The story of the six wives of Henry VIII has been told many times now, some argue too many times, yet somehow we still crave more. Lucy Worsley begins her new series by promising a new take on this familiar story, not an easy promise to make, but does seem to fulfil this in just the first episode.
Worsley does not just wander around palaces telling the story of the six wives, instead she inserts herself into their world, blending both documentary and drama into one. Throughout the episode, we see her appear lighting the fires, watching the scenes unfold and it is a novel, if unusual, new way of telling what otherwise is an old story.
She starts at the beginning of Katherine of Aragon and Henry’s marriage, showing them as a happy and loving couple, unlike some documentaries that are all too eager to focus on the end of their relationship and the emergence of Anne Boleyn. She leaves little clues as to Henry’s character and what influences his later relationships, such as Henry’s love of disguises and courtly love, which will heavily influence his relationship with Anne of Cleves later on.
The costumes in this series are beautiful and surprisingly accurate, although there have been reports that they used the same costumes from Wolf Hall, which would explain this. Most documentaries use cheap costumes and actors that look embarrassed to be playing their parts, but the BBC have gone a step further with this in providing a good looking and non-cringeworthy series for once. The actress who plays Katherine of Aragon played her particularly well as she showed her as both a loving wife and mother and a formidable warrior queen (like her mother) too.
Some scenes in the episode, however, are more than a little confusing and do not seem to serve much purpose. When Worsley is talking about Henry’s relationship with Mary Boleyn, she also mentions the Chateau Vert pageant, yet somehow this is a cue for a scene of Princess Mary and Katherine watching Henry and Mary Boleyn. This seems a little odd and, although she is pressed for time, I think Worsley could have shown them some other way, without Princess Mary and Katherine.
Another mistake I and several others spotted is Worsley mentioning that Anne Boleyn was engaged to Henry Percy. We are not sure exactly the full extent of their relationship, however it is unlikely that they were engaged and Anne was contracted to marry James Butler. I am still glad that Henry Percy was mentioned, he is often left out of documentaries and dramas, yet I think she could have made the doubts about their relationship clearer.
One thing that I personally was excited to see was the primary sources of both Henry’s jousting tournament in celebration of the birth of Prince Henry:
and Henry’s love letters to Anne Boleyn, in which Worsley is the first person who has been given permission to film them. Both sources are amazing to look at and this redeems this episode somewhat, taking it back along the documentary route instead of just a pure drama series.
Some may now be bored of the story of Henry VIII and his six wives and wonder why there is another series on it, however some people (like me) can never get bored of this story. We are fascinated by tales of romance, violence and tragedy, which I think is why the public are always so drawn to this period of history. As always Lucy Worsley is an engaging and entertaining presenter and her innovative way of telling the story is one in which may draw in even those who claim to be sick of the tale. I am eager to watch the next episode, but I am curious as to how the remaining five wives (we only had a glimpse of Anne Boleyn) will fit into the two remaining episodes. Most series on the topic tend to have four episodes minimum, not three, with Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn having their own episodes and the remaining four sharing two episodes. This format has worked well for the likes of David Starkey’s Six Wives series and the more recent series by Suzannah Lipscomb and Dan Jones, but I will try to remain optimistic as I await the next episode.
Rating: 4/5 stars
(All pictures taken from BBC iPlayer)