A beautiful tale woven by a talented writer with a clear passion for the late medieval and early renaissance period. I have always maintained that a good novel and history book is a like a trip back through time. Margaret Beaufort has become everyone’s go-to-bogeyman as of late. She is either the villain who should be pitied but still condemned or just condemned. Judith Arnopp decides to depart from this narrative and instead give us a woman who was much a victim of circumstance as a product of her times. Her faith, pride, loyalty to her house, and love of her son are what keep her going.
This is not to say that the novel takes the other route and turns her into a martyr. Far from it. She is a woman who is hardened by loss and grief but never loses sight of what matters. Her loyalty for her house remains, but she sheds her idealism in favor of survival, believing that something of the Lancaster pride can remain through her and her offspring.
The story of Margaret Beaufort has not been told enough. It has been popularized as a dark fairy tale -and to some extent it was- but more than a tale of tragedy, it is a tale of endurance and perseverance.
There were some parts where I thought that Margaret was portrayed a little too cold but given what she has lived through, I could see how she could have taken on those aspects.
An entertaining and refreshing read about a young heroine in a place and time that seems almost too surreal to us.
It is no secret that the last Tudor monarch detested the idea of naming a heir. She did not want whomever was next-in-line to plot in the same fashion as she did during her half-sister reign. In this, she was like her grandfather, the first Tudor monarch who imprisoned or exiled any potential claimant to his throne.
But people couldn’t stop asking: Who would succeed her?
Towards the end of the reign, Elizabeth I tried to dismiss their worries and appear unperturbed by diverting people’s attention on her public image. The people did not have need to worry about the next regime when they already had a goddess watching over them and that goddess was Bess.
This is when we see a drastic change in Elizabeth I’s image. Not that she was not a fashion icon before. Monarchs were the ones who dictated their country’s fashions after all, but Elizabeth I went above and beyond by changing people’s perception of her through more flamboyant fashions and elaborate paintings.
She wore ostentatiously low-cut dresses in the Italian fashion, and wearing heavy make-up. While she was subject to the ridicule of her ladies-in-waiting, chamber-maids and male courtiers who snickered behind her back, some foreign diplomat, travelers and English commons were in awe of her. Elizabeth’s status as a single woman allowed her to elevate her status from Queen and head of the Anglican Church, to a heavenly maiden. To put it simply, she sought to emulate the virtues ascribed to the Virgin Mary. This is nothing out of the ordinary. Women of her status often identified themselves with saints and other holy women. In the case of royal women, Queens and Princess, they all sought to emulate the mother of Christ and often commissioned portraits that portrayed them as such, while others wrote their names beneath one of the pages of their illuminated prayer books, the one where she receives a message from the angel Gabriel that she will give birth to the savior, or the one where she holds baby Christ.
Elizabeth’s mother did this with Henry VIII, when he was still courting her. Anne inscribed her name beneath a page of her illuminated prayer book, where the angel Gabriel informs Mary that she will be mother of the future savior. The meaning behind her name and her promise to Henry beneath this image was clear: Marry me and I will give you a male heir to save your country from chaos. While Anne didn’t give Henry the male heir she had promised, Elizabeth saw her birth as a fulfillment of that promise. On her coronation, she had holy images of the biblical heroines, saints and the Virgin Mary, mother of Christ to remind the people that she was their savior and like the old Testament Deborah, she would be a defender of the faith.
As she got older however, it became harder for her to hide her deteriorating health. Even the commons were beginning to sense that the sun was setting and soon a new dynasty would come to reign over them.
In her biography on the Tudor Dynasty, Leanda de Lisle says the following:
“Elizabeth feared the bond with her people was breaking. In June 1602 she was overheard complaining desperately to Robert Cecil about ‘the poverty of the state, the continuance of charge, the discontentment of all sorts of people’. She admitted to the French ambassador that she was weary of life, and wept over Essex’ death. He had been all she had left of the man she had loved as a young queen, yet he had betrayed her, and now he was being idolized, even despite the threat he had posed to her life. The last pageants held in Elizabeth’s honour that year venerated her as the ‘queen of love and beauty’, timeliness and unchanging; but as Elizabeth’s depression deepened, whispers about the succession became urgent once more.”
Despite that last part, Elizabeth refused to name a successor. After her death, it was said that Elizabeth did and that since she was unable to talk, she was asked to wave her finger in one direction or another, to signal whom she favored and she moved her finger in the direction of those supporting James. It is very unlikely that she favored James, given her discontentment with him in the last years of her reign, but what she wanted no longer mattered. Her councilors favored James and without the Queen drafting an official will, there was nobody to oppose them.
Elizabeth died on the 24th of March 1603. She was buried not long after and succeeded by her rival’s only surviving child, James VI of Scotland who became the First of England upon his coronation.
Following the people’s discontentment and the growing radical Protestant factions in England, people began to look back at the Tudor regime, especially at Elizabeth I’s reign, feeling nostalgic about those “good old days”. And before they knew it, the Tudor period and its last monarch became larger than life figures, separate from the real people who were feared, loved, despised, and whose actions caused great misfortune as well as good fortune for a select few. Like religious figures today, real and mythological, Elizabeth I and her predecessors have become legendary beings who are either ‘too good’ or ‘too bad’.
Lisle, Leanda de. Tudor: Passion. Murder. Manipulation. The Story of England’s Most Notorious Royal Family. Public Affairs. 2013.
Guy, John. Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years. Viking. 2016.
Hilton, Lisa. Elizabeth: The Renaissance Prince. Houghton Miffin Harcourt. 2015.
Norton, Elizabeth. The Boleyn Women: The Tudor Femme Fatales who Changed English History. Amberley Publishing. 2013.
Weir, Alison. The Life of Elizabeth I. Ballantine Books. 1999.
This is a book every history buff needs to read if they are interested in finding out about the roots of one of the most infamous dynasties in world history, who will continue to fascinate us in decades to come.
I absolutely loved how descriptive this book was. From start to finish, I was hooked. And this is one of those books that I just had to re-read again because being a huge history buff, I wanted to see what important things I hadn’t highlighted. Turns out that with a book like this, everything is a highlight so you might as well be stuck taking notes and going back to the original source when you want to check something you might have missed.
Writing a biography is not easy, especially one that takes on the challenge of chronicling the life of a family that has been largely obscured by their most infamous and famous contemporaries. Nathen Amin begins with Henry Tudor’s ascension to the throne of England following Richard III’s defeat at the Battle of Bosworth. It is a tale that takes you back through time, to an era of deceit, love, loss, shifting loyalties and above all, survival.
When Margaret Beaufort watched her son being crowned, her confessor, later Bishop Fisher, said that they weren’t tears of joy but of fear. She was the only surviving member of the eldest son of John of Gaunt and his mistress (later wife) Kathryn Swynford. The fact that she had seen her family nearly fade into oblivion and lived through many reigns, was more than enough to worry about her son’s future.
But through it all, she like most of the first Beauforts persevered.
This is a tale of one’s family unlikely rise to power and whose descendants still sit on the throne of England. Those who are new to this era will learn a great deal about it from this book, and those who are already familiar with it won’t be disappointed either because unlike pop historians, the author was fairly objective, drawing his conclusions from reliable sources and forensic evidence.
I’m proud to say, this is a great addition to my collection of favorite books and I am guessing you will feel the same way after you finish it. This is a reminder that the impossible often became possible and that there were no shortages of twists and turns, often due to kings and aristocrats’ excesses and their miscalculation and plain sheer luck, that led to these least likely outcomes.
The story of the Beauforts is also the story of a family being torn apart by dynastic warfare which was initiated by one of their own’s spouses when his enmity to the queen forced him to take a route that would change the course of English history, and propel one of their own’s unlikely candidate to become King of England. Through it all, this family produced some of the most notable members who worked alongside their Lancastrian half-brother and cousins, and most of them remained loyal but others, such as the women, were forced to make difficult choices in order to survive.
Kathryn Swynford and John of Gaunt’s only daughter, Joan was the mother of the formidable Duchess of York, Cecily Neville aka “Proud Cis”. Never fully able to shake the stain of bastardry despite Richard II legitmizing in 1399 but his successor, Henry IV, instating a clause that took them from the line of succession, became a pious woman and that piety was passed on to her daughter who in turn pass it on to her daughters and granddaughters (most notably, Princesses Elizabeth and Bridget of York). Then there is also the story of another Joan Beaufort, who had to go through unimaginable tribulations to protect her son’s throne and her ambitions. Another married into the up and coming Neville clan, producing one of the most formidable women of the age, Cecily Neville, aka ‘Proud Cis’, who married Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, a man who’d become the founder of a separate branch of the Plantagenet dynasty and whose ambitions and enmity with the queen, led to the dynastic civil war that lasted over three decades.
Through it all, a family whose last name died when its last male heir was beheaded after the battle of Tewkesbury, their legacy survived through one of its last descendants, Henry Tudor who besides creating a new device that embodied his dynasty, also included reminders of the House that passed his claim unto him.
On the 29th of August, 1555, Mary bid her husband farewell. After he departed by water from Greenwich to Dover where he stayed for a few more days until the weather cleared up in September, to travel to the Low Countries. Mary had reluctantly agreed to her father-in-law and cousin Charles’ request to send Philip away, she had previously written to Charles expressing her fears that he would be gone for a long time. In this, she was not mistaken. Philip did not arrive until October of the following year, by then King of Spain and lord of the Netherlands after his father’s abdication. According to the Venetian Ambassador Michieli, Mary had insisted on accompanying Philip in a glorious ceremony through London three days prior and on the day of his departure:
“The Queen really on this occasion showed proper grief for a woman and a woman clothed as she was with royal state and dignity. There was no external manifestation of agitation, although it was evident she was in great trouble, and she chose to accompany the King through all the chambers and halls, as far as the head of the staircase: all the way she had a struggle to command herself and prevent any exhibition inconsistent with her high position from being perceptible to so many persons. But she was affected by the kissing of hands by the Spanish lords and especially at seeing the ladies taking leave of the King in tears, who, according to the custom of the country, kissed them one by one. On returning however to her apartments she lent on her elbows at a window overlooking the river, and there, not supposing herself any longer seen or observed by anyone, it was perceived that she gave free vent to her grief in floods of tears. She did not stir from the spot until she had seen the King embark and depart; looking till the last sight of him; he mounted on a raised and open part of the barge, so as to be better visible as long as he was in sight of the window, kept on raising his hat and making salutes with the most affectionate gestures.”
Michieli’s reports were exaggerated but they did convey a level of truth in expressing Mary’s anguish. Previously, Mary had written a letter to her father-in-law and cousin, Charles, expressing deep concern over Philip’s absence: “I firmly hope that the King’s absence will be brief … his presence in this kingdom has done much good and is of great importance for the good governance of this country.”
Mary wanted her country to benefit from the opportunities Spain offered and expand foreign policy, but she also needed Philip by her side to give her a male heir. Philip’s absence and new position complicated things. Boader, his secretary, expressed that he would not return until she agreed to share power with him -Something that our Queen, for all her sentimentalism, was not prepared to do. She was Queen of her realm and just as Philip was going to rule Spain, she was going to be her country’s sole ruler.
This was the beginning of the end for Mary. She would not die deposed or unopposed. As the rest of her family, she’d die as she lived, fighting until her last breath to hold everything together, under no illusions of what awaited her supporters and how she’d be remembered.
Always the pragmatist, but also a woman who was in need of allies and wished to make England one of the greatest nations in the world, as well as secure the Tudor Dynasty, Mary was aware that her union with Philip was becoming more unstable and if she didn’t give the appearance that things were okay then it would give her enemies another excuse to attack.
Porter, Linda. The First Queen of England: The Myth of Bloody Mary. St. Martin’s Press 2008.
Whitelock, Anna. Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen. Random House. 2010.
Erickson, Carolly. Bloody Mary: The Life of Mary Tudor. Robson Books. 2001.
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.
Henry Tudor was still young when he became King of England. His reign heralded a new era for the British Isles, including their troublesome neighbor to the North. While he loved to gamble, drink (moderately), and joke, he was a cautious man -something his granddaughter and last monarch of his dynasty, Elizabeth I, inherited.
This is due to his difficult upbringing. He became fatherless before he as born with his mother giving birth to him at the tender age of thirteen -something that wasn’t completely unusual, but advised against when a woman was not fully developed and her husband was older than her- leaving her unable to have any more children. He was quickly christened and handed over to his uncle. His mother visited him as often she could or was allowed to by her new male guardian, her second husband, Henry Stafford.
By the time that Edward IV became King, Henry became a ward of the notable Herbert family. The Herberts were up and comers in the English court with noble Welsh roots like the Tudors, but unlike them they happened to back a winning horse. In his biography of Henry VII, S.B. Chrimes, notes that it is highly possible that the new Earl of Pembroke (a title that once belonged to Henry’s uncle, Jasper Tudor) planned to marry him to his daughter and heiress.
Novelist Barbara Kyle wrote a brilliant article on this topic and how lucrative the wardship business was. What we would denounce as a sex crime or kidnapping or stepping over a parents’ rights, it was non-existent back then. It was very common for men to marry their female wards, especially if they were orphans and rich heiresses. Such was the case for men as well. Henry became a ward of William Herbert and his wife Anne, after the start of the Yorkist regime.
Henry’s time with the Herberts was idyllic but after Lord William was executed during the fiasco of Warwick’s rebellion, Henry temporarily went to his mother. Things seemed fine for the two when the dullard king, Henry VI, was reinstated as king of England in a period known as the “Lancastrian Readeption.” Unfortunately, this did not last and I say unfortunately because while many soon realized that the king was beyond redemption and had become a shadow of his former self, for the Beauforts and Tudors, including Henry, this was a major setback.
The first time that Edward IV had become king, he had presented himself as a noble, just and merciful leader but the time for pleasantries was over. He was done giving second chances. Following Warwick’s defeat at the battle of Barnet and the Henry VI’s son and his wife’s army at the battle of Tewkesbury, the Lancastrian royal and male Beaufort lines were wiped out.
All seemed well except for one thing … There was one young boy who could still posed a threat to the Yorkis regime. If left alive, he could grow up to become a figurehead, rallying men to his cause to usurp Edward or his descendants’ throne in the same manner as Edward and their ancestor, the first Norman king, William the Conqueror, had done.
Edward IV acted immediately and sent armies to get Jasper and Henry who had fled to Wales. They managed to hold them off for two months. But eventually Jasper realized that they wouldn’t for much longer. He and his nephew headed to France but powerful winds threw them off course, with them landing on Brittany instead.
The Duke of Brittany became Henry’s mentor and ironically, his protector. Initially, Francis II did not have Henry’s best interests at heart, he saw him and his uncle as two piggy banks he could cash in, demanding Edward IV grant him special favors or pay handsomely so he could have his prized possessions back. But time has a way of changing people and perhaps it was Henry’s character, something he saw in the boy, that made the Duke change his mind.
It’s too bad that wasn’t passed unto his courtiers. Intrigued by the youth’s clever wit and will to survive, they had to think about their duchy first. If Edward IV looked to France, then that could mean two powerful kingdoms against them and the last thing that Brittany wanted was to lose what was left of their sovereignty. Francis II’s advisers convinced him to hand him over.
It all seemed too easy. A young man about to be handed over to the Yorkist king who’d lock him up, place him under house arrest or marry him to a family deeply loyal to him, successfully neutralizing the last Lancastrian threat. But since when do things go according plan?
They didn’t factor in Henry’s acting skills or his quick thinking. As Henry was being led away from the Breton court, he probably pondered on these possibilities and before they made him board their ship, he feigned sickness and as quick as their backs were turned, he ran off to the nearest church and claimed sanctuary.
Henry lived to fight another day. This experience shaped Henry into the king he’d later become -a ruler who was suspicious of even his own shadow and left nothing to chance.
In her biography of the Tudors and Stewarts (Tudors vs Stewarts), Linda Porter says the following of the young man who had returned to England to claim the English throne after fourteen years of exile:
“At twenty-eight Henry Tudor was no longer a pretty land. In looks he was still personable, but an itinerant and uncertain youth had shaped a cautious personality. He was not a man who took anything for granted. The immense challenged of ruling the larger of the two realms that formed the island of Britain lay ahead of him. He had come by his crown in blood and battle.”
It is not hard to see why he had become this way, and why he looked more rugged than any youth.
Like him or hate him, Henry VII’s reign was a major game changer for the modern world. Prior to his reign, nobles could still muster armies at will, with kings struggling to keep control over them, leading to endless strife. Henry eliminated the last embers of a broken system that was also being abandoned in other parts of Europe. This system was feudalism and Henry recognized how useless it was becoming, and amending it would be like beating a dead horse.
There was also a new religious revival that was being experienced throughout Europe that put man at the center of everything. While Henry was not an enthusiast of this current like his contemporaries, Ferdinand II of Aragon, Isabella I of Castile, and his successors were (especially his son and granddaughters), he recognized that the times were changing and that if he was going to have a successful reign, England had to keep up.
He and his mother encouraged many religious thinkers, and after hearing of many sea-faring voyages that promised new discoveries, he founded some of them. This naval exploration would experience a revival during his granddaughter, Elizabeth I’s reign, who sponsored many of these voyages to compete and out-rival her Catholic enemies.
The sovereign had never been at the center of everything as when the Tudors became the new ruling House. This goes hand in hand with the new current of man being placed at the center of everything. Man is divine, man is the conduit between heaven and earth, and likewise, the king is more sacred than his subjects. Coins from his reign, show Henry, seated in the throne, holding the orb and scepter, wearing the crown of the confessor. He was the first English King to do this.
Tudor chronicler, Polydore Vergil, wrote the following of the first Tudor monarch in his mammoth work ‘Anglia Historia‘, a series of books chronicling the history of England:
“His body was slender but well built and strong; his height above the average. His appearance was remarkably attractive and his face was cheerful, especially when speaking; his eyes were small and blue, his teeth few, poor and blackish; his hair was thin and white; his complexion sallow. His spirit was distinguished, wise and prudent; his mind was brave and resolute and never, even at moments of the greatest danger, deserted him. He had a most pertinacious memory. Withal he was not devoid of scholarship. In government he was shrewd and prudent, so that no one dared to get the better of him through deceit or guile. He was gracious and kind and was as attentive to his visitors as he was easy of access. His hospitality was splendidly generous; he was fond of having foreigners at his court and he freely conferred favours of them. But those of his subjects who were indebted to him and who did not pay him due honour or who were generous only with promises, he treated with harsh severity. He well knew how to maintain his royal majesty and all which appertains to kingship at every time and in every place. He was most fortunate in war, although he was constitutionally more inclined to peace than to war. He cherished justice above all things; as a result he vigorously punished violence, manslaughter and every other kind of wickedness whatsoever. Consequently he was greatly regretted on that account by all his subjects, who had been able to conduct their lives peaceably, far removed from the assaults and evil doing of scoundrels. He was the most ardent supporter of our faith, and daily participated with great piety in religious services. To those whom he considered to be worthy priests, he often secretly gave alms so that they should pray for his salvation. He was particularly fond of those Franciscan friars whom they call Observants, for whom he founded many convents, so that with his help their rule should continually flourish in his kingdom, but all these virtues were obscured latterly only by avarice, from which…he suffered. This avarice is surely a bad enough vice in a private individual, whom it forever torments; in a monarch indeed it may be considered the worst vice, since it is harmful to everyone, and distorts those qualities of trustfulness, justice and integrity by which the state must be governed.”
It would be good to end this on a happy note but Henry’s life as his early struggles was anything but happy or peaceful. He faced many rebellions, dealt with one impostor and a pretender, and other personal struggles that worn him down, including the loss of his uncle, eldest son, wife and newborn daughter.
Almost everyone who had joined Henry in exile and marched with him to Bosworth, had died. The man who became like a father to him, his paternal uncle, died before the century was over. And then he lost his son, a young, handsome boy whom he had named after the mythical Welsh (and Anglicized) king who united all of the British Isles to fight the Saxon army, King Arthur. He represented his vision for the future, a future where the Tudor dynasty reigned supreme. When he lost Henry, his vision died with him.
Bernard Andre commented that the King was absolutely distraught. He and Elizabeth took comfort in each other’s presence, with his wife assuring him that they were still young and could still have more children. And while this is true, Elizabeth was young, the birth of her new daughter was too much for her. She died on her thirty seventh birthday with her newborn, princess Katherine, dying a day letter.
Henry was outlived by his daughters, Queen Margaret who had married James IV of Scotland in the North and whose descendants would rule England (and continue to rule England) after the death of the last Tudor monarch, his youngest, Princess Mary (whose descendants would be beset by tragedy), and his only surviving son, Henry VIII and of course, the woman who had always worked hard to ensure his survival, even from afar, his mother, Margaret Beaufort.
His reign is also a transitory period, representing the end of an era and a dawn of a new one, that space between the end of the medieval period and the beginning of the modern world.
Henry was buried at the lady Chapel next to his wife, Elizabeth of York. Their two effigies are a testament of their undying love, and his personal sacrifices.
Porter, Linda. Tudors vs Stewarts: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary, Queen of Scots. Martin’s Press. 2014.
Skidmore, Chris. The Rise of the Tudors: The Family that Changed English History. Martin’s Press. 2014.
de Lisle, Leanda. Passion. Manipulation. Murder: The Story of England’s Most Notorious Royal Family. Public Affairs. 2013.
Chrimes, S.B. Henry VII. Yale University Press. 1999.
Seldom are there books written from the point of view a minor historical character that manage to captivate my attention as this one did. It is engaging, from start to finish, and a great illustration of the period seen through the lens of one of Mary, Queen of Scots’ trusted ladies.
Sarah Gristwood is best known for her non-fiction, primarily her biographies focusing on the lives of European queens from the late medieval to the early modern period. This is no different, except that it is fiction and yet, it feels s if you are reading one of her biographies because she is very detailed when it comes to fashion, the type of garments that nobles, based on their status, bloodline, etc, would have used, and the foods they could afford, and other excess.
There is a part towards the end where it was harrowing to read, which I won’t spoil but those who already read this, probably know what I am talking about, and it is a testament to her talent about being able to put herself in her characters’ shoes, historical ones no doubt! And give them a voice that doesn’t feel out of place with the rest of the events.
Scotland in the sixteenth century was for lack of a better word, a mess. And this novel doesn’t shy away from showing the negative from every religious side, including its most prominent members who only cared about their self-interest.
We see the world through the lens of a little girl who learns from the get go that her life’s purpose is to serve the child-queen and protect her interests above all else. As she gets older, her faith in Her Grace is shaken. She goes from servant, to friend to confidant.
We watch the downfall of a woman whose future seemed bright, and who was determined to reclaim what she viewed was hers because of her blood. Unfortunately, the Scotland she left is not the same one she returned and the people are hungry for leadership, and the nobles will side with whoever keeps their family fortunes intact. Mary Stuart is cunning and ambitious, Mary Seaton sees that, and she is far more resilient than she is given credit to, but she can’t come to terms with the new political climate, one which is entirely hostile towards female kings and her faith.
My only criticism comes for the time jumps. The first one felt necessary but towards the end, many things felt unnecesarily rushed. But I would have liked more flashbacks. However, I can look past it because as I previously mentioned, the plot moved along nicely thanks to brilliant dialogue.
Through her eyes we also get to see her wins and losses, and her personal struggles as she is forced to decide between her family and her queen, her family and her faith, or between her desires and her sworn duty to stand by her queen’s side no matter what.
It is an emotional roller coaster and a book that every history buff will quickly binge on. I greatly enjoy it and if you are new to this period, this is a good novel to start that will get you interested in finding more about the lives of these extraordinary and tragic women.
Prominent historians and biographers weigh in on Henry Tudor with cited primary sources on his appearance (be careful with this, because they all describe him differently. In some he is dark haired, others he is blond and others he is brown haired, but all agree he was pale or fair of face and with blue eyes).
The man behind the austere caricature in popular fiction:
“England’s new king was a mysterious figure. In Hall’s chronicle Richard criticizes Henry as ‘a Welsh milksop, a man of small courage and less experience.’ The chronicler himself was more impressed though; Tudor rode about giving ‘gentle’ words of encouragement to his men before the battle; ‘for he was a man of no great stature but so formed and decorated with all gifts of nature that he seemed more an angelical creature than a terrestrial personage.’ According to Hall ‘his countenance and aspect was cheerful and courageous, his hair yellow like the burnished gold, his eyes gray shining and quick, prompt and ready.’ This contrasts quite sharply with the description of Henry from the ‘Ballad of Lady Bessie’ which has him wearing black velvet as he practices shooting at the butts, with his long pale face marred by a red wart. Other sources have him as dark-haired crisply curled in the European style, with a cast in one of his pale blue eyes that made him look as if he had a squint. Vergil described him as ‘remarkably attractive’ but with a sallow complexion and bad teeth, although by the time of his writing, Henry’s hair had turned thin and white. At the time of accession though, he was 28, tall slender and reserved, dressed in subdued, elegant foreign fashions, having spent the last fourteen years at the court of Francis II, Duke of Brittany.” (Licence)
“At twenty eight, Henry Tudor was not longer a pretty lad. In looks he was still personable, but an itinerant and uncertain youth had shaped a cautious personality. He was not a man who took anything for granted. The immense challenge of ruling the larger of the two realms that formed the island of Britain lay ahead of him. He had come by his crown in blood and battle.” (Porter)
“The events of the fifteenth century were to be fashioned into drama, with Hall’s chapter on Richard’s own reign being titled ‘The Tragical Doings of King Richard the Third’. It was a compelling tale of the Tudor’s inexorable rise, contrasted against the downfall of the houses of Lancaster and York, inspiring William Shakespeare to transform it into blank verse for popular audiences who devoured his history plays, the power of which defined for generations the wider view of what became known in Sir Walter Scott’s famously invented phrase, ‘the Wars of the Roses.’ The reality of Henry Tudor’s ascent to the throne -his narrow escapes from death, his failures and anxieties, complete with constant uncertainty of his situation and the compromises that he had been forced to make, including the support from France and his former Yorkist enemies gaining the crown -was a far less welcome tale. It remains nonetheless just a remarkable; against all the odds, at Bosworth Henry achieved a victory that he should not have won. For Philippe de Commynes, who had met Henry as a fourteen-year-old when he arrived as an exile at Duke Francis’s court in Brittany in 1471, knowing exactly how Henry, who had told Commynes to his face how he had been a prisoner all his life since the age of five, had ‘suffered much’ having ‘neither money, nor rights, so I believe, to the crown of England, nor any reputation except what his own person and honestly brought him’, there could be no other explanation. Writing his memoirs, Commynes wrote simply, ‘A battle was fought. King Richard was killed on the battlefield and the Earl of Richmond was crowned king of England on the field with Richard’s crown. Should one describe this as Fortune? Surely it was God’s judgment.’” (Skidmore)
King Henry, Seventh of his Name, the first years:
Uniting the White and Red Rose
“The coronation began on 28 October with Henry taking formal possession of the Tower. The next day he was processed to Westminster before the London crowds. Heralds, sergeants-at-arms, trumpeters, esquires, the mayor, aldermen, and nobles, preceded the king dressed in their rich liveries …The king rode under a canopy fringed with twenty eight ounces of gold and silkl, carried by four knights on foot. He was bare-headed, his light brown hair reaching his shoulders, a rich belt slung across his chest, and a long gown of purple velvet furred with ermine on his back … On Sunday 30 October Henry was crowned and anointed at Westminster Abbey. In November Henry sought for his rule the necessary approval of Parliament. It duly confirmed that ‘the inheritance of the crowds of England and France abide in the most royal person of our sovereign Lord King Henry VIII and the heirs of his body’. Elizabeth of York, in turn was being given an opportunity to get to know her husband to be, and she found Henry could be good company. In Brittany he had enjoyed gambling, music, dancing, poetry and literature. He was quick to smile, with an exceptionally expressive face, but his years of vulnerability had made him a man anxious to be in control of every detail of his environment.” (de Lisle)
“A thin face with high cheekbones framed a long thin nose, a feature shared by his mother, Margaret Beaufort. Round, somewhat hooded eyes formed a tight triangle with his thin, downward sloping mouth, and dark wavy hair tumbled down almost to his shoulders. Having barely lived in England, his preferred language was French. But he had already adopted the style and bearing of a crowned king …Philippe de Commynes described him as being ‘without power, without money, without right to the crown of England.’ Nevertheless, on Sunday, August 7, 1485, this unlikely claimant to England’s Crown landed at Mill Bay near Milford Haven, waded through the salt water onto wet Welsh sand, knelt and kissed the ground, and uttered the words of Psalm 43: ‘Judge me, O Lord, and plead my cause’ … Accounts of the coronation were drawn up by Sir Robert Willoughby, and they spoke of a flurry of activity among the goldsmiths, cloth merchants, embroiders, silkwomen, tailors, laborers, boatmen and silk in royal purple, crimson and black, which were then run up into beautiful jackets, hose, hats, robes, wall hangings, cushions and curtains. Henry’s henchmen were ordered hats plumed with ostrich feathers, boots made from fine Spanish leather and striking costume of black crimson. Even the horses were smartly dressed: their stirrups were covered in red velvet, while tassles and silk buttons adorned their halters … The coronation went off with appropriate pomp, with the most prominent roles carried out by the small group of English nobles whom Henry could count as his intimates … Henry had sworn a solemn oath in 1483 that he would marry Elizabeth of York. Now that he was king, he was bound to make good on his word. On December at Henry’s first parliament, the speaker Thomas Lovell requested that the king’s ‘royal highness should take to himself that illustrious lady’ … The wedding as to be held on January 18, 1486 … The wedding was celebrated in the customary fashion, with ‘wedding torches, marriage bed and other suitable decorations.’ followed by great magnificence …” (Jones)
Later Years: Economic Policies & Final Legacy
“The first Tudor king was still only 28 wen he came to te throne, having spent most of his adolescence and early adulthood in Brittany, living precariously as a political exile. He had the most unsettled upbringing of any king of England, something that helped shape his character. According to the author Philippe de Comines (1447-c.1511), the king himself once declared that “from the time he was five years old he had been always a fugitive or a prisoner”. It was a life lived “continually between hope and fear”, as Edward Hall described it in Hall’s Chronicle, something which spurred Henry on to action when his moment came. Although treated well in Brittany, he was never able to forget his lack of freedom or status, growing into a suspicious but highly intelligent young man. He was tall, thin and dark. Surviving portraits tend to show the king in his later years: narrow-faced and thin-lipped. In 1498, when he was in his early 40s, the Spanish ambassador Don Pedro de Ayala wrote a letter to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain in which he said that the king looked “old for his years, but young for the sorrowful life he has led”. Nothing came easily for the young Henry Tudor and retaining the throne and building a stable dynasty were the desires that drove him, above all else, throughout his reign … Henry VII had never been a charismatic king and his death went largely unlamented in England. Instead, people looked towards his 17-year-old son, who resembled his Yorkist mother and grandfather in appearance.” (Norton)
“Early in his reign, Henry substantially increased the royal lands (and thereby the revenues from rents) by having Parliament backdate his reign to the day before the Battle of Bosworth Field. By this device he turned all those who fought against him at the battle into traitors, enabling him to claim their estates as forfeit for treason. Through efficient administration of his royal lands, Henry increased their value, and by the end of his reign they were yielding him around 35,000 per annum. Another important source of income for Henry was customs revenue from foreign trade. After persuading his customs revenue from foreign trade. After persuading his first Parliament to grant him customs revenue for the whole of his life, Henry went about encouraging trade through international diplomacy, substantially increasing customs yield. Finally, by expanding the reach and effectiveness of his courts, Henry could rely on a steady income from the ‘profits of justice’ -in other words, fines. All these policies led to a rise in royal income from an average of 52,000 per annum in 1485 to 142,000 per annum by 1509 … Henry has been described by some of his biographers as cold-hearted, and it is true that he was not generally given to extravagant displays of emotion. Yet he surprised his courtiers with his intense grief on the death of his son Arthur, and when his wife Elizabeth died in childbirth in 1503 he fell into a deep depression and, according to one chronicler, ‘privily departed to a solitary place and would no man should resort unto him’ … Henry left his kingdom strong, at peace and, by past standards, wealthy. Hhis sober and efficient statesmanship had enhanced England’s standing among the major European powers. At home, he had greatly strengthened the position of the monarchy in relation to the nobility, creating a powerful centralized administration. In so doing, he had laid the foundation for a successful dynasty.” (Woolf)
“If Edward V had been allowed to live, Henry Tudor would be a footnote in history. He had been in captivity of one sort or another for all but four of his twenty-eight years, and his reign was to see constant threats to his life, despite his incredible generosity (for these times) and forgiveness to his former and new enemies. He never felt secure on the throne, and, never having any family except his uncle Jasper (he was separated from his mother until he became king), came to rely upon those who were with him in exile and who supported at Bosworth. He made sensible choices, marrying the eldest daughter of Edward IV, Elizabeth of York, to consolidate his position further. However, the new king remained reliant upon the wise counsel given to him by trusted friends. He never stopped travelling the country and retained the same close circle of advisors. Sadly, towards the end these men began to die around him and his own health grew progressively worse. He lost his beloved wife and all but three of his children, including Prince Arthur, upon whom rested his real hope for a wise continuation of the new Tudor Dynasty … Henry, also devout like his mother, often stayed at monasteries and churches. He probably spent more time in prayer or with ecclesiastics than any other English king. We are fortunate to have the king’s personal accounts for 1492 to 1503, and those of the queen for 1502 and 1503 which supplement other sources, but there are still some gaps or anomalies in his whereabouts. Ailing, worn out from overwork (an attribute rarely seen in English monarchy over the centuries), the deeply religious king saw nearly all his close friends die, and was beset with financial problems, a fact ignored by modern biographers. His attempts in his declining years to prevent another costly international war or invasion drained his finances, and his more effective tax-gathering was hated by the nobility and growing middle classes. The financial aspect is more important in understanding his reign. To solidify the monarchy after generations of fighting and infighting was vitally important to the future of a stable Britain. Henry was not ‘greedy’, ‘avaricious’ or ‘venal’, all recent accusations, but towards the end of his reign, because he was suffering with ill health and depression at the loss of so many around him, the king was not much as in control of the finances as he once had been. He turned to God and left his son enough money to secure a peaceful succession, but this gift was soon expended. Henry’s army of Bretons, Sscots, Ffrench, English and Welsh travelled unopposed through ales, Shropshire, Staffordshire and Leicestershire in 1495, gaining many English supporters, and won at Bosworth. Henry did not follow the Plantagenet path of executing his rivals, a practice which had almost wiped out all claimants to the crown, but was now plagued by a series of pretenders to the crown … Henry died in 1509, leaving a peaceful succession in a solvent country.” (Breverton)
“More pertinent, and more feasible perhaps, is to consider how far Henry VII succeeded in obtaining revenue in excess of expenditure. There is enough evidence, mainly from the chamber accounts surviving -and these accounts, after all, came to include the great bulk of revenue and expenditure- to show that Henry VII did become solvent quite early in the reign, and was able to secure some considerable surplus annually during his later years. The cessation of short-term loans by 1490 suggests that the government no loner had need of hand-to-mouth methods. The chamber accounts at the end of September 1489 appear to show a surplus of 5,000. From 1492 at least Henry found himself able to put by substantial sums in the purchase of jewellery, plate, cloth of gold and the like, and to spend money on buildings … Henry VII did, then, no doubt enjoy ‘the felicity of full coffers’ for the last few years of his reign but the other Baconian tradition that he left behind him a surplus of some two million pounds cannot be maintained … He was interested in bringing commercial interests into his diplomatic relations with other countries; he was interested in reforming the coinage and in encouraging shipping, exports, and maritime exploration. He took some initiative in these matters; he gave his assent to a variety of measures for the regulation of merchant companies, trade, wages and prices, weights and measures, for the restraint of enclosures, and the treatment of vagabonds and beggars. Some of these measures were precedents for more far-reaching governmental action in later decades, but many though not all these appear to have been initiated by others than the government in Henry VII’s time, and how far the mere giving of assent to proposals for minor regulations amounted to acceptance as serious government policy a matter for speculation rather than dogma. We can scarcely accuse Henry VII of adopting ‘paternalistic’ attitudes. Whatever else Henry VII was, he was essentially an opportunist and sought to achieve few broad or far-reaching aims in either economic or social matters. We may well attribute to Henry VII especially the characteristics that have been attributed to the Tudor monarchs generally -perhaps too generally. Of him we may well believe that ‘economic problems were always secondary, and that economic measures often served non-economic ends. The paramount aims were peace and security. His policies always remained primarily political, not economic, and any economic aims that he may have cherished (other than the strengthening of his own economic position) were subordinated to his political and diplomatic objectives …” (Chrimes)
Henry’s first year in government was bound to be turbulent. His mother cried when she saw her son cried because having lived through various reigns, and surviving every king, she knew that as the founder of a new dynasty, his troubles were far from over. After Henry defeated his enemies, he became more obsessed with bringing peace to England. He formed an alliance with Scotland where the two kingdoms agreed that to avoid further conflict, Henry would marry his eldest daughter to James IV, and establish a series of law courts where border raiders would be judged by a jury of their peers which consisted of half Scots and half Englishmen (to avoid any accusations of favoritism). Henry kept much of Edward IV’s economic policies, including the Star Chamber, which he perfected, and added new measures that made England into a prosperous nation by the time his son took the throne in 1509. Overall, Henry’s legacy is in the eye of the beholder but one thing no one can deny is that he did more than any other monarch before him in that century. He nearly worked himself to death, and even when he was ill, he refused to let others do his work. It is also important to note that Henry is one of the few English monarchs who managed to heal the wounds of internal conflict by making allies of his former enemies, including those abroad who had not only nearly cost him his throne, but also put his family at risk.
Ironically, it was his paranoia, which got worse after he lost his son, wife and baby daughter, that enabled him to turn England into one of the most peaceful nations at the time, and prevent his dynasty from going the way the York and Lancaster had gone. In doing so, he also rewrote history, providing us with an alternative and simplified tale of the wars of the roses, where he comes out on top because he was the last Lancastrian scion and descendant of Arthur Pendragon and other Welsh (turned English) heroes, who had been chosen by god to be England’s king and restore law and order to a war-torn country. His marriage to Elizabeth solidified his claim, and helped promote the idea that as the last Lancastrian scion and she as the eldest daughter of the first Yorkist King, had put an end to the dynastic civil war, by uniting both houses of York and Lancaster. This was beautifully represented in a symbol known today as the “Tudor rose”, which has come to embody his dynasty.
Breverton, Terry. Henry VII: The Maligned Tudor King. Amberley. 2016.
Chrimes, S.B. Henry VII. Yale University Press. 1999
de Lisle, Leanda. Tudor. Passion. Manipulation. Murder: The Story of England’s Most Notorious Royal Family. Public Affairs. 2013
Porter, Linda. Tudors vs Stewarts: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary, Queen of Scots. St. Martin’s Press. 2014.
Skidmore, Chris. The Rise of the Tudors: The Family that Changed English History. St. Martin’s Press. 2014.
Jones, Dan. Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors. Faber and Faber. 2014.
Licence, Amy. Elizabeth of York: The Forgotten Tudor Queen. Amberley. 2013.
Woolf, Alex. The Tudor Kings and Queens. Arcturus. 2016.
Norton, Elizabeth. Tudor Treasury. Andre Deutsch. 2014.
The union of Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York and Anne de Mowbray took place at the St Stephen’s Chapel in Westminster Palace in London, on January 1478, two years after her father, John de Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk passed away.
Anne belonged to two of the most prominent aristocratic families in England. Besides the de Mowbray clan, she was also a Talbot through her mother, Elizabeth Talbot. After her father died, she became one of the most desired brides as well.
England had just experience over two decades of internal conflicts, and despite the Yorkist regime coming on top, Edward IV wanted to heal the wounds that his marriage, and later his cousin, Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick’s rebellion and after that, the Lancastrian Readeption, left on the country. Many of the noble families who had supported his claim felt betrayed after he married Elizabeth Woodville, who had no royal connection and brought nothing to the table except her extended family. Edward IV thought of marrying them to his in-laws whom he was sure they would be loyal because whom else did they owe their ascension or depended but him? This turned out to be a terrible miscalculation on Edward’s part, and it furthered the divide between him the and the old nobility.
They began to blame the Woodvilles and before long, they sided with his enemies, first Warwick, then the Lancastrian queen exiled across the narrow sea, Margaret of Anjou and her son, Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales.
After the Lancastrian Readeption, England was finally at peace. But tensions were still high. The wedding was a public display of unity and also an opportunity for the crown to gain her family fortune.
Richard and Anne were just five. Marriages like these weren’t common but they were not frowned upon either. James II of Aragon married his wife when he was a pre-teen, and Edward I of England married Eleanor of Castile when the two were teenagers, with Eleanor being three years younger than him. And let’s not forget Richard’s namesake, his grandfather, also Duke of York, who married Cecily Neville when the couple were teenagers.
It was recommended that for couples this young to wait until they mentally and physically mature enough to consummate the marriage. Given that the newlyweds were infants, the first years together, they spent them as cousins and friends rather husband and wife. The legal age for consummation varied between the ages of 12-14; so until that day came, Anne would be under the crown’s watchful eye, enjoying every privilege of being wife to the King’s youngest son.
Unfortunately, the two never got to know each other as husband and wife since Anne died when she was eight at Greenwich Palace in London. Two years later in 1483, Parliament decided to transfer her family fortune to her husband instead of her cousins.
Queen Elizabeth I has gone down in history as one of the world’s greatest monarch. And she certainly is, but as with every monarch, there is a dark aspect to her reign that’s often neglected by novelists and some historians.
In his critically acclaimed biography on Elizabeth I, Dr. David Starkey, praises her good administration while also critiquing it when it comes to handling Irish affairs, and looking after her Veterans, which is one of many aspects, that is representative of the last years of her reign. As he writes below, her desire to be loved nearly undermined her, but her eloquence, being cautionary to a fault in matters of religions and her determination are what saved her and enabled her to become England’s most successful monarch. “Like Mary, Elizabeth had begun well. But would she be any better in the long run? At first sight the signs were not all that good … from the point of view of practical government, was the distinction between the Queen’s two wills: her private will and her public will. Her private will was what she actually wanted to do. Her public will was what, after taking due counsel and advise, she ought to do. Elizabeth promised to respect this distinction … But doing what we ought rather than what we want comes easily to none of us … The Elizabeth Church, as we have seen, was a Goldilocks settlement: neither too hot nor too cold. As such, it pleased neither the orthodox Roman Catholics, for whom it went far too far, nor the hotter sort of Protestants, later known as Puritans, for whom it did not go nearly far enough. Indeed, among the elite, it probably only pleased Elizabeth … For her policy was founded on a careful combination of principle and expedience. After her own experiences under Mary, she was not, she insisted, in the business of forcing men’s consciences. That alone made her reluctant to seek the death penalty. But she was also reluctant to make martyrs per se … To do nothing ‘to the loss of any of her dominions’. That was the promise, and Elizabeth stuck by it. It was the source of the best and worst in her reign. If accounts for the terrible punishment she inflicted on the north in the wake of the rebellion of 1569 and her still more savage vengeance on the Irish rebels at the end of her reign … her determination to preserve what was hers also turned her into a great war leader against Spain. She was not a general in the field nor an admiral at sea, of course, though she did wear a pretty pretend breastplate at Tilbury in 1588. Instead, more importantly, she was a mistress of language, thinking, in her speech at Tilbury, ‘full scorn that Parma or Spain or any prince of Europe should dare invade the borders of my realm.'”
Although Elizabeth’s navy succeeded against the Spanish Armada -thanks in part to their smaller size as opposed to their enemies’ larger vessels which made them slower, and the weather which helped the English sink them faster- victory came at a high cost.
The wages she had promised her soldiers never came ad as you can expect from men who had risked their lives, in service of their country, they took the streets to peacefully protest. A small amount organized larger riots, believing that it was the only recourse available to them, to get their queen to listen to their demands. But Elizabeth had no intention of submitting herself to the pleas of the mob -even if those mobs were her loyal subjects.
Henry Carey, Lord Hudson, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and a handful of other courtiers sought ways to help the soldiers make ends meet and lessen the Queen and her advisors’ anger towards them.
The day that the veterans rioted alongside a rabble of young unemployed men, the mayor of London, Sir William Webb, saved the day by ordering the arrest of the ringleaders (much to the dismay of the protestors). This could have gone much worse, with the troops using full force against the entire group, causing more disgruntled veterans to join other fringe groups after feeling more betrayed by their sovereign.
“Writing to Burghley next day, he argued for leniency, claiming that the spark had been an apprentice’s wrongful arrest. Debt collectors had burst into the man’s lodgings with daggers drawn and dragged him off to the Marshalsea in front of his terrified landlady, who stood clutching a baby in her arms. The rioters had planned to storm the prison and free the inmates. Webb believed the best way to calm the situation was to rectify the injustice done to the young man as quickly as possible.” (Guy)
But Sir William Webb’s pleas went unheard. These men had rebelled against the crown -even worse, they dared to demand. Something that no subject should ever do against an anointed monarch, and more importantly their spiritual governor, God’s representative on Earth according to the Anglican Church.
While this seems deeply unreasonable to us, and a treacherous act on Elizabeth’s part, it is not. As Ian Mortimer points below: “… there are only five thousand men in the army. The remainder is dead-pay, which goes straight into the captain’s pockets. You might think that this is even worse than bribery and nepotism. Neverhteless, in 1562 it becomes official government practice when it is proposed that for every ninety-five soldiers provided, the government will pay for one hundred.”
The privy council agreed to this, and even before this became standard practice, we must not forget that the era preceding the renaissance wasn’t exactly fair either when it came to soldiers’ wages. Elizabeth I’s grandfather, Henry VII, eliminated private liveries which meant that every noble family in England could no longer raise an army from their tenants. This effectively helped Henry keep the realm under his control and prevent pretenders like Perkin Warbeck and Cornish rebels from being successful.
In the medieval age, soldiers were expected to fight for their sovereign or their lord. If they did not, they were severely punished, or branded cowards. It was their duty. The Renaissance had changed many things, but the sole duty of any man to serve his lord and master without question remained.
Nevertheless, after Elizabeth I had done an outstanding job marketing herself as England’s savior and the only one who stood against the might of the terrible armies of Spain and its Catholic allies -aka, foreign invaders who sought to strip England from its lawful sovereignty- the common soldier felt betrayed. After everything they had done, they were just expected to go back home and start again. Find some new trade, or job that would save them from begging in the streets (which was punished by branding or whipping in major cities like London).
Her cousin continued to try his best, attempting to convince the Virgin Queen by appealing to her emotional side, telling her of the horrors these men had to face while being confined in small spaces, not knowing whether their ships would sink, or they’d die by other means.
“The infection is grown very great and in many ships, and now very dangerous, and those that come in fresh are sooner infected. They sicken the one day and die the next.” (Hilton)
Elizabeth remained unmoved. When the protestors walked barefooted through the streets of London that day, expecting this exaggerated display of misery would get their message across, arrests were made. As it has been established, the mayor of London did his best to lessen their punishment by drawing focus on the leaders. Cecil and the Queen however thought that a better way to stamp out the cells of future rebellion, was by stomping on most of them, letting the rest know what happened to those who rebelled against the crown.
Social hierarchy was not something that could be easily cast aside. Since Edward III had passed the sumptuary laws, that dictated what men and women could and could not wear, there was a stronger emphasis on maintaining the social order. These laws were the result of the black plague or the black death which killed many people, including one of Edward III’s daughters when she was on route to Spain. People became disgusted and in the same fashion that their descendants would centuries later, they would let that hate fester, making it possible for the rising middle class and heretic preachers to convince them to join their cause, and break their wheel of their oppression. This resulted in the Peasant’s Revolts during Edward III’s successor’s reign, his grandson Richard II. Richard II was only a teenager but he was old enough to understand that if he didn’t do something quickly, the violence would keep escalating until there would be no monarchy left. So when the leaders of this rabble led their guard down, Richard II acted quickly. He ordered them to be put to dead and to the rest, he told them smugly that “vileins” (peasants) they were and peasants they would remain.
Oddly enough, Richard II is one of those pitiful figures in history who was too young to know what he was doing, becoming a despot in his later years. Yet for someone who Elizabeth who believed in the supremacy of Kings, he was someone she could idolize and lament -a man who had been the victim of lesser men.
Naturally, Elizabeth I, taking these lessons to heart, wasn’t going to let these rabble-rousers upset the social balance in her country, and she sure wasn’t going to go the way that Richard II went, by giving into their demands.
The end result is a sad state of affairs where Elizabeth I was more successful than Richard II, sending a message across the British Isles, that no matter how much she may sympathize with their cause, or how popular it was among their peers, she wouldn’t be moved. She would remain resolute, presenting herself as their ruler, her country’s spouse and her subject’s mother and like any good mother, she would not be afraid to exact punishment on her children if they were being too loud.
Every vigilant, her principal adviser, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, imposed martial law. “All soldiers, mariners and vagrant persons” who were found wandering around the countryside or spoke about their missing wages would be apprehended at once.
A soldier’s duty was to his ruler. He was there to protect the realm and his sovereign, not to seek riches or popular acclaim. Again, this may seem like a slap in the face to all those brave men, but in the context of the sixteenth century, and given Elizabeth I’s belief in royal supremacy, it makes sense.
And there is also another reason, one that is not fully acknowledge: Debt. Elizabeth had curried favor with many foreign Protestants -many of whom she did not agree since they supported a Republican government instead of a royal supremacy. Nevertheless, they kept her enemies distracted and weakened. This meant that a lot of money had been spent on covert missions. Some of which ended in failure. Then there is also the mater of her favorites and the new aristocrats. To keep them happy and in her pocket, she had lowered their taxes and granted them many manors, and exemptions that she wouldn’t have done for anyone else. All of this drained the royal coffers and while she attempted to remedy this by issuing a series of laws that meant to give some form of aid to the lower classes -while also raising taxes to continue to pay for covert operations and the ongoing war with Spain- it still wasn’t enough.
Debt collectors became more hated than ever. These veterans and unemployed men began to blame many of the queen’s evil councilors -in the same fashion that many rebels did in the past when they were displeased with their king’s actions- and the increasing number of foreigners coming into the country. Elizabeth I’s enthusiasm to admit more refugees didn’t help. These migrants helped boost the economy. Many of them were professionals and skilled workers who aimed their best to please their new overlords, but their adherence to their customs and their native tongue upset many Londoners.
But, as her motto, Elizabeth I’s subjects learned to adapt to their never-changing situation, remaining always the same. The pen and the sword proved mightier than their pleas.
Guy, John. Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years. Viking. 2016.
–. The Tudors. Sterling. 2010
Mortimer, Ian. Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England. Viking. 2013.