Yeah, that’s right. The king (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) commands you to return your library materials. Sticky note found on library DVD cover.
You wouldn’t expect to get important civics lessons on democracy from a long dead, absolute monarch like Henry VIII and yet that’s what four seasons of The Tudors have underlined for me. With your indulgence, gentle friends, here’s what I’ve learned from the saga of Bluff King Hal and his six wives:
- The importance of a merit system for the promotion and advancement of government officials or uneasy lie the heads that pander to the crown. One of the overwhelming take-aways from the series is the number of yes-men that Henry surrounded himself with. The surest way to rise was to cater to the king and, as the series opens, we see Henry loading titles and riches onto guys whose only accomplishment is being the king’s buddy. You might think that being the king’s BFF would set you up for life, but Henry was mercurial and more than one high-ranking courtier loses his rank, his liberty, and often his head. With such a wealth of instructive examples stuck on spikes on the Tower Wall, any noble with an ounce of sense should have stayed away, but without a merit system of appointment, the king’s favor is the only way to get close to the center of power. Lack of a professional civil service and a clear cut chain of command cripples the state as illustrated when Henry is knocked unconscious during a joust and the whole government comes to a halt.
- The (major league) importance of the separation of church and state. Henry divides his realm by insisting that personal religious belief and patriotism (loyalty to the crown) are one and the same thing. The intrusion of the church into politics and the intrusion of the state into people’s private lives leads to widespread suffering, civil unrest, and persecution.
- The importance of a system of checks and balances. Corrupt as it was, the power of the Catholic Church served as a counterweight to the power of the king. Once the power of the Catholic Church in England is broken, there is no way to check his excesses. The king’s decisions are simply rubber stamped by his Privy Council (Cabinet) and the Parliament. The end result is that there is no real rule of law. The law is simply whatever the king decides to be written or re-written and is driven by his moods and his own political considerations.
- The importance of equality for women. This series has made me re-evaluate the character of Anne Boelyn who is generally known to history as just another one of King Henry’s mistresses. Historically, even Thomas Cromwell, her political rival, described her as smart, spirited, and courageous. Yet as queen, the most powerful woman in the kingdom, Anne’s only role as far as Henry is concerned is to bear him a son and wave from the balcony. To the high spirited, intellectual Anne that must have been unbearably constraining. Had Henry spent as much time confirming his daughters to the succession instead of chasing a male heir, he could have spared himself a lot of heartbreak and his people a lot of suffering. True, England hadn’t had a female ruler since the Empress Matilda and, in fairness to Henry, he was attempting to advert another civil war, but the irony of the situation is that the British people wind up accepting the rule of his daughter, Elizabeth I, who reigns over them for 40 golden years.
- The importance of civil rights (right to peaceably assemble, right to petition government for redress of grievances, freedom of the press, etc.). When people in the North of England rise up to protest the dissolution of the de facto social service agencies in the areas (the monasteries), Henry immediately classifies them as traitors and ruthlessly supresses them. The Northerners don’t hate the king and they don’t want to de-throne him, but English commoners have no real voice in government and no legitimate way to halt policies that are doing them harm.
- The importance of the media (plays and the printing press in Tudor England) in talking about the issues of the time. Although it is only given a couple of off-hand references, one shouldn’t underestimate the role of the new technologies (e.g. plays and the printing press) in spreading new ideas and reinforcing government policy. Government-sponsored dramatic works were an easy way to communicate with a populace that still had a strong oral tradition. The other advantage of plays was that they operated on a more emotional, less intellectual basis. The printing press enabled books and pamphlets to be turned out more quickly and in greater quantities. That meant, for example, that sufficiently educated people could now read the Bible in their own language and draw their own conclusions about the text.
- The importance of the rule of by, of, and for the common people. Was there ever a group that felt more entitled than Henry and his nobles? And were there ever a people so hard done by as the British under his rule? Throughout the series, we see commoners suffering greatly from lack of care, lack of justice, and just a general lack of competent governance while Henry and the rest of the Tudor aristocracy simply don’t give two finger snaps.
So, if you are feeling down in the dumps about our democracy, go ahead and watch The Tudors. I guarantee you’ll be appreciating your basic freedoms a whole lot more–and ready to raise a rebellion against the monarchy–by the end.