Category Archives: The Tudors
Henry VIII was married to Anne Boleyn for just three years. After a secret ceremony in November 1532, the formal wedding took place on 25 January 1533 and within months, Henry’s first marriage to Queen Catherine was declared annulled by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Eight months later, Anne gave birth to her only living child. Some speculate that she was already pregnant by the time of their marriage, but when the announcement came, Henry and Anne both joyously awaited the arrival of a baby boy, even writing letters of celebration announcing the birth of a prince, but when the time came on 7 September, Anne gave birth instead to a daughter. Henry was disappointed, but knew that they were capable of having more children. They named the girl Elizabeth, after both of their mothers (Henry’s mother was Elizabeth of York and Anne’s was Elizabeth Howard, Countess of Wiltshire and daughter of the Duke of Norfolk) She would suffer from at least three miscarriages in the next few years, but still kept seemingly good relations with the King, but soon her life would take a drastic turn.
In January 1536, Catherine of Aragon died. It was probably unexpected, at least in the royal household, as the previous Queen had been banished from court and confined to Kimbolton Castle, where she saw no member of the Tudor family, not even her beloved daughter Mary. She was buried quietly in Peterborough Cathedral with only the honors of a Princess Dowager (as widow to Henry’s brother Arthur). This was the beginning of Anne’s troubles because while Catherine was being buried on 29 January, the new Queen miscarried a baby boy. This was seen perhaps as a work of karma, but it may have been distress due to circulating rumors that Anne or Henry had a hand in poisoning the former Queen; when Catherine’s body was being embalmed, it was discovered that she had a “blackened heart”, which modern medical science can now explain as the result of cancer or heart disease. It was also soon after this that Henry’s eye began to wander again, this time to Jane Seymour.
Jane was estimated to have been born sometime in 1508 in Wiltshire, the fifth of nine children and a descendant of Lionel of Antwerp, the Duke of Clarence, which meant she was actually fifth cousin to the King. However, she had a humble education and a typical Tudor court upbringing; her father Sir John Seymour was an English soldier at Henry’s court, although he held several important offices in his lifetime, including Sheriff of Wiltshire and Knight banneret (a high-ranking knight who commanded a company of troops). Jane could read and write, but her talents were more in the interest of managing a household and embroidery. She was first under the employ of Queen Catherine and then turned to Anne’s, which is perhaps where she met Henry VIII. She was not a considered beautiful (she was plain-faced, blond-haired and her skin was pale, a stark contrast to Anne in every way) and while she is often thought of as a pushover, Jane was probably very intelligent. She knew not to cross the hot-tempered king, unlike the opinionated Anne with her silver tongue and seductive charm. Jane stood out because she was gentle, subservient, and virtuous.
However, it doesn’t seem that Henry was interested in getting rid of Anne by the time the two met, but instead he wanted Jane as a mistress first. So why did Anne lose such an important battle? This has been heavily debated for ages and speculation runs rampant on the subject even nearly five centuries later.
The truth is that Anne made enemies – and we know this for a fact – and those enemies, not necessarily the King, wanted her out of the way and succeeded. The most prominent of these enemies that has been put forth is Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s chief minister and the most powerful man in England at the time. Once, they were allies, but as far as foreign policy was concerned, they were bitter enemies. Cromwell was in charge of almost all of the legal affairs of the king and his political reach was far. However, the situation my have been manipulated by Henry’s changing mental state. Around the same time as Catherine’s burial, the King entered a jousting tournament in which he was thrown to the ground and crushed beneath the weight of his armor and his horse, the force of which knocked him unconcious for two hours and is thought to have resulted in not just a painful ulcer opening in his leg, but a head injury that caused a change in his personality. He would be in constant pain for the rest of his life, and gone was the charismatic man he once had been. The king became tyrannical and quick to anger, and these fits of rage could and often would result in the misery, downfall, or even death of anyone who displeased him.
Anne was perhaps the victim of this personality change. When Henry learned of his wife’s misfortune – that after four months, their son had been born dead and in a deformed state – Jane Seymour was officially moved to the royal apartments and like Catherine before her, Anne would have to cope with the fact that her husband was seeing another woman. There is a story that says Henry gave Jane a locket with a portrait of himself inside and she kept opening and closing it so much that Anne ripped it off her neck so forcefully that her fingers started bleeding, but it is not certain whether this took place before or after the jousting accident. Whatever the case was, Henry awoke a changed man, and he turned on his new wife quickly. He even went as far as to say that she had seduced him with witchcraft!
Her enemies took this time to pounce. It is not clear exactly where the first whispers that the Queen was being unfaithful began, but in April, a Flemish musician named Mark Smeaton was taken into custody and when questioned by Cromwell (perhaps under torture) he confessed to sleeping with Anne up to three times. Several more men were arrested for supposedly being her lovers, including her own brother George! Charges of treason were added to the mounting list as a story of Anne plotting the King’s death so she could marry Henry Norris started circulating. They were all found guilty and sentenced to death.
Anne’s beheading was scheduled for the morning of 19 May 1536. She probably watched from her prison in the Tower as her friends and supposed lovers and her brother were executed. Even so, she was composed and seemed at peace when her turn came. She wore a grey damask gown and a cloak trimmed in ermine fur when she spoke her final words, asking the people gathered to pray for her and the king, and for “God [to] have pity on my soul.” The crowd knelt (though the Duke of Suffolk and Henry’s illegitimate son the Duke of Richmond were reported to have stood.) The executioner severed her head from her neck in one swift blow of his sword, ending Anne’s misery. Not even a coffin had been provided for the Queen; her body and head were placed inside an elm arrow chest and she was buried beneath the for of the Church of St. Peter ad Vincula, where she would be found centuries later during renovations to the Chapel during the reign of Queen Victoria, when she finally recieved a marker for her grave, which can be see near the alter today.
Henry became engaged to Jane the very next day and the two were married not even two weeks later.
Jane’s story is rather unremarkable compared to her predecessor, but she would have a lasting impact on the Tudor family. She worked hard to reconcile Henry with his eldest daughter Mary and due to her compassion, she was a well-liked woman who stayed away from government and politics. She instead played the part of dutiful and supportive wife to Henry, just as the King’s mother Elizabeth of York had been for his father Henry VII. It didn’t take long before Jane was pregnant and went into labor at Hampton Court Palace in mid October. After three agonizing days, the baby boy, Prince Edward, was born on 15 October 1537 to great relief and celebration, but the feeling didn’t last long. Jane grew very sick and finally died on 24 October, leaving the King devastated. She was the only one of Henry’s wives to receive a queen’s funeral and was buried in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor. It would be two years before the broken-hearted king would marry again.
In this series of posts, I will be exploring the transition of power between the women behind the throne of Henry VIII. There will be five posts in total, delving deeper into the lives of Henry’s wives than I ever have before, spanning all the way from Catherine of Aragon (whom will be discussed today) to Katherine Parr, the widow who outlived him, how they gained their positions of power and either held onto or lost them, as well as their relationship with the king.
The first wife we have to uncover is Catalina d’Aragona, a Spanish princess and daughter to King Ferdinand II of Aragon and his wife Queen Isabella I of Castile (both regions would later make up the Spanish Empire). Catherine, as the English would call her, was a few years older than Henry VIII, born in 1485 in Castile’s Alcalá de Henares, a city noted today for it’s rich archaeology and the University of Alcalá. She was well-educated, highly religious, and beautiful, but the future Henry VIII was not the first match her parents considered; from a very early age, Catherine was betrothed instead to Henry’s older brother Arthur, the Prince of Wales, and she made her way to London in 1501 at the age of just fifteen in order to marry him. However, an epidemic was sweeping through England at the time and both members of the royal couple contracted the unknown disease, simply dubbed the Sweating Sickness, and while Catherine recovered, Arthur died just before his sixteenth birthday, leaving his bride a teenage widow in a strange country after only a few months of marriage. Not wanting to return the 200,000 crown dowry her parents payed, the prince’s father, Henry VII, kept Catherine in England as he decided what to do with her. His own beloved wife, Elizabeth of York, had just died in childbirth, so there were rumors that the king was looking to marry her himself, but ultimately, after a special dispensation from the Pope, it was decided that Catherine would remain in England and marry his second son, who was then the Duke of York. Just days after the Prince’s father died in 1509, the newly-crowned King Henry VIII married Catherine in a private ceremony when she was twenty-three and he was not yet eighteen.
The new Queen proved a great influence on both Henry and England as a whole during her reign. She was given the task of being Henry’s Regent while he spent time in France on military campaign in 1513 and made it fashionable for women of the time to be educated, something not well-considered before. She still read often and practiced Catholicism even more feverently as she got older, especially after her failed pregnancies. Six times she became pregnant, yet only one child survived infancy, a daughter named Mary. Though she and the king doted on the little girl, Henry was the last surviving male heir of the newly established Tudor Dynasty; he needed a son to carry on the family name and to protect his right to the throne from other members of royal blood who many thought had greater claims than he did. His father won the crown by Right of Conquest – he knew that no matter how tight his grip on power was, he was not safe unless a smooth succession was established.
By 1525, Catherine could no longer have children, and Henry had begun taking on more mistresses, most notably Elizabeth Blount, who gave birth to a boy as a result of the affair and proved that despite rumors saying otherwise, the king was indeed capable of fathering sons. He searched for a way to get himself a legitimate heir when he met and fell fatally in love with Anne Boleyn, possibly at a dance where his sister was performing shortly after her return to England from the royal court in France. While not considered a great beauty as many believe, Anne was witty and charismatic, and like a magnet Henry was drawn to her charm and sought to make her his mistress. He bombarded Anne with gifts and love letters, hoping to gain her favor, but she only had one response for him; the only way she would go to bed with him was as his wife. With that single reply, Catherine’s days as Queen of England were numbered.
Whether or not Anne sought to break up Henry’s marriage is not certain. Tradition portrays her as a cutthroat social climber, but there is very little evidence to support this. She was also not a commoner; she was nobility, the daughter of Thomas Boleyn the Earl of Wiltshire and Ormond who was also the ambassador to France at the time, and her mother was the daughter of the Duke or Norfolk. Her family’s connections allowed her to be educated in both Austria and in France, and she was rarely after her childhood home in her native England until the death of King Louis XII of France, who was married to Henry’s sister Mary, and Anne served as one of her Ladies in Waiting before returning home and being brought under the employ of Queen Catherine. She made quite the impression when she came to court. With dark hair and eyes and a silver tongue, it was hard for her not to stand out among her peers, nor did it apparently take Henry a long time to notice her, and he was so infatuated that he was willing to do whatever it took in order to have her.
He began his pursuit in 1526 after Anne had two betrothals broken off. Sometime between then and the family’s return to England in 1521, Henry began a short-lived affair with Anne’s older sister Mary, whose children were rumored to be his, but there is no evidence to support this. But it was Anne who kept his attention. She dressed in the latest fashions and showed off her dark hair in a manner that was considered racy for the time, and she could dance and sing and was remarkably intelligent and progressive compared to some of the other women at court. Anne escaped court frequently for her ancestral home at Hever Castle in Kent, where Henry’s love letters would reach her. It took a year before she accepted his marriage proposal and several more years before the king was able to divorce his first wife.
Obtaining a divorce was not easy, even for a king. Catherine was Spanish royalty; her sister Juana (also known as Joanna the Mad) was Queen of Castile and Aragon, and all of Joanna’s six children grew up to be kings and queens – the eldest, Charles, was not only the first Hapsburg to become King of Spain, but also elected Holy Roman Emperor. Not only that but a special papal dispensation was obtained so that the two could be married in the first place since Catherine was originally his brother’s widow. That detail, Henry thought, was the key to not a divorce, but an anhullemnt. In the words of Leviticus, a man who married his brother’s wife would be childless and cursed as she was his sister in the eyes of God, and a devout Henry took this to heart.
The rest of Catherine’s life was one of humiliation and sorrow. She was forced to stand trial and reveal intimate secrets of her first marriage, namely whether or not she had entered her marriage to Henry a virgin. The whole matter may seem horrifying or even laughable today, but it was of great importance at the time; the consummation of a marriage was what cemented it in the eyes of God, and if Catherine had ever been physical with Prince Arthur during her brief marriage, it would be cause for an annulment, even if many people – including Henry’s own sister – took the wronged Queen’s side during what became known as the King’s Great Matter.
Catherine was a devout Catholic, and she swore before the court that she had never been intimate with another man other than Henry VIII, but the king was not to be swayed. Nor was Catherine. It was suggested that instead of going through with the trial, she simply give Henry what he wanted and retire to a nunnery, but she refused, saying “I am the King’s lawful and true wife. God did not call me to a convent.” The Pope refused the divorce as well as the annulment, and so Henry in his rage, declared that the Papacy would no longer have any jurisdiction in England. He created a new church – The Church of England – and placed himself at the head, effectively granting himself his own divorce. Henry married Anne Boleyn in a secret ceremony in 1532, nearly a year before the Archbishop of Canterbury declared officially that the marriage between him and Catherine was dissolved, and soon, Anne was pregnant. Catherine was stripped of her jewels and titles save for one; she became the Dowager Princess of Wales as Arthur’s widow, though her servants continued to address her and she would continue to call herself Queen.
For a royal like her, the affair must have been humiliating. Her defiance against the king was met with the harsher punishment of banishment from court to the confines of Kimbolton Castle, and the king’s refusal to ever let her see her daughter Mary again. The harsh wet climate damaged Catherine’s health. She rarely left her rooms except for Sunday Mass and occasionally was allowed visitors, but she was ordered to stop all communication with her beloved daughter, who was no longer considered to be a princess or heir to the throne. Henry offered to reunite them and even give Catherine better quarters, but this would mean them both accepting Anne Boleyn as the new Queen, and both women refused to do this. Catherine died in confinement on 7 January 1536 at the age of fifty, leaving Anne the uncontested queen and her own daughter Elizabeth as heir apparent. The betrayed Queen was laid to rest in Peterborough Cathedral with a modest cermony definitely not suited for a woman of her stature. Mary was forbidden to attend the funeral and on the same day, Anne Boleyn suffered a miscarriage. Little did anybody know, that that single day would be the start of Anne’s epic and fatal fall from grace.
Edward was born to great fanfare and relief at Hampton Court Palace as the only legitimate son of Henry VIII, though his mother, Henry’s third wife Jane Seymour, died of complication from the birth and labor, which lasted for three days. The prince was brought up by stepmothers and the women of his father’s household, and though he was only nine years old when he came to the throne of England and Ireland, he was highly intelligent and talented, and is described as a rather aloof young man, though he was also generous and kind like his mother, whom he was said to resemble right down to the color of his blond hair.
When in 1553 Edward grew devastatingly ill with what many believe to be tuberculosis (similar to his illegitimate half-brother Henry Fitzroy who died of the disease in 1536), he knew that he had to take drastic steps for his succession; while his oldest sister Mary was supposed to inherit the crown next, she was a devout Catholic and Edward had worked to secure Protestantism as the official religion of his country and feared that she would undo all he and his father had accomplished with the Reformation, and Elizabeth’s true legitimacy was still questioned due to charges of adultery and high treason that led to the execution of her mother Anne Boleyn. In a bold move, he declared in his will that his successor would be his cousin Lady Jane Grey, daughter of the Duchess of Suffolk and granddaughter to Henry VIII’s sister. When Edward finally did die at the age of just fifteen, it sparked a small civil war between Jane’s family (she was married to the son of the ambitious Duke of Northumberland who wanted a puppet to control on the throne) and Mary, who was the rightful heir. In the End, Jane ruled for just nine short days before being imprisoned in the Tower of London where she was later executed along with her husband and father-in-law and Mary was declared Queen of England in her own right.
As daughter to the German Duke of Cleves, Anne (whose birth name was Anna of the La Marck family) was a prospective bride for King Henry VIII after the death of his third and favorite wife Jane Seymour. Anne and her sister Amalia were both painted by the English court painter Hans Holbein and in 1539, Henry chose Anne as his new queen, but it was not to be a perfect match. From the moment they met, Henry was put off by her, not only because of her lack of an education, but because upon their meeting, she tried to brush off the disguised king, perhaps not knowing who he was. Nevertheless, the two were married in early January 1540 and they would divorce the same year.
Henry used the excuse of her being unattractive (which was far from the truth as many sources of the time praise her looks, especially her long blond hair) for not consummating his marriage, which he mentioned to his top adviser Thomas Cromwell; “I liked her not before, and I like her much worse now.” He complained of her sagging breasts and unpleasant odors from her breath and body, even remarking how he believed she was not a virgin. After several grueling months, an annulment was issued in July and the unhappy couple mutually ended their marriage. Cromwell, whom had arranged the marriage, was arrested soon after for treason and eventually executed at the Tower of London.
Anne, however, thrived after her divorce. She became good friends with Henry and was often referred to as the King’s Sister; the two played cards often and she was a frequent guest at court. Despite not being the oldest of Henry’s six wives, she managed to live the longest, well into the reign of Henry’s eldest daughter Mary I, whose coronation she participated in. On 16 July 1557, she died at the age of forty-two and became the only one of Henry’s wives to be buried in Westminster Abbey.
Over time, it gets difficult to maintain a series like Documentary Sunday and post a new interesting video every week. I usually schedule my posts to automatically update every week, but even that gets hard to do when you can’t find anything to post or when life gets in the way. That being said, I’m going to start posting shorter videos until further notice as summer classes begin at college for me. This is one such.
On Friday, May 19, it was the anniversary of Anne Boleyn’s execution and historian Hayley Nolan, who does the History Review podcast, posted a video where she stayed the night in the late queen’s childhood home at Hever Castle in Kent, about thirty miles away from London. Anne lived here during her early childhood until she was sent to school in the Netherlands and from there traveled to the court of France. When she returned to England as an adult, she stayed here again, brushing off love letters from a smitten Henry VIII, who at the time was still married to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Nolan got the opportunity to spend the night at Hever and shared her experience on her website, facebook and twitter. I thought I would share it with you all as well.