Behind the Scenes: Interview with Dr. David Starkey

British historian David Starkey, host of THE SIX WIVES OF HENRY VIII and author of the series' companion book, is a renowned expert on all things Tudor. Here, he answers some questions about this fascinating era and its impact on the world.

1. Even for those who aren't history buffs, few eras in British history stand out as much as the Tudor reign. Why do you think so many laymen find this period so fascinating -- and why do you?

Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, they sort of range in our imagination beyond mere historical figures. People like the big personalities and big stories. It's a soap opera, but of course, a soap opera that's real and that's true. It's like the great old dynasties of Dallas and the Ewings, but on a much greater scale of drama and even greater scale of violence.

From my point of view, it's the perfect period. You know enough, but not too much. If you go to earlier periods of English history, you lack the intense personal detail. You don't actually have realistic paintings of people, the personal incidents. But starting with Henry VIII, we actually know what these people looked like. We have reports of their everyday conversation. But at the same time, you're not overwhelmed -- I mean by the time you got to the 18th century, you have about 44 boxes of records for every minor English nobleman.

2. Was Henry VIII's behavior considered harsh at the time?

It was considered eccentric. But as you know, there's an extraordinary imbalance in what was regarded as sexually appropriate behavior for men and women. Men were perfectly at liberty to sleep around. For a wife to do so was an outrage, and for ordinary women, there was no question about invoking the death penalty. And as a queen, you were actually polluting the succession... [by committing adultery] your seed was contaminating the succession. And that's why the penalties were so horrible.

3. What were the relationships like, on a day-to-day basis, between Henry VIII and his wives? Were they terrible marriages all the way through?

What is extraordinary is that Henry was usually a very good husband. And he liked women -- that's why he married so many of them! He was very tender to them, we know that he addressed them as "sweetheart." He was a good lover, he was very generous: the wives were given huge settlements of land and jewels -- they were loaded with jewels. He was immensely considerate when they were pregnant.

But, once he had fallen out of love... he just cut them off. He just withdrew. He abandoned them. They didn't even know he'd left them. And Henry became this monster because of his experience with divorce and marriage. His divorce from Catherine of Aragon [to whom he was married for 25 years] was deeply wounding and isolating. It split his family -- his own sister sided with Catherine.

4. What can you tell us about a typical marriage in 16th-century England?

In theory, the woman was supposed to be meek, obedient, subordinate, and uxorious -- saying yes when hubby wanted sex and all the rest of it. In practice, many women were as assertive, strong, managerial, and determined as they are nowadays. Although the formal external rules about male supremacy and female submission were radically different from certainly anything we could understand post-World War II, the real patterns of behavior were much more recognizable as what we're familiar with. In other words, you mustn't believe the theories.

5. Which of the marriages do you think was the most successful, taking everything into account?

It has to be Jane Seymour, the third marriage. She did what Henry wanted. She gave him a son, and although she was very clever and pushed her own agenda, she observed the 16th-century "rules" about the subordination of women, although at the same time she used them to get what she wanted. But what I think was her shrewdest move was dying at the right moment! [Seymour died after childbirth.] She gave him a son, and at that point, she could do no wrong. She went to heaven and became the perfect wife.

6. What kind of ruler was Henry VIII? What non-marital accomplishments or failures marked his reign?

It was the most important reign in English history. It was a point at which the country broke with Rome, the point at which we ceased to be a Catholic country and became a Protestant one. It was the moment at which we invented the idea of "empire." It was the moment at which we shifted our relations with continental Europe. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it was the immediate background for the fact that Britain and America were together in the war with Iraq. Such a distance from the rest of Europe was unthinkable before the reign of Henry VIII. And what is really exciting is that these huge changes affected everybody. They transformed the landscape and the monasteries were demolished and country houses rose on their sites, and the patterns of everyday belief changed. And the only reason these changes happened is that Henry wanted to get rid of Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn! One man's lust for a woman transformed the life and history of an entire nation.

7. As a corollary, what kind of contributions did Henry VIII's wives make?

Catherine Parr, the last wife, was the first royal woman author in English. She was a best-seller in print -- a multi-edition best-seller. I think she shows, very interestingly, how religion plus education started to open a much wider field of action for women. [She sparked] the call for women to be spiritually active, and in a sense, to reform their husbands -- which you can see on the frontier, in the Pilgrims. Women have this huge, driving energy, and Catherine Parr is a brilliant example of that.

8. How do you think Henry VIII would feel about all this attention?

He would love it! Henry was one of the very rare kings who was genuinely concerned about his place in history. When he came to the throne, as a boy of 17, he said that he was interested in virtue, glory, immortality. He wanted fame. And of course, he got it.

9. What do you hope people take away from this program?

What I want people to do is to grasp the romance of history, the excitement of history, and to realize that although it seems fantasy and fairy tale, it is true, and that the consequences are still felt not simply in Britain, but in America.

Thirteen/WNET PBS