Murder, conspiracy and execution: 6 centuries of scandalous royal deaths!

From mysterious hunting ‘accidents’ to the public execution of Charles I, dozens of British royals died in suspicious or shocking circumstances. Historian Nicola Tallis investigates…

The execution of Charles I, 1649. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

Royal status brings with it privilege and power – but also danger, particularly the risk of assassination by those craving that power. From the Norman conquest to Charles’s execution in 1649, many British men, women and children of royal blood died in extraordinary circumstances. Deaths early in that period were often shrouded in mystery, but by the 17th century circumstances had changed to an extraordinary extent – for the first time an executioner severed the head of a king of England: Charles I, condemned by his own people…

William II meets his fate in the forest

On 2 August 1100 King William II, third son of William the Conqueror, was hunting in the New Forest. The chronicler William of Malmesbury reported that after dinner the king, nicknamed ‘Rufus’, went into the forest “attended by few persons”, notably a gentleman named Walter Tirel. While most of the king’s party “employed in the chase, were dispersed as chance directed,” Tirel remained with the king. As the sun began to set, William spotted a stag and “drawing his bow and letting fly an arrow, slightly wounded” it.

In his excitement the king began to run towards the injured target, and at that point Tirel, “conceiving a noble exploit” in that the king’s attention was occupied elsewhere, “pierced his breast with a fatal arrow”. William fell to the ground and Tirel, seeing that the king was dead, immediately “leaped swiftly upon his horse, and escaped by spurring him to his utmost speed”.

Upon discovering William’s body, the rest of his party fled and, in an attempt to protect their own interests, readied themselves to declare their allegiance to the next king. It was left to a few countrymen to convey the dead king’s corpse to Winchester Cathedral by cart, “the blood dripping from it all the way”.

Was William’s death an accident, or was it murder? An accident was possible, but there were many who believed otherwise. William’s younger brother immediately assumed the throne and swiftly had himself crowned Henry I. Henry had much to gain from his brother’s death, and Tirel may have been in his employ. William had, however, been an unpopular king, and his death was “lamented by few”.

King William II of England, aka William Rufus, c1100. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Lionheart and eyeless Art

Almost 100 years later, Henry I’s great-grandson, Richard I, also met a violent end at the point of an arrow, but in very different circumstances. Richard had spent the majority of his 10-year reign fighting abroad on crusade; he was a brave solider who inspired loyalty in his men. In 1199, while he was besieging the Château de Châlus-Chabrol, a crossbow bolt struck him in the shoulder. Though the shot did not kill him, it penetrated deep into his body. Though removal of the bolt by a surgeon was a painful ordeal, Richard survived – but before long the wound became infected and gangrene set in. It became clear that the king’s days were numbered, and on 6 April, 11 days after he was shot, “the man devoted to martial deeds, breathed his last.”

Richard was succeeded by his younger brother, John. However, though John was accepted as king of England he had a rival for his French lands: Arthur of Brittany, son of John’s brother, Geoffrey, who had died over a decade earlier. In 1202, John’s forces captured Arthur at Mirebeau, where the latter had been attempting to besiege the castle in which his grandmother (John’s mother), Eleanor of Aquitaine, was sheltering. Arthur was taken to Falaise, where – it was later claimed – John gave orders for his 16-year-old nephew to be “deprived of his eyes and genitals”, but the jailer refused to obey such a cruel command. Shortly afterwards, the boy was moved to Rouen where, on the evening of 3 April 1203, it seems that John himself, “drunk with wine and possessed of the Devil”, killed Arthur personally. The young boy’s lifeless body was reputedly weighed down with a heavy stone and thrown into the river Seine.

In the two centuries after the murder of Arthur of Brittany, both Edward II and Richard II were deposed. The latter was almost certainly starved to death in Pontefract Castle, but controversy still surrounds the end of Edward II – he may have been murdered in Berkeley Castle, but several modern historians are of the opinion that he escaped abroad.

Richard I, aka ‘Richard the Lionheart’, depicted plunging his fist into a lion’s throat, c1180. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The bloody Wars of the Roses

In the middle of the 15th century, the Wars of the Roses broke out, causing a profusion of bloodshed that did not exclude royal or noble families. After a struggle that saw the Lancastrian King Henry VI deposed in favour of the Yorkist Edward IV, and a brief period of restoration for Henry VI (commonly referred to as the readeption), on 4 May 1471 the armies of Lancaster and York met at Tewkesbury, where Edward IV won “a famous victory”. It was a fierce battle during which around 2,000 Lancastrians were slain, and the battlefield is still referred to as ‘Bloody Meadow.’

For Henry’s son and heir, the 18-year-old Prince Edward of Lancaster, Tewkesbury had been his first experience of war, and one that he would not survive. Reports of the precise manner of the prince’s death vary: most sources state that the he was killed in the field, whereas the Yorkist author of the Arrivall of Edward IV, who claimed to be a servant of Edward IV’s and a witness to many of the events about which he wrote, asserts that Edward “was taken fleeing to the townwards, and slain in the field”. Later Tudor historians, however, implied that the prince had been murdered “by the avenging hands of certain persons,” on the orders of Edward IV. Whatever the circumstances, the Lancastrian heir had been removed; now all that remained was for his father to be eliminated.

While the battle of Tewkesbury raged, Henry VI was a prisoner in the Tower of London. Following his victory, Edward IV travelled to London in triumph, arriving on 21 May. That same evening, Henry VI was reportedly praying in his oratory within the Wakefield Tower when he “was put to death”. Though the author of the Arrivall stated that Henry died of “pure displeasure and melancholy” as a result of being told of the death of his son, there is little doubt that he died violently. The examination of his skull in 1911 revealed that to one piece “there was still attached some of the hair, which was brown in colour, save in one place, where it was much darker and apparently matted with blood,” consistent with a blow to the head. Many believed that Henry had been murdered at the hands of the king’s brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, but though Richard may have been present, the order undoubtedly came from Edward IV.

Henry VI , c1450. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The slaughter also extended to Edward’s own family. The relationship Edward shared with his younger brother George, Duke of Clarence, was tumultuous, to say the least. After several estrangements and reconciliations, in 1477 Clarence finally went too far. Convinced that his brother was conspiring against him, Edward had Clarence arrested; at the beginning of February 1478, he was tried and condemned to death. On 18 February Clarence was executed within the confines of the Tower of London. According to several contemporary sources, at his own request the duke was drowned after being “plunged into a jar of sweet wine” in the Bowyer Tower. Clarence’s daughter, Margaret Pole, was later painted wearing a bracelet with a barrel charm, which appears to support this story. The duke’s death orphaned both Margaret and her younger brother Edward, Earl of Warwick. Like their father, both would meet violent ends.

The princes in the Tower

Edward IV died unexpectedly on 9 April 1483, leaving as successor his 12-year-old son, also Edward, at that time staying at Ludlow Castle. After his father’s death, the young Prince Edward set out for London but was intercepted en route by his uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who lodged Edward and his brother Prince Richard in the Tower of London. Having been declared illegitimate, on 26 June Edward was deposed in favour of his uncle, who took the throne as Richard III.

Rumours about the fate of the ‘princes in the Tower’ soon began to circulate. Many believe that they were murdered “lying in their beds” on the orders of Richard III, and the skeletons of two youths discovered in the Tower in 1674 seems to support this theory. Some, however, insist that the boys did not die in the Tower but managed to escape. Though their ultimate fate is still obscure, one thing is certain: after the coronation of Richard III on 6 July, neither boy was seen alive again.

‘The Young Princes in the Tower’, 1831. After a painting by Hippolyte De La Roche (1797–1856), commonly known as Paul Delaroche. From the Connoisseur VOL XXVII, 1910. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Richard III did not hold his throne for long. In 1485 his army was confronted by the forces of the Lancastrian Henry Tudor at Bosworth in Leicestershire. Richard fought bravely in his attempt to defend his crown, but was “pierced with many mortal wounds”, and became the last king of England to be killed on the battlefield. Thanks to the discovery of his skeleton in Leicester, we now know that a blow to the head killed Richard, and that his body was subjected to a number of “humiliation” wounds after his death.

Richard’s successor, Henry VII, ordered the execution of the Duke of Clarence’s son, the Earl of Warwick, beheaded In 1499 for conspiring with the pretender Perkin Warbeck to overthrow the king. Warwick’s sister, Margaret Pole, was executed in 1541 by command of Henry VIII on charges of treason. In her late sixties and condemned on evidence that was almost certainly falsified, Margaret’s death shocked her contemporaries, one of whom observed that her execution was conducted by “a wretched and blundering youth” who “literally hacked her head and shoulders to pieces in the most pitiful manner” so that she bled to death.

Henry VIII’s wives

Henry VIII also notoriously executed two of his wives. Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard were both condemned on charges of adultery, treason, and, in Anne’s case, incest with her own brother. Anne was almost certainly innocent of the crimes of which she was accused; nevertheless, on the morning of 19 May 1536 she became the first queen of England to be executed. Although her death within the confines of the Tower of London was intended to be a private affair, conducted away from the eyes of curious Londoners, around 1,000 people watched as her head was struck from her body with one strike of a French executioner’s sword.

In 1554 Lady Jane Grey also met her fate at the headsman’s axe. So, too, did Mary, Queen of Scots, executed in February 1587 on the orders of Elizabeth I. The first queen regnant to be beheaded, Mary was decapitated at Fotheringhay Castle in a bloody scene: it took three strokes of the axe to remove her head.

The execution of Mary, Queen of Scots at Fotheringhay Castle, 1587. From ‘The Island Race’, a book written by Sir Winston Churchill and published in 1964 that covers the history of the British Isles from pre-Roman times to the Victorian era. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Mary’s grandson was to suffer a similar ignominious end the following century. Having been defeated in the Civil War, in January 1649 Charles I became the first English monarch to be tried and condemned for treason – there was no precedent for the lawful killing of a king. On the date of his execution, 30 January, Charles stepped out of Banqueting House in Whitehall on to a public scaffold. His head was removed amid a great groan from the crowd, and it was observed that many of those who attended dipped their handkerchiefs in the late king’s blood as a memento.

Charles’s death signalled the abolition of the monarchy, and the establishment of a republic in England. In a public display of contempt for the monarchy, he became the only king of England to be murdered by his subjects. It was a far cry from the dark and mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of William ‘Rufus’ and those other ill-fated royals who came before.

Nicola Tallis is a British historian and author. Her new book Crown of Blood: The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey is published by Michael O’Mara Books on 3 November 2016.

To find out more about Nicola, visit nicolatallis.com

On this Day, March 21st, in Tudor Time…

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On This Day 21st March 1525

On 21st March 1525 Commissioners were appointed to raise the ‘Amicable Grant’, an idea that Cardinal Wolsey had come up with to raise money for another war with France. Wolsey tended to a pacific foreign policy, but Henry VIII was more bellicose. Unfortunately, by the mid-1520s, he was also very short of money. An enormous amount of tax had been levied in 1523, supplemented by a huge subsidy from the clergy, but now more money was needed, ostensibly to be provided by a loan. Violent unrest was the result, and some of the commissioners sent to collect it were manhandled. Eventually, the grant was cancelled, but the fiasco undermined Henry VIII’s confidence in Cardinal Wolsey.

Henry VIII’s Love Life

Not such a prude after all: the secrets of Henry VIII’s love life
Despite having married six women and seduced countless more, Henry VIII is often depicted as something of a prude. But, as historian and author Amy Licence reveals, the story may have been quite different for the women who shared his bed…

Henry and Anne Boleyn
Henry VIII courting Anne Boleyn. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 
When it comes to Henry VIII’s love life, the biographical focus usually falls on Henry’s wives and is dominated by his quest for a son. This is no surprise given its dynastic importance and the comparative paucity of material surviving on Henry’s mistresses. Indeed, Henry is often compared to his lusty and syphilitic contemporary, Francis I of France, whose antics leave the English king in the shade. Henry certainly had no official mistress in the French style, although he did offer this title to Anne Boleyn, who refused it. There is also the question of Henry’s health, as when considering his personal life images of his obesity and injuries can easily eclipse those of his handsome youth. It may be, though, that tradition has him all wrong.

Henry wasn’t so much a prude as a very private man. While Francis paraded his mistresses in public, Henry preferred to keep his extramarital liaisons known only to a small circle of loyal intimates: his chief minister, his gentlemen of the chamber and his closest friends, many of whom went to the block for treason in the 1530s, contributing to the silence over the king’s private affairs. Henry valued secrecy and discretion when it came to his personal relationships and although he was at the centre of a busy court, he had the means to achieve this.

Henry’s success in this regard becomes clearer when we consider the two mistresses that are known to have shared his bed, and the processes of history by which they were recorded. Elizabeth (or ‘Bessie’) Blount’s name is remembered today because she was an unmarried mother who bore a surviving son, which the king chose to acknowledge. Usually kings favoured affairs with married women, whose pregnancies could be officially attributed to their husbands, even if the court gossips suspected otherwise.

Bessie was quickly married off and her subsequent children, born soon after her son Henry FitzRoy, were given the surname of her pliant husband. Had Bessie’s marriage taken place sooner, or her child been female or not survived, we would not know about her relations with Henry VIII. Likewise, our information about Henry’s affair with Mary Boleyn derives from Henry’s reluctant admission of affinity when he desired to marry her younger sister, Anne. Without these chance survivals, these accidents of history, the image we have of Henry today would be as a shining example of marital fidelity, and we know that was not the case.

There is also a wealth of circumstantial evidence to suggest that Henry had a number of affairs or casual encounters. These are more than mere court rumours: cumulatively they offer a convincing picture. In 1513, when Henry stayed in Lille before the siege of Tournai, he stayed up all night dancing with a mysterious “Madame the Bastard,” barefoot and in his shirtsleeves. After returning to England, he received a letter from a maid of honour by the name of Etiennette de la Baume, in the Lille household of Margaret of Savoy. She asked for his assistance for her forthcoming marriage, reminding Henry of a promise he had made her “when we parted” and that he had called her his page.

Another letter, dating from 1514, implicated the king in a flirtation being enjoyed by his friend Charles Brandon with two ladies of the English court, to whom Brandon had sent “tokens”; during his friend’s absence abroad, Henry was to act as go-between and pass on his warm words. There was also Jane Popincourt, a maid of Henry’s sister Mary, who was refused entry to France in 1514 by King Louis XII on account of her immorality. This, coupled with Henry’s choice of her as a dance partner the following spring and his generous gift of £100 to allow her to leave, have led to speculation that Jane had shared his bed.

Perhaps most interesting of all is the entry in the Privy Papers for 1537, when a William Webbe claimed Henry had stolen away his mistress and enjoyed her favours in “avowtry” (aka advowtry) – that is, adultery. The names of various other women have been proposed as mistresses of Henry, or as the mothers of his reputed illegitimate children Thomas Stukley, John Perrot and Ethelreda Malte, but these were never acknowledged by Henry and there is no evidence to connect him with them.

Henry Fitzroy
Henry Fitzroy, the illegitimate son of Henry VIII and his mistress, Elizabeth Blount. Fitzroy was the only one of his illegitimate children that Henry acknowledged. He died of consumption. (The Print Collector/Getty Images)

 

While the church advocated regular but moderate sex within marriage – for mutual comfort and procreation – Tudor medicine stated the importance of sex for health. Without it, fluids and vapours were thought to build up in the body and cause fits, fever and illness. Aristocratic wives were expected to be models of chastity in order to produce heirs but their husbands might seek sexual satisfaction elsewhere, typically with women of the lower classes. Couples were supposed to refrain from sleeping together during part, if not all, of the wife’s pregnancies, and it was during Catherine of Aragon’s first confinement that Henry’s court was rocked by a scandal that implicated him with one of his wife’s waiting women, Anne Hastings.

Hastings may have been involved with both Henry and his closest friend, William Compton, with whom she certainly had an affair in later years. The Spanish ambassador Luis Caroz believed it was the king who had turned the newlywed’s head, writing in 1510 that Anne was “much liked by the king, who went after her”. Anne’s sister was concerned enough about her behaviour to interfere, which resulted in her banishment from court for “tale-bearing” and “insidiously spying out every unwatched moment”. This was what brought the matter to Catherine’s attention, and the royal couple had their first serious argument as a result.

Despite living at the heart of a busy court, Henry did not lack opportunities for romance. He drew on the discretion of friends such as William Compton, whose house in Thames Street provided a convenient location for liaisons, accessible by barge, and Thomas Wolsey, who oversaw the arrangements for Bessie Blount’s lying-in, acted as godfather to her son. Although there might be prying eyes at court, when Henry visited the homes of his friends in the town or country, or stopped at a hunting lodge with a small retinue, leaving his wife at court, there was a greater degree of privacy to facilitate meeting women. Wherever he travelled, Henry took his own personal lock to guarantee secrecy.

And yet, even under the scrutiny of his courtiers, Henry found the perfect vehicle for flirtation. His love of masques and dancing gave him a degree of licence for intimacy; under the guise of planning entertainments, he might ‘borrow’ maids of honour in order to rehearse elaborate pageants that required dancing, costumes and song. Writers Juan Luis Vives in the 1520s and John Heywood in the 1530s both drew the connection between dancing and sex, with the lines of contemporary plays full of bawdy and suggestive lyrics. Characters in Heywood’s 1533 The Play of the Weather joke about “meddling” with each other, about literal and metaphoric dirty linen, dallying “with your simper de cocker” and kissing a woman’s behind.

 

Dancing at the royal court 2

The Dancing Picture’ from around 1530, attributed to Hans Holbein (male figures) and Janet Clouet (female figures). The two figures on the left have been identified as Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 
The arrangements of Henry’s household would have facilitated affairs too. The Eltham Ordinances, published in January 1526, help us understand how. When it came to sleeping with his wife, the king followed a ritual involving a large amount of staff, including an elaborate procession through the corridors that needed to be cleared and guarded, followed by a ceremony of disrobing. This visible display provided a foil for the occasions when Henry desired privacy, at night amid the chambers “reserved secret, at the pleasure of his grace, without [the] repair of any great multitude”. Henry’s grooms were charged to remain “humble, reverent, secret and lowly” about all tasks, with two sleeping on pallets outside his door and Sir Henry Norris charged with preventing all other gentlemen from entering. With Norris’s assistance, it would not have been difficult for Henry to admit whomever he pleased. Whatever secrets he may have known, Norris took to the grave a decade later, when he became one of the scapegoats in Anne Boleyn’s fall.

When it comes to Henry’s relationship with Anne, a further mystery arises. Traditionally, the story has been told that it was Anne’s refusal that maintained Henry’s interest, and that for the seven years before their secret marriage Anne kept herself aloof, denying Henry consummation. Catherine had gone through the menopause in around 1525 and Anne did not conceive until the end of 1532: Catherine’s menopause coincided with Henry’s thirties, at a time when he was keen to father a son. Is it really realistic that the king was celibate throughout this time? And if not, who exactly was he sleeping with?

Did he continue to share a bed with Catherine, intermittently, up to the day in July 1531 when Henry rode away from her at Windsor and she was never to see him again? Perhaps Anne permitted Henry some liberties with her person after she had agreed to his proposal in around 1527. In one letter Henry refers to kissing her breasts or “pretty duckies,” and they may have enjoyed a certain degree of intimacy, stopping short of full penetration.

The fact that Anne did not fall pregnant until December 1532 suggests they were restrained, or else practised some form of contraception. Early condoms were available, known as the ‘Venus Glove’ and manufactured by glovers. They were expensive, but Henry could have afforded them. Yet Anne’s allure lay in her promise and her desire not to be discarded as her sister had been. Nor did Henry wish to risk the arrival of a child before he was in a position to be able to marry her. It is far more in keeping with the mores of the time that Henry resorted to the occasional casual encounter, discreetly arranged by his gentlemen, and considered to be an essential bodily function, just as eating or sleeping. The needs of the king’s body must be met.

 

First meeting of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn

A depiction of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’s first meeting, from 1835. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

 

In later years, Henry’s ulcerous leg and increasing girth rendered him less able to play the nimble lover. Yet this really only applies to the final decade of his life. The young Henry was accustomed to having his own way and with the facilities and staff to ensure his own pleasure. The notion of a prudish, restrained king may be more the result of a paucity of evidence rather than a true reflection of Henry’s character. Although he was not quite, as Francis I was described, “of such slight morals that he slips readily into the gardens of other and drinks from the water of many fountains”, the surviving shreds of evidence suggest Henry VIII enjoyed a full and active love life. This also provides an important reflection upon the nature of evidence and its survival. As late as 1817, when John Lingard cited the letter in which Henry admitted to having slept with Mary Boleyn, his fellow rejected the claims as a deliberate slur upon the reputation of her sister, Anne.

When it comes to the sexual secrets of such a secretive Tudor monarch, it is imperative to consider the holes in the evidence as much as the evidence itself. Here was a man who married five out of his six wives in private, in a departure from the example set by his parents. Henry didn’t want the details of his love life to be made public: five centuries later, he has largely succeeded.

On this day, 9th of February in Tudor time…

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On This Day 9th February 1498

 

On 9th February 1498 of John, Viscount Welles died. Welles was the half-brother of Lady Margaret Beaufort, and thus uncle to Henry VII. As part of Henry’s policy of integrating Lancastrian and Yorkist supporters (as well as ensuring that his York sisters-in-law were married to men loyal to himself), Welles was married to Cicely of York in 1487. The couple had two daughters, who both died as children. Cicely remarried in a match which was widely disapproved of.

On this day, 6th of February in Tudor time…

  

On This Day 6th February 1587
On 6th February 1587, in the Great Hall at Fotheringhay Castle, the warrant for her execution was read aloud to Mary, Queen of Scots. It bore the flamboyant signature of her cousin, Elizabeth I, Queen of England, and was the culmination of nearly 20 years of captivity. Mary had come to England as a supplicant, following the defeat of her forces at the Battle of Langside in 1568. She hoped the English Queen would support her in regaining the throne that she had lost following the tumult that erupted after the assassination of her husband. Elizabeth, strongly influenced by her Secretary, Sir William Cecil, who had an implacable distrust of the Catholic Mary, had held her captive in a series of locations across the north and midlands of England. Numerous plots to free her and put her on the English throne, some undoubtedly with Mary’s support, had finally culminated in a trial that Mary refused to recognise and a death sentence.

Anne of Cleves

anne-of-cleves-portrait

 

Anne of Cleves has gone down in history as the ugly wife. Henry VIII was so revolted when he first clapped eyes on her that he immediately instructed his lawyers to get him out of the marriage. Thereafter, his poor, spurned fourth queen retreated quietly into obscurity to hide her face from the world, while Henry joyfully married the infinitely more desirable Catherine Howard.

Anne, who was born 500 years ago, was Henry’s wife for just six months, making her the shortest reigning of all his queens. And so she has been dismissed as little more than a blip in the history of England’s most-married monarch.

The true story of Henry VIII’s fourth wife is entirely different to this humiliating fiction. Anne may not have been to the king’s liking, but how she responded proves that she was far from being the hapless victim of legend. In fact, she can justifiably claim to have been the most successful of all Henry’s wives.

Anne, daughter of the late Duke of Juliers-Cleves, Johann III, and sister of his successor, Wilhelm, had first been mooted as a potential wife for the English king in the closing weeks of 1537, soon after the death of his beloved third wife, Jane Seymour. Anne was then 22 years of age, and had already been used as a pawn in the international marriage market when she had been betrothed to François, heir to the duchy of Lorraine, in 1527. This had come to nothing, leaving her free to marry elsewhere.

John Hutton, ambassador to Mary of Hungary, who had originally made the suggestion, admitted he had heard no great praise of her beauty. Such a recommendation hardly motivated Henry to pursue the scheme any further, and it was not until early 1539 that the idea was resurrected. This time Henry gave it more credence because he desperately needed new allies.

His two great rivals, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and French king Francis I, had forged a treaty, and to make matters worse, a short while later Pope Paul III had reissued the bull of excommunication against the English king. Although the then Duke of Juliers-Cleves, Johann (Anne’s father) was no Protestant, he – like Henry – had expelled papal authority from his domain. An alliance with Cleves would therefore provide a major boost to the Reformation in England, and it was for this reason that Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, championed it so enthusiastically.

In March 1539, Henry finally agreed that negotiations could begin. Cromwell was quick to relay reports of Anne’s beauty, assuring his sovereign: “Every man praiseth the beauty of the same lady as well for the face as for the whole body… she excelleth as far the duchess [of Milan] as the golden sun excelleth the silver moon.” But Henry was taking no chances. He dispatched the renowned portrait painter Hans Holbein to Cleves so that he could see what he was letting himself in for.

The king was delighted with the result. Holbein’s portrait showed a pretty young woman with fair hair, a doll-like face, delicate eyes, mouth and chin, and a demure, maidenly expression. The match was confirmed and a treaty was signed on 4 October 1539. A few weeks later, Anne embarked upon her journey to England.

The charter annulling Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne of Cleves. The king’s passion for lady-in-waiting Catherine Howard sounded the death knell for the couple’s union. © AKG

“I like her not!”

Portrait of Henry VIII, 1548 (engraving) (b/w photo)
XJF323070 Portrait of Henry VIII, 1548 (engraving) (b/w photo) by Massys, Cornelis (1508-80); National Portrait Gallery, London, UK; (add.info.: Henry VIII (1491-1547), King of England; artist’s surname is also spelt Metsys;); Netherlandish, out of copyright

On New Year’s Eve, Anne arrived at a stormy, windswept Rochester Castle in Kent. The next day, in true chivalric tradition, Henry hastened to greet her in disguise. He was horrified with what he saw. “I like her not! I like her not!” he shouted at Cromwell when the meeting was over. It seemed that Anne had been rather flattered by her portrait. In contrast to the petite stature of Henry’s first three wives, she was tall, big-boned and strong-featured. Her face was dominated by a large nose that had been cleverly disguised by the angle of Holbein’s portrait, and her skin was pitted with the marks of smallpox.

To be fair to Anne, however, until Henry expressed such a strong aversion towards her, there had been no other disparaging accounts of her appearance. The famous nickname of ‘Flanders Mare’ was only coined by Bishop Gilbert Burnet in the late 17th century. Most of the contemporary accounts before her marriage had been complimentary. Even Henry was forced to admit that she was “well and semelye [seemly]”. But the fact that she nevertheless repelled him ensured that Anne would henceforth be known as the ‘ugly wife’.

History has thus served a great injustice on Anne, particularly as her betrothed could hardly have been described as an attractive prospect himself by the time of their marriage. Incapacitated by an ulcerated jousting wound in his leg, Henry’s girth had increased at an alarming rate. When he became king he had been a trim 32 inches around the waist; by the time he met Anne of Cleves it was closer to 52 inches.

A contemporary depiction reveals the king as a grotesque figure. His beady eyes and tiny, pursed mouth are almost lost in the layers of flesh which surround them. He appears to have no neck, and his enormous frame extends beyond the reaches of the canvas. “The king was so stout that such a man has never been seen,” reported a visitor to court. “Three of the biggest men that could be found could get inside his doublet.” On balance, Anne had far more reason for complaint than her prospective husband.

However abhorrent his new bride might be to Henry, there was no going back. It would have caused a major diplomatic incident if he had reneged on the treaty, and England could ill-afford to lose allies. The wedding duly took place on 6 January 1540, and the king now had to do his duty by consummating it.

Thanks to the events that happened afterwards, a detailed account of the wedding night exists among the records of Henry’s reign. The king had run his hands all over his new wife’s body, which had so repelled him that he had found himself incapable of doing any more.

The following morning, he told Cromwell that he found Anne even more abhorrent than when he had first beheld her, bemoaning: “She is nothing fair, and have very evil smells about her.” He went on to claim that there had been certain “tokens” to suggest that she was no maid, not least “the looseness of her breasts”, which he had apparently examined closely. As a result, he confided to a manservant, his bride was “indisposed to excite and provoke any lust” in him and he “could never be stirred to know her carnally”. He had therefore “left her as good a maid as I found her”.

For her part, Anne gave every appearance of joy in her new husband. But despite Henry’s claims, she was clearly a virgin and had no idea what was involved in consummation. When the marriage was but a few days old, she confided to her attendants that she believed she might be pregnant, telling them: “When he [Henry] comes to bed he kisses me, and taketh me by the hand, and biddeth me, Goodnight, sweetheart: and in the morning kisses me, and biddeth me, Farewell, darling. Is this not enough?” The Countess of Rutland retorted: “Madam, there must be more than this, or it will be long ere we have a Duke of York.”

Henry’s inability to consummate the marriage has been traditionally assigned to his revulsion at his new bride. But it is at least equally possible that he was impotent. He was nearly twice his young bride’s age and had become increasingly immobile in recent years. There had been no talk of a mistress for some time. This was not the sort of thing that he would have wished to be publicly known. Kings, even more than ordinary men, prided themselves on their sexual potency: it was, after all, vital for the continuation of their dynasty. Henry was a little too eager to boast to his physician, Dr Butts, that although he could not bring himself to have sex with Anne, he had had “two wet dreams”.

The happy couple?
To the outside world, everything was as it should be. Anne wrote to her family, assuring them that she was very happy with her husband. Meanwhile, Henry made sure that he appeared in public with his new queen as often as could be expected. A few days after the wedding, a celebratory tournament was held in Greenwich. The contemporary chronicler Edward Hall recorded the event and praised the new queen so effusively that nobody would guess there was anything amiss. “She was appareiled after the English fashion, with a French hood, which so set forth her beauty and good visage, that every creature rejoiced to behold her.”

But Anne lacked the courtly refinements that her new husband was used to. The education of noble ladies in Cleves was very different to England. Being accomplished at music, dancing and languages was seen as trivial – “an occasion of lightness” – and ladies were instead taught the more useful skills of needlework and household management. The English ambassador to Cleves described Anne as being of “lowly and gentle conditions”, and noted that “she occupieth her time most with the needle”. No matter how affable and eager to please the new queen was, her awkwardness rendered her an embarrassment in the sophisticated world of the Tudor court.

There was another reason why Henry was desperate to be rid of his fourth wife. By the spring of 1540, he had fallen madly in love with Catherine Howard, a pretty young lady-in-waiting in his wife’s household.

This spurred him into action. Pressure was brought to bear on Thomas Cromwell, who had been arrested for treason and was now obliged to give evidence from the Tower in support of the annulment.

On 24 June Anne was ordered by the council to remove herself from court and go to Richmond Palace. A short while later, Anne learned that her marriage to the English king had been called into question because Henry was concerned about her prior betrothal to the Duke of Lorraine, and had therefore refrained from consummating the union.

An ecclesiastical inquiry was duly commissioned, and a delegation of councillors arrived at Richmond in early July to seek Anne’s co-operation. Shocked by this sudden turn of events, Anne fainted. When she had sufficiently recovered herself, she steadfastly refused to give her consent to the inquiry.

Before long, though, perhaps fearing a similar fate to Catherine of Aragon or, worse still, Anne Boleyn, Anne resolved to take a pragmatic approach. The marriage was duly declared illegal on 9 July, and the annulment was confirmed by parliament three days later. Anne wrote a letter of submission to the king, referring to “your majesty’s clean and pure living with me”, and offering herself up as his “most humble servant”.

Anne was to be richly rewarded for her compliance. She was given possession of Richmond Palace and Bletchingly Manor for life, together with a considerable annual income. This was further boosted by her right to keep all of her royal jewels, plate and goods in order to furnish her new properties. Moreover, she was to be accorded an exalted status as the king’s ‘sister’, taking precedence over all of his subjects, with the exception of his children and any future wife that he might take.

Henry later granted her some additional manors, including Hever Castle, the former home of Anne Boleyn. This was to become her principal residence, and she lived very comfortably there on the fringes of public life. It says much for Anne’s strength of character that she managed to accept and adapt to her new life with dignity.

Henry and Catherine Howard were married at Oatlands Palace in Surrey on 28 July 1540. But the king’s joy was short-lived. Catherine was a flighty and flirtatious girl, some 32 years younger than her husband, and she soon began an illicit affair with Thomas Culpepper, a gentleman of the privy chamber. When her adultery was discovered, she went to the block in February 1542.

Anne of Cleves was a committed reformer who might have fallen victim to Mary Tudor’s anti-Protestant crackdown – like bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, shown being burned at Oxford in 1555 – if it wasn’t for the fact that she was good friends with Mary. © Getty

Just good friends
Speculation began at once about who would be the king’s next wife. Among the potential candidates was Anne of Cleves. She had been careful to remain on good terms with Henry after their annulment, and had shown no signs of resentment at being so humiliatingly rejected. She had been a regular visitor to court and had also received several visits from her former husband, which by all accounts had been very convivial. The pair had exchanged New Year’s gifts in 1542. But the king made no indication of wishing to revive their union, and although Anne was rumoured to be bitterly disappointed when he married his sixth and final wife, Katherine Parr, this may have been just for show.

By that time, Anne was comfortably ensconced at Hever with all the riches and honours of being a queen, but none of the disadvantages of being married to the ageing, bloated and increasingly tyrannical king. She remained there for the rest of her days, outliving her estranged husband, who died in 1547 and was succeeded by Edward, his nine-year-old son.

Edward’s accession prompted a decline in Anne’s status. The new king’s council viewed her as an irrelevance, not to mention a drain on their resources, and confiscated two of the manors that Henry had given her. Forever the pragmatist, Anne resolved to make the most of the life that she had left. She established her house at Hever as a lively social centre – a kind of miniature court, where she could receive esteemed guests from across the kingdom, notably Princess Elizabeth, who doted upon her. Through these guests, she kept abreast of events at court, and solicited invitations to visit it herself.

The archetypal ‘merry widow’ (or divorcee), Anne also outlived Henry’s son, Edward, who died after just six years on the throne. He was succeeded by his elder half-sister Mary, with whom Anne was still on good terms. She and Elizabeth were accorded the place of honour at Mary’s lavish coronation. The two women shared an open chariot which was richly arrayed with crimson velvet and “cloth of silver”. Anne and her younger stepdaughter were also given new dresses made from a similarly rich silver material, and in the procession to Westminster Abbey they walked together directly behind the new queen.

But neither Anne nor Elizabeth would long enjoy Mary’s favour. Their reformist religious views set them at odds with the new conservative Catholic regime, and there were soon rumours that the two women were conspiring against the queen. These were almost certainly untrue: Anne was far too sensible to take such a risk and had no grudge against Mary. Fortunately, Mary retained enough of her former affection for Anne not to act against her.

With characteristic discretion, Anne left court soon after Mary’s accession, resolved to live out her days quietly at Hever and Chelsea – another manor left to her by Henry. It was while staying at the latter that Anne died on 16 July 1557, after a short illness. Although she was only 41 years of age, she had outlived each of Henry VIII’s five other wives – and had had a happier ending than any of them.

It is a testament to her sensible and cheerful nature that she had managed to stay in everybody’s good graces throughout those turbulent times. Even her dogmatic stepdaughter Mary, who sent hundreds of reformists to the flames, held Anne in such esteem that she ordered the full pomp and ceremony of a royal funeral at Westminster Abbey.

It was a lesson that was not lost on her younger stepdaughter, Elizabeth: to succeed in the dangerous and volatile world of the Tudor court, one must be guided by pragmatism, not principle.

Friends and rivals

Anne of Cleves won over three fellow Tudor queens, yet the failure of her marriage proved lethal for a king’s chief minister

Mary Tudor

Anne of Cleves was about the same age as her eldest stepdaughter, Mary, and the two struck up an apparently warm friendship. It is an indication of how likeable Anne was that Mary overcame her natural aversion to reformers and refused to listen to the rumours that Anne was conspiring against her when she became queen.

Catherine Howard

The skittish young Catherine was among the ladies appointed to serve Anne when she arrived in England in December 1539. Anne was fully aware that Catherine had caught her husband’s eye and although she complained to the Duke of Juliers-Cleves’s ambassador, she soon became reconciled to the situation, gracefully ceding victory to her rival. To show that there were no hard feelings, she even danced with Catherine after the latter had become queen.

Thomas Cromwell

Arranging the king’s disastrous fourth marriage was the beginning of the end for his chief minister. Cromwell had championed Anne enthusiastically, aware that the marriage would cement his religious reforms. After her first disastrous meeting with Henry, Cromwell urged Anne to “behave in a way which might please the king” – in short, she should ‘excite lust’ in her new husband. But it was all in vain and Henry had Cromwell executed a few days after the marriage was annulled.

Elizabeth I

Anne cherished an abiding affection for Henry’s youngest daughter, Elizabeth. She once claimed that “to have had [Elizabeth] for her daughter would have been [a] greater happiness to her than being queen”. Perhaps the two women were initially united by a shared sense of rejection at the hands of the king, but theirs was also a meeting of minds because both were of the reformist faith. The princess undoubtedly learned a great deal from her stepmother, particularly the art of pragmatism, which would become the keynote of her own queenship.

Tracy Borman is a historian and bestselling author. To find out more, visit http://www.tracyborman.co.uk.

You can also follow Tracy on Twitter @BormanTracy.

14th of January, On this day in Tudor time…

  

On this day, 14th of January 1526 in Tudor time:

On 14th January 1526, François I of France and Emperor Charles V signed the Treaty of Madrid. François claimed later it was done under duress, and, in fact, he had little choice. His forces had been completely defeated by Charles at the Battle of Pavia, and François himself captured. In summary, the terms of the Treaty were that François would cede his claim to the Duchy of Milan, and to the Burgundian territories which had been denied to Charles’ grandmother, Mary of Burgundy, because French law would not recognise female succession. Francois was obliged to offer up his two sons as hostages, and agree to marry Charles’s sister, Eleonor, the widowed Queen of Portugal. As soon as he was safe in France, François repudiated the treaty.