Taking on the “Hot” Tudors

I am deep into the preparations for my summer graduate institute next week: “The Tudors: History, Media and Mythology”. As I’ve got the history and historiography down, my preparations encompass watching lots of videos! This will be the first course that I’ve taught which extensively uses film and focuses on representations as much as historical realities, but I decided to take it on for several reasons. After this last decade or so of Tudor mania it has become increasingly clear to me that many, if not most, of my students’ historical perspectives were shaped first and foremost by popular culture, so I have to address these interpretations and depictions more directly rather than just leaving them on the side. And there are so many! As Cynthia Herrup notes in her 2009 article in Perspectives on History, the American Historical Association’s magazine, “Students have always come to class with firm ideas drawn from fiction, but now they have multiple visualizations that convince them, on the one hand, that they “know” the history, and on the other hand, that the historically accurate Elizabeth (or Mary, or whoever) is infinitely malleable.” Several of my colleagues have been teaching World War (s) history and film courses for a while, and why not me (and the trendy Tudors?) And lastly, our summer institutes are intense, one-week courses that meet every day, all day long, which is a good format for showing films and clips and having discussions.

So these are the themes that I am pursuing now (subject to change until right up until Monday morning): the absence of Henry VII, the first Tudor: why isn’t he hot? I certainly think he is. The interplay of Tudor projection (through histories, portraits, plays) and modern representations. I like to see the past and present connect (sort of) through projection onto representation. The development of a veritable cults devoted to Mary, Queen of Scots (one of Edison’s earliest films pictures her execution!) and more recently, Anne Boleyn. All sorts of Elizabeth sub-topics: I could have devoted the course entirely to her. And I would also like to demonstrate and discuss the transition from “public television history” to “premium cable history” and back again: after all, The Tudors was produced for Showtime but also broadcast on the BBC (despite David Starkey’s fierce objections).

Tudor Themes & Representations, in images:

Tudors 1

Tudors White Queen

The newly-crowned Henry VII! In stills from the 1972 BBC mini-series The Shadow of the Tower and the last episode of the 2013 BBC/Starz mini-series The White Queen (with his mother Margaret Beaufort, who has somehow made her way to the Battle of Bosworth).


Robert Shaw in A Man for All Seasons

Tudors Eric Bana

Projection: Petworth House copy of Hans Holbein’s incredibly-influential portrait of Henry VIII (© National Trust images/Derrick E. Witty), creating very big SHOULDERS for Robert Shaw (in A Man for all Seasons, 1966) and Eric Bana (The Other Boleyn Girl, 2008) to fill!


Tudors Jane

Tudors Mary

The Beheaded Ladies: Anne Boleyn (as played by Natalie Dormer in The Tudors, 2009), Jane Grey (as depicted by Paul Delaroche, 1834, National Gallery, London) and Mary, Queen of Scots (whose execution was captured by a Dutch artist in 1586, National Gallery of Scotland). Why are we so continually fascinated by these romantic “martyrs”?


Tudors Elizabeth Davis

Eternal Elizabeth: Queen Elizabeth is (relatively) ageless during her own lifetime, but age is definitely an issue in her afterlife! Portrait of the Queen c. 1590 (Jesus College, Oxford University) and Bette Davis in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, 1939.


11 responses to “Taking on the “Hot” Tudors

  • chris

    This sounds like it’s going to be a great course! Wish I could attend 🙂

  • Brian Bixby

    Hand’t realized until I picked up a copy of her history of England that even Jane Austen was a fan of Mary, Queen of Scots.

  • Nina Cohen

    Public execution as an aspect of the Tudor story is little understood today. Recently enjoyed Joel F. Harrington’s The Faithful Executioner, a “considered and fascinating book” according to Hilary Mantel that explores from the vantage point of his own journal, the internal motivation of a 16th C. public executioner in Nuremberg. History provides us with a completely different viewpoint of public justice, and of divine forgiveness.

  • agnesashe

    Over this side of the pond, we have high expectations of the adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring Up the Bodies’. It will have Mark Rylance as Cromwell and Damien Lewis (obviously a favourite with the US audience) as Henry VIII to be shown on the BBC in 2015. Although historical fiction both novels are considerably more accurate with ‘the history’ than ‘The White Queen’ etc, which I switched off after less than 20 minutes!

    • daseger

      Agnes—we watched 5 minutes of the White Queen in class yesterday and my students were appalled! Can’t wait for Damien Lewis as Henry.

      • agnesashe

        That’s really heartening to know we have an up and coming critical generation – hooray! Yes, I think Damien Lewis as Henry is great casting, but I think Mark Rylance as THE actor of his generation could be breathtaking as Cromwell.

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