Henry VIII ascended to the throne as a lithe, handsome seventeen-year-old and died after an extraordinary thirty-eight year reign, an embittered, obese invalid.
The rest of Europe looked on in amazement as Henry, desperate for a male heir, cast aside the older, but loyal, Katharine of Aragon for a series of marriages with wives who are probably better known for the way their lives ended than they lived -- the determined temptress Anne Boleyn, the pious yet tragic Jane Seymour, the outcast Anne of Cleves, the adulterous Katherine Howard and finally the devoted Katherine Parr.
This tale of Henry VIII depicts the sexual intrigue, betrayal and rivalry that existed within his court, in a reign notable for its political and religious upheaval, violence and corruption.
Episode One - Plot Revealed Below!
It's 1509, Richmond Palace: the deathbed of Henry VII. The King summons his second son, seventeen-year-old Henry and gives his final words of wisdom to the future King. 'You will take your brother Arthur's widow Katherine for your wife. Most importantly, have a son. A male heir. That is the most important thing you will ever do as a King.'
Two decades later, a woman gives birth to a baby boy. It transpires that the baby is Henry VIII's, following a brief affair. Ever mindful of his father's last words, Henry demands that Cardinal Wolsey legitimize baby Henry Fitzroy and give him the succession. Wolsey warns the King that such an act would be 'political suicide.' With his daughter Mary, by Spanish wife Katherine of Aragon and the all-important alliance with Spain, Henry is finally convinced that his only option is to keep trying for a son with his wife and forget the existence of his infant namesake.
Meanwhile, the Duke of Buckingham -- a Plantaganet and claimant to the throne -- is leading a revolt against the King. He vows that since Henry's only heir is illegitimate, he himself will 'take down Henry Tudor and reclaim the throne.' A crowd of powerful nobles gathers excitedly around him, one of whom is a spy. The spy reports back to Wolsey.
Relations become increasingly strained between Henry and his subjects, as well as with his wife. Following a number of miscarriages, Henry is desperate to have a legitimate son yet finds the sight of Katherine ever more unbearable as she continues to fail him.
When Buckingham attempts to meet with his cohorts to declare war on the King, he is met with deathly silence in the woods. A horse eventually arrives bearing one of his lieutenants. His throat is slit. As more and more of his army emerge dying and drenched in blood, Henry reveals himself. This war is over before it has even begun.
Katherine is devastated by news of her husband's barbaric treatment of Buckingham's troops, not to mention the horrific torture the Duke was subjected to. Is this the man she married? 'If you gave me a son, these people would not rise against me,' he retorts.
The King and Queen later enter a vast ceremonial hall to preside over the aristocratic engagements of England. Among the couples are Henry Percy and Anne Boleyn, recently returned from the French court. From the moment Henry sets eyes on the strikingly beautiful, quick-witted Anne, he is transfixed. He will not allow her marriage to go ahead and instructs Wolsey to forbid the union. Anne is incensed. Wolsey has made an enemy of her for life.
Unable to keep Anne from his thoughts, Henry summons her to court as a lady-in-waiting to Katherine. It also transpires that Anne's sister Mary is pregnant, maybe with Henry's child, following a passionate affair with him. Despite Henry's desperate attempts to woo her, Anne is determined not to suffer the same fate as her sister. Anne is given her own rooms at court and rumors start to circulate about the king's fascination with this fiery and arrogant new beauty. Thomas Cromwell and Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer are concerned -- Henry has never been so infatuated with a woman ...and a Protestant at that. Anne is steadfast. 'I want Percy back,' she spits angrily at the King. 'He is engaged to another by arrangement of his family,' he sneers. Anne is resigned to her fate. Yet she will sleep with the King on her own terms. 'Never give a man something without securing your own interests first,' she tells her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk.
As Anne keeps the King at arm's length in spite of his numerous letters and gifts, Katherine is advised of her lady-in-waiting's powerful hold over her husband. Pacing about the court like a caged animal, Henry finally snaps and begs Anne to take him as her lover. She hints that she would make a good Queen who would bear him sons. Katherine's fate is sealed. Henry uses the fact that Katherine did not come to the marital bed as a virgin, having already given herself to his brother, as divine proof that God has rendered her infertile and sets the wheels in motion for an annulment. Wolsey is fearful that this will 'separate England from the rest of Europe' and begs him not to cast the Queen aside. But Henry is resolute. He will have Anne -- and a son -- whatever the cost.
Katherine declares that she will fight to keep her position and a bitter war within the court begins. During the trial, Katherine gives a moving performance. The Pope will not let the decision happen in England and the trial is postponed. Henry is furious that he does not have the result Wolsey promised him and, encouraged by Anne, orders Wolsey to leave court.
As Henry sinks into desperate despair, Cromwell has an idea -- get rid of Catholic Katherine and bring in a new Church, a church Henry would head. This Act of Supremacy would leave him free to make decisions independently of Rome. The Church of England is formed, much to the anger and disgust of the people of England, who loved Katherine. With this proof that she is not just another passing fancy, Anne finally relents. Before long, Anne and Henry are married. Katherine, meanwhile, is stripped of all power and banished from London. Princess Mary is declared a bastard.
Soon after, Anne gives birth to a baby girl, Elizabeth. Henry is devastated -- he needs a son. The Seymour family begins to plot. 'If Anne Boleyn doesn't give Henry what he wants, his eye will wander and we want you to be in the front line,' Edward Seymour tells his sister Jane. Jane is horrified at the suggestion.
Meanwhile, the tide is turning against Anne, both inside court and out. People are interpreting Anne's delivery of a girl as a sign that she shouldn't be Queen. Some even go so far as to accuse her of being a witch who has put their King under a cursed spell.
Henry is once again taking mistresses. Anne has suffered two miscarriages and the future of her reign looks bleak. A violent confrontation ends in the King raping his wife. Their relationship is now in tatters, a situation that causes great joy in the Seymour household. It becomes clear that the King has eyes for Jane. Anne, he has now realized, is 'a nightmare' -- everything the gentle, pious Jane isn't.
Anne has yet another miscarriage. Comforted by her brother George, she is unaware that Cromwell's spies, in particular George's bitter and jealous wife Lady Rochford, are watching her. At the end of his tether, Henry interprets Lady Rochford's tales as proof that Anne is sleeping with her brother. 'Get rid of her -- your life depends on it,' he orders Cromwell. It is decided that Cromwell will find evidence of adultery on Anne's part. Men are tortured into confessions of intimacies with the Queen. Norfolk advises the Boleyns that they must distance themselves from her and he, himself, will sit in judgment on his niece. Anne is doomed and anyone siding with her is as well.
Meanwhile, Henry has become besotted with Jane. Jane is resistant to his charms although she is more than aware that she is being primed as Anne's replacement.
Anne is now alone in the Great Court of the Tower of London, being tried before a jury of her peers, one of whom is her former fiancé Henry Percy, now Earl of Northumberland. She is adamant that she has never been unfaithful to her husband. Her plea of innocence falls on deaf ears. The verdict is delivered: guilty.
Carpenters prepare the execution site as Anne's belongings and portraits are removed from the palace and replaced with those of Jane Seymour.
Surrounded by her ladies in waiting, Anne calmly prepares herself for death. A desperate Henry offers his wife a chance to save herself, giving her the option of an annulment. If she accepts, this would make their child, Elizabeth, a bastard. Anne would rather die then allow that to happen to her daughter. And so, a roar goes up as Anne leads her procession to the scaffolding to a barrage of vile insults from the vast crowds.
Henry sets off for a day of hunting with the Seymours, desperate to be as far away as possible from the events taking place at the Tower of London. As if by instinct, he stops to look back just in time to see a distant plume of smoke, followed by the delayed sound of cannon fire signifying the end of Anne's life. Remorse and fear overwhelm him and he begs God for forgiveness.
Episode Two - Plot Revealed Below!
It is the day after Anne Boleyn's execution; Henry VIII weds Jane Seymour. A backlash of violence has erupted throughout his country as a result of the dissolution of the Catholic Church. Raging battles plague the country. Hundreds are being tortured and slaughtered by Henry's own soldiers while churches are burned to the ground.
Finally, the massacre stops. Total devastation prevails. Dogs scavenge among corpses while a group of volunteers pick their way through the chaos. One such volunteer, Robert Aske, a former soldier of the King, is enraged by the atrocities around him. Publicly voicing his opinions, he receives huge cries of support.
With a mass of horses and armed Pilgrims dressed for battle, Aske travels to London for a battle against the King. On discovering his former lieutenant has raised twenty thousand troops against him, Henry rages at Cromwell. The idea of the dissolution was to increase his popularity and put an end to Catholic corruption. Instead it has achieved the complete opposite. Furious, Henry demands a meeting with Aske. Jane chooses this moment to announce that she is pregnant and Henry's dark mood is transformed.
The King and Aske meet. The atmosphere is tense as Aske lists his demands on behalf of the wronged. Agreeing to them all, Henry demonstrates that he is not harbouring any ill will and invites Aske to join him at a banquet with his knights that evening.
Aske returns to York after the banquet fully expecting a hero's welcome. Instead the disgruntled Duke of Norfolk and his henchmen await his arrival. Aske is tortured and his corpse hung from the Gates of York. A triumphant Norfolk returns to the King, securing his place by Henry's side once more.
The anticipation that Jane may be carrying the male heir to the throne consumes the court. Jane, however, is preoccupied with two more pressing issues. First, she is determined to reinstate relations between Henry and Mary, his first daughter, and invites her to court for a meeting with her father. The meeting is successful -- Henry accepts Mary back, much to the dismay of the other courtiers.
Secondly, Jane is furious with Henry for his treatment of Aske. Yet he is in no mood to answer to a mere woman. He rages back at her, reminding her that all he wants from her is a son -- not her opinions or her meddling. His violent outburst causes Jane to fall heavily, sending her into premature labor.
The physicians struggle to cope and after three days, Jane gives birth to a healthy boy, Edward. Elated, Henry rushes to his Queen's bedside to thank and congratulate her. But she is dangerously ill, slipping in and out of consciousness. The physicians can do nothing. Queen Jane is gone.
Henry slumps into a deep depression and ages dramatically in the subsequent years, gaining a great deal of weight and suffering from the riding wound to his leg. With much convincing, Cromwell finally brings the King around to the idea of another marriage with Anne of Cleves. Holbein, the King's preferred portrait artist, is sent to Germany to paint her. Henry likes what he sees in Holbein's portrait and agrees to the marriage. Norfolk becomes increasingly concerned about the power Cromwell could gain if this match turns out to be a success.
On meeting his future wife, Henry is disgusted by her appearance. Desperate to call off the engagement which Cromwell has made impossible to break, Henry pleads with Norfolk to find a way out. Norfolk has a plan and sets off to pay a visit to his niece, Katherine Howard. Unaware that he has interrupted Katherine while making love to her betrothed, Francis Dereham, Norfolk sizes her up and is very pleased by what he sees. He is convinced the King will be taken with this 15-year-old beauty too.
Five months into Henry's unconsummated marriage to Anne of Cleves, Cromwell and the King's lawyers are still unable to find an 'out.' The marriage could be dissolved but at great financial cost and embarrassment to Henry. Henry's fury at being trapped in this way seals Cromwell's fate. Cromwell walks to his execution to the familiar jeers of hatred from the gathered crowds.
And so, Norfolk presents Katherine to Henry. Her youth and beauty captivate him and he wastes no time in proposing. Norfolk is delighted -- his power is secure and Henry is the happiest he has been in years.
But the wedding night is a disaster. Henry is impotent, and Thomas Cranmer discovers Katherine has not come to the marriage a virgin. Her lack of sexual pleasure results in open flirtations with the younger male members of the court. Norfolk and Lady Rochford are terrified by what her behavior could mean for them, particularly her flirtations with handsome courtier Thomas Culpeper. Their only safety net is the birth of a son and heir, but both are painfully aware of Henry's impotence. They hatch a plan using one problem to solve the other: 'The King wants a son, but is unable. Katherine wants a lover, who is able...'
But the plan is destined to fail. Cranmer witnesses the Queen leaving Culpeper's room. Immediately informing the King, Henry's utter devastation sparks a violent rage in him. He confronts her, stripping her of all titles and possessions. Cranmer is delighted.
Katherine's lovers Culpeper and Dereham are arrested and face execution. Katherine prays that she be killed soon so she can join Culpeper in death. The 17-years-old's beheading is met by muted, embarrassed silence from onlookers -- the death of this poor young girl is too much even for this bloodthirsty crowd. At the moment of her death, Henry falls to his knees, praying for forgiveness. This once great King is a broken man. Humiliated, rejected, diminished. A broken-hearted Henry banishes Norfolk and Lady Rochford from court forever.
Eighteen months pass and time is not kind to Henry. His only companion is food and he looks old and frail. He has been introduced to Katherine Parr and is impressed by her intelligence, modesty, and virtue and approaches the subject of marriage, admitting he is close to death and in need of a companion. But Katherine is promised elsewhere and reveals her betrothal to Thomas Seymour.
Edward Seymour persuades his brother, Thomas, to let Katherine marry the King, convincing him she is more of an attractive prospect when she can bring all the land and revenue of a widow to a marriage. He agrees and consents to her marriage with Henry.
Katherine soon grows to love the King and makes it her mission to repair relations between Henry and his children. Both Elizabeth and Mary agree to a meeting, but the excitement of reconciliation is too much for Henry and suddenly, unable to speak, he clutches his chest and falls to the floor, gasping for breath.
Upon his deathbed, Cranmer is present and has a mountain of paperwork for Henry to sign. He manages to sign two of the death warrants with difficulty. When attempting to sign the third -- for the Duke of Norfolk -- his strength fails him and he lapses into unconsciousness.
Prince Edward is called to his father's bedside. Henry asks of Edward what the most important thing is to be a successful King. Naturally, Edward's answer is to have a son. Henry objects. 'For you to be successful as a King, you must first be successful as a man.'
Moments later, King Henry VIII is dead.
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