Interview with Linda Porter

Dr Linda Porter, who has written a number of books about the Tudor era, including Katherine the Queen: the Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr, acted as Historical Consultant for Six Wives. It was her job to make sure no inaccuracies crept into the series. Linda told Tudor Times more about her role.

TT: Can you tell us what the role of a Historical Consultant is? For example, did you have any input into the script?

LP: The historical consultant’s role is basically to work with the writer, director and production team to ensure as much historical accuracy as possible.  However, I was impressed by the amount of research that had already been done when I joined the project, much of it based on sources I would myself have used.  But there are a lot of aspects on which I had input that don’t fit neatly into any category, everything from checking on the style of costumes to finding suitable prayers and advising on how people would have addressed one another.

TT: Is this the first time you have undertaken the role?  Did you enjoy it, and would you do it again?

LP: Yes, it is the first time I’ve undertaken this role and I very much enjoyed it.  I’d be happy to do it again

TT: Were there ever tensions between the need for historical accuracy and the desire for a dramatic storyline? If so, how were they resolved?

LP: Yes, there were inevitably compromises that had to be made on both sides in a series of this sort.  However, I think it is about as close as one could come to a faithful dramatic interpretation of the past for a modern audience.  I had to be mindful that the series was to be shown on BBC1, to people who might know little or nothing about Henry VIII and his six wives (yes, despite Tudormania they do exist!) and that it needed to engage the interest of a broadly-based audience.  So there are one or two scenes that I let pass which probably did not take place but help people understand the emotions of the major players in the story.

TT: What was the hardest part of the role?

LP: Making sure that no real howlers somehow got through – I hope I have succeeded – and responding in a timely fashion.  People in the media work on tight timescales and there was no question of taking days to look something up in an archive.  Fortunately so much is on line today.

TT: Conversely, what did you find most enjoyable about it?

LP:  I think being involved almost from the outset and seeing the final product, which is ravishing to look at.  It was also great fun to work with Lucy Worsley.

TT: Did you spend time on set, or was your work all behind the scenes?

LP: I did visit the set when filming was taking place at Barrington Court in Somerset.  I was there when the scene was filmed in which Henry VIII quarrels violently with Anne Boleyn.  This is set in a garden, though the confrontation it was based on is said to have taken place with Anne holding Elizabeth in her arms down in a courtyard, looking up at Henry, who was at a window.  I was told that it would be hard to film it this way, though I must admit I don’t really know why.  Lucy is a gardener in this scene.  It was filmed on a sunny day in June and she got sunburn on the back of her neck where her cap parted from the top of her dress.  Being a wench in these scenes is hard work!

TT: Were you consulted just about the facts, or did your role encompass thinking about how wider European politics affected what was happening to the Wives and helping the team weave that into the stories?

LP: No, I did have a wider role.  The European context was especially important when it came to Anne of Cleves.  In general, however, the idea was to concentrate on the wives themselves and not get too bogged down in religion or politics.  This means, for example, that Wolsey and Cromwell don’t appear at all and Cranmer only does in one scene, where he interrogates Katherine Howard.

TT: I shan’t ask if you learnt anything new, because you were the expert, but did any of the work lead you to a different interpretation of the facts, or give another perspective on the motivations of any of the women?

LP: Not really.

TT: Whilst it is too simplistic to say that Henry wanted his first marriage annulled so he could marry Anne Boleyn, whereas much of his motivation was to have a male heir, why do you think he was so obsessed about that heir being his son?  He could have trained up a suitable husband for his daughter, Mary, or nominated his nephew, James V.

LP: He could indeed but his ego wouldn’t let him.  I pointed out in the session when Lucy introduced the series at Hampton Court that Henry had a perfectly good male heir between 1512, when James V was born, and 1542, when James died.  After the Scottish defeat at Flodden Henry even considered kidnapping James and bringing him to England.  He refers to the possibility of James inheriting in corrspondence with his sister, Margaret, James V's mother.  But he would never openly acknowledge James V as his heir.  His relationship with Margaret was difficult and the idea of the Stewarts ruling all of the British Isles should he die stuck in his craw, I think.  As far as Mary was concerned, he feared that she would marry into a European royal family (as indeed she did) and that England might effectively become a satellite of another kingdom.  Also she was a woman, the only precedent, the Empress Matilda, had led to civil war in the twelfth century and Henry did not believe, like almost all men at the time, that women were fit to rule.

TT: 21st century interpretations of history often try to draw parallels between past eras and our own. Do you think this is the right way to look at history?  Do you think any parallel can realistically be drawn between the lives of the Six Wives and current events?

LP:  It is very fashionable to draw these kinds of parallels and I sometimes think that historians believe they have to do this in order to ‘sell’ history as interesting.  But if people in the past were ‘just like us’ (albeit in fancy dress) why would they be interesting?  This is something that I personally have never understood and I think it belittles our heritage.  People in the past were not like us, apart from the obvious human emotions that they shared, though even these were often expressed differently.  Early modern people, which is what the Tudors were, lived in a world we would find unrecognizable.  What politician nowadays is willing to gamble his or her life for personal advancement?  Modern secular western society would mystify and appal people in Tudor England.  I don’t actually see any parallel between the lives of the Six Wives and current events.  An entire industry has built up around seeing Anne Boleyn as ‘empowered’.  I just don’t buy it.  You can tell how ‘empowered’ she was by the manner of her fall and her complete inability to prevent it.  Her terror in her final days is something we can understand but it underlines how precarious her situation really was.  Lucy explains why Anne appeals to modern audiences and notes that ‘she seems like one of us.’  This leaves the viewer to make up their own mind.

TT: Whilst re-enactment is popular with many history programmes at the moment, the BBC has done this in a very different way from other channels. What do you think are the strong points about the method used – interpolating Dr Worsley as an observer, but not as a character.

LP:  I think its great strength is that it largely respects historical accuracy but puts it across in a way that people can understand and enjoy.  The language is modern but does not patronise the viewer.  Chloe Moss, the writer, did a splendid job with a mass of material.  The quality of the acting is also very high and Lucy’s interpolations are done with all her usual enthusiasm, which draws the viewer in.

TT: Did you have any temptation to dress up yourself? 

LP: Absolutely not.

TT: You have written a biography on Katherine Parr. Would you have any interest in writing about any of the other Wives – do you think there is anything new to say about them?

LP: There will always be new ways of looking at the past but I think it would be something of a relief if the wives were given a bit of a rest for a while, to be honest.  There was more to the sixteenth century than Henry VIII’s wives and our rosy view of Elizabeth I.  Having said that, I think that Anne of Cleves awaits a scholarly but accessible biography.  My German isn’t really good enough to undertake it, however.

TT: Your latest work, Royal Renegades: The Children of Charles I and the English Civil Wars, is about events a hundred years after the Six Wives. Did Henry’s use of Parliament to get his way over the annulment and the marriage to Anne Boleyn sow the seeds of Parliamentary power, which eventually toppled the monarchy?

LP:  Perhaps, but only indirectly.  It’s true that Henry used Parliament to legitimise his second marriage and the subsequent break from Rome but parliaments in Tudor times mostly did what the monarch told them to do.  It was a slowly evolving process and by the time of Charles I’s reign, when Parliament really began to flex its muscles, new ideas had come out of the Reformation on obedience and liberty which opened up the constitutional debate.  Charles I found that he could no longer simply ask his subjects for money and be confident that they would oblige without asking for something in return.