Some weeks ago when we briefly talked about a modernisation of the Tudor tales in the comments, one thing tat came up is how hard it is to put someone like Henry VIII. in a present day setting and still let the story play out the same way - not only because killing your wives lands you in jail these days (yes, unless you're very rich and privileged and have a good lawyer, but you still haven't got the same kind of ultimate social power Henry had over his wives), but also because divorce is more easily obtainable, the stakes in religion aren't there anymore (for both sides), wanting a man who bullies his first wife and daughter the way Henry did also reflects differently on a modern day second wife, and so forth.
But brushing up on my fictionalized Tudors and contemporaries also reminded that even within his own historical context, Henry is a tricky one to present in a a believable, plausible way. Not coincidentally is this managed most effectively by Sansom in the Shardlake series, where Henry is off stage for all but two books, and even in those has only short (but highly memorable) appearances; the effects
of his reign on both fictional and real people of all classes are what interests the author (and those results in turn do of course reflect on who Henry was). THat's something you can do in a series of mysteries starring a fictional detective, but if a novel focuses on someone in Henry's reign who by defnition has a lot of interaction with the king - be it a wife or a key government official like Cromwell - , you don't have that luxury. (Although Hilary Mantel also keeps Henry off stage as much as she can.) Now, you can always take the Charles Dickens approach; Dickens, gifted wordsmith that he was, called Henry "blot of blood and grease upon the History of England", and the phrase certainly has merit, but if you do Henry-as-ogre and aren't writing about the later wives, who had little choice in marrying him (women turning Henry VIII. down did so from the safety from abroad, like Christina of Milan who supposedly said she'd marry him, if she had two heads), you have the problem that not only did wives 2 and 3 go to some effort to get married to him, but wife 1, ill treated as she was, wrote from her deathbed "mine eyes desire to see you above all things" and kept blaming anyone but Henry for what had happened (Wolsey/ Anne Boleyn/ Cromwell were misleading him!). Now of course you can write a Katherine of Aragon who wants to keep the position of queenship, not Henry himself, and a Anne Boleyn who never cared for anything but, with Ogre!Henry being the unappetizing means to get/keep said queenship. But it's just not very satisfying dramatically to see strong-willed, intelligent women interact with an evil buffoon all the time.
There have been Henry-friendly fictional presentations, of course, but these usually either take Katherine of Aragon's approach and present him as mislead/corrupted by *insert character of choice* and originally a golden boy, or they heavily edit out actions that are less well known than the rolling heads but no less difficult to stomach. Take his reaction to Katherine of Aragon's death. Which was very similar indeed to his reaction later to Anne Boleyn's death, only with Anne the Anne-hostile fiction usually takes the out of declaring her guilty of everything she was ever accused of. (Margaret George does this in "The Memoirs of Henry VIIII", and the movie - though not the series - "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" does it as well.) Whereas with Katherine of Aragon it's hard to present her as a villain (even Protestant chroniclers in Elizabeth'S time didn't try); there's no way of getting around that this was a woman Henry was married with for decades, who was not only a dutiful and affection queen consort but also ruled England in Henry's absence for a while, managing to beat the Scots while he was losing against the French, so you'd think at the very least he'd be capable of showing some respect once she was gone (and thus no longer an obstacle who refused to acknowledge the annulment). But how did Henry react? According to Imperial Ambassador Chapuys, he did this: "You could not conceive the joy that the King and those who favour this concubinage have shown at the death of the good queen, especially the earl of Wiltshire and his son, who said it was a pity the Princess [Mary] did not keep company with her. The King, on the Saturday he heart the news, exclaimed “God be praised that we are free from all suspicion of war”; and that the time had come that he would manage the French better than he had done hitherto, because they would do now whatever he wanted from a fear lest he should ally himself again with your Majesty, seeing that the cause which disturbed your friendship was gone. On the following Sunday, the King was clad all over in yellow, from top to toe, except the white feather he had in his bonnet, and the Little Bastard [Elizabeth] was conducted to Mass with trumpets and other great triumphs. After dinner the King entered the room in which the ladies danced, and there did several things like one transported with joy. At last he sent for his Little Bastard, and carrying her in his arms he showed her first to one and then to another. He has done the like on other days since, and has run some courses at Greenwich."
If you'rve read or watched a few fictionalizations of the Henry & wives saga, you may remember this - only with Anne, not Henry, as the yellow-wearer and celebrating party thrower. Here
is a fascinating account on how first the emphasis, then the entire blame got shifted from Henry to Anne through the centuries. Even Anne friendly fictionalisations tend to give her the "let's dress up in yellow and party" idea, if for no other reason than that Anne gloating over the death of her rival (which would actually signal the beginning of her end as well) is easier to stomach and explain than Henry in jubilant mood. (As he would be again once it was Anne's turn. Writes Chapuys: "Although everybody rejoices at the execution of the whore there are some who murmur at the mode of procedure against her and the others, and people speak variously of the king; and it will not pacify the world when it is known what has passed and is passing between him and Jane Seymour. Already it sounds ill in the ears of the people, that the king, having received such ignominy, has shown himself more glad than ever since the arrest of the whore; for he has been going about banqueting with ladies, sometimes remaining after midnight, and returning by the river. Most of the time he was accompanied by various musical instruments, and, on the other hand, by the singers of his chamber, hich state of things was by many a one compared to the joy and pleasure a man feels in getting rid of a thin, old, and vicious hack in the hope of getting soon a fine horse to ride—a very peculiarly agreeable task for this king."
(Chapuys also has a great cynical line in his report about the aftermath of Katherine Howard's death, when Henry wasn't
in a partying mood but grieving - not for Katherine, for himself, because he was betrayed etc.. He said of course Henry was sad, since this was the first time he lost a wife without having a replacement lined up already.)
It's this unabashed gloating about two dead women that makes fictionalizers who try to make him into someone more than a complete monster balk; it's usually replaced with at least some secret tears for Katherine of Aragon (as in The Tudors
), chewing out of Anne for wearing yellow (how dare she? He himself is of course dressed in black!), and some signs of contemplation and gloom before and during Anne's execution("Anne of the Thousand Days") even if he heads towards Jane Seymour in the next scene. (Incidentally, since Thomas Cromwell's execution was followed by Henry marrying Katherine Howard immediately after, it was party time then as well.) Not to mention that fictional more dimensional Henries usually have some regret later on for a least one of the dead wives (other than Jane Seymour, whom documented Henry did express grief for; considering she was the one who delivered the longed for boy, this is not surprising). Now I could be wrong, but as far as I know Henry VIII. never expressed regret about any women he had destroyed; his few documented regrets about his own victims were all reserved for men. Both Wolsey and Cromwell had the dubious honor of having Henry loudly regret their demise a few weeks later, calling them "most faithful servants" and what not. Considering both Wolsey and Cromwell were workhorses and workoholics, and Henry never, post-Cromwell, found an official with the same capacity again, instead dispensing Cromwell's various tasks on different courtiers, more than one historian concluded the regret was entirely practical in nature. (Arguably the sole candidate for "person whom Henry had great affection for, never lost his affection for, and who died in bed decades later" is a man as well, Charles Brandon, Henry's best friend and brother-in-law.)
So, what did anyone see in this guy, other than his crown? Was it all just court flattery from the beginning? Chances are he did have charisma; he was the spare, not the heir while growing up, but managed to impress ambassadors and Londoners alike more than his older brother Arthur did. Of course, once Arthur was dead and he WAS the heir, there was plenty of hope invested in him, and he got a lot of credit from the start for not being his father but a young, handsome prince who people could believe would start a new age. He loved music enough to dabble in it with at least one evergreen as the result (bad pun intended), he loved books and poetry (and the people who produced both), he seems to have had an easy-going manner (again, a contrast to his father), he jousted well and before his weight explosion certainly looked the part of a dazzling athletic king; and when you were in his favour, no matter in which capacity, he comes across as singlemindedly focused. (Not just in the romantic sense. Despite the wish for male heirs, Mary, as a little girl, was made much off by her father and called his pearl; of course, that made the contrast later all the crueler.) But while undoubtedly Henry's temper got worse as he aged (that ulcer in his leg post tournament fall which soon had to be dressed daily didn't help), I can't buy into Henries who start out innocent, so to speak. Henry at age 18 started his reign by locking up his father's two chief taxmen and having them executed for treason in a naked bit of popularity. Which worked. Everyone hated the guys whom Henry VII.'s extortionist tax policies were blamed on. What everyone was prepared to overlook was that it was judical murder, because not only did these men simply do what they had been tasked to do by the king (which, before anyone says "Nuremberg!" , did not include murder), but they definitely didn't commit treason. But he had a false accusation drawn up and had them killed because it suited him, just as years later it would suit him for wives and ministers alike.
It's not surprising that most fictional Henries focus on only some of these aspects. As far as screen representations are concerned, the earliest really memorable one is Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII.
- this is Henry as party animal, alright, Bluff King Hal, and Laughton is probably the first and last actor playing Henry VIII in a film where Henry has a central role who actually has the weight of at least middle years Henry (late Henry was something else again), which is especially a glaring contrast to the screen Henries of the last two decades who, no matter when in his life the story is set, are studly hunks. However, the film is mostly a comedy (despite opening with the death of Anne Boleyn and focusing on Katherine Howard), with the key scene and later often quoted set piece the Anne of Cleves sequence in which Laughton and his wife, Elsa Lanchester (who playes Anne of Clevers) show their superb comic timing together. It never tries to get the chilling people destroyer part of Henry across. (Charles Laughton reprised Henry VIII. later in "Young Bess" - with Jean Simmons as Elizabeth - and there despite Henry only getting a few minutes of screen time you do get the chilling part; there's a highly effective scene where he strokes Katherine Parr's cheek in just the same way he stroked Katherine Howard's, and young Elizabeth, who remembers the gesture, gets the full implication when she watches.) Other memorable Henries include Keith Mitchell (twice), who played him in the BBC series "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" and in the film of the same name, and while he captures Henry's intelligence and cold ruthlessness (in the series, though not the film, which whitewashes Henry as much as it can), the party animal aspect is gone. Richard Burton in Anne of the Thousand Days
had a script that allowed for a lot of aspects (relaxing with courtiers, spoiled monarch incredulous at being told no, obsessed lover, killer), and Burton had enough of his own charisma to make one of the central conceits of the play believable (that Anne, despite all good intentions ot the contrary - originally, she's after the power - and despite being warned by her sister that Henry only loves what he can't have, eventually does fall in love with Henry, which is of course the very moment he starts to fall out of love with her). But you can't see his Henry arguing theology or seriously believing himself the instrument of god, whereas Mitchell's Henry would. As far as the latest screen Henries are concerned, as mentioned they share the trait of being studly (I'm sure Henry VIII would have loved this type of presentation! Otoh, he would be incredibly offended that at least two laterday screen Henries also are rapists - of the many, many things you can blame Henry VIII. for, this really isn't one, and given the almost seven years it took him to have sex with Anne Boleyn, one can argue it's severely ooc). They also tend to be brooders (at least Henry's tendency for self pity is captured), but other than the sex scenes, the party animal aspect which Laughton started the memorable screen Henries with is almost gone. And they definitely are easily led by *insert character*. (One thing about Jonathan Rhys Meyer, though he's the most notorious about the studly, mysteriously thin remaining - until the last possible moment - Henries: The Tudors
ultimately held Henry himself responsible for the gruesomeness. And despite JRM always looking wrong, there were at least two scenes where I could believe he was playing Henry VIII.; one at the end of season 2, when he ate the swans he'd been observing through the episode, partying just after Anne's execution, and one in season 4, when he saw Charles Brandon the last time, knew they were both very ill, but declared he'd use the healing power of the king's touch to cure CB, which is just such a Henry VIIII. thing to do.) The newest Henry, Damian Lewis in Wolf Hall
, goes from easy going and, as the tv critics called it, hen-pecked to absolutely chilling in the last episode with only a few scenes, but the story he's in blames Anne for such a lot before the last episode that it still feels as if Henry's left off the hook.
In conclusion: I'm still waiting for the ultimate, definitive fictional Henry.