How can Reign be so generally historically inaccurate, and yet capture the spirit of political life for women during the Tudor period so well? The characters march around the castle in modern couture dresses, plotting to fight for the English throne using historically non-existent bastard sons as leverage while sickly Dauphins become dishy blond dreamboats, but every time Catherine de Medici and Mary Stuart are stuck in a room together, the fundamental realities of court politics come crashing into reality. Throughout, we’ve heard about the importance of marriage alliances as political tools — even if the marriages themselves never take place. Several weeks ago, we saw a blunt look at the dangers that siege and capture present to court women. And now we see how easily these women can be destroyed and even killed, on no evidence at all, when the men around them no longer find them convenient.
Anne Boleyn didn’t practice laying her head on the block, as the show claimed, but she was executed for nothing more than failing to produce a son, with trumped up charges of adultery, incest and witchcraft for justification. Catherine Howard did practice, and also did commit adultery, but she was a young teenager thrown into the King’s path by her ambitious family. And both English Queens show how tenuous a position it could be.
Of course, Catherine de Medici is a villain figure here, and a rather delicious one at that. But she’s also being painted as an understandable one. I love Mary’s character, but I even find myself sympathizing with Catherine over the latest political situation that’s been created. Mary might claim to be trying to help Francis live to see old age, but convincing his father to disinherit him and leaving him as a rival to the throne is only ensuring either his early demise, or Bash’s. Francis’ younger brother will become similarly vulnerable, and Catherine will go from Queen of France to a spare part that everyone will want to be rid of as soon as possible.
The drama here may be fictional, but the problems that Catherine discusses and faces were entirely real for any women involved in court politics. Her apparent inability to have a son would make her fear for her position or her life, after Catherine of Aragon was thrown aside and locked away (and, rumor had it, poisoned on her ex-husbands orders) and Anne Boleyn was beheaded for the same failing. Like many mothers of kings in this tumultuous period, she knows that she has to fight to protect even a legitimate son’s legacy (especially as the protestants attempted to usurp the English throne from the Catholic queen Mary only a few years before). If she’s idle, she could lose everything she cares about. But if she fights too hard, the King could decide she is too dangerous and have her removed. Rumors don’t need to be true to hold up in court. Letters can be forged. Other ambitious people at court, including other women (like Kenna in this situation), can lie to put her head on the block if they think they’ll gain from her downfall. Those who are willing to speak out and support her find themselves executed (or simply stabbed in the neck in the throne room) for that honesty. And once she’s caught up in all of this, it’s very difficult to escape unscathed.
And not to get all over-analyze-y lit student about it, but the emphasis on the idea that Catherine loved Henry once, that things could have been happy once, combined with the parallel images at the end of the episode of Catherine putting on all the trappings of queenship, while Mary cleans hers away, makes me wonder if the show would dare to take this further in future, and show that even the “true love” between Mary and Francis isn’t enough to prevent him becoming a threat to Mary when politics come into play. Just, in fact, as she’s already become a threat to him due to her potential claim to the English throne. Catherine is the villainous old queen and Mary the heroic new one, but both have to exist in the same political world, and Mary has to struggle against many of the same problems that Catherine faces — she’s just younger, less cynical and less ruthless in response. But then, she has less experience, and her crown came to her via birth. It’s far more stable than the one Catherine gained through marriage.
So yes, Reign is inaccurate and melodramatic. It’s a fun show of secret passageways and pagans in the woods and always-changing romantic entanglements, but beneath all that, it invokes the horrifying essence of court life for women during this period in a really compelling and powerful way. And considering shows like The Tudors, where Anne Boleyn is a seductress and the men are the ones that matter, that’s a really important step. Historical danger and oppression, wrapped up in gorgeous dresses and Gothic mysteries? Yes, please!