Thursday, September 8, 2022

A Scandalous Family and Its Lasting Tragic Legacy


The Boleyns: A Scandalous Family is a three-episode PBS series, part documentary, part historical costume drama. The series uses letters and other 16th-century sources to bring the story of this wretched family to life for us - both through narrative scholarly commentary and dramatic reenactment. Two episodes have aired so far, with the final third this coming Sunday. But we already know, of course, how the story ends.


As with World War II and Trump, audiences can never seem to get enough about the Tudors – from films (e.g., Anne of the Thousand Days, The Other Boleyn Girl), to the 2007 Showtime series The Tudors, to Starz’ The White Queen and The Spanish Princess. And even those who have little or no interest in all things Tudor and have never watched any of the above have likely at least heard of Anne Boleyn and the political and religious calamity she wreaked upon 16th-century England.


But, if Anne’s tragic rise and fall are familiar, the larger background story of her dangerously ambitious family's rise and fall is likely less so. Yet, to get the full picture of how and why this calamity could occur, it is necessary to understand not just the malevolent machinations of the Boleyns – family patriarch Thomas Boleyn, aristocratic uncle Thomas Howard (Duke of Norfolk), and children Mary and George as well as Anne – but also  the structure of elite 16th-century English society and the Tudor royal court. Regularly illustrating the situation with maps of various individuals’ and families’ positions in relation to the King himself – the center of all power, influence, wealth, and status – the series takes us into the depths of the personality-centered government that was Henry VIII’s inheritance and the 16th-century Stalinism that was Henry VIII’s distinctive characteristic and legacy.


The Boleyns played a particularly risky and dangerous game, which brought them from the margins of elite society to the center of power – a particularly brazen form of upward mobility for which they paid a particularly high price. For Mary, the price was to be dumped from favor after having been used as the King’s mistress. For Anne, the ascent was even higher; but the final fall that much more final, taking both her and her brother to the scaffold.  What would otherwise perhaps have been just another celebrity soap-opera, proved particularly and painfully lasting in its effects. Henry’s marital escapade remade the course of English and British history, destroyed the Catholic Church in England, and left its permanent legacy in the tragedy that was the otherwise unexpected English Reformation.

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