I recently welcomed the opportunity to binge watch “The Tudors,” now being rebroadcast on Netflix after I missed its run some ten years ago on Showtime.
Taking my cue from writer Michael Hirst, who explained he was creating an entertainment and not a history lesson, I decided to concentrate my viewing on the visual demands of his medium.
What would fill the screen with images that would engage the audience while telling the story of Henry and his six wives and his monumental struggle with the Pope that set off the English Protestant Reformation?
One strategy became apparent: borrow from western movies’ fondness for action scenes involving groups of horseback riders, in this case through English countryside rather than plains and mesas.
Everybody of noble rank rides, including the women. Entertainment or not, a fact poked its way into my mind as I saw Anne Boleyn riding astraddle rather than side saddle as they did in the Victorian era. How did women ride during the Tudor period?
My online research suggested that they rode side saddle, a position that would make anything more than a walk a dangerous proposition. The online sources I consulted indicated that riding aside for women was intended to protect their modesty and even their virginity.
That last brings us back to Anne, and how depicting her riding astraddle contributes to the film’s characterization of her.
She is central to the early drama of Henry’s reign when, disappointed at first wife Katherine of Aragon’s failure to provide him a male heir, he sought to free himself from that marriage so that he could find another woman for that purpose. His eyes, so the story goes, landed on Anne.
Since Anne was so central to the story, the filmmakers had to deal with showing her attitude toward being an object of the King’s interest, and probably his lust as well. From a historical perspective, it seems that she was pushed toward the king by her father as a way of promoting the interests of the Boleyn family.
In fact, Henry had already taken Anne’s older sister Mary as his mistress, even when she was married to someone else.
Did Anne set out to seduce the king, to position herself in front of other possible candidates, to willingly accept the role her father intended for her?
And if so, did she have genuine feelings for the king? Simply, was she an innocent or a player in the scheme?
Riding astraddle does not answer what is probably an unanswerable question, but it adds a subtle touch to her character.
Riding as she does, she appears assertive, perhaps even a bit rebellious.
She can gallop alongside the king, which she could not have done riding aside on her own horse, or perhaps behind Henry on his, as women sometimes did. In either of those positions, she would have appeared more passive, even innocent.
So, the filmmakers have it both ways. Her character remains opaque, elusive, and therefore most interesting.
The series ran four seasons, so there is much more that could be said. I will close by noting its most egregious concession to its audience’s assumed appetite for blood as well as sex appeal. It shows Cardinal Woolsey slitting his own throat as he is being taken back to London to be tried and no doubt beheaded. The scene is certainly intense with just enough blood.
However, the historical record tells us he died in his bed, apparently from myocardial infraction.
Not nearly as sexy as blood spouting from a slit throat as in this instance entertainment triumphs over fact.