The ballad “The Death of Queen Jane” is an English ballad that describes the events surrounding Jane Seymour’s death, while romanticizing her union with Henry VIII. The following is an epitaph that both glorifies and laments her, painting her as the sacrificial lamb who gave her life for a noble cause -giving Henry his longed for legitimate male heir to succeed him after his death.
“Queen jane in labour full six weeks and more, And the women were weary, and fain would give oer: ‘O women, O women, as women ye be, Rip open my two sides, and save my baby!’ O royal Queen Jane, that thing may not be; We’ll send for King Henry to come unto thee’ King Henry came to her, and sate on her bed: ‘What wails my dear lady, her eyes look so red?’ … ‘O royal Queen Jane, that thing will not do; If I lose your fair body, I’ll lose your baby too’ She wept and she wailed, and she wrung her hands sore; O the flower of England must flourish no more! She wept and she wailed till she fell in a swoond, They opened her two sides, and the baby was found. The baby was christened with joy and much mirth, Whilst poor Queen Jane’s body lay cold under earth; There was ringing and singing and mourning all day, The princess Elizabeth went weeping away. The trumpets in mourning so sadly did sound, And the pikes and the muskets did trail on the ground.”
Jane Seymour gave birth to Prince Edward, later King Edward IV of England and Ireland, on the 12th of October 1537. As it was customary, she and Henry didn’t attend the christening. After the baptism ceremony was over, the two of them received him in the Queen’s chamber. Jane became sick days later. Two days before she died she seemed better, but it soon became evident she wasn’t and on the twenty fourth, twelve days after her son was born, she died.
Henry ordered masses to be said in her honor. During her lifetime, she wasn’t politically vocal as her predecessor. She transformed herself into the perfect domestic wife, the kind of woman that Henry admired and most of his wives wanted to live up.
In her biography “Six Wives and the Many Mistresses of Henry VIII”, historian Amy Licence, states that Henry’s mother, Elizabeth of York, became a role model for these women. After seeing what had happened to her late mistresses, Jane was wise enough to become her late mother-in-law’s mirror image. Had she lived though, historian Elizabeth Norton in her biography of Jane, states that it is highly likely, that another side of Jane would have emerged -one that she would’ve been free to use given that she had succeeded where her predecessors hadn’t
Jane was buried on Windsor. Henry died eleven years later. He planned a big monument for the two of them that was never completed.
Norton, Elizabeth. Jane Seymour: Henry VIII’s true love. Amberley. 2009.
Loades, David. Jane Seymour: Henry VIII’s favorite wife: Amberley. 2013.
” “. The Seymours of Wolf Hall: A Tudor Family Story. Amberley. 2014.
Seymour, William. Ordeal by Ambition: An English Family in the Shadow of the Tudors. Sidwick & Jackson. 1972.
Some of the best portrayals of Jane Seymour for are in the BBC’s “Six Wives of Henry VIII” and in “The Tudors” where she was played by two different actresses. The first shows her as someone who tries to make the best of a bad situation and as Amy Licence brilliantly pointed out in her book “the Six Wives and the Many Mistresses of Henry VIII” what women could truly say ‘no’ to Henry VIII?
We also forget that this was a different point in time, and women did not have the same freedom of choice as they today in free societies. Women were nonetheless assertive. In her biography on the Woodvilles, Susan Higginbotham, wittily ends her first chapter by loosely quoting Jane Austen, stating that a king -especially a new one- was in dire need of a wife to preserve his dynasty.
The Tudor Dynasty was still relatively new and Henry needed to secure it by any means necessary. He went to great lengths to marry Anne Boleyn and then to rid himself off her, marrying Jane Seymour over a month after her predecessor’s execution. Retha Warnicke decided to focus on this on her biography on the Queens of England when she addressed Jane Seymour, implying she walked all over her dead rival before her body was cold. Retha Warnicke’s influence continues to be felt among many Tudor fans and in pop culture that continues to borrow from her writings.
The Tudors did a good job showing a well-rounded Jane Seymour, who was neither hero or villain. Anita Briem showed her ambitious side, knowing that this was a dangerous game that she was being used as a pawn by her brother elevate her family, but one that she could also benefit from greatly if she went along with it. Anabelle Wallis showed her kinder side, without overlooking flaws.
The Six Wives of Henry VIII decades before that on the BBC was the first popular depiction to humanize her, tearing through the caricatures of the innocent plain Jane and the evil homewrecker that continue to abound in fiction.
Worth mentioning although it is not fictional is the portrayal from Lucy Worsley’s documentary series “Six Wives of Henry VIII” (“Secrets of the Six Wives” in PBS); it didn’t shy away from showing good and bad aspects of her character and of her situation.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book because there is nothing more I love than an author who approaches these controversial subjects in an objective way. Unfortunately, we are all humans and prone to our ow biases and G.J. Meyer wasn’t the exception. His intention was to dispel myths about the Tudor era and he did it brilliantly when it came to Mary I, the six wives (who’ve come to define Henry VIII’s reign), Mary, Queen of Scots and other important figures to some extent; but when it came to the perennial figures we keep hearing about, it seemed like he was more concerned about deconstructing them rather than presenting them as figures of their time. I also noticed how -for someone who claims to be doing the opposite of what propagandist have done to elevate these figures to hero status- he seemed to take secondary sources into account as opposed to primary ones when it suited his narrative.
Granted, Elizabeth I, Henry VIII and for many decades Henry VII as well, have been seen as icons. You just have to look at how the first two are portrayed in the media to confirm this, or how historians fawn over them; but instead of addressing where they are wrong, G.J. Meyer swings the pendulum to the other side.
I adore Elizabeth I but I’m not blinded to her faults. She broke promises and made vague ones, and she treated her cousins awfully; and just like her sister, she could be both cruel and merciful. Addressing this shouldn’t be difficult. You can say Henry VIII was inventive, one of the most learned princes in Christendom who enjoyed sports and engaging in theological debate. He’d be angry when people let him win, and loved to be challenged. But something happened and that something happened is something that G.J. Meyer briefly addresses but not as much as I would’ve liked. This something happened to be his absence of a male heir. The Tudor Dynasty was new and the wars of the roses was still fresh on everyone’s memory, not to mention that people were wary of a female king. Even in places where there had been queen regnants, people were still not entirely receptive to the idea of being governed by a woman.
Times were changing however. This was not the medieval age when people believed more firmly that they could never be governed by a woman because women were supposed to be submissive, and due to their delicate nature, they couldn’t rely on them to make hard decisions or lead men into dangerous war. There was also the question of childbirth. What if she died in childbirth? Who would head her son’s regency, and what if she married the crown prince or king of another powerful country? Would that turn their country into a colony of that realm?
These were serious questions that Humanists and other scholars were debating at the time that Henry VIII sought to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, not to mention that initially he sought a way to salvage her honor and their daughter’s status by proposing a settlement that would be agreeable to her. Some of her supporters even though that she should have given in and press Henry to keep his promise, as well as press the pope to do what he did for his sister, the Queen Dowager of Scotland, Margaret Tudor when she annulled her second marriage to Archibald Douglas. Her daughter should have been declared a bastard since under this arrangement, her parents were never legally married but thanks to the “good faith” clause, she remained legitimate.
But Katharine chose not to, and the rest as we know is history. There is another element to this story and that is Henry’s fatal injuries. He suffered a fall from his horse in the 1520s and another (more serious one) in 1536 and this, many historians agree, worsened his behavior.
The author also seemed to fall into the recent trend among many novelists which is to cast Richard III in a positive light, ignoring his obvious flaws and mismanagement, at the expense of Henry Tudor who comes off as the villain of this story. No one denies that Henry Tudor altered events, rewrote history to justify his reign. But this wasn’t exclusive to the Tudors, what could have been said is that what the Tudors did differently is that they did it so much more effectively with their methods being far more insidious.
As far as the Tudors go, they were complex individuals and history is not an exact science because no social science truly is. Nonetheless, this book tackled many important subjects and offered a new perspective on previously demonized or ignored figures.
If you are new to the Tudor age, this will be a good book to binge on that sheds light on the subject but I recommend that after you finish, you also read on other books that offer different perspectives so you can form a better opinion on this subject. If you are not new to this subject, this is still a good book to read for that same reason and the other reasons I previously pointed out.
There is no question that Jane Grey was for all intent and purposes a prodigy, even for her times. Today we expect children to learn the basics. But back in the sixteenth century, things were different, especially for noblewomen, who were expected to make their families proud by finding a suitable husband who’d make a powerful ally. In the case of Jane Grey, being the eldest of her sisters, meant she had to meet most of society’s expectations. Having royal blood, and being related to the King through her mother, meant that she had to work harder than Katherine and Mary, and just as hard -if not more- than her bastardized cousins, Ladies, Mary and Elizabeth Tudor.
But Jane Grey exceeded everyone’s expectations, especially her father whose continual indulgence made her appreciate him more than her mother who was stricter. When her thirst for knowledge became evident, she became a ward in the Parr household. Queen Dowager Kathryn Parr had recently remarried, for the fourth and last time to her true love, Sir Thomas Seymour, Baron Sudeley. The couple’s manor, Sudeley Castle, became a safe haven for many intellectual curious girls like Jane. Among them was Jane’s cousin, and Kathryn’s favorite royal stepdaughter, lady Elizabeth Tudor. Elizabeth Tudor was nearly Jane’s equal, but after she fell from grace, Jane took her place in Kathryn’s heart.
Jane lamented the Queen Dowager’s death, and after she was returned to her parents, she berated them and begged them to send her back. She wrote how unfair they were treating her. Several historians and novelists have taken this as ‘proof’ that Jane Grey’s mother was a wicked woman and her husband, an indolent fool, or her partner-in-crime who saw their daughter as nothing more than tool in their quest to gain more power. As easy as it is to turn this into a dualistic tale of good and evil, heroes and villains and so on; the truth is that her parents were neither of these things.
Lord Henry Grey, Marques of Dorset and (after the fall of Somerset) Duke of Suffolk, and Frances Brandon, were self-serving aristocrats. This is not unusual given that a family’s number one interest was in promoting their children to other courtiers in the hopes that they would marry into equally or more powerful families to further their riches. Family mattered more than everything else, and this is where religion comes into play as well because it was believed that the best way to raise successful wives and lords, was to instill the fear of god in them. As a result, Jane’s intelligence became highly by Reformers in England and abroad.
Soon after, she became one of the leading figures in the Evangelical movement. In 1552, shortly after Somerset’s execution, her family gained more prominence. Renown Protestant figures like the pastor Michael Angelo Florio whose congregation looked after Protestant exiles, praised her and held her as an example for other Protestant women to follow. He wasn’t the only one, older women like William Cecil’s wife, Mildred Cooke, thought the same. In a letter she wrote in Greek, she compared the adolescent girl to the fourth century bishop of Caesare, Basil the Great, and gave her a copy of one of his many works. Her former tutor Bullinger introduced her to the works of Theodore Bublinger who had translated the Koran -this has led some historians to believe that she might have also been taught Arabic. As her popularity among scholars grew, Jane’s self importance also grew and so did her arrogance. Her father, by this time Duke of Suffolk, together with the Marquis of Northampton (William Parr -Katherine Parr’s brother), and John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, supported the King in his reissue of the prayer book which completely outlawed the mass and introduced more radical reforms inspired by Swiss and German reformers such as Bullinger and Ulm. There were few opponents in Edward’s council to these new reforms, but among them was Archbishop Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury who had been a good friend of the “Good Duke” (Edward Seymour) and believed these reforms were too radical and too soon to be implemented. Also in this year, Henry began to make plans for his eldest daughter and heir’s betrothal. Jane was not he first bride her father in law had in mind for Guildford. Margaret Clifford, another descendant of Mary Tudor and Charles Brandon was his first choice but her father said no since Guildford was only a fourth son and in spite of his pleas and the king’s, the earl’s mind remained unchanged. As the king’s health got worse the following year, he gave his blessing to Northumberland and Suffolk to wed their four teenage offspring. In a triple marriage ceremony in May 25 1553, Jane was married to Guildford, Katherine to Lord Herbert, and Catherine Dudley to Lord Hastings. With the pieces set, it was only a matter of time before Edward’s passing led to their final move.
Lisle, Leanda. Tudor. Passion. Manipulation. Murder. The Story of England’s Most Notorious Royal Family. Public. 2013.
–. The Sisters who would be Queen. Harper. 2009.
Ives, Eric. Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery. Wiley-Blackwell. 2009.
Whitelock, Anna. Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen. Random House. 2010.
Porter, Linda. The Myth of Bloody Mary. St. Martin Press. 2008.
Borman, Tracy. The Private Lives of the Tudors. Grove Press. 2016.
On the 11th of June Charles and Henry VIII traveled to Windsor Castle. They stayed there for nine nights until they departed on the 21st, setting for Farnham.
The first four days on Windsor were uneventful. On the 16th things became more interesting when the two monarchs discussed the terms of the treaty between Spain, the Holy Roman Empire and England. Although this meeting was merely a formality since the treaty was published that same day.
On the 19th, Henry and Charles got straight to business, and discussed another matter and signed another treaty.
“This one was to remain secret” Patrick William wrote in his biography on Katharine of Aragon, “for it committed them to the marriage of Charles to Princess Mary within eight years.”
In her biography on Mary I, Linda Porter explains that this marriage treaty stipulated that in the event that Katharine and Henry had no sons by the time this marriage came to be, the couple’s eldest son would inherit Henry VIII’s crowns, thus becoming King of England, lord of Ireland and King of France (in theory). In turn their second son, or daughter (if they couldn’t have any more sons) would inherit Spain and selected territories Charles ruled over.
Thirdly, since Mary and Charles were related in the second degree of affinity, the two monarchs would ask the pope for a special dispensation. And lastly, the matter of her dowry was settled and Charles promised that he would stay true to his betrothed and honor every part of the treaty.
On the 20th, Cardinal and Archbishop of York, Thomas Wolsey, convened a legatine court and asked the two monarchs to reaffirm their agreements with one another over the marriage treaty. The event had many important witnesses, among them Henry, Count of Nassau, Imperial Chancellor Gattinara, Pedro Ruiz de la Mota, Bishop of Palancia, Thomas Ruthall, Bishop of Durham, the Earls of Shrewsbury and Worcester, George Talbot and Charles Percy, Cuthbert Tunstall, the Bishop of London, and Sir Thomas Boleyn.
There is no need for spoilers beyond this point because we all know how this turned out. Henry VIII didn’t want to pay the full dowry after he felt betrayed by Charles V during their joint enterprise against France, and Charles V used this excuse to break the marriage treaty and marry his other first cousin, someone whom he didn’t have to wait for her to grow up because they were almost the same age, the Portuguese Infanta, Isabel of House Avis.
We do not know how Mary felt. Given that she was a child at the time the marriage broke, and her father felt betrayed yet again by her maternal family, she probably didn’t brood too much of it (if she did at all) and instead focused on her studies. Her mother would have been another case entirely as Katharine would have wanted both nations to be tied together against what she perceived to be their natural enemy, France. Had things gone differently, Mary’s situation would have been like Matilda, although probably less bellicose. As it happened, Mary would go on to be betrothed to countless more kings and princes and then when she was a bastard, minor royals in an effort to cement an alliance, but due to her gender, her lineage and her religious affiliation nothing would come out of it.
In the meantime, both parties were happy celebrating their alliance and the future marriage between Charles and Mary. Just as his daughter had previously showed off her artistic talents to their Spanish guests, Henry VIII did the same when he wrote to Charles an elaborate letter where he expressed deep gratitude for his arrival, and the amicability he’d showed to his ministers, including Cardinal Wolsey.
Porter, Linda. The Myth of Bloody Mary. St. Martin Press. 2008.
Whitelock, Anna. Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen. Random House. 2010.
Williams, Patrick. Katharine of Aragon: The Tragic Story of Henry VIII’s First Unfortunate Wife. Amberley. 2013.
Fox, Julia. Sister Queens: The Noble Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile. Ballantine Books. 2012.
Weir, Alison. Henry VIII: The King and his Court. Ballantine Books. 2001.
It is easy to see why people have a hard time differentiating from the jolly old monarch, bluff king Hal/good king Hall, or the murderous, lecherous psychopath that came centuries later, to the real Henry VIII, who was as complex as everyone else during this era.
I have been guilty of viewing him through a twenty first century lens.
This is not going to be some excuse-making post about him, Henry VIII did a lot of things that were atrocious but when you want to have a serious discussion about him, you have to look at his reign in the proper context and the proper context is looking at it from a 16th century standpoint.
Henry VIII was no saint but neither was he a mustache-twirling villain, what he was, was a Humanist Prince whom everyone started to adore, ignoring the people he executed because they happened to be people they hated (Empson and Dudley) until one day he overstepped his boundaries, broke away from the church, threatened the livelihood of farmers and traders who relied on the monastic system that people went ‘okay this is going too far.’ The fat that he also wanted to annul his marriage to his wife of many years who was beloved by the English people, also played a part in people rising up against him. But even as they rebelled, they always made sure to point out that it wasn’t against him directly but their ministers.
The Forgotten Monarch:
It is easy to see why Henry VIII is seen as a villain. From a twenty-first century standpoint he does seem amoral, but we forget that the past is a different country and the Tudor era can’t easily be divided into good and evil. History is not a morality tale and if we want to have a serious discussion about the infamous monarch, we have to get to the heart of the story and see how the black legend of lecherous, murdering bluff king hall came to be.
In the following paragraph from The Wives of Henry VIII, Antonia Fraser says the following about Henry regarding the judicial arrest and later murder of Anne Boleyn:
“It is true that the workings of the King’s conscience followed the dictates of his heart amazingly conveniently. But this did not mean that he did not have a conscience. On the contrary, it was a likely and important part of his nature. The coincidence between passion and conscience was more apparent to outsiders than it was to him, a useful capacity for her self deception being another of his attributes … This is not to absolve Henry VIII of guilt concerning his second wife’s destruction, let alone the deaths of the innocent courtiers, some of them his close friends. On a rational level, the sovereign who agreed on 24 April to sign the commission of investigation into unknown treasonable conspiracies must have had a fair idea of what was going on. And even if that signing could be regarded as a purely routine administrative matter, the King went on a few days later to sign the documents necessary for summoning parliament … It is merely to observe that Henry VIII found it easy enough to absolve himself.”
Fraser and several other historians have pointed out, Henry wasn’t a dastardly being.
Deep down, to quote historian Robert Hutchinson, “he believed that what he wanted was what God wanted.” And it will be easy to point out his hypocrisy, but before doing that, his religiosity must be addressed.
“Most people have seen the famous painting of the bloated, middle-aged King, standing with his fists anchored pugnaciously to his hips, wearing sumptuous cloths covered in embroidery and jewels. The force of his personality can still be felt, even more a two-dimensional depiction in oil … His appearance thoroughly matches his reputation as a brutal thug who murdered women when he tired of them … Henry is popularly remembered as a fat, covetous, and womanizing lout, but this image is less than half the story. The aged King, with his cruel disdain for others and his harsh authoritarianism, is very different from his younger self. When Henry ascended to the throne, he strove to bring harmony and chivalry to his court; he was not to contentious and brutal man he was to become … As a young man, Henry was a handsome, genial, and a rational ruler. The youthful King was described, in the private letters of more than one foreign ambassador or other court contemporary, as having incredible physical beauty. His hair was red, he had very fair skin, and his face was as lovely as that of “a pretty woman” (Scarisbrick, 1970:13) … In addition to his physical accomplishments, the King had a brilliant mind. Henry’s intellect impressed many of the most famous thinkers of his day.”
In her book, Blood Will Tell, medical historian Kyra Cornelius Kramer illustrates Henry’s youth and background before she talks about the possible illnesses that affected him.
She also spends a good deal dispelling myths surrounding Henry, starting with the notion that he was a lecher whose mood changes were the result of venereal diseases from countless sex partners.
“Had it been suspected that Henry had syphilis, word of his condition would doubtlessly have circulated in European courts. The fact that he was the English monarch would not have stopped the doctors from reporting his disease, any more than it stopped royal physicians from making the King of France’s condition common knowledge.”
In her book, Six Wives and the Many Mistresses of Henry VIII, women’s historian Amy Licence, contests this notion, saying that there might be a bit of truth in legends, although she also maintains that in comparison to other kings, Henry was far more discreet and a prude.
Young Henry: The Man that Time Forgot
Henry VIII grew up in a strict environment. It was all fun and games until his brother died and his father, worrying about his last remaining male heir, was forced to do some adjustments to his schooling and outdoor activities. Basically, he wasn’t allowed to go out much. His father enjoyed playing cards, joking with friends when he was abroad and watching jousting tournaments. Naturally, his son wanted to do all that and more but his father didn’t let him. Henry was allowed to have friends but he wasn’t allowed to engage in any sort of sports that might hurt him.
In the twelfth century, Louis VI of the Capetian Dynasty, aka Louis “the Fat”, of France lost his eldest son due to horse riding. And jousting was far more dangerous, especially for a young boy, so that was out of the question.
Courtiers thought that Henry would grow up to be someone they could easily control but he surprised them when he told them he’d choose his bride, concocting a sentimental lie how it was what his father asked of him before he died. Rescuing Katharine of Aragon from near penury, Henry VIII saw himself as Sir Lancelot to her Guinevere. At times the two engaged in elaborate masques where they would each play different roles, with Katharine as the damsel in distress and Henry as her knight in shining armor. In her documentary series, the Secrets of the Six Wives (Six Wives in the UK), Lucy Worsley spent the first half hour of the first episode showing how deeply in love Henry and Katharine were and that they were equal in looks, stubbornness, and their educational backgrounds.
I am not going to spend to be discussing Katharine’s background, I have done that already in other posts which I’ve linked down below. I will say that when it comes to Henry, his background is often ignored to the point that all people can think of -when they think of Henry- is this disgusting gluttonous lecherous idiot. That was not always the case and this perception is a perfect example of how the shifting religious landscape affected people’s views on a man who was once hailed by the Venetian ambassador as the true embodiment of Humanist principle.
The origins of the Black Legend & the truth about his childhood
In his biography on Henry VIII, the late David Loades had this to say on the Good King Hal:
“Pro … defensionewas the first round in the creation of that ‘black legend’ of Henry VIII which thereafter dominated all those records of English events which emanated either from Catholic Europe or from the English Catholic community. One of the most vitriolic was Nicholas Sander’s De origine ac progressu schismaticis Anglicani published at Cologne in 1585, which attributed Henry’s actions in the 1530s entirely to unbridled lust, both for Anne Boleyn and also for the wealth of the Church. This was a line also taken by Robert Parsons in his treatise of three conversions … which was issued at St Omer in 1603. Modern historians in the Catholic tradition have been far more judicious, not only because polemic no longer serves a useful purpose, but because the debate has broadened to embrace the King’s whole style of government. Cardinal Gasquet in 1888, while not abandoning the lust and greed interpretation, was more concerned to set the events in context and to admit that there might have been some justification for the King’s extreme reactions. In the twentieth century Philip Hughes, while pointing out that Henry had a tendency to alter the law to suit his own convenience, also proposed that there was much amiss with the late medieval Church, and particularly the monasteries, which invited the King’s intervention. This concession has been repudiated by more recent scholars, notably Jack Scarisbrick and Eamon Duffy, who have argued that the Church was in rude health and that Henry’s success was primarily the result of his exercise of crude force. It was by executing dissenters on both sides of the confessional divide that the King enforced his will, using fear and intimidation as his principal weapons. Meanwhile, for historians of a Protestant persuasion the reformation was a change waiting to happen. Without denying the importance of the King’s actions, they proposed a model of a Church corrupted from within by superstition and idolatry, a tottering edifice awaiting a decisive push. Unfortunately Henry’s push had been anything but decisive, as they admitted.
John Foxe, standing at the head of his tradition, was frankly puzzled by Henry, who seemed to blow both hot and cold on the reformers -often at the same time.”
David Loades’ assessment on the second Tudor monarch, is probably the fairest.
In his documentary on Henry VIII, as well as in his biography on him, David Starkey stated that Henry had a deep connection with his mother. To prove his point, he showed viewers to copies, one of his mother and the other of Henry. The handwriting is similar and given that he was the spare, it makes sense why he and Elizabeth became close. Further proof of this lies in Henry’s words. He said to one of his colleagues that his mother’s death was one of the hardest moments of his life, and something he had never gotten over with.
But Henry’s idyllic childhood didn’t last. As previously stated, it ended when his brother died and his father became overprotective of him. In her recent biography on the Tudors, The Private Lives of the Tudors, Tracy Borman says that Henry VIII’s descent into madness can be traced back to his childhood. By the time he became King, he had grown into a “highly strung, impulsive and vain young man with a terrifying and unpredictable temper. Those who served him would soon learn how swiftly his favour could be lost.” She is referring to Empson and Dudley, his father’s dreaded tax-collectors whom he put in prison as soon as he came to the throne and less than a year later, had them executed. Some historians take this as proof that Henry was bloodthirsty from the beginning and people only turned against him when he attacked their privilege and their beloved church.
Henry VIII: The Politician & Trying to Solve the Puzzle
Certainly, Henry VIII was a good masker, but what monarch wasn’t a good liar. In his infamous book, The Prince, Machiavelli posed the question if it is better for a prince to be loved or feared. Machiavelli, like Henry VIII, gets taken out of context. He didn’t favor the monarchy and his other text on a Republican government better illustrates where he stood politically. Nevertheless, eager to win back the favor his masters, The Prince was a step-by-step manual on how to be an effective ruler. Machiavelli held that it was better for a monarch to be feared -since a good ruler had to be aware that he could never please everyone. But relying on fear alone, just as on love, didn’t work because eventually the people would rise up in anger and everything the ruler built -whether good or bad- could go down the drain. Therefore, he added another element to the equation: respect. Winning the people over was a good technique and for that a ruler had to be affable and seen as just -even when he wasn’t.
Henry was good at this. And not just because he was an evil mastermind who relished in people’s suffering but because he truly believed that what he was doing, was in everyone’s best interest.
Call it delusion, or self-con, but that is how Henry’s mind worked -and how most monarchs’ minds worked, especially the ones the ones that are widely revered.
Of course, as Henry VIII’s behavior became erratic as he got older. If Kyra’s theory that he suffered from Kell Blood Positive syndrome, as well as Suzannah Lipscomb in her book, 1536, where she said that the fall from his joust in that year caused him head trauma that altered his personality, are true then this along with his leg ulcer, and his urgency to father another male heir to secure the Tudor Dynasty, can explain this.
Even though victors get to rewrite history -and Henry did rewrite many things about his reign- sometimes writers decide that the truth is not interesting enough and they spice things up. This is what has happened to Henry. Amidst the myths and legends, the real one gets pushed into the background in favor of a caricature.
It is true, dead men tell no tales, but facts do and even when firsthand accounts are bias, they paint a clearer picture of who this man was and what fueled his actions. While the puzzle will never be solve, the deeper we dig, the closer we come to discovering who the real Henry VIII was.
Borman, Tracy. The Private Lives of the Tudors: Uncovering the Secrets of England’s Greatest Dynasty. Hodder & Stoughton. 2016.
Kramer, Kyra Cornelius. Blood Will Tell: A Medical Explanation of the Tyranny of Henry VIII. Ash Wood Press. 2012.
Henry VIII: Mind of a Tyrant presented by David Starkey, directed by David Sington, BBC, 2009.
Loades, David. Henry VIII. 2011.
“Divorced.” Six Wives with Lucy Worsley, written by Chloe Moss, directed by Russell England, BBC, 2016.
If you still think Katherine of Aragon was submissive, here is one of her most ardent letters to the pope, Clement VII dated December 17th, 1530:
“Most Holy Father:
The great need in which my troubled affairs stand require Your Holiness’ redress and help (upon which the service of God and my own response and the salvation of my soul, as well as that of the king, my Lord, depend). This obliges me to implore Your Holiness that I may be heard on that very account. Even had I an ordinary claim to ask what I have so long and so fervently prayed for, and so frequently urged, how much more is it now evident that the justice of my cause is so great before God, who knows my perfect sincerity and innocence. I trust that Your Holiness will see that God, in His great mercy, wishes that the decision be published. I believe that Your Holiness will understand that there is no learned or conscientious person acknowledging the power and authority of the Apostolic See who does not agree and maintain that the marriage between the King, my Lord, and me is indissoluble, since God alone can separate us. I cannot then do less than complain that my petitions … should have been so long disregarded by Your Holiness. One thing alone that comforts me in the midst of my tribulations, is to believe that God wishes to punish me for my sins in this world, and that therefore Your Holiness, His vicar on earth, will not forgive me. I humbly beg Your Holiness to have pity on me and accept as though I had been in Purgatory the penance I have already endured for so many years, thus delivering me from the pains, torments and sudden fears to which I am daily exposed and which are so great and so numerous that I could not possibly bear them had not God given me strength to endure … I am convinced that God, n whom all my hopes are concentrated will not abandon me in this cause in which justice is so obviously with me. The remedy lies in [issuing] the sentence and determination of my cause without any delay. Any other course short of that will do more harm than good, as appears quite evident from the evils which the delay has already produced. Should the sentence be further deferred, Your Holiness will appreciate that the delay will be the cause of a new hell [upon earth], the remedy for which will entail more disastrous measures than have ever yet been tried. I have been informed that my enemies demand a new delay. I beg Your Holiness not to grant it to them, for in doing so, the greatest possible injury will be done to me, convinced as I am that everything proposed by those people is for the worst, as it might come to pass justice would suffer through it, and that from the Purgatory in which I now find myself I should be cast down into a temporal hell, from the bottom of which I should be continually raising my voice to God and complaining of the tiny amount of pity and mercy that Your Holiness has granted me. Again I beg and entreat Your Holiness not to allow any further delays in this trial but immediately to pronounce full sentence in the most expeditious way. Until this is done I shall not cease begging Your Holiness, as did the Samaritan woman to Jesus Christ, on whom her remedy depended. Some days ago Miguel Mai, the ambassador of his Imperial Majesty in Rome and my solicitor in this case wrote to say taht Your Holiness had promised him to renew the brief which Your Holiness issued at Bologna and another one commanding the King my Lord to dismiss and cast away from this woman with whom he lives. On hearing this, these ‘good people’ who have placed and still keep the King, my Lord, in this awkward position, began to give way, considering themselves lost. May God forgive whoever it was who was the cause of the briefs not being delivered, for the news of the preparation alone introduced a most marked improvement in my case; besides which, had the potion, though disagreeable to their mouths, been administered at the right time, that which I hope Your Holiness keeps in store for them would have been comparatively sweet. I am, therefore, deeply grieved at the injury which was inflicted upon me by the withdrawal of the promised briefs but I bear all this with patience waiting for the remedy to the evils of which I complain. This can be no other, I repeat, than the sentence that I am expecting every day and hour. One thing I should like Your Highness to be aware of, namely that my plea is not against the King, my Lord, but against the inventors and abettors of this cause. I trust so much in the natural goodness and virtues of the king, my Lord, that if I could only have him two months with me, as he used to be, I alone should be powerful enough to make him forget the past; but as they know this to be true they do not let him live with me. These are my real enemies who wage such constant war against me; some of them intending that the bad advice they gave the king should not become public, though they have already been well paid for it, and others that they may rob and plunder as much as they can, thus endangering the estate of the king, my Lord, to the risk of his honor and the eternal perdition of his soul. These are the people from whom spring the threats and bravadoes preferred against Your Holiness, they are the sole inventors of them, not the king, my Lord. It is, therefore, urgent that Your Holiness put a very strong bit in their mouths, which is no other than the sentence. With that the tongues of the bad counselors will be stopped and their hope of mischief vanish; the greedy thieves will no longer devour him on whom they have been feeding all this time; they will set him at liberty, and he will become as dutiful a son of Your Holiness as he was in former times. This to me would be the greatest charity that ever Your Holiness bestowed on a human being; it will restore peace and happiness among the Christian princes, and set a good example to the whole of Christendom.”
It took Clement several more letters and pressure from Katharine and her nephew, to issue a threat that he would excommunicate Henry if he didn’t leave Anne Boleyn. But by the time it came, Katherine was already frustrated and too angry with him, and even Chapuys recognized that it came too late.
This is just one of many examples that show that Katharine of Aragon was her father’s daughter. She could be cordial and humble like her mother would seem at times, and win over the people with her sweetness but as Julia Fox noted in her biography of her and Juana, appearances can be deceiving. During her political limbo, after her mother died and her future as queen of England seemed uncertain, she became very observant and to save her from further penury, her father appointed her his ambassador. No other woman before her had been granted such honor, let alone a Princess. As her father’s ambassador, she learned a great deal about the machinations of the court and foreign policy.
Katharine had also been schooled in canon and civic law so in her view, there was no other better person to scold the pope than her. And as her father, she always presented herself as a loyal daughter of the church, humble in public but defiant in private, and subtle in her threats.
Williams, Patrick. Katharine of Aragon: The Tragic Story of Henry VIII’s First Unfortunate Wife. Amberley. 2013.
Fox, Julia. Sister Queens: The Noble Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile. Ballantine Books. 2012.
Anne Boleyn was crowned Queen of England on the 1st of June 1533. It was a joyous occasion for her and Henry VIII, who had arranged for her to be crowned with the crown of St. Edward (a crown reserved for Kings; queens were crowned with the smaller crown of St. Edith) so there would be no question about the legitimacy of their unborn heir.
Many poems were done that celebrated this event. Among the most prominent was Nichollas Udall’s which celebrated her lineage and exalted her insignia of the white falcon crowned.
“This White Falcon, rare and geason, This bird shineth so bright; Of all that are, Of this bird can write.
No man earthly enough truly
can praise this Falcon White.
Who will express great gentleness
to be in any wight [man];
He will not miss,
But can call him this
The gentle Falcon White.
This gentle bird as white as curd
Shineth both day and night;
Nor far nor near is nay peer
Unto this Falcon White,
Of body small, of power regal
She is, and sharp of sight;
Of courage hault
No manner fault is in this Falcon White,
In chastity excelleth she,
Most like a virgin bright:
And worthy is to live in bliss
Always this Falcon White.
But now to take
And use her make
Is time, as troth is plight;
That she may bring fruit according
For such a Falcon White.
And where by wrong,
She hath fleen long,
Uncertain where to light;
Upon the Rose,
Now many this Falcon White.
Whereon to rest,
And build her nest;
GOD grant her, most of might!
That England may rejoice as always
In this same Falcon White.”
Nicholas Udall was an English poet who like Anne and several others at the time, was part of a group of people who were sympathetic towards the Protestant Reformation and as time went by, he became one of the strongest supporters of the Anglican church, being widely favored during Edward VI’s reign.
His poem celebrating Anne Boleyn’s coronation were one of many honoring other like-minded figures. But like the subject of his epic poem, Nicholas Udall’s life was also paved with controversy. That same year, he was accused of mistreating his students and charged with buggery. If found guilty, he would have been sentenced to die by hanging. Luckily for him, he had friends in Thomas Cromwell’s circle (whose star was on the rise) and they helped him by lessening his sentence to less than a year.
Ives, Eric. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. Blackwell. 2005.
Norton, Elizabeth. The Boleyn Women: The Tudor Femme Fatales Who Changed English History. Amberly. 2013.
Lisle, Leanda. Tudor. Murder. Manipulation. The Story of England’s Most Notorious Royal Family. Public Affairs. 2013.
While The White Queen has taken many liberties and has been advertised as an accurate portrayal of fifteenth century courts, it has done a good job bringing attention to Margaret’s story –something that other shows have failed to do. The Tudors and Wolf Hall tried but were unsuccessful. The first only focused on a minor part of her later story and the latter depicted her as an active conspirator, making it seem as if she deserved her later fate.
There is a scene where she is with her brother and he is suddenly being taken away by Henry VII’s solders. The scene is absolutely heart-wrenching and it was done in such a way that you really feel for the poor girl.
Margaret is one of the most tragic figures of the wars of the roses and the Tudor era. She survived her father’s downfall and afterwards the fall of the fall of the York dynasty. The same cannot be said for her little brother, Edward Plantagenet, Earl of Warwick. After Richard III usurped the throne, the throne should have passed to him instead but due to their father having been executed as a traitor, he and Margaret were excluded from the line of succession.
Following Richard III’s defeat at the battle of Bosworth, Henry began the proceedings to overturn parliament’s ruling regarding his future bride and her remaining royal siblings. Richard III’s claim rested on the invalidity of Elizabeth and her sisters, which rested on the argument that Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV were never truly married because he had previously been pre-contracted to another noblewoman. Shaky as it may seem, given that the two people involved were dead and the Woodvilles were unpopular among many aristocrats, this stuck. But now that he was gone, it was time for Henry to validate his own claim and the only way he was going to do that was by saying it stemmed by right of conquest, his mother’s Lancastrian ancestry, and his union with Elizabeth.
While he didn’t marry Margaret’s cousin right away, he was quick to secure the last legitimate male Plantagenet. At only ten years old, Edward was moved to the Tower of London where he lasted until 1499. By that time he was described as simple and for lack of another better word, insane. He was easily tricked into conspiring with the pretender, Perkin Warbeck, and before long the two were charged with treason and hung.
Margaret Pole was twenty four at the time, having been born two years before him. We do not know what was going through Margaret’s head at the time, but given everything she suffered, we can only imagine that it must have been a terrible –but not so unusual- ordeal for her.
In The White Queen, there is a scene where she is with her husband, shortly after the two are married and she tells him that rejects her last name ‘Plantagenet’ because it has brought her nothing but sadness. Philippa Gregory’s last book in the cousins’ war series is titled The King’s Curse and it deals with events from the first two Tudor monarchs’ reigns from Margaret’s point of view. For those of you who haven’t read the book, I recommend it. It has some memorable scenes, some that were very touching and others that seemed repetitive. While it focuses on Melusina’s curse, an invention of Philippa Gregory to account for Prince Arthur and many other Tudor princes’ deaths, the book’s title can also be seen as an apt description for Margaret, a woman whose life must have seemed like a curse.
A portrait by an unknown artist that has been identified as Margaret Pole shows that she never forgot about her roots and personal tragedies. She wears a bracelet with a butt malmsey hanging from it, a clear reference to her father who was executed during her uncle, Edward IV’s reign, for treason.
The eldest daughter of George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence and Isabel Neville, eldest daughter of Richard Neville “the Kingmaker”, Earl of Warwick and Salisbury among other titles, and Anne Beauchamp; sought to survive by seeking favor with the royal family, especially the future queen of England, the Spanish Infanta, Katherine of Aragon.
It was this friendship that earned her the title of Countess of Salisbury. This was a big deal since not many women were title holders in their own right. As suo jure, Margaret became one of the richest landowners and influential courtiers in England. She also became Princess Mary, Katherine and Henry VIII’s only surviving child, governess and the two forged a strong friendship that would last a lifetime.
But not all was well in paradise. In spite of her friendship with the Queen, and the Queen’s patronage of Humanists and popularity with the people, her influence with the King was waning and following her last miscarriage, Henry’s eye began to wander again and it wasn’t only before it was set on her lady-in-waiting and former mistress’ sister, Anne Boleyn. After his marriage to Katherine was annulled, his daughter was bastardized and his union with Anne as well as her pregnancy became public, Margaret’s life was turned upside down. She chose to stay loyal to her best friend and former charge and unfortunately, this along with her royal blood and her son Reginald’s outburst against the King, became her undoing.
A book that I highly recommend that gives a hauntingly beautiful description of Margaret Pole’s ordeals is Dan Jones’ Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors. Here is a small snippet from it:
“At seven o’clock in the morning on Friday, May 27, 1541, within the precincts of the Tower of London, an old woman walked out into the light of a spring day. Her name was Margaret Pole. By birth, blood and lineage she was one of the noblest women in England … Margaret’s life had long been exciting. For twenty-five years she had been the countess of Salisbury, one of only two women of her time to have held a peerage in her own right. She had until recently been one of the five wealthiest aristocrats of her generation, with lands in seventeen different counties. Now, at sixty-seven –ancient by Tudor standards- she appeared so advanced in age that intelligent observers took her to be eighty or ninety. Like many inhabitants of the Tower of London, Margaret Pole was a prisoner. Two years previously she had been stripped of her lands and titles by an act of parliament which accused her of having “committed and perpetrated diverse and sundry other detestable and abominable treasons” against her cousin, King Henry VIII. What these treasons were was never fully evinced, because in truth Margaret’s offenses against the crown were more general than particular … As she walked out into the cool morning air, Margaret Pole could therefore have reflected that, although she was due to beheaded that morning, she would at least die wearing new shoes.” ~Dan Jones, The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors
The Imperial Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys who’d become very attached to the late Queen, Katherine of Aragon and her daughter, the lady Mary, wrote that Margaret was confused about her sentence. She wasn’t sure what her crime was, or how was it possible that she was easily convicted when there was hardly any evidence of an alleged treason. During these hard times, Henry VIII’s queen, teenager Kitty Howard and ironically Anne Boleyn’s cousin, sought to make her stay at the tower more comfortable by appealing on her behalf to her husband and sending her tailor so he could take her measurements and Kitty could order new clothes for the Countess. She also convinced Henry to send her new shoes. But in the end, nothing could save her from the same inescapable faith of her father and brother.
“At first when the sentence of death was made known to her; she found the thing very strange, not knowing of what crime she was accused, nor what she had been sentenced; but at last, perceiving that there was no remedy; and that die she must … walked towards the midst of space from the Tower, where there was no scaffold erected nor anything except a small block. Arrived there, after commending her soul to her Creator, she asked those present to pray for the King, the Queen, the Prince and the Princess, to all of whom she wished to be particularly commended, and more especially to the latter, whose godmother she had been. She sent her blessings to her, and begged also for hers …”
Chapuys added after her bloody execution had been carried out, that he wished that “God in his high grace pardon her soul”. Her execution was carried out by an inexperienced and rough youth who hacked her to pieces. An apocryphal account has her running away from her executioner, pleading for help only for him to chase her down and butcher her. Margaret had no reason to run away. Her speech is an indicator that she was ready to die and like so many present, she had no idea that her fate would be so gruesome. Like almost every other secondary source, especially one written centuries later, it should not be taken seriously.
If you want to read a full length-biography of her, I recommend the one by Susan Higginbotham who has also written one on the Woodvilles and plenty of historical fiction. Her book really brings to light the woman, the courtier, the mother and most of all, the survivor. I highly recommend it.
Like Anne Boleyn and so many others, sensing the end, Margaret Pole began to contemplate her own mortality and when she finally made peace with her fate, it is believed that she etched this poem on the stone walls of her cell:
“For traitors on the block should die; I am no traitor, no, not I! My faithfulness stands fast and so, Towards the block I shall not go! Nor make one step, as you shall see; Christ in Thy Mercy, save Thou me!”
It is a sad end for a woman who had prided herself in being a survivor for most of her life. Two years before, her son and his alleged co-conspirators were executed. It must have been a terrible experience for her and at one point she must have thought she was cursed or that she would never be free of family tragedy. As previously stated, Margaret had lost her mother in childbirth, her father was found guilty of treason and executed by being drowned in a butt of malmsey and to top it all off, after Henry VII became King, her little brother was moved to the tower of London and fourteen years later executed. Margaret must have felt like she had avoided such fates by currying favor with the monarchy through the Spanish Princess, Katherine of Aragon but after Henry split from Rome,and Reginald’s words against him, Margaret’s family once again became a target and the rest as they say … is history. She begins her journey in The White Princess as a young woman who has no choice but to follow those in power and curry favor with them to stay alive and as a result, she becomes the most interesting and complex character in the show.
Ridgway, Claire. “The Execution of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury.” The Anne Boleyn Files, 17 May, 2010, https://www.theanneboleynfiles.com/the-execution-of-margaret-pole-countess-of-salisbury/5592/
Gregory, Philippa. The White Princess. Touchstone. 2013.
—. The King’s Curse. Touchstone. 2015.
Jones, Dan. The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors. Penguin. 2014.
Higginbotham, Susan. Margaret Pole: The Countess in the Tower. Amberly. 2016.
Mackay, Lauren. Inside the Tudor Court: Henry VIII and his Six Wives through the writings of the Spanish Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys. Amberly. 2014.
On the 18th of February 1516, Princess Mary Tudor was born. Her parents were King Henry VIII and his first Consort, Queen Katherine of Aragon. The long awaited Prince turned out to be a girl. While this was a minor disappointment on her parents, they were nevertheless joyful and considered this as a sign of good will. After all, Henry had replied to the Venetian Ambassador “If it was a daughter this time, by the grace of God, sons will follow.”
Immediately after her birth, the child was cleaned and presented to her parents. Two days later she was christened at the Church of the Observant Friars. Following tradition, her parents were not present. Her godparents were Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (who was fast becoming a favorite of her father), the Duchess of Norfolk and her grand-aunt, Catherine of York, Countess of Devon. Present at the ceremony were an army of courtiers; gentlemen, ladies, earls and bishops who were in awe of their new Princess.
After she was blessed, she was given the name Mary, her paternal aunt who had risked royal wrath a few years back, but had worked things out with her brother. Henry had always felt closer to his younger sister than his older one, and now was honoring her even further by naming his only surviving child after her.
Afterwards, she was plunged three times into the basin of holy water, then anointed with holy oil, dried, swaddled and finally taken to the high alter where it was proclaimed:
“God send and give good life and long unto the right high, right noble and excellent Princess Mary, Princess of England and daughter of our most dread sovereign lord the King’s Highness.”
Mary’s life would not be without struggle. She was constantly under suspicion and despite her father’s actions -influenced by her last stepmother, Katherine Parr- to restore her and her half-sister to the line of succession, she still had many enemies and her troubles continued well into her brother’s reign. Following her half-brother’s death, she rallied the people to her cause after she found out the King had taken his sisters out of the line of succession in favor of their cousins, the Grey sisters.
Mary’s popular revolt was astounding because she reclaimed her birthright without the need for bloodshed. After Mary’s forces became too much for the new regime, the Council turned their backs on her cousin and her family, and sent her a letter, pledging their allegiance to her.
Mary was declared Queen and she entered the city of London triumphantly. Months later she was crowned Queen of England, becoming the country’s first female monarch.
Mary’s reign however wasn’t easy. Once more she faced a lot of disagreement and tragedy, as well as an inability to bring what her dynasty needed the most: a male heir. Mary’s phantom pregnancies became an embarrassment to her, and her contributions became forgotten and attributed to her sister (who also appropriated her motto on her coronation progress). To make matters worse, her wishes to be buried next to her mother (as well as having her mother’s body moved to Westminster) were never carried out. She was given a modest plaque. Her eulogy changed to fit the new rhetoric of Elizabeth’s reign being a godsend as opposed to Mary’s. And after her sister died, her successor James Stuart, created an elaborate monument and put the two sisters together. But only Elizabeth’s effigy was included, Mary was once again absent except in the plaque that read:
“Partners both in throne and grave. Here rest we, two sisters, Elizabeth and Mary, in the hopes of the resurrection.”
David Loades lists Mary I’s achievements in a BBC History Magazine article he did in honor of England’s first Queen. These include:
Preservation of the Tudor succession
Strengthening of the position of Parliament by using it for her religious settlement.
Establishment of the “gender free” authority of the crown
Restoration and strengthening of the administrative structure of the church.
Maintenance of the navy and reforming the militia.
In her book “Mary Tudor. Princess, Bastard, Queen”, Anna Whitelock adds more, saying that she refounded various universities. Linda Porter in her biography “Myth of Bloody Mary” also adds that she established a curriculum that brought an emphasis to Humanism, and forced every priest to serve their parish” and had very little tolerance for those that didn’t bend their knee to royal authority.
The Myth of Bloody Mary by Linda Porter
Mary Tudor by David Loades
Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen by Anna Whitelock