Henry & Anne: The Lovers that Changed History; Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England

Henry & Anne: The Lovers that Changed History was a two part series on Channel 5 – I found out about it because it’s presented by Suzannah Lipscomb who was one of the talking heads on the programme about The Last Days of Anne Boleyn that I liked so much last year (post). The first part covered the successful part of Henry VIII & Anne’s relationship and the second part looked at the unravelling of that relationship. It had been billed as “part re-enacted” but actually there wasn’t much more than you often see in documentaries. They had a couple of actors to do Henry and Anne, and some extras, and several snippets of action (like a court scene, Henry fencing, Anne being dressed or praying). They also had the actors repeat lines that one or the other had written – quotes from letters, or other such things. But all too often that felt like filler, because Lipscomb herself would also read out the quote.

As well as the start of Henry & Anne’s relationship the first programme also talked a bit about the earlier lives of the two. In particular Lipscomb visited the house Anne grew up in (Hever Castle) and one of the palaces of the French court where Anne spent several years as a lady in waiting to the Queen of France. One of the main themes of this early part of the programme is how the legend that has grown up around Henry and Anne is both accurate and not. Although later it’s true that Henry was something of a cruel tyrant, at the beginning of his reign (and even by the time Anne and he begin to interact) he’s a charming, charismatic athlete and playboy. Anne’s sometimes talked of as “a commoner” but that’s like Kate Middleton being “a normal middle class girl” … true, but not particularly accurate (both come from significantly wealthier or higher status families than the phrase conjures up). Also Anne’s time at the French court is later held up as where she learnt “the arts of love” but actually the Queen’s court was known for being virtuous and chaste.

What her time at the French court does do for Anne is make her appear sophisticated and a bit exotic. Combined with her wit & intelligence, that’s what eventually catches the King’s eye. But Lipscomb was keen to point out that this wasn’t at once – actually the King takes Mary Boleyn as a mistress when the Boleyns come to court, not Anne. Once Henry & Anne’s relationship begins Lipscomb paints it as a passionate love affair, and says that she believes that the reason they wait and start to look for a way out of his marriage for Henry is that they want to “do things properly”. Obviously Henry must’ve already begun to worry about a lack of heir, and to think about how to change that as his first wife grew older. But Lipscomb doesn’t believe Anne played hard to get in order to hold out for marriage, instead she thinks the two fell head over heels in love and wanted to marry from the beginning – this was not just another mistress for Henry. I’m not entirely sure I agree (although obviously Lipscomb knows far more about the subject than I do!). One notable absence from Lipscomb’s narrative was any of the other men Anne may’ve had relationships with. In particular Anne had been bethrothed to Henry Percy, and that had to be formally declared as a celibate relationship (it was broken off because his father did not approve). If it hadn’t been a celibate relationship then they would’ve counted as married before Henry and Anne became a couple – so this was important, but Lipscomb didn’t mention any of this is the programme.

The second programme looked at Anne’s fall from grace, which really began shortly after the highpoint of their marriage. Through no fault of her own she failed at the primary duty of Henry’s Queen. Elizabeth was born, and was not a son. Another pregnancy came to nothing (Lipscomb noted there’s no record of a miscarriage either, so perhaps this was a phantom pregnancy). And then not long after Katherine’s death Anne miscarried a child that was far enough along development to be obviously a boy. Things were beginning to unravel. Around this time Henry also suffered a fall during a tournament that knocked him out for a couple of hours, and re-opened an old leg wound that would never completely heal again. Lipscomb speculated that this fall might actually have caused a personality change in Henry – and certainly afterwards he was the tyrant we later remember him as. However personally I’m not sure we need to speculate about frontal lobe damage from the fall, and subsequent personality changes, to explain this. Henry’s behavioural changes could also be explained by an increased sense of mortality, and the effects of chronic pain. He almost died without an heir, his nightmare scenario. And the ulcer in his old leg wound was now being treated with hot pokers on a regular basis, not something to settle anyone’s temperament.

Then we’re up to the final fall of Anne – accused of adultery, imprisoned and tried then executed. Lipscomb is firmly on the side of Anne being innocent of the charges, swayed in part by Anne’s swearing of oaths to God that she hadn’t done these things even once she was condemned to die. Anne was, after all, a pious woman. So Lipscomb’s theory (and I’m inclined to agree here) is that Anne’s “fault” was to not be submissive enough to the King – she didn’t make adultery unbelievable – and to flirt and be witty in the company of the court. The very things that had drawn her and Henry together in the first place were her downfall in the end.

A good series, even if I didn’t entirely agree with Lipscomb’s theories at all times.

As well as that recent series about the Tudors we’ve also been watching a series we recorded last year – The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England. The conceit here is Ian Mortimer presenting a sort of handbook to what you’d need to know to blend into Elizabethan England if you were able to go and visit. The emphasis was on the differences to the modern day, and the potential hazards you might run into. I really liked the visual style of this series. Parts of it had Mortimer talking to us in a room that looked like an alchemist’s den – lots of bottles and curiosities and old books. In parts he was walking through a computer generated space with old pictures illustrating what he was talking about hanging in boxes in the space. And about half was filmed in real life locations which were then enhanced with white line drawings of the people and objects you’d expect to see there in Elizabethan times.

The three programmes of the series covered different levels of Elizabethan society. We started with the poor – I think because that’s what in general one knows least about, and because it would have the most shocking changes. Life really was nasty, brutish & short if you were a peasant – he covered things like the poor living conditions, the diseases, the food, the sorts of work you could do and how much (little) you’d be paid. And also the problems with travelling while poor – people could get in trouble for sheltering the homeless, so unless you could find work you wouldn’t find much shelter. The second programme looked at high society. They had many more comforts in life (and probably live a lot longer too), but disease was still an issue. And watching what you said and who you said it to would still be very important if you were visiting – informants and paranoia were not just for the lower classes. The last programme looked at the rising middle classes, and at the growing amount of innovation, exploration and culture coming from this class. Shakespeare is an obvious example, Francis Drake is another. Throughout all three programmes Mortimer also noted how social mores have changed – what we’d find particularly noticeable would be the difference in how women were treated. He talked about how wives were obliged to do what they were told, and could be beaten without that reflecting poorly on the husband. And about the way that it was almost assumed that a female servant would be coerced into sleeping with her master. Of course, if she became pregnant that was then her problem.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this series, but I really liked it. Might pick up the book it was based on at some point.

Other TV watched this week:

Episode 3 of The Great British Year – series about British wildlife and countryside over the whole year. Lots of gorgeous shots of animals, and timelapse sequences of landscapes.

Episode 1 of Inside the Animal Mind – Chris Packham looks at how animals think and perceive the world around them.

Mad Dog: Gaddafi’s Secret World – a 90 minute documentary about the rise and fall of Gaddafi, using interviews with people who were a part of his regime in one way or another. Very much had a message, and sometimes you could see just how they were using spin to make him seem as bad as possible (even tho I agreed with the premise it felt heavy handed). Part of the Storyville series.

Captain Cook: The Man Behind the Legend – Timewatch episode from 2008/09 about Captain Cook & his voyages of exploration. I knew surprisingly little about the man in advance (beyond that he existed).