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Portraying Henry
March 7, 2008, 7:47 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Is it really good to be the king?

If you have the stomach for it.

And, of course, in later life, Henry VIII had that — stomach, I mean — something like 300 pounds worth.

Figuratively, he had it much earlier, when he took over the English throne in 1509 at 18, soon after his father, Henry VII, died.

Henry VIII killed a wife who couldn’t produce male heirs, tortured and killed alleged and real adulterers, and was himself an adulterer at will — and he had a lot of will.

The drama of Henry VIII and his six wives — and twice as many mistresses — has been fodder for plays, movies and popular culture for centuries, from way back to William Shakespeare’s own play, “Henry VIII” — written nearly a century after Henry reigned — to Showtime’s series “The Tudors.”

The reason is simple: It’s a soap opera with cool costumes, funky accents, political intrigue and lots of sex.

The movie of Philippa Gregory’s sexy historical novel, “The Other Boleyn Girl,” which opened Feb. 29, stars an extremely virile Eric Bana as the Tudor king obsessed with making sure his DNA lives to rule another day.

The Showtime series, whose new season begins at 9 p.m. March 30, stars an as-cool-looking Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

How realistic is this pop-culture depiction of a young, strapping Henry, ready for love?

Realistic enough, said a local professor.

“When he’s young, he’s dashing, and tall for his age [6 feet 1 inch],” said John Patrick Montaño, associate professor of history at the University of Delaware.

“He’s 18 when he comes to power, and the other kings of Europe are older. He hunts, dances, plays music. He’s a classic early Renaissance man.”

“Renaissance man” is the appellation we give to people who do a lot of different things very well, and are very cool about it. Like Leonardo da Vinci and Shakespeare. Nice company to be in.

Certainly, for dramatic purposes, Bana’s and Meyers’ well-defined pecs aren’t absurdly anachronistic.

Henry turned into a 300-pound behemoth that resembled the sensual slob that Charles Laughton portrayed — with leg of lamb in hand — in his Oscar-winning turn in 1933.

But, as a young man, Henry VIII was as hungry and lusty as much of the rest of us.

A normal man can’t help but be flattered — and turned on — by women fawning all over him, no matter their motives. What made it even better (for Henry, not the ladies) was his political goal: reproduction.

Sallow-cheeked and a bit droopy-eyed, yes, if you trust a 1509 portrait of the young Henry from the Denver Art Museum’s Berger Collection.

Wide-faced, sure, but imposing and magisterial, if you take painter Hans Holbein’s famous 1537 portrait of the maturing king seriously.

But consider Bana’s looks a dramatic metaphor, or meditation, on the allure of power.

Good looks really don’t have all that much to do with kingly success in the field of getting chicks.

In merry olde England, “He is the fount of all patronage, grants, money and land,” Montaño said.

Which is one of the reasons why there are two Boleyns that mattered in Henry’s life.

“Boleyn’s father pushed both of them on the court,” Montaño said. “He knows that Henry has his eye on the ladies.”

Yes, that would make Mr. Boleyn something of a pimp.

But not really. Consider the times, Montaño said.

If Europe in the 16th century was anything, it was an age of men. Girls didn’t matter — except to give birth to more men, to keep the family name and line going.

This is terribly important in a society that ostensibly believes not only in a monarchy, but one that is sanctioned by the biggest monarch of them all, God.

Henry’s father had just ended the War of the Roses, which had plunged England in a decades-long civil war. The last thing the boy-king wanted was any doubt that his line — and the continued peace of his country — would continue unbroken.

From a young, virile, heterosexual point of view, it was really good to be king in 1509.

But the Tudors had a problem producing healthy children that were male.

Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, failed to produce a boy. Instead, she produced the future queen who came to be known as Bloody Mary. Yuck.

Henry had to get a papal dispensation to marry Catherine, who already had been married by proxy to Henry’s older brother, Arthur, who died young.

But, after more than 15 years, Henry grew impatient with Catherine’s inability to produce a boy.

Mary Boleyn, the “other” one in Gregory’s title, had by then become Henry’s mistress. But any fruit of that relationship would have been illegitimate. He may have had a great time with Mary, but it didn’t count.

Another Boleyn, Anne, paraded herself in front of Henry, and, smarty-pants that she was, refused to become his mistress. She held out for marriage.

Which, of course, made Henry — and every guy before or after him — want her even more.

So, Henry tried to get his marriage to Catherine annulled to marry Anne, who told him that she would deliver him lots of boys.

This time, the pope said no, because he was busy kissing up to the Holy Roman Emperor, who, to put it mildly, didn’t like Henry.

So, there it is — the beginning of Henry VIII’s and England’s break from Rome and their mild version of the Protestant Reformation.

Alas for Anne, she wasn’t any luckier in having a boy who lived than Catherine was.

She did, however, give birth to Elizabeth, who eventually went on to reign from 1558 to 1603.

But this could only have been posthumous cold comfort to Anne, who lost her head because Henry grew as impatient with her as he had with Catherine.

And now, being head of his own church, he could do what he wanted.

“Anne gets beheaded after he accuses her of adultery with her first boyfriend, whom he tortured until he confessed,” Montaño said. “He also accused her of having unnatural relations with one of her brothers.”

Call it overkill.

The day after Anne died, Henry got engaged to Jane Seymour.

But we’re going to stop there. Even though there’s more blood and sex and adultery to follow, there’s not enough space here to follow it.

See? This is why dramatizations, plays, novels, movies and TV shows continue to tell the tale. So, enjoy.

But realize they’re all fictionalized versions of at least two essential truths that we tend to forget because we like to watch people figure out how to have sex.

One truth is that it was good to be the king in the 16th century.

The other is that getting chicks has little to do with looks and, even, alas, love.

It’s about power, position, a dash of talent, and convincing the lady in question that you’re the best thing that could happen to her.

Times don’t change.

Eighth of that name, he died in 1547, yet this passionate king’s allure lives The News Journal
Artist Hans Holbein’s famous portrait of His Majesty from about 1537 is the “only definitive portrait” according to the Tate Britain, which featured the painting from Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum during a 2006-2007 exhibition. The portrait is the only image of the king known to be just one step removed from a drawing done by Holbein from life. Henry, about 46, is portly, intimidating, self-confident and wary.

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