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?
I saw this for the first time as a teenager in the 1970s — knowing almost nothing about the Tudor era, except that Henry had six wives — and was totally mesmerized by the story. I didn’t appreciate the costuming until much later, when I became a Tudor geek. Overlook the polyester and Joann Fabrics trim, it’s wonderful.
I saw some of the costumes on exhibit in the early 70s. Hardware-store findings! Glued-on (and in some cases falling-off) glass jewels! Dime-store trim! The one that impressed me the most was an underskirt whose elaborate brocade was concocted by dribbling amber-colored epoxy (?) impressionistically onto a cream-colored surface.
Wow! All those little theatrical tricks looked great for the time :)
I remember Janet Arnold telling us about the theatrical tricks that were used in this series. They included painting the fabric so it looked richer, combining various bodices and skirts for variety, and (my favorite) using drops of glue as “pearls” on trim. Obviously, they had a much bigger costume budget in Elizabeth R. Still one of the best costume dramas ever done. The fact that we can see the actual portraits and period-appropriate artwork that was referenced in the series is proof of the research the costume shop did.
I loved these programs! This one, Elizabeth R and I, Claudius!
Gateway drug is right! Lifetime love of English history.
Yes I adored this from episode 1, and still have it on DVD! I went to see the costume exhibition too, and it was AMAZING. The glued on pearls and trims were so tatty close up, but looked great from a short distance…I seem to remember Ann Boleyn’s necklace being made from loo chain? It’s what led me to a passion for theatrical work
I actually saw one of Henry’s costumes from this series at the weekend, in an exhibition in York! It was mostly costumes from Wolf Hall, but with a few others added, including one from The Tudors. That was very . . . shiny.
So THAT’s what a gable hood likes like from behind!
I will say, I was made to watch this at some point or other in college (English major, ftw!) and I think this might be one of the only treatments of this saga made me actually like Anne Boleyn, despite my general personal conclusions that is one of English history’s greatest villains, who gets hoisted by her own petard.
Having said that, Annette Crosbie!!! Swoon.
This also had a somewhat wan portrayal of Catherine Parr, who is one of my personal favorite historical heroines.
Watched this back when I was a teen too, when we first got TV in black and white. My S/O once found me two VHS tapes in a sale which I must have watched but I don’t think I have seen the full series in colour as yet. Reasonably sure I do have it in my collection however. Might watch that next.
There was also a movie made after the series which basically condensed it into about an hour. It also starred Keith Mitchell but any of the wives were played by different actors. I think I still have the VHS of that as well.
40-odd years, and many productions, later, and I still find this one the most Tudoresque, Keith Michell the best Henry, the scripts intelligent, and the queens very well cast. Also, Mary Tudor’s wearing her mother’s dress makes sense to me. Those court gowns were very expensive, as well as time-consuming to sew; I seem to remember something about Katharine Parr’s inheriting a pair of sleeves (jewel-encrusted, etc.) that had belonged to Katherine Howard. They were literal treasures, those outfits.
P.S. As for all that green, green was the Tudor color. And in medieval times, at least, green, not red, symbolized true love.
Gateway drug is right, as this and Elizabeth R got me into history, especially the Tudors.
I do have a quibble though, about the gabled headdresses, in that their proportions are wrong. If you compare them to the portraits, they’re too tall, with too much of the weight toward the top. And there’s far too much hair showing, particularly on Jane. They have the effect of a birdhouse perched on top of the head, when they should be a frame for the face.
Most historical costume dramas aren’t accurate, although the designer will think so at the time. They always reflect the decade they were made in. Including colour and fabric and cut.
Gateway drug, you got it right there! Going to see the touring exhibition of the costumes around 1974 aged 9-10, I was hooked and went home and made my biggest doll a “medieval” costume. Dolls for me were just my dressing up bitches, none of that playing stuff. You could draw on them which made it easier to drape a pattern!
If you look at the Ann of Cleeves stripy dress neckline you can see the brass cogs. That was what I took from it all – being from a country that had nothing to make things from and a strong DIY attitude. My first theatre costumes featured corduroy – with heavy lace curtaining used as a stencil for gold spray paint then we used the heavily painted lace for the sleeves, that kind of thing. Old narrow curtain tape drawn up and sprayed silver, using the newly exciting hot glue guns to make patterns on fabric then sprayed because the glue would shine against the fabric.
I guess that’s a combo of young inspiration, a DIY ethic, scarce resources and theatre where what reads on stage doesn’t always look so flash close up!
Why do they all look so much older than they’re supposed to?
Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon should age, since they were the only ones allowed to (and her episode covering decades), but the other wives were all so young compared to Henry.
Anne Boleyn might have been as young as 18 when Henry noticed her, but that’s not seen here… I really don’t see why they would cast a 40 year old to play a woman in her youth, who was killed at 29 (or 35 at the absolute oldest).
And Anne of Cleves, the poor girl was only a year older than Henry’s daughter Mary! She was only 25 when they married, but the actor was 39!
And the actress playing Katherine Howard might seem a bit younger, but she’s still a decade older than the age of the girl she’s portraying (she was 29, Katherine was in her late teens).
And Katherine Parr… I know she’s supposed to be a contrast to the younger Katherine Howard, but she was still only 31 when she married Henry, while her actress was 50!
I don’t know why they did this, is it to make Henry seem less creepy? To make it so no one would notice he was old enough to be the father of most of his wives?
Probably bec. they were choosing for the quality of actors. For example, Dorothy Tutin, who played Anne Boleyn, was already an acclaimed Shakespearean stage actress & member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, plus she’d starred in major TV dramas of the period, being nominated for a BAFTA (the UK’s equivalent of an Emmy).
In addition, the largest tv screens at the time we’re about 25″, so the detail regarding the actresses ages–as well as the more stage-oriented makeup and costuming conventions–was not as obvious during the original run.
That’s true take Elizabeth R and The 1972 War and Peace as Examples most actors in ER were mostly much older than their characters while in W&P while Anthony Hopkins was at a decent 35 for Pierre (compared to other actors who played the character before) Alan Dobie was 40 when his character begins with no more than 27 and worse Morag Hood gave a nuanced performance for a difficult character as Natasha is (I realized she was constantly disguising her voice) but was 29 for character who ages from 13 to 20 then jumps to 28
Actually I wonder why never occurs to no director to cast two actresses as Natasha since the character goes through such a big change
the average lifespan in Tudor times was 35, and they would have looked much much older than their years. in the 1960s age didn’t matter so much when casting, and the black and white small screen didn’t show the defects. Acting is make believe, it is about being able to play a character of different ages.. Mrs Patrick Campbell was 40 when she first played Eliza who is 18. Gertrude Lawrence was 52 playing Anna Leonowens in her 20s. Kenneth Moore and Eric Porter were 20 and 25 years older than their characters in the Forsyte Saga, did we care NO. because no one else could have bettered it. Using 2 actors and actresses when ageing never really works.
Good points about Natasha; also MoHub’s about television screen size. Tutin is a very fine actress, but even in the early ’70s she looked too old to play Anne Boleyn as a fresh young maid of honor. Someone her age, whatever her skills and experience, wouldn’t have a chance at Anne Boleyn these days–not with color and high-def. (I still think about Rooney Mara as Anne, but she’s 35 now; some producer had better move fast.)
I rented this from the library in the early 2000s as a teen and it has always been one of my go too favorites. I didn’t know much about costumes, but I felt each episode was wonderfully written. It still flavors some of my opinions about the queens which I’m finding vary in accuracy. For example, I believed Jane Seymour was kind and demure, Anne of Cleves got the best deal and was happy with her life in England, and Katherine Howard was not very bright. Keith Michell will always be THE Henry VIII to me. I liked that they weren’t afraid to make Henry unattractive and that the queens tended toward average looking. It made it far more real to me.
Thanks to Six Wives and Elizabeth I the Tudors were my childhood obsession. I even took up embroidery and was very sad I couldn’t find one of those big square frames.
Regarding some of your surmises and people’s comments. The series was an exercise as to make a major series as cheaply as possible hence John Bloomfield’s use of cheap fabrics and devising ways to make the costumes look expensive, and using bric-a-brac and ironmongery for jewel and spraying it with gold paint and glue. The episodes are colour coded, although most people saw it on a 24″ screen in black and white, but colours can be interpreted in b&w. Brown and grey for Catherine of Aragon, red and orange for the Boleyns and Howards and green for the Seymours. The series was filmed as were all series on videotape not film so the defects wouldn’t have shown, certainly the actors ages seemed believable, people seemed and looked much older in 1969. Only Jane Seymour had outside shots and was filmed on location, Broughton Castle, It wasn’t until Brideshead Revisited were tv series filmed on film and then a new style of acting was also created. The costumes were exhibited at the V&A and it was the first major exhibition in a major museum of TV or film costumes in the world. The queues were 2 hours long. It then toured the country and the world. Elizabeth R followed the same formula but with a huge costume budget in comparison.
I fell in love with Elvi Hale’s performance as Anne of Cleves wish I could watch more of her flicks but unhappily the only other things I saw of her was a quickly role in Upstairs, Downstairs and a charming performance she made as Lady Molly of Scotland Yard (created By Baroness Orczy the author of The Scarlet Pimpernel) in The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes maybe one day she would make a nice WCW