This sounded like an utterly ridiculous idea – presenting the six wives of Henry VIII as “sassy” 21st century pop/rock princesses, seriously?! – but it worked brilliantly (although rather better with the last three wives than with the first three wives)! My music collection has never got out of the 1980s so I can’t really comment on modern pop/rock 😉 , but it was very lively and entertaining. And, hey, there weren’t even any glaring historical inaccuracies – apart from annoyingly referring to “Britain” and “the UK” rather than “England”. It was really good. It bothered me slightly that the composers were born in 1994 – surely anyone who was born in 1994 has no business being out of nappies, never mind writing award-winning musicals?! – but I genuinely enjoyed it.
The idea was that the six wives were going to choose who should be the leader of their girl band by way of each one singing about what a hard time she had, and the winner being the one who’d had it worst. I know – it sounded like one of those awful ideas that teachers come up with because they think it’ll attract kids’ interest. Luckily, none of my history teachers ever made anyone sing. I was the kid who won the school history prize but was told that I had to mouth the words in music lessons because my singing was so bad that it was putting the other kids off, so that combination really would not have worked for me. Although one of the duo who wrote this studied history at university and then studied dance and musical theatre. It must be amazing to be multi-talented like that 🙂 .
But we never sang in history lessons. Nor did we try to relate history to the present day. That was a no-no. “Anachronistic” – a very bad thing to be. It does seem to be a trend now, though, and it can be quite annoying. There was a programme on the BBC last year, which was supposed to be about the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 theses. David Starkey, who really ought to know better, spent the entire time going on about Brexit. What on earth has Martin Luther got to do with Brexit? Very irritating. However, there’ve always been schools of historical interpretation which are closely connected with events at the time – the Whigs, the Marxists, etc – so the idea of a #MeToo interpretation of events, which I think was partly what this was meant to be, is fair enough.
As was pointed out, the six wives are largely remembered each as one of six, and only in relation to Henry, rather than as six individuals. On the other hand, everyone knows their names because there were six of them. People who aren’t particularly into history and wouldn’t be able to name the wives of any other English kings can recite the names of the six wives of Henry VIII with no trouble at all. And the rhyme. “Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived.” It’s not actually accurate, because the marriage to Catherine of Aragon was declared not to have been a marriage at all, and the marriage to Anne of Cleves was annulled, but anyway. It’s the best-known period in English history. Let the Whig historians talk about the importance of the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution: it’s the soap opera-esque appeal of a man with six wives (much more so than, you know, the Reformation!) that gets the attention.
I hate getting things out of chronological order, but I’m going to make an exception here, because the way that this presented the fourth, fifth and sixth wives was great, whereas I was less impressed with the presentation of the first three wives. Yes, all right, all right, it was done like that so that they could get a range of different styles of music in, and I was probably the only person in the audience who was trying to make it into a serious historical thing; but I’m just like that.
Anne of Cleves, then. I loved this! At school, I was taught that Anne of Cleves was “the Flanders mare”, the one whom Henry sent packing because she was ugly. It was only later that I found out that – to be fair, I suppose they can’t really tell you this at school – what probably happened was that Henry wasn’t up to the job and tried to blame it on Anne’s physical appearance. And there was no need to try to modernise this story, because it really is a story for the 2010s. Henry decided to marry Anne (well, apart from her dowry, and the fact that no other foreign princess would have him) after seeing the overly flattering portrait of her painted by Holbein, and then claimed that he’d been tricked and that she looked nothing like it. Yep. Just like all those profile pics on Facebook or Tinder or Grindr or whatever, which have either been photoshopped or else show the person when they were younger and possibly slimmer. Then he totally humiliated her by broadcasting this to the whole of Europe. Poor Anne.
What you aren’t usually told is that, once the marriage had been annulled, Anne of Cleves was treated as if she were the king’s sister. She got to lead the luxurious life of a senior member of the royal family without having to put up with Henry, the pressure to produce an heir, or the fear of losing her head as soon as Henry’s eye began to wander. She probably got the best deal of the lot. And that is exactly how it came across in SIX. Hooray!
Next up, Catherine Howard – the one who’s usually presented as a silly little tart. If the story of Anne of Cleves is a story for the social media age, the story of Catherine Howard is very much a #MeToo story. She was a pretty young girl, taken advantage of by older men, and pushed into the arms of the king by her ambitious male relatives. OK, it was incredibly stupid of her to have an affair after she was actually married to Henry, but she was looking for affection – and, by then, she’d been made to feel that this was all she was, someone whom men wanted, and only wanted for one thing. I’m not sure that an Ariana Grande hairdo really fitted with her sad story, but it’s a story that is very ripe for re-telling through 21st century eyes.
And then Catherine Parr. There are opinion polls about all sorts around these days, but I’ve never seen one asking which of Henry VIII’s wives is people’s favourite! Catherine Parr is mine. My one big quibble with her is her appalling taste in men. Thomas Seymour. No, no, no! Her song seemed as if it was all going to be a tale of woe about how she’d had arranged marriages to older men and then, just as she and Thomas had got together, Henry decided he wanted to marry her. Marks for historical accuracy, OK, but all so negative! But then, hooray, there was a second part to the song, all about how she was very well-educated and she wrote books and promoted female authors and artists. Yay!! That’s why she’s my favourite of the six!
And I think we owe Catherine a huge debt for the role she played in Elizabeth’s education. I’m just going to do a bit of a David Starkey here, sorry, and say how much we could do with Elizabeth at the moment! She had to cope with two rival factions, both of whom wanted everything (Reformation-wise, in her case) all their own way and seemed to show very little respect for other people’s opinions. She had people trying to overthrow her – and, in her case, we’re talking imprisonment and probably execution, not just being replaced as party leader. Hostility from Europe? Philip II of Spain sent an Armada to try to invade her country, and the Pope pretty much said that people had a divine duty to assassinate her.
Makes those idiots in Brussels look like pussy cats by comparison. And she was probably the greatest ruler this country’s ever had. I’m just saying!
Back to the beginning. Catherine of Aragon. Everyone knows this bit, and it rings true in every period of history. Man dumps his loyal wife of many years, to go off with someone younger and sexier. Catherine is eternally cast as the wronged wife, Anne as the other woman. It’s really interesting that, even though the Tudors were masters of propaganda, and it certainly didn’t suit Henry VIII for Catherine to be cast as a saint and martyr, nor Elizabeth for Anne to be seen as the baddie, this is the image that’s come down through the centuries. Catherine’s song was the full sob story – shipped off to marry Arthur, widowed very young, treated very badly during her widowhood, then the loyal, loving, pious wife, dumped by Henry, separated from her only surviving child, all the children she lost. Yes, that’s all true.
But, if we were doing “sassy”, couldn’t we have got the other side of Catherine in there as well? She was very much Ferdinand and Isabella’s daughter. She masterminded Flodden Field, whilst Henry was messing about in Flanders. She sent him James IV of Scotland’s bloodied surcoat, and I always get the impression that she’d quite like to have sent him James’s dead body as well. She was a tough cookie. She must have been, or else she’d have trotted off to a nunnery and let Henry and Anne get on with it. Does even the #MeToo generation have to present her as nothing more than the wronged wife dumped for a younger model?
Then Anne Boleyn. What was going on here?! She had a Bjork hairdo. And spoke and sang like a chav. I think she was actually meant to come across like a bored millennial,who was never off her mobile phone, but she did actually just come across as a chav. Bjork, chav, Anne Boleyn … er, no, me neither! The song also made her come across as being a bit thick and a victim of events. No! That was Catherine Howard! I suppose at least they didn’t show her as a conniving tart who betrayed the sisterhood by stealing another woman’s husband, because it’s very unfair how history’s tended to do that – Anne, far from setting out to attract the king, wanted to marry Henry Percy, and was in an impossible position once Henry became interested in her – but she was anything but thick.
I know, I know! It was probably just about what fitted with different songs. And the same with Jane Seymour. She got a love song – and I suppose that was because they had to have a love song in there somewhere, because we all like a bit of soppy music. But the song was about how Jane really loved Henry, and she was sad because she knew that the idea that she was the one he really loved only came about because she was the one who produced the son, and how sad it was that she and her son never knew each other because she died of childbirth fever. The bits about Henry and Edward were true enough, but does anyone really think that Jane genuinely loved Henry? I’m not keen on the Stepford Wife image of her, either. I do think that she was a genuinely nice person, and I like the fact that she tried to reconcile him with both his daughters, but I also think that she was clever enough to know that, after what had happened to Anne Boleyn, her best bet was to keep her head down and her mouth shut, not that she was someone who didn’t have the guts to do anything else.
I seem to have done a lot of moaning there. Well, I do about the way they showed the first three wives, anyway! I take things too seriously. Sorry!! But it was really entertaining – the music was great, even for those of us who are so out of touch that we can’t name a single song in the current top 40 (even though we can recognise most top ten songs from the second half of the 1980s just from listening to the first few beats) . And the point about the need to think of these six women as six individuals is a quite serious and genuine historical point. Also, this has the potential to reach an audience which historical novels or documentaries on BBC 4, however interesting, probably won’t. There were a lot of kids there. I really hope that they all went home and rushed to read up on the Tudors. OK, they probably didn’t, but I can hope! And, on a very wet and windy December evening, this was great entertainment, and it also made you think. I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it, but I did 🙂 .