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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

17 October 2007

“I’m Henry VIII, I am, I am”—or not! The Book of Tudor-onomy


I’m one of those people who tends to go a bit nuts when Hollywood plays fast and loose with history in the name of entertainment. If those producers and screenwriters actually read the real history of the characters they are portraying, they’d probably discover that the truth is at least as fascinating as the fiction.

As a hoyden, I know I’m sort of preaching to the choir, but I’ve recently discovered that my research for the ROYAL AFFAIRS nonfiction book on 900 years of Britain’s most scandalous liaisons has “spoiled me” even more than I already thought I was. So many movie versions, particularly of those usual suspects, Henry VIII and his daughter by Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I, are (I find) cringe-worthy for their lack of respect for historical accuracy.

We’ve covered this territory before; there will always be those who feel that one should never let the truth interfere with telling a good story. I’m just one of those people who emphatically believes that the truth already IS a good story.

My crazy deadline has so far prevented me from seeing Cate Blanchett’s redux as the Virgin Queen, but one premise of her new film, Elizabeth: the Golden Age, seems to be a torrid romance with Sir Walter Raleigh.


How can I put this nicely: I know I wasn’t there, but—it didn’t happen. Not the way Hollywood is currently depicting it, if the commercials are any indication of the heat to come off Clive Owen’s open shirts. Elizabeth openly flirted with Raleigh, as a way of getting back at her “bonny sweet Robin,” Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, who had moved on after decades of rejection. Yes, that much has been documented. But here’s why they didn’t sleep together, or were intimate enough for Raleigh to have anything to hold over the queen:

Her personal aversion to the institution aside, marriage presented a minefield of obstacles. Most foreign princes were Catholic and Elizabeth staunchly refused to renounce her own religion and would have preferred it if a Catholic husband were to embrace her own. That was never going to happen. In an age where a woman was legally her husband’s property and subject to his every whim, how could a regnant queen permit the tables to turn on her and be ruled by a husband, who would by law end up the decision-maker while she was relegated to the role of consort, shut out of Parliamentary and Privy Council meetings? It was unthinkable.

If she married a foreign prince, England would end up a vassal to his crown, subsumed into the Hapsburg or Holy Roman Empire, or become a satellite of Spain or France. Her duty was to England and such a marriage would sacrifice her country and her people. Not only that, she did not want the sort of domestically unnatural marriage her sister Mary had endured, with her husband spending the better part of time in his native Spain ruling his own kingdom. How was Elizabeth to find a man who was noble and powerful enough to be the husband of a ruling queen, and who was willing to reside in her kingdom and adopt her religion, even as political and dynastic concerns dictated that she should broker a diplomatic match that would unite countries and religions, thereby avoiding military conflicts at home and abroad?

Elizabeth witnessed the anger of the British subjects at Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain; it was sleeping with the enemy. She could not afford to make a similar mistake.

And if she were to look closer to home and marry an Englishman, there were few who were wellborn enough to be an appropriate match and any union would create factions and infighting among her nobles, tearing apart the fabric of her realm.

Elizabeth and her various flirtations (Leicester, Essex, Raleigh) were “lovers” in the old-fashioned, high-flown style of courtly love. What physical intimacy passed between them—and Elizabeth, though ostensibly a virgin, always had an amorous and flirtatious disposition—was only of the most innocuous variety. No matter how head over heels she seemed, Elizabeth was a canny politician. She would never allow any man the power over her that would come with having her sexually. This is the key. She was adamant that no man master her, particularly after experiencing the way her own father treated his queens, and particularly her mother. Aside from carnal possession of the body, imagine the gossip, the bribes, the backstairs deals that could be made, from destroying her reputation. A man might cat around then, but a woman NEVER could do so without loss of reputation (which was everything then). And most certainly the unmarried queen of the realm could never allow herself to be in the vulnerable position where a lover might reveal (under any number of situations) the extent of their relationship.


Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester; Elizabeth I's favorite

The other night, Turner Classic Movies broadcasted the 1953 Young Bess, starring a very petite and kittenish-looking Jean Simmons (who doesn’t resemble Elizabeth in the slightest), Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr, and Charles Laughton. Although this film gets points from me for nailing a lot of little historical details (such as Henry VIII’s question to Cranmer, his Archbishop of Canterbury, "How’s your wife?”), its main premise—a passionate romance between young Elizabeth and Thomas Seymour—didn’t exactly happen the way Hollywood projected it.

Lord Admiral Thomas Seymour was the brother of the Protector of the realm, Edward Seymour, the regent for little Edward VI. Thomas married Henry VIII’s sixth wife, Catherine Parr, after she became widowed. He had always loved her and had hoped to wed her, when the king’s eye lighted on her and he had to gracefully step aside.

Thomas Seymour

By the way, at least in the beginning of Young Bess, Catherine Parr's character (Deborah Kerr) is given the brain she actually had, and the screenwriter got his facts down pretty well. The author of at least one devotional work, Catherine’s intellectual accomplishments were rare for her day; she was one of only seven early-Tudor-era females to be a published author. Her first book, printed in November, 1545, went through nineteen editions during the sixteenth century.

But her spirited sparring with Henry over the hot-button political issues of the day nearly cost her her head. Literally hours from being arrested on charges of treason for her political and religious opinions, Catherine discovered the warrant when it accidentally fell from the pocket of a councilor’s robe. Her hysterics brought the ailing Henry’s doctor to her chamber; he persuaded the queen to muster every shred of dignity and immediately appeal to the king, begging his forgiveness.

Catherine saved herself only by putting a quick and clever spin on her words, playing the weak-and-feeble-brained-female who needed schooling by her worldly husband—explaining that she took an opposite view to Henry’s in order to reinvigorate the ailing king’s mind, giving him the chance to exercise his mental faculties by rebutting her.

“Is that so, sweetheart?” Henry asked her. No doubt, Catherine’s head nodded vigorously.

"Then we are perfect friends again,” he added.

Catherine Parr, Henry VIII's sixth wife

Catherine Parr and Thomas Seymour housed the real young Bess after Henry’s death in 1547. Elizabeth was only fourteen at the time. Seymour behaved very inappropriately with her, coming into her room when she was in her nightgown and tickling her, and it caused a rift with Catherine, who at first joined Thomas, thinking it was all good clean fun, but then realized that her husband had more sexual thoughts about their young charge. In real life, Seymour was thinking about matrimony (or something slightly less noble), but Elizabeth was not, even though she might have harbored a crush on the older man -- or -- was thoroughly disgusted by his advances and his opportunism, coupled with a lack of sensitivity to his supposedly beloved Catherine.

But in the Technicolor Young Bess, our little spitfire princess (who looks quite the grown young lady -- most definitely not a coltish adolescent) is the aggressor.

In Young Bess, Charles Laughton reprised the role he played more than twenty years earlier, as the title character in the 1932 classic, The Private Life of Henry VIII. I remembered loving that movie through a haze of nostalgia, but when I watched it again last week, I found myself laughing all the way through it—starting with one of the title cards that tells the viewers that the Catherine of Aragon story isn’t interesting, so they’re going to skip it (!!) to the wives’ and waiting women’s very "period" (if the period is the early-1930s) marcelled hair. And Catherine Parr is depicted as a dour and humorless, nagging nanny -- another (mistaken) image that has been handed down to us by Hollywood. For starters, Catherine was only thirty-two years old when she married Henry (which was not considered particularly "old" in Tudor times).

In both The Private Life of Henry VIII and Young Bess, we get the impeccable Laughton chewing the scenery with as much gusto as the turkey legs he tosses over his shoulder. This image of greasy-fingered gourmandizing has been handed down to us by Hollywood, not by history.

Guess what? Didn’t happen.

A hallmark of Henry’s court was its cleanliness and its emphasis on chivalric behavior, fine manners, and the precepts of courtly love—the last of which often served as an excuse for adultery rather than platonic, poetic pining for the unattainable female. A stickler for hygiene, Henry would never have permitted a courtier to toss a half-devoured turkey leg over his shoulder, nor would the king have ever done so himself. Foul stenches were chased away as quickly as possible. There were even restrictions on house pets because of the mess they made. And Henry was notoriously fastidious about the cleanliness of his own person and that of his wives and lovers. In fact, he was so repulsed by his fourth wife Anne of Cleves’s rank body odor and filthy undergarments that he could not even get an erection.

I’ll leave everyone with that thought—which almost makes it into The Private Life of Henry VIII.

How do you feel when you watch a movie where the treatment of key plot points or the characters bear little resemblance to the actual facts and personages? Do you give yourself over entirely to the premise of the film and the characterizations, or does the history hoyden in you make you want to hurl your popcorn at the screen?

19 Comments:

Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Fascinating Amanda -- why don't you write this up for the NYT? In this day and age when so much can be so easily misrepresented, I think your point should be made to a bigger audience. It definitely fits into a larger context.

I have no interest in seeing BECOMING JANE because of the way it plays with the truth of Austen's life. There were a couple of moments in the Keira Knightly PRIDE AND PREJUDICE where I was pulled out of the story -- that scene near the end where Darcy comes walking out of the morning fog, his shirt open -- the setting is straight out of a bad novel -- I laughed out loud. This was in the theater and I am sorry to say I am the only one who thought it funny.

Thanks for such a well researched post.

5:13 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

You're welcome, Mary! And thanks for the compliment about the NYT! I hadn't thought of that, but I could flip it over to the NAL publicist for ROYAL AFFAIRS, because she's got the contacts. Now you've got my brain going ...

I feel exactly the same way you do about the Keira Knightly P&P. I was squiriming the whole time in the theatre over all the inaccuracies and inattention to Austen as much as to the period.

I haven't seen BECOMING JANE yet either (this summer has been nuts, what with the ROYAL AFFAIRS deadline, and with the copyedits and galleys for two February '08 releases coming across my desk for review at the same time); but one reason I didn't decide to steal some work hours at one end of the day or the other so I could see the film, was that I just wasn't keen on them messing with Jane's life, when they so clearly had decided to tell a story other than the truth. In my late Georgian time-travel (1801), BY A LADY, the main character has auditioned to play Jane in a two-character drama about her thwarted/aborted romance with Tom Lefroy, and I did a lot of research to get the facts right, even though very little of it is in my novel, because I'm not telling Jane's story. But her relationship with Tom Lefroy has some parallels with the heroine's (where a man ditches her to marry for money)

5:23 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

I read BY A LADY before we shared this blog and was amazed at the research and wondered "How come I've never met this writer" LOL. It was a great read.

6:00 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Wow, Mary, you've made my day twice in one morning. I think you're my new best friend! :)

6:05 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

In the new film Elizabeth, the flirtation with Raleigh is just that, a fliration, although Leicester is nowhere to be found in this movie. Probably in exile after marrying Lettice Knollys. She does get jealous over his attentions to Bess Throckmorton, particularly since they get married without her permission. My problem with the movie is the short shrift that poor Mary Queen of Scots gets. The whole Babington plot is scrunched into about 10 minutes of screen time, and you have no idea who anyone is apart from Mary, played by Samantha Morton. They did get it right that Mary wore a red underdress when she was executed although they skipped the bit about it taking 3 tries to take her head off. They also played up Elizabeth's anguish at having executed a fellow monarch. And poor Sir Francis Drake gets about 3 seconds of screen time, in order to beef up Raleigh who as far as I know had nothing to do with defeating the Spanish Armada.

I too had problems with the Keira Knightly P&P, more to do with the pigs running through the Bennets house. They weren't that poor.

6:18 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I like Samantha Morton's acting, generally, but she's so miscast as Mary Q of S. I'm not sure how tall Ms. Morton is, but Mary was a legitimate six feet tall and had grown rather old-looking and stout by the time of her execution. She was 45 years old at the time (tell me Ms. Morton looks 45!) and 19 years of incarceration in England took a terrible toll on her health, not to mention all the psychological hell she went through for years before she even left Scotland -- from Darnley's cheating on her to Bothwell's abuse, to being publicly paraded through Edinburgh by her captors to being imprisoned at Lochleven and being forced to abdicate almost at swordpoint while recovering from illness ...

Elizabeth, it sounds like your namesake's new movie leaves so many threads (or characters) unexplained and unidentified that it reminds me of the Jennifer Jason Leigh movie about Dorothy Parker from several years ago, DOROTHY PARKER AND THE VICIOUS CIRCLE, where the luminaries of the famed Algonquin "Round Table" were in the film, but essentially unidentified so viewers didn't know who they were or why they were there.

Oh -- in the new Elizabeth film, did they have Mary Queen of Scot's little Westie hiding under her skirts when she was beheaded? And the wig falling off when the executioner held up the severed head (which had scraggly gray locks)?

6:28 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

They cast Tom Hollander as her jailer so that Samantha Morton looked taller, and she did look old but not nearly as old as she should have looked but then Cate Blanchett fairly glows as Elizabeth and she was 55 at the time of the Armada. They used so much flattering light on Cate that it was almost funny, not to mention that her costumes and wigs were absolutely amazing. The scene where she does her own version of a St. Crispian Day speech to the troops on horseback with the long flowing hair reminded me of the character she played in Lord of the Rings.

If Mary was supposed to be wearing a wig they didn't show it nor her little westie hiding in her skirts and having her blood drop on him. I was also confused by Mary's accent in the film. I'm not sure having been raised in France for the most part, and then spending years in England that she would have had such a strong Scottish accent. Janet McTeer would have been a much better Mary Queen of Scots.

The one good thing about the movie was how hot Clive Owen is, and from the miniatures I've seen of Raleigh, he was pretty cute too.

6:44 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Yes -- Janet McTeer would have been perfect casting. It stymies me that she has not had the household-name career that she deserves (she's the same physical type as Blanchett and has just as much range).

I love Clive Owen's work and would rather see him play an Errol Flynn type (as he seems to be doing as the swashbuckling Raleigh) than as the stoic hero of a dark dystopian futuristic universe, which has been his stock and trade for too many films lately. If anyone were ever to film my novel, BY A LADY, I've always thought he'd make a wonderful Lord Darlington. The role requires someone who can convey that he's had a painful past.

6:56 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Moving on to Elizabeth's dear old dad, I had a hard time watching Ray Winstone's performance as H8, because of his cockney accent. I have no idea why the director thought that was a good idea. It made him seem less royal and more like a dock worker who ended up King of England. Otherwise, physically he looked alot like H8 with the beard.

10:10 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Good point, EKM. And don't even get me started on Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as H8 on THE TUDORS -- the lack of appropriate look, the utter inability to project more than a surly expression on his face -- Argh! Of course, THE TUDORS bears about as much resemblance to the actual Tudor era as I do to Jaba the Hut. I understand the TV series has Wolsey slitting his throat (or is it his wrists?) with a penknife in the Tower of London. We can play the game "what's wrong with this picture?" to see how many elements we can come up with.

10:25 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful blog, Amanda--I agree with Mary, it would be great as a piece in the NYT! Sometimes changes to the actual history drive me nuts, other times I can enjoy 0stories on their own terms, knowing full well they've changed a bunch around.I love Shakespeare's history plays, though having done my honors work in 15th century Briitish history I can reel off lists of inaccuracies as I watch them. I think part of it may go to how good and compelling the changed version is on its own terms--Shakespeare's plays are brilliant, with fascinating characters, even if those characters aren't true to the historical facts. I don't plan to see "The Golden Age" because the first "Elizabeth" frustrated me so much. Partly because so much was changed and also because the story and characters didn't add up (I still remember Leicester saying he committed his betrayal because "it's hard to be loved by the queen"). In "Becoming Jane" it wasn't the changes of facts that bothered me as much as the fact that the character of Jane didn't seem like the woman who wrote Jane Austen's novels, and I didn't find her or Tom Lefroy that sympathetic in the movie. I was talking to a friend recently who said the changes of facts bother him much more in "The Tudors" than in "Rome" and he's not sure why (this is someone who will google to find out "what really happened" if he doesn't start out knowing the history). I wonder if his reaction has something to do with how compelling each is as a story? Amanda, have you seen the Glenda Jackson "Elizabeth I" and the Keith Michell "Six Wives of Henry XVIII"? Those made me fall in love with British history at the age of six. I also really enjoyed the Helen Mirren "Elizabeth"--they changed some things, but the characters and story were fascinating and the changes didn't strike me as completely egregious.

10:51 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I've seen parts of Glenda Jackson's Elizabeth R. Loved Robert Hardy as Leicester, who it turns out is an expert on the medieval cross bow. One of the few good things about Elizabeth the Golden Age, is that the filmmakers avoided the temptation to invent a scene where Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots meet. the Mary Queen of Scots movie with Vanessa Redgrave featured this little imaginary scene, with Glenda Jackson reprising her role as Elizabeth R!

I agree with you Tracy about Shakespeare's histories. I cut him plenty of slack because of his briliance, although he created such a vivid portrait of Richard III as a villain that it's hard today to find the real man.

11:01 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I'm going to scream-- I wrote a really long reply and Blogger told me my "request couldn't be processed" -- so here goes ...

Thank you, Tracy! Now I'm seriously thinking of submitting to the NYT. My grandfather used to say, "when three people tell you you're drunk -- lie down!" so two down, one to go. :)

I agree with Tracy's point about Shakespeare; of course he was writing during a certain age for a certain audience, and his Histories are indeed heavily fictionalized or slanted. It's a great way, though to learn history -- by hitting the books after seeing Shakespeare -- for the real story (or as real as any [unbiased] historian writing during a certain era with limited primary source information can make it). A good performance of Shakespeare can make anyone want to learn so much more. Nothing wrong with just reading the plays on one's own, though -- although the words really soar when spoken by people who know what the hell they're doing (a dwindling population, alas -- I'm also a Shakespearean actress, so don't get me started ... if I go there, you'll have to pull me back with a tow truck).

I think Keith Michell's performance as Henry VIII in the 1970s miniseries is excellent. They got a lot of things right and kept it simple (what would "modern" viewers think to see the whole thing staged almost like a play, with the minimalist oak paneled backdrops, just letting the characters tell the story!) But they really goofed with their Kathryn Howard -- who is wayyyy too old, and too unattractive, and too bitchy. One wonders what any Henry would see in her. They utterly missed the young and heedless voluptuary with a heart of gold.

For me, a definitive performance as Henry VIII is Robert Shaw in the still-gripping A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS. Shaw totally nails Henry's looks (accurately), his attractiveness, his ego, his sense of humor, his bullying, and his intelligence.

I barely remember the Glenda Jackson interpretation of Elizabeth -- I need to revisit it, but I know her performance in the role is considered seminal.

I adored what Helen Mirren did in the recent miniseries. She's the only Elizabeth I've seen who really captured the queen's immense vulnerability, particularly as she aged, and the pain of wanting to be loved as a woman, yet the acknowledgment of that impossibility.

Any comments on the Bette Davis interpretation?

Has anyone seen Katherine Hepburn's painfully execrable Mary Queen of Scots? She's such a brilliant actress in the right roles, but that isn't it. And we've got the "period" (1940s) hairstyles for her, making it clear that the star must look attractive at all times, and not have that high (or shaved) forehead appropriate to the period for the real Elizabeth and Mary

11:21 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

She played Elizabeth twice, once with Errol Flynn in Elizabeth & Essex, and again in the 1950's in The Virgin Queen with Joan Collins plays Bess Throckmorton. I've never seen either, but I've seen photos from both, and she certainly looks the aging Queen in the Virgin Queen. Vincent Price actually plays Sir Walter Raleigh in the Elizabeth & Essex version. Sounds like an interesting double feature if they're both available on DVD.

11:51 AM  
Blogger Gabriele C. said...

Lol, better don't get me started on a rant about Rome and Hollywood all the way from Kirk Douglas' Spartacus to The Last Legion of which I saw the trailer.

The HBO Rome series has issues as well, but compared to Gladiator and Co, it's almost history. ;)

2:56 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

Put my vote on the NYT submission, Amands. Truly a brilliant piece! I cannot wait to read ROYAL AFFAIRS. I so adore reading about historical figures being HUMAN!! I taught high school history and I tried to include information about people's lives that made my students realize that this iconic figures were first and foremost very much like you and me. History, for the most part is made by ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Blatant historical inaccuracies do bug me when I am watching a film. A little license here and there is fine, but when they begin to rewrite history they lose me. QUICKLY!

6:42 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Call me madcap, but I've never quite understood why filmmakers want to make a "historical" film and then run roughshod over the history itself.

I'm with you, doglady ... they totally lose me when they play fast and loose with the facts. "Why did they bother at all?" I wonder. Are they just trying to get an Oscar for costume design??

A while back, I was informally pitching TOO GREAT A LADY, my Emma Hamilton novel to a Hollywood producer ... I told her that the story of Emma Hamilton's life would make a heck of a movie, given that it has passion, betrayal, a colorful, emotional, even bawdy, rags-to-riches-and-back story of the most beautiful woman of her era and her forbidden love with the age's greatest hero -- and the woman thought the story took place sometime during the Renaissance (and therefore, uncommercial by Hollywood standards; so much for her take on all the Elizabeth I pseudo biopics!). By way of simplification after that, I tried to explain that Emma Hamilton and Horatio Nelson lived during the same period as Jane Austen.

7:01 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I'm with you doglady. I always enjoyed history class when we discussed the people who created history as opposed to the causes and effects of various wars. I've always thought that the real history is so much more interesting than what Hollywood comes up with. But it's like they don't trust the actual story, or the writer wants to put his stamp on it, so they try and make it more 'dramatic' and then they screw things up. The producers of The Patriot got so much crap from people complaining about what they planned to do to Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, that they caved and created a fictional character for that movie, although they based Jason Isaacs character on Banastre Tarleton, which pissed off his family! And Thomas Dewey's family sued the producers of Hoodlum for implying that Dewey was on the take.

7:48 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Although the movie was an utter mess, surprisingly, the Jason Isaacs characterization of Banastre Tarleton in THE PATRIOT wasn't too far off the mark. I read a few bios of Ban T. in the course of my research for ALL FOR LOVE: The Scandalous Life and Times of Royal Mistress Mary Robinson (my Feb. 08 release from NAL). Ban and Mary were lovers for 15 years.

7:58 AM  

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