Tudor historian reviews The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970)

Guest contributor and Tudor historian Enzo A. Cunanan explores the 1970s production ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’.

At first glance, The Six Wives of Henry VIII seems like a typical high-brow, yet low-budget 1970s TV drama. There is some truth in this. The costumes, while sumptuous and mostly accurate, on closer inspection do betray the low budget the directors and producers were forced to work with. So too do the rather bare wood-paneled corridors and rooms. Some of the actors were also too old to convincingly portray their characters. But this miniseries’ strengths lie in its intelligent writing and brilliant performances, along with a quite considerable commitment to the historical knowledge of the time.

The best performance, of course, is that of Keith Michell, who ages from a charismatic, idealistic (admittedly somewhat unconvincing) 18-year-old to a decrepit, tyrannical 55-year-old. I firmly believe he’s the best actor to have ever portrayed Henry VIII. He amazingly captures Henry’s regal majesty (for lack of a better word) and terrifying rages; this is a man who I can truly believe is king, an awe-inspiring yet frightening individual. But he’s also able to bring out Henry’s sensitive side, like when he brings himself to tears insisting that Catherine of Aragon must accept the annulment, or when he shamefacedly confesses his impotence to Catherine Howard.

His absolute certainty in his own righteousness and interest in religion is also highlighted, a dimension of Henry’s character rarely depicted on screen. Michell is the actor I picture when I think of the real Henry VIII, no mean achievement! Each wife received an episode in her own right, each written by a noted playwright and/or screenwriter of the 1970s, an understandable but flawed decision. 

Keith Mitchell was a royal standout as Henry VIII in the London production of ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ (1970)

The first episode, “Catherine of Aragon”, written by Rosemary Anne Sisson, is a flawed, yet brilliant opener. Aside from two opening scenes, the episode is divided into roughly two sections. The first is dedicated to Catherine’s widowhood and the early years of her marriage to Henry, while the second is dedicated to the annulment and Catherine’s languishing and death in exile. Thus, the episode manages to cover Catherine’s widowhood in largely accurate detail, with characters who’ve never appeared in other media, like Doña Elvira.

Constrained by the limits of a 90-minute episode, Sisson cannily brings a thematic unity to Catherine’s life by drawing parallels between the trials of her widowhood and the tribulations of the annulment. However, this does mean that important events like the birth of Princess Mary and the Field of the Cloth of Gold are omitted. Tying the whole episode together is Annette Crosbie’s phenomenal performance as Catherine.

Scottish actress Annette Crosbie as Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ (1970) (Image credit: Rolls Press/Popperfoto)

While Maria Doyle Kennedy (The Tudors) remains my favorite portrayal, Crosbie brings a quiet, yet firm conviction in the righteousness of Catherine’s cause to her depiction. She also infuses her portrayal with the same single-minded determination that frustrated Henry and his supporters in real life, as when she crosses out all mentions of the “Princess Dowager” on a transcript she is handed. Yet she never loses her love for Henry, continuing to sew his shirts throughout the annulment and refusing to lead a rebellion against him. It’s Chapuys who gets the last big speech of the episode, telling Maria that Catherine “turned her ship’s head into the wind, and drove it upon the only course she knew, the course of truth… She wouldn’t say that she was not married when she was.

If “Catherine of Aragon” was an imperfect yet masterful premiere, Nick McCarty’s “Anne Boleyn” is rescued from its limits in chronology by Dorothy Tutin’s outstanding portrayal of the titular queen.

The most obvious flaw of this episode is McCarty’s decision, probably because of time constraints, to focus just on Anne’s fall from September 1535 onward. While better than sketchily portraying Anne’s life to the point of incomprehensibility, this means that Anne’s downfall has less emotional power than it should; the happy days of Anne’s relationship with Henry are confined to a two-minute opening montage in this episode. In this version, Henry seeks to get rid of Anne after the January 1536 miscarriage, but it is Cromwell who presents him with the charges, having plotted since the episode’s beginning.

English actress Dorothy Tutin shone as Anne Boleyn in ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII‘ (1970) (Image credit: Rolls Press/Popperfoto)

Dorothy Tutin’s performance as Anne is the center of this episode, transforming it into one of my favorite pieces of Tudor media. Tutin is by turns haughty, frightened, anguished, and utterly self-possessed, but always maintaining a regal dignity absent in many portrayals. Although initially somewhat unsympathetic (she declares of her enemies, “I will have them scattered like offal when my son is born!”), her courage and innocence shine in the Tower. She can justly say to Cromwell in the best depiction of her trial put on screen, “I’m closer to God than you will ever be,” while her “little neck” remark and execution speech are delivered with a quiet resignation.

Indeed, Henry’s bullying and utter cruelty to Anne in the Tower leaves the viewer in no doubt of the episode’s true villain. Tutin’s performance is incredibly moving and in my opinion, has only been bettered by Natalie Dormer; it’s a travesty it isn’t better known. 

Uniquely for the miniseries, Jane Seymour’s episode, written by Ian Thorne, is told in a flashback format, making it surprisingly emotionally cohesive. It’s carried by Anne Stallybrass’ touching performance as a genuinely kind, principled, yet never boring Jane, making this (in my opinion) the best Jane depiction yet.

English actress Anne Stallybrass pictured dressed in period costume as Jane Seymour during production of the BBC TV series ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII‘ in London in 1970. (Image credit: Rolls Press/Popperfoto)

As a delirious Jane watches her son Edward’s christening, she lapses back to memories of her past, starting with Henry’s 1535 visit to Wolf Hall. There, he falls for the meek, modest Jane. Although she feels sorry for Henry (she tells her sister Dorothy, “I wish someone could help him”), this version of Jane is ready to stick up for what she believes in, and she shows a love for monasticism at her first meeting with Henry. Indeed, Jane takes no part in the plot to get rid of Anne here, although she nevertheless feels guilty over it. She intercedes for Mary to return to court after her submission, to which Henry replies, “If you had your way, my little nun,” he says, “every villain in the country would go free.”

Despite his seeming love for Jane and her aura of calm, Henry’s moral deterioration only increases in this episode, as not only does he scream at Cromwell that “I will not be judged by any man!”, but he threatens to have Jane executed when she pleads for him to restore the monasteries. He cruelly reveals to her that the Holy Blood of Christ from Hailes is merely a vial of duck’s blood, but then quickly apologizes and sinks into self-pity so bad Jane has to comfort him while pitifully weeping, “I am bound to obey and serve you, sir.” In the end, though, Jane sinks into unconsciousness as Henry celebrates Edward’s birth; all Henry can do is kneel by Jane’s body, lying in state, and silently weep.

From Jane Seymour onwards, though, the series’ accuracy in capturing each wife’s personality and the quality of each episode noticeably decreases. The simple fact that the producers didn’t reckon with was that in order to do the wives justice, some of them needed more episodes than others. As a result, Jean Morris in “Anne of Cleves” faced the unenviable dilemma of how to stretch Anne’s six-month marriage to Henry, nearly all of which was spent by Henry trying to obtain an annulment, into a ninety-minute episode.

English actress Elvi Hale stars as a politically-active Anne of Cleves (Image credit: BBC)

Morris attempted to solve this by making Elvi Hale’s Anne not only already fluent in English, but also a politics buff who corrects Henry on when the 1513 Treaty of Lille was signed and stops Henry from consummating their marriage by telling him the Schmalkaldic League is about to break up. This episode intriguingly posits that Anne was equally appalled by Henry, to the extent that Cranmer has to persuade her into marrying him.

The most ludicrous scene, however, is a Monty Python-esque sequence where she welcomes a series of visitors to her private apartments: the reformer Robert Barnes, followed by Cromwell, followed by a disguised Landgrave Philip of Hesse, and finally culminating with Henry. Barnes and Cromwell are desperate for Anne to save her marriage, on which they think the future of Protestantism rests, to which Anne scathingly retorts, “And I would rather comfort a shamed child than save a dozen churches!” The annulment is amicably settled, with no hint of the real Anne’s heartbreak when her marriage was annulled. 

Beverley Cross’ episode, “Catherine Howard,” was clearly heavily influenced by Lacey Baldwin’s 1961 biography, which accuses Catherine of “juvenile delinquency, wanton selfishness, and ephemeral hedonism.” Not only is this Catherine cruel and self-centered, bullying Henry’s fool Will Somers and using Culpeper merely as a surrogate to get herself pregnant, but she’s abusive to her cousin at Horsham and twice floats the idea of having Dereham murdered. Needless to say, making Catherine, who historically was probably a victim of abuse, into an abuser, is one of the most appalling concepts I’ve heard in Tudor media.

Henry VIII and his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, as played by Angela Pleasance. (Image credit: BBC)

The casting of the 29-year-old Angela Pleasance as the explicitly 17-year-old Catherine only further strains credulity, as Pleasance brings a wild-eyed, almost manic quality to her deeply unsettling performance. Although this Catherine wins Henry over by tending to his leg ulcers, she’s somehow shocked to find out the extent of his physical deterioration on their wedding night, telling Lady Rochford that “I had not realized how old he was!” It’s Norfolk in this version who persuades Catherine to secure her position with a son by Culpeper, and ahistorically, it’s Norfolk, not Cranmer, who rats her out to Henry. Despite her composed preparations for death, it is Henry’s lament that best sums up this series’ utterly unjust depiction of Catherine: “So young, so beautiful, yet so corrupt!”

Of the last three episodes, John Prebble’s “Catherine Parr” is, in my opinion, the best, if only because Prebble clearly did his research. Many of Catherine’s lines are taken from her actual works (“I loved darkness better than light … I called superstition godliness, and true holiness error”). The fundamental problem with this episode, though, is that Prebble seems to have read Catherine’s works so much that he forgot she was an actual human being. While Catherine was very pious and learned, she was also passionate, not only about fashion and the arts, but in love.

Rosalie Crutchley portrays an older, sober-minded Catherine Parr (Image credit: BBC)

Rosalie Crutchley, at 49, was too old to convincingly play the 31-year-old Catherine, and she rarely smiles; indeed, her gowns, even as queen, are quite plain, in contrast to the real Catherine’s love of jewels and clothes. At her first meeting with Henry, she wears a dark, sober gown and spouts lines like, “Well, we shouldn’t be so carnal that we run headlong after desire, Your Majesty, like colts without snaffle or bridle!” On their wedding night, she even attempts to read to Henry from The Lamentation of a Sinner. Still, it accurately captures Catherine’s zeal for Protestantism. Its decision to have Catherine agree to marry Thomas Seymour out of a duty to protect her stepchildren and not because she was madly in love with him, needless to say, however, is wildly inaccurate.

For all its flaws, The Six Wives of Henry VIII was a landmark television event, which won 5 of its 8 BAFTA nominations and deservedly nabbed Keith Michell an Emmy for his sublime depiction of Henry VIII. Its portrayals of Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, and even supporting characters like Cranmer manage to redeem its weaker second half. In fact, it actually sparked my lifelong obsession with the Tudors. I first saw it when I borrowed it from my local library at just 7, and I highly recommend watching it for yourself; It’s available on Britbox and DVD!

Enzo Acosta Cunanan is a third-year History student at the University of Oxford. He represented University College, Oxford last year in the hit ITV quiz show University Challenge. Originally from Australia of Filipino descent (albeit having lived the majority of his life in Orlando, Florida), he was Champion of the National History Bee in 2015 and 2016, as well as Champion of the International History Olympiad in 2016. He is currently pitching his first novel to literary agents; it tells the story of Henry VIII’s reign from his own perspective, as well as that of his wives.

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