With the announcement of The Spanish Princess coming to Starz and the trailer for it, I’ve found myself in a history nerd bubble. It had me thinking about my definitive picks for the best depiction of the main Tudor ladies. This is a post that has been in my mind for ages, and I decided I wanted to share it. This may be a post for only seven history nerds out there, but you know what—let’s have a post for those people. I have not seen every adaptation of this period so let me know your own opinions down below!
I picked each lady them based on a) how good their performance was at displaying the nuances of their historical counterpart and b) how closely they resemble that person. I didn’t go through the ladies of The War of the Roses or Henry’s sisters because it would be like trying to find gold in turds and I didn’t have the energy for that.
Katherine of Aragon:
Annette Crosbie (The Six Wives of Henry VIII):
Of all the performances I’ve seen, Annette Crosbie comes the closest to encapsulating everything that is awesome about Katherine of Aragon. Her quiet dignity, her strength in the face of adversity, and the flirty nature that made her one of the most beautiful women in England. This production does a good job of aging Katherine with dignity and not just defaulting to making her seem frumpy. Annette Crosbie also did a great turn as Queen Victoria in Edward the VIIth.
Maria Doyle-Kennedy (The Tudors)
The beginning of my praise for The Tudors, I have to say I will always love that show for giving me Maria Doyle-Kennedy and her portrayal of KoA. Even though it only tackles The Great Matter era of Katherine, Kennedy is so beautiful and graceful as Katherine. I think the actress was able to bring a lot of passion and quiet rage to the role. She does so much with her eyes and tone. Kennedy feels like a queen and it was a great experience having her as my first Katherine.
Geneviève Bujold (Anne of the Thousand Days)
Since I first saw Geneviève Bujold in Anne of the Thousand Days no woman, not even Natalie Dormer, has been able to show such a nuanced portrayal of Anne Boleyn, the tragic second queen of Henry VIII. Bujold sells you on the independent woman who stood her ground against the most powerful man on her country in order to secure her own place in the world. She is all the fire, anger, and emotion that you think of when you think of Anne Boleyn, but without the weird trope-y “madness” they tend to give her.
Dorothy Tutin (The Six Wives of Henry VIII)
Tutin is the perfect Anne Bolyen. Smart, bold, a political savant, and with those dark eyes and the subtle sense of superiority, this is a nearly perfect performance. The only thing I knock points off for is that we don’t spend enough time with her in the early years. Still, if you could find a copy of The Six Wives of Henry VIII, it is worth it just to watch the trial scene where she slowly eviscerates the men trying to accuse her of incest and making the king a cuckold. Tutin holds her own, and while her performance isn’t as well-known, she is a fantastic Anne.
Kate Phillips (Wolf Hall)
Portraying Jane Seymour is a thankless position in Tudor-dom, as it largely is with playing any of the later wives. There is very little known about Jane, since she left few letters behind, and before catching the eye of the king she was largely of little consequence.
Her death so soon after the birth of her son, Edward VI, also cemented her legacy as the wife who finally gave Henry VIII a son, but little else. Yet Phillips’ performance of Jane in Wolf Hall doesn’t reduce her to a boring milk-maid or turn her into an overly cunning person. Phillips’ Jane is a sweet girl with a little bit of snark and humor, who plays well off Cromwell. When it does come time for Jane to rise up in status, she does so with the skill of someone who has seen two queens rise and fall. Jane was an expert in topping from the bottom.
Anne of Cleves:
Elvi Hale (The Six Wives of Henry VIII)
Poor Anne of Cleves is usually one of the most screwed-over in depictions besides Jane Seymour. She doesn’t have the sexual drama of Katherine Howard, nor the political drama of Katherine Parr. Thankfully Elvi Hale gets to show the shrewd nature of Anne of Cleves. The fourth wife of Henry VIII, she was the victim of some culture shock when it came to Henry attempting to surprise kiss her under the guize of being an actor. Anne did not respond well. Henry would later go on to blame his lack of intimacy with Anne on her looks, smell and manners. When if you look at Anne’s portrait and history she is clearly not ugly, she just wasn’t raised in the upper case r, Romantic arts the way ladies in say France or England were.
Hale shows Anne as a survivor who managed to leave her marriage with Henry with a comfortable settlement, cozy access to political power as “the King’s Sister,” and she managed to eventually outlive all of Henry’s wives. Hale is charming, funny, loud and most of all, portrayed as a woman in danger. She is one of the few characters in this tale who figured out how to leave Henry’s thrall in a better place than she began, and I’m glad one adaptation showed that without having Henry/Anne sleep together later on (looking at you The Tudors).
Lynne Frederick (Henry VIII and His Six Wives (1972)):
Katherine Howard has very few good, nuanced incarnations. Most people just go full “she was a slut” and others go “she was mostly a slut” but not many actually showcase her youth. Howard was around 16 years old when she married the 49 years old Henry VIII, which is why getting eighteen-year-old Lynne Frederick to play the fallen “Rose without a Thorn” was such a strong choice.
This adaptation shows how Howard was planted in front of the King by her male family members for political gain. Frederick looks small and vulnerable next to Henry while allowing her a certain amount of dignity. She isn’t playing in the mud, swinging naked, or dealing with any of the hyper-sexualized infantilization that often happens to Howard. It’s one of the few really nuanced performances in a production that really doesn’t improve upon existing formulas.
Joely Richardson (The Tudors)
Joely Richardson’s Katherine Parr is a stand out because her political faith still plays a huge role in her storylines. It’s easy to put Parr into a box where she is just a mother and caregiver, but she was a political animal and one of the first female authors in England. Richardson does a great job of taking on the role of 6th wife, much as Parr did, with putting all into a role that could be seen as a throwaway, but ended up being super important. The last season of The Tudors and really everything post-season 3 was a bit of a slow drip, but Richardson was one of my favorite parts and I’m always happy to see an underserved queen get to tell her own story.
Sarah Bolger (The Tudors):
Yes, Natalie Dormer is one of the standouts from The Tudors, but Sarah Bolger to me delivers an equally rememberable performance as Mary Tudor in the show. It is one of the few adaptations that takes the time to show the trauma and loss that Mary I went through growing up—experiences that would turn her into the historical villain we know today. Bolger allows Mary to be prideful, sensitive, innocent, and bloodthirsty. When Elizabeth I is usually the role you want, Bolger made a generation of people see Mary in a more complex light.
Daphne Slater (Elizabeth R):
Elizabeth R is a great mini-series and it starts off strong, with Daphne Slater showing the zealot side of Mary I. Continuing the trend of excellent casting, Slater looks the way you envision Mary I, with reddish hair, as she slowly succumbs to the insecurity, trauma, and paranoia that has plagued her life. It’s a great performance that is emotionally nuanced when it could have just been cartoonish.
Glenda Jackson (Elizabeth R):
Yeah, yeah, I know it’s blasphemy, but Glenda Jackson is Elizabeth I: everything about the performance is perfect, and if you haven’t seen the miniseries Elizabeth R then you are missing out. Jackson is excellent as Queen Bess and she remains, to me, unmatched.
Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth):
But that doesn’t mean I think Blanchett is anything to sleep on. There is a reason people believed she was robbed of that Oscar, and it is true. Blanchett embodies the role in a really magnetic way. I do think that this adaptation is a little to reverent towards Elizabeth, but it does its best to strike balance between the queen and person.
Who are your favorite Tudor women onscreen?
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