The Tudors have long been my favourite period in history, and while the six wives of Henry VIII fascinate everyone to a degree, they are too often reduced to the mnemonic ‘divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.’ Behind that phrase lies a wealth of fascinating scandal, betrayal, ambition and politics, which until fairly recently, was left undiscovered by popular culture. This was changed by two things: Philippa Gregory’s novel The Other Boleyn Girl (2001), subsequently made into a film in 2008, and the BBC series The Tudors (2007).
I am aware that I’ve missed the boat on this by several years, but while I adored The Other Boleyn Girl upon its release, I have only recently found the time to read the novel and watch The Tudors. I instantly fell in love with the film The Other Boleyn Girl, mostly for its insightful portrayal of the role of women. Both Anne and Mary Boleyn are mere pawns in their father and uncle’s games of ambition; as their mother puts it, women are “traded like cattle for the advancement and amusement of men.” The way that Thomas Boleyn effectively prostitutes first his youngest, and then his eldest daughter to the king, never ceases to shock.
But if the film is amazing, Gregory’s novel is a hundred times more brilliant. There is so much detail to the story that the film cannot – and The Tudors doesn’t even attempt to – convey. The impossibly complicated relationship between Mary and Anne is a tapestry woven of love, jealousy, hatred, ambition and sisterly bond, and yet somehow Gregory expresses this beautifully. Written from Mary’s perspective, the novel gives us an insight into the tension between her imperative duty to serve the family’s interest, and the fierce rivalry with her sister which means she cannot help but feel satisfaction at Anne’s losses. And yet, the sisters’ relationship is patterned by love and affection too – such complexity is beyond the reach of any screenplay.
One of the reasons I love the Tudor period so much is because it is steeped in irony; it never crossed Anne Boleyn’s mind that by displacing Catherine of Aragon and destabilising the istitution of marriage, she was laying herself upon to being put aside too, and her demise is so perfectely fitting. Everything which Anne made Catherine suffer, she must suffer herself, only with far less grace.
Likewise, Henry VIII sacrificed absolutely everything for his unbending desire for a son, and yet his eventual male heir was a sickly boy who never reached maturity and died at the age of 16. It was Elizabeth I, of course, who became one of the greatest monarchs England has ever known, which is where the greatest irony of all lies. Henry humiliated Catherine, broke with Rome, tore his country apart to instability and the threat of invasion, ordered dead some of his oldest friends, and beheaded Anne Boleyn, all because he thought women were too weak to rule. How wrong he was.