As the weeks tick away on Motion History, it's been incredibly hard to resist tackling the Tudors, especially my red-haired namesake and idol, Elizabeth I. While I will put off Elizabeth a bit longer -- and may possibly just have to do some enormous, all-encompassing feature on her various biopics -- I can't resist Henry VIII and his ill-fortuned wives. It's been especially hard because people keep asking me to tackle Showtime's The Tudors, which I can't do, because they're in the domain of our friends at TV Squad. However, I can do the next best thing: The Other Boleyn Girl.

I'm both fascinated and frustrated with the flurry of interest in the Tudors. For a sterile dynasty (they tapped out early), they continue to thrill and obsess historians and Hollywoodians. While Henry VIII has always been a popular topic for films on screens big and small, I don't think there's ever been such an ongoing enthusiasm for his lusty appetites. Anne of a Thousand Days had the topic all to itself in 1969; it didn't have to compete with a bodice-ripping television show, and a cottage industry of romantic potboilers delving into the inner life of this queen or that mistress. As I said, it's both maddening and intriguing. As someone who likes tracking the historiography of subjects, it's fun to theorize why the Tudors are so ridiculously popular in the 21st century. As a historian, it's annoying because no version can ever resist gilding what's already an incredibly passionate, terrifying, and bloody lily of a story.

But we'll get to that.

The Film

Mary and Anne Boleyn are blithely growing up in the English countryside. They're wealthy and well-connected, with ties to the royal court. Their uncle, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, schemes to place Anne (Natalie Portman) in the path of King Henry VIII (Eric Bana). The Queen, Catherine of Aragon, is much older than he and has failed to produce a male heir. He's in need of a good woman and a son, and Anne would be perfect for the job. She resists, but finally agrees, while her sister Mary (Scarlett Johansson) marries young William Carey. Henry makes a visit to the Boleyn estate, and is immediately entranced by Anne, but her reckless behavior causes him to be injured in a hunting accident. He gives her the cold shoulder, and becomes smitten with Mary, and invites her to court to become his mistress. Furious, Anne elopes with Henry Percy without the king's consent. Mary reports her behavior, causing Anne to be sent to France in disgrace. Hell hath no fury like a sister scorned. Mary becomes pregnant, and Anne returns full of French tricks and fashions, and catches the eye of Henry again. She lures him away from her sister and his new son, and convinces him she'll give him a son if he'll only put aside Catherine of Aragon. But the Catholic Church won't annul the marriage, so Anne pushes him to break with Rome, and create a Church of England. She wins Henry and the crown, but the marriage is a disaster when she fails to produce a son. Anne falls apart, attempts to sleep with her brother, George, to get pregnant. They're found out, accused of adultery, incest, and treason. Despite Mary's pleas, both are sentenced to death. Mary witnesses them both executed, and storms out of the court carrying Anne's daughter, Elizabeth.

The Historical Background

It might be flippantly feminist to say that never has patriarchy been so damaging to a realm, but I'll say it anyway. Every problem Henry VIII had was due to his inability to have sons. (And we can totally blame him, since sex chromosomes come from the male!) The Tudor dynasty was a shaky one. You may have heard of the War of the Roses, Lancaster versus York, a battle to the death. Well, Henry's father, Henry VII, was the victor of that war and claimed the crown. He succeeded largely because many of the claimants were dead, and because he married Elizabeth of York, who was the heir to the throne. But the Tudors lived in paranoia that they would lose it all, and endured many attempts to depose them.

Henry VIII was never supposed to become king. His brother Arthur was, and had married Catherine of Aragon when they were fifteen and sixteen, respectively. Arthur died six months later, and his brother Henry became the heir to the throne. Their father saw no reason to waste a pretty Spanish bride, or the large dowry she'd come with, so he arranged to have her married to the new Heir Apparent. The only problem was whether or not Catherine and Arthur had consummated the marriage, as that would make her an actual sister to Henry as opposed to a potential bride. She swore they hadn't. Years of deliberation went on, but eventually the matter was decided, and the Pope issued a dispensation just to be sure. They married, and enjoyed many happy years, even after Henry became king. But after one daughter and multiple failed pregnancies, they had no son and heir, and Henry began to panic. Catherine was five and a half years older, and had aged rapidly due to poor health, stress, and multiple pregnancies. Henry was famed for his wandering eye and had plenty of mistresses. But he became fixated on one of Catherine's ladies-in-waiting in particular: Anne Boleyn. Anne played coy and would have marriage, a crown, or nothing. She got all of them, and England got a new Church which would embroil the country in religious controversy for years. And they also got four other queens when Henry kept trying for a boy. But in proof that gender isn't everything, Henry and Anne's one child was Elizabeth I, the greatest queen England has ever known. (Sorry, Victoria.)

Is It Accurate?

No. The only things accurate about The Other Boleyn Girl (besides the costumes) can be gleaned from the above paragraph -- they were all real people, and the basic events (Henry and Catherine, Henry and Anne, the creation of the Church of England, Elizabeth's birth, and her eventual execution) played out as they do in the movie. It's the frothy romanticism in between that's fiction, and ultimately unnecessary. The real story is good enough.

Anne and Mary were the well-connected ladies the film indicates. They were commoners (Anne was only the second commoner to ever be crowned a monarch), but their mother was Lady Elizabeth Howard, and their uncle was Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk. Their father, Thomas Boleyn, was a frequent fixture at court and was often sent on diplomatic missions. He had friendships far and wide, which enabled him to send his daughters to France, to be ladies-in-waiting to the queen. This was a highly sought after position. Not only would both daughters receive a sophisticated education, but they could make a good marriage. The years in France weren't punishment, they were opportunities, and ultimately what shaped them into the women the King of England lusted after.

The entire "Visit to the Boleyns" scene is utter fiction. It's not known when he first met either sister or fell for them, but nothing like this ever happened. Nor was Mary Boleyn the chaste, modest girl played by Johansson. She became enamored with the libertine lifestyle found at the French court, and had an affair with Francis I. She may have had affairs with other men, but the rumors may have been exaggerated. When she returned to England, she became a lady-in-waiting to Catherine, and became Henry VIII's mistress somewhere around the time of her marriage to William Carey. It was rumored by contemporaries that Henry had fathered her son, but he never acknowledged it, and it's mere conjecture today. As Henry happily recognized other illegitimate sons, it seems unlikely he had one with Mary. Even if he had, England would never have accepted one as king. The movie implies this decision to reject the child is based around Anne, but no one involved would have believed it could be the heir apparent. The two sisters weren't close, and Anne banished Mary from the court after she secretly married Sir William Stafford. Mary fell into poverty, and wrote Anne begging for money, and her sister did relent. But it's believed they never even saw each other again.

Anne was ambitious, and led a more circumspect life. Francis I was enamored with her, and if she ever was involved with anyone, she was careful never to let scandal attach itself. She became famous for her wit, charm, and fashion. She wasn't particularly beautiful, but she had sex appeal, and men fell for her. One of them, of course, was Henry. Anne did become engaged to Henry Percy -- the sort of binding contract that meant life or death back then -- but Henry and his right hand man, Cardinal Wolsey, forced them to break it off. Wolsey outed their attachment, not Mary. This pre-contract did cause problems for Anne, but there was no elopement and no consummation that anyone's aware of. She also became involved with the poet Thomas Wyatt, who is believed to have written at least one poem about her. (It's Whoso List to Hunt, if you're curious. It would have been written after Anne's execution, as Wyatt was sitting in the Tower, wondering if he'd follow suit for his past involvement with her. Hence the bitter tone.)

Henry's ardor for Anne knew no bounds, but she was clever, and determined not to end up like her sister. She held him at arm's length, refused his gifts, and drove him mad. He was willing to do anything for her. When she pushed him for marriage, he relented. But Catherine wasn't about to go quietly, and leaned on all of her royal and religious connections. Spain being the power that it was, the Pope was not about to grant Henry an annulment. Henry convinced himself that his marriage to Catherine was invalid -- that she had, despite her claims, consummated her marriage to his brother -- and that's why they had been cursed with no sons.

Years passed. The film skips over the politics of the break from Rome (as do all versions because it's so long and complicated) and really makes Henry out to be someone dragged along by Anne. The rape scene is pretty unforgivable. No one knows quite when they finally slept together, but Anne was pregnant when they finally married, and Henry's ardor hadn't cooled one bit. She was crowned Queen of England, much to the dismay of the English commoners, who had loved Catherine and saw Anne as an upstart. The break with Rome was a tumultuous affair, and seized on by men like Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cramner, who saw it as the first step into turning England into a Protestant country. Henry became a tyrant, imprisoning and executing any who would not recognize his new place as head of the church (Sir Thomas More was just one of many who were sent to their death), or his marriage to Anne. Shadows and threats of treason hung over everyone. Even common people could be jailed for making crass remarks about Anne.

Anne was a willful queen, and displayed some tyrannical tendencies. Accounts of her vary depending on who is writing them, but she certainly wanted opponents such as Catherine, Cardinal Wolsey, and Thomas More out of the way. She was deeply unpopular with the people, and with foreign courts. Many men died because of her ambition. But her greatest crime was in failing to produce a son, and for not turning a blind eye to Henry's infidelities. Henry grew sick of her angry outbursts and demands, had an eye for Jane Seymour, and those who disliked Anne seized on the chance to get rid of her. Cromwell politely hinted to Henry that Anne may have been unfaithful to him. The list grew and grew, but eventually settled on court musician Mark Smeaton, her brother George Boleyn, Sir Henry Norris, William Brereton, and Sir Francis Weston. Others, like Wyatt, were arrested but eventually released.

I think one of the most distasteful suggestions of the movie (and the book it's based on) is that Anne really did commit incest with her brother, George. (Or at least tried to.) The two were very close, but not sexually involved. The tragedy is that George's wife, Lady Rochford, planted the suggestion due to jealousy over their bond, and a dissatisfaction with her marriage. (Her story is really ends up becoming one of karmic retribution, though, as she ended up being executed for helping one of Henry's other queens, Katherine Howard, carry on an affair.)

Anne was taken to the Tower, tried, and found guilty of adultery, incest, and treason. All five of her alleged lovers were found guilty alongside her. It's certain she was innocent of all but flirtation with them; Smeaton confessed he had slept with her, but had done so under extreme and documented torture. Anne was forced to watch all five of them (including her beloved brother) beheaded, and returned to her own Tower apartments, where she spent two nights listening to the sound of her own scaffold being erected on Tower Green. The only consolation she had was that she wouldn't be burnt, as she was initially condemned to be. Instead, Henry had her sentence commuted to beheading. As a last gesture of kindness to the woman he had loved, he ordered a swordsman for France to ensure a quick and painless death. (If you're ever faced with being beheaded, ask for them to do it with a sword. If it's sharp and wielded correctly, it will take it off with one swing. An axe merely crushes your vertebrae, and there's more room for error. But no one really worries about that unless they once liked you enough to send for a swordsman.) But that was as far as his kindness extended. Anne wasn't even provided with a coffin; her ladies in waiting had to bundle her corpse into an arrow chest that was laying nearby. She was buried without ceremony in St. Peter ad Vincula, the chapel within the Tower of London. Her grave was unmarked. Victorian workmen rediscovered her body in 1876 while renovating the chapel, and she was reburied with a little more ceremony, and given a memorial stone. Henry was never heard to speak of her again, and royal workmen promptly removed all decorative traces (carved initials, coats of arms, portraits) that she'd ever existed.

The Other Boleyn Girl spins a sisterly tale of Anne's last days, and pretends that Mary had any power over Henry whatsoever. As I mentioned above, it's believed that Anne and Mary never saw each other past 1534. Mary's last letter to her, begging forgiveness for her marriage with Stafford, carried a sting that Anne couldn't quite overlook: "For well I might a'had a greater man of birth, but I assure you I could never a' had one that loved me so well. I had rather beg my bread with him than be the greatest queen christened." Anne was essentially abandoned by her family once charged. None of her family members are even recorded as being at her execution. Mary certainly never stormed into the palace, and took the young Princess Elizabeth away in a fury. It seems bitter to think Anne was standing there alone, but familial relations were so different than they are today. Duty to king and country came before all else, and when it came to the court, no one was above using their family as pawns to gain prestige and power. If they died along the well, oh well.

In reality, Elizabeth was promptly declared to be illegitimate, and was banished from Henry's sight. Even during her mother's life, she was being raised elsewhere (she bounced between Hatfield and Eltham) though Anne visited her often. She was a toddler when her mother was executed, and though it's not known how she learned, legend has it that she asked why she was a princess one day, and a lady the next. The news was understandably horrifying to a young child, and is supposedly one reason she evaded marriage. She remained close to her scattered Boleyn and Howard cousins, though, and promoted their interests when she became queen.

Why Do We Care?

Why do we care about the Tudors? Their entire dynasty plays out like a fantastic, unbelievable movie. The story of Anne Boleyn in particular always captured people because it has such a glorious beginning, and a grisly end. She was the mother of a legendary queen. Her push for Henry to break with Rome impacted English history in a way that no one could have predicted at the time.

Yet movies like The Other Boleyn Girl spin the facts into frothy silliness. Audiences are expected to be horrified at the idea of families pushing their daughters into royal prostitution (there's no other word for it), but we're also expected to sigh at the idea that Henry was actually a tender and sensitive lover. The reality of "Go sleep with the king, or else!" becomes soft and candlelit. It's not even a woman making the most of an awkward situation. Mary actually falls for Henry, and we're made to dislike Anne because she doesn't love him the way Mary does. The Tudors spins the bloody saga much the same way. While Anne was undoubtedly ambitious, you also have to give her credit for being so in a time when women were expected to simply shut up and give the king what he wanted. If the facts are going to be thrown out the window, you would think they ignore Anne's nastier tendencies, and rewrite her into someone who was sympathetic, shrewd, and political. Instead, The Other Boleyn Girl gives us a hysterical woman driven by childhood rivalry, and willing to resort even to incest. I'm all in favor of flaws (personally, I think Anne's ruthless opinions and actions is what makes her fascinating), but these seem to exist only to serve a story that wants desperately to believe in tender love and good girls. A lot of people did line up believing this to be a sensuous costume drama, and walked away shaken when the camera panned away from Portman's crumpled body. I would applaud it as subversive if it didn't blow off the facts so glibly.

Modern tellings like The Other Boleyn Girl don't exactly whitewash the Tudors -- Henry still sends Anne to her death and never looks back -- but they give us costumed, bodice-ripping history at its most seductive. It's all lush costumes and hot sex, and even the beheadings are gruesome and gleeful instead of tragic. Are we using them to lose ourselves -- war, the bad economy, environmental disaster, divisive politics -- in bombast, velvet, and pretty people? Are we congratulating ourselves on having moved past a society that puts up a king, and allows him to do as he wants with whoever he wants?
Or are we actually, on some level, seeing them as reflections of ourselves? Are we drawn to the Tudors because Henry's divisive and tyrannical actions remind us of our own political and religious strife? Is his court of endless excess and personal display echoing our own need to Facebook and blog? Are we saluting fellow conspicuous consumers?

I'm not entirely sure. I think the answer is probably "yes" to all of the above. I know my own fascination with Anne's story always stemmed from its sheer horror. Having been to the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula, where you walk the same path they carted headless bodies down -- and believe me, it's a creepy and depressing place -- I have to shudder over how it's dressed up on big screens and small. The terror and tyranny is there, but it gets lost among all those heaving bosoms and knowing glances.