may have been sorted just that randomly. That’s one theory

Boleyn Birthers – a group that includes most of Anne Boleyn’s fan base – pick sides in the debate, and we support our argument with logic or passion. We can even take it to a really silly level by changing the birth year on Wikipedia’s Anne Boleyn page, and then watching someone else change it back within hours. I am not proud to admit that I did this myself for quite some time, a few years back, just to see how long my opponent would last, before I finally got bored and walked away, defeated. At this writing, the last person to edit the Wikipedia birth year agrees with me. But that will change: I cross out your graffiti, “Cowboys” and write in my graffiti, “Bears.” Then, vice versa. Infinity.

Still, we don’t change the truth, whatever it may be, no matter how certain we are that we’re right.

There are so many variations to the Anne Boleyn story that we may simply choose our camps based on which of those many stories we prefer. It could be that we prefer our tragic romantic heroines to be young. Or we prefer them to be more world-wise and savvy. Or we prefer them to be innocent and victimized. Or we love a good evil, conniving shrew. Anne offers us everything we love in a good story. We can read all the information we have any way we like.

Ultimately, we can shape and control Anne Boleyn and her story, just a little, by choosing the year of her birth. And so we do, and probably will throughout all time, to suit ourselves.

I’m certain that, somewhere in the ether, Anne is laughing, delighted.



Filed under Across/Beyond Genres with The Tudors: Guest Posts by Novelists, Historians, Cultural Observers, Poets, Memoirists, Artists, and Bloggers, Guest Blogs