One More Time
Happy New Year, reader. Ah, the changing of the seasons, first time all winter there’s a cold snap here in my corner of the UK and for the majority of my readers I did hear that once Netflix US giveth and now Netflix US hath taken away. Yet I also did hear that Showtime on Demand remaineth true to The Tudors for 2021.
If you want The Tudors, she’s usually available, and she will surprise you with the depth of her actual historical game, the quality of the acting, and the surprising amount of extra money on screen in this final season, when you can almost feel the series’ success starting to catch up with it.
The Tudors is one of the dramatic rocks the modern house of Showtime was built on and for the 2010 Season it just got a bit more flex to it. Since then, of course there have been many attempted successors, from great to good to bad, never quite managing quite the same kind of alchemy.
And from the constant but gentle movement around streaming services, with a new deal every few years apparently The Tudors still has some audience pull, now 11 years after it ended.
Michael Hirst got so much less than his due as a writer of historical drama, well, in everything except industry clout and money, of course. He’s done pretty goddamn well with that ever since and he certainly believes in giving good actors work. Those Vikings, with fewer ties to historical sources and so far back that most of their lives are basically legendary, were “6 Seasons just completed, maybe spinoff” successful, and he got to pick up history and tie it in when he wanted to, rather than have everyone repeatedly point out what he’d missed out or changed right there, and if that kind of generosity of spirit towards former cast members also includes the crews and production then Michael Hirst is doing professionally great on a lot of levels.
Michael Hirst doesn’t need to write a sequel to The Tudors. I need him to do that. And 8 Seasons, hold the movie, thanks.
Last year I spent a chunk of Spring reading and taking notes on a book solely about the Pilgrimage of Grace just to keep up with a series that was supposedly very historically basic. Still, I’ve got the upper hand this year, both the biographies of Katherine Howard I’ve got were written 2017 or later.
The problem with The Tudors Katherine Howard is that she’s now a bit outdated and on the simplistic side, as an interpretation. So, in the first half of Season 4 The Tudors does show its age a bit, as the historical conversation about Katherine Howard was moving when it was filmed, and has been moving on with increasing speed last decade.
The back half of Season 4 is my favorite bit of The Tudors. I believe Season 2 is the best, Season 3 may be the most worthy, doing an incredible amount with the time period it got, but if I had to pick a run of episodes then it is second half of Season 4: Henry goes to big budget war, it gets dark in the religious political intrigue and war of attrition , the fall of Surrey, the rise of the Seymours, and that finale. Oh, that finale.
It just got better looking with time, as it came around the time Battlestar Galactica (2009 finale) and Lost (2010 finale) entirely lost their shit, so it was nice to remember that it was actually possible to coherently end a narrative, and The Tudors finale is a Breaking Bad finale level joint. Superlative status. Of course, historical drama always has its ending ready to go, you just pick where to stop, but The Tudors finale gets in high point after high point after high point, and one of those a personal moment of revelation for me which started a road which kind of ended up as the blog you’re reading right now.
I’ve been writing for three seasons and I haven’t even got to the subliminal images in the flickers, yet. But I am going to avoid men with swords between their legs and I might need to go pray.
Sorry, what? Forgive me, I was having a moment of nostalgia. Anyway it’s January 1st 2021, no one I know has Covid, and my biggest problem in 2020 was not being able to go to Hampton Court. I never knew it before, and some of it was luck, but apparently my privilege level was ‘Henry VIII’ in 2020.
And, basically, I really do this for me.
I’m here to get every bit of meat off the bone of this show, to get a mental workout, to be entertained and enthralled, surprised and sometimes a bit curious and disapproving. And every once in a while to point and laugh like a drain at and with a series that swung hard and worked hard, got way less credit than it deserved, and occasionally missed with gusto.
Let us begin, dear reader, by listening to the theme and pulling the new titles apart.
The Tudors Season 4 – Martial, Hardcore, Who do you know from before?
Did we ever just do the theme? I don’t think we did.
OK, the theme’s still good, no major changes. However there’s been some effect additions to go with all the extra ‘war’ footage so it sounds like someone starts moving furniture in the end part there. We are allowed the briefest of glimpses at new version Henry before the main intro.
The intro starts and JRM’s Henry has started to go grey fox, might have put on five pounds, and a sword in between the legs is a already a theme. We’re certainly kind of drawing attention to it in a slightly weird way.
Brandon’s reached the age of excessive hair gel this season (that’s mid forties in The Tudors) , perhaps due to his fashion forward combat man bun.
While it doesn’t seem like there’s as much change in the fourth as there was for the third season, once you pass Henry and Charles all the co stars are new arrivals or promotions. There’s a queen back in the third slot.
Who the hell is the agent of the guy that plays the new French ambassador? Because I’m damned if I know why he gets his own slot, let alone gets in before Mary I.
Some of the flicker images are now from the Pilgrimage of Grace, as Mary I and Edward Seymour make it to the front row. Seymour seems to get Cromwell style visual themes.
Last up is the introduction of the highly kitted out and ready for war Earl of Surrey (Son of the Duke of Norfolk and an initially stunning bit of casting that won me right around in David O’Hara).
Henry, Brandon and Surrey are all wearing leather pieces that have an air of armour, they seem a bit thick and reinforced for daywear (It’s like athleisure wear, but the second function is light combat).
Chapuys is back
And is our first way in to this season. He gives us the Actual Historical weather report.
There was an actual historical drought in 1540, it was incredibly hot and no rain is supposed to have fallen between June and October (1). The letter Chapuys writing to the Emperor isn’t actual historical. The 500 people imprisoned for heresy seems like an exaggeration, but executing people who were found too Papist alongside those who were found too Protestant on the same day was known to happen(2), and it was very much about making that point.
Chapuys goes on to report that the court is aware that the King has married,
And we see Henry, sauntering up his nookie tunnel with a goblet of wine with the super relaxed walk of a man who’s slightly drunk and getting laid on the regular. He passes through The Queen’s outer chamber, acknowledging Lady Rochford, and then gets to Katherine’s room. It’s richly decorated in turquoise and gold, but Henry really only has eyes for the young lady naked other than the rose petals and a necklace.
I’ll wager her question “Will you not come to bed, My Lord?” gets a positive response and we are transported to next morning, with the heatwave still unbroken at court.
Introducing The New New Queen
Not the same as the old new Queen. We start out focused on Anne Seymour, wife of Edward, as she admires the new sculptures in the Main Hall, and tries to deal with the heat. We pull back and see Marillac, Chapuys and Surrey taking it all in, too.
Or perhaps they’re just trying to figure out what they are.
Flourish o’trumpets, The King is announced. Surprise! The new Queen is a new, new Queen and she’s somewhat inappropriate.
Which actual historical Katherine Howard would not have been. The Tudors is emphasizing Katherine’s youth and inexperience, which were true, but this was a young woman that had been drilled in etiquette, and worked in the former Queen’s household. She knew how to act on court occasions. Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford (who was also next to Katherine when Henry noticed her, end of last season) is already attending upon Katherine. We’ll get to that.
There is a mini bop around the court to both get re acquainted with those we know, and find out who everyone else is.
Sir Francis Bryan is gone, in his place we have:
Who had actually been around court since his cousin Anne Boleyn’s time, and spent around a year in France in 1532-33 but according to The Tudors he’s been in France for at least a decade (because we didn’t need him until now).
Edward also lays out two of Surrey’s three best known attributes: he was a poet, and he was reckless. The Tudors is going to show, not tell you his other defining attribute, which was pride.
He’s The Tudors‘ new supporting male character this season for three reasons. First, his rivalry was mainly with the Seymours, the coming power in the next few years, so that works for upcoming plots. Second, he did have a military career and was present at a lot of the battles and conflicts The Tudors is going to concern itself with this season, so he’s a useful point of view to have. Third, Brandon is giving up the ‘also being the Duke of Norfolk’ game this season so someone needs to pick that role up. Who better than the Duke of Norfolk’s actual historical son, who was part of the same faction?
We bounce to Brandon. Who Chapuys finds is having a titular moment.
He and Chapuys cover the fact that Thomas Boleyn has died recently (actually early the previous year but close enough). And when Chapuys says the only mourners at his funeral were the ghosts of his children, Brandon leans forward a bit intently, and I suddenly really want to know what it is he was going to say. But they get interrupted by Henry, who is dying to recap the intros for anyone who wasn’t listening and show off his new wife.
Katherine is giggling and excitable as Henry introduces her.
And of course she’s seen entirely through the lens of what she can do for him, but what other lens is there?
Applause for Queen Katherine, and everyone sits down to eat. Brandon takes the opportunity to formally re introduce the Earl of Surrey to the King (so we can mention how he has totally been in France all this time again). Henry welcomes him back and introduces Surrey to his new wife.
The best part of which are the sparks that already fly between him and the Seymours.
Taken from a quote in Antonia Fraser’s Six Wives there’s a little interlude where Chapuys asks Marillac what Francis I really said on hearing Henry had got divorced again. Marillac responds that he didn’t actually say much, but sighed heavily, rolled his eyes a bit and said ‘Oh’. (3)
Katherine looks bored and Henry asks if she wants to dance. Such activity is clearly beyond Henry now because he asks Brandon to accompany her, and if there were any way Henry could dance with her he’d be doing that.
Instead he gets to intrigue with the new ambassador while his new wife dances. Henry starts by offering his condolences on the death of the Dauphin, who was also called Francis. He died three months after Anne Boleyn, so those sympathies are a bit late. Then Marillac somewhat compounds the error by offering a marriage for:
Which Henry just chuckles at. Marillac is confused, and Henry can’t say “Look, someone is trying to marry my oldest daughter every week. I’ve said no 35 times. I will happily string this along for as long as it lasts and whatever I can get for it.” because politics.
Katherine dances with flairs on nearly every step, and Henry is drawn right back in to his psycho sexual drama with Francis.
Katherine solo improvises the rest of the dance to reactions from surprise to clear but held quiet disapproval.
And there’s a new, new Queen in town.
We cut briefly to a side view of Whitehall, taking in the garden.
Katherine is showing her latest jewel set (Henry was seen to be showering her with jewelry) to two of her ladies in waiting and then she summons the others for a solemn proclamation.
Actual Historical, according to Marillac (4), she and all her ladies followed the French fashions. Incidentally, the lady that says how happy they will be to comply,
is Anne Herbert, (nee Parr), actual historical lady in waiting to Queen Katherine Howard and sister to Katherine Parr. She’s going to be a semi regular for Season 4 and she’s played by Suzy Lawlor.
Lady Rochford arrives with a letter just delivered. While she’s definitely seen and portrayed as the head lady in waiting that wasn’t her actual historical job. There were a few tiers of serving the Queen in the 34 female roles that served her directly and personally. There were six Great Ladies of The Bedchamber whose positions were mostly ceremonial. They had little or no day to day work, but they were required to attend and serve Queen Katherine at state functions for added cachet. They were women like Lady Margret Douglas, niece of the King, or Katherine Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk. Then there were eight Ladies and Gentlewomen of the Queen ‘s Privy chamber, normally consisting of four ladies and four married gentlewomen, less exalted in rank than the Great ladies but far more politically important for their daily proximity to the Queen (5).
Jane Rochford and Anne Herbert were both in that rank. Lady Rochford’s actual historical importance came not from being put in a position of power earned or given by seniority, it came from being particularly personally close to this Queen, and this rise in importance without changing rank was first noticed, and as time went on increasingly resented in the household. (6)
Childbirth and marriage often took a toll on the Queen’s Privy chamber and numbers could vary somewhat and weren’t always as neat as the ideal. There was also one rather singular woman on the list for the back half of Henry’s reign- Susannah Horenbout, the skilled female miniature artist, who appears to have been officially listed as a woman of the Queen’s Privy Chamber from Jane Seymour to Catherine Parr (7) at least partly as a way to deal with the anomaly of a court painter who was also a woman.
Other than that, a clique did form up in the Queen’s household, but without the Queen’s help or interest. Led by the Duchess of Suffolk it was a Protestant intellectual clique, where you read extensively, translated or even wrote devotional works, and named your small dog after the conservative bishop of your choice, with presumably hilarious consequences when you wondered aloud if it had shit on the floor again. Joan Denny and Anne Herbert were members. It got political attention in the reign of the next queen, but it formed and started work under Queen Katherine. It just wasn’t her thing. (8)
Apart from these two ranks there were up to 9 other ladies (The Ladies and Gentlewomen Attendant) , five Maids of Honour (again, rising in political importance for their practical closeness to the queen, and Katherine’s own former rank), one ‘Mother of the Maids’ and four or five Chamberers (practical stuff, in charge of linens, and other basic supplies). The lower ranks suddenly started getting applications from old friends of the Queen.
And in The Tudors Queen Katherine has received a letter from her old friend, Joan Bulmer.
The letter in The Tudors does use a couple of phrases from the original text and gets the gist of it right (9), and The Tudors is going to use some more of that letter when Joan arrives.
Katherine’s hesitancy and expression when Jane Rochford can’t see her show us that this letter is not entirely welcome. Indeed, quite a lot has been made of the actual historical last lines “for I know The Queen of Britain will not forget her secretary and favour will show”, which certainly could gently imply a bit of blackmail. If it did, then considering what Joan Bulmer knew, that nascent threat was not an idle one.
Katherine won’t be drawn on an answer (whether someone else was getting a job would always be of great interest to the ladies), and bounces on to dress fittings in a way that implies she’s not planning on giving Joan Bulmer any more thought than she really has to.
Favorites remain problematic
I really enjoy David O’Hara‘s Earl of Surrey.
He’s kind of a rough looking guy, and you’d perhaps be expecting to see him in some endeavor in social realism or a gritty crime drama. Yet here he is, in a historical drama, kind of killing it. His best known and widely appreciated piece of work is probably the twenty minutes of film he spent playing Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry Potter in the body of Albert Runcorn when they were all in the Ministry of Magic in Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows (Part 1).
The accent he uses is interesting. David O’Hara is from a big Irish family that lived in Glasgow, and he’s got an accent that’s hard to pin down but it’s from somewhere around the North Sea, various places at different points in a sentence but they all sound authentic. He’s a nice reminder that this segregation by accent we have around English class is all relatively recent.
Your Lord might have sounded like David O’Hara in 1540 (admittedly that would be more likely if you came from,say, Cumbria), and you, peasant, would not raise an eyebrow.
You would be more intrigued by his apparent low key membership in what must be some very early animal rights groups.
He seems somewhere between bemused, disdainful and incredulous at this horrific killing of animals and whether it is down to the killing or the ‘Frenchness’ of the way its done is further open to interpretation. Anyway, whether The Tudors‘ Earl of Surrey joined 1540s Peta for the nationalism or not, I’m here for his membership. It’ll come up again.
He’s visiting Brandon, as the other premier Duke in the country that is not his father, and he uses an innocuous question from Brandon about how he is finding life at court to launch into a diatribe about the Seymours. Actually Historically there was new Howard Queen and maybe a Howard looking future to plan for, and the Seymours were in the way. They and Surrey were the coming fight.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the room Brandon is dropping the intrigue. We may be just a few weeks after the end of Season 3 but Brandon has been doing work on himself. He’s steady, curious, kind and if you were looking for a character that is going to make it out of this series sympathetically, say hello to Season 4 Charles Brandon, as close as you’ll get to an avatar of medieval nobility and chivalry.
The reason I don’t mind too much is it’s a great archetype he’s playing, one that really only emerged in the last few centuries. He’s the common man who becomes truly noble through his actions and life. Although I think maybe in The Tudors for the most part it’s just that people entirely forget that he was commoner in Season 1. He was actually historically the son of Henry VII’s standard bearer and an heiress and educated alongside Henry VIII but in The Tudors he was specifically introduced with very low born origins.
Meanwhile Surrey’s little rant is right down the line for his character, because accusing common born high achievers of plotting to kill off all the nobility was a thing Surrey did. The nobility of 1540 were feeling very oppressed, and Surrey apparently the most oppressed of all.
Still, his commitment to his family, and the duty he feels to that is absolute and clear, it shapes his ambitions and rounds out the scene.
Henry is hunting and will not shut up about how awesome his life is now, how great the sex he’s having is, and how much better he feels.
Brandon’s marriage isn’t going as well. Actually Historically it appears to have been fine. There was no estrangement, this sub plot did not happen.
I think we can see what’s happened in The Tudors. It must all been pretty recent, we’re not that long after Cromwell’s execution (when she was upset about all the plotting in their townhouse) yet. OK, so Catherine left, apparently, and now Charles has been doing work on himself. He will not be taking a mistress, he’s going to work on his marriage.
I swear Henry sighs a bit when Charles says he wants to make his wife love him again, if he can. Of course Charles is doing this the most difficult and honourable way possible.
Henry changes the subject, saying he plans to take the Queen on a visit soon.
And then there’s this little moment.
Lots going on here. Edward Seymour’s pretty pensive throughout, as the one with the biggest Surrey shaped problem on his horizon. But he’s got to take some comfort from Henry’s nailing of Surrey’s personality. The group all agree, Surrey and his family related Ego, right?
The score has a couple of deep drums in it as Henry directs us to notice Master Culpepper, patiently waiting on the periphery to attend upon the King, and the group ride off to try and improve their luck being the big predators in the forest.
Death by Subtext
Meanwhile the shots fired indoors among the women draw more blood. Mary I and Katherine Howard absolutely did fall out (10) with various attempts to conciliate them ending in a serious breach in the new year of 1541 (11). Katherine could be sharp when she felt insulted, and Mary was seen to have not treated her in the same way as she had previous Queens (there were now enough points of comparison for a small chart). Her new stepmother was 4 years younger than she was and Mary appears not to have liked her. She may have, understandably, been drawing a line at having to handle yet another stepmother, that was also a cousin to hated Anne Boleyn.
Mary I in The Tudors, as we have seen, responds well to polite formality. Katherine Howard in The Tudors, as we have seen, wouldn’t know polite formality if it issued her with a cordial invitation to a slapping.
Queen Katherine is nervous, having last minute adjustments made to her appearance, asking how she looks, and giving a purging sigh before Mary sweeps gracefully into the room, and drops into her custom curtsey in the most delicate declaration of war. Katherine goes for slightly gushy friendship overtures, which Mary is emphatically not here for. The rules say she has to be here, when requested, to attend upon the Queen. She has to answer a question if you ask but technically she’s not supposed to speak, otherwise. She can only sit down if you invite her to sit down.
And Mary stands there making tons of silent hay over the new Queen’s court etiquette ineptitude.
Mary is completely ignoring what appear to be genuine and potentially very useful friendship overtures from the new Queen, just because she feels Katherine is kind of beneath her, and she is angry at the world right now.
Katherine’s plea for them to be kind a loving to each other ends with what I’m not even sure is an attempt at authority, it’s delivered so submissively, it seems to be just an attempt to connect but boy, does,
not land well.
And Katherine just takes Mary’s response entirely the wrong way. Katherine was asking for female bonding and she gets back a formal ‘screw you’ and she doesn’t see the difference. Lady Rochford does, though and sees Mary’s technically correct ultimate refusal coming from afar.
Ouchies, and, once again, actual historical Katherine Howard was not this naive. Mary’s kind of on point for her hardening historical character and its a cracker of an invented scene for an actual historical feud.
The scene continues with another arrival, which Queen Katherine does not seem stoked about. It appears she was going to just ‘think on’ Joan Bulmer, and hadn’t reckoned with her actually showing up.
The impression gets solidified as they meet in Katherine’s private chamber, Katherine literally shutting the door on a super curious Lady Rochford. Katherine is not really pleased to see Joan at all.
Joan would like to quietly imply that something might be a bit owed. Katherine knows it, although Katherine would very much like to stick with the fiction that you are old friends meeting, and avoid promising anything, if she could.
Joan’s dialogue contains lines from her actual historical letter, like this one:
and takes a turn after Joan’s repeated hints rising to prods about a position as one of Katherine’s ladies keeps going unanswered and she breaks it down to not being turned away, asked flat out, and gets no answer from Katherine.
Catherine Steadman, playing Joan, is kind of great. Joan’s bitter smile in reaction is that she has prepared for this, she hoped it wouldn’t come to this but here we are. And she sits down on Katherine’s play chair of estate, picks up that makeshift sceptre from earlier and she’s getting ready to do it and when she whips her head around she is all business.
And suddenly Katherine is the literal supplicant, on her knees begging Joan to hold her peace. It’s probably OK, Joan is (reasonably) reliable and discreet. Unlike Henry we kind of guessed Katherine wasn’t a virgin, but this is the first we’ve heard that there’s evidence and people around that know it.
And so Joan gets a job. What a great scene.
And Actually Historically wrong. Joan Bulmer never came to court to work for Katherine (12).
She wrote the letter, but that’s where any evidence for Joan Bulmer’s return ends. Katherine Howard wasn’t alone in this. She wasn’t thrown at the Throne and left to it. She was a Howard. According to Gareth Russell (Young and Damned and Fair) there were several senior Howards who knew Katherine had ‘issues’ because they had allowed these ‘issues’ to go unaddressed when it looked like she would just remain a minor Howard and make a minor marriage. And they now acted as a clearing house for all the little people popping up, seeking what they saw as their due. Everyone was treated as an individual, some got what they wanted, some got some of what they wanted and promises of more, some got fobbed off with just the promises and it looks like Joan Bulmer was one of those (13). It was Katherine’s distant cousin, Katherine Tilney (who knew more and had been more discreet about it) who became a chamberer in her household(14).
But up to and including 10-12 years ago that Joan Bulmer came to court to work for Katherine was an assumption repeated in a lot of histories. (15), once again, clangers getting dropped by The Tudors as the historical conversation moves on on this topic. It was a much easier mistake to make a decade ago. Joan also gives The Tudors a means to explore Katherine’s earlier relationship for the audience as it all starts to come out during her reign, which is going to be very useful for the drama.
The Cowbridge Incidents
In August 1540 Henry ordered some rushed and secret fortification works at Calais (16), inciting a border dispute which slowly got worse. Hmm, disputes with the French with military overtones? Henry is thoroughly engaged in the business of government today.
Petal to the Metal
In the Queens chambers the hard work of the rose petal harvest has begun.
When Thomas Culpepper is announced. And both from clear physical evidence
And the reactions of every lady in the room,
we can see how Thomas Culpepper is a legitimate snack. And he actually historically was a massive hit with the ladies of the Henrican court. Great ladies sent him their favours for tournaments, minor ladies competed for his gaze(17).
He has supposedly come to give Katherine news of her husband and the court, but that was a job done actually historically by Thomas Henneage, at six o clock every evening, not Culpepper (18).
At this point, in Actual History,
Thomas Culpepper was probably the first and only man to have dumped Queen Katherine Howard.
She and Thomas had a significant flirtatious relationship when she first came to court, it had been mentioned, talked over by others. But at the time he was one of the stars of the court, and when she held out on sex for him, he just moved on and when they broke up Katherine broke down crying in front of her fellow maids of honour (19). Of course all this was before someone far more significant declared their interest.
And now look, one of them was Queen, how about that?
So there was a really interesting actual historical dynamic going on between Katherine Howard and Thomas Culpepper, and it wasn’t brand new relationship the Tudors gives us or the semi professional seduction Culpepper starts laying the groundwork for, here.
Thomas Culpepper talks down to her hard enough that I’d consider a light punch in the larynx a reasonable punishment, but Queen Katherine evidently finds him charming.
So much so that she confides her nervousness about meeting crowds with the king, and sets up an intimate little exchange.
The “You must give men leave to look, for they will look upon you” is actual historical, but the origin is not so romantic. The words were prompted by either complaining or ‘complaining’ by Katherine that Culpepper still looked upon her too much, and the line was said by Lady Rochford, not Culpepper. (20)
Saucy Puppet Show!
Queen Katherine Howard entices her husband with a saucy puppet show.
There’s quasi religious music and gauzy curtains afterwards, and Queen Katherine does a crown and nightgown striptease but I think the saucy puppets did a lot of the heavy lifting for the erotic atmosphere.
And it’s all about a very particular male gaze, as she mounts the bed and her husband and rides him into the night,
in Standard Cowgirl while really working those angles.