All the best films set in the Tudor period

James Oliver

Here are all the best films about your favourite blood-thirsty family. Enjoy...

The British film industry loves their costume dramas and they're particularly fond of the Tudor era, named for the family that ruled all England between 1485 and 1603. And you can see why: lutes, preposterous neckwear and decades of bloody internecine conflict over which brand of Christianity was best... what's not to like?

They're at it again with Mary Queen of Scots, with Saoirse Ronan giving it her all in the title role as the wee lassie facing down Margot Robbie's Elizabeth I.

Ample reason, then, to scramble into our time machine and take a look at how films have treated the Tudors—not just a feature but a useful GCSE revision tool too.

 

Henry VII

Henry Tudor was the last man standing at the end of the Wars of the Roses, which gave him all the excuse he needed to proclaim himself king—and a thoroughly good job he did of it too. He established a solid peace in the land, balanced the books and kept out of stupid wars.

Richard IIIRichard III

So obviously, no one's been interested in making a film about him. The best he can manage is walk-ons, either at the end of movies about his predecessor—he shows up in Laurence Olivier's Richard III as played by Stanley Baker.

If all the Tudors were like him, this would be a short list indeed. Luckily, they weren't...

 

Henry VIII

He's the psychopathic, syphilitic king who broke up with the Pope over a woman! He had six wives and murdered a full third of them! He's the best known movie monarch on the block! He's Henry the Eighth (he is, he is)!

An altogether more colourful fellow than his drab dad, Henry VIII has long been a cinematic fave. Back in 1933, producer Alexander Korda made The Private Life of Henry VIII, with Charles Laughton as the tubby tyrant. Laughton won an Academy Award for his troubles, the first-time Oscar had recognised a non-Hollywood production.

Henry's chequered love-life lends itself to drama, most especially his second marriage. Back in the silent era, German ace Ernst Lubitsch made Anna Boleyn, with Emil Jannings as Henry a-wooing Henny Porten's Anna (before decapitating her on spurious grounds) while Richard Burton did the same to Geneviève Bujold in Anne of a Thousand Days. Elsewhere, poor Queen Anne was played by Natalie Portman in The Other Boleyn Girl, although that's mainly about her sister Mary played by Scarlett Johansson. 

But enough of romance—what of statecraft? Henry's amours caused a breach with Rome that tested the abilities—and the consciences—of men like Thomas Wolsey, Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell (by obscure royal decree, only people called “Thomas” were allowed to talk about this).

These are recounted in one of the most sophisticated studies of Henrician England, Carry On Henry. The same ground is covered in A Man for All Seasons: it's a good enough film, but after Sid James, every other Henry VIII can only seem like an impostor. Hilary Mantel hasn't explicitly stated that Carry On Henry was the model for her Wolf Hall, but it probably was.

 

Edward VI

Given that Edward was a sickly youth who died before reaching adulthood, you would think there was limited scope for films about his life. And you'd be right, but for two exceptions.

They're both derived from the same story by Mark Twain, called The Prince and the Pauper, in which young Eddie discovers there's a young peasant who looks exactly like him. It's been filmed a couple of times, once in 1937, with Errol Flynn on hand as a semi-responsible adult and once—as Crossed Swords—in 1977, with Mark Lester, of Oliver! fame showing his range as both prince AND pauper. There have also been versions that attempt to modernise the tale: no one is stopping you investigating Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties but you do so at your own risk.

"A time when England forged its identity, took huge strides around the globe and took to saying 'hey nonny nonny'"

Lady Jane Grey

Bit of a cheat this one, which is only appropriate since her tenure on the throne was exactly that: after Edward's premature demise, his guardian installed his niece as Queen (for religion-related reasons). She wasn't a Tudor and she only lasted nine days but let's count her anyway as there are a couple of films about her “reign”.

The first was Tudor Rose (the second best British film of 1936, according to the readers of Film Weekly magazine, apparently), with Nova Pilbeam as the unfortunate Jane while more recently the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin title of Lady Jane has Helena Bonham-Carter swooning for all she's worth as the unfortunate usurper.

 

Mary I

You have to feel a bit sorry for Mary; she's one of the most notorious monarchs in history—“Bloody Mary”, they called her (and not because she was the first person to mix vodka and tomato juice). Moreover, she managed to lose English control of Calais, thus buggering up booze cruises for a couple of centuries. 

But despite all that, not one person has ever made a film all about her. And it's not like she was some fly-by-night like Lady Jane Grey: she managed three years at the top! But the best she can manage is walk-ons in films about her siblings, like Young Bess, which is all about the future Queen Elizabeth. Or Elizabeth, which... well, you can probably guess. The only consolation for poor Mary is that she's played by Kathy Burke in the latter so at least we miss her when she leaves the film.

"Producers have favoured the Tudors since the earliest days of cinema"

Elizabeth I

Ah, now we're on it—a time when England forged its identity, took huge strides around the globe and took to saying “hey nonny nonny”. No wonder some have called it a golden age.

You can look at the reign of Elizabeth I in many different ways. There's the political-slash-military aspect—you'll remember that was when the Spanish kept threatening to invade. That was a story that took on a new urgency in the 1930s when war with Germany became ever more likely, so you had things like Fire Over England (where Laurence Olivier sticks it to the Spaniards on behalf of Flora Robson's good Queen Bess) or Drake of England where booming-voiced actor Matheson Lang singes the King of Spain's beard pretty much singlehandedly.

(Later on, Flora Robson reprised the role in Hollywood: The Sea Wolf, starring Errol Flynn, was made in 1940 and is a barely disguised exhortation to America to join in the war.)

There's a more romantic side too, most obviously in Elizabeth, with Cate Blanchett as a more girlish queen than is usually played, dallying with Joseph Fiennes before settling into regal isolation. (Let's not talk about the follow up, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, right?). Bette Davis had an age-inappropriate affair with—yes, him again—Errol Flynn in The Private Lives of Elizabeth of Essex. Bette reprised the role some years later for The Virgin Queen, giving the eye to Richard Todd's Sir Walter Raleigh.

Then there's the business of Mary Stuart; Mary Queen of Scots is not the first film to alight on the potential for a drama about the two British queens. It's not even the first called Mary Queen of Scots: Vanessa Redgrave played the role opposite Glenda Jackson's Liz in a film of that title in 1971. Katherine Hepburn played Mary in Mary of Scotland in 1936, with Florence Eldridge was cousin Elizabeth.

Finally, there is the culture of the time—t'was in Elizabeth's reign that Shakespeare was getting his eye in and it seems obligatory for films about the bard to crowbar the Queen in as well—she even turns up at his gaff in Shakespeare in Love, even though there's absolutely no record of her ever visiting the theatre (maybe she found the seats a bit uncomfortable).

Was hers a golden age? For filmmakers, certainly: she was succeeded by the Stuarts starting with James I. Their times were as tumultuous as the Tudors and maybe even more so, what with gunpowder plots and civil wars, and yet few films have been made about their rule: producers have favoured the Tudors since the earliest days of cinema. It's probably too late to expect them to change their ways now.