Though it might be old news to some, this week the press in London has been losing its head again over yet more stories about the Tudors. Yesterday it was the news that a celebrated portrait of Anne Boleyn – second wife of Henry VIII – which hangs in the city’s National Portrait Gallery in fact depicts somebody else. The “scientists” who discovered this aren’t sure who that somebody is but it’s a damn good yarn. It’s extraordinary that the machinations of the Tudor court remain one of the few pockets of the UK’s rich and varied history that virtually any person you talk to in this country is guaranteed to know something about.
The recent successful TV adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall has a lot to do with it. But this fascination with the Tudor period runs deep in the British consciousness. There are characters who have a pervasive influence on their respective countries’ very sense of history: Henry VIII or Winston Churchill here, Joan of Arc or Marie Antoinette across the Channel and so on. But why do their stories endure? Why has Henry VIII remained so compelling for half a millennium?
Well, first of all the King had six wives. As any seriously committed polygamist will tell you that’s not a bad score to rack up if you’re only talking one wife at a time. And the monarch himself was only in his fifties when he shuffled off. I still recall the fates of the heavyweight king’s wives by using the little rhyme that I was taught at school: divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. It’s memorable stuff.
Talking of heavyweights, an unhealthy fascination with food is another parallel that Henry Tudor shares with today’s media. Sure, he rocked tights for hunting and warfare but he wasn’t sufficiently worried how he might fit into them – not enough to think twice about giving it all he had when it came to a chow down anyway. It’s no mean feat hitting a 54-inch waist. You have to eat a lot of roast cygnet to get there and that’s as true today as it was in the early 16th century. A doff of the crown to you, my liege.
The next thing that works for Henry is houses: an appreciation of Tudor architecture is almost inbuilt here in England. Whether it’s Henry’s lavish gaffs such as Hampton Court Palace or Hatfield House, we love the sumptuous style and some serious timber-beam action. And it needn’t be original: the mock-Tudor embellishment is still a beloved architectural theme for footballers and financiers alike.
Another reason behind our collective fascination with Henry VIII is that he was – as we all know – a big fan of simply killing people that displeased him. All great stories need a dash of villainy of exactly this flavour.
A murderous, bellicose, oversized, megalomaniac warrior, gourmand and monarch. You know what? It’s easier than I thought to figure out why Henry VIII is still the talk of the town.
Tom Edwards is executive producer of Monocle 24