Thursday, 7 August 2014

The Boleyns and the Howards in Popular Culture

Above: Thomas Howard, duke of Norfolk, The Other Boleyn Girl (2008), left.
Thomas Boleyn, earl of Wiltshire, The Tudors (2007-10), right.

The Boleyns and the Howards have been mythologised and misrepresented in many mediums of popular culture ever since the sixteenth century. In stories of Anne Boleyn's rise to power, in particular, her Boleyn and Howard relatives are typically depicted as power-hungry, merciless courtiers who stop at nothing, including murder, treason and incest, to achieve what they want and cement their power. But how accurate are these portrayals? The short answer is: we don't know. Chroniclers did not record the motives of these individuals, even if they were aware of them, and depictions of the Boleyns, in particular, are frequently hostile.

As Claire Ridgway of The Anne Boleyn Files notes, Thomas Boleyn, father of Anne, is frequently presented as a manipulative, cunning man who stops at nothing to achieve his ambitions, including placing both his daughters in the king's bed and turning on his two youngest children when they fall from grace. Historians have, to some extent, supported this characterisation, with Paul Friedmann terming Thomas 'mean and grasping' and P.W. Sergeant going so far as to say that 'it is clearly hopeless to attempt a defence of Sir Thomas'. But we simply do not know if Thomas pressurised both Mary and Anne to seduce Henry VIII, as is portrayed in both The Other Boleyn Girl and The Tudors. This seems to be a very modern conceptualisation, in effect portraying Thomas Boleyn as a pimp who advertises his beautiful daughters while coldly calculating the best odds for them. But, in both cases (especially regarding Anne), it appears to have been nothing of the sort. Rather, Henry VIII fell in love with these women, and Thomas probably made the best of his good fortune, rather than avidly scheming to manipulate his king into falling in love with his daughters.

Yet popular culture has not favoured this line of approach. In particular, in The Tudors, Nick Dunning offers a portrayal of Thomas that is cold, calculating, deceptive and ruthless. He turns on Mary when she displeases him and bullies and manipulates Anne to do what he wants her to do. The Imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys, who loathed the Boleyn family, depicted Thomas as a heretic, liar and bully. He was said to have a hot temper and even staged a masque at the downfall of Thomas Wolsey in which the late cardinal was taken to Hell, to burn in eternity. 

In The Other Boleyn Girl, both the novel written by Philippa Gregory and the 2003 and 2008 film adaptations, Thomas Boleyn plays far less of a role than in The Tudors, and particularly in the 2008 film starring Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman, he is a weak, ineffectual man, pitied by the audience for his spineless demeanour and nervous behaviour. In short, it seems safest to agree with Claire Ridgway regarding Thomas:

'I guess we'll just never know what kind of man Thomas really was but he cared enough about his daughters to make sure that they received a top notch education...' 'Thomas Boleyn can be described as ambitious and self-seeking, but I do not think he was an evil man who manipulated his children and then turned his back on them in their hour of need. In my opinion, he was simply a product of Henry's court and his time, a courtier who enjoyed basking in royal favour but who knew the sense of hiding when things got too hot. He was a survivor.'

Portrayals of Thomas's brother-in-law, and the uncle of Anne Boleyn, Thomas Howard duke of Norfolk have been similarly negative. Historians have, once again, in some measure supported this negative characterisation. Joanna Denny, who wrote biographies of both Anne and her cousin Katherine Howard, described Thomas Howard thus:

'He was a monolithic figure, a monster and ruthless in his cold-hearted use of those around him, including the members of his own family, who were just pawns for his ambition... His survival was just part of his astonishing luck, ironically cheating the scaffold of another Howard at the last hour and dying in his bed'.

A prevailing view in both popular culture and academia seems to be of the Howards and Boleyns as power-hungry, cold-hearted schemers who 'pimped' their female relatives out and ruthlessly sacrificed them when they fell from grace. It might appear that way, but it was not necessarily the case. Claire Ridgway has already raised questions about the exact role played by Thomas Boleyn and the Boleyn family in Henry VIII's pursuit of Anne Boleyn, and it is fair to do the same with Katherine Howard and the Howards. I agree with Antonia Fraser that the Howards were probably pleasantly surprised when the king became infatuated with Katherine and asked for her hand in marriage. As Fraser contends, she was not a suitable candidate for queenship, because of her murky past. My research indicates that Thomas Howard, duke of Norfolk, probably had no idea about his niece's sexual escapades when she married Henry VIII.

Modern viewers love a good drama, and TV offers this. But it is essential to separate facts from fiction. To be fair, it is not just the Howards and Boleyns who have been conceptualised in this negative manner as power-hungry schemers who used their women for their own ends. The Seymours, in both The Tudors and the novel The Other Boleyn Girl, encourage Jane to accept Henry's advances, and are depicted as just as scheming and ruthless as their Boleyn rivals. But the fact of the matter is this: we just do not know if these families actively sought to raise their prestige and bolster their power at court by dangling their women in front of the king, or whether they made the most of their fortune when he favoured one or another of them. Surely, with so little documentary evidence, and given the mostly hostile nature of the evidence which has survived, it is best not to condemn these figures at a distance of so many years, when the cultural, social and political worldview was completely alien to our own today.

1 comment:

  1. The interesting thing about portraying individuals from history is that we really don’t know who they were as people. So, they are invented, for the times in which we find interest in them. We can only guess that the men of the Howard and Boleyn clan were calculating, self-serving and power hungry. But think of the alternative. To be meek, mild and accommodating in the 16th century, would have made them out to be pawns, fools and “fall guys”. So what alternative would a man have if he were to enrich and protect his family?

    I have read Phillipa Gregory’s book and I love the fact that it was in Mary Boleyn’s voice. What better way to view Henry VIII’s court than through the eyes of a young woman? I have also seen The Tudors (Showtime) and the film The Other Boleyn Girl with Scarlett Johansen and Natalie Portman. I found these portrayals to be what they were; vehicles to bring the court of Henry VIII to life. The thing is… because there is little, if anything written about feelings and motivations of the men and women portrayed, a great deal of artistic/poetic license had to be taken and it was done well.

    My question is this: Who would not have liked to be a fly on the wall or a lady or gentleman courtier just to see what was going on? So, until they invent a time machine to make traveling back in time possible, we just have to enjoy these people vicariously through films, books and academic study.