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Henry VIII: Biggest and baddest? March 10, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Longtime readers may have noticed that our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have something of an obsession for the Tudor era. (See our earlier posts via the search bar at upper right, “The late, irate Henry VIII,” “Pointing the finger at Anne Boleyn,” “The quiet life,” and “Thomas More, saint and statesman” for more on this.) So last night we settled down to watch a new-to-us National Geographic special, “Icons of Power: Madness of Henry VIII.”

We have no doubt that Henry VIII descended from the Golden Boy of his era into paranoia and madness. We’re indebted to this show for pointing out that his cruelty wasn’t a side effect of his madness, but was inherent, since his first act on becoming king of England at the ripe old age of 17 was to execute two of his father’s most loyal and trusted advisors.

We’re just sorry that the show didn’t do more to point out the causes of Henry’s deterioration and madness: syphilis and diabetes. Syphilis, untreated (or treated with the common “cures” of the day, arsenic and mercury), eventually causes madness and death. And diabetes is now thought to be responsible for the unhealed, ulcerated wounds in Henry’s legs that caused him unceasing agony and doubtless contributed to his foul humors, monstrous behavior, and rumored midlife-on impotence. (Diabetes ran in his family and killed one of his sisters.)

After watching the show, Silence and I were struck by the series title, “Icons of Power.” Silence started the ball rolling by saying that Henry’s daughter, Bloody Mary, came by her title naturally enough, since her maternal grandparents, Ferdinand and Isabella, launched the Spanish Inquisition and her father Henry VIII was responsible for butchering 72,000 of his fellow Englishmen, 4% of the population at the time, including pretty much everyone who’d ever been close to him. Ugh.

But then we started thinking about the era that spawned Henry VIII. We had to admit that Henry, and his larger-than life personality, size, and conduct, tended to blot out everyone else before his daughter Elizabeth proved herself the greatest monarch of all time. He may have been the biggest, at 6’2″ and, at his worst, over 350 pounds, but he had plenty of competition for the title of the baddest.

Long before Henry VIII, there was Henry II, wild and rampageous husband of the great Eleanor of Aquitaine and father of Richard the Lionheart and his infamous brother John. There was Richard II, of red-hot-poker fame. Then there were the Edwards, I and III. Edward I “Longshanks,” aka “The Hammer of the Scots,” wreaked destruction on the Scots, his own English barons, the Welsh, and the Jews, whom he drove out of England. He butchered the heroes Simon de Montfort and Lewellyn of Wales, setting the precedent for the “I’m the King and you’re not, so shut up and do as I say or else” stance that Henry VIII was later to adopt. Edward III was outraged by his royal mother’s affair with an English nobleman, Roger Mortimer, and at 17 killed Mortimer, exiled his mother, ascended the throne, and began a reign of unparallelled brutality.  

But what of Henry VIII’s era? Was he really the only “Icon of Power” of his age? Hardly. Truly, it was an age of giants. There was Francois I of France, arguably the greatest ruler of the age, who had Leonardo da Vinci designing his war engines. There were Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, parents of Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, who funded Columbus’s journeys to the New World and (as noted) sponsored the birth of the Spanish Inquisition. There was the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, the nephew of Catherine of Aragon and the most powerful man in the world, who held the Pope, the head of all Christendom, in his pocket. 

Wow. History couldn’t produce another group of such powerful rulers if it tried. Surely an entire series of “Icons of Power” could have been based on the groups of monarchs reigning at the time. Today, when monarchies tend to be symbolic, and the only power resembling that of the monarchs of old resides in the hands of our assortment of less-than-beguiling dictators, we can’t help but ask ourselves if we aren’t better off without the Henrys and the Louis, the Augustuses and Alexanders. Yes, the world might seem a little duller, now that actors are the folks we follow as breathlessly as our forebears followed kings. But at least the Johnny Depps and even Charlie Sheens of the world aren’t running around shouting “Off with their heads!” and then enjoying a boisterous dinner while the axe falls.

Thomas More, saint and statesman. February 2, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood very much enjoyed watching the HBO series on Henry VIII, “The Tudors,” through Netflix. There were so many superb performances throughout the series: James Frain as Thomas Cromwell, Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn, Maria Doyle Kennedy as Catherine of Aragon, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Henry VIII, Sam Neill as Cardinal Wolsey.

Not least among them was Jeremy Northam as Sir/St. Thomas More. Northam had to play the difficult and complex role of a man who burned six Protestant heretics under his own supervision, yet acted for the good of their souls, as he truly believed, and went fearlessly to his death defending those same beliefs, along with other Catholic stalwarts and martyrs like St. John Fisher, Bishop and Cardinal, who refused to bend to Henry VIII’s increasing madness coupled with essential weakness.

Can a man who burned innocent men at the stake truly be a saint? Can a man who abandoned his own family to persecution and destitution for his beliefs be considered a good man? This is the paradox of St. Thomas More, a paradox Jeremy Northam handled with sensitivity and grace. You could see More’s faith and his torment, his gentleness, intellect, ambition, and bravery. It’s always hardest to portray a difficult, potentially unlikeable character, and make us love him despite his flaws; we think Mr. Northam deserves great acclaim for his understated but gorgeous interpretation.

Silence and I were discussing this at length last night, because we’d been watching one of our all-time favorite films, “A Man for All Seasons,” for the first time in several years. Like “The Tudors,” “A Man for All Seasons” is about King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell, and, above all, St. Thomas More. But unlike “The Tudors,” “A Man for All Seasons” presents only the noble side of Thomas More, a man who was ambitious, yes, but ultimately had no issues reconciling his ambition and his conscience.

Here was the saint, with no dark shadows in the form of burning those whose beliefs differed from his. Here was a man who sacrificed his friendships and family on the altar of the Most High, with well considered, compassionate, exalted statements for all occasions. Here was a part that was easier to play.

The cast of “A Man for All Seasons” was simply staggering in terms of sheer talent. Besides Paul Scofield as St. Thomas More, there were Dame Wendy Hiller as his wife Alice, Susannah York as his daughter Meg, Sir Corin Redgrave as his son-in-law, Will Roper, Robert Shaw as a spot-on Henry VIII, Vanessa Redgrave as Anne Boleyn, Nigel Davenport as a marvelous Duke of Norfolk, a very young John Hurt in a fine performance as the slimy Richard Rich, Orson Welles as Cardinal Wolsey, and Leo McKern, eventually to make his mark as Rumpole of the Bailey, as the corrupt and ruthless Cromwell.

How did they do? In our view, their performances were so magnificent that the film is timeless. Having seen Hans Holbein the Younger’s portraits from life of St. Thomas More, majestic, intelligent, and sensitive, and of Thomas Cromwell, fat, piggy-eyed, clearly the butcher’s son, we feel that the actors fulfilled their roles to perfection. Everything we have read about Henry VIII at that point in his life was captured by Robert Shaw’s performance—attractive and talented, exuberant, uncertain, longing for love and approval and determined by God to get it and brook no opposition. Shaw’s was the most nuanced and difficult performance in “A Man for All Seasons,” since he had to show a modern audience why people put up with Henry, why they loved him still despite his horrendous behavior and crimes. He pulled it off without a hitch. The golden prince beloved by all was still apparent in his Henry, and the monster who ultimately took his place was still only a shadow.

As for St. Thomas, Paul Scofield’s performance was enticing, compelling, drawing us in and making us weep as he was inexorably drawn to his death for refusing to sanction Henry’s role as Head of the Church in England. We still think “A Man for All Seasons” is one of our top ten movies of all time. But we also think Jeremy Northam had by far the harder task, portraying the torturer as well as the loving family man, the man who burned innocents at the stake, forcing himself to watch and still begging them to recant, as well as the man who was willing to die by the same principles by which he had lived. We have no doubt that Jeremy Northam’s Thomas More would have died on the rack or the stake for his ideals, in the same way his victims did. 

How do we feel about that? As Catholics, we of course applaud those who, like our own families, held to their faith in the face of threat of torture, death, and disinheritance by a king greedy to take the wealth of the monasteries and the property of private citizens into his own coffers. As human beings, we deplore anyone who tortures another for failing to agree with his own interpretation of faith. And we can relate to the terrified Protestants and Jews who faced the same threats and fears.

Who and what is St. Thomas More? We urge you to watch “A Man for All Seasons” and “The Tudors” and decide for yourself.

Meanwhile, a bit of trivia: It may seem obvious why Thomas More was called “A Man for All Seasons,” since he was a great humanist and scholar, one of the precursors to the Renaissance Men of the next generation. But our friend Ben wondered if there was more (pardon the pun) to it than that, if perhaps the title was taken from a line by Henry VIII himself, penned or spoken in happier times. It took me an unconscionable length of time to find out, but eventually I found the origin of the phrase, written by More’s contemporary Robert Whittington in 1520, while Thomas More was still alive and in everyone’s good graces: “More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow [equal]. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness [humility] and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometimes of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.”  This was, indeed, the man both Paul Scofield and Jeremy Northam captured for us on film.

The quiet life. December 12, 2010

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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have been avidly watching the HBO series, “The Tudors,” via Netflix. I guess we’re mildly obsessed. We’ve watched pretty much every movie on the turbulent Tudor era ever made (our friend Ben’s father keeps telling us there’s a marvelous early film starring Charles Laughton as Henry VIII, but so far, we’ve missed that one). Silence even reads all the Tudor-related histories and historical fiction.

Most of our friends miss the point—“Who cares if it’s the eight wives of Henry VI or the six wives of Henry VIII?” as our friend Rob says—but we find the chaos created by an unstable, selfish English king to be unequaled by anything since the days of the Roman Empire. In many ways, Henry VIII inadvertently created the modern world, and it was birthed in a flood of torment and blood. (For more, see our earlier posts “The late, irate Henry VIII” and “Pointing the finger at Anne Boleyn” by searching our search bar at upper right.) Thank heavens he made at least some amends by giving England Elizabeth I.

But I digress. Silence and I are finally watching the final season of “The Tudors,” and we’ve been particularly struck by the depiction of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey and heir to the great dukedom of Norfolk.

The Howards, if you recall, not only gave Henry two of his six wives—the ill-fated Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard—but also two of his mistresses and a wife for his oldest acknowledged son, Henry FitzRoy. They were an immensely powerful family, descended from royal blood on both sides, with at least as great a claim to the throne as the parvenue Tudors. Henry’s father, Thomas Howard, the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, was married to the only daughter of King Edward VI, presumably in recognition of this fact.

The portrayal of Henry Howard in “The Tudors” was of a brutal, almost bestial man, a brave but brain-dead warrior who risked and often lost the lives of his men in incredibly ill-conceived and foolhardy maneuvers, and finally was butchered in his turn by an irate Henry for aspiring to the throne.

This struck us as off on several fronts. First, throughout the series, the distinction of rank was emphasized during Henry’s endless executions. Those of low descent could be hanged, drawn and quartered, burned alive, tortured—whatever the king preferred. Those of high descent could only be beheaded. None in the land was of higher descent than the Howards, yet the court slapped the Earl with the full monty. Dramatic license?

Then too, the Earl was quoted going on about the quiet life, and his words were repeated as he was led away to his fate. What quiet life?! (Not that anyone who came to court could expect to lead a quiet life during the Tudor era, but the Earl of Surrey, as depicted by “The Tudors,” would have been the last man in England capable of being quiet, much less leading a quiet life.)

Our friend Ben and Silence were so intrigued that we looked him up on Wikipedia, and found quite a different story. The Earl was actually a highly gifted general, not the blockhead whose judgment-impaired moves we repeatedly saw in the series. He was imprisoned and beheaded, as befit his rank, because of the deranged Henry’s endless paranoia, not because of wrongdoing on his part. (His father, the Duke of Norfolk, would have joined him had Henry VIII not fortuitously died a few days before the execution was to have taken place.)

We also learned that the Earl of Surrey had been the best friend of Henry’s son, Henry Fitzroy, and was his friend’s brother-in-law as well. But the most astonishing thing we learned was that Henry Howard was an accomplished poet, the creator of the sonnet as we know it and of blank verse. Hardly the bestial braggart we’d seen in the series! The lines about the quiet life were taken from one of his poems, and they contain so much good sense that our friend Ben will share the entire poem with you here:

                The Things That Cause a Quiet Life*

My friend, the things that do attain

The happy life, be these I find:

The riches left, not got with pain,

The fruitful ground; the quiet mind;

The equal friend; no grudge, no strife;

No charge of rule nor governance;

Without disease the healthy life;

The household of continuance;

The mean diet, no dainty fare;

True wisdom joined with simpleness;

The night discharged of all care,

Where wine the wit may not impress;

The faithful wife, without debate;

Such sleeps as may beguile the night:

Content thyself with thy estate,

Neither wish death, nor fear his might.

So there you have it: A man who loved good husbandry (“the fruitful ground”), good health (“the mean diet,” i.e., plain wholesome food), moderation, simplicity coupled with profundity, acceptance of one’s lot (“Neither wish death, nor fear his might”), and the quiet life. A fine recipe for happiness, indeed! And written by a man who was executed by that bloody butcher, Henry VIII, at just 29 or 30. Would that Henry had died before the sentence could be carried out! Would that he had died before coming to the throne. But then, we’d have missed all this excitement, wouldn’t we? And the glorious Elizabethan Era would never have been. 

 Give us the wisdom to follow the advice Henry Howard left us in his poem, to be content whatever our circumstances, that we may also find the blissful rest of a “night discharged of all care.” The quiet life for us!

* For some bizarre reason, WordPress, which won’t allow us to close up lines in poetry, also isn’t allowing us to break this poem into the four-line stanzas in which it was written. We apologize!

Would the real Sherlock please stand up. November 30, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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All three bloggers here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders, are huge Sherlock Holmes fans. We even agree on who’s the best Holmes to date, and sorry, Jeremy Brett fans, it’s Basil Rathbone. But we all feel that Brett’s interpretation of Holmes as a twitchy, gleeful bipolar addict has redefined the character in such a significant way that no other actor can take on the role without taking Brett’s interpretation into account.

This was the fault we found with Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Holmes in the recent BBC series “Sherlock.” His marble features gave nothing away. We felt that Mr. Cumberbatch would make an ideal James Bond or Dr. Who, but he lacked the high-strung, jumpy, Gollumlike quality that informs Holmes’s character. Holmes is not just smarter than other people; he’s faster. By the time you could blink, he’d have leapt up, dashed out of the flat and into the street, and be off in a hansom. His thoughts and emotions would flash across his face like lights on a radar screen. Those emotions might resonate more with someone with Asperger’s Syndrome—high-functioning autism—than with your average guy; but there was never any doubt that Holmes’s emotions were in play and at a very high level.

So who would be our pick for Holmes today? For years, Silence and our friend Ben have championed Johnny Depp for the role, since he performed it so brilliantly as Ichabod Crane in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” If you weren’t told what film you were watching, you’d naturally assume it was a Sherlock Holmes adventure. Richard Saunders suggests that Jude Law, who played Watson to Robert Downey Jr.’s Holmes, could play a brilliant Holmes in his own right.

But today, Silence introduced a new contender for the role. She’d been watching “The Buccaneers,” a BBC series based on an Edith Wharton novel, and had been struck by the performance of James Frain as the high-strung, eccentric Duke.

“Ben! Remember James Frain as Thomas Cromwell in ‘The Tudors’ and how fabulous we thought he was? There’s our Sherlock Holmes!” Silence effused.

Our friend Ben certainly did remember Frain’s beautifully nuanced performance, going from sensitive theologian to torturer, and I had to agree with Silence’s choice. James Frain would make a fabulous Holmes.

But in that case, who would be Watson? Starting with “The Tudors” made the choice obvious. The perfect pairing would be James Frain as Holmes and Jeremy Northam as Watson. Jeremy Northam played Sir Thomas More in “The Tudors,” and Jane Austen fans may recall him as Mr. Knightley in the Gwyneth Paltrow adaptation of “Emma.” He is a consummate actor, skilled at playing good-hearted, down-to-earth characters, and would make a marvelous Watson to Frain’s Holmes.

Richard then pointed out that Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who starred as Henry VIII in “The Tudors,” would be the perfect Moriarty, Holmes’s evil arch-rival. Which of course led us to the inevitable conclusion that Natalie Dormer, who was so great as Anne Boleyn in the series, would be an ideal choice as Irene Adler, the woman Holmes admires most. 

So please, directors, listen up: Let’s see James Frain and Jeremy Northam as Holmes and Watson. Talk about a dynamic duo! Add Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Natalie Dormer to the mix, and your Holmes series or film would be unstoppable. With these talented actors in the roles, the game would really be afoot!