A masterpiece built on some sandy ground

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Henry VIII


The following summary is far from being sufficient or satisfying:

“Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis star in this miniseries adapted from Hilary Mantel’s novels “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies.” The story focuses on Thomas Cromwell, consigliere to King Henry VIII, as he maneuvers his way through Tudor court. Filmed on location in England, the story is told from Cromwell’s perspective, and sheds light on the Tudor middle class and the internal struggles England faces amid the Protestant Reformation. Claire Foy, Bernard Hill, Anton Lesser and Mark Gatiss also star.” (http://tvlistings.zap2it.com/tv/x/EP02123009, accessed December 23, 2016)

In fact we could even consider it is slightly warped about the “Protestant Reformation” in England. We are in what the film shows far from such a change. So we better get into more details to really assess the value of this mini-series which is definitely crucial in our understanding of Henry VIII but also the tremendous turning point England is being at the time for the whole Christian world and in fact what is to become the West. A new concept of monarchy is being born then.

The very first element is the crucial background that is clearly alluded to but not explained. Henry VII in 1485 defeated Richard III and established the new dynasty based on the coming to terms of the two main noble families, the Lancaster to which Henry VII was connected and the York that provided the support of the church through the Cardinal of York. This coming to terms is fragile and brittle and Henry VIII is supposed to use it and reinforce it. His first marriage is of course seen as a denial of this competitive consensus since his first wife is related to the German Emperor and the Crown of Spain since the German Emperor is also the King of Spain. What’s more she is a fundamentalist Catholic in a country where Protestantism and Reformation are spreading both from Germany and from France, both the Lutherans and the Calvinists. It is alluded to with the burning of Tyndale. Note the film cheats slightly since Tyndale was strangled first and then burnt at the stake. At this moment the Catholics were dominant and Cromwell is practically the only person who airs strong criticism of monastic orders in England with sharp arguments like living in luxury, doing nothing productive and practicing a luscious life full of lust, the older members of the communities satisfying their erotic desires on the younger ones, particularly the novices. There is nothing gay in that practice which is nothing but pedophile violation. But in the whole series there must be three maybe four short instances of such criticism which is far from being developed and emphasized.

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Thomas Cromwell

In the same way the series alludes and slightly states the change introduced by Henry VIII on the advice from Thomas Cromwell to declare himself the supreme head of the English Church. And yet that is only connected to the first wife Henry VIII who was divorced on very light grounds considering that the marriage was not legal and thus did not have to be broken since it never existed, an argument refused by her uncle the German Emperor and by the Pope, and under that argument she only was a concubine and her daughter, the infamous Mary I to be known as Bloody Mary, had no right to the throne. To be able to divorce her and to remarry Henry VIII had to be the head of the Church. Note this argument was so light that after his death his son was king first, then his first daughter Mary was queen, and then and only then the second daughter Elizabeth was queen.

This daughter Elizabeth is the center of this series in a way though she is hardly seen since she was an infant at the time. The second wife, her mother, Anne Boleyn was young and beautiful but she was also a great power hungry woman. She got rid of many people by intrigue and she more or less supported the appointment of Thomas Cromwell as the secretary to the King because — and there she was mistaken — he defended the interests of the king though she thought he defended her interests. That’s the most interesting side of the series. Henry VIII is an impulsive and angry man and he needs Thomas Cromwell to cool him down, to provide him with information he gets from his “boys” who are like spies eavesdropping all the time and letting him know about what they saw and heard. The main one is Rafe. This production makes him young, which he is, but lean and unattractive with a general stance that makes him look like a corpse hungry raven or buzzard. And that’s the power of Thomas Cromwell who is not an aristocrat by birth and as such is looked down upon by all aristocrats but he holds them by their private parts because he knows things they don’t exactly like him knowing.

Four for a game of throne. . . or Bridge?

The next interest is that Henry VIII had a real court with the nobility, the aristocracy being present there and enjoying the easy life of doing nothing and being entertained and taken care of by the king. Anne Boleyn follows in that line and has her own beaus and suiters and her own musicians and ladies in attendance. The point that is levelled at her later on is that she has a promiscuous relationship with these young men, a lute player who is not noble by birth and several young nobles? The lute player will be easy to break and he will “confess” under duress though under no physical torture all the names Thomas Cromwell wants including her own brother and she will easily be accused of incest and philandering which is supposed to be permitted only to men. In other words she took advantage of the philandering of the young nobles and that is probably true. The point is how far and there is no real proof it was what was asserted against her. The series as for that shows how justice is not the search for anything true, but only the devising of tricks that can corner the accused in doing just what could be interpreted as the crime he is accused of like “Read this and tell us if you said it.” The dumb man reads “The king is in no way satisfying the queen because he has neither the endowment nor the skill to do it.” And then says “I never said that.” And Thomas Cromwell has it easy when the House of Lords stops laughing to say: “You just did.” Daniel would be ashamed of such justice, and Solomon too.

We are in other words far from just justice, true justice or the like. We are still in some kind of clownish fake ersatz of justice. That’s why Henry VIII likes Thomas Cromwell though he is not a noble by birth: he can more or less feel what the king’s desires are going to be, i.e. the king’s desires that are not yet expressed but that are going to emerge, and this requires a high level of intimacy with the king and psychology.

But what is shown or insinuated is that the king has to maneuver all the time to satisfy the hunger for power of the various noble families, marrying the daughters of these families being the tool to pacify the families and then getting rid of the daughters is the best way to push the families one after the other out of favor. It is all a power game, some game of thrones that never ends. In other words, Thomas Cromwell did not make kings but he sure made the legitimate king strong. And his first duty is to see the lust the king feels for this or that daughter of this or that noble family and then to make it possible for the girl to get the king on the proper ground, on the proper footing, i.e. to titillate the king and yet never yield and never appear as if she was trying to capture him; he must be the one who captures the girl though it has to happen within the etiquette and protocol limits of a new monarchy emerging. In the old days the king could take all the women he wanted who were from his vassals but that has been changing for a while and Henry VIII represents that change: the liege lord does not have this power any more: he has to go through etiquette, protocol and decent procedures. Kings are no longer what they used to be. But to be able to marry six wives he had to go through a lot of effort and pain: divorced, executed, natural death, divorced, executed and the last one survived. Catherine of Aragon was divorced. Anne Boleyn was executed. Jane Seymour died after childbirth. Anne of Cleves was divorced. Kathryn Howard was executed and Katherine Parr survived and was widowed. Just note the pattern of the first names: Catherine — Anne — Jane — Anne — Kathryn — Katherine. There is something obsessional in Henry VIII. The series shows a man who follows his fancies, at times his crazes though he is shown as afraid of death or of dying.

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Relaxed in/on his throne

It is thus a realistic series about Henry VIII the man as well as the king but it is visibly realistic as for the society that is depicted but it is not exactly fair or faithful because it is centered on the nobles that are arrogant and superior with anyone who is not from their elite group, and the worst among them is Anne Boleyn. The way she treats her lute player is absolutely gross and it deserves the execution she got, though she dragged into her own death the lute player and three more young nobles. Concerning the execution, it should have been fair to say that she was not burnt at the stake because Henry VIII refused the accusation of witchcraft though he alludes to it once when he pretends he has been charmed or bewitched in some way. She was thus executed like a noble person, certainly not as a traitor. It would have been nice if the executioner had been presented as a skilled executioner called for the occasion from Calais so that the “show” could be clean and she was beheaded upright on her knees with one single stroke of a sword. It was not the case for Thomas Cromwell four years later in 1540 who was beheaded with an axe and it took several strokes to finally do the job.

A very good production though slightly light on some facets of that period and this king. But it was sure that people who got too close to him did not last very long.

“I am come hither to die, and not to purge myself, as may happen, some think that I will, for if I should do so, I were a very wretch and miser: I am by the Law condemned to die, and thank my Lord God that hath appointed me this death, for mine offence: For sithence the time that I have had years of discretion, I have lived a sinner, and offended my Lord God, for the which I ask him heartily forgiveness. And it is not unknown to many of you, that I have been a great traveler in this world, and being but of a base degree, was called to high estate, and sithes the time I came thereunto, I have offended my prince, for the which I ask him heartily forgiveness, and beseech you all to pray to God with me, that he will forgive me.

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Die you must

“O father forgive me. O son forgive me, O holy Ghost forgive me: O three persons in one God forgive me. And now I pray you that be here, to bear me record, I die in the Catholic faith, not doubting in any article of my faith, no nor doubting in any Sacrament of the Church. Many hath slandered me, and reported that I have been a bearer, of such as hath maintained evil opinions, which is untrue, but I confess that like as God by his holy spirit, doth instruct us in the truth, so the devil is ready to seduce us, and I have been seduced: but bear me witness that I die in the Catholic faith of the holy Church. And I heartily desire you to pray for the King’s grace, that he may long live with you, may long reign over you. And once again I desire you to pray for me, that so long as life remains in this flesh, I waver nothing in my faith.” (http://www.theanneboleynfiles.com/28-july-1540-thomas-cromwells-final-speech/#ixzz4ThGkRBY5, accessed December 23, 2016)

Was Thomas Cromwell a Protestant as it has been asserted or then he referred to the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, the Nicene creed existing at the time of Constantine, but to argue on a capital ‘C’ or a small ‘c’ in an oral “speech” before dying and with no real record of it, except memory, is maybe slightly contrived or fanciful. What we know is that he advocated the closing of all orders and at the time that was very Protestant and this reform was carried out with the appropriation of all their assets by the Crown. Then the rest is conjectures and has to remain just that.


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Cute setting

Written by

Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, PhD in Germanic Linguistics (University Lille III) and ESP Teaching (University Bordeaux II) has been teaching all types of ESP

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