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Happy 2012!

I hope everyone is having a wonderful New Year’s celebration! and not to be a downer, but in Tudor history I am reminded of a certain bittersweet event.

On New Year’s Day in 1511, Catherine of Aragon gave birth to a baby boy! Hooray, an heir for Henry VIII! …but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The poor boy would die some weeks later, on 22 February. It wasn’t noted what took the “New Year’s Boy” from this life. However, he is somehow listed as a Public Figure on Facebook, although the lil’ guy has no “likes” as of yet. How strange life can be!


Spanish Lite


Hey Hollywood and friends, I’ve got a bone to pick with you: Why oh why do you insist on making Catherine of Aragon a contender for the Frida Kahlo Look-a-Like contest?

Catherine, a Spanish princess, had strawberry blonde hair, light eyes, and a fair complexion. See, above?

She and Henry VIII (a ginger with a light complexion as well) had Mary I, so don’t even think of giving her the exotic treatment. You’ve already given her the stubby-little-troll  treatment and the bitter grouchpot treatment, poor girl.

Shakespeare’s Secret

The Folger Theater’s production of the oft-hidden “Henry VIII” is part of the happy hoopla surrounding the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession, along with the Vivat Rex! exhibit in the same building. I’ve seen the exhibit, and this past Saturday night, I was thrilled to take in the show. (There’s an official trailer here.)

Maybe it is out of superstition, since the Globe Theater burned down during a performance of “The Famous History of the Life of King Henry VIII” (or maybe because it’s a subject we’ve seen in a thousand different places so why should Shakespeare’s version stand out?) but the Shakespeare/John Fletcher take on the Tudors between the Duke of Buckingham’s arrest and Princess Elizabeth’s birth (spanning the dates from early 1521  to September 1533) is scarcely seen on the stage.

Since the play is called “Henry VIII,” you would expect the Big Guy to be the strongest character. Not so much. Henry, as played by Ian Merrill Peakes, has his intimidating moments and does a fair amount of storming the stage (and turning on the charm), but overall this is a more tame Henry than we might expect. This isn’t a slam against the terrific Peakes, but rather a fact of the character. Henry is the reason for the events in the play, but not usually the focus of the action. Plus, Shakespeare was not about to offend the memory of his patron: Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I.

Louis Butelli (who made me envision a hypothetic love child of Michael Stipe and a gangly Brad Pitt) is delightful as top jester Will Sommers, a character not in the original play. Sommers is the portal into the events: He plops down on the edge of the stage from time to time and uses puppets to clue us in to the coming drama, breaks that 4th wall regularly, and dons various other hats (literally) to play an old lady, a cardinal, and even Cromwell.  See video of Butelli’s fool here.  

Catherine of Aragon, as played by Naomi Jacobson, is both regal and grounded, has both gravity and sweetness. Her court scene puts the audience into, well, the courtroom audience and is one of the best moments of the play. Her downfall is, of course, nothing less than heartbreaking.

The undeniable standout, however, is Anthony Cochrane as Cardinal Wolsey. His strength and confidence are a marvel through most of the play, but it’s his breakdown that is a true work of art. When you’ve got the Royal Shakespeare Company on your resume, I expect no less! A true Renaissance man, Cochrane is also the composer and sound designer, and here I have to praise the powerful use of music in this “Henry VIII.”

I wish I could say good things about Karen Peakes, who plays a modern-day favorite from the Tudor era,  Anne Boleyn. Whereas, say, Genevieve Bujold and Natalie Dormer really brought Anne’s charm, wit, and magnetism to audiences, Peakes is stiff as wood. Charmless. A real disappointment. Is this because she is opposite her real-life husband? Well, apparently they’ve shared the stage over a dozen times before, so someone must think this is a good idea. I’m not one of them, though.

The show’s outstanding and effective set design (below) is another star. The traditional Tudor design of the theater takes on a slightly dark and gothic tone with the iron side “curtains” and simple cross serving as a powerful centerpiece on the back wall. The huge iron chandelier above is also used as an acting space. The costumes are equally impressive (and heavy!); a true treat for the eyes. Here’s a 4-minute video on Ian Merrill Peakes’ costume.

Before the play began, and during intermission, it was a nice treat to pop into the Great Hall,  just outside the theater doors, for another look at the Golden Gospels of Henry VIII and the rest of the Vivat Rex! exhibit. A true evening with Henry VIII it was, thanks to the Folger Theater, Shakespeare, and well, John Fletcher!

* A few glimpses of the play can be seen in a video review at the bottom of this page, and in the official trailer.

* The cast gives an awesome summary of the play in under a minute here.

Be My Guest, Claire Ridgway! Part 2

I hope you all enjoyed Part 1 of Claire Ridgway’s guest post on Alison Weir’s “Tudor women” talk (click here if you missed it). Let’s go to Part 2!


Henry’s Queens:

Obviously King’s wives were not like the average Tudor woman, but even though they were in charge of large households and budgets, Alison pointed out that the decisions were still made by the King. The queen’s role was to produce heirs and be the perfect model wife for the court.

But, what was the model wife? Here, Alison used Catherine of Aragon’s words when she pleaded with Henry VIII at the divorce hearing, saying that she was his “true, humble, obedient wife.” This summed up what a wife should be and her accepted role in the divine order. Even Catherine Parr applauded this ideal in her book Lamentations of a Sinner, writing that young women should be “sober-minded.” Alison pointed out the mottoes of Jane Seymour and Catherine Howard – “Bound to Obey and Serve” and “No Other Will but His” – these women accepted their role!

Alison emphasised that on marriage a woman became a man’s property and that it was even a man’s legal right to kill his wife on the spot if he caught her in the act of adultery. An adulterous woman brought shame on her family. Here, Alison mentioned Catherine Parr’s brother, William Parr, and his call for his unfaithful wife to be put to death. Fortunately, a divorce was granted instead! But look at Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, both accused of adultery and both executed. The man’s word was law and although Weir stated that Anne was the “victim of a bitter court struggle” and was “framed by her enemies,” the adultery charge stood and Anne lost her life. After Catherine Howard was executed, a law was passed that it was high treason for a woman of dubious past to marry the king.


In Medieval times, people believed that women should not be taught to write unless they were nuns and that the only education they needed was in home-making, to make them fit to be a good wife. However, the Renaissance made education for women more acceptable and Alison gave the examples of Margaret Roper (Sir Thomas More’s daughter), Catherine of Aragon, and Catherine Parr as models of educated and virtuous women. Too much learning could get a woman into trouble though–take the example of Catherine Parr, who was plotted against.

Mary and Elizabeth:

Alison pointed out that the only experience England had had of a female ruler was Empress Matilda in the 12th century and she didn’t last long. Mary I was England’s first real female monarch and she had many difficulties to contend with. For example, she couldn’t even do the ceremony of the Knights of the Bath because she couldn’t get into a bath with a bunch of men! Then, there was the question of marriage because of the traditional roles of husband and wife, with the woman being submissive to the man, yet she was Queen of England!

Alison spoke of how it was Elizabeth I who proved that a woman could rule successfully, but she wasn’t afraid of using her femininity to her advantage and using her feminine wiles to get her own way. The marriage issue was still a problem for Elizabeth though, but she solved it by remaining single while encouraging suitors to gain political advantage. Alison quite rightly noted that Elizabeth paved the way for future queens and that she was “one of the most important women to wield power.”

Final Words:

Alison Weir concluded her talk by stating that although 16th century women were seen as second to men, they still managed to rule countries and run businesses and estates. Life certainly was not easy for Tudor women, but, according to Alison, it did have its compensations and many marriages were loving relationships.

It really was a joy to hear Alison speak and to talk to her afterwards. She has so much knowledge and is happy to share this and answer questions. It was a great night and it raised £600 for the Mary Rose Appeal too.


Claire Ridgway writes The Anne Boleyn Files (blog here, Facebook page here) and the Elizabeth Files  (blog here, Facebook page here).  Thanks again, Claire, for your fantastic article!

“You Just Wait Until Your Father Gets Home [from Sacking the Monasteries]!”

“Our first-born is the greatest ass, the greatest liar, the greatest canaille, and the greatest beast in the whole world and we heartily wish he was out of it.”

Whew, tell us how you really feel about your son, George II! Two hundred years post-Tudor, the Hanoverians were famous for poor father-son relations, but George II’s feelings toward his son (who died before he could become George III, so it went to his own boy) were probably the most extreme. Victoria’s male successors weren’t about to win any father-son awards, either.  And although Henry VIII was very proud of his intelligent and talented children, we see how he used the girls in a genetic shuffleboard when it came to the succession, and famously obsessed over the XY chromosome.

Under the crown, children were primarily potential heirs and/or devices to marry into other royal families.  Most royals did not have hands-on parenting experience either, as their kids were raised by nannies, and even breastfed via a wet-nurse. No attachment parenting for them! (And I suspect no “mommy wars,” either.)

Regardless of  norms in royal parenting, it’s a good weekend* to hail those women who carried and gave birth to some of the biggest names in history. Let’s have a roll call of prominent Tudor moms…

These moms may not have received macaroni necklaces made with sticky fingers, but I suppose “look at me, Mom, I’m the ruler of the whole country” had a certain caché.

(* Mother’s Day is this Sunday, 9 May, in the U.S. Mothering Sunday in the U.K. is celebrated on the 4th Sunday of Lent; this year that date was 14 March.)

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Wedding Band

Six wives (queens consort) of King Henry VIII

Image by cliff1066™ via Flickr

The Six Ladies of Henry VIII were part of a fraternity that fascinates history buffs as well as those who just plain love a good, juicy soap opera. While it may have seemed the Massive Monarch blew through the line quickly, the amount of time he was married to each may surprise you. Here’s how long each gal wore that traveling wedding band:

1. Catherine of Aragon  About 24 years, not together for the last few (June 1509 – May 1533)

2. Anne Boleyn   3 1/2 years(January 1533 – May 1536)

3. Jane Seymour   1 1/2 years (May 1536 – October 1537)

4. Anne of Cleves   A measley six months (January 1540 – June 1540)

5. Katherine Howard  1 1/2 years (July 1540 – February 1542)

6. Catherine Parr 3 1/2 years (July 1543 – January 1547)

♥ A Very Tudor Valentine’s Day ♥

Out of Henry VIII’s six wives, who do you think was his true love? Get a quick rundown of all the Real Housewives of Tudor Court here, and cast your vote below!