Henry VIII, as portrayed in Masterpiece Theatre’s eponymous production, was a king with a blind spot as big as his appetite for eating, drinking, hunting and womanizing. His obsessive focus on producing a male heir plunged England into a religious and political division that continued for centuries after the end of his 38-year reign, arguably to this day.
Henry had good reason for his fixation, however, which the television drama does not go into: His Tudor ancestors fought the bitter War of the Roses for nearly 100 years before Henry’s father, Henry VII, was able to seize power in 1485 from the Plantagenets, who had ruled England for centuries. It fell to Henry VIII to keep the new political dynasty afloat. A son was perceived as key to the Tudors’ future because England had not had a ruling queen since ancient times. And indeed, partly because of Henry VIII’s inability to produce a healthy son, the Tudor dynasty lasted only a little over a century.
But 45 years of that dynasty consisted of the reign of Henry VIII’s daughter and arguably the greatest British monarch, Queen Elizabeth I. Therein lies Henry’s blind spot -- he never saw his daughters as potential political heirs.
The story of Henry, therefore, is largely the story of his quest for a living legacy through a son and the numerous wives he went through in his attempt to achieve that goal, and the bystanders -- not to mention the country -- who were sucked into the machinery of his obsession, chewed up and spit out. (Or more accurately, drawn, quartered, burned and/or hung.)
Directed by Pete Travis (“The Jury,” “Cold Feet”) and written by Pete Morgan (“The Jury”), Masterpiece Theatre’s production airs in two parts, on Sunday and Nov. 14, from 9 to 10:30 p.m. on KCET.
Wife No. 1, the Spanish Catholic Katherine of Aragon, produced a daughter, the future Queen (“Bloody”) Mary, and five stillborn children. Henry famously split with the Catholic Church and established the Church of England when the pope refused to grant him a divorce in 1532 so that he could marry wife No. 2, Anne Boleyn, who was pregnant with Elizabeth, the future queen. This act helped launch the Protestant Reformation and the dissolution and looting of England’s monasteries.
After Anne miscarried a boy, Henry accused her of adultery and treason and had her beheaded in 1536. Wife No. 3, the sweet and docile Jane Seymour, whom Henry married 11 days after Anne Boleyn lost her head, gave Henry his son, the sickly Edward, in 1537 -- who died of consumption at age 15.
When Jane died shortly after Edward’s birth, Henry declared himself through with matrimony, until one of his most trusted political advisors, Thomas Cromwell, arranged a marriage for him with a German princess, Anne of Cleves. She was considered so unpleasant-looking that the English nicknamed her “the Flanders mare.” Henry refused to consummate the marriage; it was annulled and Anne was given property and a generous allowance for life. (She is said to have thrown fabulous parties.) This gaffe resulted in Cromwell’s execution.
Henry’s next selection was a sexy teenage bride, the niece of one of his most trusted advisors, the Duke of Norfolk. Unlike Anne Boleyn, whom most historians agree was not guilty of adultery, Catherine Howard almost certainly was -- but in her defense, by this time Henry was old and impotent. The unlucky cousin of Anne Boleyn shared her fate on the chopping block, executed in 1542 for adultery and treason.
Henry’s sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr, was merely a companion and nurse for his old age. Their marriage lasted only four years, until Henry’s death in 1547.
Ray Winstone (“Sexy Beast,” “Cold Mountain”) makes a respectable Henry, though he suffers in comparison to Richard Burton’s portrayal of tortured ambivalence in the 1969 feature film “Anne of the Thousand Days” and Keith Michell’s by turns charming and terrifying Henry in the 1971 BBC production “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” -- which, to be fair, gave Michell six hours (one for each wife) to explore the complexity of Henry’s character. Because this production begins in the 15th year of Henry’s reign, we miss the monarch’s early glory years, when historical accounts describe him as an extremely popular king, tall, handsome, athletic, a poet and a talented composer whose pieces are still performed today.
Instead, we are introduced to him in 1524, as he is about to coldly cast aside his loyal wife of 15 years, Katherine of Aragon (Assumpta Serna), and attempt to seduce the young Anne Boleyn (Helena Bonham Carter). It is therefore difficult to muster much sympathy for Henry -- although he claims that everyone around him betrays him, he is the biggest back-stabber of all. The supporting cast is superb, from Bonham Carter as the wily seductress who insists she will be Henry’s queen, not his mistress; to Mark Strong as the scheming and resilient Duke of Norfolk; to Daniel Webb as the devoted, crafty Protestant Thomas Cromwell; to David Suchet as Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, one of the most powerful ministers at court, the Karl Rove of his day. Sean Bean particularly stands out in a brief role as Robert Aske, a Catholic rebel who is brutally betrayed by the king. Bean has the charisma and regal presence to make a fantastic Henry; one wonders why he was cast in the lesser role.
The production values are likewise outstanding, with the characters looking like they just stepped out of Hans Holbein paintings. The historical accuracy is impressive -- Bonham Carter gives the actual speech Anne Boleyn gave before she was executed. One bit of historical information the TV drama strangely omits is the reason Henry had difficulty fathering healthy children -- he most likely suffered from syphilis and infected most of his wives with it as well. Some historians speculate that queens Mary and Elizabeth contracted the disease at their births, rendering them barren. Ironically enough, in the end, Henry may have had only himself to blame for the demise of the Tudor dynasty.
‘Masterpiece Theatre’s Henry VIII’
Where: KCET (PBS)
When: 9 p.m. Sunday and Nov. 14
Rating: TV-14 S, V (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14; advisories for sex and violence).
Ray Winstone...Henry VIII
Helena Bonham Carter...Anne Boleyn
Emilia Fox...Jane Seymour
David Suchet...Cardinal Wolsey
Executive producer Rebecca Eaton. Director Peter Travis. Writer Peter Morgan.