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

Daring to Believe: The Making of a Writer

Sarah MorrisSarah Morris is the author of Le Temps Viendra: A Novel of Anne Boleyn and co-author of In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn, a visitor’s companion to all the places and artifacts associated with one of England’s most iconic and controversial queens. You can visit her Facebook page for updates on her latest projects. This piece is a part of of our guest series, “Across/Beyond Genres with The Tudors: Guest Posts by Novelists, Historians, Cultural Observers, Poets, Memoirists, Artists, and Bloggers.”

I am writing this article for all of you who harbour a secret desire to write and express your passion for a subject that is no doubt close to your heart. It is true that every ‘would be’ creator of prose must face their own unique smorgasbord of obstacles – both real and imagined – in order to deliver the finished article. I do not know yours; but I do know that there were plenty of reasons why my recent publications should never have even been written in the first place. My hope is that in sharing some of my trials and tribulations, at least one of you will realise that there is no difference between us, and that your dream is right there for the taking – that if I can do it, then so can you.

First and foremost, although I had a life-long yen to write a book, my goal had steadfastly eluded me for nearly forty years. I certainly did not see myself as an author, and when I began to write the novel that would eventually turn into Le Temps Viendra: A Novel of Anne Boleyn in 2010, it was never meant to be published. It took three months of solid writing before I finally convinced myself that what was flowing from my imagination might be of interest to anyone other than me. This is an important milestone to reach; a shift in how we see ourselves, our very identity. I had to begin to relate to myself as an author.

In a way, maybe I was lucky. I never set out to write Le Temps Viendra (LTV), nor my second book, In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn, which, for me, flowed naturally from the first. I have always said that LTV happened to me, and so I found myself caught up in a miraculous process of creativity that swept me along in its wake. Quite often it felt as though the book demanded to be written, and I was merely a conduit through which the words could flow. But through this, I came to understand a key ingredient for success for both the books that I have written thus far; I felt passionately about my heroine, her story and her innocence. Ultimately, I was seized by an unstoppable desire to tell that story of innocence and play my part in righting the ancient injustice of her judicial murder. It became evident over the coming months just how important was that connection between me and Anne, and my sense of purpose in retelling her story. It would provide the drive and energy that would keep me going, when it might otherwise have been easier to set my work aside and confine it to the ‘too difficult’ pile.

In addition, to compound matters further, like many of you, I did not have the luxury of being able to write full-time. The financial reality of life meant, and still means, that writing is not my main occupation. My main work is in running my own business as a leadership coach, requiring me to divide my time between the sixteenth century, and the twenty-first, on a daily basis. Of all the obstacles, I personally find this the most challenging to navigate. It is not just physically about finding enough hours in the day to accommodate the demands of both, but energetically being able to elegantly dance between two very different worlds that require such different disciplines from me; being able to bring right concentration and effort to both is a continual struggle, demanding ruthless discipline and the ability to remain organised.

Yet, committing to write a book is no easy task, no matter how organised you are. This is why so many people speak of their desire to publish something, but never actually do it. One of my favourite quotes, that so perfectly sums up my relationship with writing, comes from Pablo Picasso who said, ‘I have put my heart and soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process.’ There have been times when I literally felt like this was what was happening to me. In the case of both books, I have experienced the intensity of penning a work of fiction and non-fiction, and how success in reaching one’s goal requires not just a modicum of talent, but a fierce, relentless determination to stay the course, a sort of bloody-minded stubbornness to write that last word – no matter what. And for me, there was a cost. Hours of sitting in front of a computer screen during evening, weekends and holiday periods took its toll physically, and I developed what some people call ‘Electromagnetic Field Sickness’. It is something that I have had to work hard to manage, mainly by ensuring that I make time to go outside, in nature. My dog, Milly provides the perfect excuse to get me outdoors, where I can physically regroup and get my energy moving around my body.

After I finished In the Footsteps, I desperately needed time of to rest and recover. It had been an intense three years of writing. I have learnt many lessons about being more realistic with what I can achieve, given my innate capacity, and how much I can take on and still remain sane – and well. I suspect I needed to pass through this rite of passage; that this wisdom is borne only from the bloody aftermath of the heat of battle. And so I am taking my time, keeping my writing muscle flexed but giving myself space to allow the creative impulse to emerge once more. But if I were ever asked about what I feel is most important factor in writing a book, it would be that you start, and that you consistently turn up, and put one foot in front of the other, day after day. By doing so, you will eventually reach the summit, and although weary, I can promise you this – it will be exhilarating!

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Becoming Bess

1381471_669585709726835_1591478188_nThis week’s guest post is by Australian film journalist and reviewer Nicki Newton-Plater who, in addition to having a passion for Tudor history, is editor-in-chief  at Movie Critical. You can check out Movie Critical’s Facebook book page by following this link. This post 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.”

Like her mother Anne Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth I remains one of the most intriguing women in history. Mother and daughter shared many of the same qualities despite having spent so little time together. They were both strong female figures who had remarkable strength and determination, especially when they set their eyes on the prize. Physically, although Elizabeth inherited her fiery red hair from her father Henry VIII, it was often remarked upon that she had her mother’s dark eyes. However, what they are both remembered for and what makes them so fascinating are polar opposites. Whilst Anne Boleyn is remembered largely for her role as Henry VIII’s second wife and for her unforgettable demise, Elizabeth is remembered for defying all the odds to become queen and her eventful reign as the Virgin Queen.

As both mother and daughter are historically such intriguing and powerful female figures, they are both widely represented in popular culture, particularly in film and television. The roles of both Anne Boleyn and Queen Elizabeth I are particularly sought after by strong actresses as they require confident, powerful and fiery performances. They are roles which come with a huge amount of expectation from historians and the film community alike. It takes a certain type of actress to be able to take on the role of either of these two women. Genevieve Bujold, Natalie Portman and Natalie Dormer are among the women who have successfully portrayed Anne Boleyn on the screen and are perhaps her best-known portrayals.

Queen Elizabeth I has attracted the talents of some of the best actresses of our generation. As previously stated, since Elizabeth was such a strong woman in real life and arguably ruled better than many kings had done, the role is not one to take on lightly. There is much expectation and a great deal of research which must be done in order to portray her as accurately as possible. Over time, there have been dozens of portrayals of Elizabeth in both film and television. Perhaps it is Cate Blanchett and Bette Davis who are the first two actresses who come to mind when you think about her on the screen and there is absolutely no doubt that these two gave amazing performances. Yet, there are seven other actresses who should be given as much recognition for the role as Blanchett and Davis.

The wonderful thing is that not one of the following actresses played Elizabeth the same way as another. Each film or television mini-series gives a different interpretation of what Elizabeth was like. Of course she is still fiery, hot-headed and proud as she is historically known, but each actress brings something different to the role depending on which part of Elizabeth’s life is being represented. These are the nine Queen Elizabeth I’s everyone should see on screen if they are a Tudor history fan. Some of these portrayals are more historically accurate than others, but it is wonderful to see Bess’ memory being honoured by these remarkable actresses with such love and warmth for her.

Cate Blanchett-Elizabeth (1998) and Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

Although there has been no lack of Elizabeth’s on screen in the past 15 years, Cate Blanchett remains the actress most people currently associate with the queen. It is no surprise considering Blanchett played Elizabeth in both 1998’s Elizabeth and 2007’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age and received Academy Award nominations both times. Blanchett’s Elizabeth has incredible character development, particularly in the first film where she goes from being a young, carefree girl who dances in the sunshine to a queen with a hard exterior who refuses to be ruled by any man. In the second film, we see how she has established her position and is much more imperious and hot-headed. Blanchett shows that the queen did not change overnight and how her circumstances led to her becoming what she is remembered for. However, even at the beginning of the first film, her Elizabeth does show a stubborn streak, but shows it in a very subtle way. What Blanchett’s Elizabeth does that we do not see other Elizabeths do is go from the young princess who never thought she would one day inherit the crown to one of the most powerful and strong women the world has seen.

Bette Davis- The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) and The Virgin Queen (1955)

Like Blanchett, the one and only Bette Davis played Elizabeth twice. First in 1939 in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and secondly in 1955’s The Virgin Queen. The Elizabeth we see in these two films has the glaring qualities one would normally associate with the queen. She is indeed hot headed and oozes power, but is also a little crazy. Davis herself was sometimes described as having these qualities in real life, so the role of Elizabeth in the stages of life which she portrayed fit her like a glove. This is not to say that Davis was playing herself, because she most definitely is not. She is Elizabeth, and one of the greatest. Although her Elizabeth shows her tough and rather ruthless side, she does show her more human side as well, as is seen in the film clip above. In both films, Elizabeth has feelings for two separate men in Lord Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh so Davis’ performance is more definitely not restricted in her emotions. The match of Davis’ and Queen Elizabeth I is a match made in heaven. One of the strongest willed women matched up with perhaps the strongest female actor of old Hollywood.

Helen Mirren- Elizabeth I (2005)

The only actress who has portrayed both Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Elizabeth II on screen is Dame Helen Mirren—and she has won the highest honours for both: An Oscar for Elizabeth II in Stephen Frears, The Queen and an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Elizabeth I in the television mini-series Elizabeth I. All these honours came in the same year. As these awards suggest, Mirren is an incredible Elizabeth. Her Elizabeth is brilliant at her fiery best, but even better when her emotions take hold. The above clip is an extraordinary scene in the series when she finds that her love is married. There are several other scenes like this, which makes the Elizabeth in this version seem very human. There are a few historical inaccuracies in the series itself, but Mirren’s Elizabeth is one who is strong and incredibly stubborn, but also shows her emotional side. However, there is no doubting that Mirren’s performance has an extremely regal air to it.

Anne-Marie Duff- Elizabeth I The Virgin Queen (2005)

The 2005 television mini-series, Elizabeth I: The Virgin Queen does what no other film or mini-series about Elizabeth I does. It looks at Elizabeth’s reign in its entirety, from the days of her imprisonment at the hands of her sister, Mary right through to her death. Anne-Marie Duff is absolutely incredible as she plays this role from the beginning where she is a stubborn and proud, yet very likable young woman, through to her last days as an old woman who is ridiculed in her nostalgia for the past. Duff’s younger Elizabeth always has a regal air to her, but it is actually refreshing to watch her as the queen dancing and smiling at court like she hasn’t got a care in the world. She is the Elizabeth that could be any one of us and is perhaps the most human portrayal of Elizabeth on our list. The make-up applied to make Duff 40 years older is exceptional as it is so convincing.

Glenda Jackson- Mary, Queen Of Scots (1971) and Elizabeth R (1971)

Glenda Jackson is another actress who played the part of Elizabeth I in more than one production. She played the lead in the 6 part BBC mini-series, Elizabeth R and also played the same role in Mary, Queen of Scots. Here we will look at Jackson’s portrayal in Mary. Queen of Scots as because this film is about her rivalry with her Scottish cousin, Mary, it is a very different Elizabeth we see. Although you can tell that the film isn’t evidently trying hard to do so, it does take a biased look at the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth and Elizabeth does come of looking like the villain. Jackson’s portrayal of Elizabeth is actually quite chilling. This is the Elizabeth who is reminiscent of her father’s ways. She is suspicious and jealous of her cousin and very proud and tense. However, the scene you see above is historically inaccurate, as Elizabeth and Mary never met face to face.

Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson- Anonymous (2010)

Anonymous, which is based on the idea that William Shakespeare was a fraud, is not the most popular film with Elizabethan enthusiasts as its premise is highly improbable and details historically inaccurate. However, the portrayal of Elizabeth here is definitely worth mentioning. Elizabeth is seen both in her early years as a young queen who adores the arts, and also as an old woman in the last years of her life terrified about who will follow her on the throne. What makes this so interesting is that mother and daughter in real life, Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson play the older and younger Elizabeths. Both Redgrave and Richardson give wonderful performances. Redgrave is sad and painful to watch, while Redgrave is a young delight. Interestingly enough, Redgrave played opposite Glenda Jackson’s Elizabeth as the title character in Mary, Queen of Scots, and Richardson played Elizabeth’s stepmother, Catherine Parr in the television show, The Tudors.

Jean Simmons- Young Bess (1953)

Jean Simmons gave a portrayal of a different Elizabeth than we are used to seeing. Young Bess looks at Elizabeth’s life before she became queen, in particular the years which she lived with her stepmother, Catherine Parr (played by Deborah Kerr) after her father passed away. Young Bess is again not a completely historically accurate portrayal of the young Elizabeth, and even though Simmons does give a good performance, her Elizabeth is not as believable as some of the others. There is one scene where she has a verbal confrontation with her father, Henry VIII, which hardly seems realistic. The film is very exaggerated so to glorify Elizabeth. She is not the typical young girl, but she still has the teenage characteristic of falling head over heels in love. She is also very queenly for her young age. Whether historically accurate or not, it is still a nice change to see a film about Elizabeth in the time period before she was queen.

Judi Dench- Shakespeare In Love (1998)

Last, but far from being least is Dame Judi Dench. Dench’s Elizabeth won her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, even though she was only on screen for very few scenes. This portrayal of the older Elizabeth is incredible. Dench is perfect as she shows both sides of Elizabeth’s personality. You see the no nonsense queen who doesn’t put up with anything she sees as irrelevant, but she surprises everyone when she shows her tender and understanding side, particularly when speaking to Viola Shakespeare In Love is a comedy, and thus Elizabeth actually has some very funny moments. The delivery of some of her dialogue is hilarious and rather than her fiery nature being daunting, it is actually quite endearing in this film.

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“…Is that an extra finger?!”

Anne Boleyn WaxworkEmily Pooley is a Special Effects artist based in London, who has worked on a number of current adverts, TV shows and currently working on an upcoming Ron Howard film. She also is a commission based artist in her spare time, creating unique and bespoke pencil portraits and sculpture. To find out more, you can follow her on Instagram ’empooley’, contact on Facebook, or via email at emz_pooley@hotmail.com.  This post 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.”

Over the last 2 or so years, I have met some incredible, intelligent, creative and well – just plain decent – people for which I have one person to thank: Anne Boleyn.

As a creative person, throughout early education you tend to get the ‘pat on the head’ treatment. People often see art as a fall back option, as the route one takes if you are academically challenged. Luckily, I come from a family routed in craft and all that is creative. Growing up, I would visit my dad’s workshop, where he and his Goldsmith colleagues would be creating the most exquisitely hand-crafted replica Faberge eggs, jewel encrusted Juke box or some other fantastically delicate and beautiful object – craftsmanship of which I can honestly say I have not seen the like since. And with a mother who was an amateur photographer in her youth and keen artist, a brother as a much in-demand graphics designer, artist and musician uncles and cousins, a poet and wonderful painter as a grandfather… I had all the inspiration and backing I could dream of.

What on EARTH has this got to do with the one time Queen of England, I hear you so desperately crying. I always get swept into my childhood whenever people ask of my model and my reasoning for her creation.

Back in 2008, I started my Degree in ‘Technical Arts and Special Effects’. I have never been one for ‘arty art’. I see beauty and intrigue more within the craft of an object, not just with something that has been created by the hand of man, but within nature also. Our own anatomy, for example, is unbelievably beautiful. I don’t, however, see the interest in an unmade bed. This I know many people will disagree with me on – but I guess it’s just what I have grown up around and my own personal preference. This is why I picked a subject that had a bigger purpose than ‘art for arts sake’… (Please don’t judge me on this sentence alone… art comes in many forms and a lot of it interests or inspires in one way or another, and it all tends to entwine into one another). Special Effects opened a world full of some of the best artists I have seen, all inspired by and involved in some of the best visual stories the world has to offer. I for one was glued to our TV as a kid. I loved the idea of being completely engrossed in a show – yes, it was the best form of escapism for a girl who was in her own world and a ‘bit of an odd one’.

Please get to the Anne Boleyn bit now.

Like many people I have come across as the years have rolled on, when I was a kid the Tudors were THE most exciting thing: the larger than life Henry VIII with his huge bulging belly and obsession with bumping off his wives (or so the Horrible Histories books described). I say as a kid as this is where it began… but we all know this is not where it ends. As a kid, I visited Hever Castle at every chance I could get. I loved the drama of the place for this was the real life setting of my childhood stories. When I was 16, the most incredibly dramatic, exiting and sensual show flashed before my eyes – the BBC’s Tudors by Michael Hirst. This was my kind of show and truly rekindled my love for Anne’s story. For all the historians out there, I truly apologise… but rest assured it lead me on my path to discover as much of her ‘true’ story as I possibly could. When it came to picking my final year piece at university, I could finally combine my love of making, craft and anatomy with my excitement of history and storytelling.  This was my perfect opportunity to really get to know Anne Boleyn.

I was amazed at how she has been perceived throughout the ages. There are endless writings on her, from factual accounts to personal opinions. Novels, films, art, blogs that have continued to thrive since the moment she left this world. THE most amazing thing to me is that we still don’t know. We still debate to this day. And for this reason, everyone has their own version of Anne, their very own character in history that belongs to them. This is why I created my own model. My own Anne. As an artist, I tried to keep to historical accounts and records to keep to the ‘true’ Anne… but at the same time – she is my own.  I am an artist, not a historian and I both celebrate and apologise for this.

 

One thing that I continuously get asked is ‘Why the extra finger?’ I remember trying to decide whether to go with Anne’s alleged 6th finger whilst walking into our local petrol station near university for snacks. Whilst it was rolling around in my mind, the small group I was in grabbed me, and subtly pointed in the direction of the man serving behind the till. A lot of people don’t believe me when I tell them this part, but believe me or not, the man had an extra finger upon one hand. Need I say more.

Apart from Charlotte Rampling’s depiction in ‘King Henry VIII and His Six Wives’, I hadn’t seen another representation of Anne’s infamous 6th finger. Of course I could go on for many pages on whether or not she had a growth on her hand, but you all undoubtedly know far more than I ever will and better places to find such things. Personally, I don’t believe she had an ‘extra finger’, if anything she would have had a small impediment which was exaggerated and used against her. But I do know that this side of Anne always stirs up great debate and interest both with myself and others. For the Horrible History generation, it’s the “eeeeeeeeeew” factor and the magical idea of witches and the like.   For the lovers of history, it’s the idea of malicious rumours and religious game-play. The majority of images or representations of Anne that I had come across didn’t show Anne’s story in any way. They relied purely on the ‘portraits’ of Anne and what we already know of history to tell the story. Although the idea of being close to these things does excite me (Madame Tussauds’ model still gives me goose bumps), I wanted more than a lute to tell her story. I wanted at least a small part of the debate that surrounds Anne to come across in my model.

So in amongst the variety of Tudor and Elizabethan inspired symbols I placed within my exhibition (like the Tudor rose my model holds, or the words surrounding the mirror) I wanted people to see the finger and question why it was there. Had I found evidence to finally end the argument? What did the viewer already know? Would they assume that because it is presented on a ‘realistic’ model it is realistic in terms of history? But in all, I wanted people to challenge me on it. It was great to hear a conversation at my show on this exact subject: ‘Look she has an extra finger!’ ‘Yes, but she didn’t actually have an extra finger. It was made up by the Catholics’… ‘But I heard it was a friend that gave a description of it?’… Bingo!

Hever Castle, however, wasn’t so thrilled.  They asked me to remove it.

It has been over 2 years since I made the model, and I have had a number of both creative and interesting people take time to contact me about Anne and not just about the model alone. Having the opportunity to be included in a book, the likes of which fuelled my excitement when creating my own Anne, has been brilliant and makes me proud to be a Boleynian. It also makes me a little happy to know that people DO question the finger…. for my plan worked.

So, tell me…what are your views on the infamous ‘6th finger’?

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Gender-Expectations and Mother-Judging from Anne Boleyn to Kate Middleton: Why That “s” Still Matters

Elizabeth I's birth announcement, with the added "s"

Elizabeth I’s birth announcement, with the added “s”

The following post is from Natalie Sweet, research assistant to Susan Bordo. She is the creator of Semper Eadem: An Elizabeth I Blog, and is currently at work on a book project that focuses on life within Abraham Lincoln’s White House. This post 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.”

Almost half a millenia ago, various persons throughout England anxiously waited for news from Greenwich palace. Within its walls, Anne Boleyn labored to bring a new royal child into the world. The flurry of gossip around Henry VIII’s new queen was undoubtedly as heavy as it had been in the months since Anne’s coronation, during which onlookers could not miss the swell beneath her gowns. Those close to the court anticipated Anne “tak[ing] to her chamber” as early as August sixth in 1533. (1) From the time that Anne exited from the public eye of the court, the question that was likely on everyone’s mind was whether or not a prince would emerge from that most feminine of circles, the birthing chamber. Certainly, the signs seemed to suggest that a prince’s birth was imminent – astrologists had predicted the birth of a prince, and thus, announcements had already been drawn up to proclaim the male heir’s birth. At the close of September 7, 1533, however, an additional “s” had to be added to the announcements. A princess had been born.

I couldn’t help but think of those nearly 480 year-old announcements a few weeks ago, when the birth of Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge was announced to the world on July 22, 2013. As anachronistic as it may seem, we were all a bit like those who waited just within reach of Anne Boleyn’s birthing chambers, for thanks to modern technology, the world was bound to learn of young George’s arrival within hours of his birth. Thus, in a sense, those who waited on the news (myself included) became the nosy courtiers waiting outside of Duchess Catherine’s chambers.

Our proximity to The Big News wasn’t all that made me think about the old Tudor announcements. For the first time in European history, perhaps in all recorded history, a significant majority of the population had wished for a royal birth to result in a young princess, not a prince. After the nearly five-hundred years since Queen Elizabeth I’s birth, there were many people who would now have to strike rather than add the “s” from their Facebook and Twitter announcements.

The day's most popular joke.

The day’s most popular joke.

Not that the old preference for a male heir was utterly absent. One CNN royal commentator called Kate “brilliant” for delivering a male child (as if she somehow willed his anatomy into cooperation), and the Internet was littered with jokes about Kate being allowed to “keep her head” (in an obvious reference to Anne Boleyn).

And yet…there was a decidedly subdued tone after it became clear that the baby was a “George” and not a “Georgina” (or perhaps, better to say a “George Alexander” and not an “Alexandra,” as certain bookies predicted). I hadn’t even realized how invested I was in the topic until I reviewed my own social media posts leading up to the event. On Facebook, I posted my preference for the name “Mary Catherine” as the child’s name, as the delivery was on that day the Feast of Mary Magadalene (I felt like bestowing a name medieval-style that day) and because that was my great-grandmother’s name. In a texting back-and-forth with friends, I noticed that several Anglophiles eagerly hoped the baby would be a girl – it would be historic, for as had been decided in 2011, a girl would become the United Kingdom’s future Queen whether or not any brothers followed her.

The Internet proclaimed its desire for a girl child, too. It fairly bounced with hope in pieces that squeed, “Kate Middleton Hints She’s Having a Baby Girl!” . Little “Keep Calm” rompers in pink proclaimed, “My Granny Is The Queen” (although, you can now replace that with “One Day I’m Going to Marry Prince George.”). Even the bookies’ marks reflected the national desire – when news of the pregnancy first was announced, Ladbroke’s posted 8/1 odds that the royal baby would be female and named “Elizabeth.”

When the news finally broke that the baby was a boy, attention turned to his name, as was to be expected. However, a Jezebel piece spoke for many when it admitted in its headline, “We Kinda Wanted the Royal Baby to Be A Girl.”  Within it, a Time piece by Belinda Luscombe was also quoted: “dammit, I wanted a queen. I wanted a royal baby girl.” Her reasoning? Not because of “a feminist impulse,” but because “female monarchs are like male emerald swallowtails: more rare and fun to look at.”

In many ways, those of us who hoped for a princess speak positively to the evolving ways that women are being viewed by society. However, our investment in the baby’s sex/gender also places us squarely in the age-old tradition of heaping expectations and judgment upon new mothers. I vividly remember when my own son was born the countless people, both friends and strangers, who pried for news of whether I wanted a boy or a girl. Which was fine, as it was a natural way of connecting to a new mother in her excitement about a pregnancy. What wasn’t fine, however, were those who looked at me sadly after I said I was having a boy and said, “Aww, didn’t you want a girl?” I’m certain that these comments stemmed from a reaction to my very obvious stance as a feminist, and a mistaken assumption that feminist = desire for girls. In reality, I actually didn’t know whether I wanted a boy or a girl; I had already drawn up a substantial list of hopes and fears about my child, whether it be a girl or boy, prior to the big reveal, thanks in part to an unknown medical condition that could have complicated my pregnancy. What I did know, however, once I knew that I was having a boy is that I would love him tremendously no matter what. It’s a bit hurtful to a new mother to hear another person speak to her “in sympathy” about the upcoming birth of her child.

 

Intrusive comments about the baby’s gender are, of course, the least of it. Just as hurtful to new mothers are the endless discussions of whether or not they are doing the right thing in the manner that they raise their children – a mother’s every decision about feeding, diapering, and disciplining comes under the close scrutiny of others.  If you have ever been on a mother’s forum within the past five years, you know of the arguments that can break out over the seemingly slightest of parenting decisions. And the judgment doesn’t end once the diapers are dispensed with – what you feed your child, when you put them to bed, what afterschool activities they attend – each one of these actions and more come under fire from the Internet, your television, and your regularly scheduled playgroup that meets at the park every Friday morning (and if your kid isn’t in a playgroup, well, there’s another mark against you. But don’t worry – there’s a mark against you if your child is in a structured playgroup, too). A mother exists under a cloud of judgment from the moment her pregnancy is announced. Kate is already getting a taste of this mother-judging – look no further than the gossip about whether or not George was placed properly in his car seat or the fact that Kate was spotted wearing a dress designed for breastfeeding. So in this way, perhaps, we are not as evolved as we could hope to be; we may eagerly welcome the birth of a princess, but we continue to heap judgment and scrutiny upon the child’s mother in more modern, but no less significant, ways.

Today's Modern Royal Birth Announcement

Today’s Modern Royal Birth Announcement

As time goes on, the memory of the public’s desire for a baby girl this go-around may fade. Or perhaps it won’t. I only have this to say to Prince George in the event that he one day goes cruising around the Internet for public reaction to his birth: That jump-the-gun announcement on the royal baby’s gender has happened before. The result was pretty rocking awesome.

(1) Sir John Russell to Lord Lisle. James Gairdner (editor), “Henry VIII: August 1533, 1-10,” Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 6: 1533, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=77564&strquery=August 1533

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16th-Century Match.com

 
henryviihorizontal2The following post is a composite of a chapter that comes from Barb Alexander, who is the creator and author of TudorTutor.com and its associated social media outlets. Her book, The Tudor Tutor: Your Cheeky Guide to the Dynasty, will be published late summer 2013.  Please  do not quote, cite, copy, or distribute this excerpt from The Tudor Tutor: Your Cheeky Guide to the Dynasty without Barb Alexander’s permission. 
 

What is arguably the most interesting dynasty in English royal history may have never come to be. Before the Tudors of Wales became the Tudors, Richard III sat on the throne, head of the house of York. But during one little battle, Henry Tudor and his guys swept in and had the monarch knocked off his horse and onto his noggin. When his bones were discovered under a Leicester car park in 2012, they showed evidence of fatal blows: It seemed a sword had entered his skull on one end and came out the other after slicing through his brain, and another segment of his skull had been whacked clear away. The king was dead, long live the new king!

Henry VII was clever enough to wrap up the Wars of the Roses by marrying Elizabeth of York, Richard III’s niece and the only heir left on the York side. It was an opportunistic move at first: Pair up with the girl from the other side of the conflict, relocate her mother to a nunnery, bring peace and happiness to all of England (except, of course, the mother in the nunnery, as well as Richard III’s supporters).

Seventeen years and seven babies later, Elizabeth of York succumbed to complications of childbirth. Understandably, the royal widower  was heartbroken and ducked out of public view completely for six weeks. He came down with an illness similar to tuberculosis and it nearly killed him. However, he bounced back and got on with the business of raising his new heir, Prince Henry.

In time, the king was encouraged to remarry for diplomatic reasons. Sensing that her daughter (none other than Henry VII’s widowed daughter-in-law) Catherine of Aragon might be in his line of vision, Queen Isabella of Castille tried distraction: “Hey look, over there, something shiny! It’s Joan, Queen of Naples!” Henry VII was interested enough to send his ambassadors to get the goods on Joan; he clearly wanted to know what he might be getting into. Aside from needing to know the height of her forehead and the possibility of hair on her upper lip, he had the ambassadors report on:

 
•How was her complexion?
•Were her arms big or small, long or short?
•Was the palm of her hand thick or thin?
•Were her hands fat or lean, long or short?
•Were her fingers long or short, small or great, broad or narrow?
•Was her neck long or short, small or great?
•Were her breasts and “pappes” big or small?
 
…you know, the usual concerns. The answers were promising:
 
•Her complexion was clean, fair, and sanguine
•Her arms were somewhat round and not very small, but “of good proportion to her personage and stature of height”
•Her hands were somewhat full, soft, fair, and clean-skinned
•Her fingers were fair and small
•Her neck was full and comely, not misshapen, not very short nor very long. However, her neck appeared shorter “because her breasts were full and somewhat big.”
•More on the breasts! They appeared to be somewhat great and full, as they were “highly trussed.”
 
 
It just didn’t work out in the end, money and politics and all. There’s no word on whether Mr. Tudor gave Joan the “It’s not thee, it’s me” reason.
 
 
Before long, his tuberculosis was back with a vengeance. His breathing was labored and his joints were racked with arthritis. This well-organized micromanager had been planning for his death ever since that first bout with TB, a decade prior. He left England in a strong financial position, with a promising heir. What could possibly go wrong?

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Would Anne Boleyn Have Enjoyed Living in a Tudor Revival House?

Tudor1An irreverent romp through the “old-world charm” of these buildings and why we are so enchanted by them. 

Binnie Klein’s memoir, Blows to the Head: How Boxing Changed My Mind (SUNY Press, 2010) is available here.  Here’s a 2 minute fun trailer. She hosts a weekly music and interview show on WPKN-FM. You can hear some of her radio interviews here. She’s working on a concept for Public Radio on the psychological meanings of our homes. She can be reached at binniek@comcast.net

When was the last time, if ever, you used the word “enchanting?” It’s a term that connotes a dreamy, whisked-away to a never-neverland adventure, with hummingbirds that speak to you in profound haikus as you skip into a fresh, virginal future, the world drenched in a soft glow, like a big orange creamsicle.

When you think of the Tudor era, with its bellowing monarchs, betrayals, lack of indoor plumbing, and yes, beheadings, do you think “enchanting?” When you think of medieval times, do you think “charming?” Do you think “creamsicles?”

Google Image Search is a quick Rorschach test. Try “Medieval.” I don’t see “enchanting,” I see, um, dead people.  That is, armies, armor, horses, fighting, swords, castles, shields, skeletons, moats, men, lots of men, and more men, weapons, crowns, battles, feasts, stiff collars, public births, religious icons, maps, more men– anything remotely “charming” or “enchanting?”  Tudor image search is a little better – more people, less horses, kings, queens (more women now), and buildings reaching to the heavens like cathedrals.

But would you say these look enchanting?

Tudor2 Tudor3

These are Tudor Revival houses.

Chances are you’ve seen pictures of buildings like this, and they have been described as romantic, charming, storybook, fairy-tale, elegant, enchanting, cottage-y, historic, or special, and you’ve imagined yourself inside sitting by an imposing fireplace inlaid with pictorial tiles that tell the story of your ancestors (aunts and uncles appearing shockingly beautiful and important), warming yourself with a mug of steeping hot cider bigger than your head.

For many of us outside of England, we may have only seen “Tudor Revival” structures, and in fact, although the name “Tudor” originally described certain houses and manors built in the late 15th and early 16th centuries in England, during the Tudor Dynasty, in architecture today the term “Tudor” refers to a style popularized in the United States during the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.  The style itself also uses decorative elements from earlier centuries (which is why you sometimes see the term “Medieval Revival”). Sometimes the style is called “English Cottage,” sometimes “Tudorbethan.” (For a thorough-going and historically reverent exploration of Tudor architecture and Revivals there are many excellent resources elsewhere, like this National Geographic Documentary of Tudor Buildings.)

Why I’m Predisposed to See Tudor Revivals as Enchanting

What do you think when you see this picture of author Philip Roth’s childhood home,

 Tudor4

a 2 & 1/2 family apartment building?  I show you this because I grew up in apartments in Newark that were quite similar. Most buildings on my street were all clapboard or vinyl-sided non-descript structures, aggressively unadorned. Squirrels gnawed on chain link fences. Grass grew wild and high, as if it were the main natural attraction; I don’t recall any flower gardens. We had the convenience of living behind the high school and grade school, but it was of little value to me that I had, with that proximity, the joy of sleeping until the first bell.

I grew up in that young country, America, and I had a limited sense of architecture. Styles? Chimneys? Manicured Lawns? Beckoning entryways?  They existed in my imagination, or even further away, in the suburbs, glimpsed on the occasional Sunday Drive of Longing.

When I walked far enough down Vassar Avenue, past Parkview Terrace, and onto Keer Avenue, I’d stand mesmerized by a house that stood out amongst the rest; The Tudor house. I knew that stylistic name, and that name only. There were a few in an adjoining neighborhood, and certainly more in the suburbs. What could possibly go on behind the dark, wooden-arched door, with its tantalizing little windows? Serious life, surely, with a library and a fireplace. Constance Mitchell, writing for the Wall Street Journal, bought herself a Tudor-revival because it reminded her “of the homes owned by nice middle-class families in old novels and black and white movies from the 1950s.” Inside she imagined “refined couples with the clever and well-mannered children.”

I shared her fantasy, and more. A Tudor revival house was the portal to a fairy-tale. With their steeped roofs, leaded-glass windows, and elaborate entrances, these houses meant one thing:  these people must be rich.  And there was one other detail that hummed like a sub-frequency on an alien transmission:  these houses are dark inside.  It may have been something I heard my parents say on the Sunday Drives of Longing.

Writer June Edelstein, who grew up in a Tudor-style house in a planned neighborhood chockfull of historical revivals in Syracuse, New York, confirms that her house WAS dark, although she never heard the same claim while living in it. She attributes it to the smaller windows, the dark wood inside, and being surrounded by trees.  But dark or not, she absolutely loved her house (and her childhood), and she always knew it was called a “Tudor.” “I made no connection between the style name and the actual Tudors,” she said, “but remembered being inside the house reading books about Anne Boleyn which were “right up my teen-girl alley. Betrayal! Romance! More Betrayal!”  I see her curled up on a window seat, under a patchwork quilt, reading about the notorious queen from a hard-cover book with illustrations.

Just The Facts, Ma’am

Usually there were four defining features of the original Tudor houses:

Half-timbering — This is what creates the distinctive black and white Tudor. Yummy, like a big Black and White Cookie.

Tudor5 Tudor6

 

They were constructed using a frame of hand-cut lattice beams (the dark part), then the gaps between the beams were filled with a mixture of clay, sand, straw, and sticks. After drying, it was painted white. The beams were coated with black tar to prevent rot.

Chimneys — Tended to be built out of brick, were tall, narrow, often with intricate carved designs.

Jetties — The advent of chimneys meant you could control indoor smoke, so a large, full-sized second floor could be built and kept warm. Tudor buildings often have a second floor that juts out over the street below and the buttresses that support these overhangs are called “jetties.”

If you listen to this kids’ radio show from England about Tudor houses you will be charmed (and possibly enchanted), as they tell you, in their lovely and innocent voices, a secret about those second floors. (Be patient; it’s in there.)

Windows — Before the advent of pre-industrial glassblowing technologies, glass was only created in tiny panes. That’s why we see the latticed casement windows in Tudors, with dozens of small panes.

Ever Wonder Where YOU Would have Lived in Tudor Times?

Here’s a game to help you find out (it will help if you are a carpenter, weaver, or cordwainer).

If you’d like to peek inside a Tudor Revival, perky decorator Meghan Carter will lead you on an enthusiastic journey.  She will excitedly tell you that the interior of Tudors can be dark and warm all at the same time! She interviews a serious expert with a notebook who tells her the message of the Tudor Revival was, “we’re older, we’re established, we’re not the new immigrants coming in.”

So why are we so fascinated with all this “old world charm?”

“Each one desireth to set his house aloft on the hill, to be seen afar off, and cast forth his beams of stately and curious workmanship into every quarter of the country” (William Harrison, 1577).

We love to belly up to the Heritage Bar. We want legacy. And if you don’t come by your gravitas via genetic legacy, if you build it, it will come. At least that’s the hope.

“We built our capital, DC, on a Francophile Empiricist Vision, with buildings trying to evoke, Greece, Rome and hubris, says author/architect Duo Dickinson. “Most look back,” he says, “not forward when it comes to claiming gravitas in built form.” We may be inventing the ancestry, but so what! Dickinson: “Legacy is accrued by hundreds of years of evolving tradition and history.” But sometimes, he says, “families grasp at architectural straws to let those around them know how much they are worth – not just monetarily but in the greater social sense.”

Why did the Tudor style become so enormously popular in the 1920s and 1930s in the United States? With their expansive entryways, “great rooms” and high ceilings, the Tudor Revivals evoked wealth. The style was often called “Stockbroker Tudor,” as financiers began to put their wealth into their houses. They wanted homes that would stand out.  The Stockbroker Tudors were an attempt to separate and distinguish the newly wealthy from the immigrant populations, with their overflowing pushcarts and street-life.

But over time, the styling took on a variety of forms; some elaborate mansions, some more modest suburban homes with mock masonry veneers.

Want to Build a Tudor-Revival House?

If you want one, you’ll need a useful course in the Tudor’s distinguishing features and a good set of blueprints, one that houseplans.com offers.  But be forewarned. You’ll want skilled architects and contractors, because as Dickinson says, “it’s a bitch to build if you do it ‘right.’ Building a heavy timber frame (like a barn) with a brick/masonry infill is excruciatingly arduous and expensive involving multiple skillsets.”

Want to Buy a Tudor-Revival House?

Actress Andie McDowell’s Tudor House, offered for sale in 2011, was described as a “magnificent four-story, storybook Tudor with Art Nouveau and Arts & Crafts influences” in Asheville, North Carolina.

Tudor12

There are many available. Here’s the interior of one in New Hope, Pennsylvania, available for over one million. Built as a hunting lodge for “a prominent early-American from the area” it has a great-room fireplace that depicts the story of Rip Van Winkle.

Tudor8

Need a Few More Tudor Goodies?

Here’s a 1927 Stockbroker Tudor in New York that needed lightening up.  Designer Steven Gambrel  made it “friendlier.”

Here’s an Assortment of Tudor Houses to drool over, like a box of chocolates.

Here’s the story of two really old landmark Tudor Houses that were restored, one from the 1660s, restored in the 1960s. The second Tudor is Crispin House, in St. Albans, built in 1480.

My days of longing for living in a Tudor Revival may have passed, but I have found something else to fantasize about. There are endless varieties of dollhouses, doghouses, playhouses, and hobbyist villages with details that send you squealing with glee. That could be me at the playhouse– watering chrysanthemums. These Tudor facsimiles may not represent centuries of wealth, but to me they are perhaps even more enchanting.

Tudor9 Tudor11 Tudor10

So would Anne Boleyn have enjoyed a Tudor Revival? Unfortunately, she didn’t live another 400 years to see if she’d prefer something more Frank Lloyd Wright. Maybe she’d enjoy the freedoms and cache of an industrial loft in Brooklyn. But with a Tudor Revival, she’d have the familiar Old World Charm (although it wouldn’t be “Old World” to her), some prestige, a larger bedroom than the one of her childhood, and she’d have indoor plumbing.

Enchanting!

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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?

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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.

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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 www.tudorsonfilm.com, 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 www.tudorsonfilm.com on where to find films discussed here but for which neither clips or online links are available.

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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.

 

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