Warning: This post contains some mature themes in it. Although I have tried to discuss them tastefully, there's no way to take them out of this story - it's Henry the Eighth, after all.
It's been said that there are three things that one should not talk about at a party - sex, politics, and religion. The story of Henry the Eighth is, at once, about all of these things - a story that began as being about marriage and intimacy, but ended up as a story about state religion and world geopolitics. It changed England from a Catholic country to a Protestant country, and had massive repercussions for generations to come.
King Henry the Eighth
But first, a few warnings about the nature of the content, for people who are not familiar with the basics of this story, and how it plays out: In brief, King Henry the Eighth of England was married six times (as the title implies); because he had trouble producing a male heir, and somehow managed to blame his queens for his misfortunes here. He ended his relationships with no less than four of them in any number of ways, ranging from divorce to annulment to murder. He was not the first king in history to be wantonly promiscuous, or even the first to do so when he was already married; but his hyper-sexuality is front-and-center in this story because of his unusual habit of ending his marriages in ways that incurred the disapproval of the church (not to mention others). His first terminated marriage - which was a divorce - resulted in his excommunication from the Catholic Church; and led to his forming his own church (the "Church of England") in competition with the Pope. This stance was even more controversial in his own time than it is now; and put him squarely on the Protestant side in the major conflicts of the era over religion.
Jane Seymour, Henry the Eighth's third wife
For this reason, the story has always had more than its share of sex and sex scandal, since his romances with many of his wives (such as Anne Boleyn) began while he was already married to the woman's predecessor in the job; and in the case of Anne Boleyn, his relationship with her was consummated long before it ever got to the altar (and we have specific dates on this to confirm it). The visibility of the royal family made it so that most of these things were a bit on the public side, I should note here; which is undoubtedly one of the causes of the scandals that were inevitably attached to it, and which irreparably alienated many Catholics inside (and outside) England. If you'd prefer not to have such behavior described in your front living room, you may want to avoid this program, particularly if you have young children living at home who you'd rather not have seeing such things. But if you've got a reasonably strong stomach for well-documented historical facts (which are discussed as tastefully as the subject matter will allow), you may find an interesting story in this most famous soap opera in history; which had consequences far beyond the lives of the individuals involved in this story.
David Starkey, the presenter of this series
The presenter David Starkey is a true scholar of the Tudor dynasty, I should note here, who did his dissertation on these very events in the household of Henry the Eighth, and who probably knows as much as any man alive about the details of this story that have survived (although some, inevitably, have been lost). The focus in this story is on the wives - no less than six of them, as noted earlier - but one learns a lot about Henry the Eighth by learning about the women he was married to, and this series especially focuses on the marriages themselves; the most significant portion of these women's lives for the broader history of the world. (I should note here, though, that other things are covered to a lesser extent in the detail needed, which help you to know something of the background of the main characters, and how it came into play as these events unfolded.)
In watching this series, one is often struck by the remarkable coldness of both Anne Boleyn and of Henry the Eighth himself; and their relationship was undoubtedly the most significant for the broader history of the country, because it required the then-unheard-of divorce that set all of these other events in motion, and which led to England's near-irreversible transformation from a Catholic country into a Protestant (and even anti-Catholic) country; although one that has since respected religious freedom in a way that it never did then, under either the Catholic or Protestant regimes - religious freedom being something of a modern invention, I should note here; which was entirely alien to the two sides in this story. The extent to which people could be persecuted (and even murdered) for their religious convictions is something that is equally alien to the Western nations of today; although it would be entirely normal and expected in the Islamic world, where religious bigotry and intolerance continue.
Henry the Eighth
The absence of a separation between church and state at this time is part of why the king's religion was such a big deal then - people of the king's religion could be given special privileges at this time, and people of the other religion could be tortured or even burned at the stake at the king's whim or fancy - things which happened with astonishing frequency at this time, and which seems to have known few - if any - distinctions of faith or partisanship. (Sorry, Catholics and Protestants - nothing at all against you or your religions, which I respect and admire greatly for the good they do in the world.) Thus, the conversion of a king to the new Protestant religion was an earth-shattering event at this time, which rocked the religious world of Europe to an extent nothing else has since the dawn of Christianity itself - the only event that would seem to compare, in my opinion, to the otherwise-unparalleled ripple effects from the conversion of Henry the Eighth to Protestantism (albeit a form of that religion very different from the ones prevalent in Europe at that time and since).
Catherine of Aragon, Henry the Eighth's first wife
It is for these reasons that this soap opera has captured the imagination of so many (then and now), as people on both sides of the great partisan divide between the Christians try to make sense of the legacy of what happened in this comparatively small handful of individuals, inside and outside the royal bedroom. Each one of the six wives covered here is a remarkable individual (although not always sympathetic, depending on which one you're talking about), whose life makes for a great story - worthy of being told in its own right. Nonetheless, it is the consequences for the religious history of Europe that keep people coming back for more of this story; and which hold their fascination regardless of their attitudes toward sex, marriage, or Christianity. You may not like the main characters, but you'd be hard-pressed to find people more interesting, or who were more influential on the history of the world.
Whether you're interested in religious geopolitics or just want a good soap opera, I would highly recommend this program to a great many people; although I reiterate my warnings about the sexual themes that are only too necessarily a part of this story.
DVD at Amazon (United States & Canada DVD format)
Also available as part of the David Starkey Collection (European-format DVD)
If you liked this post, you might also like:
David Starkey's "Elizabeth"
David Starkey's "Monarchy"