For my generation of historical costume fans, the 1970s BBC productions were the gateway drug. The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970) and Elizabeth R (1971), which followed it, along with the burgeoning renaissance faire movement across America, really cemented a deep and abiding love of all things 16th century in me. I’ve watched both series many times and written about Elizabeth R frequently on this site. Since Henry is on BritBox, I thought it’s only fair to give him and — even better — his wives their due.
First, the obligatory caveats for the youngsters reading: Yes, this was made and filmed in the 1970s, before you may have been born and way before HDTV. Yes, it’s stagey and theatrical, filmed all indoors on just a couple tight sets. Yes, the old-age makeup on Keith Michell as Henry gets older in the final episodes looks awful. Yes, the costumes are made out of cheap fabrics, ‘piped glue, and household washers‘ to create the effects of heavier, richer materials because the Beeb had a pathetic budget. Get over it! Sit back and let the history wash all over you!
Anyway, on to the costumes in The Six Wives of Henry VIII and it’s all about the wives themselves! The miniseries has six parts, with each 1.5-hour episode devoted to one wife and written by a different writer as, essentially, six separate one-act plays. The only through-line is Henry, played by Keith Michell, my favorite portrayal of the young, studly prince who is slowly weighed down — mentally and physically — by the power and duty of his office and his own poor choices and selfishness.
The first episode starts with Catherine of Aragon (Annette Crosbie) being introduced to Prince Arthur, whose one cough leads immediately to his death. Fast-forward 6 years, and Catherine is trying to get herself wed to Prince Henry, which takes half an episode of political wrangling. The costumes are early 1500s-ish, though Catherine’s hair (yes, it’s red, as it should be — Kendra went over that already!) is down the whole time, insert hair-down-means-young trope, UGH.
The pair marry, of course, and we get a lovely montage of Catherine and Henry as newlyweds. For the first 15 or so years of their marriage, they were happy in everything but the lack of living sons, and the two were well suited to each other, something often glossed over in TV and movie adaptions of the history.
The cracks show through when the story jumps forward a decade, and Anne Boleyn enters the picture, although she’s shown obliquely in this episode because it’s told mostly from Catherine’s point of view.
Catherine of Aragon only has about two costumes in these 1530s scenes, one with slashed sleeves that coordinates with Henry’s suit, and one with furred sleeves that she wears after he’s married Anne. The looks are sometimes changed up in scenes with partlets or by rearranging her headdress. Likewise, Henry wears the same suit, but cloaks and different hats are added for variety (this is how you work a budget well!).
Episode two begins with an almost fantasy montage of Anne Boleyn (Dorothy Tutin) and Henry making out, playing games, and getting cute with their newborn baby girl. Adding to the dream sequence feel is Anne’s princessy and not super historically accurate gown and terrible headband-fake-French-hood.
Luckily, that bit passes, and we’re deep into Henry and Anne’s volatile marriage, with musician Mark Smeaton introduced ASAP for adulterous foreshadowing. The king and queen are dressed sumptuously in coordinating red velvets and satins with touches of black, as if to symbolize their fiery relationship.
The first half of Anne’s story jumps between arguments with Henry and worried conversation with her brother, plus some scheming by Lady Rochford added in for good measure. During these scenes, Anne has one other outfit, a sort of Germanic outfit that she wears during a masque and at a tourney. It’s an odd choice, except that the exuberance of slashing nominally coordinates with Henry’s outfit in these scenes, and they do wear them in the same scenes.
When Anne’s imprisoned in the Tower, she gets another odd gown, a green brocade with puffed sleeves — again, not wholly an English style, could be Germanic or Italian. The dark green goes with color story of the second half of the episode, where Jane Seymour is briefly introduced in a green gown and then Henry adds a green surcote, specifically commenting on the color and its appeal to the ladies.
For her trial, Anne wears a red satin fitted gown over the green brocade, hearkening back to her original red as she claps back at her accusers. She’ll throw this touch of red over yet one more gown for her final scene. Anne is executed in a weirdly Victorian green gown with strapwork on the shoulders and a subtle stripe in the skirt. Not sure what’s up with that.
The third episode is framed as a flashback, starting with Jane Seymour (Anne Stallybrass) on her deathbed remembering how she met Henry when he first visited her house on progress.
When Jane goes to court at Henry’s request, she wears a bright green gown, probably the one briefly seen in episode two, just styled a little differently. During the first half of the episode, during Henry and Cromwell’s negotiations to end one marriage and pave the way for another, this is all Jane gets to wear.
Once she’s queen, Jane adds a pale, heavily jeweled gown and elaborate gable hood to her wardrobe. These flashbacks bounce between her placating the grumpy king, occasional religious uprisings (which Jane tries to have opinions about), and Jane bringing Mary Tudor to court for a father-daughter reunion.
It must be noted that in this episode, we really start to see Henry’s age. He’d be 45, which was a solid middle age in the 16th century, and while he was athletic as a young man, a rich diet and multiple unhealed leg injuries damaged his overall health. Anne Stallybrass was 12 years younger than Keith Michell, Jane was 17 years younger than Henry, and with Michell’s bulking up via costume and the aging makeup, they really look the parts.
By the fourth episode, Henry is looking pretty old. Cromwell pushes him into a political alliance with the Protestant Germans via a marriage to Anne of Cleves (Elvi Hale). She is introduced in Germany, where Holbein paints her “too flattering” portrait (and he’s portrayed as quite a flatterer).
Henry surprises Anne, to neither party’s pleasure, and their wedding night is unconsummated with an uneasy truce is made.
This queen is shown to be politically shrewd and committed to the advancement of Protestantism — Anne makes as many machinations as Henry’s council does. She really comes off as smarter than any of the other wives, and she ends up with the most reasonable deal of them all. They end as friends.
The fifth episode opens with young Katherine Howard (Angela Pleasence) gossiping about her youthful indiscretions, which will come back to ruin her. Then she’s placed in front of a rapidly aging and decrepit Henry by the Duke of Norfolk, for which she gets a fancy pale gown.
The wedding is not shown, just the wedding night, where the young bride flatters the king even though she’s rather horrified when she realizes the position she’s stuck in. She perks up a bit when she realizes her young lover has come to court, and she’s happy to appoint him as her private secretary. While that guy is occupied, Catherine strikes up an affair with one of the king’s courtiers (thus spending most of this episode in smocks and no further gowns). It all comes out, and she pays for her crimes with her life.
The final episode jumps right into pairing up a modest, mature Catherine Parr (Rosalie Crutchley) with Henry at the end of his life.
She’s the only wife we see in full coronation robes (Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn were only seen from the briefly from the chest up, so just a robe and crown).
For the rest of the episode, she wears a green doublet-style gown with a variety of hoods, and she alternately plays nursemaid to the king and gets into religious arguments with him.
Henry dies, and within hours Thomas Seymour proposes to Catherine, since they’d been connected before she was queen. It’s played here as less of a whirlwind romance than in, say, Young Bess (1953) and more of a political expedience. Thus, Henry’s last wife doesn’t get a particularly happy ending.
Have you seen the 1970 Six Wives of Henry VIII? Did it make an impression on you?