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The late, irate Henry VIII. January 24, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood and our friend Ben have been having something of a Tudorfest here at our cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, of late. It all started with the two movies on the life of Elizabeth I, starring one of our favorite actresses, Cate Blanchett. Then there was “The Other Boleyn Girl,” a movie we found rather dull. (Silence points out that the book on which the movie was based, also called The Other Boleyn Girl, was better than the movie. Silence also read Jane Boleyn: The True Story of the Infamous Lady Rochford—the tale of the perfidious woman whose testimony condemned both Anne Boleyn and her own husband, Anne’s brother George Boleyn, to death—and we understand a movie based on this book is in the works as we write.)

Most recently, we’ve been watching the Lifetime series “The Tudors” (thank you, Netflix), and have worked our way through season two. Though the history is rather shaky, we’ve enjoyed the series itself and the performances in it (especially Jeremy Northam as St. Thomas More, Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn, Sam Neill as Cardinal Wolsey, and Maria Doyle Kennedy as Catherine of Aragon) very much.

While we wait for season three of “The Tudors” to make its way onto DVD, we decided to do a little time-travel to renowned depictions of Henry the Eighth from the past. We rented “The Six Wives of Henry VIII,” with Keith Michell playing the title role. Unfortunately, we found it unwatchable, and gave up after the first episode. This was no reflection on the actors, but rather on the early BBC’s inability to distinguish between a cheaply produced filmed play and a movie. As Silence pointed out, poor Henry the Eighth wore the exact same suit of clothes through ten years of action! If the King of England could afford just one outfit per decade, clearly his country was in desperate straits.

We’ve had better luck with “Anne of the Thousand Days.” It’s hard to beat Richard Burton as Henry, and the supporting cast is excellent. So far, the movie has been historically accurate (we’ve watched about half), and since it’s a period piece, it doesn’t seem dated, despite having come out in 1969. However, our favorite version remains “A Man for All Seasons,” that magnificent production with a delightful Robert Shaw as Henry, Paul Scofield’s majestic performance as St. Thomas More, a very young John Hurt in a marvelously sleazy performance as Sir Richard Rich, and a great supporting cast.

We invite you to enjoy your own Tudorfest and choose your favorites. (Warning: Most of these productions, especially the modern ones, are anything but family fare, so if you have young kids, wait to put them on ’til everybody else is in bed.) But meanwhile, we’ve asked our fellow blog contributor and resident historian, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, to create a little quiz to test your knowledge of Henry VIII and his six wives. (The answers are at the end, but no cheating, now!) See how you fare:

1. How many wives did Henry VIII order executed?

a. 1

b. 2

c. 3

d. 4

e. 5

2. How many of Henry’s wives and mistresses were related?

a. 2

b. 3

c. 4

d. 5

e. all of them

3. Which of the following was not claimed of Anne Boleyn?

a. she was a witch

b. she had six fingers on one or both hands

c. she had an incestuous relationship with her brother George

d. she had affairs with over 100 men

e. she was a transvestite

4. Which of these famous people were not contemporaries of Henry VIII?

a. Leonardo da Vinci

b. the great painter Hans Holbein

c. the famous Humanist Erasmus

d. Michaelangelo

e. Beethoven

5. Why did Henry behave so violently towards those who were closest to him?

a. he was desperate for a male heir and would let nothing stand in his way to get one

b. he was an autocratic, indulged monster

c. he was terrified of any threat, including opposition and disease

d. he had syphilis, which eventually drove him insane and made him more and more erratic as time went on

e. he had type II diabetes, which slowly sickened and eventually killed him, creating episodes of instability

6. What was Henry’s greatest achievement?

a. marrying six wives

b. breaking with Rome and creating the Church of England

c. composing the famous ballad “Greensleeves” 

d. executing over 72,000 people during his reign

e. producing Elizabeth I      

Ready for some answers? Here you go:

 1. Henry ordered Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard (wives 2 and 5) executed. Catherine of Aragon and Jane Seymour (wives 1 and 3) died of natural causes, and Anne of Cleves and Katherine Parr (wives 4 and 6) survived Henry. 

2. At least three and possibly four. Anne Boleyn (wife 2) and Katherine Howard (wife 5) were cousins. Anne Boleyn’s sister Mary was an acknowledged mistress of the king before he took up with Anne; their relationship lasted for six years and resulted in two children. It is a not-ungrounded rumor that a much-younger Henry VIII also briefly took Anne and Mary Boleyn’s mother Elizabeth as a mistress, presumably before they were born; this has never been decisively proved or discounted.

3. The correct answer is e. Anne was never accused of being a transvestite, but was wrongly accused of every other of these charges. There is no doubt today of her innocence.

4. Henry was a contemporary of all these famous men except Beethoven, though the only one he actually met was Hans Holbein, who painted him and many famous members of his court.

5. All these answers may be true, though the theory of his having progressive syphilis has now been overshadowed by the view that he had type II diabetes. However, we think that, given his behavior, the answer is “all of the above.”

6. There is now some doubt cast on Henry’s composing “Greensleeves” for Anne Boleyn, as has long been thought, but there is no doubt that he was a prolific composer and quite accomplished musician and poet. All the other items in this list are (sadly, in the case of the executions) true. But in our view, one alone is relevant: the fathering of Elizabeth, England’s greatest monarch. Henry’s contribution to British history in this respect may have been unintentional, and certainly was unacknowledged by him (another useless female heir!), but history has proven its value beyond all dispute.