Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Documentary Review: Secrets of the Six Wives

Historian Lucy Worsley time travels back to the Tudor Court to witness some of the most dramatic moments in the lives of Henry VIII’s six wives. Combining drama based on eyewitness accounts, historical sources and Lucy’s own contemporary historical comment, Lucy moves seamlessly from the present to the past. In a world run by men where the king had ultimate power, each queen (as well as their ladies in waiting) found their own unique methods of exerting influence. For the first time, it is these women’s stories that Lucy wants to uncover, witness and explore, as well as offering her own take on Henry himself.


Worsley examines the happy marriage of Henry VIII to first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Despite her skill and devotion as his queen, she fails to give Henry the son he needs and he falls for Anne Boleyn.

Beheaded, Died

Henry breaks with the Roman Church to marry Anne, but as Worsley notes, he grows tired of her and falls for Jane Seymour. Anne’s fate is sealed; she is executed and Henry immediately marries Jane, who dies soon after she gives birth to a son.

Divorced, Beheaded, Survived

Worsley presents the last three wives: Anne of Cleves, called “ugly”; young Catherine Howard, whose tragic childhood was abusive; and finally, the far from saintly nurse, Catherine Parr

Release Date: March 14, 2017| Genre: Documentary | Source: PBS

‘Divorced, Beheaded, Died; Divorced, Beheaded, Survived.’ Chances are, you’ve heard that old rhyme pertaining to the fate of the six wives of Henry VIII. Now historian Lucy Worsley and PBS have teamed up to bring you the stories behind the rhyme in a three-hour documentary.
This documentary is broken down into three sixty-minute episodes. Episode 1, Divorced, explores Katherine of Aragon’s marriage to Henry VIII as well as Henry falling for Anne Boleyn. Episode 2, Beheaded, Died, covers the break from the Catholic Church, Anne’s fall and execution, Jane Seymour’s rise and her death. Episode 3, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived, brings Henry’s last three wives to life. Anne of Cleves, whom Henry cast aside for being ‘ugly. Catherine Howard, the Queen who slept around, and, finally, Catherine Parr, the wife who just barely survived Henry’s ax.
Hands down, this has been one of my favorite documentaries. Not only does Worsley explore the present day locations as she’s telling the stories, she humanizes these six women. She brings forth historical information that, in a sense, explains the reasons for their odd actions and behaviors. And she’s careful not to make them out to be the villains.
There’s an old adage that says if you present a set of facts to a roomful of historians, each will form their own opinion and rarely two will be the same. And it’s quite true, even peers of Henry VIII had a different accounts of the same event depending on what faction or religion they were supporting. Even though Worsley relies on historical facts and accounts, she forms her own opinion of these six women.
While I agreed with most of what she presents in this documentary, there were a few things I was in disagreement about, such as the way Henry VIII was portrayed as this man whose single thought and all of his actions were based upon his need to have a male heir. Yet I think that’s what a good documentary does, it elicits people to form their own opinions of the facts that’s been laid out.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed this, I do have a few complaints about The Secrets of the Six Wives. My first complaint is a rather small one; it has to do with how fast they aged Henry VIII at the start of the last episode.
When Henry wed Anne of Cleves in 1540, the King was 49 years old. He was starting
to age and, due to the jousting accident he suffered in 1536 that left him with a leg ulcer, he was becoming portly. However, he wasn’t nearly as aged as they portrayed him. The portrait to the right, painted by Han Holbein, bears the inscription, Anno Etatis Sve XLIX, which means, In the year of his age, 49. The portrait was painted in 1540, the same year in which he wed Anne of Cleves; in fact, the clothing that he wears in the painting was the same clothing he wore to his wedding to Anne. Yes, the king was aging. Yes, he was expanding but not to the point that they portrayed him in the documentary.
My second complaint has to do with the framing of the episodes. I would have like to have seen six episodes, one devoted to each wife. Or even five episodes, Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleves probably could have shared an episode given that, other than Jane mending the rift between Henry and his daughters and giving him the all-important male heir, not much happened with Jane before she died of childbed fever. The same with Anne of Cleves, they married, he claimed her body displeased him, they divorced, and she ended up becoming the richest woman in England.
I really think that Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr were cheated by not having their own episodes. So much of their histories were left out and it’s such a shame because they were very intriguing women.
My third complaint has to do with the way Catherine Howard was portrayed. I’ve always respected Worsley’s findings, she’s such a brilliant historian but with Catherine Howard, it seems that she’s fallen into the trap of judging Catherine and her situation/actions by today’s standards.
She paints Catherine as an abused child because, while under the care of her father’s stepmother, she entered into a sexual relationship with her music teacher at the age of 13. Today, that would be considered abuse, but in Tudor times, 14 was the standard age most women married. She makes Catherine out to be a victim who had no control of her actions and sort of glosses over the fact that Catherine continued to have affairs after her marriage to the king. I don’t feel as though Worsley presented the viewer with all of the pertinent facts pertaining to Catherine.  
Overall, I enjoyed The Secrets of the Six Wives. There were a few things that could have been handled differently, but I still found it interesting. And this documentary will enjoyed by those who are Tudor history buffs as well as those just discovering them.

Are you intrigued by the Tudor’s?
Have a favorite wife?
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