Sultry, French princess Isabella leans down to the dying king Edward and whispers in his ear … “A child who is not of your line grows in my belly. Your son will not sit long on the throne… I swear it.” Her fey, cuckolded husband – the next king Edward – strains to hear her, as the audience squirms with delight. What an exquisitely saucy comeuppance! The crafty William Wallace – our own lovable Mel, who was soon to be officially disemboweled – had managed to slip a Freedom bun into the royal oven! Mel Gibson and Sophie Marceau going at it! Think of it! What an image! … and what a remarkably tricky piece of fucking.
History tells us that Edward I died in 1307, but Isabella of France would not marry the unwitting Edward II until the following year – when she was 12 years old. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about that, the dying king had also married a 12 year old, who produced 10 children by the time she was 22. What’s tricky is that William Wallace was executed in 1305 – three years earlier. In order for the scene to play out, Mel would have had to knock up little Sophie when she was 9, and at the time of her revelation, she would have been more than two YEARS pregnant.
Without sex, there would of course be no history, but that would be sex in a particular order and sex between people who actually existed. According to the movie Braveheart, it was the love of another woman – Wallace’s equally comely wife – that set him off on his ill-fated rampage in the first place. It was her murder that initiated the sequence of events that would lead to all-out war with the English, the ultimate independence of Scotland and his own untimely demise. History, however, tells us next to nothing about Wallace himself, much less the woman in question – certainly whether or not she looked like a Victoria’s Secret model.
Thwarted love is also the impetus for the monumental exploits of Spartacus, played by Kirk Douglas. When the woman of his heart, Jean Simmons, is taken from him, he also goes on the rampage and takes on the source of his own oppression – Rome. History indeed appears to repeat itself: both Spartacus and Wallace lose exceptionally tasty squeezes up front, both rally their forces around the idea of Freedom, both are graphically executed and both are vindicated by their women folk: lovers who deliver them children posthumously to trump the powers that be and bring Freedom to bear. As with Wallace, history reveals hardly anything about Spartacus besides his name, nationality, uprising and defeat. There is no record at all of any ‘babes’ or babies.
In Braveheart these pivotal sexual encounters involve shadowy glimpses of breasts, bottoms and fingers set to a poignant ‘romantic’ musical score. In Spartacus they’re not shown at all. When female slaves are paired off with gladiators in their cells to relieve them of their pent up frustrations, whatever sexual shenanigans may be forthcoming, are expressed in silence. When Jean Simmons bathes naked in a stream, she lays on her back with a determined foreground fern doggedly obscuring her breasts. In both films, sex is sensitively depicted or simply implied.
In the thirty years between the making of Spartacus and Braveheart, very little changed in that regard, but in the next twenty five it would change dramatically – along with the historical embellishments needed to justify it. Whereas historical movies may have little or nothing to do with historical events, they throw real light on the history of audience expectations when it comes to Romance and the “old in/out.”
The Working Class English have an expression – “Whenever you look up, there’s the queen’s ass.” In a monarchy there’s only so far you can go. But when Lady Diana Spencer showed up, that perspective changed. Monarchy was still monarchy, but that ass suddenly called for a lot more attention. Our Di, The People’s Princess, wasn’t simply ‘real’ – she was hyper real. She was fairytale come true. With Diana, the monarchies of fiction had seemingly become a monarchy of fact…
A shy young kindergarten teacher, is whisked away to a life of glamour and riches by a real life Prince Charming, produces two lovely young princes, is spurned by their father, sets out to save the world, is loved by all, and then is tragically killed – or was it murdered? Diana showed that with modesty, sincerity and love in your heart, it was possible to acquire untold wealth, get to wear a crown and assert yourself as a woman… but being a woman she could be used, abused and discarded. She wasn’t just a woman, she was WOMAN and women the world over idolized her for it – women the world over from 5 to 95. Diana was a heaven sent Golden Goose, a marketing wet-dream come true. She was Royalty, Fashion, Rock and Roll and Sex rolled into one. The ‘Romance’ of kings and queens, would make money like never before.
Hollywood started cranking out princesses like sausages. George Lucas even introduced a queen to Star Wars – an equally modern babe, equally determined, equally obsessed with getting gussied up, and with as much vitality as her dead role model. Royal families appeared in every movie theater, every bookstore, and every television, all of them sexy, all of them fabulously beautiful. And finally, along came our Henry, that lovable, English “royal rogue,” who sausaged more princesses than you could shake a stick at.
The Tudors is a “Period Drama,” an epic reenactment of the larger than life and times of King Henry VIII: Opulent palaces and gardens, fabulous costumes and interiors, and all the pageantry and spectacle of monarchy, unfold against the backdrop of 16th century intrigue and conflict. Scenes are lavishly staged, art directed and choreographed, to evoke wealth, glamour and power, and lit to create a moody sensual environment ideal for plotting and sexual cavorting. Dialogue mimics a ‘meaningful’ Shakespearean style, evoking wit and insightfulness but conveying sentiments more in line with the concerns of modern day soap opera. Female characters are preoccupied with marriage, property, clothes, sexual infidelities, divorce and babies. Men are engaged in the manly pursuits of political scheming, galloping around on horseback, eating, drinking, fighting and fucking.
In other TV melodramas, such as Downton Abbey, sexual interactions are known to the audience but not shown. In The Tudors, sex scenes are relentless and explicit. The effect is a Beauty Pageant on steroids: Female ‘contestants’ are introduced in elaborate costumes and jewelry to announce their resumes and intentions, then brought back later to take them off. Unlike the simple ‘swimsuit’ routine, any female new comer to the show, will in no time, first make much ado about revealing her breasts, then quickly get fully naked, throw the legs up and get down to business.
Henry is played by a buff young stud in keeping with his prowess as a lover – his wives, by healthy, attractive, mostly young women. The actual monarch’s size increased significantly over time, but this is not reflected at all by his fictional counterpart. Whereas Henry expanded to land-whale proportions, the fictional Henry maintains his trim, soccer player physique throughout. The only overt physical disability his sexual partners have to contend with, is an unpleasant ongoing ulceration on his leg caused by a jousting accident in his youth. This is more a justification for his occasional crankiness than an obstacle to be addressed during sex. Organizing sensuality around the overall constraints of such a partner would have required extremely innovative, feminine guile – especially given the life or death nature of the project. Instead we are presented with the same old, entirely predictable, ‘perfect body,’ in/out clichés.
There were a lot of things about our Henry that were unpleasant by modern standards – or any other standards for that matter – all of which would have added a certain poignancy to the prospect of personal and sexual interaction. His partners on occasions must have experienced a degree of apprehension, if not outright terror as he bore down upon them. “Henry the Eighth, by the Grace of God, King of England, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith and of the Church of England and also of Ireland in Earth Supreme Head” was in fact a nasty son of a bitch.
In terms of character, he was vain, irascible, cruel, despotic, obese and ‘right’ – according to divine dispensation. He dumped the Pope in Rome in order to become Pope in England, assuming the prerogatives of divinity and continuing with the worst excesses of cruelty, intolerance and fraud espoused by the original. He murdered thousands of his own subjects, including women and children, had no qualms about hideously torturing and burning detractors alive, confiscated property to finance wars for his own aggrandizement, and ramped up the Enclosure of the Common land to get the ball rolling on the privatization of nature. His sense of intellectual stature was expressed outwardly by his physical size, achieved by a lifetime of compulsive eating. His meat consumption was staggering; he drank alcohol in some form or other from morning till night. And he executed his wives.
In terms of physics, Henry VIII might be described as an ongoing series of explosive mental and digestive events occurring within a dangerously overbearing structure weighing in at more than 350 pounds. As with most people of his time, a structure that was rarely washed. He would have been a formidable challenge to the hardiest of women.
Rather than gasping “I’m coming,” a land mass of such magnitude might conceivably have announced it was “about to arrive” – or had some appointed official announce it for him – and even clean up after, like the “Groom of the Stool” who wiped the royal backside. Given the king’s diet and girth it must have been a daunting task, yet this seemingly lowest of functions was considered one of the highest of honors. Very few were entitled to such pampering. In contrast to the opulence of its fixtures and fittings, restroom facilities at the palace were rudimentary and descended in scope according to station. As a commoner, Anne Boleyn probably had to wipe her own bum when she first arrived at court, prompting one to (briefly) consider whether her queenly prerogative was rescinded once she was up for the chop.
Her sister, as it happened, was the first to get a crack at the King. In the show, when they meet, she curtseys in front of him, rummages around in his codpiece, and nonchalantly starts tongue-basting the contents. One way or another, both sisters it seems, were destined to give head. Their father had previously pimped out his underage daughters to the French court, but apparently unhappy with the dividends, had decided to give Henry a pop. Underage girls are a staple of monarchy, after all – the best money can buy. It’s Tradition my dear! Most of the time, the ladies were more than happy to go along with it. Wouldn’t you?
But Historical fiction is concerned with money not facts. Facts are the convenient hook on which to hang fiction in order to seduce an audience into spending – either directly through merchandising, or inversely through advertising. Tudors’ writer Michael Hirst was very forthright: “This is an example of history as a commodity; … what would ultimately sell, in terms of audience figures, commissions and later sales from downloads and DVDs… if certain historical facts had to be left by the wayside, then so be it.”
It is simply the way of things: In order to make a return on investment, history must become entertainment; fact must become fiction. Our OWN PAST is just one more part of the environment to be plundered in the interest of profit.
It is a lazy kind of fiction, in that the most difficult part of the literary process is the invention of believable situation and character. With historical fiction this requires no effort at all, since the characters cannot possibly be questioned; they exist as historical fact. They function like Ken and Barbie dolls to be dressed in comfortably contemporary mores and dialogue to reinforce a contemporary media/advertising mindset. Ideally, to add to the coercion, they are animated by already known, celebrity actors behaving according to fan expectations. It is a dolls and dollhouse mindset of make believe, wishful thinking and “wouldn’t it be nice if;” a statement of dissatisfaction, petulant almost, that actual history just isn’t good enough. “We weren’t going for the fat look” said writer Hirst, as if it were an affectation of sorts, a kind of fashion statement that can be changed like simply putting on a new outfit. “You have to make Henry for an audience today otherwise they’re going to be bored.” said actor Rhys Meyers. Bored that is, with who we are, and who we really were.
Shakespeare was the first to use historical fiction in this manner – and he used it to similar ends. Turning history into entertainment glamorized his aristocratic and royal patrons and promoted the idea of England’s rise to empire. It also paid the rent; Willy the Shake certainly knew “…whereupon his bread was’t buttereth.” Embellishment, exaggeration and outright lies all combined to support the powers that be – and it worked: the Empire took off and lasted five hundred years. Sex was not presented overtly, more as saucy interludes of innuendo. There would be no women with their legs up on stage in Tudor times, simply because women were not allowed on stage. The great female characters – Ophelia, Cordelia, Desdemona, Juliet and Lady Macbeth, etc – were all played by men. There were no tits on Titania.
But Shakespeare’s blurring of fact and fiction continues to skew modern perceptions of historical characters. The real Henry V was probably nowhere near as wonderful, Macbeth nowhere near as bad. Richard III, the murderous, scheming hunchback has suffered an opprobrium that has lasted centuries and is only now being redressed. No one reads Shakespeare as history, but the mish mash of fact and fiction he created endures. The question becomes then: who is orchestrating the embellishments and falsehoods now, and in the interests of which future empire?
The men and women who actually participated in the monarchy of Henry VIII had unique circumstances to contend with. They demonstrated the process by which the human endeavor endures, the process to which we are always in debt. History as commodity focuses entirely on what we’ve got, at the expense of what it really took to get it. It is an insult to the billions of human beings who experienced – and suffered – history as fact.
The women of Tudor times had no organized health care, no doctors, no dentists, no Ob/Gyn, no practical knowledge of infection and disease, no anesthetics, no sanitation, no running water, no drinking water, no bathrooms, no deodorants, no tampons, no health clubs, no yoga mats, no anti-depressants to help cope, yet they had to interact with men and other women to achieve exactly the same results as modern women. Young women under those conditions, coming to terms with a dangerously vain, supremely privileged, 350-pound, drunken carnivore with an erection, show true ‘worth.’ Such an idea is almost incomprehensible to us. It is truly amazing, but presenting them as beautiful contemporary women, in contemporary terms, interacting with a ‘handsome’ young contemporary male makes their achievement meaningless.
“One owes respect to the living, but to the dead one owes only the truth.” said Voltaire. We are unable to do that, simply because it costs too much. They must instead make do with glamorous falsehoods because those are the only things that make a profit – and reinforce the status quo. The political process is informed by historical Fact not historical Fiction. Those who do not study Fact will suffer a governance of Fiction. The purpose of Mass Media is to make sure they are in the majority.
MALCOLM MC NEILL’s collection of essays, REFLUX was published in 2014 and is available on Amazon.
Other work in progress, including SCIENCE, can be seen on Facebook: