On 11th July 1536, the Act of Ten Articles was promulgated. This was the first element of Henry VIII’s Reformation that actually affected doctrinal matters, and was probably written by Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. Considered to be reformist in tone, whilst it permitted prayers for the dead, it negated any value in papal pardons or remissions. It confirmed the Real Presence in the sacraments, and thus remains essentially a Catholic exposition of faith. It was, however, novel enough to cause disquiet, and religious change was one of the motives behind the Pilgrimage of Grace.
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 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, 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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
In 1541, the grandmother of Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Katherine Howard, under suspicion for her knowledge of the queen’s pre-marital sexual affairs, broke into coffers belonging to two of the men involved and sent for her spectacles to read the letters that she found. Since she was doing this by candlelight in the middle of the night, it’s not surprising she needed a little help to read – and then burn – these incriminating documents.
Spectacles at this time were usually armless, designed to sit on the bridge of the nose or to be handheld. Although they were useful for reading, they wouldn’t have been particularly helpful for people who needed to wear them all the time. Poor eyesight was common in Tudor England and there was little that could be done about it. The many remedies for eye conditions that can be found in early modern medical recipe books show that people certainly tried to cure themselves – but the vast array of remedies suggests none of them were very effective!
2) The official penalty for brawling within the royal court was the loss of a hand
With a court full of young and rowdy men, Henry VIII felt that a deterrent was necessary to control his courtiers, and he chose to make the punishment fit the crime. In 1541 Sir Edmund Knyvett [the eldest son of distinguished courtier and sea captain Sir Thomas Knyvet] had a fight on the tennis court with one of the Earl of Surrey’s servants, Thomas Clere, and landed a punch on Clere’s nose. Knyvett was arraigned for this later in the year and sentenced to lose his hand.
Apparently the royal surgeon would be the one to sever the hand; the king’s mastercook supplied the knife; and the sergeant farrier [the person in charge of providing horses with shoes] the hot iron to sear the wound, while the sergeant of the cellar [the person in charge of the court’s alcohol] supplied alcohol (for the spectators, not the victim).
Knyvett is said to have pleaded that his left hand be cut off, so that he could continue to serve the king with his right. Happily for Knyvett, in the end he was pardoned, but the king put out a proclamation then and there that in future, anyone found brawling within the precincts of the court would definitely lose a hand.
3) Elizabeth I could be violent
She may not have borne arms or led an army, but Elizabeth I could be quite violent in a domestic setting. When in a rage, she swore like a trooper and could apparently be heard several rooms away.
Elizabeth was not above abusing her ladies-in-waiting; in 1576, when she discovered that Mary Shelton had secretly married courtier Sir John Scudamore two years previously, she flew into a rage and rained blows on the unfortunate Mary, and according to some sources may have broken her finger.
Elizabeth I wasn’t above throwing things either; there is a story that she once threw a slipper at her spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham. Elizabeth also had no toleration for lack of respect: one day in 1598, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, turned his back on the queen during a heated argument. For this unthinkable breach of court etiquette, Elizabeth promptly boxed his ears, at which point Essex placed his hand on his sword hilt [handle]. Shocked courtiers scrambled to put themselves between him and the queen, and Essex stormed out of the room.
4) Tudor aristocrats gave each another some interesting presents
Gift-giving was a key element of the patronage system; if you wanted something done, you gave the relevant person a gift, since this would in theory force them to reciprocate by doing whatever it was that you wanted. Gifts could be very personal, such as jewellery worn by the giver, or clothing.
Food items could also be given as gifts; for example, noblewoman Lady Honor Lisle prided herself on her homemade quince marmalade [quince is a fruit similar in appearance to a pear]. Some food items were rather more exotic, and letters testify to attempts to transport seal and porpoise before they went bad.
Sometimes even live animals were given as gifts. Lady Lisle sought advice on a gift for Anne Boleyn in the 1530s and was told that the queen hated monkeys, but liked spaniels. Plus, Princess Mary (later Mary I) was given a parrot by the Countess of Derby in 1538.
New Year’s Day, rather than Christmas, was the biggest gift-giving day for the Tudors, and nobles competed to give the king or queen the best present. Such gifts usually involved vast quantities of gold and jewels, but were sometimes more inventive: the Duke of Norfolk gave Henry VIII a chess set in 1532, and in 1557 Mary I and her husband, Philip II of Spain, were given “a Map of England, stayned upon cloth of silver in a frame of wood”. It is also said that Elizabeth I’s courtiers indulged her love of clothes with gifts of gowns and fabric.
5) All Tudor monarchs, and many aristocrats, adopted or inherited mottos that would be used alongside their personal symbol or ‘badge’ on their servants’ livery [uniform]
These mottos could change to reflect important events or occasions, such as a marriage, and temporary mottos were worn during tournaments.
Some of these mottos are well known: Henry VIII’s ‘Coeur Loyale’ (Loyal Heart) in 1511 after the birth of Prince Henry; ‘Declare, I Dare Not’ in 1526, which is thought to relate to Anne Boleyn; and the royal motto still used by our queen today, ‘Dieu et mon droit’ (God and my right)’. Some mottos are less well known – for example, Mary I’s was ‘Truth, the daughter of time’.
Some Tudor mottos have a peculiarly modern feel. Philip II’s motto when king of Spain was ‘The world is not enough’ – apt for a man who controlled Spain, the Netherlands, parts of Italy, and swathes of Germany! Anne Boleyn used the motto ‘Ainsi sera, groigne qui groigne’, during the Christmas period in 1530, which in modern idiom is more or less ‘Haters gonna hate’ – a clear reference to her intention to marry Henry VIII.
Dr Nicola Clark is an early modern historian specialising in gender and court history at Royal Holloway, University of London, and the University of Chichester. Her book, Gender, Family and Politics: The Howard Women, 1485–1558 is forthcoming with Oxford University Press.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
On 5th September, 1548, Katherine Parr, Dowager Queen of England, and wife of Sir Thomas Seymour, Baron Seymour of Sudeley and Lord High Admiral, died, probably of puerperal fever. Katherine was the daughter of two of Henry VIII’s courtiers, Maud Green and Sir Thomas Parr. Married four times, Katherine was the first Queen of England to be buried as a Protestant, and the first Queen to have her writings published.