wed 08/04/2020

Royal History's Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley, BBC Four review - is this version more valid than anyone else's? | reviews, news & interviews

Royal History's Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley, BBC Four review - is this version more valid than anyone else's?

Royal History's Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley, BBC Four review - is this version more valid than anyone else's?

Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell are spun in the pop-history blender

Worsley at Hever Castle, childhood home of Anne Boleyn

Perhaps somebody at BBC Four has had a quiet word with Lucy Worsley, because in this first of a new three-part series she did hardly did any of her usual irritating dressing up. There had to be a bit, though.

Perhaps somebody at BBC Four has had a quiet word with Lucy Worsley, because in this first of a new three-part series she did hardly did any of her usual irritating dressing up. There had to be a bit, though. She appeared briefly as a monk carrying a blazing torch, and then got herself made over as a version of Anne Boleyn (pictured below) as she was described by the 16th Century Catholic priest and polemicist Nicholas Sander. Seeing Boleyn as an influential advocate of the Protestant cause, the vengeful Sander depicted her as a witch with bad teeth and an extra finger on her right hand.

Otherwise, this was Worsley the pop historian setting out to demythologise Henry VIII’s acrimonious split from the Papacy and the story of the English Reformation. One problem with this, though, is that there exists a huge body of scholarship which anatomises Henry VIII, the Tudors and their legacy in microscopic detail, so most of Worsley’s “myths” have already been sliced and diced from all angles by a lengthy roll-call of experts. For instance, she declared that the story of Henry’s obsession with Anne Boleyn and determination to divorce Catherine of Aragon is popularly seen as “a bawdy royal soap opera”, with Boleyn a “sexy Protestant pin-up”. This might be true only if your source material was the TV series The Tudors (starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Natalie Dormer as the unfeasibly glamorous lovers) or The Other Boleyn Girl, with Natalie Portman as Anne.

Still, it gave Worsley the pretext for an entertaining romp around the mid-16th century. She subjected the controversial career of Henry’s right-hand man Thomas Cromwell to critical inspection (she considered him “a crazy zealot”, and deplored his ruthless dissolution of the monasteries and the siphoning off their funds into the royal coffers). Then she sketched out the way he spun together a fraudulent mythology about English “exceptionalism” to justify Henry VIII’s seizure of absolute power over church and state.

But as she said herself, “history is a chaos of voices”, so why is Worsley’s view more valid than anyone else’s? As a case in point, she interviewed Cromwell’s biographer Diarmaid McCulloch, who briskly dismissed negative portrayals of Cromwell as “Catholic propaganda”.

Worsley couldn’t resist comparing the Reformation to Brexit, and found a Professor Pabst who agreed with her, but it’s a glib and simplistic notion that argumentative academics could pick holes in ad infinitum. Besides, did anybody hear Henry VIII declare to the voters “let’s get the Reformation done”? But it made a tasty bit of clickbait for a populist TV show.

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