I’ve been watching The Tudors on Netflix lately. Despite its title, the focus is not on the whole period of the Tudor reign in England, but describes mainly the life of Henry VIII. There are four seasons, with ten episodes each. It gets a bit long towards the end, but then again, there were quite significant events and changes under Henry VIII, and he had six wives, so there as lot of ground to cover.
Balanced and Nuanced
The series is written by Michael Hirst, who is English, which shows in my view, as it’s not one of the simplistic, Hollywood-esque black-and-white stories, with clearly marked villains and heroes. The characters are complex and balanced, with positive and negative traits, so at times you like the one or the other, only to dislike him or her in the next scene, again and again. I appreciate that. It gives depth to the story, in particular if you’re ready to put yourself into the shoes of the different persons, and try to imagine how you would have acted in their stead, considering the social structures and the believes of their time.
It’s also what I like with Game of Thrones, the books and the TV series, where not the “good” simply win and the “bad” lose, and more often than not the worse ones prevail. The two even aren’t even always clearly distinguishable, especially over time. The psycho Ramsay Bolton, who outwits the oh so honourable Jon Snow at the battle for Winterfell, because the latter does not listen to his sister Sansa, and is not strong enough to keep his cool when taunted. Or consider Qyburn, who probably isn’t viewed the most positive by many viewers, to put it mildly, but who, if you think about it, was also an early scientist, searching reason and proof in nature, going the extra step where others shied away, stuck in religious darkness, dogma, and believes.
To quote Qyburn: “Belief is so often the death of reason." Indeed. But I digress.
State and Church
One of the main story lines is, of course, the succession of Henry’s six wives. But for me, that’s not the most interesting, even though it makes for a catchy title for this post. Far more intriguing are the aspects of religion and church, the structure and processes of the country and kingdom, and society and human behaviour in general. While watching, I checked, from time to time, the persons, facts, and events as presented in the movie, and they match the documented history.
For context, we must put ourselves into the first half of the 16th century, that is, before the age of enlightenment, reason, and science, and during the Lutheran reformation. In western Europe, the Catholic church still was above the kings and monarchs, wielding an enormous power, being believed to be the representation of God on earth, and meddling with politics all over Europe. And of course meddling with the minds of all people, as Abrahamic religions do, keeping them in check, and under the control of the church. The wrath of God for the “sinners”, and heaven and paradise for the believers, or better yet, martyrs. And of course the possibility of atonement and absolution for the sinners. A successful toolbox to this day.
For Henry, the Lutheran reformation was a welcome means to gain control of the English church, in order to annul his marriage with Catherine of Aragon, but also to raid and destroy churches and monasteries to claim their considerable wealth. Later, he more or less returned to a Catholic stance, though still cloaked as head of the Church of England, and burned adversaries as reformist “heretics” at the stake. Absolute monarchy, and thus absolute power.
The series demonstrates how dangerous it is to have too much power at the whim of one person, and how futile it can be to try to fulfil his or her each and every wish, to want to be “good friends” by all means, not to dare to think critically, or at least not to speak up. The Boleyn family thought they were set for life – until the Seymours became the powerful family du jour, and the former were beheaded (Anne) or incarcerated and left with nothing. On a whim. The king wanted a new wife.
Still far away from a modern state with clear separation of the three powers, that is, a tripartite system as defined by Montesquieu in the middle of the 18th century, England nonetheless had implemented first steps in that direction. There was a parliament (legislative) and a system of legal courts (judiciary). The king and his ministers acted as executive branch – with the king having, and exerting, absolute power. He wanting a specific law, benefiting himself, he orders the parliament to pass it. He wanting an adversary sentenced by the courts, he ordered them accordingly.
It’s impossible not to see parallels to the current days. Trump probably naively thought he still would have these kind of powers. Imagine if he actually did, allowing him to fully act out his unstable, egomaniac personality of a spoilt seven-year old brat, with the corresponding attention span and interest for the world, without any checks and balances of a democratic system in place! We can only hope that these constitutional limits will be imposed on him the more he behaves as if the US were his medieval kingdom.
Continuous Conflict Resolution
This TV series, and today’s reality, serve as a strong reminder that any democracy, structured as a republic, with separation of powers, and confining religion to be a personal matter and not a constitutional force, is better than absolute monarchies, even with all its imperfections. Which often aren’t really imperfections anyway, but the result of trying to resolve conflicts and different views by dialogue and compromise, in lieu of violence and suppression, based on free speech and mutual respect, and the fact that these conflicts and different views will never disappear anyway, as they are inherently human, and therefore intrinsic to the societies.
Middle Ages Live On
It’s not surprising that Trump admires today’s absolute monarchies, such as Saudi Arabia, or monarchy-like countries, like Russia. Saudi Arabia beheads more people than the so-called “Islamic State”, including for “crimes” such as apostasy, adultery, or sorcery and witchcraft.
Yes, apostasy, sorcery, witchcraft. I guess we haven’t left the middle ages behind us for good.