Toward the final moments of the series finale of The Tudors (Showtime’s original series on the reign of Henry VIII of England), Henry is appraising the final portrait of himself in his chapel when a sparrow enters through a window in the background, flies unnoticed across the room to the window opposite, and exits. This detail might seem unimportant – or even accidental – were it not for the opening scene of the episode, in which a single white horse gallops through a grove of trees to the sound of Henry’s voice paraphrasing the English historian Bede:
When we compare the present life of man on earth to that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall…on a winter’s day. After a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing.
The quote comes from Bede’s religious history of the English people written in the eighth century, and it is especially revealing of Henry’s main preoccupation throughout the four seasons of the show: his own mortality. Indeed, it was Henry’s reverence and even fear of the brevity of life, and the utter mystery of what will follow (and not lust for Anne Boleyn, as is often supposed), that primarily motivated his initiation of the “great matter,” a break with the Roman Catholic Church and the beginnings of the English Reformation.
History does not exist in a vacuum. One of the limitations of historical dramas is that they must find a place to begin their action, a place which is never the beginning of the story. The Tudors is no different. The series opens with Henry as a young man, handsome and fit (and played with intensity by Jonathan Rhys Myers). He excels in athletics, drinking, war, and politics, and is popular with women – whom he frequently seduces despite his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He opens the series as an arrogant, selfish, ambitious, and yet extremely pious young man, who suddenly, due to a near-death experience near the middle of the first season, begins to fear his own mortality and obsess over the matter of producing a male heir.
What the series fails to explain is that Henry’s fear was rooted in his past. As a boy, he had watched his father’s violent rise to the throne through a war of succession known as the “War of the Roses.” He knew full well the price that could be paid was not a full and legitimate succession secured by the bearing of male children. It is this fear, and not his lust (which, make no mistake, was still considerable) that caused him to initiate his divorce from Catherine and consider a break from Rome on the issue of the marriage.
There are also a number of things that are left out in the treatment, such as Pope Clement VII’s fear of the Holy Roman Emperor (who had recently sacked Rome and had imprisoned the Pope) which largely influenced his decision to deny Henry an annulment to Catherine – the Emperor’s aunt. Catherine had been previously married to Henry’s older brother Arthur, who had died young. Citing Leviticus 20:21, Henry believed that his marriage to Catherine was cursed and unlawful because she had been his brother’s wife. This conflict, the authority of the Pope versus the authority of the Bible, was one of the main tenents of the Reformation. A storm begins to brew.
But television shows are not primarily about historical instruction. They are about entertainment and, every now and then, artistic expression. The Tudors succeeds at both. The first thing one notices when watching the series is the lush cinematography. London in the 16th century has never looked better, with deep colors that do not reflect the melancholy of the weather or the rather bleak living conditions of the time. It is a medieval London reimagined, and that is fine with me. The cinematography (along with the haunting score by Trevor Morris) bring an immediacy to the action and a deep resonance to many of the period sets and costumes. Besides, the characters have no time for stepping over the various diseases and filth of a bleak 16th century London; they are too occupied with sex, power, and especially political intrigue.
There is a temptation in contemporary society to assume that things were simpler “back in the day” than they are now. People were more moral, politics less corrupt, and moral dilemmas less complex. The Tudors illustrates just how untrue this is. Much of it plays like a soap opera– kings making treaties with other kings and breaking them for paltry reasons of ego, queens executed because of alleged affairs with their own brothers, Popes sending secret assassins, and men burned alive for subtleties of Christian theology that most in contemporary society have no knowledge (or care) about.
What is shocking about The Tudors is that some of these things are true. Indeed, after a number of episodes, I found myself going to Wikipedia to find evidence that the bizarre action I had just seen was not made up by the show’s writers. As it happened, the more outlandish the occurrence, the more likely that it actually took place. So much for the good ol’ days.
And yet another strength of the show is that while it is able to show us people and situations that we find bizarre, we are also able to connect with the characters and the action in a profound way. It is absolutely foreign to watch men revere Henry in the way that they do, to give him the benefit of the doubt, and for there to be so few checks on his power. Don’t these people know that absolute power corrupts absolutely? Haven’t they heard of checks and balances? Of separation of church and state?
Apparently not. But for every bit of the show that is foreign and strange, we are able to see ourselves in the plight of the English 16th century. People were living in a time of immense uncertainty– politically and religiously. The characters watch the seismic changes occurring on the continent; they try to control them, and are ultimately swept away by the force of change. The United States may not have witnessed revolution on the scale of the Reformation in the past generation, but we are no strangers to forces for change over which we have little control. Henry tries to navigate his country through wars and revolutions. In the end, he brings about changes he did not anticipate and that he cannot control. And always lurking behind him is the shadow of his past, the mystery of death, and the fear of being forgotten in this world.
Perhaps this is the reason that The Tudors is so significant. It illustrates several very important points to contemporary America.
First: Henry is us and we are Henry. America today enjoys a level of privilege and power in the world that has never before been seen. America is intensely religious, and yet has a hard time balancing the very role religion should play in politics; should belief control our laws or should our laws control belief? America is also haunted by our past, and insecure about our place in the world presently and in the future.
The irony is that the United States owes much of its history, traditions, and thought to none other than Henry VIII himself. Max Weber reminds us that it was the rise of Protestantism that largely brought about both democracy and capitalism in the first place – democracy as a result of the Protestant focus on the responsibility of the individual, and capitalism on the resulting ethos of hard work and thrift on which capitalism relies. Also, we must not forget, the original American colonies were founded by English Protestant explorers – Puritans in New England and Anglicans in the South. Indeed, Virginia, the first colony in the nation, is named for “The Virgin Queen” Elizabeth I, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Both camps were devoutly Protestant, and the societies they formed, and the eventual formation of the larger United States, were based largely on philosophy and religious reform of Henry’s era.
But it was not revolution or creating nations that motivated Henry. It was honor, love, self, and fear. He had neither the foresight to understand what he was creating nor the power to control it. In the end, Henry VIII will be remembered by history for his numerous wives, for the way in which they died, for the revolution he accidentally began, and for the ego which led him to think he had much control over any of it.
And yet providence is gentle, and even this man’s sins helped create the wonderful American experiment, and the freedom of worship that has been so important to so many in the generations that followed him. If for no other reason than these, we owe him our thanks. And we owe it to The Tudors as well, for acting as a reminder.