Tudor History in Fact and Film

By Dr. Elizabeth Deanne Malpass

Ever since Mary Pickford dazzled romantic film goers in the 1924 movie, Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall, ever since Katherine Hepburn played a spunky Mary Queen of Scots in 1932, ever since Charles Laughton turned The Private Lives of Henry VIII into an academy award winning caricature in 1933, lavish costume dramas about the Tudor era have been perennial blockbusters throughout the British Empire and across the prairies around Peoria. When summer drives viewers indoors to the air conditioning and the evening DVD, a course in Tudor History 101 might provide for home audiences what movies do best: an escape into another world. This issue offers some recommendations (and criticisms) for the Tudor period (1485-1603). In addition, some suggestions for popular books and music on the era can be found at Clio Reads.


Henry VII (1485-1509) is totally neglected by film makers, but can be seen briefly in Laurence Olivier’s classic Richard III. Defeating Richard at Bosworth Field in 1485, Henry Tudor, who was supposedly barred from inheriting the throne of England due to his descent from the Beaufort Bastards, resolved the issue by marrying the deceased Richard III's niece, Elizabeth of York, the daughter of the late King Edward IV. Their marriage in January 1486 did much to cement the union of the legitimate Yorkist line with that of the Lancastrian Tudor usurper. Their children by marrying into the Scottish Spanish and French royal families did much to bring respectability to the Tudor monarchy of the next century. A few films give at least an indication of the problems that created the dynastic struggles behind Henry's victory at Bosworth Field and can be traced in Shakespeare's history plays which are often much better history than they are given credit for, but hardly consitute light reading or viewing. A few documentaries are available but tend to be cursory in nature.

Henry VIII (1509-1547) the pivot around whom so many dramatic personalities circle as if caught in a stately sixteenth century pavane, has captured film audiences for decades. Certainly the recent television series, The Tudors, starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, proved again that bad fictional history can be, with enough violence and brooding, passionate sex, vastly popular. American audiences can only be grateful that the wretched series was created in Britain. The howls of derision from the English if it had been produced in the United States would have been record shattering. Few history films have ever had so many egregious and down right silly errors. (At one point, Henry VII allegedly marries one of his daughters to the King of Portugal!). At the rate the series is going, Henry may marry a couple of more wives and found Jamestown. A far better view of Henry VIII can be found in Keith Mitchell’s magnificent performance in The Six Wives of Henry VIII. The aging of Henry, from a young playboy king with renaissance ideals to a crafty, bitter, pain ridden despot is a master class lesson in acting. Lavishly costumed and outstandingly cast from each of his wives to his major ministers, Henry VIII fascinates.

Thomas More A Man for All Seasons, released in 1966, gave American audiences an all too rare experience of watching a superb Shakespearean actor, Paul Scofield, step into the life and character of Henry VIII’s most famous subject, Thomas More. Vanessa Redgrave, who brought a touch of class to Anne Boleyn in the 1966 version, here plays More’s much maligned second wife Alice. The film, although over simplifying the many ambiguities in More’s character, does capture his lovability and humor as well as the corruption of the Tudor courtiers. The cameos from the brilliant but sly Thomas Cromwell, to the conniving weasel, Richard Rich explore well if briefly the concepts of justice and fair trial in the sixteenth century.

In the case of A Man for all Seasons, however, More is sometimes More! A fine performance by Charlton Heston in a London production of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons was in 1988 fortunately transferred to a television version that actually added back the original “Common Man” as well as many of the lines and speeches cut from the original 1966 screen version. It is exceptionally well cast, beautifully costumed, and excellently presented. It has suffered from the affection held by many for the Scofield portrayal, but deserves to be watched much more widely. Sadly, virtually no films have explored the lives of Henry’s great ministers: Wolsey, Cranmer, Cromwell, Fisher, as well as More could provide rich fodder for solid and fascinating documentaries as well as full length films.

Edward VI (1547-1553) was caught too early by death to provide most screen writers with dramatic material. America’s favorite author, Mark Twain, possessed a unique talent for the creative historical plot; His popular story of The Prince and the Pauper has received film attention repeatedly, none of which fully capture the nuances of Twain’s story. The 1937 black and white version creaks a bit with age but captures much of Twain’s vivid little story a young prince who yearns to see a bit of his London world. By exchanging places for a few hours with an abused urchin, he finds himself locked out of his palace as his father Henry VIII is dying and plots and conspiracies swirl about the throne. Claude Rains plays a wonderful villian. Errol Flynn, a rising star in swashbuckler movies, plays the role of rescuer and curtailed the histrionics for the sake of the story. It wouldn’t happen often in his career. A brief film excursion for the under five set is the Disney cartoon starring, of course, Mickey. While the recent television version with Aidan Quinn and Alan Bates is merely boring. For adults, try the 1978 film starring Raquel Welch, a strongly under rated comedienne, and Oliver Reed. Made by the same group which produced the splendid 1964 The Three Musketeers, this is colorful and amusing adventure story that probably even Twain would have enjoyed when wife Livvey was not around.

Mary Tudor (1553-1558) inherited Edward’s throne when he died at age sixteen.. Approaching forty after a miserable, lonely and threatened life and perhaps already ill with abdominal cancer, she proved a strange mixture of misery, personal kindness, political distrust and woeful judgments. Any film about her would be bleak of necessity.
A fine performance of the Queen, however, is part of another popular Tudor film, Lady Jane.

Lady Jane Grey or the Nine Day Queen as historians dubbed her ruled England for less than two weeks at age sixteen and died at barely age seventeen. She was a helpless pawn in a hasty and foolish conspiracy. Educated, earnest and sweet natured, Jane, nevertheless, was an ardent and sincere religious reformer; had she been pro catholic, England almost undoubtedly would have seen her canonized by the Catholic Church. Helena Bonham Carter brings all of Jane’s qualities to sensitive life. Unfortunately, the 1986 film, Lady Jane, fictionalizes a silly romance without any historical validity into a Romeo and Juliet love story, much to the detraction of already dramatic material and real tragedy. The movie is worth viewing, however, for its magnificent scenery, costuming and settings; viewers feel as if they have stepped into the sixteenth century. Jane La Potaire’s performance as Queen Mary Tudor is brilliant as she vacillates between real if rigid affection for her young cousin to judicial murder to protect her Catholic realm. Patrick Stewart’s ruthless but weak and slimy portrayal of Jane’s father, Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk is also masterful, proof that great actors in small cameos can redeem nonsensical plotting.

Mary, Queen of Scots or as she was known in her own times, the “Queen of Hearts,” and, a great grand daughter of Henry VII, has fared poorly in films despite a glamorous life and a tragic death. The famous Katherine Hepburn portrayal in John Ford’s 1932 version proved that the young actress learned early how to chew up the scenery as well as her fellow actors but still turned out a film caught somewhere in time between late silent screen melodramas and new but inept color technology. The only real option is Vanessa Redgrave’s Academy Award performance in the 1971 version, based upon Antonia Fraser’s biography. Admittedly too loose on several historical facts, the film cleverly juxtaposes, Vanessa’s emotional Mary, a woman with too much heart and too little cunning, against .Glenda Jackson’s performance as the English sovereign, all brains and suppressed passion. Jackson, undoubtedly the greatest Elizabeth in film history almost steals the picture from a formidable rival. What Mary, Queen of Scots misses factually, it makes up for in emotional reality.

Elizabeth (1558-1603) possesses more film credits to her reign than any other Tudor, indeed, more than any other English monarch. Nearly a half century reign, dominated by an outstandingly educated and intelligent woman, controlling one of most dynamic courts in European history; what more could film makers ask? Unfortunately, no single film captures the magnificence or the magnitude of its subject. Many of them, however, provide entertaining story lines, memorable acting and, very occasionally, historical accuracy. For contemporary audiences, Shekhar Kapur’s 1998 Elizabeth and its sequel in 2007, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, epitomize the grandeur of the Tudor period. In fact, while great fun to watch, both films suffer so gravely from a lack of historical accuracy, that they are fatally flawed. True, with mesmerizing acting by the luminous Cate Blanchett, the transformation from a young woman to an iconic queen is very well done. Overall, however, the truncation of two decades of politics and policy into a few years,, the heavily bungled effort to portray the Catholic-Protestant rivalries with any depth, and the emphasis on Sir Francis Walsingham as the dominant minister of the queen’s early years, lead to seriously bastardized history. In one ludicrous vignette, the film seems to confuse Mary of Guise, Regent of Scotland for her daughter, with Catherine de Medici, even the future Mary, Queen of Scots. Portrayed as a promiscuous trollop, The Queen Regent is poisoned by Walsingham, the film implies, in a one night stand. The scene is confused, inaccurate and mercifully short. Other scenes trample the muse of history even more ridiculously and at greater length. Worse follows in Elizabeth: The Golden Age with its reputed and absurd love affair between Sir Walter Raleigh and the aging monarch. The coming of the Spanish Armada takes a poor second place to the jealousy and angst of Elizabeth’s personal relations (although breaking new ground by adding Raleigh to the “usual suspects,” Dudley and Essex). Helen Mirren’s two part portrayal of the Queen for HBO is well worth viewing. Obviously compressed in time, it does a very good job, well up to Mirren’s renowned talent, and remains truer to history than many much more costly productions.

Older films are worth viewing, particularly, Bette Davis and Errol Flynn in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), based upon Sherwood Anderson’s drama; or play Tudor detective and track down “the divine” Sarah Bernhardt in the 1912 silent film, Les Amours de la Réine Élizabeth, probably the first movie to have a musical score specifically composed for the script. Even with such quibbles, a surprising number of lesser known interpretations of the great queen remain interesting. For the young and romantic teenager, the 1953 film (designed to capitalize on the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II,) Young Bess stars Jean Simmons and Stewart Granger. Technically flawed, it presents a capsule version of a dangerous incident in the life of the fourteen year old Elizabeth. Jean Simmons is a less than fiery young princess but clever enough to outwit her elders. Stewart Granger plays the swaggering, charming bully, Sir Thomas Seymour, as if reading a script written by Rudyard Kipling, while Deborah Kerr illustrates by warmth and compassion why Queen Catherine Parr survived her marriage to Henry VIII. For sheer fun, review Shakespeare in Love (1998) again, not for the historical accuracy of Ethel The Pirate’s Daughter or for the emergence of London theater, but rather to watch Judith Dench win an Academy Award for portraying Elizabeth in ten minutes or less. Although women possessed little economic or legal power, and even less political authority, in the sixteenth century, an overview of modern film makes it clear that it is a woman’s world in Tudor history.


All too often, films, portentous with theatrical if weak history, turn into inadvertent comedy. More rarely, does “laugh out loud” real comedy inspire imagination and creativity to the discipline. Two worth while, if low brow, comedies dealing with the Tudor era are easily recommended for those who are ticklish or have more than one funny bone.

Black Adder, Series Two, focuses, if the program ever does stay focused, on the late Tudor period. The program twists and mauls history with hilarious affection, Chaplinesque slapstick, and a touch of the surreal. Rowan Atkinson and a team of witty and erudite writers and comic players turn the Tudor world upside down and spin it in outrageous new directions. Elizabeth is played by Miranda Richardson with absolutely absurd, broad silliness, while Lord Melchett, a blend of comic Lord Cecil and Sir Francis Walsingham, is older but never wiser than Atkinson’s Black Adder, in an outstanding send up of history and film making. Director Mandie Fletcher keeps a light rein on the endless twists. It is hard to stop laughing long enough to be critical – and to be critical is like taking a hammer to flatten whipped cream.

Carry On Henry VIII More risqué but very funny for a mature audience, is the 1971, Carry on Henry VIII, part of a popular movie series that became trendy in the seventies. This is certainly the best of a funny set of films. As history, Carry on Henry VIII has virtually no redeeming social value, although the settings in Windsor Great Park and the fabulous costumes can compete with much more costly films. Sid James is hilarious as a lusty and fickle Henry who is married to a wonderfully funny Marie of France, played by Joan Sims. The Queen’s love of garlic and refusal to resist it, leads the king to despair and visions of the execution block when buxom and delightful, Lady Bertina (Barbara Windsor), arrives at court. Kenneth Williams as Thomas Cromwell is terrific as is a script full of puns, great one liners and clever repartee. Nonsense? Aye. History? Nay. The ayes have it and are a lot more entertaining than much of the blather produced as drama

A recent debate in the Times Literary Supplement in response to articles on Tudor history that use the term, Tudor dynasty, seems a good small note on which to end. It is maintained by some historians that the concept of a Tudor dynasty was not current in the era from 1485 until 1603. English literary scholar, Katherine Duncan Jones, points out, however, that Henry Chettle does use the term “Tudor” (“Tewther”) as early as 1603 in reference to the death of Elizabeth I and her descent from her grand father, Henry Tudor (1485-1509) - a descent, the new king, James I, (1603-1625) founder of a Stuart dynasty in England, shared since he was a direct descendant of the same Henry VII, through the king’s marriage of his daughter Margaret to James IV of Scotland in 1497. This is the kind of historical fact finding, even if somewhat arcane, that historians often dote upon and that drives graduate students to tears and the public to yawns: it is historical questioning worthy of consideration certainly, but not obsessively so. Just as Chaucer’s use of a word is often expanded and enriched by Shakespearian slang, just as the title, The Wars of the Roses was not commonly used in the fifteenth century, just as, for that matter, the name, England, was not widely used until almost the time of the Norman Conquest, the term Tudor dynasty seems apt and sensible as a collective and responsible usage made respectable by time!