Rare is the historical TV drama that hasn’t attracted complaints about its inaccuracy. The “televisionization” of well-known historical events have become increasingly popular recently, with the blooming of various TV shows supposedly based off prominent historical figures such as Henry VIII, Mary Tudor, the Borgia, Louis XIV…
Historical fiction is by no means a bad genre if it retains at least a consequent portion of factual history. But the problem is that most of them awash in serious inaccuracies.
In the last decade, the cultural landscape has witnessed a shift in its approach to representing history. The sophistication and intricacy of historical events have been almost systematically dumbed down on T.V and exchanged instead for pop culture history. Undeniably, certain cinematic productions on historical events have attracted more readers of history than standard history books have.
Television producers and “popularizer” journalists who write pseudo-history have sometimes gained a reputation than few academic historians have. What is problematic and almost alarming is the public’s granting to them the enormous power to comment and have control on the ways in which the past is mediated and explained.
Yet, a perplexing paradox remains: while history has never been more popular among the youth, it has never been more distorted and triviliazed.
The sensationalization of history and its “embellishment” through cinema and literature has led the public to believe that the simple truth cannot be interesting enough. In watching a fictonalized T.V show which sacrifized assiduity of research for glamorous cinematic effetcs, most viewers are aware that intellectual depths have been undermined, yet few seriously realize the extent of its falsification. After all, the public’s faith in the credibility of popular history is what makes historical fiction so profitable.
Three highly popular shows, Reign, The Tudors and the ongoing Versailles, are examples of TV shows labeled “historical” that have veered way out of historical accuracy territory. The historical fictions are told from the lens of modern sensibilities which include multiple anachronisms and dialogues that do not fit the period. Throwing factual history out of the window, the teenage-geared dramas opt instead for a bland story covered in sugar and play the generational dumbing-down card that attempts to make history accessible.
With such a purpose, several questions immediately come to mind: Does making history “accessible” automatically assume presenting the past in a digestible, whimsical way? Can’t entertainment and academic rigor go along in attempting to teach “history to the masses”? Should there be “permissible” inaccuracies in a work of fiction? If so, how do we draw the line?
Giving “history back to the people” has never suggested doing an inaccurate version of it, let alone a hinderance to the past. If one is pushing for pseudo-history, which is responsible for omitting, trimming or inventing data, then that isn’t history. It’s simply a distortion of the past, referred to as epistemological abuse.
Zoom in on those ahistorical shows that have taken far many too liberties in the practice of historical fiction.
On paper, The Tudors officially falls into the genre of historical fiction. Yet, the show comes as simplified storylines about the life of Henry VIII, far from a nuanced, academic tone. Though it has withhold no claim of being scholarly, it is STILL presenting itself as the history of the Tudors.
More than anything else, The Tudors is actually a ahistorical depiction of Henry VIII’s “marriages”. Not much is covered about the Protestant reformation in England and the wars it engendered. Yet, these were not only the primary issues of 16th century England but they produced an enormous sets of events that drastically impacted the people of England and led to the shaping of current-England (in contrast, le peuple cared probably little about the King’s marital behavior). Notably, the Queen being Head of the Church of England dates back from Henry VIII. All British monarchs have held such a position ever since -and the separation between church and state in England isn’t yet to be on the table.
If the political perspective wasn’t missing or feeling forced, the show would have been turned into better art.
But unfortunately, sex and intrigue is much more interesting for TV producers than a series of boring political discussions and the sacking of religious heritage. As for the complexities of ruling in Renaissance-era, the producers deliberately left that aside, depriving the show of its raison d’être.
While there are enormous historical inaccuracies in the show, I would like to focus solely on the most aberrant ones.
♦ First, in trying to create a sort of “intellectual T.V series”, one should at least try to portray accurately the eponym-protagonist of the show. Granted, Jonathan Rhys Meyers is probably the handsomest actor to have played Henry VIII. But he shares little resemblance with the overweighed, red-headed King.
In reality, due to a leg injury that contributed to his physical decline, Henry VIII was thought to have weighed up to 145 kg at the end of his life. His set of armors testifies of a drastic shift, with a waist measurement of 147 to 152 centimeters1. Therefore, he wasn’t considered particularly attractive.
And yet, throughout the show, the actor vacillates between sexual whispering and irritable yelling, without hitting at King Henry VIII’s complex personality. Since the producers probably thought that people primarily watch television to enjoy handsome actors, they didn’t let Johnny gain any weight, probably to allow him to retain his sex appeal.
To this matter, Michael Hirst, the show’s writer explains: “We didn’t bother to put Johnny, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, in a red wig and make him fat and put a beard on just because then we’d say, ‘Oh, look that’s Henry VIII!’ We wanted to get closer to the spirit of the thing, to a kind of reality”2. Too bad you failed to do both.
Nonetheless, The Tudors doesn’t get just one thing completely off track. Other conflations and inaccuracies include :
♦ Age inaccuracies: little Princess Elizabeth is shown to be at least 6 years old when her mother Anne Boleyn was beheaded. In reality, she was only 2 years old. Cardinal Von Waldburg is shown to be 80 years old but the real character was in his early 20s when the reform broke out.
♦Princess Margaret marries the King of Portugal. Actually, she married James IV of Scotland in 1514.
♦ The Venus de Milo is seen as Henry and Anne walks in a garden. The Venus wasn’t discovered before the mid 19th-century.
♦ Queen Claude is portrayed as a gorgeous woman who is courted by Charles Brandon in 1528. In reality, Queen Claude was quite unattractive to the time’s standards and she had scholiosis. She died rapidly.
♦ Queen Katharine of Aragon prays in English. But Catholic prayer was in Latin (come on, that one was easy to respect based on the show’s story!) Changing it to the country’s language was actually one of the major reforms of the Protestant movement.
♦ Henry receives a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince. Though we don’t know when Machiavelli wrote The Prince (the general historiographical trend claims that he wrote it before Discourses), it was not published until 1532 and it is very unlikely that Henry VIII would have been sent off a copy.
Among the historical shows that have the most veered off the rails, Reign would probably win the Emmys. I would accept Reign as it is, that is a soap opera for prom-obsessed teenagers if it had made no claim for historical accuracy. But it did. In fact, the series’ creators modestly claimed: “In each episode we’ll educate people on what element of history helps our story”3. Thank you for making the point of my article clear.
Created by the same people who made Gossip Girl (which already says quite a lot about the show), Reign is more interested in focusing on romantic turmoil than getting close to any semblance of historical fact. Liberties were taken, co-creator Laurie McCarthy explained, in order to “tell stories persuasively”4. But how far is too far? Rather than invented stories, can we not tell the truth “persuasively”? Wouldn’t that actually “help our story” better, so to quote their words? In making historical fictions, most T.V shows lack the essential skills of being able to narrate the past accurately, as if ommitting the truth is imperative to good story telling on T.V.
For starters, the drama series follows the story of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots as a teenager in 16th century France. The first episode sets off with Mary playing soccer in a convent (soccer wasn’t brought to the UK before the 17th century and made popular before mid 19th century5) with a Lumineers soundtrack in the background. From that very first episode, we already get the feeling that the show is going to let loose with the historical authenticity. In fact, throughout the seasons, the show mainly focuses on the lavish costumes and the love triangles between Mary, Francis and a-entirely-invented-half-brother named “bash”, short for Sebastian de Poitiers.
♦ But let’s zoom in on Mary.
Real historical Mary Stuart’s story goes as follow: Queen of Scotland when she was six days old, Mary was immediately thrown into a caldron of political turmoil due to the succession dilemma to the English throne confronting England on one side and Scotland on the other. As the great-granddaughter of Henry VIII, Mary was next in line to the crown of England after Edward, Mary and Elizabeth, the King’s children. Due to the growing religious tensions between Catholics and Protestants, she was obliged to move to the French court at age 5 and was raised with the Dauphin Francis of France, whom she married at 15. After his sudden death, she returned to Scotland and married Lord Darnley. Her marriage with Darnley was in vehement opposition to Elizabeth’s for he had a claim to the English through Margaret Tudor. The murder of Darley led to Mary’s third marriage with Lord Bothwell who, it is believed, raped and abducted her in an attempt to secure the crown. Later, Mary’s return to Scotland was blocked by Protestant lords who had no desire to let a Catholic Queen rule the country. After the murder of Lord Bothwell, Mary was forced to abdicate in favour of her one-year-old son James. Forced to flee the country to England, Mary was immediately imprisoned by Queen Elizabeth, whom was suspicious about her and believed the rumored plots that circulated among some Dukes. After eighteen-years of imprisonment, Mary was sentenced to death in 1587 by an almost unanimous decision and authorized by Elizabeth’s signing of the death warrant, persuaded to end the threat to her throne once and for all.
What is wrong then with the character of Mary in Reign? Literally everything. As explained below, Mary was raised at the French court. She was never sent to live in a convent in France, nor did she meet Francis II, for the first time in 1557. They practically grew up together, this is far from the show starting with a fully-developed 18-years-old woman. During the second season, the added storylines of Mary’s rape by a Protestant gang and her fictionalized romance with the Prince of Condé officially place Reign not only in the land of fiction, but very bad fiction.
Oh and physically, Mary was red head. Was it really such a big effort to have the actress dye her hair appropriately for the role or simply hire a redhead actress and quit the discriminatory hiring practices?
♦With regards to Francis, he is portrayed as a healthy, vivid, womanizing man who has endless sexual affairs with various ladies at the court and ends up having a child with one of them. In reality, Prince Francis was a sickly fragile young teen who died after less than two years on the throne at age 166. It was also believed that his sickness might have impacted his ability to conceive.
♦ As for Mary’s ladies-in-waiting – whom were all named “Mary” and known as the “Four Marys”- are named here Greer, Lola, Kenna, and Aylee. Let that last one sink in for a moment, I’ll wait.
Throughout the show, they spend a lot of time emoting over love stories, presented as their unique occupation (as Reign‘s favorite motto “love is the most dangerous subject” suggests). They are portrayed as free-spirited, in a perpetual state of wanting to experience real love. In doing so, the producers hope to appeal to a teen audience and smoothen their identification with the main characters.
But in reality, 16th-century noble relationships were, for the most part, entirely a matter of politics and not personal desire. Rather than trying to paint a picture of 16th century mentality and explore how teens at the royal court might have felt about their situations, the show simply contents itself with projecting contemporary sentiments and the concerns of today’s teenagers onto the historical characters.
Yet, the 16th century is one of the most fascinating periods in history, one that deserves attention from T.V producers. The intellectual changes, the political and religious conflicts that occurred led to a complex series of events that dramatically changed Western culture. Instead of using such a setting as an asset to tell persuasive stories that millennials might find compelling, the drama shows no other ambitions beyond turning it into a somewhat-Renaissancesque Gossip Girl.
♦ Perhaps the most ridiculous abhorrence comes with the evasive outfits and anachronistic clothing displayed throughout the show. Mary and her ladies-in-waiting wear prom-like dresses with corsets as outerwear (corsets were only worn as underwear in Renaissance time) and their dresses are far too colorful and sleeveless with far too prominent cleavages for the early modern period. While I understand that in terms of audience, historically accurate 16th-century clothing is probably less appealing to today’s teens, one should at least understand that low-cut, lacey, glittery, strapless dresses were not popular until the late 20th century. Some of the outfits displayed in the show seem to have come from a futuristic Paris fashion week.
But it gets even worse when at some point in the show the girls prepare for… prom7. Bastille is playing, confetting are raining down, and the show has officially lost whatever shred of credibility there was left. There, we get the feeling that the serie is interested in historical accuracy as much as Marie Antoinette or Troy was.
♦ As for Nostradamus, the portrait dressed by the writers of the show is, like most things in Reign, entirely inaccurate. In 1557, Nostradamus was a 54-year-old apothecary who had never prophesied the death of the Dauphin if he married Mary Queen of Scots8. Apothecary. Seer. Old. These were the things that Nostradamus were in 1557. And they hardly resemble Rossif Sutherland.
♦ Although the series is set in France, everyone speaks with an English accent and uses modern vocabulary. There is one notable episode where a guard portrayed by a New Zealand actor lets his natural accent run free without even trying to make it sound different.
♦ But perhaps, the biggest historical lie comes with the portrayal of Catherine de Medici. Few historical figures in French history have attracted such systematic and unflinching criticism for centuries following their death as Catherine de Medici. Known as the “Florentine merchant” and chief instigator of civil and religious strife such as the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, it was not until the 1970s than a wave of revisionism began to rehabilitate the Florentine’s reputation.
Nonetheless, the traditional scholarly approach to the Queen as a poison-happy, sinister, despotic, Italian crone have long remained prevalent in the popular mentality and heavily inspired the arts. Paintings and literature have almost systematically execrated these morbid representations of the queen, forging the redundant theme of Catherine’s Machiavellian tactics into the collective consciousness.
Even the cinematic production did not spare her. Reign, as a recent example, maintains the stereotyped image of Catherine as the eternal intriguing murderous schemer coupled with a caricatured Italian accent. She is represented as an authoritative, churlish, and bloodthirsty Queen who murdered Diane de Poitiers, her husband’s favorite mistress, and tried to have Mary raped and killed. All of this portrayal is obviously untrue and entirely misleading about who Catherine de Medici really was. Too bad for the show’s creators, Diane de Poitiers died comfortably in 1556 (oh and she never had a son with Henry II – sorry Bash).
Like its peers, Versailles’ intrigue and sex titillate. Without dwelling into the traditional problems that historical fictions engender (anachronistic blunder, characters invented, sack of the plot, etc), there is one particular remark I would like to make about Versailles.
The show tends to heavily focus on sexual affairs and in particular, women seem to really enjoy their first time. Romanticizing actual events is the ingredient of most historical(ly inaccurate) shows. Actresses of Versailles were probably hired for their acting skills when it comes to faking orgasms since grimacing and expressing pain would have probably turned down audience.
But, in reality, the royal reality was much more tedious. The dominating gender role attitudes and perceptions of sexuality did not expect women to experience sexual pleasure between the sheet9 10. Most importantly, women were usually not educated or even told what would happen to them in bed, which likely made the whole first-time experience less glamorous.
Most importantly, marital rape was rampant as it was tolerated, and most of the times culturally accepted, since, in popular mentalities, sex was seen as a wifely duty, something women owe to men, whom had the grant license for the sexual decision11. As for the King, his sexual entitlement was obviously greater and his mistresses were expected to be available whenever he needed them. But the Hollywood formula works much better at eliciting interest and emotions from the viewers if we are lured into the idea that every time they had sex, mistresses at the French court had a blast.
The scourge of squandering public money on supposedly historical dramas which turn out to be nothing historical goes beyond the ethical debate whether such shows should stop existing.
The problem lies in using such inaccurate label when the show throws out any semblance of a relationship to history within the first few episodes of the first season. While some fictionalizing is to be expected in an entertainment drama (in contrast with a documentary) most series show a lack of research and deviate heavily from the historical record, from manipulating chronology and key characters to inventing events and places in order to suit a storyline. In doing so, the label “historical” loses its purpose.
Creators of such shows who claim to reproduce the story of historical figures in a more-or-less accurate way, but who are in fact entirely misrepresenting history, are attracting audience under false pretenses. It’s one thing to discard historical facts to make a series more entertaining, but it’s another thing to manipulate and distort history so that it fits Hollywood glows. Even the smallest historical facts and details carry importance: they embody the thoughts and emotions that people had at a given time. Changing them is the rough equivalent of a journalist inventing quotations on the grounds that nobody actually said.
For one who wishes to create a historical fiction of Henry VIII or Mary Queen of Scots, there should be no problem in using the “historical” label if accuracy is prioritized and not just occasionally respected. If not then, one should stick to making it just fiction and take adequate measures to let the audience know that the work is historically inaccurate (providing a specific warning about the innacuracy before the show, changing the names of the characters involved, etc).
Most importantly, making history accessible does not mean dumbing down people’s mind. Modern audience shouldn’t content themselves with the accustomed bland mediocrity and adolescent-tone that comes with such shows. History should make people think and not the opposite. Promoting “cheap history” and an innaccurate portrayal of famous historical figures ultimately blemish people’s opinions on these time periods and create a misleading impression of the past that isn’t without consequences. A 2009 study from Washington University published in Psychological Science suggests that students who learn history by watching historically based blockbuster movies may be doomed to repeat the historical mistakes portrayed within them12. A later Duke study printed in Applied Cognitive Psychology reveals that historical innacuracies in movies can hinder learning13.
What is the key then, to get the merits of making an accurate historical drama, both entertaining and academically rigorous? Representing the past with careful verisimilitude while making a watchable TV show shouldn’t be that difficult. Some lesser-known drama series have succeeding in ensuring historical accuracy. For instance Band of brothers, Deadwood, Johns Adams or Hatfields and Mccoys. Others, such as Downtown abbey created a fictional storyline (as not to sell it as “historical fiction”) but took actual events of British history (like World War I, the decline of aristocracy, etc) and stayed faithful to the period about major details such as language, props and costumes, cutlery, social interactions between characters based on their social category…
It is a shame that most TV-producers grounded in Hollywood flavor refuse to ensure such authenticity. Sometimes the truth is far more interesting than fiction.
For accurate information on the Tudors, The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser, Henry VIII: King and Court by Alison Weir are essential reads. About Mary Stuart, John Guy’s Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart is probably definitive for scholarly works. The most notable revisionist works on Catherine de Medici are Catherine De Médicis: Le Pouvoir Au Féminin by T. Wanegffelen; Catherine De’Medici by R.J. Knecht and Le Haut Coeur De Catherine De Médicis by Denis Crouzet who wrote an extensive two books on the matter.
1. Maria Hayward, Dress at the Court of King Henry VIII (London: Routledge, 2017), 6↩
2. Alex Cohen, “The Tudors Battles with Truth,” Pop Culture, NPR (March 28, 2008), http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=89182466↩
3. As quoted in Maggie Furlong, “‘Reign’ Cast Talks Playing With Mary, Queen Of Scots’ History, Using Modern Music And More At TCA 2013,” Huffingtonpost (July 30th, 2013), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/30/reign-mary-queen-of-scots-tca-2013_n_3677409.html↩
4. As quoted in Lisa de Moraes, “TCA: CW’s First Crunchy-Gravel Drama ‘Reign’ Flirts With History,” Deadline (July 30th, 2013), http://deadline.com/2013/07/tca-cws-first-crunchy-gravel-drama-flirts-with-history-552425/↩
5. Joseph Strutt, The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England: From the Earliest Period, Including the Rural and Domestic Recreations, May Games, Mummeries, Pageants, Processions and Pompous Spectacles (London: Methuen & Company, 1801), 90 ↩
6. See La maladie et la mort de François II, roi de France by Albert Potiquet (Paris: Rueff, 1893) ↩
7. Interesting article about the origins of the word “prom” and its evolution: http://www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2014/06/19/prom_language_history_of_the_word_from_promenade_to_hashtag_prahm.html↩
8. See Jean-Paul Clébert, Les Prophécies de Nostradamus. Les Centuries. Texte intégral (1555-1568) (Paris: Dervy, 2003)↩
9. Marylin Yalom, A History of the Wife (New York: Harper Perennial, 2001), 59↩
10. See also Judith Daniluk’s book Women’s Sexuality Across the Life Span: Challenging Myths, Creating Meanings and Laura Gowing’s “Knowledge and Experience, C. 1500-1750” in The Routledge History of Sex and the Body: 1500 to the Present, which are essential reads with regards to early modern sexuality and perceptions of women’s body.↩
11. 17th English jurist Matthew Hale’s line: “the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract” has been stated by many scholars who worked on marital rape. As quoted in Diana E.H.Russel, Rape in Marriage (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1990), 17.↩
12. Andrew C. Butler, Franklin M. Zaromb, Keith B. Lyle and Henry L. Roediger III, “Using Popular Films to Enhance Classroom Learning: The Good, the Bad, and the Interesting,” Psychological Science 20, no. 9 (2009): 1161–1168.↩
13. S. Umanath, A. C. Butler and E.J. Marsh, “Positive and Negative Effects of Monitoring Popular Films for Historical Inaccuracies,” Appl. Cognit. Psychol. 26 (2012): 556–567.↩