Dead Men tell no Tales: The black legend of Henry VIII

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:

Henry VIII young and old
Henry VIII as a young man (left) and later in his reign (right).

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 young
Henry VIII by the Venetian Ambassador who was impressed with the young King’s physique and pursuit of knowledge: “The handsomest potentate Ii ever set eyes on; above the usual height, with n extremely fine call to his leg, his complexion very fair and bright, with auburn hair combed straight and short, in the French fashion, and a round face so very beautiful, that it would become a pretty woman.”

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 … defensione was 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.

EOY and Henry VIII signatures
“Henry’s handwriting has always been a bit of a mystery. The ‘Y’s with that little back loop. The ‘R’s look much like ‘z’ in modern handwriting and the ‘H’s are quite unlike the handwriting of Henry’s known teachers. On the other hand, it is rather like this.’ David Starkey motions to show a book listing other primary sources that contains a letter written by none other than Henry’s mother, Elizabeth of York. ‘And this is one of the very few surviving specimens of the handwriting of Henry’s mother. ‘This book is mine. Elizabeth, the King’s daughter.’ It says. It is only eight words and thirty-nine letters. And yet it is characteristic enough in weight, rhythm and letter forms to prove conclusive (I think) that Elizabeth herself was the first teacher of her daughters and her second son, Henry. It’s a charming picture, Henry the little prince and a loving family.” He described this as unusual “for sixteenth century monarchs.” And it certainly is but I think that has to do with the simple fact that he was the second son, the “spare”. Given that Arthur was destined to be King and going to receive a top-notch education, Elizabeth of York probably felt her other children, including Henry, could be more carefree. It must have felt terrible for the young boy when he lost his mother and his father (with good reason) became paranoid. Henry VII felt he had to protect him at all cost and until his father died, there was little indication of what Henry wanted. What Henry VII said, his son did. When he became King, he realized the enormous power that he had and how quickly he could win the people over by showing them that he was the opposite of his father. Like his mother, he was amicable, surrounding himself with people of low and high stature. And like his maternal grandfather, he was eager to be loved.

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

Henry VIII full body red and grey classic portrait
An older Henry VIII at the end of his reign. By this time, he had become obese, the ulcer in his leg had worsened and it is possible he was suffering from other illnesses. His over-eating and desire for glory, as well as his position as head of his church, wishing to secure his legacy, didn’t help. Yet, aware of the power of words and images, he made sure that he’d become immortal through them, especially with the latter. His pose is perfect and can be seen in other paintings where his expansive clothes help cover up his weight and give the impression that he is all-powerful. Portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger.

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.

Sources:

  • 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.
  • Katharine of Aragon’s education
  • Katherine and Henry VIII’s marriage & their joint coronation

 

Fire and Blood: Daenerys Targaryen & Henry Tudor -The Princes that Were Promised

Daenerys and Henry Tudor 2

As we are nearing the conclusion of the television series; and if the rumors are true that Martin is going to release the penultimate book in the series of Ice and Fire, we could be seeing as he has put it a “bittersweet ending” where winner takes all, and at the same time loses something important in the process. In the Wars of the Roses (of which the War of the Five Kings is partly based on), every House lost something and someone important.

Edward IV and Robert Baratheon

Edward IV’s death left a huge power vacuum (just as Robert’s did). The throne was up for grabs, unlike Cersei Lannister who was by her son’s side when Ned Stark forged alliances with many lords to depose her son, Elizabeth Woodville was far away and her son in Wales in the care of her brother, his uncle, Anthony Woodville (Earl Rivers). In this scenario, history’s Ned Stark (Richard, D. of Gloucester) was quick to action and intercepted the young king-to-be and his entourage. He imprisoned Lord Rivers and later executed him and other Edwardian Yorkists. Bess Woodville was forced into sanctuary and she refused to let go of her youngest son, the Duke of York when Richard ordered her to send him to him, so he could join his older brother Edward in the Tower of London. The two became known as the Princes in the Tower. They were never seen or heard from again after the summer of 1483, not long before Richard III and his Queen and son traveled to the North where the latter was invested as Prince of Wales. Rumors circulated throughout the country, even foreign contemporaries spoke about it. Edward V, the boy who would have been King, had his doctor see him before his disappearance. Doctor Argentine said that the boy looked so gaunt, almost as if he knew what was going to befall him. He never saw him again.

The rest as they say is history. But here is where it gets interesting. One boy. One boy whose father had died before he was born, and whose mother was married to a Yorkist to ensure both their survival was exiled across the Narrow Sea. He was a boy with no lands or fortune but with a great ancestry that many would have died to take advantage of, to suit their own means. That boy was born at one of the worst times in the wars of the roses, and nobody expected him to amount to anything. And yet that boy survived and thrived and was now a man and now commanded the loyalty of many disaffected Edwardian Loyalists and Lancastrians. And he was now seen as a more attractive alternative to Richard III’s rule.

Does this tale sound familiar to another exiled royal who has a great ancestry and born in an uncertain period, an orphan with no chances of ever doing anything great, and yet her banner of the three red headed dragon (similar to Henry’s banner of the red dragon) continues to stand; and who sees herself as the true heir Westeros? It should. George R. R. Martin took a lot of inspiration from mythology, science fiction (believe it or not, he’s said it) and most of all, history. Specifically late medieval and renaissance history.

Daenerys Targaryen is another archetype of Henry Tudor. A female white haired Henry Tudor. Both of them have beaten the odds. Who would have thought these two penniless orphans (in Dany’s case, both her parents are dead) would have survived to become huge contenders for the throne? After all as Tyrion says, Stannis (when he lived) would have NEVER recognized Dany’s claim, even if she had agreed to a compromise.

Tyrion discusses the politics of the realm she wants to conquer and how it will be very hard to convince everyone she is the rightful ruler, especially Stannis who was still living at the time: “His claim rests on the illegitimacy of yours.” (Tyrion 5x08).
Tyrion discusses the politics of the realm she wants to conquer and how it will be very hard to convince everyone she is the rightful ruler, especially Stannis who was still living at the time:
“His claim rests on the illegitimacy of yours.” (Tyrion 5×08).

Same with Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond and the Plantagenets from the House of York. His Lancastrians relatives had disinherited his Beaufort ancestors from the throne. Richard II legitimized the union between his uncle and one time protector, John of Gaunt, first Duke of Lancaster and Katherine Swynford. But the children never got the surname of Plantagenet. They had been born before their parents’ marriage and their last name comes from one of Gaunt’s properties abroad. When Richard II was deposed and Gaunt’s firstborn legitimate son took the crown; he added a new clause which maintained his half-siblings’ legitimacy, but added that they were excluded from the line of succession.

“Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth century History of the Kings of Britain. The most significant of these popular myths concerned the wizard Merlin, King Arthur, and the life of the last British King, Cadwaladr, from whom the House of York claimed descent through the Mortimers … Henry reversed this so that he was Draco Rubius and Richard III the outsider –a narrative already proving popular in Wales, where they still spoke a ‘British’ tongue. Wales was the one place where the Tudor name had popular resonance … the Tudors maintained their contacts with the Welsh bards who were now churning out prophecies of Henry’s eventual triumph, full of references to the myths of Cadwaladr and the Red Dragon. Jasper had a red dragon as his badge and Henry now took as his principal standard the ‘Red Dragon Dreadful’.” (Lisle)
“Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth century History of the Kings of Britain. The most significant of these popular myths concerned the wizard Merlin, King Arthur, and the life of the last British King, Cadwaladr, from whom the House of York claimed descent through the Mortimers … Henry reversed this so that he was Draco Rubius and Richard III the outsider –a narrative already proving popular in Wales, where they still spoke a ‘British’ tongue. Wales was the one place where the Tudor name had popular resonance … the Tudors maintained their contacts with the Welsh bards who were now churning out prophecies of Henry’s eventual triumph, full of references to the myths of Cadwaladr and the Red Dragon. Jasper had a red dragon as his badge and Henry now took as his principal standard the ‘Red Dragon Dreadful’.” (Lisle)

In the World of Ice and Fire that was released last year, we find out about an illegitimate branch of the Targaryens with a surname similar to the Beauforts. They are the Blackfyres, and instead of a three red headed dragon on a black background, we get the opposite. Yet, this hasn’t been mentioned in the series, and although there are hints that there may be one secret Blackfyre in the books; he doesn’t resemble Henry Tudor at all. It is clear that Daenerys is the Henry Tudor of the world of Ice and Fire. But Daenerys isn’t illegitimate. No, she is not, but with so many theories and hints being pointed out, we can never be sure what surprises Martin will throw at us. But one thing is certain. In the eyes of the Westeros current nobility, she is illegitimate and her claim must be seen that way, otherwise the current Kings’ power could be under threat.

But rules are made to be broken. Henry Tudor knew this. When he landed on Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire, Wales, on the 7th of August 1485, he “kissed the ground meekly and reverently made the sign of the cross upon him”. Then he sent his men forward in the name of God, England and St. George. He proudly let his standard of the red dragon on a green and white field be seen. Fifteen days later his forces confronted Richard’s. Although he had amassed a great number of mercenaries and men previously loyal to Edward IV and to the Lancastrian cause (of the latter, the Earl of Oxford as Dany’s Ser Barristan, proved invaluable since he was one of the BEST military commanders England had ever seen); victory was still uncertain. In Wales, since his birth, the bards sang songs about him. The Tudors had been very loved, and thanks to his uncle Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke, Henry earned a lot of support from that Region. But his forces were outnumbered by Richard’s.

Dany is currently outnumbered by the many people she intends to take on in Westeros. After all, the Lannisters have taken out most of their enemies, just as Richard III and his brother before him, dealt with their enemies. What guarantee does she have (at all!) that the people will rise for her? What guarantee did Henry Tudor have that people would support him? True, he had Wales thanks to his uncle, but even so, a few would not make a difference against the many.

And yet, these two are proof that “if you want something you can get it” as Marguerite of Anjou said in the period drama “The White Queen”. But do not take this to mean that everything is possible. Even though Henry’s goals were achieved, and Dany’s might yet be; they were all thanks in part to their ancestry. If they did not possess the lineage they did, nobody would have backed them up. As Tyrion says, with a great name comes great risks and advantages.

Henry Tudor WQ

Henry’s victory was ensured thanks to the great risk he and his supporters took, as well as his stepfather, Thomas Stanley, rushing to his rescue once he saw his standard-bearer (William Brandon) fall. This last action, ensured his victory. Likewise, Daenerys’ victory will be thanks to her ancestry and her dragons. The fact that they are the first dragons that have been seen in over a century will be regarded as a miracle by many and as a part of a prophecy by others (just like Henry was prophesized to be the prince that was promised by many of his Welsh supporters).

In the end, a song of ice and fire and the wars of the roses and the beginning of the Tudor Dynasty, are tales of great human drama, of men and women who were caught in the crossfire who were forced to grow up, who were forced to do things that they probably would not have done otherwise, and ultimately of ruin and death and of a bittersweet ending.

Sources:

  • Tudors vs Stewarts: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary, Queen of Scots by Linda Porter
  • Henry VII by SB Chrimes
  • Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors by Dan Jones
  • Passion. Manipulation. Murder by Leanda de Lisle
  • World of Ice and Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, Elio M. Garcia Jr and Linda Antonsson
  • A Song of Ice and Fire 1-5 by George R.R. Martin
  • Jasper Tudor by Terry Breverton

Margaret Beaufort: The Real Countess of Richmond

Margaret Beaufort Portcullis 21

On the 31st of May 1443 Margaret Beaufort was born at Bletsoe Castle, Bedforshire to Margaret Beauchamp and John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. John Beaufort suffered from a terrible reputation and lacked leadership skills which, according to some of his contemporaries, led him to commit suicide when Margaret was only one.  Margaret grew very close to her maternal family, her half-siblings and her step-family when her mother married for a third and last time. Margaret Beauchamp was firstly married to Sir Oliver St. John. On his death in 1437, she remarried to John Beaufort four years later. The two only had one child (Margaret). Following his death and possible suicide, she acquired a new license to remarry four years later. It is a myth that Margaret was resentful of her family. The White Queen plays feeds on negative rumors and propaganda written against Margaret during her lifetime and centuries after her death. One of her many critics was none other than Bacon who wrote during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I. You might ask why would a man writing for two direct descendants of Henry VII would write against the mother of the Tudor Dynasty. The answer is religion. The religious landscape of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries had changed. England had been largely Catholic for over a thousand years. Suddenly one day, Henry VIII decides to change everything, claiming that his conscience would not let him rest until he did what was right –and from his view this meant getting himself an annulment so he could marry Anne Boleyn. Henry believed his first marriage was tainted because he had married his brother’s wife and according to Leviticus this was a sin. Never mind that in another book, it said it was okay. Henry was a man who was going to get what he wanted and in the end that is what happened. As a result, Margaret turned from devoted mother of the Tudor Dynasty’s first monarch, scholar, and religious matron to wicked stepmother. Suddenly she was being accused of using witchcraft against her enemies and the last Plantagenet King who had previously been demonized by the Tudors, was now idolized with Margaret being the main culprit behind the Princes in the Tower’s disappearance. (We will never know what happened to the Princes. Even if we find the bodies –as some historians are pressing the public to rise up in their defense, to call for the urn that was uncovered under the steps in the Tower in the seventeenth century to be examined to see once and for all if that is them- it won’t give us any answers).

The real Margaret Beaufort was human and as all humans, a very complex figure. For those that see her as a tyrannical being, I should point out that when her son became King, she commended some of her servants who had served the previous King –Richard III- for their loyalty to him. Furthermore, she continued with her religious devotion and did as so many others of her predecessors (Elizabeth Woodville, Cecily Neville, royal mothers themselves too) had done, endowing universities and adding new ones.

But before Margaret’s rise to fame, her road ahead was filled with many obstacles.

King Henry VI.
King Henry VI.


After her father died, Henry VI decreed that her mother couldn’t take care of her (despite that she had other children she had taken care of before Margaret was born) and gave her custody to William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk. Some have accused Suffolk of coveting her wardship so he could get closer to the throne by marrying the young heiress (and also the King’s cousin) to his son John. But people forget that this was an ambitious and ruthless era. Wards were a profitable business. If the boys or girls were wealthy heiress their guardians would benefit by marrying them off to their heirs, thus making themselves richer. After Suffolk’s death in 1450, Margaret was brought before the King and his councilors to swear against her marriage. She was only nine. With tensions brewing between the King and the Duke of York, it became imperative that she married someone loyal to the King. She was promised to the Earl of Richmond, Edmund Tudor who also obtained her wardship. Edmund didn’t wait to consummate his marriage to the young heiress. The age of consent for girls was twelve, but that didn’t mean that everyone would approve of their marriage. Sometimes girls married older men or boys their age, and they waited years to consummate their marriage for fear it would hurt them and they would be unable to have more children. Edmund however was eager to get Margaret pregnant to get ahold of her fortunes, preventing any Yorkist from taking them. Edmund was a realist as everyone was during this time. After the first battle of St. Albans, it became clear that everyone’s lives and fortunes were at stake. Edmund could die or be captured, and if his marriage was unconsummated, it could be annulled and then she would be free to remarry, possible a Yorkist if the latter got the upper hand. Edmund was no staunch Lancastrian. He was a pragmatist as his brother Jasper Tudor, the Earl of Pembroke. Both had supported the Duke of York many times when he fought Margaret of Anjou for the regency. They knew he was more experienced and had the loyalty of his men, and despite their disagreements, he would make a good Regent. But when it came to taking sides between their King and half-brother and the Duke, they would obviously stay with the former.

Unlike how she has been portrayed in popular dramas and documentaries like “The White Queen” and “The Real White Queen and her Rivals” , the real Margaret Beaufort was renown and even praised by her piety –which was not unconventional at the time and many women of her rank practiced the same religious practices she did (i.e. Cecily Neville, Elizabeth Woodville, Anne Neville, Elizabeth of York, etc).
Unlike how she has been portrayed in popular dramas and documentaries like “The White Queen” and “The Real White Queen and her Rivals” , the real Margaret Beaufort was renown and even praised by her piety –which was not unconventional at the time and many women of her rank practiced the same religious practices she did (i.e. Cecily Neville, Elizabeth Woodville, Anne Neville, Elizabeth of York, etc).

Margaret gave birth to Henry Tudor under strenuous circumstances. After she had learned of her husband’s death (possibly as a result of disease and wounds inflicted on him during his captivity) –fearing for her life- she escaped to Wales, to Pembrokeshire where she gave birth to her only offspring, Henry Tudor in January 1456. During the Lancastrian Readeption her son’s lands and titles were restored and they and his uncle Jasper Tudor were back in favor again. But when Henry VI’s only son was killed in battle, and her cousin was dragged from the Abbey –along his other companions- to be beheaded, and the Lancastrian King himself was murdered; Henry and Jasper had no choice but to flee the country. They would not see each other for fourteen years. During that time Margaret lost her second husband, Henry Stafford and remarried to one of England’s up-and-coming courtiers, Thomas Stanley. And took care of securing for herself a position where she could gain Edward IV’s confidence and respect so she could convince him of allowing her son to come back home unharmed.
But Edward IV had no intention of returning the youth to his mother. He (rightly) saw Henry as a threat following the destruction of the legitimate line of the Lancastrian House and began to set his eyes on Henry. His father Edmund Tudor had been the son of Katherine of Valois and her first husband’s Welsh squire –Owen ap Meredith ap Tudor. By a mistranslation of his name, he became Owen Tudor. (Imagine if they had translated his name right. We would have a dynasty of Merediths instead). The couple’s torrid love affair became public after Katherine’s death in 1438, after which Edmund was probably eight years old. The two had probably married a year before that. Owen was one of the more adventurous Tudors. Like his grandson Henry Tudor, he lived a life of dangerous escapades but like so many others in the wars of the roses, his life was cut short when he was beheaded in 1461, shortly after the battle of Mortimer cross.
Though the Tudors had no Lancastrian blood running through their veins, the Beauforts did and Margaret had passed on her distant claim to her son. When John of Gaunt, first Duke of Lancaster married his mistress, Kathryn Swynford, the Beauforts were legitimized by an act of parliament under Richard II. But his successor –John’s eldest son- altered the act, adding that they could be legitimate but not inherit. This was a huge blow to the Beauforts, but it didn’t stop them from being fiercely loyal to their house. In fact the Yorkist King and his siblings were descendant of John of Gaunt through their mother Cecily Neville who was the daughter of John and Kathryn’s only daughter –Joan Beaufort. But being descendants of Gaunt’s line through the female line hardly mattered. Henry Tudor was the descendant of this house through the eldest male line. This made him very dangerous. Henry IV had usurped the throne under the pretext that Richard II was bad king, and that he descended from the third eldest son of Edward III and other royals with greater claims than his other cousins. It didn’t matter if they believed his claims, as long as he had a powerful army and discontent nobles backing him.

Young Henry VII
Young Henry VII


All Henry Tudor needed was discontent nobles and foreign allies, and Edward IV could look to another invasion from another Lancastrian. Luckily for Henry, he evaded captured by feigning sickness when Edward’s men were about to board him on a ship to take him to England. Hiding in a church, he was able to send a message to the Duke of Brittany –Francis II- of his suspicions of Edward’s intentions and he was brought back to safety. Edward did not have to worry about Henry becoming a danger when the real danger was closer to home. His younger brother, George, Duke of Clarence was accusing the Queen’s family of poisoning his wife and baby and captured one of the servants that allegedly were on the Woodville’s payroll and administered cruel punishment. When Edward found out about this he imprisoned his brother and executing him, drowning him in a butt of malmsey wine. This was 1478, by this time Edward IV was becoming obese and consumed by what Mancini later described as his “vices” that were encouraged by his in-laws. As his health deteriorated, his worries over Henry Tudor waned. He agreed with Margaret to bring her son back and was about to sign up an agreement, that guaranteed he would stay true to his word –and marry him to Elizabeth of York- when he died.

Richard III
Richard III


The reign of Richard III changed everything. Never mind the mystery of the uncrowned Prince and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, known forever as the “Princes in the Tower”. There were many discontent nobles that believed they should have received more favor for supporting Richard’s usurpation. In the North he was beloved. He had adopted the white boar –also known as Ebocarum- as his sigil and to further show his appreciation for the region, he had held the ceremony of his son’s investiture as Prince of Wales there. People in the South were not happy. The common law courts that Richard had created to help the poor and those who were unable to get a good defense, were not helping his cause. Richard as those before him, had proven he could be both ruthless and merciful. While he was remembered fondly in the North and by the people he helped, he was also greatly disliked by the families of the people he executed and the many people he went after.

Margaret worked very hard to appease the new King and Queen. She played an important part on their joint coronation, holding Anne Neville’s train and her husband formed a part of the King’s government, though not of his inner circle. After the Princes’ disappearances, she began meeting with the Duke of Buckingham who was her nephew by marriage. Many have taken this as a sign that she conspired with Stafford to create havoc on England, or kill the Princes for good,  so her son would take the crown. But there are many problems with this theory. First is that Margaret’s husband did not have direct access to the Tower. Richard Brackenbury did, and only he would have the power to open the boys’ chambers and do any harm. Secondly, given Margaret’s past ambitions, it is more probable she was looking to Buckingham who was probably dissatisfied with Richard, to convince him to support her son’s claim. She might have reasoned that if the Princes were indeed dead as many foreign ambassadors believed they were, than that left only one option for her son to come back home: As a King rather than a captive.

Whatever Margaret’s aim was, it failed. Buckingham’s rebellion was crushed and her son’s first attempt to invade England also failed. Richard released a public statement next year, swearing that he would do no harm to his late brother’s remaining children, his nieces. Bess Woodville came out of sanctuary and her two eldest daughters, Elizabeth and Cecily, were brought to court to serve the Queen.

Despite Richard’s best attempts to put the rumors of kin-slaying to rest, people began to whisper once more. This time they were saying that he intended to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York. Some historians do lend credibility to these rumors and I don’t doubt he might have had as these types of marriages were common back then. But he would have needed a special dispensation from the pope since they were in a closer degree of affinity, not to mention that her maternal family’s reputation amongst the high nobility. His son also died that year and his wife began to grow ill. What Anne Neville must have thought when she heard these rumors is something we will never know. But like her husband, the pressure got to her and shortly before her death, her husband was already looking for a new wife to secure the future of his kingdom and to neutralize the Tudor threat. Publicly forced to swear that he never had any intention of marrying his niece, he began making plans for her. He got to arrange to double marriage for him and his niece to the Infanta of Portugal and the Duke of Beja -both of whom had Lancastrian blood running through their veins. It was his own way of symbolically uniting both Houses and keeping Henry Tudor away from Elizabeth of York.

Margaret Beaufort Portcullis (left) at Cambridge next to the Tudor rose and the red dragon and greyhound.
Margaret Beaufort Portcullis (left) at Cambridge next to the Tudor rose and the red dragon and greyhound.

Following the victory of Bosworth Field (which was won with the support of Stanley’s armies when he and his brother switched over to Henry’s side) she became one of the most powerful women in English history and began styling herself “My Lady the King’s Mother” and signed her documents “Margaret R”. The “R” likely stood for Richmond as it was her title now as suo jure.

Margaret outlived her son, eldest grandson and daughter-in-law, dying a few days after her youngest grandson -Henry VIII’s- coronation on June 29, 1509. She was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey at the south aisle of the beautiful Lady Chapel Henry VII had constructed for him and his descendants.

Margaret is credited with being one of the greatest learned women of her age and this is not mere flattery. Margaret was in fact very learned and she is known to have founded many colleges –among these John’s College in Cambridge and the Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School and refounding God’s House in Cambridge and turning it into Christ’s College and establishing the Lady Margaret’s Professorship of Divinity. And in addition, she translated many French works into English.

Sources

  • Tudor. Passion. Murder. Manipulation by Leanda de Lisle
  • Margaret Beaufort: Mother of the Tudor Dynasty by Elizabeth Norton
  • Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors
  • Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and her World by Alison Weir
  • Elizabeth of York by Amy Licence

In Defense of Katherine Howard Part 3: What her contemporaries thought of her

Here is what the French Ambassador, Charles de Marillac, had to say regarding Henry VIII’s relationship with his teenage wife:  

The King is so amorous of her that he cannot treat her well enough and caress her more than he did the others.”


Other envoys also reported favorably on Katherine, stating what had attracted her to Henry:
“It was upon a notable appearance of honor, cleanness and maidenly behavior and that High Highness was finally contented to honor that lady with his marriage, thinking in his old days -after sundry troubles of mind which had happened to him by marriage- to have obtained such a perfect jewel of womanhood and very perfect love towards him as should have been not only to his quietness but also to have brought forth the desired fruits of marriage.”

Which brings me to my next point: With all this said countless times, why does she still get to be portrayed as a bubbly head? They are doing a huge disservice to Katherine portraying her like an idiot when she clearly WASN’T. And sex sells and the Tudors were full of sex scandals but half of those scandals come from hundreds of years after they were dead and are mere inventions and shouldn’t be regarded as fact. So let’s do the poor girl justice once more and appreciate her for all her achievements, as insignificant as they might seem to us, she fulfilled her queenly obligations and her motto speaks millions of the role she intended to play, one as I said in my previous post, similar to Jane Seymour’s. Her one flaw was her past, and being young and fallen for a dangerous rogue who unlike the fictitious characters we love to fawn over in the movies, had nothing commendable about him.

So here I leave you with the only portrayal I’m able to stomach of Katherine, because she is not bubbly in this one and they do her more justice than any other series, albeit they still exaggerate in some things (it’s drama after all).

Best portrayal of KH to date!
Best portrayal of KH to date!

Sources:

  • Katherine Howard: A New History by Conor Byrne
  • The Six Wives and the Many Mistresses of Henry VIII by Amy Licence
  • Six Wives of Henry VIII by David Starkey
  • Six Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser

In Defense of Katherine Howard Part 1: Mean Girl or Victim of Fate

Sarah Bolger as Mary Tudor (left) and Tamzin Merchant as Kitty Howard (right).
Sarah Bolger as Mary Tudor (left) and Tamzin Merchant as Kitty Howard (right).
The anniversary of her execution has come and gone and there have been just about every kind of nasty comment about her. Henry’s little sex kitten. She was stupid enough to lose her head! What was Henry VIII thinking marrying that teenager? Didn’t he learn anything from Anne Boleyn? She was so mean to Mary! Poor Mary.
Kitty Howard didn’t die because of her own stupidity, there were many other factors, mainly that the Howards had powerful enemies at this point and Cranmer and his faction did everything that they could, prosecuting her mercilessly and bringing her past up in such a way that it has followed her after her death. But let’s meet Kitty, the real Kitty not the Tudors and countless other messed up versions of her.”No will but his” This was Kitty’s motto. Clearly not the motto from a stupid girl. Note how similar it was to Jane Seymour’s, Henry’s third consort. Kitty was no super model but she possessed “superlative grace”. She tried to bring the Tudor family together but she had many enemies and her relation to Anne Boleyn doomed her would-have-been-good relationship with Mary Tudor, the King’s eldest and yet-to-be married daughter. Something that sparked jealousy on Mary’s part because she was not much older than her and her father still considered her a threat -and always would!- and until he had another son in the cradle, she knew she would not marry. In the show Kitty haughtily replies as a mean girl from ‘Mean Girls’ with a ha-ha voice while her brainless ladies laugh behind her that she will always be an old maid and like that *snaps fingers* she gives her a killer smile and walks out! And everyone loves her for it. Yeah that’s so true …

Not!

The real Kitty Howard was not an attention seeker drama queen crying like a little baby every time things didn’t go her way. In real life we know as much about her as we do of Jane Seymour.
Kitty was no fool. She wasn’t serious like Jane or exotic like Anne, or cosmopolitan and educated like half of Henry’s wives but she didn’t need to be. She was a Howard and while she grew under the careless guardianship of Agnes Tilney -her step-grandmother and Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, she knew what she was getting into. Her husband married her on the day he executed Cromwell. She knew what to expect and yet why did she act so stupidly? She didn’t, not in her mind at least. If we think being a teenager is difficult, try being one in Tudor times. She was probably raped by one of her earliest dalliances and she foolishly promised to marry another one, yet promises were made and unmade all the time. As Queen she knew she had to have a spotless record and she tried very hard to do so. As I previously stated, she did her best to get along with ALL of Henry’s family and she did a lot for her stepdaughter, Lady Elizabeth. At every court function she behaved with every ounce dignity expected in a Queen of England. There is a grain of truth to the stories of her dismissing two of Mary’s maids. But as upset as she was at Mary or Mary at her, none would have behaved that way to each other. It would’ve been beneath them. And yet dramatists love to make these women hostile to each other. (A trend I notice in every history drama. If there are two women who disagree over something then let’s have them unleash their claws at each other and spark the drama by having them go at each other like you’d see in a high school soap opera).
Chapuys later learned what happened and advised Mary to make peace with the Queen and she did. By the end of that year there were no more reports, the women sorted it out. But Kitty wasn’t off the royal hook. Her past caught up with her and a teenager under pressure to bring her husband a Duke of York or else face her cousin’s terrible fate; she caved in. There’s no basis after she was questioned and sentenced to die that said she would’ve preferred to be Ms. Culpeper than Ms. Henry VIII. Claire Ridgway in her book The Anne Boleyn Collection v.1 explains where this myth came from. What is true is that Thomas Culpeper didn’t do much for Kitty Howard. He was a detestable character and it was said that he had raped a woman before he became Kitty’s lover. In the Boleyn Inheritance there’s less justice done to Kitty as she is described from Jane Parker’s POV that she faints when she’s about to face execution. Katherine Howard never fainted, neither did she cry or wet herself or wear that crazy braid. She had ordered the block where she would lay her head on to be brought to her so she could practice, and when she faced her execution she behaved as her cousin did six years before.

Sources:
  • Katherine Howard: A New History by Conor Byrne
  • Wicked Women by Retha Warnicke
  • Six Wives and the Many Mistresses of Henry VIII by Amy Licence
  • Six Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser
  • Six Wives of Henry VIII by David Starkey