The events surrounding the Tudor and Elizabethan dynasties are world famous. There aren’t many people who would not be able to recount the lives of Henry VIII and his Six Wives or the relatively peaceful reign of Elizabeth I. The stories have become so well known that they have become just that: stories. They have almost been forgotten as real, historical figures and events, and instead become two-dimensional caricatures. Most people would recognise the famous paintings of the King and Queen. Elizabeth I has become synonymous with huge ruffs and ginger hair, whereas Henry VIII was immortalised as an aging King by Holbein. One thing that particularly struck me as we were walking round Hampton Court were the two opposing ideas of Henry VIII as explored in the ‘Young Henry’ exhibition. The first is of King Henry as an aging, fat, syphilitic, misogynist who beheaded his wives on a whim; the second is of the young, fit Prince Henry who made difficult decisions based on a fear of civil war.
There have been many films that tell the story of Henry III, most of which present Henry as the bearded, fat monster. Interestingly, it wasn’t until recently that Hollywood began to toy with the idea as Henry as a younger King. With the creation of The Tudors and The Other Boleyn Girl depicting Henry as an attractive and irresistible young man, audiences have started to understand Henry more as a ‘real’ man, rather than a removed, historical King. By casting younger, sexier actors Henry’s humanity is able to be explored, with the added benefit of opening the history to a much younger audience. Eric Bana, Henry in The Other Boleyn Girl, was 40 when he played him, more or less the age Henry was when he first met Anne Boleyn. However, The Tudors cast Jonathon Rhys Meyers who was ten years younger than Henry suggesting that the producers prioritised Henry’s sexuality over anything else.
By portraying Henry in a more positive light, the audience can begin to understand the psyche of the King as a man with human fear and desire. Meyers states that he is playing a King desperate to keep the country stable. Although he may have appeared cruel by divorcing and beheading his wives, he was only tyrannical because of his fears of what would happen after his death without a male heir. It was this desperation of fear that led him to act as he did. Henry and Katherine had a relatively happy marriage for sixteen years before he met Anne Boleyn and the reality hit him that he might not be able to have more (male) children (and heirs) with his aging Queen. For Henry, Anne represented more than sex and passion – she was young and was more likely to be able to conceive the prince Henry needed in order to secure the throne.
It could be suggested that the modern portrayals of a highly sexualised Henry as can be seen as cheapening history. But if nothing else, the sexier portrayals of the Tudor dynasty will introduce, and help sustain the interest in, the most famous royal family in English history to a new generation of historians and literary scholars.