Henry VIII Gets Jiggy: Capturing a Real Person in Fiction

I’m endlessly amazed by the different ways that we can see the same person. Whether it’s a friend, a colleague, or a celebrity, we’ll all view them in a slightly different light. That’s particularly obvious when the person is a historical figure, and one significant enough to have been made into fiction.

The Sex Lives of Henry VIII

Take King Henry VIII of England. More specifically, take the intimate life of Henry VIII, a man whose divorce birthed the Church of England and the international Anglican communion. What motivated Henry to get down with a series of eligible ladies is important historically. This isn’t just one man getting jiggy, this is a monarch re-writing the rules of church and state so that…

Well, possibly just so that he could get jiggy.

Check out the embroidery on that guy.
Check out the embroidery on that guy.

Wolf Hall: Powerful Passions

The TV adaptation of Wolf Hall shows Henry as a man driven by fierce romantic passions. Sure, he wants to put his genitals in places he maybe shouldn’t, but the fate of a nation isn’t decided by the fact that the king has wood.

This is Henry as a fierce romantic and man of complex depths. His motives get tangled up in his head, and no-one is going to call his subconscious on its bullshit. His intentions are very personal and emotional, but you couldn’t call them shallow.

Hands up who wants to be where that sword is.
Hands up who wants to be where that sword is.

The Tudors: Horny Henry

Then there’s another recent TV depiction – The Tudors. I’m only a couple of episodes in, but this seems like a very different take on Henry’s bedroom antics. Here he’s a total horn dog. If a pretty lady crosses his path, odds are he’ll be showing her his mighty weapon later. And if she’s not available, he’ll give one of her servants a trip on the royal roller coaster instead.

Yes, there are real emotions at stake here too. But fundamentally, Henry is portrayed as a man driven by his man parts, not his subconscious.

Picture from Henry's Tinder profile, courtesy of Hans Holbein
Swipe left or swipe right? Henry’s profile picture, courtesy of Hans Holbein

How About a Classic Henry?

There are all sorts of other historical interpretations of Henry’s love life. It’s possible to see his marital antics as entirely driven by stately concerns. After all, his lack of a male heir put the country at risk of foreign domination or civil war once he died. You could argue that his was a noble and well-intentioned sex life. Boning for the greater good.

So What?

So what’s the lesson here?

Both as writers and as readers, it’s worth being aware that even very specific areas of a person’s life are open to interpretation. As I discussed in a recent article for Re:Fiction,  it’s worth knowing what the different interpretations are and what they exist for. Wolf Hall Henry is a literary fiction character, designed to explore the depths of the human soul. The Tudors Henry is history for a mass audience, exciting and accessible. Political penis Henry is Henry for patriotic historians, who want to see noble intentions behind the important moments in British history.In looking at Henry’s romantic shenanigans through this kaleidoscope of fractured images, we see a lot of different pieces of the truth, without ever learning all of it. And when we write about him, we have to choose which aspects to explore.

In looking at Henry’s romantic shenanigans through this kaleidoscope of fractured images, we see a lot of different pieces of the truth, without ever learning all of it. And when we write about him, we have to choose which aspects to explore.

We’ll never understand the whole of Henry, or of anyone else. These are just pieces of who they are.

Being Troubled by the Tudors, or Writing With Feeling

Further reading, for those who want to know more about poor Mary Tudor

I’ve recently been doing some freelance history writing. As part of this, I’ve spent time reading and writing about Henry VIII and his daughter, Mary I. It made me feel some surprisingly extreme things, and I want to talk about that experience and how we deal with emotions when writing for work.

Poor Bloody Mary

Lets start with a history lesson.

Henry VIII is generally treated as a hero or a joke in English history – the strong leader with the six wives. But when we look at his personal life, we see something that by modern standards is pretty monstrous. Among other things, he accused his second wife Anne of cheating on him and had her killed because they’d fallen out; had his fifth wife Catherine killed for actually cheating on him, despite his own numerous extra-marital affairs; declared his daughters Mary and Elizabeth illegitimate and largely excluding them from his life because they weren’t boys; bullied Mary into signing a document that went against both her values and her respect for her late mother, out of fear that he’d have her executed; and much more. You can make all sorts of arguments about the necessity of his actions, but that still looks like horrifying domestic abuse to me, whatever the reasons for it.

There’s a terrible irony to the fact that his daughter Mary helped Henry through a period of depression after Catherine’s cheating and execution. Mary’s own understanding of depression came from the fact that she’d suffered it for years thanks to her father. Long deprived by political circumstances of the chance to marry – something she strongly desired – often isolated from friends and support, when Mary finally married she suffered from a neglectful husband and a series of miscarriages and false pregnancies. The death of many Protestants at her hands is appalling, but so is the suffering she endured in her life, for most of which she suffered from poor physical and mental health.

As I say, Henry is mostly remembered as a great leader and/or punchline, Mary as a villain. It appears that memory, like their lives, has little taste for justice.

Feeling History

Reading and writing about Henry and Mary hit me very hard. I’ve suffered from depression. My wife and I have struggled with the long, frustrating process of trying to have a child, only to be robbed of it by a miscarriage. This stuff hit me where I live, and it hit me hard. I’ve worked in schools and for social service, read case files and heard first hand accounts of the vilest treatment dished out to families by abusers. How much worse then to see the effect of a parent who was outright abusive and who is now regarded in the playful and positive light Henry is.

There’s another irony here, and it’s in my attitude. When a king is presented to me as a villain, like King John has been, and I then learn about the other side of them, I can somewhat come to terms with their appalling behaviour. John was responsible for the death of his nephew among others, but because of his troubled upbringing I’ve come to see him in a more forgiving light than the traditional tales of the evil king. I recognise the hideousness of some of John’s actions, but I can step back and put them in context. In contrast, hearing about Henry filled me with near-unbearable bile. I was literally shaking with anger and sorrow.

Part of this is of course about current discourse, not just history. I’m almost as angry at our idolisation of Henry as at his behaviour. A domestic abuser shouldn’t be seen as a hero or the subject of casual jokes.

And part of it is how personal these issues are, not just to me but in a general sense. Looking at the domestic lives of Henry and Mary takes us past the veil of top level politics, something beyond most of our lives, and into the realm of the personal, where we all live. We all have some experience of love, loss and family. Seeing those things warped and broken affects us all.

Dealing With the Pain

There’s a part of me that wants to rationalise away these feelings. To tell myself that I’m getting wound up over something that’s not about me, that I should just calm down and do my job. This is my work, not a place to get emotional.

And to that I give a heartfelt cry of ‘bullshit!’

These are my feelings. This is the way the world affects me. They are a way of drawing attention to something that is wrong. Millions of years of evolution have equipped me to feel these things, and repressing them isn’t just incredibly unhealthy, it’s a waste of part of my human potential. Our feelings have a legitimate place in every corner of our lives, including our work. How else would we ever care about what we achieve?

More than that, this is the work of writing. Words are meant to move, not just to inform. They’re meant to fill our bellies with fire, our eyes with tears, our hearts with rage, sorrow, love and the desire to change the world.

I’m not saying this experience has been good for me. I’m not saying all this grief and anger I’m feeling for long-dead aristocrats is fun. But it’s a part of writing, a part of reading, a part of responding to history. It’s a part of being human, and that’s something to be proud of.

*deep breath*

OK, got that vented, for now at least. In case you hadn’t realised, what you just read was part of my dealing with this.

And now over to you. Are there parts of history or works of fiction that really move you, in happy or unhappy ways? Have they surprised you by doing that? I’d love to read about your experiences in the comments below.