Does Art Imitate Life or Life More Often Imitate Art?


In recent years, several excellent historical drama series have emerged that depict the life and times of ancient peoples and cultures.  We sit back comfortably in our chairs, on our couches, or even lay back on our bed pillows and watch in high definition color on our flat screens as peoples’ thirsts drive them forward at any and all costs in their quests for political and social stature, and even designs of world dominance.  And, whether dramatic art or in the reality of our own world today, we see individuals and groups wrestling for social and political power and world sovereignty.  I’d like to know who was right;  Aristotle, the Greek Philosopher (384 BC – 322 BC), who viewed art as an imitation of life; or the author from Ireland, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), who believed that life imitates art far more than art imitates life.  These series like The Tudors, Reign, Marco Polo, Medici-Masters of Florence,  Hell on Wheels, The Hatfields and McCoys, West Wing, and House of Cards, in fact, have inspired my subsequent research into the real stories behind them and to root out the naked truths.

In Art – Let’s start with The Tudors:

The Tudors included 38 episodes over four seasons and followed the life of Henry VIII from the time of his crowning until his death. His personal and political struggles and victories.  It also detailed his paranoia, his scandalous life that included many marriages and extramarital affairs, and his changes to the Catholic Church to create the Church of England–all for his own personal benefit.

Next – there was Reign:

Reign ran for four seasons and 78 episodes. Reign followed Mary, the dainty but fierce 15-year-old from Scotland, as she re-entered French court after spending her adolescence at a convent. She was torn between her duty to Scotland and her Scottish family’s political aspirations for her to marry Prince Francis, future King of France; and her blossoming love for this man, Francis, who she was betrothed to as a child and had spent much of her childhood with him as playmates.  Yet, throughout her life, even Mary had to remain ever-vigilant due to social and political threats against her life and crown.

In Reality – Executions at Tower Hill Ordered by British Royalty

What I quickly learned from these historical dramas and my subsequent research is that everyone had to be ever vigilant.  Their harsh realities–there were few who could be trusted loyal friends and many unknown enemies who were more than willing to strike them down in whatever fashion in their attempts to get ahead–and this scenario was especially true among the royals and their “closest” associates!

I found a couple of interesting resources: 1) Capital Punishment UK and 2) British Royal Family History. I used both of them when generating this Google Sheet that covers the “Executions on Tower Hill by English Kings and Queens (1377-1820).” As you can see, it spans nearly 500 years; seven ruling families; and, 18 blue-bloods who decided who amidst them would advance within the royal ranks and who they would execute at their sole discretion because they had in some way become “inconvenient” to them rather than genuine traitors.

The majority of these beheadings were at the behest of royalty and took place at the Tower of London. It is a 900-year-old castle and fortress in central London that is notable for housing the crown jewels and for holding many famous and infamous prisoners.

It seems the history of these beheadings by British Royalty goes back to early medieval England’s Anglo-Saxon times (about  450 A.D. to 1066 A.D.) and that beheading was widely used in Europe and Asia until as recently as the 20th century.  Even today, as barbaric as it is, we still are witness to political-based and/or jihad-inspired beheadings by peoples primarily on the continents of Asia and Africa in places like Syria, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Jordan, Saudi-Arabia, and Boko-Haram.  But among the British Royalty, beheading with a sword or axe was considered a more honorable and less painful form of death than other execution methods used at the time. (And, like hanging, it was a cheap and practical method!)

Throughout its history, the tower was used to imprison a wide range of prisoners, from deposed monarchs to more common criminals. Prisoners included Lady Jane Grey, who was queen for about a week in the 16th century before she was deposed by Mary I.

Also imprisoned there were two princes, Edward and Richard, ages 12 and 9, who were the sons of Edward IV (died 1483). They appear never to have left the tower alive and some thought they were killed by Richard III, their uncle who took the throne for himself.

Another notable prisoner was Guy Fawkes, who in 1605 attempted to blow up the House of Lords and the monarch by detonating gunpowder in the cellars below. He was imprisoned in the tower and tortured.

And, of course, King Henry VIII, one of the more notorious members of the House of Tudor, who ruled for about 38 years.  He had all but 5 his 31 “treasonous” country-men/women beheaded on Tower Hill.  If fact, he imprisoned two of his wives, Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard and later executed them. It also was Henry, who turned England into a Protestant country, and in doing so had a number of his dissenting clergymen committed to the tower and later killed, including his former counselor Sir Thomas More.

In all, just within the Tower of London or on an ancient scaffold on Tower Hill, 122 people were put to their deaths–many after also spending torturous times imprisoned within the walls of the Tower.

Of those executed:

  • 94 were beheaded
  • 12 were hanged
  • 11 were hanged and drawn and quartered
  •   3 were killed by firing squad
  •   2 were burned at the stake

You also can see on my google sheet that from the years 1649-1660, that 11-year-period between the reigns of King Charles I and King Charles II, that the British parliament and government ruled the Kingdom, and even then eight persons were beheaded for various “treasonous plots” against the Royals or their armies.  Included among them was British Monarch, Charles I–the only monarch ever to be executed by Parliament, but not in Tower Hill. He was beheaded on Tuesday the 30th of January 1649 on a raised scaffold in front of the Palace of Whitehall. He had been convicted of High Treason and “other crimes” for his activities during the civil war against the Parliamentarians led by Oliver Cromwell. An act of parliament had to be passed to set up a means to try him before a special court composed of Commissioners. The trial began on the 20th of January 1649 and the king refused to recognize the court or to enter a plea. In Charles’ case, the executioner was skilled and managed to sever his head with a single blow–unlike so many others put to their deaths by beheadings and orders of the blue-bloods.

So where does this leave us on the art imitating life or life imitating art question?  I’m not sure I am qualified to say.  If I’m to be honest (like TV personality Simon Cowell often says), we’ve each seen examples of art imitating life and life imitating art.  I guess it’s safe to say it’s like the chicken and the egg story–which came first?