It’s hard to look at a laughing David Oakes and imagine some of the most villainous men of the middle ages. Yet he has portrayed a brute involved in one of the most shocking murders in English history, the son of one of Rome’s most notorious Popes and the treacherous brother of a King in one of England’s greatest struggles for power, the three decades-long War of the Roses.
David, however, seems to have enjoyed playing the antihero. On playing Juan Borgia in The Borgias, he said
To be the problem child of that family, at that time, and to have the ability to get whatever I want, and do whatever I want whenever I want to do it, but without an understanding of the repercussions, to be a complete hedonist, was fantastic.
David has embraced his inner scoundrel in three successful historical dramas over the last three years. Let’s take a look at the men he has portrayed.
Ken Follett’s superb historical drama The Pillars of the Earth features a cast of fictional characters living through the very real events of The Anarchy, England’s bloody eighteen year civil war and power struggle between the rightful heir, The Empress Matilda, and the usurper Stephen.
William Hamleigh is the chief villain, one so foul he has your blood boiling for the entire length of the novel and David’s portrayal of William in the television mini-series is thoroughly convincing. William is not a two-dimensional sort of character, his television version is locked in a cycle of abuse and his evil deeds are accompanied by a deep-seated terror of hell. While not portrayed in the television series, Follett places William at the scene of one of the foulest murders in English history, the slaying of Thomas Becket in the Canterbury Cathedral.
Henry II, Empress Matilda’s son, had by now taken the throne. When he appointed his English chancellor Thomas Becket to the archbishopric of Canterbury in 1162, he was probably hoping that Becket, because of his former position, would advance the interests of the royal government before those of the church. Becket, however, embraced his new position in the church and an ascetic lifestyle, opposing Henry II on many occasions and causing an irreparable rift between the former close friends. In 1170, just as it appeared that Henry II and Becket had come to terms on a fresh dispute over Henry’s right to crown his son King, Becket excommunicated three of Henry’s supporter’s. The now infamous “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and promoted in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born clerk!” prompted some of his knight’s into action, who took it upon themselves to decide the King wanted Becket dead.
Follett’s William Hamleigh followed real events, the knights entered the cathedral after hiding their weapons outside. They challenged Becket, but when Becket refused their demands to submit to the king’s will, they retrieved their weapons and rushed back inside for the killing. Becket was brutally murdered, the crown of his head severed, and left to die in a pool of his own blood on the cathedral floor.
Becket’s assassins fled and went into hiding for a year. While Henry II did not arrest them or confiscate their property he cut them off when they sought his advice in 1171. Seeking forgiveness from the Pope, they traveled to Rome, where Pope Alexander ordered them to serve as knights in the Holy Lands for a period of fourteen years. Henry II took the brunt of the public outrage, however, and the Pope sentenced him to a public flogging as part of his penance. William Hamleigh had a slightly different end, which you can read about in The Pillars of the Earth.
Giovanni Borgia, or Juan in Spanish, was one of Pope Alexander VI’s four children by his long-term mistress Vannozza dei Cattanei. Pope Alexander VI remains one of the most controversial figures in Papal history but his children were not without their own share of notoriety.
Juan had so many enemies to this day it remains a mystery exactly who murdered him. Famously, his richly attired body was dragged out of the Tiber River, his purse of 30 ducats untouched. Popular tradition has his brother Cesare ordering the deed done, but there is also a centuries-old rumour that his younger brother Gioffre murdered him in retaliation for Juan sleeping with his wife. David Oake’s debauchee Juan Borgia is intent only on his own power and pleasures, a cowardly and selfish rogue whose spectacular spiral into ruin and opium-clouded death is mourned only by his father.
In David’s latest role in the BBC adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s novel, The White Queen, he is playing George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence, brother of King Edward IV and King Richard III. Quite possibly one of the worst brothers a King could hope to have, the Duke of Clarence was involved in several rebellions against Edward IV in his lifetime. While he may have actually been the rightful heir to the throne (due to the question of Edward’s legitimacy) his rebellions failed and his brother kept his crown, convicting George of treason. Popular tradition has him being drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine, perhaps a joke in reference to his mental instability and heavy drinking. He did, after all, murder his wife’s lady-in-waiting Ankarette Twynyho, believing her to have poisoned Isabel, who died ten weeks after the birth of their last son, likely of child-bed fever.
Thankfully David is getting a break from all of the murder and mayhem. In his next role he will be playing Jane Austen’s beloved Mr Darcy in the Open Air Theatre’s new production of Pride and Prejudice. He has promised it will be a little different than the traditional versions, saying “it’s certainly not all froth and frocks.”
You can read the full interview here.