'The Tudors' Battles with the Truth

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Did John Adams actually defend the Brits? Test your knowledge of historical vs. TV fact in this pop quiz.

A portrait of King Henry VIII markedly differs in appearance with Showtime actor Jonathan Rhys Meyer

The real King Henry VIII, depicted here by Hans Holbein the Younger in 1536, had red hair, a beard and got pretty hefty in his later years. Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who plays Henry in Showtime's The Tudors, has brown hair and the body of a GQ model. The Gallery Collection/Corbis, Courtesy of Showtime hide caption

itoggle caption The Gallery Collection/Corbis, Courtesy of Showtime

The second season of Showtime's The Tudors kicks off Sunday night. The show joins Rome and John Adams in a string of TV programs dramatizing important chapters in history. The lack of accuracy, however, is driving some history buffs crazy.

In the first season of The Tudors, King Henry VIII, played by the strapping young Jonathan Rhys Meyers, marries off his sister Margaret to the King of Portugal. In real life, the king had two sisters, not one, says Retha Warnicke, author of a book on family politics at Henry VIII's court. Warnicke notes that there are plenty of other infuriating jousts to reality.

Does it really matter? Showtime, well aware of its deviations from fact, thinks not.

"My first duty is to write a show that's entertaining. I wasn't commissioned by Showtime to write a historical documentary," says Michael Hirst, the show's writer. "We didn't bother to put Johnny, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, in a red wig and make him fat and put a beard on just because then we'd say, 'Oh, look that's Henry VIII!' We wanted to get closer to the spirit of the thing, to a kind of reality."

TV History Pop Quiz

How do the events and people in The Tudors, Rome and John Adams compare with the facts?

  1. In Showtime's The Tudors, Henry VIII is played by the strapping actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers of Mission Impossible fame. TRUE or FALSE: This is a gross misrepresentation because Henry was actually so huge throughout his life that he struggled to walk.

    FALSE: Later in life, the king grew seriously portly, but as a young man he was athletic and lean. In particular, he was a great jouster and tennis player (a bit like Meyers in Match Point).

    SOURCE: Who's Who in British History

  2. In The Tudors, Henry VIII tries to drop his first wife to marry Anne Boleyn. TRUE or FALSE: The real Henry VIII split from the Catholic Church so he could pursue his romance with Boleyn.

    TRUE: The ultimate scandal of the 16th century came to a head when Henry split from Rome, creating the Church of England. The pope wouldn't allow a divorce, so the king ditched the Catholics -- and his first wife -- in favor of Anne Boleyn's powerful charms.

    SOURCE: Who's Who in British History

  3. Cleopatra becomes a character in HBO's series Rome after she is rescued from her brother's clutches in Alexandria. TRUE or FALSE: Cleopatra was held captive by her brother until Caesar's Roman forces came to her rescue.

    FALSE: Cleopatra was not only free, but she was also capably leading an army to win her throne back -- hardly the damsel in distress Rome would have you believe.

    SOURCE: Biography from Chambers Biographical Dictionary

  4. In an episode of Rome, the character of Octavia recites verses from Virgil's famous poem the Aeneid. TRUE or FALSE: Virgil's Aeneid was hugely popular in Rome in 49 B.C., the time when the episode took place.

    FALSE: While the Aeneid was indeed a big hit, Virgil didn't write the epic poem until around 20 years after Octavia would have read it.

    SOURCE: Encyclopedia Britannica

  5. In the HBO miniseries John Adams, the title character -- and founding father -- acts as a defense attorney to the British soldiers who killed five American men in the Boston Massacre of 1770. TRUE or FALSE: John Adams, a driving force for American independence, defended the British at trial.

    TRUE: John Adams defended the accused Brits with gusto. But HBO has all men walking free after the trial. In reality, two were convicted of murder and faced the death penalty. They were able to escape execution, however, after invoking an obscure loophole that provided literate men with a get-out-of-jail-free card.

    SOURCE: Encyclopedia Britannica, Columbia Encyclopedia, Boston Massacre Historical Society

 

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