I wasn’t going to bother with this, partly because it annoys me that the BBC have decided to make yet another series about the reign Henry VIII rather than choosing one of the umpteen fascinating monarchs whose lives and times are relatively little-known, and partly because Lucy Worsley does my head in. However, I’m watching it anyway!
The idea of the programme is to focus on Henry’s six wives, rather than on Henry, and to try to dispel some of the myths around them; and that’s why I’m watching it, because they’ve all – with the possible exception of Catherine Howard – got the wrong image!
Catherine of Aragon is seen as a tragic figure, an embittered figure or both, and her political role, particularly the fact that she was the one in charge at the time of Flodden Field, tends to be ignored, and even the fact that her marriage to Henry was so long, and for many years happy, is overlooked, because the focus is all on the way it ended.
Anne Boleyn is the hated other woman, the sexy younger woman who stole a loyal, loving wife’s husband. However, whilst she doesn’t come across as being particularly likeable, she didn’t go after Henry: he went after her. Anne wanted to marry Harry Percy, heir to the Earldom of Northumberland. They were actually engaged. There was also talk of her marrying into the Fitzgerald family (Earls of Desmond). She certainly didn’t set out to catch Henry. But people always have to blame the woman! It’s the same with Wallis Simpson, who “pinched our king”. Did Wallis want Edward VIII to abdicate? Did she ever, for one minute, expect that when she became his mistress that he’d end up giving up the throne for her? Of course she didn’t. It’s not even just with the actual relationships – Henrietta Maria, Marie Antoinette and Alexandra Feodorovna all get blamed for the political crises of their husbands’ reigns. Gah! Anyway, going back to Anne, she was a very intelligent woman – and she also had strong Protestant leanings, whereas it’s Jane Seymour who’s seen as “the Protestant Queen”, which is ridiculous because Jane’s religious ideas were much more conservative.
I’m hoping – and expecting – that Lucy will try to dispel the idea that Jane was a doormat, because I don’t think she was: I think she had far more common sense than Anne Boleyn, and realised that her best bet was to keep her head down. And I think people also forget that she brought about a reconciliation between Henry and Mary.
Then there’s Anne of Cleves, who’s very unfairly seen as the ugly one, “the Flanders mare”. Cleves isn’t even in Flanders! And she wasn’t ugly at all – Henry just didn’t want to admit that he couldn’t manage to do the job on their wedding night, so blamed Anne! And things didn’t work out too badly for her. She was given the status of “the King’s sister”, and treated accordingly. All right, it wasn’t ideal, but it was probably a lot better than being married to Henry would have been.
Catherine Howard … well, OK, everyone knows the story of what Catherine and her lover allegedly got up to in the royal toilet! But I think she deserves some sympathy. She was very young, Henry was a nightmare to live with by then, and she could hardly have gone back and changed what she’d done long before she could ever have dreamt of becoming Queen.
And then there’s Catherine Parr, arguably the most interesting of the six. She tends to be viewed as the saintly nurse. Poor Catherine – she’d been married off twice to much older men, and she was all set to marry dashing, good-looking Thomas Howard, with whom she was madly in love, when Henry cast his eye on her and she had to marry him instead. And she came very close to meeting the same fate as Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, something that tends to be forgotten. She was the Protestant Queen, not Jane Seymour. She was brilliantly intelligent and well-educated, and she even had her writings published at a time when it was very rare for works by a woman to make it into print. And is it really likely that the Queen would have been solely responsible for dressing Henry’s horrible smelly ulcerated leg, oozing with pus? Probably not.
So, OK, maybe there is more to say about Henry VIII’s wives, although I’d still rather have seen a programme about a different era. But does the programme have to be presented in such a ridiculous way? What is this stupid obsession with Lucy Worsley dressing up in period costume? It’d be fine for a programme aimed at primary school kids, but it’s just cringeworthy in a programme which is going out on BBC 1 at 9pm. Dressing up as a maid in “the story”. Lurking around by doors, going “Psst …” like a scene from ‘Allo ‘Allo? It’s an insult to viewers’ intelligence! And you would think that Lucy might view it as an insult to her intelligence as well. Can you imagine David Starkey dressing up as one of Henry’s pages or Gentlemen of the Bedchamber? Please, enough of this! I don’t think anyone wants to go back to the days when historical documentaries involved a man in a suit sitting behind a desk in a darkened room, but could we lose the stupid dressing up stuff, and the general silly jolly hockey sticks way of putting things? It’s just embarrassing!