Guest Post: The Tudors (TV, History & Art) by Lauren Fliegelman

Hans Holbein, Henry VIII

Hans Holbein, Jane Seymour

Hans Holbein, Anne of Cleves

****WARNING: Spoiler Alert for the finale of the third season of Showtime's hit show, The Tudors starring Jonathan Rhys-Myers.****

Guest Blogger: Lauren Fliegelman, fourth year Art History/Journalism major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Spent a semester studying the Italian Renaissance masters in Rome, 2009. Current area of research: Manet and Japanese Influences. See her previous post on Michelangelo's Florentine Pieta of 1515 or Japonisme.

The Tudors – It is better to have loved, lost, and remarried, than to never have loved at all.

This week, the Showtime series The Tudors has come to an end. Although I feel many will not mourn this loss, a small part of me is sad to see the decadent interiors, luscious costumes, and yes, the overly intimate, often explicit scenes of royal sex and seduction witnessed over the past three years draw to a close. Although the show, more often than not, scarified history for the sake of all things carnal and unscrupulous, the writers may have had it right in that interest in the women Henry VIII loved and married generally supersedes all else.

In the series finale, Henry sits for Hans Holbein the Younger as he paints probably the most iconic image to come out of this reign (I won’t even go into the quasi-Jonathan Rhys Myers/Henry VIII circa 1540 image the show chose to include in the end). Holbein, who was introduced to Henry’s court by Anne Boleyn in the early 1530’s, would continue to paint the king late into his reign. As Henry sits for his portrait, his “ghosts of girlfriends” past visit him with haunting messages of regret and remorse. Apropos of this episode, I thought it timely to brush up on the chronology of wives and the king that, next to his daughter Elizabeth I, is the most memorable monarch in English history.

The Tudors, or as Josephine Ross put it, “England’s Golden Age,” were made up of three kings and two queens. King Henry VII defeated Richard III and became the first Tudor king in 1485. His reign was one of relief as it ended a period of constant battle and turmoil for the British throne. Soon after his marriage to Elizabeth of York, the couple, who would have seven children between 1486 to 1503, welcomed their first son Arthur, then their daughter Margaret and their second son, Henry in 1491. Although their marriage was not necessarily one of great passion, mutual understanding and respect laid the foundations for the most famous succession of royals to rule England.
However, when one thinks “Tudors,” King Henry VIII and his succession of wives come to mind. After the death of his brother Arthur, Henry came to power in 1509 at the age of seventeen. The image of the ideal, albeit Disney prince, Henry was handsome, charming, athletic, and generally well-liked by the public and women alike. Honoring his rather drawn out engagement to Catherine of Aragon (complicated by her pseudo marriage to his brother Arthur), Henry married the princess on June 11, 1509 and the two were swept up in the passion that would mark the outset of many of his subsequent marriages. Early on, the couple suffered two losses when both their first baby girl was a stillborn and their son Henry died seven weeks after his birth. Catherine would suffer several more stillborns and premature deaths of her children until 1515 when she finally delivered a baby girl, Mary, who would live into adulthood. Despite their daughter, Henry began to lose interest in his wife as her pregnancies became fewer and far between. To make matters worse for Catherine, the king flaunted his ability to have sons as he had a healthy baby boy with his mistress Bessie Blount. The judgment of God was surely present in the royal couples inability to produce a legitimate male heir. The Book of Leviticus spelled out plainly in two distinct passages that when one has relations with his brother’s wife, their relationship will end childless. Henry’s religious proof, in conjunction with Catherine's infertility and ageing stature, were all the king needed to begin his lengthy divorce from the queen.

Enter Anne Boleyn stage left. Although she isn’t famous for saying, “let them eat cake,” she is partially responsible for dethroning a queen and permanently changing the religion of an entire country so I suppose we should give her some credit. Although her sister was first to share the kings bed (if you haven’t already done so and you are even remotely a fan of salacious historical fiction check out The Other Boleyn Girl for a great read on this rather odd love triangle) Anne made is clear that is was Queen or nothing as she cleaned house of all her enemies at court. In 1528 Anne made a permanent home at court and by 1532 she was pregnant with the kings child. At this point divorce from Queen Catherine was required to secure the legitimacy of the possible male heir Anne was carrying. On May 23 his marriage to Catherine was official dissolved. However Anne and Henry had already secretly married some time before then. Although Anne did not give birth to the boy the entire country had hoped for, on September 7th Princess Elizabeth was born (who would ironically enough far surpass any male heir Henry was ever able produce). Anne scheming flared as she suffered one after another miscarriage. Adding to her troubles, Anne’s former friend and religious reformer Thomas Cromwell began to plot against her, realizing that he better get behind the rising star at court, Jane Seymour. Beginning in 1536, several of her male associates including Mark Smeaton the musician, Sir Henry Norris, and her brother George Boleyn were all taken to the Tower of London and tortured for information regarding such accusations as treason, adultery, incest, and more. The queen herself was imprisoned on May 2nd in the same rooms where she has been prepared for her coronation. All were found guilty of the charges and either hanged, burnt at the stake, or beheaded. On May 19th Anne was beheaded by a master swordsman she had requested. Anne’s body was buried in an unmarked location in the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula. Later her remains were identified during renovations of the chapter during the reign of Queen Victoria. Her grave is now indicated by a marker in the marble floor.

Jane Seymour: Jane was brought to court under the reign of Queen Catherine but served as maid to Anne. Beginning in February of 1536 it is clear that Henry began to favor Jane as he love for Anne waned. The exact opposite of Anne lively charisma and temper, Jane was benevolent and unconscious to the political game she had become a pawn in (however this view on her demeanor is somewhat debatable as it has been suggested she was more like the other wives than was projected by Henry who saw her in this favorable manner). Eleven days after Anne’s execution Henry and Jane were married. The weight on Jane’s shoulders to produce an heir was heavier than ever as Henry’s illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy died at 17 leaving the king with no male predecessors. However, in 1537 Jane became pregnant and delivered Henry’s long awaited male heir, Prince Edward. Although Jane attended Edward’s christening on October 15th, she died later that month on the 24th. Jane’s body was placed in the tomb Henry had been preparing for himself, making her the only queen to be buried alongside the king. Henry would consider Anne his first true wife and would always hold her in the highest regard.

Anne of Cleves: It seems after Jane’s death, allowing Henry to marry again for lust was not on the agenda of his associates. A political marriage which created an alliance between England and another power player country. Candidates were selected depending upon both their political and visual appeal. Anne of Cleves, the sister of the Duke of Cleves, was chosen on the chance France and the Holy Roman Empire made amends and moved against England for the religious reformation. Holbein was sent to paint a portrait of Anne of Cleves to bring to the king, upon which time Henry agreed to the marriage. In January of 1540 the two were married although Henry was already dissatisfied with Anne. Calling her a “Flanders Mare,” Henry did not taking a liking to Anne’s domestic upbringing. Furthermore, the political alliance their marriage has secured seemed obsolete as France and Spain continued their hatred of one another and the Duke of Cleves was pressing for a war with Spain Henry had no interest in becoming involved in. Anne cleverly consented to having the marriage dissolved and being appointed sister of the king, stating her marriage to Henry had never been consummated. She was appointed the former estate of Anne Boleyn where she lived in peace till her death.

Kathryn Howard: The mischievous baby queen who got into trouble with the king’s groom Thomas Culpepper was also the first cousin of Anne Boleyn. Kathryn has been brought to court as a lady for Anne of Cleves at the age of 19. Little more than two weeks after his annulment from Anne, at the age of 49, Henry married Kathryn in July of 1540. Although Henry began to suffer many of the maladies that would slowly end his life, Kathryn was able to restore the kings spirits for a short time until talk of adultery began around court. Archbishop Cramer (who had for all intensive purposes replaced Thomas Cromwell upon his execution close to the annulment of Anne of Cleves) investigated the young queen and found her guilty of the aforementioned infidelity as well as former indiscretions with prior to her marriage to the king. Her short life came to an end in February of 1542 when she was beheaded and buried in close proximity to her cousin Anne Boleyn.

Katherine Parr: Coincidently enough, Katherine’s parents, Sir Thomas Parr and Maud Green, had been at court during Henry’s early reign. Maud had served as a lady in waiting to Queen Katharine, Henry’s first wife, and had named her daughter after her. Katharine, whose mother had independently raised and educated her children after the early death of her husband, was a life-long learner, reader, and writer. Katherine was married twice before she wedded Henry. Her second husband, Lord Latimer died in 1543 leaving Katherine a widow for the second time at the age of 31. Although she had secretly proclaimed her love for Thomas Seymour, when the king requested her hand in marriage she had no choice but to oblige. The two were married in July of 1543 beginning a most interesting match for the reign of Henry VIII. Accusations of Katherine’s reformist faith began to swarm as members of the conservative alliance in Henry’s court interrogated and tortured members of the queen’s circle. Anne of Askew, a notorious Protestant preacher was racked however she refused to besmirch the queen or her ladies. Eventually, the king, whose health was failing, famously went to her after Katherine was made aware of a warrant for her arrest. He reprimanded her for her religious outspokenness and reminded her that others had been put to death for similar comments. Katherine was forgiven after she profusely apologized and claimed to only speak of such matters so that the king could teach her the err of her ways. Despite this political stumble, Katherine is famous for becoming the first English Queen to have her book, Prayers or Meditations, published in 1545. Soon after the death of the king Katherine married Thomas Seymour as originally planned. The two moved away from court together where they looked after the upbringing of Princess Elizabeth. However, around 1548 it was proposed that Elizabeth and Thomas Seymour had engaged in an affair and the princess was moved to another home. Katherine became pregnant for the first time at age 37 and gave birth to a daughter. She died shortly thereafter, never recovering form the birth.

Henry died in January of 1547 leaving his son, Edward VI king at age nine. Watched over by his uncle Edward Seymour, the Seymour family would essentially rule via the young king. Edward died in July of 1553 leaving the kingship in question. Shortly before his death Edward convinced to leave his crown to his cousin Jane Grey, avoiding the religious turmoil his sister Mary would bring to England. Eventually Mary would be declared queen July 24th. Along with her Spanish husband, Mary become widely unpopular for the religious persecution of Protestants that had been predicted. The English people looked to Elizabeth as their savior but Mary saw her as a threat. She had her imprisoned in the Tower at which point Mary realize she was pregnant and let her go shortly after because Elizabeth was no longer a threat. The queen, who was forty at this point never gave birth to a child. It is unclear what exactly happened medically, however she died in 1558. Elizabeth become queen upon the death of here sister and would rule until her death in March of 1603.

I have high hopes for the newest historical fiction drama to be released in 2011 by Showtime, The Borgias!

Best, Lauren Fliegelman


  1. Hello do you know what the writing means in the back of Henry's portrait please? x

  2. I will ask the author of the post your question and get back to you as soon as possible! Thanks for reading! - Lydia

  3. Hello Lydia, thank you that is great news. Thank you for getting back to me, I hope they or some one might know that would be fab. Take care. x

  4. Hello Ella and Lydia,
    How interesting! I'm also a big fan of this period and couldn't help but research what the Latin meant (I assume it's Latin!).
    "ANNO ETATIS SUAE XLIX" (His year of age, 49)
    Apparently it means: 'in the (specified) year of his (or her) age'
    Henry was 49 years old in this painting, according to the website about it.

  5. can anyone tell me where I can get a hi-res image of the Henry VIII portrait by Holbein ?