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Top TV and film portrayals of Henry VIII

Henry VIII is one of the most popular historical figures to feature in television drama and movies. It’s easy to understand when you consider that Henry lived a life unlike practically no one else in history. He had over 50 palaces, the largest tapestry collection in the world, 70 ships at his disposal, over 200 musical instruments and 6,500 guns. But despite the popularity, not every actor and filmmaker that has stepped up to take on the challenge of Henry the VIII has delivered.

Here are some of the more notable performances:

The Tudors

Considered the most popular version of Henry the VIII storytelling in the modern era, The Tudors television show ran for four seasons, ending in 2010. Jonathan Rhys Meyers, an actor known for his ability to throw himself into a character, ended up winning an Emmy for his portrayal of Henry. The show covered much of Henry’s life, including his energetic youth, his romance with Anne Boleyn, and the injury that ultimately led to the decline in his health and physical stature.

The Other Boleyn Girl

Focusing on the story of Anne Boleyn and her sister Mary (Henry’s original mistress), this 2008 movie doesn’t give Henry VIII (played by Eric Bana) as much screen time as other adaptations, however, the film offered a unique look at the famous story.

Jared Harris also played Henry VIII in a 2003 TV adaptation of the novel by Philippa Gregory.

Henry VIII

Henry VIII, a two-part movie filmed for the BBC starred Ray Winstone. This focused on Henry and all six of his wives, ignoring his earlier years, and ending with the culmination of his reign as king. It is one of the higher rated television portrayals of the character.

A Man For All Seasons

The film’s story is set between 1529 and 1535, at the high point of the reign of Henry VIII of England. The film and play both depict the final years of Sir Thomas More, the 16th-century Lord Chancellor of England who refused to sign a letter asking Pope Clement VII to annul King Henry VIII of England’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon and resigned rather than take an Oath of Supremacy declaring Henry VIII Supreme Head of the Church of England. Both the play and the film portray More as a tragic hero, motivated by his devout Roman Catholic faith and envied by rivals, such as Thomas Cromwell.

Robert Shaw played a hearty Henry in the 1966 film and brought this version a more menacing quality than some of the other versions on the list.

Wolf Hall

The 2015 BBC six-part series was an adaptation of two of Hilary Mantel’s novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, a fictionalised biography documenting the rapid rise to power of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII through to the death of Sir Thomas More.

Damien Lewis played this Henry as an almost manic ruler who one minute is all smiles and laughter, the next he is threatening to have you executed.

Carry on Henry

Sid James played Henry VIII in the 1971 comedy film. As usual with the Carry On films it was not going to be historically accurate, but James did bring the womanising, carousing caricature of the King with his performance.

The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and Young Bess (1953)

Charles Laughton played Henry Tudor in both films and won the Best Actor Oscar for The Private Life of Henry VIII. It is probably the version that brought the version of Henry that many of us have – overseeing a banquet, leering at the ladies, quaffing ale, all while chewing on a drumstick.

There are many more portrayals of Henry VIII, but which is your favourite?

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One Comment

  1. I’ve seen a few of these on this list, and what I still can’t figure out is why none of them can just stick to the facts and stop trying to embellish the lives of people whose lives were already exciting enough.

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