I am thrilled to host author Roland Hui on the third stop of the blog tour for his just-out The Turbulent Crown: The Story of the Tudor Queens, which recounts the dramatic events of the ten Tudor women who sat on the English throne. From the book description:
The Turbulent Crown begins with the story of Elizabeth of York, who survived conspiracy, murder, and dishonour to become the first Tudor Queen, bringing peace and order to England after years of civil war. From there, the reader is taken through the parade of Henry VIII’s six wives – two of whom, Anne Boleyn and Katheryn Howard, would lose their heads against a backdrop of intrigue and scandal.
The Turbulent Crown continues with the tragedy of Lady Jane Grey, the teenager who ruled for nine days until overthrown by her cousin Mary Tudor. But Mary’s reign, which began in triumph, ended in disaster, leading to the emergence of her sister, Elizabeth I, as the greatest of her family and of England’s monarchs.
Today’s post was written by Roland – it is a special post for me about the Six Wives series (he’s read my blog and he knows how much I admire Keith Mitchell’s masterful portrayal, so this was a really cool piece!)
I got a copy of the book – I just started it and I am enjoying it immensely. Roland has a wonderful, clear voice (you can hear it in the post). And as part of the tour, MadeGlobal Publishing is offering one lucky follower of mine the chance to win a copy of the book as well (your choice between a paperback or the kindle version) – details at the bottom of the post.
Over to Roland…
The period from the middle 1960’s to the early 1970’s was the heyday of English history motion pictures. The critical and commercial success of ‘Becket’ (1964) was an indication that audiences were keen to see more of such films. ‘A Man For All Seasons’ (1966), ‘the Lion in Winter’ (1968), ‘Anne of the Thousand Days'(1969), ‘Cromwell’ (1970), and ‘Mary Queen of Scots (1971) were all made during this renaissance of historical pictures. Television, recognizing this interest in England’s past, released a teleplay of Maxwell Anderson’s ‘Elizabeth the Queen’ (1968). In 1970 an even more ambitious project was undertaken – ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’, a series of six teleplays about the King’s merry-go-round of queens.
The Henry VIII most viewers were still familiar with at the time was actor Charles Laughton’s interpretation of the notorious monarch in ‘The Private Life of Henry VIII’ (1933) and again in ‘Young Bess’ (1953). As popular as Laughton’s interpretation was, it bordered on the comical. His Henry was a rather a buffoon, though even he had, arguably, better table manners! There was no suggestion of the cultured Renaissance prince who composed music, built palaces and warships, made war on the French and the Scots, and defied the Vatican by establishing his own Church.
To play such a larger than life personality, the producers of ‘The Six Wives’ chose Australian actor Keith Michell. In his early 40’s when he was cast, not only was Michell expected to interpret Henry VIII in all his complexity, but also to age from a young man of 17 to an ageing despot of 55. The physical demands of the part were not lost on Michell. It was ‘murder’ as he recalled. “The make-up got more and more complicated. Toward the end it was a 4 hour job that meant wearing plastic all over my head, a plastic nose, things in my face, padding up to my neck.” Interestingly enough, it was not Henry VIII himself who would inspire the actor, but rather plutocrats of another era. Michell imagined Henry as ‘a kind of cigar-smoking American billionaire, very rich and very powerful.’ The costumes, he also mentioned, with all their padding, jewels, and fur, were a big help in creating the King’s persona.
The series begins with the arrival of Catherine of Aragon (Annette Crosby) to England in 1501. It is commendable that the producers of the series chose to present Catherine as she actually looked. She was not stereotypically Spanish with an olive complexion and dark hair (as the character had appeared in ‘Anne of the Thousand Days’ for instance), but fair and blond as Catherine was depicted in her early portraits. The episode emphasizes the happiness she and Henry VIII shared as a young couple. Upon ‘the word of a Henry’, her husband promises, Catherine will always be loved.
However, the marriage sours when she is unable the bear a son, only a daughter, the Princess Mary. The years take a toll on her looks, and she is often ill and melancholy. Not only must she endure the humiliation of being a ‘barren’ wife, but also the King’s attraction to a lady of the Court, Anne Boleyn. So much for ‘the word of a Henry,’ as Catherine later muses with bitterness.
In ‘The Six Wives’, Anne Boleyn (Dorothy Tutin) was not a sympathetic character. She is brash, vain, and overly proud. While her personality was certainly meant to act as a foil to Catherine’s, when the series was made, the historical Anne was not viewed very kindly. Many perceived her as a shameless hussy who in the end got what she deserved, even though she was falsely accused of treason. This opinion was even expressed by actress Charlotte Rampling who played Anne Boleyn in the later film version of ‘The Six Wives.’ “Anne wasn’t a very nice girl, I’m afraid,” Rampling said in an interview, “she had dangerous qualities of spitefulness and arrogance.”
Though Queen, Anne comes to realize that her happiness, like Catherine’s, is fleeting. She too is unable to bear a son and the episode centers upon her fall from grace. Brittle and haughty, the proud Anne finds herself in the Tower of London charged with adultery. It is in her darkest despair that Anne redeems herself. She learns humility, and her courage shines through as she steadfastly refuses to acknowledge the crimes of which she is accused. She goes to her execution in assurance of her innocence.
The episode on Jane Seymour, Anne Boleyn’s successor, differs slightly from the others as her story is told in flashback. It begins in 1537 with the christening of her son, the longed-for Prince Edward. However, Jane (Anne Stallybrass) cannot experience the joyfulness. She is in delirium and, unbeknownst to her and all others, is in fact slowly dying. Her fevered mind recalls her courtship by the King. He is unhappy with his tempestuous wife Queen Anne and finds solace in the company of the meek and mild Jane. Historians continue to debate whether Jane Seymour was really as gentle a lady as she appeared, or rather a ruthless courtier itching for a crown. Evidently, the screenwriter imagined Jane as the former. However, even her tenure as Queen is troubled. Jane is haunted by thoughts of the late Anne Boleyn. Was she judiciously murdered so that she could take her place? As Jane tells her brother Edward Seymour, “I have no – no waking or sleeping moment when I am at peace.” Perhaps it was only by her death by puerperal fever that Jane was finally able to find that peace.
Two years after Jane Seymour’s passing, Henry VIII, at the urging of his chief minister Thomas Cromwell, decides to take another wife. No longer the athlete and handsome man he was, the King is now fat and ageing. Nonetheless, he still considers himself a worthy catch, and he contracts a marriage with the German Anne of Cleves (Elvi Hale). The writing of this particular episode was probably not without its challenges. The marriage was short-lived and, except for the fall of Cromwell, was relatively uneventful. As well, Anne spoke no English. Thus some dramatic license was taken with Anne already speaking the language (as an earlier incarnation of the character did in ‘The Private Life of Henry VIII’), and some facts distorted and made up. Unlike the historical Anne of Cleves who was most eager to wed the King of England, the ‘Six Wives’ version of her was not. At their first meeting, she is appalled by his appearance; an interesting twist in that history usually has it the other way around. Also, the real Anne did not meddle in politics, but the episode has her counseling her countryman, Philip of Hesse, who visits England in secret to seek advice on getting rid of his wife. Philip’s visit is entirely fictional, but it did serve to add more to the storyline.
If Anne Boleyn wasn’t a ‘nice girl’, her cousin Catherine Howard (Angela Pleasence) was worse. In ‘The Six Wives’ she is selfish, conniving, and immoral. She seduces one of the King’s courtiers to conceive a son to pass off as the King’s. She even considers having an old lover murdered to prevent him from revealing her sordid past. Although historians of late have been more sympathetic towards Catherine (that she was a child of abuse whose poor upbringing led her to make bad life choices is one modern opinion), the television series accepts the traditional view of her as a wanton woman. Catherine’s one redeeming quality is her loyalty to her Howard family, even though they, like her uncle the pandering Duke of Norfolk, have abandoned her to her fate. The young Queen goes to the block admitting her guilt and asks that her kin be spared the King’s wrath.
From a girl just out of her teens, Henry VIII moves on to a mature woman in her 30’s for his sixth Queen in the final episode of ‘The Six Wives.’ Catherine Parr (Rosalie Crutchley) is a sensible no-nonsense widow with a strong religious (Protestant that is) streak. The actual Catherine, though very pious, was not as severe as the series made her out to be. She was attractive and vivacious. It was these qualities, not her theological opinions that attracted the King to her. Still, emphasis was put on her religious views. In ‘The Six Wives,’ John Foxe’s famous story of her getting in hot water for heresy was played out. But peace was restored with Catherine giving in, and she manages to outlive the King who dies in 1547.
‘The Six Wives’ was a success with critics and audiences. It won BAFTA Awards for Keith Michell and Annette Crosbie, as well as for the design and costume teams. It also received the Prix d’Italia for the sensitively written episode on Jane Seymour. When the series was exported to America for broadcast on ‘Masterpiece Theatre’, it was a hit with viewers there too, and Michell was given an Emmy Award for his performance. The positive response to the series spawned a sequel ‘Elizabeth R’ (1971), a prequel ‘The Shadow of the Tower’ (1972), and even a theatrical version entitled ‘Henry VIII and His Six Wives’ (1973). For the film, Michell repeated his part, but different actresses played his Queens.
In the years following Keith Michell’s celebrated role as Henry VIII, a multitude of actors (including Ray Winstone, Eric Bana, Jared Harris, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and Damian Lewis) have also tackled the part, but none have received the acclaim Michell did for bringing Henry VIII to life onscreen. In 1996, when the role of the King was being cast for a television adaptation of Mark Twain’s ‘The Prince and the Pauper’, the producers had only one actor in mind – Keith Michell. Even today, Michell (who sadly passed away in 2015) is remembered as the definitive Henry VIII.
Roland Hui received his degree in Art History from Concordia University in Canada. After completing his studies, he went on to work in Interpretive Media for California State Parks, The U.S. Forest Service, and The National Park Service. Roland has written for Renaissance Magazine and for Tudor Life Magazine. He blogs about 16th-century English art and personalities at Tudor Faces at tudorfaces.blogspot.com.
So – ready to try to win a copy? Paperback or kindle version, your choice! Just leave a comment below this post before midnight on Sunday, March 5. Tell me which was your favorite scene from the series, or your favorite other TV or film version of Henry and his wives, or just that you loved my Jane the Quene! One lucky commenter will be picked at random and contacted for their details.