Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived.
Gloriana. The Virgin Queen. Bloody Mary.
Just reading those words can instantly bring your mind to one of the most famous, scandalous, and formidable families to ever rule a nation. The powerful Tudor dynasty has long mesmerized and enthralled all who have come across their stories during history lessons. From the king who nabbed his crown against the odds to a long-awaited male heir who didn’t live past the age of 15, to the queen who defied all expectations and ruled for 45 years, their collective reign over England from 1485 to 1603 was chock full of warfare, religious reform, and treachery at a time where fealty, obedience, and adhering to the tenets of one’s social station literally meant life or death.
Where does that allure from all these television and film adaptations of the Tudors come from? Their mere existence. For those of us who were raised here in the United States, we have never lived under monarchist rule. Therefore, that very precariousness of life under this type of government is something we can’t fully grasp. Those stories told of imprisonment, passion, treason, and execution by the crown from hundreds of years ago has us hooked. But let’s be frank: That’s only part of what keeps us coming back for more. We also love the salaciousness, the sex, betrayal, failures, triumphs, and the clothes! We all find these legendary accounts to be even more deliciously wicked when everyone is trussed up in codpieces, doublets, corsets, and farthingales.
With Starz’s Becoming Elizabeth now here, Tudor Fever is once again on the rise. Short of finding a time travel machine to return to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, below is a list of some of the most entertaining, mind-blowing depictions of those tempestuous Tudors to come across both the big and small screens.
The Tudors (2007-2010)
While not completely true to its title, this series goes through most of Henry VIII’s tenure pretty quickly. In its ambitiousness (employing multiple time jumps), all six of his marriages and virtually every sizable event that occurred during his stint on the throne were depicted. However, what makes The Tudors different from the other series is that it has, by and large, the sexiest cast and the most tantalizing love scenes out there. Plus, it ramps up the historical intrigue, thanks to executive producer and writer Michael Hirst (who would go on to helm the wildly successful Vikings).
Despite the lack of hair dye or weight gain to present his ample girth in later years, as Henry VIII, Jonathan Rhys Meyers oozed charisma and sex appeal, exuding an unapologetic swagger that channeled Mick Jagger and Robert Plant. Considering all the personalities involved, the cast is massive. As Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, Maria Doyle Kennedy and Natalie Dormer deliver powerful performances as Henry’s first two spouses; polar opposites whose tragic fates I believe later influenced Dormer’s role as Margaery Tyrell on Game of Thrones. Extravagant, exciting, and jam-packed with intensity, if you’re searching for the closest thing to a Renaissance and Medieval soap opera, look no further.
Wolf Hall (2015)
The character roster in most Tudor dramas is unchanging, so this series is a breath of fresh air by focusing on someone on the fringe of those rascally royals. Based on Hilary Mantel’s 2009 book of the same name, Wolf Hall once again delves into the romance of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, but from the point of view of his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell (played by Mark Rylance).
Cromwell must contend with both Henry (Damian Lewis, a perfect casting choice based on looks alone) and the outspoken Anne (Claire Foy, who breaks out a fabulous French accent at times) pertaining to the “Great Matter,” the term coined for the arduous process Henry undertook to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled so that he could wed Boleyn. Cromwell is caught in the middle. As a commoner who has risen to a very powerful position, he knows he could lose everything should he give the wrong advice as Henry considers breaking from Rome and establishing the Church of England (a Catholic / Protestant divide that would dominate the reigns of subsequent Tudor monarchs). While the subsequent books that make up Mantel’s trilogy have yet to be adapted for the small screen, those who are searching for a point of view into the Tudor court from a person outside the family will appreciate this understated, yet gripping miniseries.
The White Queen (2013) / The White Princess (2017) / The Spanish Princess (2019-2020)
The Tudors wouldn’t have even sat on the throne if it weren’t for the Wars of the Roses, which concerned two opposing factions of the Plantagenets (the Lancasters and Yorks). A leading writer of historical fiction, Philippa Gregory’s novels have been made into three miniseries that cover multiple generations locked in this fight.
Each series narrows in on the queens whose sobriquets make up the titles. The White Queen covers Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson), a lesser noble who married Yorkist king Edward IV and was said to have possessed psychic powers. The White Princess presented her daughter, Elizabeth of York (superbly played by a pre- Killing Eve Jodie Comer), whose hand in marriage was given to a newly crowned Henry VII to secure peace in the land. Most recently was The Spanish Princess, about a young Catherine of Aragon (Charlotte Hope), her first marriage to Arthur, Prince of Wales, followed by her second to his younger brother. Perhaps you’ve heard of him.
The common denominator in these stories? The ultimate badass Lancastrian, the Red Queen herself: Henry VII’s mother Margaret Beaufort (portrayed in TWQ by Amanda Hale, TWP by Michelle Fairley, and TSP by Harriet Walter). Meddlesome, pious, and obsessed with maintaining power and control on behalf of her son, she is the consummate villain throughout.
Elizabeth (1998) / Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)
As if viewers couldn’t get enough of the legend that was Elizabeth I, Hollywood gave us yet another reworking of the life of Good Queen Bess.
Beginning with the final Tudor queen’s ascension to the throne following the death of her deeply unpopular half-sister, Mary I, naturally there’s a venture into familiar territory in Elizabeth. Directed by Shekhar Kapur and written by none other than Michael Hirst, the production value is precisely what you would expect from this type of project. The costumes, sets and everything in between, just drips of wealth and opulence. Cate Blanchett tears up the screen in each of her scenes; unequivocally transforming herself into this woman with such finesse and strength, masterfully showing her determination to repair what her father and grandfather built, but her brother and sister could not maintain.
Reprising the role in the sequel, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Blanchett’s sheer magnetism in one pivotal sequence involving an impassioned speech to her soldiers during a battle against the Spanish Armada once again proved why Elizabeth I’s mettle continues to influence and inspire. Naturally, in both films, much dramatic license is taken, but they will engross you from beginning to end.
Documentaries on the Tudors
As much as we love how the studios keep cranking out scripted series and movies, for myself and many of my fellow history buffs, nothing beats a good documentary. For those who are leaning less towards fictional portrayals or want more concrete facts about the real personalities and circumstances of these historical figures can rest easily. We’ve got you covered.
Presented by some of the leading Tudor historians, including Suzannah Lipscomb, Lucy Worsley, and Dan Jones, a number of avenues have countless documentary options for you to choose from, including PBS, YouTube channels History Hit, Real Royalty, Timeline, and certainly BritBox, and Acorn TV. Any of the amazing and insightful documentaries that are out there will definitely satisfy your curiosity about Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, Elizabeth I, all of their extended relations and members of their court.
Who better to tell their stories than those who have studied them extensively?
A Massachusetts native and 80s kid through and through, Katy Kostakis writes about Arts and Entertainment, Lifestyle, Food and Beverage, Consumer and Culture. Her work has appeared in Film Inquiry, YourTango,Wicked Local, and Patch. Check out her quips and rants on Twitter @KatyKostakis, on Instagram @katykostakis, and on her website, katykostakis.com
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