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

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Anne of Cleves panels found in English countryside church

  

Panels from the long-vanished Tudor royal residence Chelsea Place have been discovered in an English country church. The panels bear the insignia of Anne of Cleves, Anne’s monogram, the emblem of the Duchy of Cleves and a snarling lion’s head and were likely made for her and installed on her orders in one or more of the royal residences that she lived in for the last part of her life.

Anne of Cleves was Henry VIII’s fourth wife and their brief six-month marriage ended in an annulment because Henry found Anne physically unattractive. He later went on to marry two more times. Anne of Cleves died at Chelsea Place in 1557 and is the only one of Henry’s Queens to be buried in Westminster Abbey.

  

The panels, up to 20 of them, are now in St. Leonard’s Church in Old Warden in Bedfordshire, in the Museum of London and in private ownership. They are currently the only known examples of high-status English interior architecture to have survived from this period. Because of this there are considered to be of very substantial importance.

Chelsea Place was just one of Henry VIII’s over 60 royal residences. Most of these were torn down and stripped of their contents during the English Civil War or they simply did not survive the times. Chelsea Place was demolished in 1825. Some of the contents were recycled in other buildings, some were lost and maybe some are still awaiting rediscovery like these panels.

The discovery is also significant due to the low numbers of surviving objects relating to any of Henry’s six wives. Due to Anne’s short marriage to Henry items relating to her are especially rare. Anne received a generous settlement from Henry after she agreed to the annulment and lived a lavish lifestyle, even after his death in 1547.

Before this new research into the panels they were thought to have been from a chapel in Bruges, Belgium, or from having been created after her death.

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.

On this day in Tudor Time…

The-south-face-of-Bolton-Castle-©-Tudor-Times-2015

On This Day 14th October 1536

On 14th October 1536, Lady Katherine Scrope, nee Clifford, wrote to her father, Henry, Earl of Cumberland, to inform him that the rebels of the Pilgrimage of Grace were in the vicinity of her home at Bolton Castle and were ‘persuading’ the local nobles and gentry to join them. The tone of Katherine’s letter is rather ambivalent – she implies that her husband, John, 8th Baron Scrope of Bolton, would follow his father-in-law’s lead on whether to join with the rebels or not. Whilst the Earl of Cumberland stayed staunchly loyal, Lord Scrope became embroiled and Bolton suffered some reprisals by the king’s troops.

Lady Katherine was well-connected – her grandmother, Anne St John, was half-cousin to Henry VII, and her own half-brother, another Henry, was married in June 1537 to the king’s niece, Eleanor Brandon – perhaps as reward for the Cliffords not joining the rebels.

Did Anne Boleyn Crave the Crown?

Did Anne Boleyn crave the crown?

For years we’ve been told that Anne refused to sleep with Henry VIII until he made her his queen. Yet, says George Bernard, the argument that she demanded a crown on her head simply doesn’t stack up…

This article was first published in the June 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

Thursday 24th September 2015
Submitted by: BBC History Magazine

This portrait of Anne Boleyn is probably an Elizabethan copy of a lost original painted when Anne was queen. © Bridgeman

Henry VIII’s passion for Anne Boleyn has never been in doubt. In one of his love letters to Anne, Henry lamented her absence, “wishing myself specially an evening in my sweetheart’s arms whose pretty dukkys [breasts] I trust shortly to kiss”, noting that the missive was “written with the hand of him that was, is and shall be yours”. But while his desire isn’t in question, other aspects of the beginnings of their relationship need to be reassessed.

It is widely held that Anne, with whom Henry fell in love in the mid-1520s, was prepared to accept his advances only if he married her and made her his queen. By then Henry had been married to Catherine of Aragon for nearly 20 years and she had borne him a child, Mary, though no surviving son. Could it be true that Anne suggested to Henry that his marriage to Catherine, widow of his elder brother Arthur, had always been invalid – that it was against divine law? And did she steadfastly refuse to yield to Henry until his marriage to Catherine was annulled, leaving him free to marry Anne?

For centuries, historians have reiterated this theory. Yet, when you look at it closely, it does not make sense. Imagine Anne as a lady of the court who was wanted by the king as his mistress. In a world in which divorce on the grounds of the irretrievable breakdown of a relationship did not exist, could such a lady realistically hope to persuade Henry to abandon his wife in order to marry her?

Catherine of Aragon is depicted in a 16th-century portrait. Henry worked to have their union annulled, claiming that her previous marriage to his brother invalidated their own. © Bridgeman

If Anne did make such demands, would she not be taking the risk that Henry would simply laugh at her and look elsewhere? After all, Catherine was not one of Henry’s native subjects but the aunt of Charles V – the powerful Holy Roman Emperor. Such a rejection of Catherine would risk serious diplomatic and dynastic consequences.

It’s much more likely that Anne asked that she should be the king’s only mistress. That at least was fully in Henry’s power – as several of Henry’s love letters to Anne discussed.

The king’s pleasure

Those who have suggested that Anne was holding out to be queen may have simply misinterpreted her initial reluctance to yield to Henry. What Anne feared was an all-too-common fate of royal mistresses: to be used and discarded at the king’s pleasure – as had happened to her sister, Mary. Henry’s love letters suggest that Anne was won over by his promise to make her his exclusive mistress.

One of the letters confirms that Anne did not at first commit herself unreservedly. For a year, Henry lamented, he had been stricken by the dart of love but unsure whether he would find a place in her heart. And so he offered to make her his sole mistress, banishing all others from his thoughts and affection.

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Once Anne had accepted Henry’s promises, they probably enjoyed full sexual relations for a while – at least, such is suggested by the details of a mission entrusted to one of the king’s secretaries, William Knight, in the summer of 1527. Knight was charged with securing a dispensation from the pope permitting the king to remarry if Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was first annulled.

A copy of a letter that Henry wrote to Anne in 1527. The king’s missives in this period suggest that he was the one holding back from full sexual relations. © Bridgeman

It has long been noted that this draft dispensation allowed the king to marry someone with whom he was already related in the eyes of canon law – in particular, a woman with whose sister he had had sexual relations. By this time, Henry had already enjoyed an affair with Mary Boleyn; it’s quite likely that he was the father of her two eldest children. With the papal dispensation, Henry was anticipating and attempting to deal with a potential obstacle to a marriage to Anne.

Less often noticed, and then usually dismissed, is the provision in the draft dispensation for Henry to marry a woman with whom he had already had sexual intercourse. Why should Henry have bothered to include that provision unless it were true? This strongly suggests that, after convincing Anne that she would be his only mistress, he did indeed sleep with her.

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But only for a brief period. It was probably at this point that Henry came to the conclusion that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon had never been valid in the eyes of God. If that marriage were annulled, Henry realised, he would be free to marry Anne as his first wife. Any child born would be of unquestioned legitimacy. But in order to make his case for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine, Henry needed to hold the moral high ground.

Throughout the proceedings leading to his divorce, Henry claimed not that his marriage to Catherine had broken down but that it had always been against divine law. If Henry had publicly admitted that he had fallen in love with Anne Boleyn, it would have cast doubt on the sincerity of his concern not to break divine law. In an age without reliable methods of contraception, there was also an obvious risk of pregnancy – and nothing would be more damaging to the king’s moral credibility. Jean du Bellay, the French ambassador, vividly outlined the problem in June 1529: “I very much fear that for some time past this king has come very near Mme Anne,” adding: “If the belly grows, all will be spoilt.”

A portrait of Henry VIII from c1525–30. Once Anne accepted the king’s promise to make her his sole mistress, it is implausible to think that she could have prevented him enjoying full sexual relations. © Bridgeman

What’s more, Henry was determined that any child he might have with Anne should be indisputably legitimate, not the controversial offspring of a relationship not yet validated. Anne never did become pregnant during the long years in which Henry and his advisors worked towards the end of his marriage to Catherine. That does not prove that it was Anne who was holding Henry back, but is consistent with the suggestion that it was Henry, not Anne, who refrained from full sexual relations.

“Our desired end”

Henry’s love letters support this theory. In one he informed “darling” Anne that the letter-bearer was being sent with “as many things to compass our matter and to bring it to pass as our wits could imagine or devise”. Once brought to pass, “you and I shall have our desired end, which should be more to my heart’s ease and more quietness to my mind than any other thing in this world”.

Henry’s subscription – “written with the hand of him which desireth as much to be yours as you do to have him” – hints that it was Anne who needed reassurance of Henry’s desire, and Henry who was holding back.

On another occasion Henry wrote to Anne: “What joy it is to me to understand of your conformableness to reason and of the suppressing of your inutile and vain thoughts and fantasies with the bridle of reason.” Continue, Henry urged, “for thereby shall come, both to you and to me the greatest quietness that may be in this world”. Here Henry was urging patience – “conformableness to reason” – on Anne until the church found in his favour.

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In a letter most likely written soon after Anne agreed to become his mistress, Henry assured her that “henceforth my heart will be devoted to you only, greatly wanting that my body also could be”. Daily he begged God to intervene and help him achieve his goal, hoping that at length his prayer would be heard. Yet, in doing so, Henry was not berating Anne for holding back, for refusing to sleep with him. Instead it was Henry who refrained, and what he regretted were the complexities and the delays imposed by the laws and procedures of the church.

The love letters also reveal that theirs became an intimate relationship. As we have already seen, Henry longed to hold Anne in his arms and kiss her breasts.

Resorting to force

Henry’s armour shows that he was a big man, and we know that he was forceful in emotion: in 1535, he came close to killing his court fool in a rage. If he had wanted to go further with Anne, it is implausible to think that she could have prevented him.

From where, then, did the story arise that Anne was refusing Henry’s advances until she was made queen? Perhaps the source was the scholar and cleric Reginald Pole who had gone abroad to study rather than become implicated in the king’s divorce. In 1536, Pole attacked Henry fiercely, calling on the king to repent and return to the fold of the church. He berated Henry for the many terrible things the king had done for the love of Anne Boleyn; she was presented as a femme fatale who convinced Henry that, as long as he maintained Catherine as his wife, he was living in mortal sin. In doing so Pole was offering Henry a way out – an excuse that he could use if he repented and ended the schism with the Catholic church.

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In many ways, it was a characteristic of Henry’s rule that he placed responsibility for unpopular policies on others. Here, Pole was offering him scope to do that again. But even though Anne Boleyn was by then dead, Henry did not take the opportunity offered by Pole’s comments – and we should not treat Pole’s remarks as the truth. Nothing in the surviving sources from the late 1520s points to Anne being involved in making the case for the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine.

Henry’s writing box (c1525–27) bears the heraldic badges of both the king and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Henry may have kept the  pens he used to write his love letters to Anne in this box. © Bridgeman

On the contrary, many of the sources suggest that the opposite was true. In one of his love letters, Henry told Anne that he had spent four hours that day working on the book in support of his case for an annulment – collecting and elaborating on biblical examples that justified his stand – but he made no attempt to involve Anne in this. Henry sent Francis Bryan, a trusted courtier, to Italy to report on how things stood in the papal courts. Bryan took care to write to the king only, giving Henry the opportunity to tell Anne just how much, or how little, he pleased. She was not directing Henry’s marital diplomacy.

The suggestion that Anne Boleyn did not refuse to sleep with Henry until they could be married may diminish her in some people’s eyes – unfairly, in my view. If Anne insisted that Henry enjoy her as his sole mistress before she agreed to any relationship, it showed she was no doormat – rather, a woman who stood up for her interests as she understood them. Demanding to be Henry’s queen, though, would have been a step too far – and there is nothing to show that she did.

Timeline: The rise and fall of Anne Boleyn

c1525-26

Henry falls in love with Anne. He pursues her for a year before she agrees to become his mistress, though their sexual relationship continues for only a limited time – perhaps a year.

May 1527

Henry is convinced that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon contravenes divine law and is invalid. With Thomas Wolsey, lord chancellor, cardinal and legate, and many churchmen and lawyers, Henry tries to persuade the pope to grant an annulment.

Thomas Wolsey was cardinal and lord chancellor from 1515. © Bridgeman

Autumn/winter 1527

Henry requests a papal dispensation to permit him to marry a woman with whose sister he had enjoyed sexual relations, and with whom he had already had sexual relations.

11 July 1531

Henry sees Catherine of Aragon for the last time. She is forced to leave court, dying at Kimbolton Castle (in what’s now Cambridgeshire) in 1536.

Winter 1532/33

Henry sees Catherine of Aragon for the last time. She is forced to leave court, dying at Kimbolton Castle (in what’s now Cambridgeshire) in 1536.

May 1533

Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, pronounces Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon invalid.

Thomas Cranmer. © Bridgeman

1 June 1533

Anne is crowned queen in Westminster Abbey.

September 1533

Anne gives birth to a daughter, Elizabeth. This was a disappointment to the king.

May 1536

Anne is charged with and convicted of treason. She is alleged to have committed adultery with five men, including an incestuous liaison with her brother, George.

19 May 1536

Anne Boleyn is beheaded with a single sword strike at the Tower of London.

An 18th-century illustration depicts Anne’s execution. © Getty

George Bernard is professor of early modern history at the University of Southampton, and author of Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions (Yale, 2011)