There’s a lot to like about The Tudors, a series which follows the rule of King Henry VIII of England and his life with his six wives. Maria Doyle Kennedy and Natalie Dormer are the best Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn respectively that I’ve seen so far, with Kennedy bringing dignity and Dormer vulnerability to the queens commonly stereotyped as ‘the old one’ and ‘the bitch/slut’. They haven’t veered too far from history as of the end of season two, and the show is almost equal-opportunity in the amount of nudity we see from both men and women. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, as Henry, certainly gets his fair share.
Unfortunately, there are also chronic problems. The main one that jumped out at me while revisiting season one recently is the portrayal of Henry’s sister Margaret. Henry marries her off to the old, decrepit king of Portugal and sends Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk as her escort. Charles has established himself as a womaniser and a braggart without concern for the women he seduces. Margaret finds him insufferable and tells him so at every opportunity.
Naturally, they end up in bed together on the journey to Portugal. Seems she didn’t find him such a jerk after all. She tells him afterwards that she should hate him; but she doesn’t, he replies. This was the point where I was left scratching my head. Here was a man that she had, up until then, considered to be a boorish, womanising braggart and beneath her, and with good reason. Then she sleeps with him, and appears to be falling for him? Sounds like a classic case of ‘she pretended to hate the jerk/womaniser/stalker when secretly she loved him’ trope.
They get to Portugal and she marries the vulgar old king. Soon after, as Charles and most of the English who escorted Margaret to Portugal are set to leave, Charles taunts Margaret that sometimes old, sickly men can live for years more, and Margaret takes this to mean that he loves her. Later, she suffocates her husband in bed with a pillow.
Now, that in itself could have been a fascinating look into what Margaret saw as her only way out of a marriage to a man she found repulsive. Even though she was born into as much money, power and privilege as a woman could hope for in the time period, she was still a pawn to be used as the men in her life saw fit. Murder – and this was cold-blooded murder, not self-defence or standing by while an old, sickly man keels over – is distasteful, but so is being married to someone you find repulsive so your brother can build alliances. Instead, it comes across not so much as Margaret desperately trying to free herself for her own sake, but so she could be with the man she had professed to hate days before. Ain’t love grand.
Margaret and Charles marry, much to Henry’s anger, and Margaret soon finds herself miserable, in exile from court and married to a man more interested in getting back into Henry’s good books than being a doting husband. I found it difficult to be sympathetic at that point. What did she think would happen when she fell in love with an insufferable, overly-ambitious womaniser? And she does nothing but get drunk and complain about her situation; I would have been far more impressed had she gone to Henry herself rather than leave the grovelling to her husband.
In real life, Margaret was an amalgamation of both of Henry’s sisters. The story is primarily the younger sister Mary’s, but told under older sister Margaret’s name. The real Margaret led a fascinating life whose dynasty actually outlived Henry’s, which only makes her/Mary’s portrayal even more atrocious. The only thing the real Margaret Tutor has in common with this character –who first disdained, then loved such a man, then bitched, moaned and fell into depression when reality settled in – is her name.