Henry VII, Beset and Beleaguered in BBC’s The Shadow of the Tower


If you’ve read “About the History Lady” on this blog, you’ll know the BBC dramas The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Elizabeth R captured my attention as a 10-year-old and launched an interest that has held ever since.  The Shadow of the Tower is the third installment of the BBC’s series that was not (I believe) ever shown in the US.  It is every bit as good as the first two, but it focuses on the less glamorous (or less famous) of the Tudor monarchs, Henry VII.  But Henry VII is important not just as the founder of the Tudor dynasty but for his own achievements, probably too often eclipsed by his larger-than-life descendants, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

The Shadow of the Tower follows the reign of Henry Tudor from his victory over King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Henry united the warring houses of Lancaster and York by marrying Elizabeth of York, Richard’s niece and eldest daughter of Edward IV.  Despite securing the crown and uniting the country, pockets of rebellion and dissent continue to plague him throughout his reign.  Henry lives in the shadow of the Tower, aware of his tenuous hold on the throne.  As Henry VII, all he wants is to keep the realm at peace, fill the depleted royal coffers, secure the Tudor dynasty and be loved by the people. None of that is easy.  He is beset by royal competitors and pretenders (Lambert SimnelPerkin Warbeck), uprisings (Cornwall) and sundry traitors—real or imagined—from the Duke of Suffolk to the Earl of Warwick.  He keeps the Tower and its executioners quite busy.

It is actually a very good series, though you have to approach The Shadow of the Tower with an understanding of its limitations—some of which are glaring. You have to get past the really quite awful opening music and accept its set production is not of the 21st Century.  The screenwriting is very good—as is the acting, in particular James Maxwell plays Henry VII beautifully, trying hard to be a good, benevolent beloved king but having to continually to mete out the King’s Justice.

I nearly gave up on it after the first DVD with three episodes, at least two of which dragged a little, but persevered and was rewarded (perhaps I got used to the clunky sets and music).  The Perkin Warbeck episodes have terrific scripts, are well-acted and full of dramatic tension.  I finished the series, all 640 minutes of Tudor-loving viewing, very satisfied.  Yes, the story could use a remake, but it is still worth the screen time.

If you have not seen the two other dramas in the series, you must.  Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth R has not yet been surpassed even by Cate Blanchett or Dame Judi Dench (as terrific as they were).  Keith Michell in the Six Wives of Henry VIII is probably my second favorite Henry  ever (I give top marks to Ray Winstone in Henry VIII).

A couple of Tudor links you might find interesting:

6 comments on “Henry VII, Beset and Beleaguered in BBC’s The Shadow of the Tower

  1. […] R series. Apparently the Shadow series was never shown in the USA (not sure about Canada). The few reviews of it I’ve found are at best lukewarm. It’s been 42 years since that series was first […]

  2. […] too often eclipsed by his larger-than-life descendants, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I,” writes Geri, The History Lady. “The Shadow of the Tower” isn’t quite at the level of “The Six Wives of […]

  3. Martín says:

    I just finished watching the miniseries today, and I completely agree with your review. The Perkin Warbeck episodes were surprising, because they portrayed him as bisexual, and also heavily implied that he was molested at 17 by the Earl of Kildare. Those were pretty heavy stuff for the early 1970s…
    It would be great to merge the 3 Tudor miniseries into one remake that covers the whole period, from Bosworth Field in 1485 to Elizabeth’s death in 1603.

    • Yes it would, wouldn’t it? I still watch Six Wives of H8 and Elizabeth I with Glenda Jackson even though the sets are clunky because the acting was so good! I am enjoying (with some reservations) the White Queen series right now.

  4. I know – rough summer right? We have the end of the Borgias…and the some True Blood, but otherwise its a dip into the archives. I have a huge stack of summer reading including the new Philippa Gregory, the new Susan Higginbotham novel about Frances Grey….Hilary Mantel’s book and slew of others in my stack and Kindle.

  5. Rachel says:

    Interesting. I’d never heard of this one. Still trying to convince my hulking son to do a watch with me of Elizabeth R and Henry VIII. I know he’d love them. And now that “Once Upon a Time” “The Walking Dead” and “Sherlock” are on hiatus, we are sadly lacking in quality t.v.

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