The seductive appeal of the Tudors' cruel kingdom

Reformation England, with its tyranny and brain-washing, resembles the Soviet Union
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The Independent Culture
WHY DO WE return so often to the Tudors? A new film, Elizabeth, is getting high praise from the critics. The Chichester Festival Theatre is staging the premiere of Katherine Howard by William Nicholson. Peter Ackroyd's superb Life of Sir Thomas More is one of the literary successes of 1998. And each of these productions has many distinguished predecessors.

Before Cate Blanchett's winsome but authoritative portrayal of the Virgin Queen in Elizabeth, there was Sarah Bernhardt (silently in 1912), Flora Robson, Bette Davis, Jean Simmons and Glenda Jackson. Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons on the trial and execution of Sir Thomas More, written in 1960, has long been a school text. And as I was reading Peter Ackroyd, I had Diarmaid MacCulloch's Thomas Cranmer published in 1996, fresh in my mind.

The Reformation was one of the great turning points in English history, along with the Civil War 120 years later, the great Reform Act of 1832 and the two world wars of this century. After all, the consequences of England's break with the Pope echo to this day in Northern Ireland.

The Reformation, too, defined the present status of the Church of England. If only defenders of the sovereign's role as Supreme Governor, which gives the Prime Minister of the day the right to appoint bishops, a power which Tony Blair has already deployed, would remind themselves that Henry VIII subjugated the church for no greater cause than to facilitate his divorce from Catherine of Aragon.

The Tudor period was replete, too, with gripping events and the great staples of story telling, violence and sex. In treatments of Sir Thomas More's life, the record of the trial for treason is generally left to speak for itself - the drama of what actually happened in the court room cannot be improved.

The burning to death of three so-called traitors in Elizabeth is a shocking enough scene, but the reality was often even worse. Where the method of execution was to be hung, drawn and quartered, the condemned would be taken from their cells in, say, the Tower of London, lashed to wooden hurdles, dragged by horses the five miles to Tyburn, insulted, jeered and assaulted as they went, and then be hanged until they were half dead. Then they were revived sufficiently to watch their stomachs cut open and intestines thrown into a cauldron of boiling water before finally being beheaded.

Henry and his six wives provide all the romantic interest that could possibly be wanted. Moreover the mid-century is a period of rival queens.

After the death of the sickly Edward VI, the monarchy was claimed for Lady Jane Grey, until nine days later, Henry's older daughter, the catholic Mary, seized it from her. She in turn was followed onto the throne by her half-sister, the Protestant Elizabeth, who then had to fend off the claims of another Tudor princess, Mary, Queen of Scots, whose sex life was as spectacular as Elizabeth's was virtuous.

On the merits of the new Elizabeth, I disagree with the film critics. The history is accurate and the evocation of the period magnificent. The individual roles are often small masterpieces of acting; the Queen is played just as one contemporary saw her: "so effervescent, so intimate and so regal". Yet I was dissatisfied. The central point of the film, that Elizabeth was not a virgin but imposed celibacy on herself for reasons of state, is not explored in an interesting way.

As Bolt said of writing a play, it is thinking, not thinking about thinking. In the Man for all Seasons, Bolt saw in More a person who seized life in almost greedy quantities, who nevertheless found something in himself without which life was valueless and when that was denied him was able to grasp his death. There is no theme of comparable power in Elizabeth.

In Katherine Howard, too, an argument is developed. As a maid-in-waiting at the court, Katherine Howard was the Tudor equivalent of a White House intern, 18-or 19-years-old, when the King first noticed her. Henry was thirty years her senior. The play provides a convincing account of a fated relationship, very like Monica Lewinsky and President Clinton in its dynamics, although Katherine lost her head while Monica lost only her job.

MacCulloch's description of the psychological pressures to which Archbishop Cranmer was subjected cry out for the pen of a playwright or the skills of a film maker. After the Archbishop had given a reasonably stout performance at his trial in Oxford, he was made to watch two fellow bishops being burnt at the stake.

He was traumatised by the awful sight, tearing off his cap, falling to his knees and desperately bewailing what was happening.

Then he was taken from his prison cell to the deanery at Christ Church where he was treated as a guest, although not free to leave. There the daily round of services, albeit in a liturgical form he had rejected for 25 years, got to him. He began to take part and soon signed his first recantation.

Nonetheless Cranmer had to undergo a formal degrading. In a cruel performance he was dressed up in a mock version of archiepiscopal robes, which were then ceremoniously stripped from him.

The writ for his burning was issued and a date set. Trembling in every limb, Cranmer desperately stated his desire to return to the Catholic faith and wrote out another recantation. He had every reason to expect clemency. But it was not to be. On the way to his death he had to endure a sermon explaining why a repentant sinner should still be executed. Perhaps this is why Cranmer finally revoked his recantations and shouted out : "And as for the Pope, I refuse him, as Christ's enemy, and Antichrist, with all his false doctrine". He was hurried to the stake where the fire quickly consumed him. It was said that in the ashes, his heart was found unburned.

This is where my interest in Tudor history lies. England during the Reformation, with its tyrannical monarchs, revolutionary politics, spies and informers, brain washing, interrogation, show trials and judicial murders, resembles nothing so much as the Soviet Union and its east European satellites in the mid- twentieth century.

And I wonder whether or not we are so different from our ancestors in that we would not again submit to a similar regime, although in what circumstances it is almost impossible to imagine.