It is fair to say that the story of Henry VIII and his six wives is one of the most famous in British history. I doubt that there’s a primary school pupil who cannot quote the familiar rhyme: ‘Divorced, Beheaded, Died; Divorced, Beheaded, Survived.’ But, is it possible to reinvent the tale we have all heard a million times before? Lucy Worsley attempts to do just that in her new three-part documentary series that promises to be ‘an ambitious and ground-breaking approach to drama and history’.
At the start of each episode, Worsley promises to bring us ‘a very different story’ but, unfortunately, she does not quite deliver. Credit to the historian, she is the first person to have filmed the fascinating love letters written by Henry to Anne Boleyn during their affair which are now held at the Vatican. But, once you look past the dramatization of the Tudor Court and her travels from one castle to another in her VW Campervan, it isn’t hard to see that she fails to tell us anything new. We already know that Katherine of Aragon was a devout Catholic who believed being queen was her duty to God. We already know that Anne Boleyn was the original ‘other woman’ who was beheaded for crimes of adultery. There seems to be little that we can actually learn from this series.
Nevertheless, Worsley does try to offer a fresh insight into this part of history, using eyewitness accounts of private moments. In doing so, she is able to offer a more intimate perspective of each of Henry’s six wives and look beyond the common perceptions which have lasted for centuries. The first episode largely focuses on Katherine of Aragon, revealing that her marriage to Henry was far from loveless in the earlier years, as well as the personal torment she endured during her downfall such as the split from her daughter who she was banned from seeing. Worsley then dismisses the traditional opinion that Anne Boleyn was a sly, cheating manipulator, offering a more sympathetic approach. She argues that it was fear and nerves that prompted her actions that would later be used against her by her enemies at court. She also questions the passive nature of Jane Seymour suggesting that this attitude was simply a façade, a clever tactic to remain in the king’s favour. Although this series may not bring fresh ideas on this topic, Worsley does allow us to witness these women from a wider and, therefore, fairer perspective.
‘Six Wives with Lucy Worsley’ does not quite live up to its promise of a fresh, ‘ground-breaking’ outlook on the familiar tale of Henry VIII and his six wives. Instead it simply reaffirms what we already know with the added bonus of actors and costumes. Regardless, once again we are reminded of Worsley’s extensive knowledge and enthusiasm which makes even such an exhausted story as this one remain engaging for the viewer.