“A Game of Historical Hopscotch”: Examining The Tudors Series as Historical Fiction

Written by Kathryn Robinson. Edited by Eleanor Winn.

The Tudors was a historical fiction drama which ran from 2007 to 2010. It followed the life of King Henry VIII from his youthful years as a relatively new king to his death in 1547. Despite its immense popularity with audiences, critics were reluctant to praise it, mainly because of its deviance from what they perceived to be true historical fact. But was this criticism really fair? After all, the series was an example of historical fiction so why does it matter that it wasn’t historically accurate?

The number of ways that The Tudors managed to move away from historical fact is quite startling; even a glance across its Wikipedia page gives us a lengthy paragraph of where the series departed from history and where would we be without reliable historical correction from Wikipedia? But even those who haven’t educated themselves by looking at this page can see how Henry seemed to stay almost as youthful in appearance as he was in the first episode until the last, after nearly thirty years. It was only in the last few episodes that we saw a slightly older Henry but accounts tell us that by the middle of the series, Henry would have been obese, old and unattractive in reality and this was never really shown. In a wider sense, time in the series was more compact, making episodes cover one or even two years in the hour – exceptions being in cases such as the episode surrounding Anne Boleyn’s execution – and gaps between episodes, whilst portrayed as only being a few days or a week, were often a year or two. This deviation from fact can be justified by the practical constraints of making a series; clearly the producers did not have the luxury of making the programme last thirty years.

There were also events which, by the writer Michael Hirst’s own admission, never happened. According to the New York Times, Hirst created the plot in which Cardinal Wolsey commits suicide in the Tower of London because he wanted to give actor Sam Neill a ‘powerful scene’ so he could ‘go out with a bang’. In fact, Wolsey died from an illness whilst on the way back to face charges of treason. Also, he admits that the plot to assassinate Anne Boleyn was fictional and included to represent ‘how much the English people hated her’. These show a desire to make the series entertaining and, apart from a few plots that were totally unnecessary, it succeeded in this aim.

And then we come to the character that was a combination of two characters. Confused? I certainly was when I examined a Tudor family tree in a friend’s house, but it transpires that confusion was exactly what Hirst was trying to avoid when he decided that the king’s sister Princess Mary’s life would happen under a character named Princess Margaret, who was his other sister. He justified this by arguing that the audience and the crew would get confused with two Princess Marys in Series 1 (the other of course being Henry’s daughter by Catherine of Aragon), despite the fact that they both looked different and were completely different ages. Obvious really.

Henry VIII & his…five wives?

There was also the sense in The Tudors that the writer was playing up a lot of the myths of Tudor England. Series one included a scene in which Henry sat in a room by the fire and composed ‘Greensleeves’ about his new love Anne Boleyn. Legend has told us that it was Henry who composed the popular tune despite the fact that he didn’t, but it was certainly a very well-known composing legend. Arguably, this myth was beaten in more modern times through the BBC’s revelation a few years ago that Ronnie Hazlehurst – conductor and composer of many BBC sitcom title scores – had been the mastermind behind S Club 7’s ‘Reach’, which turned out to be false. Wikipedia strikes again.

These are just some of the ways in which The Tudors differed from what actually happened in Henry VIII’s reign and just some of the things that critics have got immensely wound up about, accusing Michael Hirst of playing fast and loose with the history and ‘playing a game of historical hopscotch’. I suppose they believe that historical accuracy is important in order to educate viewers rather than further perpetuating myths but surely this should be the job of historians: to take a programme like The Tudors and put it alongside work of historical fact and correction rather than a group of journalists writing from the intellectual and moral high-ground. The Tudors was never intended to be a documentary. Hirst was commissioned to write a series that would entertain viewers and mimic a soap opera, although viewers expecting Hampton Court to dine on Betty’s hotpot would be extremely disappointed. This is an example of history as a commodity; Hirst wrote what would ultimately sell, in terms of audience figures, commissions and later sales from downloads and DVDs and if certain historical facts had to be left by the wayside, then so be it. I believe that writers have some sort of duty to be historically accurate; if The Tudors was wholly inaccurate then the programme would not have been as popular as it was and would not have received so many awards. We must remember, however, its genre was historical fiction and so it was bound to be different from what actually happened. The reason I love the series is not because every single thing about it is completely in line with history. But what was good about it was that it brought history to a wider audience who might have then gone on to find out a bit more about the episode they watched. In this way, perhaps we should all stop having a go at Michael Hirst and reflect on how, inadvertently, he might have done history a favour.

*Title reference from Ginia Bellafante in The New York Times, 28/03/2008

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