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The Six Wives of Henry VIII (Miniseries, 1970)
The rhyme goes something like this: Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived. It is, of course, talking of the fate of Henry VIII's six wives. There is so much more to each of these women than their fates, and it is this the BBC minseries The Six Wives of Henry VIII explores.
The series first aired in 1970, so don't expect today's production values. In fact, it was produced on a shoestring budget. But who can make the shoestring go further than the BBC? Honestly, I can't think of any TV network that could compare. BBC costume dramas are thought of as among the best, if not the best in the world and for a good reason.
This hub will explore the series in some detail. If you don't want spoilers then don't read on. Otherwise here's my take on this landmark series, which still has a reputation almost 40 years after its production as one of the best miniseries made, and the best miniseries dealing with Henry VIII. It isn't perfect, but it is remarkable all the same.
There are six episodes for six wives. Each episode has its own writer and own style. This works well in some episodes, but in others the story ends up being disjointed. This is especially true in the case of the first two episodes. The stories of Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn overlap. They can't help but do so, after all it was when Henry found himself caught between these two determined women, that the history of religion in England turned on its head.
But let's discuss all of the episodes in more detail:
Catherine of Aragon - Written by Rosemary Ann Sisson
The writer of this episode chose to skip over Catherine's early life, and her marriage of Arthur, Prince of Wales. Instead, when we see her for the first time, she has been a widow for years. She is in desperate straits: she has very few funds, and the Spanish Ambassador is shown as being less than effectual in his dealings with Henry VII in getting him to release funds for her to keep house. Through all of this we see Catherine determined to stick it out: she has a destiny, to be Queen, and she has faith that it will happen.
Eventually everything comes good, and Henry VII dies, and she becomes Queen by marrying his son. Her faith and determination has won the day. The couple are shown as happy and carefree and in love. Even with the death of a son, and the death of other children.
Then, the whole story inexplicably skips to later in the reign. Henry is older and in love with another woman. Henry demands a divorce, quoting Leviticus. Again, we see Catherine's determination to hold on to what she sees as her destiny, while it all falls apart around her.
I enjoyed a lot of this episode, but found the skip in time disconcerting. I thought the writer would have been better off showing us more of the marriage, and why it fell apart like it did. What was really lacking was Catherine's motivations, other than the obvious. The jump in time is made at the expense of layering the characters. Also, part of the story was inevitably taken over by the rise of Anne Boleyn. This had the effect of splitting the point of view between three characters, whether that was intended or not. While this had to happen eventually, I think it would have been more effective as part of Anne's story.
Overall, a good episode, but shaky in parts.
Anne Boleyn - Written by Nick McCarty
The choices taken on which part of the story to tell in Catherine of Aragon's episode necessarily limited the story in Anne's. Because of this, we really miss out on the most interesting part of Anne's life, and the events which could have best illuminated her personality.Instead, the story begins with her wedding and seeming triumph over Catherine of Aragon.
The first third of the episode shows the intrigues at court, and the part that Anne played in them. It also illuminates how fast things go out of control. Anne, who had staked her case on the invalidity of Catherine's marriage, based on the fact that Henry had no living sons with her, finds herself in the same situation: one healthy daughter and a string of stillborn sons.What is worse is Anne is portrayed as tempestuous and manipulative, with many enemies and few friends outside her closest relatives.
The next two thirds of the episode is concerned with Anne's downfall. Here, we do see some of her backbone, and her willingness to fight. Still, it is not enough to make up for the portrayal at the beginning.
I liked but didn't love this episode. In my opinion the writer picked the wrong moment to pick up the story of Anne Boleyn, and the rest of the episode suffered because of it. That's not to say that the story is not enjoyable to watch, because it is. I do wish we could have seen more than Anne, the shrew, though.
Jane Seymour - written by Ian Thorne
I have to admit up front that Jane Seymour has never really interested in me. Most historians skim over her, and what they do say about her is the tale of a submissive woman. She gave the king an heir, she died and he mourned. The end. I was surprised, then, to find that this episode held my attention far more than the previous one on Anne Boleyn.
The writer has chosen to frame this episode around her death, and we see her memories from the time she came to Henry's attention. She is meek, yes, and does not have much to say for herself. Picking Anne Stallybrass to play her was inspired casting. She managed to make Jane into something more. Jane is portrayed as calm on the surface with deep passions lying underneath, and it is this that Henry was first attracted to. She is an oasis of calm in the storm created by Anne Boleyn.
We see, almost as if it were a dream how the marriage unfolds, with affection on both sides. It's a much different account than I was expecting. This sympathetic account of Jane makes her something more, and that alone makes it worth the cost of admission. This episode is well worth watching, and along with the one on Anne of Cleves, the best of the series.
Anne of Cleves - written by Jean Morris
This episode was a breath of fresh air after the drama of the last three. Historically, the six month marriage of Henry to Anne of Cleves didn't really make a mark. Not much is really known about the erstwhile Anne, except that according to Henry she wasn't attractive, and she was naïve beyond today's comprehension.
This episode was written with two premises in mind that I can see: What if Anne was not as naïve as history has cast her, and what if she was as repulsed by Henry as he was by her? Put the two together and we have the most comic episode of the series. In fact, without going into too much detail, the wedding night scene in the King's chamber is worth the price of admission alone.
Anne of Cleves is well aware of her own shortcomings; she is not musical, knows little of the ways of the English court, and is perhaps not as comely as Henry's other wives. She does have one thing in her favour: a political acumen, and she's not afraid to use it. Especially once she first encounters the mighty Henry. Anne manipulates herself out of the marriage, and in doing so I found myself laughing at her manoeuvres. When, eventually, she becomes the "King's beloved sister", it is a triumph rather than a defeat.
Evi Hale as Anne is well cast. Her timing is excellent and she plays off well against Keith Michell as Henry. If you are willing to set your preconceptions of what Anne might have been like aside, then I think you'll enjoy this episode immensely.
Clip from Catherine Howard
Catherine Howard - written by Beverley Cross
We know very little about the real Catherine Howard, except for her indiscretions. She was young when she died, and because of her affairs, very little has been written about her. Overall, historically, we are given the impression of a dizzy teenager, who was too immature to be Queen, and none too indiscreet.
The writer of this episode layers on that, and tells the tale of the manipulator and the manipulated. We are shown how Catherine was manipulated, and how she in turn manipulated others. Unfortunately she did not have the consummate skill of the previous Queen, and her affairs were too easy to discover for her to hide them.
Needless to say, the Duke of Norfolk is very prominent here, and he is seen as the power behind the throne figuratively and literally. It is he, after careful evaluation, who decides to bring Catherine to prominence, and he dangles her in front of the king. Meanwhile Catherine is trying her hardest to hide her past. Not even Norfolk knows about her past life, and she ends up having to buy off courtiers who know the truth.
What's even worse is that Catherine has married an old man. He can't compare to the young men she has already had. She has an affair, and goes to far. The house of cards comes tumbling down.
If the truth be known, I had a lot of trouble being sympathetic to Catherine's plight here. She comes across as a manipulative shrew. She knows precisely what she is doing, but doesn't have the intelligence of her cousin Anne Boleyn. What you see on the surface is all that there is of Catherine. When she goes to the scaffold I was almost relieved.
A good episode, but not my favourite of the series by a long shot.
Catherine Parr - written by John Pebble
What is one to do after beheading a wife? Marry another woman, of course. But do ensure that she is a sober and devout woman. Henry did this before when he beheaded Anne Boleyn and married Jane Seymour. He does it again here when he marries Catherine Parr after beheading Catherine Howard. I would go so far to say that Catherine Parr is so devout she should have been a nun.
Just to give you an example of how sober Catherine is: on their wedding night, as Henry waits not too patiently in bed, Catherine tries to nurse him, and then sits down to read her book of devotions. You have to wonder how someone, who has been married twice before, even if it was to older men, could not understand that her timing was just a little bit out. But here you have it: what gets Catherine into the most trouble here is religion. She is devoted to the reformed religion, much more than her husband who is the head of that said religion. It almost causes her downfall, and it is only because she has both friends as well as enemies, that she is able to counter the plot against her.
She outlives her husband, and then finds herself in another bind. The writer had decided it was not Henry who arranged for Thomas Seymour to leave court it was Catherine. By the time Henry dies he is once again in court, and it is he who manipulates her into marriage with him. The reason is that this is the only way to ensure continued influence over his children. What most historians see as a love match is here reduced to no more than a bribe.
I liked this episode. The intrigue surrounding Catherine's devotion was done well. Her dealings with Henry as she tried to nurse him rather than be his wife was delightfully done. The only thing that really jarred with me was how Thomas Seymour was handled. It didn't quite ring as true, especially the ending. It is still well worth watching this episode despite this, though.
So what did I think?
I couldn't end this off without a tribute to Keith Michell. His portrayal of Henry is a joy to watch. He starts off as being the 17 year old starry eyed prince, who will soon become King. Michell shows us his joy in marrying Catherine of Aragon, and how carefree they were. Through each successive wife he is layered under more prosthesis, as Henry gets fatter and older. This could have taken away from his performance, but it does not. Instead, Mitchell uses the make up to his advantage, and we see the tyrant who has replaced the carefree prince.
While the series is about the wives, for obvious reasons, it is only Keith Michell who is in every episode, and he is Henry. A tour-de-force, no doubt.
This series, overall, is almost like separate stage plays, each devoted to a wife. The effect is that there is a different tone for each episode. Today you would see a continuity of tone from episode to episode, in order to retain similar production values. Not here, and it works well. Instead we see each wife as something completely different, and their stories have their own flavour. Naturally enough some episodes work better than others, but overall this series deserves all the accolades it has received over the years.