I remember a cheap children’s book some years ago, part of a scratch-n-sniff series that claiming to “bring history to life.” Tudor Odors demystified history by reproducing what a knight smelled like under heavy plate armor, or what the streets of London would have been like, aromatically, without public sanitation.
A similar impetus drives Showtime’s new series The Tudors. Following the success of HBO’s Rome, the series challenges preconceived ideas of the late Middle Ages, which mostly means it shows lots of illicit sex, heaving bosoms, and manly battles (whether on the jousting field or in the invasion of France). It also means replacing the dominant historical image of Henry VIII as corrupt and corpulent baddie, with fighting-trim hottie Jonathan Rhys Meyers.
The Tudors is undeniably sexy, with court intrigues, bedroom shenanigans, fabulous costumes, and sumptuous settings. Nevertheless, because most everyone knows the story of Henry VIII and his six wives, his break with the Papacy and establishment of the Anglican Church, the series doesn’t have a very new story to tell. We all know what’s going to happen: poor Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer) will lose her pretty head.
Not to belabor the comparison (although Showtime surely does), but what made HBO’s Rome so cogent was its linking of ancient power-politicking to current US and transnational conditions. The Tudors makes no such connections, unless it’s a vague critique of head-of-state unilateralism. King Henry VII is, in President Bush II’s term, definitely “the decider.”
The Tudors is more pointed in its critical assessment of Enlightenment philosophy, whose legacies (individualism, liberal humanism) still adhere in today’s world. Henry’s mentor and counselor is Sir Thomas More (Jeremy Northam), whose 1516 treatise Utopia broached the possibility of a “universal and perpetual peace” founded on principles of reason and rationalism. As King’s Counselor, More tries to influence foreign policy to bring this “utopia” into being. Henry is sympathetic to More’s idealism, but tends toward realpolitik. Even though he consents to a treaty with France brokered by More and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (Sam Neill), Henry quickly abandons that treaty for a better alliance with the Holy Roman Empire.
Such utopian yearnings for a “universal and perpetual peace” were, The Tudors demonstrates, impossible even from the beginning of Enlightenment thought and politics. It’s contradicted at every turn by greed and egotism, embodied by corrupt Papacy representative Wolsey and indicated when Henry has the Duke of Buckingham (Steven Waddington) executed for treason. This not only because the Duke was conspiring against the crown, but because Henry was short on cash and access to Buckingham’s fortunes helped alleviate that crisis.
Such selfish scheming is committed by pretty much all the hangers-on to Henry’s court. His untitled childhood friends Charles Brandon (Henry Cavil), William Compton (Kris Holden-Reid), and Anthony Knivert (Callum Blue), quickly rise to the aristocracy by toadying to the King. Cardinal Wolsey wants desperately to be the next Pope and will do whatever necessary to get there (though he never will). And Sir Thomas Boleyn (Nick Dunning) is more than willing to pimp out his daughters Mary (Perdita Weeks) and Anne to King Henry in pursuit of more power and recognition.
Anne and Mary, however, are not simple dupes of their father’s power-grubbing. Anne in particular is keen in her manipulations of Henry’s desires; her seduction has been masterful, leading up to the inevitable declaration by Henry in the fourth episode (22 April 2007) that he wants a divorce from his political marriage to Catherine of Aragon (Maria Doyle Kennedy).
For her part, Catherine is no slouch at political scheming (and Kennedy’s performance is fantastic). Married to the short-lived previous King Arthur, she married his brother upon Henry’s ascension to the throne, in order to maintain her Spanish royal alliance with England. A foreigner in the English court, Catherine fully understands her precarious position, complicated by the fact that she has yet to produce a male heir to the throne. As Henry’s dissatisfaction with their marriage increases, so does his philandering. When his eye settles on Anne Boleyn, Catherine deploys her own emissaries and tactics to secure her position.
Catherine and Anne’s machinations draw attention to women’s social and political positions in this vision of Tudor England. Catherine’s being shuttled back and forth over the course of her life between male kings and noblemen exemplifies the trafficking in women that Claude Levi-Strauss discusses in The Elementary Structures of Kinship. It appears the same oppressions hold for her daughter Mary (Blathnaid McKeown), betrothed at age four to King Charles V (Sebastian Armesto) in a very creepy ceremony, in which the King anticipates the child’s eventual sexual maturity.
In such scenes, The Tudors demonstrates that women’s lives depended on their political skills. While the men are largely self-serving egotists, the women are cagier strategists.