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The Reel Tudors: The First Royal Telly Binge

Updated: Feb 13, 2023

I owe a lot to this series. It is this show that really inspired me to 'take up' history. I had loved it before, but not to this degree. After I finished watching this show, I went and bought a book on Henry VIII and one on the young Elizabeth I (by Derek Wilson & Alison Plowden respectfully). This was the beginning of my history bookshelf which later turned into a bookcase which in itself turned into three bookcases...and an e-library as well...

Hampton Court Palace became Henry VIII's pleasure palace after the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey

This show also, in my humble observation, was the first multi-seasonal TV show to be made about a royal family. It was not a film, nor a limited series, it was basically ‘Dallas’, but in period costume, played out as a drama loosely based on history. It was definitely the first of its kind. Then along came "The White Queen", "The White Princess", France's “Versailles”, Russia's "Catherine The Great"...twice. We had some royal hybrids like“Victoria”, “Reign” and "The Spanish Princess" where the upstairs royal drama was heavily diluted with the downstairs peripeteias of the fictional supporting characters (in most cases completely imaginary). The genre even ventured into the Dark Ages with "The Last Kingdom". In 2016 we had the ultimate royal telly binge, which comprised everything we never knew we had always wanted: “The Crown”, which changed the genre (more on this later in another post). But “The Tudors” was the OG royal telly binge. And with history on screen, along always comes the inescapable question of historical accuracy...

Some like the show enough to disregard any inaccuracy it may have (whether they do bother to find out what exactly is inaccurate or not), whilst others may be less forgiving and dismiss the show entirely as a fanciful television commodity with no intellectual value. Personally, I appreciate "The Tudors" for what it is, especially because it was this very show that made me pick up a book on the historical Tudors and find out what really happened and what really did not. I imagine I wasn't the only one. So if this show inspired however many people to be interested in history, it did its job well and I would say it has cultural value for this reason alone.

In the never-ending debate about historical accuracy (there will be a separate blog post on this soon) I always keep going back to the same questions:

- Does it do the characters justice?

- Does it keep the integrity of the period it represents?

- Does it adequately represent the way of life, considering the possible financial restraints of the production, as well as the obligatory preference for the entertainment factor by the filmmakers?

- Does the overall 'message' of the historical event come across?

...In terms of this show, the answer to these questions is a yes from me.

The Great Hall at Hampton Court

The Tudors are the most famous royal dynasty of them all. As a celebrated historian once said (I believe it was Alison Weir), theirs is a story that’s unique to its time and place. The story of the TV show “The Tudors” focuses on Henry VIII, and despite the disclaimer in the beginning of series 1, saying that the story will take place ‘in the beginning’, it still treads upon the familiar very fast. In my opinion, if we’re going to the beginning of the story of Henry VIII, we need to go back to his boyhood. Basically, what “The Spanish Princess” is doing now.

“The Tudors” has a somewhat traditional TV structure: every season finale is bookended by the demise of one of Henry’s close circle. In the first season, it’s Wolsey. In the second, it’s Anne Boleyn. In the third - it’s Cromwell, and in the show's finale it’s Henry himself. If it went on for a few more seasons, I’d suspect that season five would have Edward VI and his untimely death (possibly with the storm that engulfed London on the night of his passing). Season six would Mary and the rise of Elizabeth. Then again, with a cast change, the narrative of Gloriana’s reign could go on and on. Plenty of historical drama for TV drama material. The show is called “The Tudors”, after all. Not “Henry VIII”.

So, let's go through the show in more detail...

Season one.

Henry VIII is a young king, with an appetite for war, sports and fine women. Somehow, Catherine of Aragon is already a forsaken spouse and we never see her husband having any affection for her whatsoever. Anne Boleyn is a permanent character from the pilot. In my opinion, it’s a great loss to the show - not to see Henry & Catherine’s happy marriage that actually lasted two decades…Battle of Flodden and Battle of the Spurs are once again not portrayed on screen and Henry's war experience does not actually make it into narrative until season four. The Boleyn men are once again portrayed as much too opportunistic, which doesn’t do justice to the real-life Thomas & George Boleyn. N.B. There's a very good book on those two by Lauren Mackay and here's a History Extra podcast on the Boleyns with Lauren.

Leicester Abbey where Wolsey died

Season one (and only season one) features Henry’s sister Margaret, who is an amalgamation of both his sisters: Margaret and Mary. The former was sent to Scotland to marry James IV and had a son James V, the future father of Mary Stewart Queen of Scots. Henry's sister Mary, on the other hand, went to marry the king of France, was widowed shortly after and hastily married Henry’s best friend, Charles Brandon, in 1515. The show's Margaret, goes on to marry the king of Portugal, kills her husband in cold blood, marries Charles Brandon and dies some time later but before the fall of Wolsey. All of this happens sometime in the late 1520’s. The real Mary Tudor lived to the ripe age of 37 and died just before Elizabeth I was born in 1533, leaving behind several children, one of whom would be the mother of Jane Grey. In the show we don’t see Margaret & Charles producing any children, yet at the end of the first series Charles does say that his orphaned son needs a mother. That son would also change his name at least once in the seasons to follow. In season two he is called ‘Edward’ and then in season four he becomes ‘Henry’. The first season feels like the first year of university: you’re grateful for the experience, yet it feels much boozier and vastly different to what follows.

The wine fountains were modelled on those at the Field of the Cloth of Gold

Season two. The second season, like most second seasons on television, is the juiciest one, and where the narrative really comes into its own stride (other examples - "Sherlock", “Buffy” & “Friends”). For this show it’s doubly so, because the second season of “The Tudors” covers the most famous historical character arc of all time - the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn. We also lose a lot of supporting characters of season one, e.g. the court composer Thomas Tallis, Henry’s friend Anthony Knivert and the Duke of Norfolk. They simply don’t come back and it’s never explained why. Archbishop Cranmer finally makes it into the show, but only for this one season. He is an offscreen character in series three and four. The character of Charles Brandon takes on an amalgamation of his own as he starts to moonlight as Norfolk where the plots needs him to.

Season two has the densest drama of the entire show. The demise of Sir Thomas More (which is portrayed truthfully to history, albeit with a compressed timeline) sets off Anne’s downfall and combined with the rise of Henry's daughter Mary, it all makes for nail-biting spectacle. The very events covered in this season is why we’re still so fascinated by this family half a millennium later.

Season three. The third series has a different feel to the ones gone before. Charles Brandon, gets another function in the narrative, i.e. being the ‘human’ counterpart to Henry VIII. We the audience start seeing England outside of the royal court as we witness some of the most brutal events of Henry’s reign. We see it through Brandon’s eyes (in season two that role fell to Thomas Wyatt, the court poet). The Pilgrimage of Grace, Jane Seymour’s death, Henry's mourning of Jane, Anne of Cleves’ arrival, divorce with Anne - all these give a slightly depressed and almost melancholic hue to the show. Then again, real Henry wasn't jolly during those years either. Katherine Howard's appearance and Thomas Cromwell’s death on the scaffold serve as the climax of this much-too-gritty season. Season three really shows Henry growing into the despot we know him to be.

Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire. One of many abbeys and religious houses that Henry VIII had disbanded.

Season four. The final season has Henry ageing by the episode. It seems like that, anyway. Katherine Howard and her love affair take up half the season, and once this royal telenovela is over (insert sound of an axe), the show immediately changes genres to ‘Saving Private Tudor’ with the siege of Boulogne. Henry marries again, and the opposing factions of the court - Catholic vs Protestant make for enough drama until the finale. As it was in real life.

Henry VIII and Katherine Howard stayed in Gainsborough

All in all, the show, is not without its flaws and has a lot of merit. It treats history with respect and despite being somewhat glammed up, it gives one an approximate feeling of how it was to live in those times and to be those people. I think the writer and creator Michael Hirst did a good job of creating new dialogue and within it, incorporating the famously (or infamously) said lines. “The Tudors” is a definite must for any royal history buff, and especially one looking for a good drama binge.

N.B. I've attended many a book event since the release of this show, and every time the author wanted to talk about Charles Brandon the Duke of Suffolk, they would always show a picture of Henry Cavill (who portrayed him in this series) in costume, apologising that the surviving portraits of the real Brandon do not really do him justice. No one ever seems to mind.

Where can you watch it? It is currently available on Amazon Prime and Starz App (in the UK), also on DVD and Blu-Ray.

How many seasons and episodes? Four seasons, thirty-eight episodes in total. Each season covers approximately five years of Henry's reign.

How long each episode? 47 - 56 minutes

My favourite/ most surprising moment? The show about the most quintessentially English Royal family there has ever been, that has a Welsh name (as 'Tudur' stems from Wales, still does), stars mainly Irish and Canadian actors (yes, some English, but very few) and was shot entirely in Ireland. This really makes you ponder. This fact is almost a tribute in itself to the world that the historical Tudors had left - the world of Empire, and the far-reaching English speaking world.

Years of Release? 2007 - 2011

Thoroughly recommend the book below, it's a great study of this show. Link to book here.

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