The promotional poster for the third season of The Tudors, the one you’ve seen everywhere, features a broody Jonathan Rhys Meyers as King Henry VIII perched atop a throne constructed out of carefully positioned nubile and naked young men and women. It’s an apt visual metaphor for the reign of Henry VIII as represented by Showtime full of illicit goings-on and considerable promiscuity of the king and his court. Here, King Henry’s throne represents a kind of erotic tableaux of domination worthy of Sade, and demonstrates the prerogative presumed in the late Middle Ages of the King’s total access to the bodies of his subjects.
Season Three of The Tudors offers plenty of salacious details. The first episode found King Henry marrying Jane Seymour (Annabelle Wallis), having dispatched Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer) in the hopes of finally securing a male heir to the throne. That doesn’t mean the king has stopped looking for his next wife; as he tells Jane near the end of the first episode, he’s already “disappointed” that she’s “not yet with child,” and as we know, Anne of Cleves (Joss Stone) is off somewhere in the wings, waiting for her cue.
Henry’s license isn’t just about securing the Tudor line, though. It’s also about sating his own estimable sexual desires. Newcomer Lady Ursula Misseldon (Charlotte Salt) quickly attracts his eye in the second episode (airing 12 April), and Henry wastes no time relieving Sir Francis Bryan (Alan Ban Sprang) of his mistress and making her the king’s own.
That image of King Henry atop his fleshy throne, however, gestures to more than the sexual excess of the Tudor court. It gives visual form to the relationship between his power and his capacity to suppress and exploit his subjects. Here, the sumptuousness of Henry’s dress is indicative of his supremacy, while the naked bodies of his subjects show their penury and submission.
This relationship between king and subjects is the driving concern of Season Three, and marks a welcome departure from the show’s previous focus on the personal drives and desires of Henry VIII. At the beginning of this season’s second episode, he’s confined to bed rest because of the flare up of an old jousting wound in his upper thigh. Juxtaposed to his muscled and so very white body is an angry red suppurating ulcer on his leg. In the Middle Ages, of course, the King was considered the direct embodiment of the State, and so the health of his body represented the health of the nation. Henry’s wound, festering from within, denotes s a similar disturbance in the state of England.
That disturbance is the commoners’ response to the King’s “Reformation,” masterminded by Henry’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell (James Frain), that is, his establishment of the Anglican Church and subsequent desecration of the Catholic abbeys and monasteries of England. Led by Robert Aske (Gerard McSorley), the peasantry of the Northern provinces has taken up arms in open rebellion against the King. Though the commoners’ grievances include disgruntlement with the King’s taxation policies and manipulation of Parliament, their rebellion is primarily driven by anger over the persecution of their religious practices and principles.
The rebellion is received sympathetically by the Papacy and in particular by Cardinal Von Waldburg (Max Von Sydow), who ordains the English priest Reginald Pole (Mark Hildreth) a Cardinal and sends him to solicit financial and mercenary support from Catholics in France, Spain, and the Low Countries. Such religious fundamentalisms (the Protestants across England and Europe accused the Catholics of idolatry and mysticism, while the Catholics insisted the Protestants were heretics) are here shown to be central to state and inter-state politics.
It hardly needs pointing out that this disturbance connects as well to global struggles today. Both the rebels and their mercenaries in their wildcat attacks on the gentry, as well as King Henry’s minions’ destruction of Catholic properties, might be easily tagged as “terrorists.”
The peasant rebels, who dub their mission the “Pilgrimage of Grace,” will eventually become the Christian sect, the “Pilgrims,” persecuted throughout Europe and driven to the American colonies. In its engagement with this historical rebellion, The Tudors reminds us that, like Islam and Judaism today, Christianity has had, and undoubtedly continues to have, its own fundamentalists, ideologues, and terrorists.