Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Past Revealed: Why Sex Matters to Political History

I am doing my best to catch up on all the television I have TIVO'd, but it won't really be possible until I have finished grading the set of papers on my desk. And perhaps not even then, given that classes do not end until next week and I have not even begun handicapping the Kentucky Derby.

However, everyone has to eat dinner. So last night I got to the next episode of "The Tudors," where I learned an astonishing fact: the wheels of fate began to turn for Henry the Eighth only partly because of his urgent political need for a son. Indeed, in episode two he gets a son by Lady Thingumajig, Henry Fitzroy, who could have been made legitimate down the line if necessary. This convinces the lusty monarch, as he says at the top of his lungs while galloping back to court from the lying in, that Katherine of Aragon's difficulty conceiving "Is Not My Fault!" This is arguable, of course, since he doesn't seem to have sex with the Queen very much, and frankly, she was a lot nicer looking than than anyone said, though a bit longer in the tooth than all her voluptuous attendants, so this would not have been such a chore. But it was also pretty well established in episode one that Katharine lied about whether her marriage to Arthur, Henry's elder brother had been consummated, a fact which Henry seems to have suspected was pretty much not true to begin with. This has clearly been a nagging thought, as many years of marriage had produced only a daughter and a dead son. If you don't get why this is significant, the theory was that because the marrriage was incestuous, the royal pair had incurred God's wrath. But because of Baby Fitzroy, the kernal of a thought forming in Henry's mind in this episode is that God is punishing Katherine and not him.

Well, as we should have learned during the Monica Lewinsky business, there is more afoot than meets the eye. One woman's sorrow is another woman's opportunity, no? Do you remember that episode one ends with Thomas Boleyn, the French ambassador, telling his daughters Mary and Ann that they will have the chance to meet the King at the Val d'Or summit to be held with the French King? Well. Episode two reveals that Boleyn suspects that his daughters have learned more than the French language during study abroad. They have also learned (ahem) "french ways." This is best said with a gentle leer: perhaps raised eybrows and a smile playing around the corner of one's mouth. The mouth, of course, being key.

It is Mary who first dons the royal kneepads, having been previously the mistress of the French king. We know this because as Henry is staring at Mary during a state dinner, Francois, the King, leans over and says "Eye call hair my Inglish mayre b'cause eye ryide hayr so offen." This inflames Henry, irrationally to be sure, but he determines on the spot that he must possess the girl. Initially he sees to it that Mary is called to his tent, where -- to his surprise and ecstasy -- she performs the foreign act with skill and finesse. But his irritation is so great that even the unexpected novelty of Mary's French ways do not mollify him, and the seed has been planted in his mind (so to speak) that he doesn't want a French alliance after all, a political disaster that is complete by the end of the episode, when he repudiates the Treaty of Perpetual Peace in favor of a more bellicose treaty against the French. This negotiation is completed with one of Katharine's cousins, Charles, King of Spain, otherwise known as the Holy Roman Emperor. This, of course, will put the formation of the EU off for 500 years. And it will only compound the insult and injury a few episodes hence when Henry tries to explain to Charles that the Spanish Katherine is cursed by God and needs to get herself to Vegas -- I mean Rome -- for a divorce.

And it began with those French ways. No wonder the Anglicans are sensitive on the gay issue.

But back to Mary Boleyn, and this is the point of my story: apparently Henry the VIII had never experienced this particular sex act before! I understand that this is hard to believe, as it is now commonly performed in truck stops and high school locker rooms, but there you go! And while he tires of Mary quickly (would you date the French King's ex? Not likely. You would just want to show that you *could*) all is not lost for her scheming family. Luckily for the Boleyns and, as it turns out their relatives the Norfolk bunch, who will pony up yet another wife for Henry a decade or so down the line, Mary's younger sister Ann is prepared to step up (or down) to the plate. And she has the same skill set. We know this because her father suggests she make herself available to the King, and says to her with a highly incestuous grin, "I presume you learned the French ways when you were at court."

Indeed. And they will take her far. Although someone needs to remind Henry that doing it the English way (No, not THAT way! THAT way! There you go!) is more likely to result in conception.

4 comments:

Sisyphus said...

Ha!!!!!!!!! A lovely post. Who knew English history could be so fun? For some reason _your_ photo of Henry doesn't look quite as hot as the Showtime one, huh.

Of course, a few episodes after the "French Ways" and "English Ways" one, they can have more fun by introducing the "French Pox" and the "English Pox," which seem to have been the same thing, just blamed on whichever nation you were not.

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Jody said...

Philippa Gregory goes into these issues in some great detail in The Other Boleyn Girl.

It was distressing to me, at one point, that I could keep straight the various figures at court far better after reading ribald historical fiction than after two years at Oxford. Then I decided just to appreciate the fact that I finally had all those noble families and their alliances clear in my mind.

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