The Women in The Tudors – Seasons 3&4

I adore the British series The Tudors, for all its flaws. (And Good Lord do the flaws become apparant the further along you get.) One of those flaws is a very hit-and-miss approach to the female characters. Stand-outs are Maria Doyle-Kennedy (Katherine of Aragon) and Natalie Dormer (Anne Boleyn) from the first two series, which I’ve already mentioned, although probably not in as much detail as they deserved. (My main gripe at the time was the bad portrayal of Mary/Margaret.) For the time being, I’m going to focus on the female characters in the second two seasons, as they appear… the good, bland and WTF?

Joanne King (Jane Boleyn/Lady Rochford)

This the most sympathetic portrayal I’ve seen of Jane Boleyn, whose testimony infamously sent her husband and sister-in-law to the block, as well as her cousin-in-law Katherine Howard. It could have done the same to Anne of Cleves. It’s made apparant that her marriage to George Boleyn is a deeply unhappy one, including marriage-night rape and George’s supposed homosexuality and devotion to Anne. You can kind of understand what drove her to become so bitter that she saw the only way out as testifying against her sister-in-law. It doesn’t excuse her behaviour, but you can understand her bitterness. Conversely, her encouraging Katherine Howard to have an affair is a WTF moment. She was one of the longest-serving courtiers of Henry’s court; she knew better than anyone how badly it could end. I would have liked an explaination as to why she thought that was a good idea.

Sarah Bolger (Princess/Queen Mary)

Sarah Bolger. OMG you guys, SARAH BOLGER! I read somewhere that a lot of the fans who were threatening to leave over the departure of Dormer stayed because of Bolger, and I could totally believe that. Bolger has this presence as Mary that’s possibly the most nuanced and sympathetic ever portrayed. In 500 years. She’s devout in her beliefs, but not the intolerant woman who became known as ‘Bloody Mary’. She believes that people can believe what they want to, but that they, as the royal family, have a moral obligation to follow the ‘right path’ by example. She’s devoted to her sister Elizabeth and brother Edward, despite them not being of her beliefs. She struggles to walk the line between following her beliefs and trying to keep her father’s love; she acts the pants off Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in every scene.

Annabelle Wallis (Jane Seymour)

I found Jane to be very bland. Yes, I get that she was the ‘sweet, loving’ one after ‘ambitious bitch/slut’ Anne, but she just came across as bland. At one point, when she finds out that Henry is cheating on her, she not only lets it go but in her advanced pregnancy asks his mistress to comfort him should she die in childbirth. Yeah, I totally get that Jane understands she can’t rock the boat – look where Anne and her temper got her – but I can’t believe she would be that understanding. And the shame of it? I could totally see her confiding in her step-daughter Mary, who she had an excellent relationship with both on-screen and according to history. Who better than Mary knew what it was to be a woman trying to negotiate Henry’s love in his sea of temper and whims?  Who better than Mary to say ‘you have my deepest sympathy, but look where complaining got my mother and Anne’, and know what she was talking about?

Joss Stone and Tamzin Merchant (Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard)

I’m mentioning these two only because I was disappointed by the amount of screentime and storyline they got. I didn’t feel they delved into Anne of Cleves at all, and Katherine Howard is the same old simple-minded girl of questionable virtue that history has always portrayed her as. And while it’s true that she requested a block to ‘practice’ her beheading on, did they really have to have Merchant naked? One thing I did like? When Henry is searching for a new bride following Jane Seymour’s death he finds the royal princesses of Europe reluctant to have anything to do with him. At this point, after all, he’s beheaded one wife, abandoned another and left the third to die in childbirth. Who gives a toss that the guy’s King of England when your neck is literally on the line? Though I would have liked to see them go into why Anne married him, and why she chose to stay in England after the divorce: between the two of them, she preferred Henry over her brother’s tyranny. The only reason Henry found a foreign bride was that her home life was intolerable. It would have been nice to see this disintegration of Henry’s personality rather than Rhys-Meyers attempt to make him more sympathetic and attractive.

Katherine Parr (Joley Richardson)

Incidentally, I got a chuckle out of the fact that Richardson is actually far too old to play Katherine Parr, both historically and proportionally to Rhys-Meyers, and I was reserved about her casting. But I really liked her portrayal. I liked the way, when Henry first starts paying her attention, she’s understandably frightened; the man has been married five times before, abandoning two wives, beheading another two and leaving the other to die in childbirth. But the men in her life just don’t grasp this; her elderly, sick husband is convinced that she deliberately invited his interest in the hope of becoming a royal mistress or even wife, and refuses deathbed forgiveness. Her friend – and later last husband – Thomas Seymour doesn’t understand why she doesn’t want to be Queen. (Er… because he’s abandoned two wives, beheaded two and left the other to die in childbirth, that’s why.) There’s one scene when Henry has the papers for her arrest based on her being a heretic; thinking on her feet, she tells him that she was merely playing Devil’s advocate, debating religion with him to distract him from the pain in his leg. As I said before, I would have liked to see more of Henry’s tyranny in the later years of his wife. It would have made for far more interesting portrayals if we had have seen how much terror and uncertainty these women were living in.

Emma Stansfield (Anne Askew)

OK, very small appearance, but I still liked that Anne Askew got a mention. Female martyrs so infrequently get mentioned. And I liked the loyalty Katherine Parr demonstrated in easing her agony in death. Askew was the only woman to be tortured in the Tower of London, a nice detail added to demonstrate Henry’s increasing disregard for both law and historical convention.

Ironically, I think the weakest link in the last two seasons of The Tudors was Rhys-Meyers himself. Rather than the fat, aging King in constant pain who became increasingly paranoid and vicious and all-encompassing in eliminating anyone he saw as a threat, the only consession they made was a bit of grey hair and the odd display of temper. Rhys-Meyers is 34 to Henry’s 56 when he died; he’s far too young and good-looking to be a convincing Henry. He’s also a mere 14 years older than Sarah Bolger. While it’s oddly amusing to have a male character cast younger and better-looking then they’re meant to be, I think it would have made for far more interesting viewing had we seen the constant uncertainty and terror that Jane, Mary, Anne of Cleves and Katherines Howard and Parr went through, trying to balance an increasingly narrow and high tightrope of Henry’s temper and paranoia in an age where men, especially Kings, were all-powerful and the only concessions women had were the whims and mercy of these men.


  1. Mel says

    Is there actual historical evidence for Anne of Cleves having problems with her brother prior to her marriage to Henry? There is evidence that they had religious conflicts afterwards, because Anne converted to Anglicanism while her brother remained a Lutheran, but other than Philippa Gregory (whose approach to historical accuracy I respect only slightly more than The Tudors–it’s entertaining, but woo, liberties all over the place), I haven’t seen much in the actual historical record to suggest that she married Henry to escape her brother (although it’s not implausible).

    Even if she hadn’t gone to England to escape her brother in the first place (and I am not sure she was in a position to veto a marriage–there weren’t that many actual contenders in the first place for political reasons, and Anne had no convenient excuses for refusal like consanguinity), it’s not surprising she’d prefer to live wealthy and independent as the “sister” of the English king and one of the highest-ranked women in England rather than return to her previous life as the mere sister of a duke.

  2. Gabriella says


    Er, OK, my main source here is that bastian of historical accuracy, Philippa Gregory :8 I’m so sure I’ve read elsewhere (and I’ve read every history/historical fiction book on Tudor England I could find, so no, I can’t remember it) that even WITH his reputation as a wife-killer, taking a risk on Henry was preferable to staying in Cleves. Weather it was just that there was more luxury and prestige in being English royalty over Cleves – royalty, nobility? – or the brother WAS an asshole, I couldn’t say definitively.

    Something I really wish they’d gone more in-depth with? That kiss at the bear-baiting where fat, smelly Henry in rags launches himself on Anne and, lo and behold, she pushes him away. I think if it had done been closer to reality – rather than an unexpected kiss from a strange-but-good-looking-and-well-dress man – it would have done a LOT to illustrate both what Henry had become and how deeply it wounded his vanity. I’m citing Gregory again, but in The Boleyn Inheritance one of the characters – Jane Boleyn, I believe – says that in that moment, Anne’s response was so fundamentally swift and honest that he was forced to face what he had become: fat, smelly, old, undesirable, and it was that moment more than everything else put together that made him huff and puff and say ‘well, I don’t like her, either’.

  3. minuteye says


    Regarding the kiss: yeah, it would have been nice if it had been done more realistically (hard as it might have been to make Jonathan Rhys-Meyers look fat and old without making the make-up too camp). Particularly since they decided to cast Joss Stone as Anne of Cleves (who is, by any realistic standards, completely gorgeous), it was a heck of a strain on suspension of disbelief for him to be “she’s so ugly, I just couldn’t get it up!”. It would have been a lot more believable to have his rejection of her be about wounded pride.

  4. Mel says


    *g* Well, it’s not implausible as motivation, I just don’t think it’s the only explanation for her choices (assuming they were choices–and of course if her brother was so awful, I don’t know why he’d give her veto power). Over-simplifying, maybe; it would not surprise me if there were multiple things going on.

    I do think Henry’s dislike of Anne probably wasn’t about her appearance so much as personality (there’s some interesting analysis out there of how accurate Holbein’s portrait was, and the general consensus is “fine”). Although who knows, by that point, whether he was able to get it up with anyone (did any of the post-Anne of Cleves wives get pregnant and miscarry? I can’t remember); he may have just dumped Anne in favor of a wife who would flatter/cosset/amuse him and still not been able to get it up.

  5. Gabriella says


    As far as I know, neither Katherines Howard or Parr fell pregnant; certainly, his last legitimate child was to Jane Seymour. And from what I’ve read, she wasn’t as ugly as Henry banged on about her being. Weather she simply wasn’t pliable enough for him or the kiss so deeply wounded his pride that he wanted nothing to do with him or something else, I don’t know. And seriously, if she was THAT ugly, don’t you think SOMEONE would have warned him?



    he may have just dumped Anne in favor of a wife who would flatter/cosset/amuse him and still not been able to get it up.

    It’s my opinion that this is why he married Katherine Howard – his rose without a thorn. Given that he was in constant pain and possibly suffering from multi-organ failure at that point, well, it’s hardly a great recipie for getting it up. I think it was also an indication of how delusional he was – he wanted an adoring virgin so he was determined to see that in Howard.

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