“Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.”
“Secrets of the Six Wives,” a new HBO historical documentary series, begins with this schoolyard rhyme that helps remember the fates of the six wives of Henry VIII. The premiere episode, “Divorced,” gives an account of the first action Henry VIII takes once crowned: marrying his late brother’s Spanish widow, Catherine of Aragon, born to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. The show alternates between documentary narration by historian Dr. Lucy Worsley and dramatic reenactments of scenes from the Tudor Court, often based on eyewitness accounts. While Worsley herself is a captivating storyteller, the style and format of the show often pull focus from the actual content.
“This is the ultimate true story of love, loss and betrayal,” Worsley begins, her tale chronicling the anything but meet-cute of Catherine and Henry VIII. She details their relationship’s arc from start to finish, talking about the seven years it took to nail down a marriage contract and incorporating the successive relationships between the king, the “vivacious” Mary Boleyn and then, more famously, her sister Anne. She frames Catherine’s appeal to the Pope during Henry’s battle for the annulment as an act of brave defiance.
The historical reenactment is slowly paced, with lots of smoldering glances from the king and concerned facial expressions from all the ladies-in-waiting surrounding the various queens. Worsley herself is dressed as a maid or lady-in-waiting, in the background of several of the dramatic reenactments before turning to address the audience directly after a scene. Much of the dialogue is cringe-worthy, especially the parts surrounding pregnancy.
“Secrets of the Six Wives” breaks the norm of how this story is usually told: Instead of focusing on the whims and tantrums of Henry VIII, the show attempts to tell the story from the perspectives of the women unlucky enough to be pulled into his orbit. Worsley’s narration is succinct and insightful; she offers well-thought-out interpretations of interactions and events, especially surrounding Catherine of Aragon’s false or phantom pregnancy, the truth of which is still up for debate. She also offers insight into aspects of 16th century England that tie into current day, talking in front of palaces and often using paintings of the six wives as props in her storytelling. However, the switching between dramatic reenactments — which are mostly uncomfortable anyway — and documentary narration is jarring and annoying. I’d rather watch an actual documentary or a fictionalized T.V. show based on historical events.
While the subject matter is interesting — and the title of the series is perfect — the format reminds me of the documentary clips that history teachers used in middle school. The six wives deserve to have their stories told with a fresh voice and a sharp eye, to escape the largely skewed perceptions of them that have been handed down and embellished through the centuries. But this isn’t it.