Monday, April 14, 2008

Question from Sarah - Questions from second season of "The Tudors"

I just finished watching this week's epidsode of The Tudors on Showtime. As a true history fan, I was confused by three things that happened in this episode:

1. The use of guns. I have never read anything to indicate that guns were prevalent during this time and that an attempt on Anne's life by use of a gun.

2. Hinting of a gay relationship between Mark Smeaton and George Boleyn. I thought Mark was completely devoted to Anne and was the only one to confess to a sexual relationship with her.

3. Who is Eleanor Luke? I kept waiting for that woman to be idenified as Jane Seymour, but maybe they are going in a different direction?

If anyone has any thoughts or insight on these three observations, I would really appreciate it.



Foose said...

1. I was surprised by the use of guns too, although accuracy is not the series' strong point. It's a little early -- 1533 -- for guns to be used for assassinations -- for reasons of marksmanship and time required; you might have observed that Brereton was having a devil of a time reloading after he missed. At that time, you'd often miss using a gun on a long-distance target. Someone bagged the Duke of Guise with a gun in about 1562, and Admiral Coligny was winged in 1572 (the assassin missed on the first try after the Admiral unexpectedly leaned down to adjust his shoe). William the Silent was shot to death in 1584. So yes, the gun -- it looked like some sort of arquebus -- at this stage was a bit ridiculous. I've never read of any specific attempt to kill Anne, although plenty of people seemed to hate her enough. Everyone preferred more passive-aggressive methods of expressing their dislike, like leaving books of prophecy around in her room that showed her with her head cut off.

2. The writers, like every other novelist on the Tudor period nowadays, has clearly read Retha Warnicke's seminal "Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn," which speculated that George Boleyn may have been gay and possibly Mark Smeaton. Some historians have dismissed this idea, but it's been seized upon feverishly by writers of recent historical fiction. Soon everyone will come to believe this, the way people assume Anne had a sixth finger. There's really not enough evidence but it's an interesting suggestion.

3. Eleanor Luke? Haven't a clue.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Foose on the three points. Guns did exist in England in the 1530s, but they were still relatively uncommon and very cumbersome - and time consuming - to use for much other than a novelty and making noise. If you visit the Tower of London, the Armory there has some nice examples of firearms from the period, though the best examples are in the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge. But in all of my studies of the Tudors, I have never yet seen a contemporary reference to an assassination attempt on Boleyn that involved a firearm. Nor have I ever heard of "Eleanor Luke," who is probably either an entirely fictional character or an amalgam of parts of various known people, much as the "Margaret Tudor" in the first season was a fictionalized amalgam of Mary and Margaret Tudor. And this brings me to an important issue relative to question #2: Showtime's "The Tudors" must be viewed with a total disregard for anything you already know about English history in the 1500s. While it is based (albeit VERY loosely!) on real events, it is most definitely not intended to be a factual, educational program, or even a "docu-drama." It is instead sensationalized low-brow entertainment that appeals directly to prurient interests, something for which Showtime is well known. I've heard it called "Desperate Palacewives" and "Sex in the Palace." There is a marvelous parody advertisement on YouTube regarding similar "upcoming" series on Winston Churchill with Churchill played by a Schwarzenneger-esque bodybuilder, and on Queen Victoria with Victoria played by a Victoria's Secret underwear model. So that brings me to question #2 - the whole Boleyn/Smeaton-is-gay thing. With all due respect to my colleague Dr Warnicke, this storyline is nothing more than titillation to sell the series. There is zero solid evidence to support such an idea. In season one, for example, we were treated to a similar same-sex affair between William Compton and Thomas Tallis, though in reality Tallis was not even in London or at court in the 1520s and 1530s, and neither man is even rumored to have had same-sex inclinations. And while Warnicke may think she sees hints of same-sex behavior in George Boleyn, I would argue that similar hints can be found in relation to almost every man of the 16th century IF (and it's a huge "if") we read their correspondence and behavior without regard to time-specific social norms. (See also my opinion on the use of the modern term and concept "gay" when speaking of people in the pre-modern period, in a post from a couple of weeks ago.) Showtime is simply creating a little same-sex drama to appeal to the "Queer as Folk" and "L Word" audience. They should leave the same-sex story lines in those shows and not try to raise ratings by introducing them into every show on their network.

kb said...

Although I am enjoying The Tudors series, let me just echo foose in saying that this is a deeply ahistorical presentation. The broad strokes are mostly correct, much of the detail is not.

One of the biggest problems with guns was the accuracy of aim. Along with foose, I haven't heard of any assassination attempts on Anne during the coronation progress.

It is worth remembering that sexuality was viewed differently. Transferring affections between the genders was perhaps more usual than we imagine and so it would have been possible to have a same-sex lover and still admire or worship the other gender. This was still the era of courtly love. Additionally, it was typical for musicians (Mark Smeaton), writers, poets, etc to hold their patrons (Anne Boleyn) in something akin to worshipful love and their dedications frequently sound very intimate to 21s century ears.

Yeah - the Eleanor Luke thing? Who knows? But these are the same people who thought we (the audience) would be too confused by Henry's daughter and sister both being named Mary. And because they distorted the time references, had Henry's younger sister, who they named Margaret marry the king of Portugal. So...who knows?

Foose said...

The series is pretty terrible from a historical standpoint, so you do need to be wary. But it has included some true incidents that I've never seen in a Tudor drama before and rather enjoyed as pure scenes -- the boiling alive of Bishop Fisher's cook, for example, a stagy execution with the victim whimpering his Cockneyfied apologies as he is slowly, slowly cranked down into the cauldron. Last week they showed Cranmer surreptitiously unpacking his German wife from his luggage freshly arrived from the Continent, which if not strictly true was a popular rumor of the period. But even the true incidents are messed about by the writers for no good reason, making the series a very unreliable source of info.

Anonymous said...

Regarding Eleanor Luke: There is a mysterious lady from 1534 that was reported by Chapuys to be Henry's mistress. No historian has been able to identify her. Therefore, I believe that the show is giving this mistress a name. She was "replaced" by the Boleyn relative Madge Shelton and George Boleyn's wife, Jane was banished from court for a short time for her role in working to get rid of the unknown lady. Some historians have said it was Jane Seymour but there is nothing in the historical record of the King being linked to Jane Seymour until February 1536

Anonymous said...

I recall reading in an article in which a writer of "The Tudors" was interviewed that there is no documented evidence of an assassination attempt on Anne, but that it was written in to the storyline as a way to show how intensely she was hated and how widespread the public dislike was for her.

Foose said...

I've just run across an interesting entry in Letters & Papers, in November 1538:

Examination of Elizabeth Darell, 6 Nov. Confesses that she heard the King had sent Peter Meotes into France to kill cardinal Pole with a hand gun.

So perhaps "The Tudors" wasn't too far off when they showed Brereton trying to assassinate Queen Anne with a gun. However, he was using an arquebus, not a handgun, which would be difficult to conceal and would have left him reeking of saltpetre and black with gunpowder -- unable to sneak away without anyone noticing, as was clearly his plan. He would have done better to use a crossbow.

An interesting question: Why was there no reported attempted assassination of Anne, who was pretty well hated throughout the country and abroad, while her daughter Elizabeth was constantly the subject of such attacks?