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Portrait of Henry VIII

The Tudors on screen: Television and film dramas about the Tudor dynasty

There have been countless on-screen adaptations of the Tudor dynasty, some with considerably more success than others.

Image: Henry VIII has been portrayed in countless dramas over the years | Public Domain

The Tudor and Elizabethan dynasties have been reimagined for millions around the world in countless movie and television shows since Charles Laughton’s memorable performance in The Private Life of Henry VIII in 1933. 90 years later, Firebrand, a British movie depicting Henry VIII in his dotage played by Jude Law, is the latest in exploring the turbulent and bloody 16th century.

The following list highlights some of the most acclaimed and popular television and movie versions of a tumultuous period of English history that continues to inspire filmmakers and entertain global audiences.

Wolf Hall (2015)

The critically acclaimed adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s best-selling book of the same name presented a unique angle of Henry VIII’s reign through the prism of his trusted and ruthless chief minister, Thomas Cromwell.

Usually portrayed as a menacing and sinister character who conjured a pernicious plot to discredit Henry’s second wife Anne Boleyn and destroy both her and the Boleyn faction, Mantel’s book put the feared Cromwell centre stage and humanised what was often portrayed in dramas as a one-dimensional character.

Mark Rylance’s performance as Cromwell, as both the king’s canny advisor and a family man in his own right, is possessed with subtlety and a quiet depth that demands re-evaluation of a historical figure mainly known for being Boleyn’s arch enemy.

Damian Lewis as Henry presents a capricious and emotionally conflicted monarch on the cusp of tyranny, who allows Cromwell to get on with his schemes to rid him of a wife he once loved and once risked the wrath of a Catholic Europe to marry.

Anne of the Thousand Days (1969)

Richard Burton and Genevieve Bujold star as King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in this sumptuous production which was nominated for nine Academy Awards. Although based on a play written in the 1940s, it wasn’t until the late 1960s that the movie, with its torrid subject matter of adultery and incest, could be made.

Focusing on the passionate and turbulent relationship of Henry and a fiery Boleyn, the movie’s settings and costumes are stunning. Many authentic locations, such as Boleyn’s actual family home Hever Castle, were also used.

French-Canadian Bujold was perfect casting as a young Anne who was tutored in the French court. She presents a nuanced and electrifying performance that captures an unsentimental portrait of a woman who is both a victim and ruthless in her pursuit to become Queen of England. In contrast, Burton’s scenery-chewing rendition of King Henry lacks subtlety and is played with one tone loudness. Bujold’s Academy-nominated performance steals the film and makes it memorable.

The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970)

Various directors helmed this highly acclaimed television series exploring each of King Henry’s wives starring both high-profile and relatively unknown actresses, such as Angela Pleasance as Catherine Howard.

Seasoned actresses like Annette Crosbie (Catherine of Aragon) and Dorothy Tutin (Anne Boleyn) gave captivating performances alongside Keith Michell’s powerful and emotionally layered King Henry, as he aged between 1509 and 1547.

Despite its stagey production values, harsh studio lighting and static camerawork, it is the performance of Michell which makes this BBC series a masterpiece of period costume drama, presenting King Henry from an athletic Prince to an obese and angry despot. The actor’s brilliant transformative make-up contributed to the many awards the series was nominated for and won.

The movie version, made two years later and also starring Michell as King Henry, was a handsome production but skipped through key events with such brevity that even Anne Boleyn’s execution was only referenced off-screen.

The Tudors (2007)

Designed as a racy soap, the series dispensed historical accuracy for sensationalism and spectacle, but was refreshingly original in its presentation of historical TV drama.

Although providing visceral entertainment, the show pandered to a young audience that knew little or had no interest in history. The writers themselves admitted they were asked to create a ‘Tudor soap’. Criticisms of the series included the commercial casting of young actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the bombastic King Henry, who appeared more like a sulky and intemperate member of a boyband and was only aged by a few streaks of grey in the hair. Another was the amalgamating of two real characters into one - Henry’s sisters, Mary Tudor and Margaret Tudor.

If one scene exemplified brazen artistic licence it is when Catherine Howard, Henry’s fifth wife, is condemned to death. On-screen, she is depicted naked in her cell as she practices her execution over the axeman’s block. Considering the prisoner was in a dank cell in the middle of December by the river, it is unlikely Catherine spent her last hours without so much as a ruff to keep her warm.

Elizabeth R (1971)

Much fanfare was made about the making of the award-winning drama series starring 36-year-old Glenda Jackson for three reasons – it was the first BBC2 television drama of feature-length 90-minute episodes, the most expensive BBC2 television drama, and Jackson made no bones about shaving her head because she wanted the role so badly.

With the assistance of skilled latex make-up and truthful acting, Jackson ages from a princess in her 20s to her death at 69.

Similar to The Six Wives of Henry VIII the year before, Elizabeth R was mainly studio-bound and shot on videotape at Television Centre. Some wonky production values aside, a lack of slick technology didn’t detract from Jackson’s tour de force of a performance (seen as the definitive interpretation of Elizabeth I), stunning costumes and an engaging if not over-wordy and academic script.

Unlike many other television series and movies about the Tudor period, Elizabeth R has longevity due to its repeatability, even after 50 years. More recently the series was repeated in 2023 on BBC4.

Mary Queen of Scots (1971)

Released the same year as Elizabeth R, a busy Glenda Jackson reprised the role of the Virgin Queen and was pitted against her combative cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, played with zest by Vanessa Redgrave.

The story focused on the turbulent life of Mary who arrived in Scotland as the widow of French King Francis II and determined to rule Scotland as a Catholic country. Her impetuous behaviour and rash decisions, such as marrying a psychotic Lord Darnley (played by Timothy Dalton), see her flee to England under the impression that Elizabeth will restore her status.

Directed by Charles Jarrott, who also helmed Anne of the Thousand Days, the movie received mixed reviews despite its accomplished performances from a stellar cast. Artistic licence saw Elizabeth and Mary meeting in an emotionally dramatic scene of queenly conflict, even though such a meeting never happened in real life.

Elizabeth (1998)

27 years after Glenda Jackson’s acclaimed performances as Elizabeth I, Australian actress Cate Blanchette took up the mantle and succeeded with an Oscar win for her beautifully nuanced interpretation of the steely monarch. Blanchette’s Oscar honour was one of seven Academy Award nominations and 12 BAFTA nominations, with two wins for Best Actress and Best Film.

Opening the story with the arrest of a young Elizabeth imprisoned at the Tower of London by her neurotic half-sister Mary Tudor (played by Kathy Burke), the cast included Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccleston, Joseph Fiennes, John Gielgud and Daniel Craig.

Director Shekhar Kapur focused on the story’s bloodshed, spies and political intrigue, giving it a harsher more adult flavour compared to earlier movie versions.

The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)

The casting of Philippa Gregory’s popular romantic novel of the Boleyn sisters’ imagined relationship, alluding to a menage-a-trois between the sisters and King Henry, wasn’t helped by the starry lineup of Natalie Porter (Anne Boleyn), Scarlet Johansson (Mary Boleyn) and Eric Bana (Henry), who just didn't match the real-life characters’ appearances.

For all the sumptuous look of the movie and stunning art direction, the story’s conceit, playing on the supposition that Anne may have considered sexual relations with her brother to beget a male child, is pure conjecture. Porter is overly pretty and lacks the gravitas of Genevieve Bujold’s mesmerising performance and inhabits a more neurotic waif-like persona that is lost against the overblown production.

The movie uniquely focuses on the relationship between the doomed Anne and Mary, suggesting a loving relationship where Mary is prepared to take great risks in a conspiracy to save Anne’s life. In reality, there is little evidence to suggest the sisters were even friends or spent much time together.

Orlando (1992)

Orlando is a poetic and unique exploration of the Elizabethan period based on the acclaimed 1928 fantasy novel by Virginia Woolf. The story takes place after the death of Elizabeth I, played by the incomparable Quentin Crisp in what is one of the first gender flip roles of a famous historical figure. The ethereal-looking Tilda Swinton stars as Orlando, an androgynous nobleman who is bequeathed estates and wealth by the queen on the promise never to ‘wither’ or grow old. Orlando embarks on a journey reminiscent of an 18th-century gothic yarn, as they gradually transform into a woman over the centuries to the present day in the 1990s.

Beautifully photographed and with a tone more reminiscent of an arthouse movie with its emphasis on lyrical visuals, the film highlights the injustices women are subjected to during the period, marking director Sally Potter’s second movie of a feminist story with LGBTQ sensibilities.

Although using some well-known English stately homes during production such as Hatfield House, much of the filming took place in Khiva, Uzbekistan.

Lady Jane (1986)

The story of the tragic Lady Jane Grey, who reigned as queen for just nine days, has been told many times in television documentaries and adaptations. But it is the glossy 1986 British movie Lady Jane, starring Helena Bonham Carter in her cinematic debut, which is notable for its somewhat contrived Romeo & Juliet tone, rendering it a Mills & Boon-style movie that ends in the brutal execution of its two young lovers.

Lady Jane, played with understated confidence by the 18-year-old Bonham Carter, and Lord Guildford Dudley navigate the dangerous climate of Tudor political infighting for the crown. The backdrop to the lovers’ plight is arch-villain Mary Tudor – Henry VIII’s first child – who confronts a naïve teenage Lady Jane over the thorny issue of succession through a near civil war. Manipulated by her father and father-in-law, Lady Jane is used as a pawn in a vicious game of power and politics.

Directed by stage impresario Trevor Nunn, the script fictionalises a teenage romance when there is little evidence to support the view that Lady Jane Grey and Guildford even liked each other. Due to cruel circumstances, they both ended up in the Tower of London and were beheaded on the same day.