Grace Dent on TV: Fit to Rule: How Royal Illnesses Changed History

The country's past rulers ate bulls' balls, burned heretics and shunned sex – and we think ours are a bad lot

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The Independent Culture

In a week where a frail old woman died in a plush London hotel, aged 87, and the nation lost its marbles arguing over her role in history, I was thankful for the televisual balm of my favourite historian Lucy Worsley and her new BBC2 series Fit to Rule. Worsley is chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces. She is the woman who – via the power of fine television – encouraged me to get off my behind and visit Hampton Court Palace, and spend a fantastic day examining artifacts and eating scones in the Tiltyard Café. She makes history interesting. In this series, she explores how the physical shortcomings and mental health of our previous monarchs has influenced the past.

I enjoy the notion of this continuous succession of wheezy, flabby egomaniacs braying about their “chosen by God” status, before being sent to an early grave by a passing sniffle. If God did choose these people for greatness, he was clearly having an off day.

We learn of Henry VIII – that supposedly charismatic, wise, brick outhouse of a man, seen open-thighed and bumptious in Hans Holbein's masterpiece – privately eating apples filled with goats testicles and marjoram to aid his spermcount. Doctors' notes suggest that this bleak concoction failed to provide adequate groinal leverage so Henry was then prescribed bulls' balls. How one crams such items into an apple was left unclear.

Next up is Edward VI, the son Henry VIII had spent decades trying to father, who ascended the throne aged nine. Edward was a precocious child: the sort one sees in an organic deli in Dulwich ordering nanny to the counter to fetch him more celeriac slaw. One shouldn't really dream of slapping a child's face but for Edward I'd make an exception. He strutted around for a short while establishing Protestantism, abolishing clerical celibacy and making services in English compulsory, then he caught a bug, got sick and carked it by the age of 15. Bad show Edward. Soon, his half-sister Mary I – the one who looked like Jimmy Krankie – takes the throne. Mary reached such a level of Catholic passion/insanity – possibly due to “daddy” issues – she believed burning naysayers was wholly reasonable.

With historical tyrants and dogmatists, I learned this week, it's good to have perspective. Yes, the 1980s had their low-points – my eye makeup being one of them – but at no point did Thatcher, like Bloody Mary, believe the answer to Geoffrey Howe's wobbly insolence was a lovely big bonfire and the flamegrilling of another 300 whinging heretics.

Of course, Thatcher did have the Greater Metropolitan Police's Special Patrol Group with their truncheons and water cannons but she reserved them for ravers, Travellers and miners. It is rare that one gets to view “not burning anyone to death” as an achievement, but here Thatcher comes up smelling of roses.

Mary I's addled sense of “my way or the highway” was so buoyant that in 1554, after she became pregnant by Philip of Spain, she took herself off to her royal quarters and sat holding her belly, surrounded by cooing midwives and lady-chums for almost seven months. The problem was that Mary was not pregnant. She was either fat or full of wind, and no one had the brass neck to broach it with her. Mary I – chosen by God of course – was one of life's losers. I don't think I picked up on this during A-level history, as I swung on my seat with home-dyed Nice 'n Easy noir hair, doodling a picture of a fancy cat onto a tattered history text book. Nor did I understand the pressure women and men were under to produce an heir; stiff, ever-present psychological pressure. Poor Kate Middleton doesn't stand a chance of real happiness. It is written in history that her monthly menstrual cycle is of global relevance.

Worsely also discovered Tudor medical documents showing rough sketchings of the female reproductive system as a crude, inside-out penis full of eggs and tubing. Women, it was believed by medics, were just incomplete men who couldn't stand the cold as our blood was somewhat lacking and thus our penises were tucked inside our stomachs.

Elizabeth I, we learned, augmented her sense of authority by never allowing her womb or sex life to become courtly property. By remaining “The Virgin Queen”, never putting her fertility, romantic life or family up for scrutiny – her motto was “Video et taceo” (“I see, and say nothing”) – she gave longevity to her rule.

This was an interesting idea in a week where Thatcher's role as a mother, grandmother, leader of men, feminist traitor, flirt, robot and warrior have been hotly debated. I love the way Worsley delivers history. Long may she reign.