Divorced, beheaded, died. And repeat. That’s how we were taught to remember how the six wives of Henry VIII died. Anne of Cleves was the fourth wife that Henry VIII hated from the moment he clapped eyes on her.
But….figure it out…she was divorced. So – how did she survive?
Henry divorced Catherine of Aragon and ended the power of the Pope in England in order to do so. Then he fell out with Anne Boleyn, his highly intelligent second wife incapable of giving him a son. Wife three was Jane Seymour who had a son but then died shortly after childbirth.
And along came Anne of Cleves.
Dowdy Anne of Cleves. It’s always said that Henry saw a portrait of her by the artist Holbein and decided to marry her – convinced she was stunningly gorgeous. Unfortunately, she wasn’t quite so pretty in real life. In fact, Henry described his new Germanic wife-to-be a “Flanders mare”.
They later divorced.
But Anne is more fascinating than people give her credit. She complied with the request for a divorce and bent over backwards to give the king an easy exit out of the marriage. In contrast – Thomas Cromwell, the leading adviser at court who had recommended this union, lost his head.
And Henry seems to have been rather nice to Anne afterwards. He showered her with castles and a state pension, gave her access to his children and referred to her as his “sister”. When you consider that the next wife – Catherine Howard – would be executed, Anne must have played the situation very well.
And there is the possibility that Anne of Cleves was not as ugly as depicted by Henry’s propaganda. In fact, the real problem might have been his inability to consummate any marriage by this stage in his life.
I explain further in this episode on Henry VIII from Private Lives of the Monarchs on UKTV – Yesterday TV.
We’ve been spoiled with historical TV series on Netflix, History and HBO. So, choosing the top ten medieval TV series is tough. But here goes!
THE LAST KINGDOM
A drama series set at a terrifying time in English history when the very idea of being “English” was being defined. Saxons and Vikings have divided the realm seizing territory and slaying each other viciously. This is a period of history that was largely ignored when I was a kid. We skipped from the Romans to the Tudors. But these days, the so-called Dark Ages are being mined for great drama and documentaries. A light shone on this amazing and compelling time.
You can’t really go wrong with the Vikings. Blood, guts and battles. If you enjoy the History series, try watching some older movies for a different perspective. The 1958 movie The Vikings is a good Sunday afternoon watch over biscuits and coffee!
Pillars of the Earth brought us a murderous romp from the civil war that engulfed England under the reign of King Stephen. It was a period called The Great Anarchy that tore families apart and reduced some aristocrats to outlaw status. This was at the beginning of the Templar era and a very violent time for England. I loved this series – absolutely faultless.
Going a big vintage here. But this late 1950s/early 1960s TV adaptation of the novel Ivanhoe by Walter Scott deserves an honourable mention. Scott revived interest in the medieval period among 19th century Victorians. However, he cast the Templars as baddies. Scott saw them as enforcers for a cruel Norman nobility in old England.
How Knights Templar looked forward to this series from History. The first season struggled to find its feet and Mark Hamill of Star Wars fame was introduced in season two as a hardened old Templar master. But it’s not done as well as it should have. And that surprises me because the subject matter is truly compelling. What seems to be the problem is a lack of confidence in the whole project. I’m praying for a third season but it truly needs a kick up the backside to get to where it should be.
GAME OF THRONES
It’s mythical, Tolkein with attitude and full of gory violence – but strangely, it captures the flavour of the Middle Ages quite well. Full of court intrigue and belief in strange beings that dwell in the forests, what’s not to like as a medievalist? I’m always of the view that the Targaryen family are basically the long reigning Plantagenets of England who went a bit off the rails with Richard II. The dynasty ended with his murder and a usurper Henry taking over. Sounds familiar?
WORLD WITHOUT END
Like Pillars of the Earth, this comes from the pen of Ken Follett – only now we’ve moved about 150 years ahead. This is the reign of Edward III and again, it’s after another civil war. The last king, Edward II, has been killed….or has he? Edward II, by the way, was the last king to preside over the Knights Templar before they were crushed.
THE WHITE QUEEN
BBC drama series takes us to the War of the Roses – the bloody end to the Middle Ages in England when the aristocracy tore itself to pieces. This focuses on the strong women who emerged in this conflict.
Merlin had a long grey beard when I was a kid but the BBC re-imagined him as a youth for this very dynamic and rather scary kids series.
This was a 1960s French TV series about a crusader – I just like the theme tune to be honest! It’s a classic depiction of the Templars all neatly laundered white tunics and long flowing hair. Nobody seems to ever get filthy and dirty in the battle scenes.