Projecting onto the Tudors

I’m one of those people who can’t help but be fascinated by the Tudors and the entire historical era they lived in and shaped. There are just so many questions to ask and events to contemplate, stemming from, in my opinion anyway, the fact that it’s almost impossible to look at the sequence of events of all of these peoples’ lives without concluding, unfairly, with no real evidence, but still pretty soundly, that they were all so miserable.

Henry VIII is the best example of this. Of course he was miserable. His claim to the throne was fine but not unshakable, and he had various enemies. He needed, as all monarchs do, a male heir, but this eluded him for quite some time. His inability to procure one is Shakespearean. Well, it’s not, because Shakespeare wasn’t a thing until Elizabeth I had been queen for a while, and even then he was kind of low-brow during his own time, but, you know what I mean. Henry’s is the perfect story about toxic and fragile masculinity, and it actually happened.

His kids just make everything more poetic. His much desired male heir died far too young without a male heir of his own. Edward was also clearly manipulated by his skeevy regeant who made him remove his sisters from the line of inheritance before he died. Still, one after the other, both of Henry’s daughters, who he’d disowned/disavowed/divorced and executed the mothers of/threatened to execute over the years took her turn on the throne. Mary I had to take the throne by force, riding in with an army and her sister at her side, which is super cool and I want to watch that movie, frankly. That movie is unlikely, though, because Mary managed to become somewhat unpopular by executing Protestants a little too cruelly and by marrying some Spanish guy (xenophobia never goes out of fashion). Much after her own time, history made her even more unpopular as anti-Catholicism came back into fashion in England, harder. That’s one interesting detail. Another is: hey, look, that’s the second Henry kid without an heir, and the question hanging menacingly in the air as she got older without getting pregnant: would she let her Protestant sister, cleverly pretending to be a Catholic, succeed her?

The answer was yes, and everyone is in love with Elizabeth I who is the perfect, absolutely perfect, poetic justice of an ending to Henry VIII’s legacy. Some depictions of the Tudors love to point that out rather bluntly, like the ending of The Other Boleyn Girl.

Elizabeth herself dies without an heir, and isn’t that amazing: all three of his kids managed to hold onto the throne and never provide the heir everyone was always angsting about.

It’s the perfect story. And it really happened.

But so did a lot of other things which were absolutely horrific.

It’s really easy to sympathize with and fully, whole-heartedly love a charismatic actor playing a 1500s monarch who says something about how people shall be allowed to worship as they please in a time of religious strife. The guy behind me in my screening of Mary Queen of Scots did. He said, “YES,” after Saoirse Ronan playing Mary, Queen of Scots, said basically that. And me, too, sure. I as a kid did that thing too, watching Cate Blanchett say something less progressive (because Bess wasn’t as progressive, unfortunately), in the rather unfortunately anti-Catholic Elizabeth I.

[quick sidenote: I’m Catholic and Catholicism should absolutely be critiqued and even made fun at all times, but a) nuance, and b) Catholics had it rough in England during Elizabeth and for a long long time after her, so, nyeh, and c) NUANCE PLEASE and also d) I still love that movie]

But, uh, this same magnanimity was not extended as kindly to Jewish people, and/or Romani people, and/or plenty of other groups at the time. I’m not actually sure how Mary was on the subject of antisemitism, but, I’m just going to assume she wasn’t good.

Watching The Tudors, which is actually the only TV series I have on DVD without regretting spending all of the money, is interesting, because while like most other film adaptations of this historical period, it obviously overdramatizes some most things, it also does provide some amount of nuance. I mean, it also helped to Google stuff as I went along, and to have taken sixteenth century English lit courses which provided a lot academic context, but, still. It’s better than Elizabeth I, at least. One of the most important elements of context that The Tudors doesn’t skimp on is how huge the religion question was to these people, Catholic and Protestant alike.

It seems ridiculous now, so of course the monarchs professing some amount of moderation seem like the best people (even if they did execute their fair share of “heretics” – and I’m looking at you, Elizabeth I). At the time, which denomination you were was high stakes stuff, however much it seems backwards to us in the 21st century.

It was less high stakes if you were royalty. For example, Elizabeth got to renounce her professed Catholicism and be a Protestant queen as soon as she was crowned. Mary I got to be fully Catholic again as soon as she was crowned, despite signing a thing declaring her father to be the head of the Church in England. And although Henry insisted she sign it, his very prominently Protestant adviser Thomas Cromwell supposedly advocated for her to not have to sign it, since everyone knew she was so devout. Mary herself may have been a little naive, but surely she had some inkling that her sister wasn’t really going to keep up the Catholicism when she took the throne. Maybe not. But if she did, then her sister’s incorrect faith didn’t matter enough to Mary to have Elizabeth exiled, or executed.

The implications of that are that people at the time, including the commoners, believed strongly that you had to worship the right way to get into heaven if you were a commoner, but, the higher towards nobility you were, the more God loved you, so, you could do whatever you wanted, really.

That is definitely no stunning revelation. I think we all know that’s how people at the time felt, but I would suggest that most adaptations avoid getting into how, uh, tyrannical some of these monarchs truly were. There are a couple of considerations there. First, they thought they had every right to be, and even most of their subjects thought so too. Paradigms have shifted, so it’s certainly not fair to judge their actions entirely based on current morality. Second, you can’t be honest and show everything – the antisemitism, the torture of the (usually poor, elderly) women they honestly thought were witches, the animal cruelty, and, hey, didn’t colonialism start happening at this point, complete with slavery – and have people actually sympathize with your characters.

Removing the Tudors (and those adjacent to them) from their own historical context just enough to make them palatable is a good strategy for making watchable movies and television. It’s also helpful if you’d like to use their stories to comment on what’s happening now.

But what’s relevant about these people these days?

Go see Mary Queen of Scots to find out, but here’s a short list:

  • comparing Mary to Elizabeth, this movie manages to make a point very, very compellingly: that if Elizabeth had married and had given birth to a male heir, she quite likely would have been deposed and/or betrayed by some useless husband. We can never know, of course. But this movie makes its case, and of the various explanations I’ve seen in fictionalized portrayals of Elizabeth, this is my favourite. It gives her more agency than Elizabeth I‘s “I don’t trust men, they’re all cheaters and also transphobia” does. (There’s more to it than that, but, still). The Royal Diaries series version of Elizabeth has her, at a very young age, declare that she will never become a wife because she was traumatized by watching Catherine Parr run screaming through a hall before being arrested, which was effective and, frankly, excellent children’s literature, but I still like this movie’s version better
  • men are out specifically, purposefully, to destroy women’s political careers because they resent taking orders from women, because they are misogynists. “Not all men” and whatnot but hey, it’s still Trump’s America and this movie noticed.
  • it’s possible to make a movie about actual real-life female rivals, who actually in real life got into some situations that required one of them to have the other one executed, and still have – like – Margot Robbie has this very fictionalized speech where she’s imagining what she would say to Mary if she could and it’s, yeah, very fictional, but also gorgeous. I think both of them cry when they see each other for the first and only time – they have a lot of animosity but they’re also lovely the whole time, fascinated by one another, they love each other, and BLESS this movie for that because OF COURSE they would have on at least some level
  • this movie proves that you can put actors who are people of colour into a British period piece playing historical people who IRL would likely have been white, and the world doesn’t end
  • it also proves you can add in queer characters without being bigoted (coughing pointedly at Elizabeth I) – but I have some caveats to that which are, and I quote, “OK but you put one gay man and one trans person in this movie and both of them are horrifically murdered, wtf”

Anyway, there are probably more, but this movie was very good. It’s good enough just for the actors to do their things in cool costumes (and probably win awards), but it’s also just good, including my multiple caveats, most of which I’m not going to add in here. It was quite refreshing after the anti-Catholicism of Elizabeth I and it’s sequel, if I remember correctly, which handles the Mary Queen of Scots thing quite differently.

I wish I could have written something more insightful about the Tudors and how we keep telling their stories, and maybe one day I will, but for now, this will have to do.





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