After the Romans, England had its share of invaders, among them the Saxons, the Danes, and the Normans, but on the whole it seems to me that the kingdom’s history of domination is an inside job. Driving across the rolling green landscapes of this hallowed isle, there are castles, vast estates, and royal palaces that serve as reminders of the iron grip a privileged nobility once held over these domains. PBS and the BBC have done the West a great service in these democratic times by opening the doors to these opulent domiciles and exhibiting the full extent of their extravance. As I write this, I am watching a Netflix documentary on Hampton Court. It says that Henry VIII built or appropriated 50 to 60 palaces. As the cold fortifications of the medieval centuries gave way to a flourishing aristocracy, palaces began to rival cathedrals for the awe of the populace. The movies that follow illustrate this process.

The Hollywood history of British monarchy begins with King Arthur though the particulars of his life, if he ever lived, are lost in myth and legend. This is great for the movies, and the variations on his story are legion (see The Arthurian Movies). If he was real, he would have lived at sometime in the 5th or 6th century of the Common Era. Legends of the Knights of the Round Table and the quest for the Holy Grail are associated with Glastonbury Abbey, now in ruins. Most authoritative histories of the monarchy begin with Alfred the Great (d. 899), who has been ignored on film.

The next milestone for British kingship to be overlooked by the movies is the Norman Conquest in 1066. While the date is well known to junior high school history students, there is no mainstream movie on the subject. There is, however, an obscure TV miniseries from 2009, called 1066. I have been able to find the trailer on YouTube (in English), but have not found the film version. The Normans, descendants of the Norsemen, invaders of France, were to become a civilizing force in Europe with a penchant for masterful cathedral design.

The Pillars of the Earth (2010 miniseries)

Set in circa 1120, this film is based on the Ken Follett novel about the building of a cathedral in England, paralleling the rise of Gothic architecture on the Continent. Most of the characters and plot details are fictional, but the historical background is exceptionally well wrought and the metaphor of the cathedral serves perfectly for this segment of MovieJourneys. While I was writing this, I encountered several people who were devoted fans of the book and had read it more than once. There is a sequel miniseries called World Without End (2011). It was not well received.

Anecdotally, there is a movie called The Black Rose (1950), which will get full treatment later in MovieJourneys for its colorful description of two 13th-century adventurers and their caravan trek to China, anticipating Marco Polo. It opens in England two hundred years after the Norman Conquest, where the defeated Saxons are still resentful of their French oppressors. Tyrone Power plays a young man of mixed Norman and Saxon blood who has returned to his family castle to claim his inheritance. He hates the Normans and has refused to study French at Oxford. When he aids a forest outlaw named Tristam, cut from Robin Hood cloth, in a raid on the castle, the two men are forced to leave England in search of adventure. The King of England, Edward Longshanks, makes an appearance in the early scenes of this movie.

Canterbury: Murder in the Cathedral

The theme of cathedral dramas in the movies comes into sharp focus with Becket (1964). This story of confrontation between a headstrong English monarch, Henry II, and papal authority touches the core of European history after the fall of ancient Rome. This tale of opposing worldviews was restored to the popular imagination in the 20th century first in the play by T.S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral (1935), and then by a play from Jean Anouilh, Becket or The Honour of God (1959). Next came  the movie that carried the popularizing of this event to a much wider audience.

Becket (1964)

A print legend marks the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 by William the Conqueror. This film, based on the play by Jean Anouilh (1960), concerns his grandson, Henry II (1133-89) – founder of the Plantagenet line.  It begins with the King (Peter O’Toole) mourning the death of his friend Thomas a’ Becket (Richard Burton), who was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. A flashback returns us to the profligate youth of the two men. Henry gives Becket the post of Chancellor so he can help to battle the rigidity of the Norman churchmen. Becket is a native Saxon. A point is made of Henry’s contempt for the common people. The nobility, however, appear to have progressed little beyond barbarism. Henry says, “You know Thomas sometimes I think that you and I are the only civilized men in England.” When the Archbishop of Canterbury dies, Henry has the inspiration to appoint Becket to the position. Becket, correctly understanding the implications, begs him not to do this. Henry will brook no argument. Thomas is consecrated at Canterbury. Fairly quickly, the King and the new Archbishop come to loggerheads over the issue of Henry’s determination to prosecute criminal priests in his own courts. Henry attempts to have Becket arrested on trumped up charges. He then heaps contempt on his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, for gloating over the humiliation of Becket. Now Becket escapes to France and seeks refuge with Louis VII (first husband of Henry’s wife, Eleanor). The two kings have been at odds over the lands of Aquitaine, and Louis (John Gielgud) is delighted to give the fugitive safe passage to Rome. The Pope is loathe to offend Henry for fear of losing England. Becket meets Henry on a beach by the Channel and is allowed to return to England as Archbishop, though he gives little quarter. In a royal family scene, Henry extends his contempt for his wife to his mother and his children. In drunken despair, he expresses to his knights his desire to be rid of Becket. Shortly afterward, Becket is murdered in the cathedral. Returning to the opening scene, Henry is having himself flailed. He then announces to a gathered crowd that the martyr Thomas a’ Becket will be worshipped in England as a saint.  The End.

O’Toole played the same king again four years later in The Lion in Winter (1968). He deserved an Academy Award at least as much as his co-star, Katherine Hepburn, who played Eleanor. But Hepburn was enjoying a run of Hollywood luck (more Oscars than any actor in the 20th century) while O’Toole was under some kind of curse (never an Oscar for Best Actor). He did win a Golden Globe for this one, while Hepburn was merely nominated.

There is not a good trailer available for Becket. I have included The Lion in Winter in its place.

The Shakespearean Kings

The bridge between the pivotal cathedral dramas of Henry II and Henry VIII can be found in the history plays of Shakespeare. For my money, the Bard was the supreme creator of popular culture in the Western tradition. He chose his subjects for their dramatic qualities and their relatability, and they have endured for centuries.

If Shakespeare’s history plays are listed chronologically by the events they depict, then King John comes first. John was one of the five sons of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine (O’Toole and Hepburn). When Henry died, he left the throne to his older son, Richard, who achieved fame in the Crusades as Richard Lionheart. Anthony Hopkins made his movie debut in The Lion in Winter, playing the future Richard I (Lionheart). There are several movies featuring Richard in the Crusades. John does not get his own movie but is familiar from Robin Hood films as the evil brother of Richard. John ruled England from 1199 to 1216 and was not popular. Still, he has a spotty record in the movies.

Shakespeare now jumps ahead by more than a century. Richard II (r. 1377-99), was a youthful idealist who believed unreservedly in the divine right of kingship. He was completely unhinged when his throne was usurped by the powerful realist, Henry Bolingbroke. Henry IV (r. 1399-1413), the usurper, achieved fame as a man to put down rebellions. Shakespeare provided him with one of the great commentators on the follies of war, Sir John Falstaff. Henry V (r. 1413-22) was played on the screen by the two actors who had earned the divine right to the role, Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh. I prefer Olivier but there are others who feel that Branagh has a more contemporary appeal. Henry VI (r.  1422-61), son of Henry V, had an undistinguished reign marred by mental health issues. He died in the Tower in 1470. He was given three plays that have generally ranked near the bottom of the Shakespearean canon, though the first of them features the decisive battle with Joan of Arc in 1129. Richard III (r. 1483–1485) became the living advertisement for the notion that sometimes the divine right of kings selects the wrong man to occupy the throne. Olivier notably played this role as well, but it was a poor production. There is some hope as I write this that Kevin Spacey might put his interpretation of King Richard III on film. Interest in Richard has peaked during this time as his twisted skeleton was discovered under a parking lot in Leicester, north of London“across the road from the cathedral.

Not one of these plays by Shakespeare put a cathedral at the center of the drama, probably owing to the expense of mounting such a setting amid the bare necessities of the Elizabethan stage. It must be said, however, that it was in this span of years that the great cathedrals of England appeared on the landscape. Even to this day, we can turn on our televisions and watch the coronations, weddings, and funerals of the kings, queens, princes, and princesses of England in these very places.

Last of the history plays, in chronological sequence, is Henry VIII. For reasons I cannot explain, I had thought that Shakespeare halted the progress of his English histories with Richard III. For me, the attention that writing MovieJourneys has brought on Henry VIII has been a revelation. In his late play, Henry VIII, Shakespeare concentrated on Henry’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon, marriage to Anne Boleyn, and the birth of little Elizabeth. It’s in Wikipedia.

Henry VIII and Family

The drama in this segment of Cathedral Cities is found in Henry VIII’s defiance of the Pope in Rome and his naming of himself as head of the Church of England. Henry (r. 1509-47) was a monster of depravity, but this made his historical role all the more clear. Any sinner could defy the patriarchal authority of Rome and choose his own destiny. Henry opened the way for each of his two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, to become Queens. After that, it became possible for Cromwell to abolish the monarchy and execute King Charles I. Sadly for some, the people of England determined that they could not imagine a nation without a sovereign and restored the monarchy. Today, England sits on one side of the divide as a parliamentary monarchy while the United States, which enacted its rejection of kingship in 1776, lies on the other side. See The Madness of King George (1994) for the effects of American Independence on the monarchy. See also Cromwell (1970).

Hampton Court, Palace of Henry VIII

Hampton Court, favorite palace of Henry VIII

Henry took possession of the cathedrals in his realm, but it was his palace at Hampton Court that was the center of his world. Cardinal Wolsey (d. 1530) acted as a link to the old Catholic order and was ultimately a scapegoat to Henry’s wrath against the Vatican. See also Cardinal Richelieu in France (d. 1642) known to most for his villain’s role in Three Musketeers movies. This is a prelude to the French Revolution.


The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

This was the first English film nominated for an Academy Award; Charles Laughton won for Best Actor. A print legend says that Henry VIII had six wives. The first of these was Catherine of Aragon, who was daughter to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. Because she could not manage to bear her husband a son and heir, he divorced her (the film makes no mention of his break with Rome over this matter). It opens with preparations for the execution of his second wife, Anne Boleyn. There is much gossip among the ladies in waiting that the King now fancies Jane Seymour. Laughton, who would seem to be ideal for this role, makes a stiff entrance in the Captain Bligh mode. He walks like a baby with a full diaper. Jane proves herself flighty and irritating even as she is choosing her wedding dress.

The King has concluded that happiness lies in marrying “a stupid woman.” Anne is led to the chopping block in counterpoint to all this. Jane dies bearing Henry a son. He continues shopping for wives and his luck worsens as he becomes ever more vulgar and abusive. He marries Anne of Cleves, an awkward Elsa Lanchester with a German accent, and pays her off to be rid of her. His eye has fallen on the lovely Katherine Howard and he marries her. Not surprisingly, she cannot abide the old bore and is unfaithful to him with Thomas Culpepper. Henry is truly devastated and has her executed. In 1543, Henry has aged considerably when Anne of Cleves stops by to propose a sixth wife for him. Her name is Catherine Paar, and she is a nurse to look after him in his old age. It ends with the rotund and henpecked old man sneaking food when his wife is not looking. He says, “Six wives, and the best of them is the worst.” The End.

There is no available trailer for the Laughton movie. See other interpretations of Henry below.

Laughton played Henry again in Young Bess (1953).

The reign of Henry VIII has been represented in performances by Laughton, Richard Burton, Robert Shaw, and actors of the next generation who have appeared in The Other Boleyn Girl and the Showtime series, The Tudors. Henry’s immediate successors, Mary and Elizabeth, have also enjoyed ample screen time.

Anne of the Thousand Days  (1969)

This film followed The Lion in Winter (1968) in a succession of English-style high-historical dramas involving European royalty.  While the former film was stilted and artificial, this one did a credible job of capturing the conflict of institutions instigated by Henry VIII (Richard Burton).  This monumental figure was the very embodiment of the English monarchy before the coming of the mighty Queens.  In 1969, Anne lost the Oscar to Midnight Cowboy, marking a shift from the Shakespearean model to “grittier” movies. Both Lion and Anne suffered from criticisms of outmoded performances by their major stars.  Henry’s tragedy of ego is so Shakespearean it is positively Greek.  In the end, the film belongs to Anne (Geneviève Bujold), who stands trial against trumped up charges of adultery, and goes to her death by beheading, rather than forsake the right of her daughter to succeed to the throne.  In the final scene, we see little Elizabeth walking alone and forlorn across a palace garden.

A Man for All Seasons  (1966)

Based on the play by Robert Bolt, this film swept the 1966 Academy Awards. It opens on the palace complexes along the Thames. Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield) is summoned downriver to meet with the Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey (Orson Welles), for a discussion of the King’s desire to unburden himself of his wife. Soon the Lord Chancellor is dead, and More takes on the job. King Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) brings a flotilla up the river for a visit. The plot is simple: Henry wants to be rid of his lawful wife, Catherine, and to marry Anne Boleyn (Vanessa Redgrave). More will not give his approval.  Henry contrives to have More brought to trial for treason.  Through it all, Scofield’s demeanor is smooth as an English lake. After some very mature and somewhat smug disputation, More is put to death. This is very like Becket (1964), and not unlike various films on Joan of Arc.

The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)

Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson star as sisters in the Boleyn family who are rivals for the affections of Henry VIII. Writer Philippa Gregory had discovered the lesser-known sister of Anne Boleyn and published a novel of the same name in 2001. This story has been sumptuously filmed at authentic sites in England, though not always the places where the historical events occurred. Most of the characters in the film have real-life counterparts from the time of transition between Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and his new love, Anne Boleyn (Portman). From the features on the DVD of this film, it can be learned that Ann’s sister, Mary (Johansson), had a surprisingly active royal sex life. She had first been mistress to King Francis I of France and then mistress to King Henry in England before Anne came on the scene. Eventually, Anne gets the upper hand, while Mary recedes into the background, and Henry is pressured into annulling his marriage to Catherine. The part of the story that involves Henry’s break with the Church in Rome over the issue of his marriage is glossed over so quickly it is hardly noticed. Cardinal Wolsey is not even a character in the movie. In this version, the allegations of adultery are shown to be true, though Anne’s motivation is said to be noble. The weaknesses in this film arise from the initial process of fictionalization by the novelist, and the necessities of condensation for the filmmakers. There are historical gaps that make the film feel chopped up, and what is left is sometimes overly melodramatic. Still, it supplies an interesting missing link in the history of its time.

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