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Series / The Six Wives of Henry VIII

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"While my husband lives, I am his wife. His own true wife."
A soon-to-be-proven-not-entirely-accurate statement by Wife #1, Catherine of Aragon

Henry the Eighth to six spouses was wedded:
one died, one survived, two divorced, two beheaded.

The Six Wives of Henry VIII is a six-part landmark British mini-series produced in 1969 which details the life of one of England's most colorful kings. It's one of the first British drama series to be videotaped in color, and was first introduced to American audiences via CBS and then PBS' Masterpiece Theatre series. Each episode is a self-contained 90 minute play centred on each of Henry VIII's hapless spouses, who are as follows:

  • Wife #1: Catherine of Aragon (Annette Crosbie), a Spanish princess brought from across the sea to marry Henry's older brother Arthur. Unfortunately, the sickly Arthur died soon after the ceremony, leaving Catherine at the mercy of Arthur's skinflint father, Henry VII. It only was after his death that Catherine was finally able to fulfill her destiny as the royal baby-making machine for the new King, Henry VIII, but her performance in that department left much to be desired since she could only produce a single daughter, Mary, and a few stillborn children. Henry eventually tried to trade her in for a new, younger model (one of her Ladies-in-Waiting), who was to become...

  • Wife #2. Anne Boleyn (Dorothy Tutin), an opportunistic, dark-haired beauty with a cutting dry wit and an uncanny ability to generate enemies all around her. But she rode the moon as long as Henry loved her—and as long as there was a possibility of her bearing him a rightful son and heir. Henry's battle to convince the Catholic church to allow him to divorce Catherine and marry Anne was a long, protracted affair, but eventually the bombastic, over-the-top monarch hit upon a perfect solution: break off from the church in Rome and start a new church with himself at the head! Soon Catherine was out of the picture (to die later on from neglect) and Anne was in. Unfortunately Anne wasn't nearly as good at the "dutiful wife" thing as she had been at the "snarky outspoken mistress" thing and Henry soon tired of her increasing nagging - whatever Catherine's failure in the marital bed, at least she kept her mouth shut whenever Henry wandered. Anne also wasn't very good at the whole "bearing a male heir" thing, as she was only able to produce a daughter, Elizabeth. A few trumped-up charges of adultery and incest later, and Anne was on the chopping block, to be replaced by—

  • Wife #3: Jane Seymour, AKA "Plain Jane" (Anne Stallybrass). Jane spent much of her time as Queen trying to reunite Henry with his estranged daughters and angsting over what had been done to her predecessor, Anne. Surely karma (or the English Renaissance equivalent of it) wasn't going to let her profit from such a travesty of Justice. One can almost see the relief in Jane's face as the karmic hammer finally falls, striking her with puerperal fever and death a few days after giving birth to Henry's son and heir Prince Edward. Henry was genuinely devastated by Queen Jane's death and thus refused all thought of tying the knot again, until his slimy chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, urged him to marry—

  • Wife #4: Anne of Cleves (Elvi Hale), a German princess whom Henry had never met in person, but whose official painted portrait was pretty hawt. Unfortunately her picture was the Renaissance equivalent of a heavily Photoshopped Craigslist photo— once the king saw her in person, he wanted nothing to do with her. Yet he had to marry her, lest he offend the Germans with whom he was hoping to form an all-important Protestant Alliance. Anne, for her part, was not too keen on marrying the by-now morbidly obese monarch, but she went ahead with the wedding ceremony (which, thankfully, did NOT conclude with a hot, steamy consummation scene). Ignored and without friends, Anne tried her best to survive in the cold atmosphere of the English court. Cromwell, the official who arranged the whole debacle, begged Anne to make the marriage work, but she told him (in a very polite and British way) to stick it. (He was executed a short time after, but it was okay since he was sort of a jerk.) Anne savvily arranged her own exit from the chains of wedded bliss by promising Henry a quick and easy divorce, and wound up with wealth, prestige, and the title "the King's beloved sister". Once free, Henry then went on to marry—

  • Wife #5: Catherine Howard (Angela Pleasance), the Anna Nicole Smith of her day. Henry knew nothing of her early life, however — and probably wouldn't have found out about it, if one of Catherine's old hook-ups hadn't shown up at the palace one day asking for a job. Rumors of Catherine's underage "Girls Gone Wild" behavior soon began to circulate, and she realized the only way she could survive the king finding out about it would be to bear him a son. Unfortunately, the king was impotent, and since Viagra wouldn't be invented for another 500 years, Catherine had to find an alternative means of impregnation. This she did by luring one of Henry's more handsome attendants into becoming a sperm donor, but the two of them quickly grew careless with their liasons and were soon discovered. Everyone who was involved with the scandal swiftly had their breathing licenses revoked, with Catherine herself being made to share the same fate as her cousin, Anne Boleyn. In spite of all this, Henry decided to give the whole "wedded bliss" thing one last try with—

  • Wife: #6: Catherine Parr (Rosalie Crutchley), a pious widow who had already married and buried two husbands by the time she met Henry. Her main purpose in marrying the king was to serve as a political pawn for the Protestant faction of the government, who was at war with the Catholic faction of the government, who was at war with pretty much everyone who disagreed with them. The Corrupt Church official, Bishop Gardiner, eventually prods Catherine into tying her own noose and sticking her head into it by leading her into a religious argument with King Henry (who, by that time, felt he was a religion unto himself). Angered that his wife would disagree with him about anything, he orders her sent to the dreaded Tower of London. Catherine has to engage in some serious backpedalling and kissing up to get Henry to forgive her, which he does. At which point he drops and soon dies, leaving Catherine to continue her career as pawn-turned-Queen for the ambitious Thomas Seymour, one of her pre-Henry paramours and uncle to the incoming King, Edward the VI.

Whew. This series had a lot of history to cover, and it did it well. Helping it along was its main star, Keith Michell, who does such an excellent job of portraying the bombastic, stubborn, larger-than-life Henry VIII, once you've watched him in the role you'll have a difficult time picturing anyone else. He went on to reprise the role in the 1996 series of The Prince and the Pauper by The BBC. Rich with period detail and great performances, this series (now available on DVD, as well as on BritBox) is a must-see for anyone interested in the drama and history surrounding one of the most interesting men who ever lived. The series also inspired a sequel series, Elizabeth R, about the life of Henry's second daughter who, ironically, turned out to be the "son" that Henry always wanted, a powerful, intelligent monarch who was to usher England into one of its greatest Golden Ages.

This show provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Dye-Job: Averted. Very unusually, Catherine of Aragon is portrayed not as the stereotypically dark Spaniard she's often portrayed as but as the strawberry blonde she actually was. Additionally, Henry keeps Keith Mitchell’s blonde hair (until going gray), while historically he was a redhead.
  • Better as Friends: Anne of Cleves invokes this, though it seems less out of affection for Henry than a desire to be allowed to see his daughters.
  • Big Eater: Henry. It's not so much a problem when he's young and physically active, but after he injures his leg all the indulgence starts catching up.
  • Blackmail: When Howard's old boyfriend comes back into her life blackmailing her for a job, one has to wonder why she doesn't simply point out the very logical fact that if he reveals their earlier indiscretions, he would be liable to face the same punishment that she would. But then again, Howard wasn't portrayed as being very smart...
  • Boisterous Bruiser: Henry has elements of this in his personality. ("Ol' Bluff King Hal" was one of his nicknames.) If you crossed Henry in any way, he could drop the jolly act and quickly get mean...
  • The Caligula: Henry became more and more like this as the years went by. As a Christian King and Head of the Church of England, he believed himself infallible and his actions infused with Divine authority. (Of course his frequent habit of offing those who displeased or disagreed with him would have qualified him for this trope even without his near-insane levels of egotism.)
  • Can't Get Away with Nuthin': It's the two meanest examples of Henry's wives who wind up on the chopping block. All of the sympathetic ones died of natural causes.
  • Chessmaster: In a court full of schemers, Cromwell stuck out as being the most ruthless and manipulative. It was his efforts that sent Anne Boleyn to the block. His Chessmastering eventually backfired when his scheme to create a Protestant Alliance in Europe failed because of Henry's dislike of Anne of Cleves.
  • Corrupt Church: Bishop Gardiner and his faction who routinely tortured and burned anyone they deemed as "heretics". No doubt it's guys like this who inspired many evil Crystal Dragon Jesus-style anime and RPG religions...
    • Bishop Gardiner is usually potrayed based on Protestant/Puritan and anti-Catholic propaganda sources, so he tends to get a "Historical Villain Upgrade".
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: While Culpeper moans about his imminent date with the axe, Dereham bitterly notes that at least he's getting a clean death as a gentleman. Being baseborn, Dereham is instead hanged, drawn, and quartered.
  • Decadent Court: The various religious and familial factions of Henry's court were constantly at war with each other. They would even support the execution of their own family members if doing so got them ahead at court. This is especially a key part of the episode on Jane Seymour, who is too naïve and principled to consciously navigate the various plots and factions at Henry VIII's court, especially the growing conflict between Catholics and Protestants over England's religious future.
  • Domestic Abuse: Only if you consider trumping up false charges against your wife and then cutting her head off "Domestic Abuse". Or emotionally abusing her into trying to consent to an dissolution of the marriage. Or calling her ugly and being snippy because she doesn't understand English court and social activities. Or cutting her head off because she cheated on you, which, yeah, bad on her part, but that was the one time when no one would have taken her side and spoken out against a divorce. Or making plans to send her to prison because she happens to harmlessly disagree with you on religion. Jane is the wife who seemed to be treated relatively kindly through out, save a few religious arguments, but there's a possibility she died due to him not having her treated properly after giving birth. And then, there was the treatment of his two daughters after their mothers fell out of favour...
  • Face Death with Dignity: Both Boleyn and Howard muster up as much dignity as they can facing the headsman; Catherine actually spends her imprisonment practicing on a block brought in at her request. Totally averted off-camera by Cromwell, whose final letter to the king devolves into begging for "mercy, mercy, mercy".
  • Foreshadowing: Cranmer hopes that one condemned man isn't sentenced to be burned: "We all fear those flames." Cranmer would later be burned as a heretic by Mary.
  • Gorgeous Period Dress: An example of this in television. The Six Wives of Henry VIII was one of the first major British TV to be videotaped in color, and the costumes and settings take advantage of that fact.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: The struggle between the Protestants and Catholics is largely presented as such. There are decent characters of either affiliation, as well as utter monsters. Embodied best by Henry himself, who is both ostensibly crusading against the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church, and is personally massively vain and hedonistic.
  • Heir Club for Men: Henry's main concern. He finally gets one in the form of Edward, but the child's sickly constitution makes Henry anxious for some back-up heirs.
  • Heroic BSoD: Parr has one of these after learning that her husband plans to send her to the Tower of London. It takes a talking down by her friend, Bishop Cranmer, to get her sane again.
  • Historical Badass Upgrade: Anne of Cleves is depicted as being politically smart, and she persuades Henry to never consummate the marriage, as well as start the negotiations for her divorce. The real Anne of Cleves' upbringing and personality was much closer to Jane's, although Anne also had a hidden stubborness and toughness which her predecessor lacked.
  • Historical Beauty Update: Averted with Henry, for the most part. Unlike that other show about Henry VIII, this one didn't feel the need to keep its star looking like a hunky supermodel throughout the character's entire life. Keith Michell is just as compelling as the Older Henry covered with makeup and a fat suit as he was as the thin, handsome Younger Henry.
  • Hypocrite: When Henry is courting Jane, he tries to impress her with a "miraculous" relic that he owns, and she is indeed swayed. Once she's his wife and is trying to get him to ease up on the monasteries, he rails against the corruption of the Roman Church and demonstrates the trick behind the fake miracle to show how cynical the Roman Catholic religious establishment is. Jane is too distraught to think of pointing out that this means Henry took advantage of her ignorance with what is essentially a cheap illusionist's trick— exactly what he was just condemning the Catholics for doing. Just as well, since Henry probably would have reacted violently to that.
  • Kick the Dog:
    • Howard insulting the king's beloved jester and having him banned from court, just because she didn't like his looks. Considering he was one of the only members of the court who wasn't a self-serving jerkass, this comes across as particularly mean.
    • There's also her early treatment of her cousin, threatening to beat her merely for giggling at one of her romantic stories. She later threatens to poison said cousin if she repeats said story, but that at least can be justified by self-preservation.
  • Insistent Terminology:
    • Best not to refer to the Bishop of Rome as "the Pope" in front of Henry.
    • Henry refuses to acknowledge Catherine of Aragon as his first queen following their divorce. Everyone later refers to her as either Princess Catherine, or Princess Dowager Catherine.
  • I Was Quite a Looker: Henry remembers well the days when he was strong and dashing, and is quick to remind other people, too. It adds considerable pathos to his character.
  • Lighter and Softer: Compared to later dramatizations of the Tudor era, such as Showtime's The Tudors and Wolf Hall.
  • Manchild: In a sense, this is how the series (and many historians) view Henry VIII's complex personality. He could be strangely naive, was pathologically unable to lie even if it served his best interests, and lashed out against anyone who caused him to doubt his own motives. The series (and historical records) suggest that Henry VIII was even raised in isolation.
  • Morality Pet: Seymour is this to Henry, to an extent. She tries to get him to go easier on the monasteries and the Catholics who are rebelling against him. Although this largely fails, she does inspire him to Pet the Dog a few times - see example below.
  • Not What It Looks Like: A very dark example. Henry catches Parr and Thomas Seymour at the end of a romantic conversation, and Parr has to come up with a quick way to defuse the situation. The scene ends with Thomas wisely asking and being granted permission to leave the country.
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted. Henry marries two Annes and three Catherines. And one Jane.
  • Pet the Dog:
    • After Jane's death, Henry decides to honor her wish to support a convent, despite it going against his religious agenda. And he decides to announce his intentions of doing so in front of Jane's rival, the evil and scheming Cromwell, just to make a point about how much he loved her.
    • Jane, a devout Catholic, has a sweet moment with Thomas Cranmer. While he is staunchly Protestant, it's clear that they still respect each other and neither one tries to backstab the other. In real life, Jane never tried to execute Cromwell, Cranmer or even Boleyn. They were the three most outspoken Protestants in Henry's royal court at the time.
    • Cranmer is rather sympathetic here compared to other portrayals. It's clear he disagrees with the Catholic Church from a religious standpoint, but he is not really anti-Catholic and/or a fanatical Protestant in this portrayal and he is not scheming to kill Catholic figures such as Thomas More, John Fisher and/or Catherine Howard. In the film adaptation, he clearly is trying to HELP Howard and does not want to see her executed.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Anne of Cleves in the only wife who gives up queenship willingly. Enthusiastically, even. It helps that both she and Henry can confirm the marriage was never consummated. She happily arranges to receive an estate of her own and leaves London.
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: A non-comedic example. While Henry starts out young and fit when he first courts Catherine of Aragon, he becomes uglier as the series progress through Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour's stories. By the time he marries Anne of Cleves, he is overweight, and suffering from ulcers on his legs which hinders his mobility.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: Cromwell's attempts at forging an anti-Papal alliance are stymied by a number of factors, not least of which is the fragility of the bickering Protestant German League. Then there's the fact that although Henry is firmly against the Pope, he also loathes Protestants.
  • Whole Episode Flashback: How Jane's episode is structured. Jane is too sick to play an active part in her son's christening, so she watches on while laying on a stretcher. While there, her story is told through flashbacks.