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.