Staging Tudor History – A Review of “Bring Up the Bodies”

Denise at HeverBy Denise Hansen

Denise Hansen has an academic background in history and education and worked for 30 years with Parks Canada in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is a self-confessed Tudor history fan with a special interest in Anne Boleyn.

Full disclosure here. My sole previous experience with the West End London Theatre world consisted of the viewing of “No Sex Please, We’re British” almost thirty years ago.  So I was bound to be impressed, especially when the subject of the play was of intense interest to me, a self-confessed Tudor history addict with a healthy obsession with Anne Boleyn.   I live in Halifax, Nova Scotia (Canada) but a trip to London was in the offing this September, 2014.  I looked into buying tickets to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies”, theatrical adaptations of Hilary Mantel’s prize-winning tales of Thomas Cromwell, Henry the VIII’s politically adept henchman who was instrumental in the fall of Anne Boleyn.  When I learned that the successful runs of both plays had been extended I couldn’t resist and booked an expensive  solo ticket to a Saturday evening performance of “Bring Up the Bodies” at the charming, Edwardian-era Aldwych Theatre.  I was not disappointed in the production and the play certainly did what good drama is supposed to do – told a story well, entertained the audience and evoked an emotional experience.  Plays which deal with historical content cannot avoid serving as  “history writ large” and Mike Poulton’s re-work of Mantel’s second book in the Cromwell trilogy successfully pares down hundreds of written pages into a riveting three hour production, without sacrificing too much of Mantel’s trademark witty dialogue.

The stage set was minimalist but effective, with quick, subtle scene changes and the looming presence of a carved cross. The somber grays and browns of the interior set designs were a good contrast with the rich hues of the Tudor costumes, including a memorable scarlet gown worn by Lydia Leonard’s Anne Boleyn.  I was impressed with the narrow strips of real fire which appeared at random times  in the stage floor to depict those ever-present Tudor fires, despite the fact that the effect is far from magically achieved, considering  today’s propane fireplaces.  Snow fluttered from a backlit sky which illuminated Katherine of Aragon’s January funeral and sitting actors swayed into oarsmen escorting Anne Boleyn on her last journey on the Thames.  Cardinal Wolsey and Sir Thomas More appear as ghosts, realized figments of Cromwell’s powerful imagination.

The acting was quite wonderful and totally professional. Ben Miles (Thomas Cromwell) lacked the thuggish physicality of the man captured in Holbein’s portrait but he brought a chilling calmness to the role, conveying a snake-like skill in coercion. Nathaniel Parker’s mercurial Henry VIII was part love-sick buffoon, gregarious “bluff King Hal” and the raging lion once alluded to by Sir Thomas More. Jane Seymour was portrayed by Leah Brotherhead ably but I was distracted by her annoyingly high-pitched, whiny voice.  I was surprised to realize from the play program that several actors played multiple roles. For example Lucy Briers played both Katherine of Aragon and a scheming Lady Rochford.  The many characters which peppered Henry’s court were painted in broad strokes and we are given a rather foppish, earring-bedecked George Boleyn and an Eustace Chapuys with an accent that reminded me of something out of a Monty Python movie.  John Ramm played an effective Henry Norris, the oldest of the men accused of adultery with the Queen and one of Henry’s closest friends.

The first half of the play was darkly comic in places but the second was more serious and befittingly tragic. The term “Bring Up the Bodies” is a judicial expression used to summon up accused prisoners for trial but it was also suggested in a more literal sense with a grim scene showing the linen-wrapped, bloody corpses of the five men executed for adultery with the Queen. It expands from the novel with Cromwell’s matter-of-fact suggestions for identifying the headless bodies for burial through physical details that convey the intimacy of the Tudor Court – “Smeaton’s fingers will be worn from the playing of the lute”, “Norris has a scar from a jousting accident”. I was quite moved by that scene since all the executions are shown off-stage.

RSC program picBut what of Anne Boleyn – the character who I was most interested in?  Mantel is not gentle in her portrayal of Anne Boleyn in her novels and evokes what author Susan Bordo (“The Creation of Anne Boleyn”) refers to as the “default Anne” – a shrill, ambitious, viscously smart woman who will stop at nothing to maintain her position. Of course the Anne in “Bring Up the Bodies” is certainly not Anne at her best as she becomes increasingly desperate and isolated, like a cornered animal.  I did not expect a different Anne in the play and Lydia Leonard admitted that she wanted to honour Anne but says; “I personally feel more of a commitment to playing Hilary Mantel’s Anne Boleyn because that’s what going to make the whole story turn.” (RSC, “Bring Up the Bodies” Aldwych Theatre Program).  So we are given an Anne who strides more than walks, who shouts more than talks and who can only be described as unrelentingly haughty. She is however witty, articulate and fiercely intelligent. We occasionally see Cromwell’s wary acknowledgement of this. In fact, Anne was once his ally until the tides turned and Henry desired to be rid of her.  As in the books, the play is quilty of the “sin of omission” regarding Anne Boleyn, and all mention of her corroborated trial speech and anything else that painted her in a more favourable light is quite glaringly absent.   The question of her guilt is left ambiguous though and the play convincingly conveys the awful power of rumour and innuendo in a personality-driven court with so much at stake.  Cromwell’s successful coup was partially a product of luck and timing but the events were molded by a man who was a master of psychological manipulation.

The play does allow for sympathy for Anne. Her execution is not shown on-stage but viscerally rehearsed for Cromwell by the French executioner. There is one line uttered by Cromwell which really resonated.  He remarks on Anne Boleyn in the days just prior to her execution and it is an insightful statement of how far she has fallen – “She has lost her self. All we have to do is bury her.”  For me, that “self” is not the ruthless, scheming political animal of Mantel’s books and this play, but a multi-faceted, courageous woman who by this time had lost friends, family and the love of her King.

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Happy 523rd Birthday to Bluff King Hal!

HenryBDayThe following article is a guest post by Kyra Kramer, author of Blood Will Tell: A Medical Explanation for the Tyranny of Henry VIII.

The fact that the King has returned to dust does make it hard to get him a birthday present, though. Clearly, the only option one has is a personal gesture of goodwill. To that end I will do my best to elucidate on a topic that I am sure still bothers him beyond the veil of death, bless his egotistical heart: the idea that he was ugly.

If there is one common misapprehension that Henry VIII would wish to debunk, it is probably the one wherein he was gross in every possible way. Heaven knows “modest” and “humble” were not adjectives used to describe him, so the fact his image in the public imagination is usually that of a fat and pus-oozing old lech must be making him spin in his grave.

When the King was young he was a prime bit of manflesh. The young Henry 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-gold, he had very fair skin, and apparently his face was so lovely it would have looked good on “a pretty woman”. Not only that, he could sing. He was the teen heart-throb of the Tudor dynasty.

Measurements for his armor also show that Henry was well over six feet tall and had a godlike body. A man’s legs were an especially important feature for masculine beauty in those days, and Henry had a first-rate set of limbs. He was vain about them (as he was about everything), bragging that his legs “had a good calf”. The fashion of the time made much of a man’s lower body, and Henry certainly looked hot in a doublet and hose when he was young. Henry, with his long and muscular legs encased in the skin-tight hose that were topped with an enormous codpiece made of stiffened (insert own joke here) cloth and his broad chest covered in a gem-encrusted doublet, had to have been an impressive sight. I am sure most of the ladies of the court, and likely some of the guys as well, would admire Henry as he moved among them, resplendent as both a man and a king.

Henry’s body wasn’t just for show, either. The King was a very, very good athlete and demonstrated outstanding abilities in several medieval sports. He was a particularly good equestrian, and could ride for more than thirty miles without needing a break. Anyone who has ever ridden a horse can tell you that riding a horse is not a passive activity; your thigh and core muscles in particular have to be strong in order to keep your seat. He could also joust better than any of his court contemporaries, which was not an easy thing to do. (Contrary to rumor, Henry always lost games with good grace and people who could beat him would win significant sums of money — people did not “let” him win.) Jousting was an incredibly difficult and demanding sport that could easily lead to fatal injuries.

Moreover, the King was also extremely good at tennis. Back then tennis was played in an indoor court and used hard leather balls packed with wool, or even human hair, and was more like squash than tennis as we know it today. Modern tennis is certainly not a sedentary sport, but squash is even more physically demanding. Since Henry was recorded more than once stripping down to his shirt during physical exertion, I’m pretty sure the sight of sweat-soaked linen clinging to his muscular chest and back was one of the reasons people crowded around to watch him play.

Henry was also a skillful archer, and could shoot an arrow as well as most of the bowmen in his guard. These were longbows, people. You had to be built like a brick house just to nock the arrow on the string of the bow. The pull weight on those things was around 200 lbs. Although the average male height was around 5’8”, the archers whom Henry competed with were typically about 6’ 2” or 6’3” with thickened bones to compensate for the weight of their extra muscle mass.

Henry may have been vain, but to be frank he had a damn good reason for his vanity. No wonder he couldn’t quite believe that Anne Boleyn was serious when she told him that she only wanted to be his subject, not his mistress. As a personable, intelligent, and handsome king,“no” was probably not a word he encountered overmuch.

Now, let’s raise a symbolic toast to this amazing King in honor of his birthday. History may have been served by his obtaining more inner beauty, but let no one question the pulchritude of his exterior.

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Congratulations to our Competition Winners!

photo(8) A few weeks ago, we challenged readers to write a short story, poem, or short play about Anne’s Coronation, told from one of three viewpoints:

1.) Anne’s viewpoint
2.) Henry’s viewpoint
3.) An observer in the crowd’s viewpoint.


All of the entries were excellent, and we thank all of you who took the time to write a piece for the contest. Two, however, stood out for their creativity, style, and fidelity to the period.
The winners are Peggy West and Alisha White, whose pieces can be found below!

 

The Guest

By Peggy West

From inside the sewing room of a dressing room in the depths of the Hall, my mother whispered that people call the new queen “Nan Bullen”.

She said, “Highborn but it makes no matter. Getting round with the king’s baby before a marriage blessing. And now crowned queen. Nobody scolds the pope. In the Spanish days, we knew who God was. God was not a fat man wearing furs and clucking about with coiled beet skins for hair.”

She turned the dress inside out. “More velvet for the new queen. Days and nights of royal feasting and plain people are to pay a good sum for their fancy meals but first run alongside the coach, calling out hosannas to a whore.” My mother’s lips were so full of pins that who can tell what words she spits? Still, I wish my father was here to shush her.

I said, “The king is who the king says he is.” But I know that we have had stolen from us our best idea of God.

We shook out the dress. We felt along the seams, our knuckles crawling. We gripped the bodice in our fists. We lined up the pins on a footstool. I counted them to make sure we had removed them all. It would never do for the new queen to get a stick from a pin on a day like this.

Servants should never be seen. We save the noble from triumph that slides too quickly to tribulation, as is nature’s course. Would the new queen blame us if a pinpoint tapped her skin? The old queen never held us to our faults. Her disdain was thrilling. They say the divorce will kill her.

Myself I am to be married days from now. For one afternoon I will be the princess of the day. They say I will have have 5 children because my mother did. Will I please the people of my husband’s family when I am their princess? Through alertness, I have learned to count. They say I will never learn to read because my husband does not.

At my wedding, something will be said of God. Guests will ask me for a story of Anne Boleyn.

A flock of ladies let go at the door and suddenly the new queen stood before us. She was a spire of beauty. She wore silk underthings and a crown and the bump at her belly strained against the fabric. Her eyes darted about as we stood on stools above her. She raised her arms high in the air.

“Be careful of the crown,” she said. She twitched her hips to get the dress past the bump at her waist. We fastened her in.

We trailed the ladies into a room where men jumped up to standing and bowed. Others withdrew into the drapes. The ermine cloak shot with gold was caught about the new queen’s throat, the starpoint broach affixed but her eyes went wild. She pulled off the clip and threw it to the tiles, letting the cloak pool about her new queen slippers like melting snow. The new queen screamed for water. She coughed again and again into velvet. People ran toward her. She took a cup from me. (As she drank, her fingers tapped a book on a table.) She said, in french I suppose, the word “fatigue”.

My mother was called on when the new queen could not sit in comfort on the coach seat. Footman pushed and pulled us up. We could not curtsey to the king because there was no room on the floor. Our elbows settled in each other’s knees as we groped for the new queen’s waist to pull out stitches and sew new ones. The king pinched the new queen.

The new queen leaned out and looked behind her. She leaned out and looked ahead of her. She gave off the clear-eyed look of an adventurous woman who has lost everything yet hopes that what she has lost can be found ahead. I sighed for the human race.

“I am finally grand,” she said to me. “Stay with me. I may need you because I swell by the moment. Put your head on the floor.” My mother handed me a needle then stepped down to the ground.

The coach pulled out into a shoutless crowd.

 

Maid of Revenge

By Alisha White

The witch from Kent sits on St. Edward’s Chair under a canopy of gold cloth. She holds a scepter in one hand and a golden rod in the other, a double strand of pearls about her neck. A few yards away I stand in the congregation with nine other Maids of Honor trying not to faint under the weight of heavy Baltic fur. The English nobility, the French Ambassadors, and the Heads of State fill the gallery of St. Peter’s chapel in a sea of red, purple, and gold. It is sweltering in here and my legs are beginning to cramp.
I gaze up at the High Alter where the Archbishop of Canterbury is placing a bejeweled crown on the head of Anne Boleyn. Her eyes are sharp, catlike, tilted on either side of her nose. My attention is immediately drawn to her hair. Thick, long, black, it slithers down her spine with the sheen of a water serpent fresh from the Thames. She is heavy in the middle for she is six months gone with child. And she best pray the child is a prince.
While the mass is being sung I close my eyes and let my mind drift back to the previous spring at Richmond Palace. It was a warm morning, much like today, and I was sitting with Queen Catherine in her state apartments busy with needlepoint when King Henry barged in unannounced. His large face was red and sweaty from the morning hunt. He was matter of fact, sparing Catherine’s feelings none, as he said, “I’ve come to tell you the divorce is final. I am to marry Anne Boleyn.”
The prideful daughter of Isabella of Castile was reduced to a blubbering heap of black velvet right then and there. She clung to the king’s broad waist with her frail arms pleading with him. I remember the scene vividly.
“My King!” she wailed from the floor. “I beseech you! Do not give up on our marriage. There is still hope. I can give you a son. I can give England an heir. I will forgive you this folly like I have the others before and we shall be happy again, my love, you will see.”
“My decision is final. I will wed Mistress Anne and you will remove to Kimbolton Castle at once. Be gone from me.”
And that was that. Queen Catherine was queen no more.

I open my eyes and scan the vaulted ceiling of St. Peter’s chapel espying a circle of latticed screen from which a flicker of candle can be seen. I know King Henry is up there watching from a secret passage, happy and eager, while poor Catherine is withering away, far from court, in a country castle.
Poor, poor, Catherine.
I bring my eyes back to the High Alter where Lord Talbot announces the removal of the queen to Westminster Hall where a feast has been laid in her honor. A warm June breeze floats through the corridor and briefly, ever so briefly, the scent of honeysuckle sweeps in from the garden.
Falling in step with the other Maids of Honor I throw a cursed glance in the direction of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. He leads the queen into the hall on a parade of victory with us maids following behind. I do not partake in their celebratory nature. Together they are responsible for the bereavement of my beloved Catherine. They have brainwashed the king and convinced him not only to divorce Catherine but to declare the Princess Mary a bastard. I curse them both with the flees of a thousand wild boar.
I come to stand along a back wall and the Lady Howard draws up beside me. She holds her stubby nose high and wears a sarcastic smile on her lips. She too is a Maid of Honor, but we are not friends. Lady Howard is loyal to the Boleyns and I am loyal to Catherine of Aragon. It is likely we will be enemies.
“Mistress Margery,” a male’s voice interrupts the awkwardness.
I turn to see the handsome Duke of Suffolk holding out his arm.
“Would you allow me to escort you to your seat? The queen has requested you dine at her table.”
Ah, I think to myself with a smile. Let the games begin.

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How Could Henry Do It? Six Perspectives

Henry Eats the SwanDuring the episode of The Tudors in which Anne Boleyn is executed, scenes of her suffering in the Tower are punctuated with the image of Henry, gazing contemplatively at two beautiful swans nuzzling in the pond outside the palace.  His mood and thoughts are left deliberately ambiguous; perhaps, the viewer imagines, he is thinking back over his love for Anne and the life they shared together, perhaps he is having regrets, feeling sorrow for the beauty that is about to be lost?  No.  After the execution scene, we are immediately taken to the King at his table, looking forward to his breakfast, which is being brought to him in a large gilt tureen on a silver platter.  The lid is lifted, and the servants and nobles surrounding Henry gasp and applaud in delight.  There on the platter is one of the swans, roasted and decorated with its own beautiful wings, posed as gracefully as if it were still swimming in a lake.  Henry, referencing Charles Laughton’s famous eating scene but giving Henry’s voraciousness a menace missing from Laughton’s comic depiction, tears off a wing, plunges his hand into the body of the swan, and begins eating, oblivious to the greasy drool spilling from his mouth.

Had Henry become the monster depicted in this scene?

The execution of a queen was unprecedented, extreme and shocking, even to Anne’s enemies. Henry had invested six years of time, energy, intellect, money, and blood in making the marriage happen. They were married less than three years. There is no evidence of an unbridgeable emotional estrangement between them. His earlier love letters to her, admittedly written in the bloom of fresh passion, portray a solicitous, tender suitor whom it is impossible to imagine coldly ordering a wife’s death. There are plenty of explanations for Henry’s desire for a new marriage–Anne’s failure to provide a male heir, Jane Seymour, waiting in the wings, fresh and fertile, Henry’s recognition that Anne was creating problems with his image. In the end, however, it still takes a leap of incomprehension to find any of them sufficient to explain Henry’s willingness—in fact, seeming eagerness—to sign the order for Anne’s execution.  We are still left asking ourselves: How could he do it?  What follows are six different “answers,” not all of them incompatible with each other, but all offering a slightly (and in one case radically) different “take” on one of the most notorious death decrees in history:

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  1. Suzannah Lipscomb:  After a year of physical and emotional disasters, the wound to Henry’s masculine honor and the need to restore patriarchal authority was all-important:

“Two contemporary comments provide a clue [to Henry’s behavior]. Cranmer, in his letter to the king concerning his disbelief at Anne’s guilt, wrote that he could not ‘deny but your grace hath great causes…of lamentable heaviness; and also, that…your grace’s honour of every part is so highly touched’, before rushing on to undo these words by disingenuously assuring Henry, ‘if the reports of the Queen be true, they are only to her dishonor, not yours’. A similar sentiment was expressed by a European observer, the reformer Philipp Melancthon, when he wrote, ‘see how dreadfully this calamity will dishonor the King’. Honour, as we have seen, was chiefly a measure of one’s ability to conform to the ideals demanded of one’s gender. For a man, it meant exerting masculinity, imposing patriarchy, controlling the women in one’s household, maintaining a good reputation and demonstrating physical and sexual prowess. Chiefly, it meant controlling the morality of the women under his care and, specifically, their sexual morality. That henry had been unable to do this denoted two things: it was evidence of Henry’s inability as a man and as a monarch. Contemporary thought made a clear link between a man’s sexual potency and his wife’s fidelity – men who were cuckolded were those whose ‘lack of sexual dominance led their wives to adultery’. ‘To be a man’, writes Lyndal Roper, ‘was to have the power to take a woman.’ Anne’s very behavior, if assumed to be true, testified to the king’s lack of manliness, and as if this weren’t enough, Anne and Rochford’s ridicule of the king on this very matter drove the point home. It was not something that went unnoticed in the kingdom. Sir Nicholas Porter, the parson of Freshwater, was reported to have said in 1538, ‘Lo, while the King and his Council were busy to put down abbeys and pull away the right of Holy Church, he was made cuckold at home.’ There was also a strong connection in the popular mind betw4en impotency and old age – the image of ‘Old Adam’ whose feeble old body could not satisfy his vigorous young wife was a constant refrain in the ballads found in contemporary broadsides. There were huge repercussions if such a failure were found in a king. Early modern thinking linked the governance of a house with the governance of a realm; as John Dod and Robert Cleaver wrote in 1612, ‘it is impossible for a man to understand how to govern the commonwealth, that doth not know how to rule his own house’. Any woman’s adultery, but especially that of a queen, upset the social order and gender hierarchy upon which society was based. Cranmer was right the first time – Henry’s honour was ‘highly touched’ by Anne’s apparent adultery. This also explains why Henry felt the need to cavort himself with ladies and increase the pace of his relationship with Jane Seymour, marrying her so quickly. It wasn’t just, as Alesius later hypothesized, that he was ‘openly insulting’ Anne: in the light of Anne’s devastating assault on his masculinity, Henry did it to restore the patriarchal order and to prove his manhood.”

(From 1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII, p. 88-89)

 

  1.   Alison Weir: Henry VIII, ready to believe anything about a woman he had come to see as a monster, found the charges against Anne entirely credible:

 

“From the time of Anne’s committal to the Tower, Henry VIII’s behavior was typical of a man confronted with appalling evidence of his wife’s infidelity, and whose masculine pride has been deeply wounded. He avoided parading his humiliation in public, and remained incommunicado until all was over. Henry was apparently ready to believe anything of Anne. He would shortly manifest the conviction that she was a monster not only of lechery but also of cruelty. The latter was, to him, probably entirely credible. She had hounded Wolsey night until death; repeatedly urged henry to send Katherine of Aragon and Mary, his own daughter, to the scaffold; been ruthless against her enemies. Five years earlier, rumor had placed her faction behind an attempt to poison John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, and out-spoken and upright opponent of the Boleyns; and only a couple of months ago it was bruited that Katherine of Aragon had been poisoned, and that Anne was the culprit. Now it appeared she had plotted to do away with the King himself, her own husband. That certainly gave Henry a jolt, and his imagination began to run riot. When his bastard son, the seventeen-year-old Henry FitzRoy, Duke of Richmond, came on the evening of May 2 to receive his father’s blessing before retiring for the night, “the King began to weep, saying that he and his sister {Lady Mary} were greatly bound to God for having escaped the hands of that accursed whore, who had determined to poison them. These tears were the only ones Henry is known to have shed in connection with Anne Boleyn’s fall, while his tirade betrayed his conviction that she was guilty of far worse than adultery, and the sharp-minded Chapuys picked upon this: “From these words, it would appear the King knows something about it.”

(From The Lady in the Tower, pgs. 150-151)

 

  1. G. W. Bernard: Lancelot de Carles’ poetic account of remarks by the Duchess of Worcester, combined with Anne’s outrageously flirtatious behavior, strongly suggest that Anne was indeed guilty of at least one adultery:

 

“Also just possible, of course, is that everything we have considered was no more than a series of misunderstandings in response to ‘unguarded speech and gossip’, ‘a lot of smoke but precious little fire’. After Anne, in the Tower, told Kingston about Mark Smeaton, her mother rebuked her: ‘such desire as you have had to such tales has brought you to this’. It is just about possible that the countess of Worcester had herself read too much into what she thought she had seen, not just in the case of Anne’s brother, but of all she spoke of. It is also just about possible that Anne’s burblings in the Tower could be innocently explained away – but, crucially, that what henry learned was amply sufficient to make him, reluctantly but reasonably, conclude that, alas, it was all true and then seek furiously to deal with those who had wronged him. Was it that, although there was no evidence that Anne was guilty, enough had been said to make Henry understandably and sincerely believe that she was? Yet the countess of Worcester was in absolutely no doubt about Anne’s behavior – and she was in a very good position to know the truth. If what she said was wholly wrong, we should have to believe either that she deliberately invented the charges she brought against Anne or that she utterly mistook what Anne was, and was not, doing in her chamber. It is far more plausible that the countess was not totally wrong and that if, perhaps, she read too much into George Boleyn’s visits to his sister’s chamber, there was still a good deal of truth in what she declared about Anne’s behaviour. And so it remains my own hunch that Anne had indeed committed adultery with Norris, probably with Smeaton, possibly with Weston, and was then the victim of the most appalling bad luck when the countess of Worcester, one of her trusted ladies, contrived in a moment of irritation with her brother to trigger the devastating chain of events that led inexorably to Anne’s downfall.”

(From Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions, pgs. 191-192)

 

4. Michael Hirst (creator of The Tudors):  Anne’s failure to produce an heir was not just a blow to the security of the Tudor line but a sign that the hope that Henry had built his entire life around was based on an illusion- that he had spent years of his life, shed the blood of friends, and broken with the church of his childhood, only to be proved mistaken in the supposition that this was what God wanted of him:

“He had attacked the church on the basis of a love affair, largely.  But he felt sure of what he was doing at the time, and Anne had mistaken promised him a son. After she’d given him a daughter and had the miscarriages, it began to seem to him as though he’d gone horribly wrong.  He was plunged back into reality, which is messy and not perfect. And I think that as he confronted the huge seriousness of it, he began to think in weird ways, that she was a witch and so forth.  This of course, shows how juvenile he still was.  And he did have an absolutely ruthless streak which his father, too, had possessed.  But beyond that, he did suffer a severe psychological crisis, knowing he had been so deluded. He came out of that crisis a much worse person, a complete tyrant and monster, who killed off the best part of himself in the attempt to reconcile his psychological issues.”

(From a personal interview with Susan Bordo)

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  1. Kyra Kramer:  Henry was suffering from a genetic disorder that radically altered his mental state as he grew older, resulting in more and more erratic and irrational behavior.

“Who in their right mind would stalk a woman until she gave in and dated him, wait several years to marry her and be allowed to consummate the relationship, rip a country apart and declare his own daughter a bastard in order to keep his new bride, and then kill that same beloved woman just a few years after saying “I do”? No one, that’s who.

Well, no one in his or her right mind that is.

According to a theory put forth by Dr. Catrina Banks Whitley and myself, Henry VIII was not actually in his right mind when he had Anne Boleyn legally murdered. The theory postulates that Henry had a Kell positive blood type concurrent with McLeod syndrome, resulting in reproductive losses and an altered mental state in his forties.

McLeod syndrome can only be manifested in people, who are thus far always men, with a Kell positive blood type. (Before the medical specialists comment – yes, one can have K(K1) effecting pregnancies and the father still express McLeod syndrome because of variant Kell antigen expression: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6879675 ) Usually the symptoms of McLeod syndrome begin to appear near the patient’s fortieth birthday and grow progressively worse over time. Those symptoms can include physical issues, such as muscle and nerve deterioration, facial tics, malformed blood cells, and damage of the internal organs like the liver and the heart. The disease is also often expressed by an erosion of mental stability, wherein the patient becomes more and more irrational and erratic.

There is a plethora of evidence to show how Henry’s personality and mental processes changed in the 1530s, which I have room to explicate more fully in my book, Blood Will Tell, but you’ll have to trust me on for now. The kinds of psychopathology exhibited by patients with McLeod syndrome include, but are not limited to, deterioration of memory and executive functions, paranoia, depression, socially inappropriate conduct, and can even get so bad that it mimics schizophrenia-like behaviors. In severe cases, “schizophrenia-like symptoms” of personality changes can be the “prominent initial clinical manifestation” of McLeod syndrome. This abrupt mental change would explain why Henry started his reign as a puissant prince but ended it as a pestilent putz.

Moreover, the timing fits McLeod syndrome like a glove. Henry turned forty in the summer of 1531, and shortly thereafter his treatment of Queen Katherina turned much harsher. For the first couple of years she was the only victim. By the time he was forty-four the King’s personality alterations were becoming clearer in the most disturbing ways. In spite of his enduring reputation for tyranny, he only started wantonly killing people who disagreed with him in 1535, the year he beheaded Thomas More. Before that, getting him to agree to an execution was like pulling teeth. Cardinal Wolsey had a devil of a time getting him to execute even the Duke of Buckingham, who was blatantly gunning for Henry’s throne.

(While most people remember 1536 as the watershed year for Henry’s new fondness for the axe, because that is the year he beheaded Anne Boleyn, he actually started his killing spree in 1535. Incidentally, the bloodbath began several months before he fell and was knocked unconscious during a tournament in January of 1536. That means that the blow to the head may have exacerbated his symptoms, but the alteration in his personality had already started more than a year before. )

Henry’s relationship with Anne Boleyn neatly straddles the manifestation of his mental symptoms. The King started pursuing Anne in 1525 (maybe as early as 1524) and beheaded her in 1536. Prior to his fortieth birthday he is clearly her besotted swain, yet he was still trying to please everyone and let Katherina down gently (good luck with that, bub). After his fortieth birthday he becomes increasingly cruel to Katherina, and then murderous to anyone who disagrees with him, and then turns abruptly and viciously on the woman he had loved so dearly.

Personally, I happen to agree with Walker, and think Anne’s death was not caused by her miscarriage in January of 1536, but rather because she told a courtier that he wished for “dead men’s shoes” in April. That statement could be constructed as imagining the death of the King, which was treason. Her enemies, under Cromwell’s management, pounced on her slip of the tongue and convinced Henry she was plotting his death. A little torture of Mark Smeaton and his confession of adultery — voila, she is a whore and Cromwell can conveniently rid himself of some of her supporters.

Henry, having become paranoid and irrational due to McLeod syndrome, was easy prey to manipulation by Anne’s foes. Once he had signed off on his wife’s beheading, his imagination ran wild. Soon the King had convinced himself that Anne had been plotting to poison his older children and that she had slept with more than one hundred men. Rational people do not suspect a woman under the constant lack of privacy Anne faced to have had sex with one hundred men.

The man who killed Anne Boleyn was clearly not the same kind and gentle knight of his youth, and he would grow steadily worse after her death. Nowadays, most people only remember the villainous brutality of the last fifteen years of his reign, and have very little idea of the gentle and intelligent man the King was until the 1530’s. I really hope that one day his remains can be exhumed for DNA analysis. If he did have McLeod syndrome, perhaps people will forgive him for the crimes he committed as a result of an uncontrollable mental illness. If nothing else, I hope the evidence I present in my book will at least encourage people to see Henry VIII as the complex monarch he was, rather than an unmitigated monster.”

(Based on the arguments of Blood Will Tell.)

6.  Susan Bordo:  Henry’s resilience, emotional balance, and temper may indeed have degenerated as he got older, possibly exacerbated by genetic factors as well as the challenging events of 1536, but he was always a dangerously capricious personality:

 

“Henry was always a man of many faces, a “baffling composite of shifting silhouettes” (Lacey Baldwin Smith) who could be good-natured, generous and charming one moment and dangerously cold as stone the next, highly emotional yet rigidly stubborn, a genuine searcher of his conscience for “God’s will” yet able to subordinate all moral scruples and guilt to solidifying his own authority or satisfying his own desires.  The combination of informal warmth and lethal self-interest meant that even the closest relationships with him were never on solid ground, always skating on thin ice.  Thomas More, of all of Henry’s contemporaries, was most perceptive about the inherent danger of making too much of the King’s outward gestures of affection. He told Fisher that “the king has a way of making every man feel that he is enjoying his special favor.”  It may have been a compliment, but it was also a warning.  He told a young courtier—and this was in 1520, before any “crisis” had occurred in Henry’s reign—that having fun with the king was like “having fun with tamed lions—often it is harmless, but just as often there is the fear of harm.  Often he roars in rage for no known reason, and suddenly the roar becomes fatal.  The pleasure you get is not safe enough to relieve you of anxiety.  For you it is a great pleasure.  As for me, let my pleasure be less great—and safe” (Lion’s Court, p. 217).

But even More couldn’t remain safe.  He realized, as he told his son in law Roper, that even when he was favored by the King “more singularly” than any subject in the realm, “I have no cause to be proud thereof, for if my head could win him a castle in France, it should not fail to go.” (Ridley, 188)   In the end, Henry was just that cavalier with More’s life, although not over a castle in France. Henry had promised, years before, that he would always allow More to avoid any declarations or actions that went against his conscience.  But when Henry’s own supremacy was at issue, More’s conscience—and his head—proved to be easily dispensed with.  On the day of More’s execution, Henry went hunting in Reading.  This was the way Henry dealt with all his executions of old friends and lovers: go hunting, have a party, be merry. Move on. He was shockingly capable of decisively and irrevocably turning off the switch of affection, love, tender feeling and shared memories, severing all ties, and refusing to look back.

In fact, those whom he loved the most—Wolsey, More, Anne, Cromwell–were most at risk.  Because he loved them, they had the most power to disappoint him—and for Henry, disappointment could never be “slight.”  All wounds to his authority, his manhood, his trust, were bloody gashes that he could only repair by annihilating (psychologically or literally) the one who inflicted the wound.  This, perhaps, is what distinguishes Henry’s pattern from “ordinary” royal imperiousness.  Kings execute people.  Kings have grandiose ambitions.  Kings are threatened by challenges to their authority.  Kings can become drunk on power, and often do.   But Henry may be unique among famous authoritarian kings in that his close relationships only had two switches: on and off.  As Howard Brenton, author of the play Anne Boleyn, put it in an interview with me, “With Henry, you were either totally in or you were dead.  He would have someone close to him, he’d elevate them, and they’d be terrific and virtually run everything on his behalf, and then when something went wrong, or a wind came his way, he would turn 180 degrees against them and they would be out.  It happened to Wolsey, it happened to More, it happened to Anne, it happened to Cromwell.”  It almost happened to Mary, who so enraged Henry when she refused, even after Anne was dead, to take the oath recognizing her father as Supreme Head of the Church of England, that Cranmer , at the last minute, had to talk him out of ordering her execution (Ridley, 274).  Mary was Henry’s daughter.

And his will was capricious. The letters of ambassadors, even from the early years of his reign, describe sudden, explosive angers, “tears and tantrums.”  In 1535, the king’s fool almost lost his life over a joke about Anne Boleyn; a year later, Henry was weeping uncontrollably while hugging his illegitimate son, relieved that he was now safe from  “that accursed whore” who had slept with over a hundred men.  A hundred?  That would have meant a new man every ten days of her Queenship.  Yet it’s possible that Henry believed something near to this, for his emotional switch, for whatever reasons, had turned against her, and she was now as wholly evil in his eyes as she once was wholly virtuous.

Whatever the origins of Henry’s personality, his problems were vastly exacerbated by the fact that he was, after all, king.  As such, he was continually flattered and pampered, his every whim indulged, his grandiosity rarely challenged, his illusions carefully maintained.  All of this encouraged his sense of omnipotence, which in turn made it all the riskier for those around him to show anything less than absolute allegiance.  In proving this, even obedience, ironically, put one at risk, for Henry wasn’t a fool; he knew those around him were afraid, and so never fully trusted anyone.  When he was young, he sought out people like More, and encouraged them to be honest with him, seeking some solid ground on which to base a relationship.  But it was a zero sum game; when More ran up against Henry’s need to be the center of the universe, More’s once-cherished independence of mind became worse than “nothing” in Henry’s “all or nothing” demands on relationships.

It’s hard to know exactly what threw the switch with Anne.  Her final miscarriage may have convinced him that God was not on the side of their relationship.  He may have believed in the charges of adultery—although his exaggerated estimates of her infidelities make me less rather than more likely to believe that; if he truly believed she had slept with five men, including her own brother, surely that would have been enough to “justify” his outrage without dragging half the men in court into her bed.  Or the humiliation of hearing that Anne gossiped about his lack of sexual performance may have been all that was needed.  We will never know, and it really doesn’t matter.  It was sufficient, whatever it was, to shut off any currents of empathy, memory, attachment that Henry felt for Anne.  This is where “Anne of the Thousand Days” has it so wrong.  The play and movie both open with Henry tormented by the decision whether or not to order Anne’s execution.  In Maxwell Anderson’s play, which is written in verse, Henry muses:

“This is hard to do
when you come to put pen to paper.
You say to yourself:
She must die.  And she must—
If thing are to go as planned.
Yes, if they are to go at all.
If I am to rule
And keep my sanity and hold my England off the rocks…
Go back to it, Henry, go back to it.
Keep your mind
On this parchment you must sign.
Dip the pen in the ink write your name…

It’s only that a woman you’ve held in your arms
And longer for when she was away,
And suffered with her—no, but she promised you an heir.
Write it down—
Write Henry Rex, and it’s done.
And then the headsman
Will cry out suddenly, “Look, look there!’
And point to the first flash of sunrise,
And she’ll look,
Not knowing what he means, and his sword will flash
In the flick of sun, through the little bones of her neck
As she looks away,
And it will be done.
It will be done.”

It’s romantic and moving, and beautifully written.  But it is not, I believe, the poetry of Henry’s reality.  In that reality, they handed him the parchment.  He dipped the pen in the ink.  He signed his name: Henry Rex.  And it was done.

 

Based on material from The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look of England’s Most Notorious Queen, available in a US edition or a UK edition.

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Anne’s Final Hours

     images-5Based on material from The Creation of Anne Boleyn, by Susan Bordo

Expecting to die on the 18th, Anne took the sacrament at 2 a.m. By now all who were in contact with her must have been convinced of her innocence. Even her old enemy Chapuys was impressed by the fact that Anne, before and after receiving the Sacrament, affirmed to those who had charge of her “on damnation of her soul, that she had never offended with her body against the King.”  In the 16th century, to speak anything other than the truth at such a time would be to invite the utter condemnation of God. Anne had nothing to gain and her salvation to lose by lying.

As Anne prepared for her death, Henry was spending much of his time at Chelsea, visiting Jane Seymour and making plans for their wedding.  Chapuys describes the king as showing “extravagant joy” at Anne’s arrest.  Convinced (or making a great show for posterity) that Anne was an “accursed whore” who had slept with hundreds of men, he was “very impatient” and wishing to have the thing done with “already.”

Anne Boleyn's interview with the Lieutenant of the TowerAnne too wished to have the thing done. Yet, cruelly, the execution was delayed twice, once in order to clear the Tower of possible sympathetic observers, the second time because the executioner had been delayed. The first delay dismayed Anne, who thought that at the newly appointed hour she would already “be dead and past my pain.”  Kingston, who seems to have been an absurdly literal man, took her to be referring to the physical pain of the execution itself, and reassured her that “there would be no pain, it was so subtle.” Anne replied with her most famous line: “I have heard say the executioner is very good, and I have a little neck.”  And then, according to Kingston, “she put her hand around [her neck], laughing heartily.”  Kingston flat-footedly interpreted this to mean that Anne had “much joy and pleasure in death.”  He apparently did not “get” Anne’s irony. At the news of the second delay, she was distraught.  But “It was not that she desired death,” as she told Kingston (or perhaps one of the ladies, who then told him) “but she had thought herself prepared to die, and feared that the delay would weaken her resolve. “  So much for Kingston’s theory that Anne felt “joy and pleasure” at the prospect of death.

images-1(1)What she may have felt was something closer to what James Hillman describes as the state of mind that often precedes an attempt at suicide:  a desperate desire to shed an old self whose suffering had become unbearable, and thus be “reborn” in the act of dying.  This imagined rebirth, for Hillman, has nothing to do with belief in reincarnation, or even in heaven, but the perception, ironically, that the soul cannot survive under existing conditions. What Anne had been through was certainly enough to shatter any hold her previous life may have exerted on her.  She had been discarded by the man who had pursued her for six years, fathered her daughter, and seemingly adored her for much of their time together.  The person she was closest to in the world—her brother George—had been executed on the most hideous and shameful of charges.   The rest of her family, as far as we can tell, had either abandoned her or—as Anne believed of her mother–was awash with despair and grief over what was happening.  Still recovering from a miscarriage, her body and mind undoubtedly assaulted by hormonal changes and unstable moods, she had been sent to prison on absurd, concocted charges, and “cared for” there by women who were hostile spies.  She knew she would never see her daughter Elizabeth again, and—unlike the fictional Anne of Anne of the Thousand Days, who predicts that “Elizabeth will be queen!”—had no hope, after Cranmer’s visit, that her child would ever be anything more than she had seen Mary reduced to: a bastardized ex-princess forced to bow down to any children the new wife might produce for Henry.  She had been given reason to hope that she would be allowed to live, only to have those hopes crushed at her sentencing. In a sense, she had already been through dozens of dyings.   Nothing was left but the withered skin of her old life, which she was ready to shed.

images-2(1)As she mounted the scaffold, wearing a role of dark damask (black in some reports, grey in others) trimmed with white fur, with a red kirtle (petticoat) underneath—red being the liturgical color of Catholic martyrdom—political and national affiliations continued, as they had through her reign and would for centuries to come–to shape the descriptions of her appearance and behavior. To an author of the Spanish Chronicle, she exhibited “a devilish spirit.” A Portuguese witness who had snuck in despite the ban on “strangers”, wrote that “never had she looked so beautiful.” An imperialist observer described her as “feeble and stupefied” (which would be understandable, and not incompatible with her looking beautiful as well.)  Wriothesley says she showed “a goodly smiling countenance.”  French de Carles commented on the beauty of her complexion, pure and clear as though cleansed by all the suffering.  For all, the spectacle of a queen, wearing the white ermine of her role, mounting the stairs to the scaffold, was unnerving.

imagesUnlike her trial speech and her “last letter,” Anne’s remarks on the scaffold made the more conventional bows to the goodness and mercy of the King—in this highly public context, it was virtually required, if only to prevent any retribution against surviving relatives—and asked the people to pray for her.  She did not admit to guilt for the offenses with which she was charged or accuse the judges of malice, but did make reference to the “cruel law of the land by which I die.” By now, the four young ladies who had accompanied her to the scaffold (clearly not the hostile spies that had lived with her in the Tower, but others, more intimate with her, who she had been allowed to have with her in these last moments) were weeping.  Anne, having helped them take off her robe—an act that in itself must have demanded great composure and courage—“appeared dazed” as he kneeled down, modestly covering her feet with her dress, and asked the executioner to remove her coif, lest it interfere with his stroke.  The executioner realized that she was afraid of the pain of an impeded blow; she kept looking around her, her hand on her coif, anticipating the moment.   Clearly “distressed” at the task he was to perform, he told her that he would wait until she gave the signal.  “With a fervent spirit” she began to pray, and the Portuguese contingent, unable to bear it, huddled together and knelt down against the scaffold, wailing loudly.

anne-boleyn-executed-223x300-2Anne gave the signal.  But either the executioner or someone else in charge had devised a scheme to distract Anne at the last moment, so the fatal blow would come when she wasn’t expecting it; he turned toward the scaffold steps and called for the sword, and when Anne blindly turned her head in that direction, he brought the sword down from the other side and swiftly “divided her neck at a blow.”   As these things went—others had died only after multiple clumsy hackings—it was an easy death: if the naturalist Lewis Thomas has it right, it was far easier than her weeks of suffering in the Tower:  “Pain, “ he writes, is useful for avoidance, for getting away when there’s time to get away, but when it is end game, and no way back, pain is likely to be turned off, and the mechanisms for this are wonderfully precise and quick.  If I had to design an ecosystem in which creatures had to live off each other and in which dying was an indispensable part of living, I could not think of a better way to manage.”   He quotes Montaigne, who nearly died in a riding accident and later described the “letting go” that he experienced at what could have easily been the very end:

“It was an idea that was only floating on the surface of my soul, as delicate and feeble as all the rest, but in truth not only free from distress but mingled with that sweet feeling that people have who have let themselves slide into sleep. I believe this is the same state in which people find themselves whom we see fainting in the agony of death, and maintain that we pity them without cause…If you know not how to die, never trouble yourself; Nature will in a moment fully and sufficiently instruct you; she will exactly do that business for you; take you no care with it”

Anne’s preparations for dying, facing the inevitability of her execution, may have been filled with internal good-byes to those she loved, relief at the shedding of a suffering self, or imaginings of meeting her God.  I like to think of her final hours as immensely rich, in a way that I cannot comprehend but that were sustaining to her, even beyond her more conventional—but extremely deep, for Anne—religious faith.  And then, at the end, I hope that nature or God (it makes no difference), gave her no more to figure out, no more to regret, no more to say good-bye to, no more work to do, and took care of her dying.

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May 17th, 1536. In tribute to George Boleyn, Henry Norris, Mark Smeaton, William Brereton, and Francis Weston: Two Poems by Sir Thomas Wyatt

It is often assumed, on the basis of various allusions in his love poetry, anecdotes relayed by his grandson George, and later fictional accounts, that the poet Thomas Wyatt had been in love with Anne at one time, and that his famous poetic lament over the terrible “sight” he had seen from the Bell Tower expressed his heartbreak over Anne’s execution. Undoubtedly, Anne’s death was shattering to him, whatever the nature of his affections for her. But, as a less famous poem,“In Mourning Wise Since Daily I Increase,” shows, “these bloody days” referred as well (or perhaps chiefly) to the executions of the men with whom Anne was accused. Anne is not mentioned in either poem—probably out of caution—but they are quite explicit about Wyatt’s despair over the fate of the others.

Wyatt’s poems—both these two, and many later ones–make it very clear that the experience was life-changing for him, creating complete and bitter disillusionment with court life, which raised his friends “aloft” only to bring them to such a horrible end. For no matter how pleasant and enticing life was at court, “circa Regna tonat”: Thunder Rolls Around the Throne. The “thunder”: Henry’s whims, which could turn the sun of fortune into a perfect—and fatal—storm.

As you read the poems, notice how prominent the theme of the precarious nature of court life is in them. In fact, after his release Wyatt spent only a short time at court, returning to his father’s castle in Allington, where he wrote the second poem. He ultimately did return to court in 1537, knighted by Henry for his service in suppressing the Pilgrimage of Grace. But nearly all his poems continue to express alienation and disdain for the artifice, vanity, and illusions of court life.

 

I

Who list his wealth and ease retain,
Himself let him unknown contain.
Press not too fast in at that gate
Where the return stands by disdain,
For sure, circa Regna tonat.

The high mountains are blasted oft
When the low valley is mild and soft.
Fortune with Health stands at debate.
The fall is grievous from aloft.
And sure, circa Regna tonat.

These bloody days have broken my heart.
My lust, my youth did them depart,
And blind desire of estate.
Who hastes to climb seeks to revert.
Of truth, circa Regna tonat.

The bell tower showed me such sight
That in my head sticks day and night.
There did I learn out of a grate,
For all favour, glory, or might,
That yet circa Regna tonat.

By proof, I say, there did I learn:
Wit helpeth not defence too yerne,
Of innocency to plead or prate.
Bear low, therefore, give God the stern,
For sure, circa Regna tonat.

 

 

 

 

 II.

IN MOURNING WISE SINCE DAILY I INCREASE

In Mourning wise since daily I increase,

Thus should I cloak the cause of all my grief;

So pensive mind with tongue to hold his peace’

My reason sayeth there can be no relief:

Wherefore give ear, I humbly you require,

The affect to know that thus doth make me moan.

The cause is great of all my doleful cheer

For those that were, and now be dead and gone.

What thought to death desert be now their call.

As by their faults it doth appear right plain?

Of force I must lament that such a fall should light on those so wealthily did reign,

Though some perchance will say, of cruel heart,

A traitor’s death why should we thus bemoan?

But I alas, set this offence apart,

Must needs bewail the death of some be gone.

As for them all I do not thus lament,

But as of right my reason doth me bind;

But as the most doth all their deaths repent,

Even so do I by force of mourning mind.

Some say, ‘Rochford, haddest thou been not so proud,

For thy great wit each man would thee bemoan,

Since as it is so, many cry aloud

It is great loss that thou art dead and gone.’

Ah! Norris, Norris, my tears begin to run

To think what hap did thee so lead or guide

Whereby thou hast both thee and thine undone

That is bewailed in court of every side;

In place also where thou hast never been

Both man and child doth piteously thee moan.

They say, ‘Alas, thou art far overseen

By thine offences to be thus deat and gone.’

Ah! Weston, Weston, that pleasant was and young,

In active things who might with thee compare?

All words accept that thou diddest speak with tongue,

So well esteemed with each where thou diddest fare.

And we that now in court doth lead our life

Most part in mind doth thee lament and moan;

But that thy faults we daily hear so rife,

All we should weep that thou are dead and gone.

Brereton farewell, as one that least I knew.

Great was thy love with divers as I hear,

But common voice doth not so sore thee rue

As other twain that doth before appear;

But yet no doubt but they friends thee lament

And other hear their piteous cry and moan.

So doth eah heart for thee likewise relent

That thou givest cause thus to be dead and gone.

Ah! Mark, what moan should I for thee make more,

Since that thy death thou hast deserved best,

Save only that mine eye is forced sore

With piteous plaint to moan thee with the rest?

A time thou haddest above thy poor degree,

The fall whereof thy friends may well bemoan:

A rotten twig upon so high a tree

Hath slipped thy hold, and thou art dead and gone.

And thus farewell each one in hearty wise!

The axe is home, your heads be in the street;

The trickling tears doth fall so from my eyes

I scarce may write, my paper is so wet.

But what can hope when death hath played his part,

Though nature’s course will thus lament and moan?

Leave sobs therefore, and every Christian heart

Pray for the souls of those be dead and gone.

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“There Was Never Such a Whore”: The Downfalls of Queens Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard

Above: The Tudors – glamorised, modernised and hyper-sexualised – depicts both Anne Boleyn (left) and Katherine Howard (right) as experienced seductresses.

Above: The Tudors – glamorised, modernised and hyper-sexualised – depicts both Anne Boleyn (left) and Katherine Howard (right) as experienced seductresses.

Conor Byrne is a history student at the University of Exeter whose research interests include gender, cultural, and social history. His excellent blog focuses on historical issues but also touches upon contemporary political and social events.

None of the six wives of Henry VIII – with the possible exception of wife number four Anne of Cleves, who escaped her disastrous marriage with a lavish settlement and, more importantly, with her life – had enviable fates. But, Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, wives number two and five respectively, came off worst by a long shot. Both were disgraced, shamed, and beheaded in the prime of youth. Anne was at most thirty-five (according to some writers, perhaps only in her late twenties), while Katherine probably never saw her eighteenth birthday.

It was Henry, an all-powerful, enigmatic and authoritative king, who was responsible for ordering the deaths of two women he had once passionately adored. It was Henry who personally signed Anne’s death warrant and, in the case of Katherine, consigned her to death using a Bill of Attainder – unlike her older cousin, she was never granted a public trial, an injustice that few people are aware about. It was Henry, therefore, both as a king and as a husband, who was responsible for the executions of two wives – even if he did not personally murder them.

Despite this, a prevailing view assumes that both women were, in varying degrees, to blame for their violent and untimely deaths. And, perhaps more shockingly, this is not a view that is limited to the popular imagination. Serious academic historians hold this view. Generally, historians believe that Anne Boleyn, although opining that she was a flirtatious woman who encouraged seductions in her chambers, was innocent of the crimes she died for, admitting that she was probably framed in what was a murderous and vicious court conspiracy, but they, by and large, contend that Katherine Howard was a silly flirt who actually did sleep around even after she’d married the king.

Take as an example the late Lacey Baldwin Smith, who wrote studies of both women. He appeared sympathetic to Anne Boleyn, admitting that she was ‘dispatched with callous disregard’, but his biography of Katherine Howard is littered with dismissive, contemptuous and curt phrases concerning the fifth queen. Katherine is frequently described by him as being ‘a common whore’, or a ‘juvenile delinquent’. Alison Weir, a bestselling popular historian, has argued in three books that Anne was innocent of sexual crimes and died as a result of Cromwell’s manoeuvres, but in her same works, Weir argues that Katherine was ‘certainly promiscuous’ and ‘incredibly stupid’. Suzannah Lipscomb has argued passionately for Anne Boleyn’s innocence, but is dismissive and patronising towards her younger cousin, depicting Katherine as ‘a stupid girl’ who, basically, deserved her fate. Even Joanna Denny, who wrote sympathetic biographies of both queens, alleged that Katherine committed sexual intercourse with Thomas Culpeper in a doomed attempt to pass off her lover’s bastard as the impotent king’s legitimate son. Only Retha M. Warnicke, a foremost Tudor scholar, has provided convincing arguments in favour of both women’s innocence, a view I subscribe to.

This article contends that Katherine is deserving of the same reassessment her more famous cousin has enjoyed over recent years. It is an interesting issue: why have scholars been ready to rehabilitate Anne Boleyn’s reputation and stress her innocence, but they have not rethought traditional – negative – assumptions about Katherine Howard? It is important to note here that some historians still perpetuate negative assessments of Anne. Alison Weir has defended the queen’s innocence and admires her courage, but she still paints a black picture of a manipulative, power-hungry shrew that was probably no virgin when she married the king. In popular culture, of course, The Other Boleyn Girl and company stress Anne’s supposed seductive and promiscuous nature. But, by and large, it’d be fair to say that the majority of modern historians have rethought traditional scholarship surrounding her.

Perhaps, however, the fundamental reason why Katherine has not received the same reassessment is because she admitted to flouting the gender rules of the time, as Warnicke suggests, pointing out that Katherine admitted to meeting with Culpeper after she married the king – a dangerous and suspicious activity for any married woman in the early modern period, especially a royal wife. Anne, of course, did not admit to any such activity, and only one of the five men accused with her did, perhaps because he was tortured. Another reason might be because Anne’s innocence has been, for most people (with the exception of some historians such as G. W. Bernard) patently obvious, in no small part, I feel, because of the incredible impact she made at her trial just four days before her execution. For many people, the powerful, evocative and most importantly, convincing, defence offered by Queen Anne at her trial in May 1536 has stood the test of time, and has effectively proven to most people that she was innocent. Contemporary observers themselves were swayed by the power behind her words and the conviction in her voice. They changed their opinions and voiced their suspicions that she was being done away with for ignominious reasons that the official charges were only a cover for. But Katherine was never granted this opportunity. Holed away in Syon Abbey, with rumours that she was contemplating suicide and suffering a mental breakdown, she left it only to make the short journey to the Tower, where she was quickly dispatched days later.

Consider the images presented here of Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn and Tamzin Merchant as Katherine Howard from the TV series The Tudors. Both women are presented as scheming and experienced seductresses who flirtatiously ensnare the king, although, of course, Anne’s character becomes much more complex, multifaceted and admirable over the course of the series as we are exposed to her religious role, political involvement, and humanist interests (in no small part because of Natalie Dormer’s conviction that Anne needed to be portrayed in a more two-dimensional light). Merchant’s Katherine, however, is dim, spoiled and unpopular, although her beauty captivates both the king and Culpeper. This depiction of these women as promiscuous, however, is not limited to The Tudors: consider, for example, a scheming and jealous Anne Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl who openly seduces the king in a barely believable scene before the whole of his court or a naked and sensual Katherine Howard in the BBC TV series Henry VIII (2003) who receives Thomas Culpeper while bathing.

But the paradox is: while popular culture often depicts Anne as a scheming seducer, by and large the general public are now coming around to the view that, in reality, it was a lot more complicated, in no small part to the efforts of both academic and popular historians. So even though Anne may still be presented as promiscuous in pop cultural texts, the majority of informed viewers know that the real woman was very different. But it is not the same with Katherine Howard: because so few historians have sought to rehabilitate her reputation, the prevailing image of her in popular culture, by and large, reflects the opinions of many serious historians, and is not consciously challenged by viewers in the same way that, for example, a negative depiction of Anne would be.

I conclude this article, therefore, with a plea for Katherine to be reassessed. We have now recognised, over the course of time, that Anne Boleyn was a complex, talented, multifaceted individual and we are able to dismiss the traditional caricature of her as whore, witch or home wrecker. I hope that, one day, the same will be achieved for her tragic and younger cousin.

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An Argument for the Authenticity of Anne’s May 6th Letter to Henry

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By Susan Bordo, author of The Creation of Anne Boleyn

From the time she was taken to the Tower, Anne’s moods, according to Constable Kingston, vacillated wildly, from resignation to hope to anxiety. She had always had a wicked sense of humor, and no irony was ever lost on her. When taken to the Tower, she had asked, “Master Kingston, shall I die without justice?” He replied, “The poorest subject the king hath, had justice.” Hearing this, despite her fear, Anne laughed. She was too sophisticated and savvy about the dispensing of royal power to swallow the official PR.  Even the night before her execution, her sense of irony held as she wryly remarked that her enemies would remember her as “la Royne Anne Sans Tete” But until very near the end, she also seized on any glimmer of hope. She was the queen, after all, and no one in England had ever executed a queen.  Isabella of Angouleme and Isabella of France, both married to English kings, had been adulterous, but only their lovers were executed. Even those who had been involved in acts of treason—the most famous of all being Eleanor of Aquitaine, who almost succeeded in toppling Henry II from his throne—at most were put under house arrest.  It was almost unthinkable to Anne that Henry would have her put to death.  But so, too, was her imprisonment, which had come so suddenly, and seemingly without reason. The strangeness of what was happening to her must have been at times impossible for her to assimilate. Just a few short months before, she had been pregnant.  Just a few weeks before, Henry had been insisting that the Spanish Emperor acknowledge the legitimacy of their marriage. Now she was in the Tower, condemned to death.  Her fortunes had turned around so swiftly and extremely, it must have been difficult to keep a steady grip

On May 5, Anne asked Constable Kingston to “bear a letter from me to Master Secretary.” Kingston then said to her: “Madam, tell it me by word of mouth and I will do it.” Anne thanked him, and after that we hear no more of it in Kingston’s reports, so we don’t know if the letter was written, dictated, or even ever was composed.  But one was found among Cromwell’s papers, dated May 6th, apparently undelivered. The handwriting doesn’t correspond exactly (although it is not radically dissimilar) to Anne’s other letters, but it could easily have been transcribed by someone else or written in Anne’s own hand, which could have been altered by the distress of the situation. It begins with a statement that is so startlingly precise in its depiction of Anne’s state of mind at the time, that it’s hard to imagine anyone else, in the decades following her death, writing it:

Your Grace’s displeasure and my imprisonment are things so strange to me, that what to write, or what to excuse, I am altogether ignorant. Whereas you send to me (willing me to confess a truth and so obtain your favour), by such a one, whom you know to me mine ancient professed enemy [Cromwell]; I no sooner received this message by him, than I rightly conceived your meaning; and if as you say, confessing a truth indeed my procure my safety, I shall, with willingness and duty, perform your command.


But let not your grace ever imagine your poor wife will ever be brought to acknowledge a fault, where not so much as a thought ever proceeded. And to speak a truth, never a prince had a wife more loyal in all duty, and in all true affection, than you have ever found in Anne Bolen – with which name and place I could willingly have contented myself if God and your grace’s pleasure had so been pleased. Neither did I at any time so far forget myself in my exaltation, or received queenship, but I always looked for such alteration as I now find; for the ground of my preferment being on no surer foundation than your grace’s fancy, the least alteration was fit and sufficient (I knew) to draw that fancy to some other subject.


You have chosen me from a low estate to be your queen and companion, far beyond my just desert or desire; if then you found me worthy of such honour, good your grace, let not any light fancy or bad counsel of my enemies withdraw your princely favour from me, neither let that stain – that unworthy stain – of a disloyal heart toward your good grace ever cast so foul a blot on me and on the infant princess, your daughter [Elizabeth].


Try me, good king, but let me have a lawful trial, and let not my sworn enemies sit as my accusers and as my judges; yea, let me receive an open trial, for my truth shall fear no open shames; then shall you see either mine innocency cleared, your suspicions and conscience satisfied, the ignominy and slander of the world stopped, or my guilt openly declared. So that whatever God and you may determine of, your grace may be at liberty, both before God and man, not only to execute worthy punishment on me, as an unfaithful wife, but to follow your affection already settled on that party [Anne knew of Henry’s affection for Jane Seymour], for whose sake I am now as I am; whose name I could some good while since, have pointed unto: Your Grace being not ignorant of my suspicions therein.


But if you have already determined of me, and that not only my death, but an infamous slander, must bring you to the joying of your desired happiness, then I desire of God that He will pardon your great sin herein, and, likewise, my enemies, the instruments thereof, and that he will not call you to a strait account for your unprincely and cruel usage of me at his general judgment-seat, where both you and myself must shortly appear; and in whose just judgment, I doubt not (whatsoever the world think of me) mine innocency shall be openly known and sufficiently cleared.


My last and only request shall be, that myself may only bear the burden of your grace’s displeasure, and that it may not touch the innocent souls of those poor gentlemen, whom, as I understand, are likewise in strait imprisonment for my sake.
If ever I have found favour in your site – if ever the name of Anne Bulen have been pleasing in your ears – then let me obtain this request; and so I will leave to trouble your grace no further: with mine earnest prayers to the Trinity to have your grace in his good keeping, and to direct you in all your actions.


From my doleful prison in the Tower, the 6th of May.
Ann Bulen

Most of Anne’s modern biographers believe this letter to be a forgery, in part because it is so daringly accusatory of Henry and in part because the “style” is not like Anne’s.  “Its ‘elegance’,” writes Ives, “has always inspired suspicion.” Well, not always. Henry Ellis and other nineteenth-century commentators believed it was authentic.  And the “style” argument is an odd one, because we have so few existing letters of Anne’s and they are such business-like affairs, that it’s hard to see how anyone could determine a “style” from them.  If Henry had saved her responses to his love letters, we might have a better idea of what Anne was like as a writer, but they were destroyed.  As it stands, though, we do have accounts of her behavior and of her speech at her trial on May 15, and they exhibit many of the same qualities as this letter. In both, Anne stands her ground bravely and articulately, but more striking, goes beyond the conventions of the time to venture into deeper political territory, exhibiting unusual insight into her own lack of humility and the possibility that this might have had something to do with her fall from grace.
When it was time for her to speak at her trial, after hearing the full charges for the first time—including trivial, non-criminal but “atmospherically” damaging accusations that she had made fun of the King’s poetry and taste in clothing—she made such “wise and discreet answers to all things laid against her” that “had the peers given in their verdict according to the expectations of the assembly, she had been acquitted.”[1] But of course, the verdict was not dependent on the impression Anne made, or how convincing her defense was.  When she protested, against Smeaton’s confession, that “that one witness was not enough to convict a person of high treason”, she was simply informed, “that in her case it was sufficient.” Also “sufficient” were numerous bits of gossip that nowadays would be regarded as worse than hearsay, since they came from obviously prejudiced sources.  George Wyatt, writing about the trial later, says that he heard nothing that could be considered evidence.  Instead, as author Jane Dunn described the case, it was “a ragbag of gossip, innuendo, and misinterpreted courtliness.”

Anne almost certainly expected the guilty verdict that followed, which makes her calm, clear, and highly intelligent (according to numerous observers) responses to the charges all the more remarkable.  It is less likely that she expected the sentence that followed: “that thou shalt be burnt here within the Tower of London on the Green, else to have thy head smitten off, as the King’s pleasure shall be further known of the same.”  On hearing the verdict, several onlookers shrieked, took ill, and had to leave the hall. But Anne, as Chapuys observed, “preserved her composure, saying that she held herself ‘pour toute saluee de la mort’ [always ready to greet death], and that what she regretted most was that the above persons, who were innocent and loyal to the King, were to die for her. And then, as summarized by several onlookers, she delivered an extraordinary speech:

 

“My lords, I will not say your sentence is unjust, nor presume that my reasons can prevail against your convictions. I am willing to believe that you have sufficient reasons for what you have done; but then they must be other than those which have been produced in court, for I am clear of all the offences which you then laid to my charge. I have ever been a faithful wife to the King, though I do not say I have always shown him that humility which his goodness to me, and the honours to which he raised me, merited. I confess I have had jealous fancies and suspicions of him, which I had not discretion enough, and wisdom, to conceal at all times. But God knows, and is my witness, that I have not sinned against him in any other way. Think not I say this in the hope to prolong my life, for He who saveth from death hath taught me how to die, and He will strengthen my faith. Think not, however, that I am so bewildered in my mind as not to lay the honour of my chastity to heart now in mine extremity, when I have maintained it all my life long, much as ever queen did. I know these, my last words, will avail me nothing but for the justification of my chastity and honour. As for my brother and those others who are unjustly condemned, I would willingly suffer many deaths to deliver them, but since I see it so pleases the King, I shall willingly accompany them in death, with this assurance, that I shall lead an endless life with them in peace and joy, where I will pray to God for the King and for you, my lords.”

 

The clarity and confidence of Anne’s declaration here, her insight into her lack of humility, and her reference to “bewilderment” of mind are all, I believe, support for the authenticity of the May 6 letter. As to the letter’s bold attitude toward Henry, this was characteristic of Anne, and (as she acknowledged in her trial speech) she was aware that it overstepped the borders of what was acceptable.  Her refusal to contain herself safely within those borders was what had drawn Henry to her; she could not simply turn the switch off when it began to get her in trouble.  To do that would have been to relinquish the only thing left to her at this point: her selfhood. Ives says that it would “appear to be wholly improbable” for a Tudor prisoner to warn the king that he is in imminent danger from the judgment of God.” But Anne was no ordinary prisoner; she had shared Henry’s bed, advised and conspired with him in the divorce strategies, debated theology with him, given birth to his daughter, protested against his infidelities, dared to challenge Cromwell’s use of confiscated monastery money.  Arguably, it was her failure to be “appropriate” that contributed to her downfall.  Now, condemned to death by her own husband, to stop “being Anne” would have been to shatter the one constancy left in the terrible “strangeness” of her situation.

I don’t know for certain, of course, that this letter is authentic.  But I have to wonder whether skeptics have been influenced by Anne’s reputation as woman known for her “feminine” vivacity, emotionality, and sexuality.  19th century editor Henry Ellis called this letter “one of the finest compositions in the English Language.”[27] Ellis lived at a time when women writers had come into their own.  But perhaps not every historian has been as ready to acknowledge that someone like Anne could possibly have written “one of the finest compositions in the English language.”
[1] Cited by Alison Weir as Crispin de Milherve, but possibly Lancelot de Carles.

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How Courtly Love Betrayed Anne Boleyn

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By Susan Bordo, author of The Creation of Anne Boleyn

On May 4, 1536, Weston and Brereton were arrested.

Anne may have unwittingly contributed to those arrests herself. “M. Kyngston,” she asked when brought to the tower, “do you know wher for I am here?” In a state of shock and disbelief, she searched her mind for the reasons for her arrest and shared her anxious musings with Kingston (who reported everything to Cromwell) and also to the ladies-in-waiting that Cromwell had chosen to spy on her.  In particular, Anne fretted about a possibly incriminating conversation she had with Norris, a long-time supporter of the Boleyns and the Groom of the Stool in the King’s Privy Council. Anne had been verbally jousting with Norris about his constant presence in her apartments, and had chided him for “looking for dead men’s shoes, for if aught should come to the King but good, you would look to have me.” This particular statement must have alarmed Norris, who replied that “if he should have any such thought, he would his head were off.”  There was good reason for his alarm:  In 1534, Cromwell had engineered an extension of the legal definition of treason, which was passed by parliament, and which had made it high treason to “maliciously wish, will or desire by words or writing” bodily harm to the king.  Under this new definition, Anne’s remark could be construed as referring to Norris’s desire for the King’s death. Anne apparently eventually “got it”, too, for after Norris made the comment about his head, she then told Norris that “she could undo him if she would.” What had (probably) begun as casual teasing ended with each ostentatiously declaring their horror at the thought that either entertained fantasies of Henry’s death.

But Anne worried that this wasn’t enough.  Later, realizing that their remarks may have been overheard, she asked Norris to go to her almoner, John Skip, and “swear for the queen that she was a good woman.”  Unfortunately, this attempt at damage control only worked to make Skip suspicious.  He confided his suspicions to Sir Edward Baynton, who then went to Cromwell, who surely felt that gold from heaven had fallen into his lap. All this happened in late April.  So clearly, at the point of Anne’s arrest on May 2, Norris was suspected of more than simply withholding information about her purported affair with Smeaton.  However, the full details of the conversation may only have been revealed by Anne herself, in her rambling self-examination with Kingston, and this may be why Norris wasn’t arrested until May 4th.

Anne also told Kingston about how she had teased Francis Weston, then reprimanded him, for telling her that he, too, frequented her apartments out of love for her.  Under other circumstances, it would undoubtedly been regarded as innocent, courtly banter.  But…what was considered “courtly” and what was suspected to be something more had changed since Anne had learned the rules, and Cromwell was able to take advantage of the different climate with regard to heterosexual behavior.

The times, to anachronistically poach from Bob Dylan, were a ‘changing. Yes, Anne had failed to produce a son for Henry VIII, and yes, Thomas Cromwell had his own reasons to plot against her. Yes, she had many enemies at court, and yes, there was Jane Seymour waiting in the wings, with the promise of greater obedience than feisty Anne and fresher eggs for the incubation of a royal heir. None of these factors, however, could have sent Anne to the scaffold had the charges of adultery and treason seemed utterly preposterous to the Tudor jury, for the Tudors were great believers in “the law,” and it was important to Henry that the “appearance of justice,” at the very least, seem to have been done. What helped make that travesty possible, I believe, was a cultural change in the interpretation of courtly banter, which Anne engaged in—innocently but as it turned out, fatally.

Anne was trained in traditions of courtly love within which flirtatiousness, far from being suspect, was a requirement of the court lady. But it must never go too far; the trick was to just go to the edge and then back off (without, of course, hurting the gentleman’s feelings). Purity was required, but provocative banter was not just accepted, it was expected. Especially in the French court [where Anne had spent much of her young adulthood—sb], a relaxed atmosphere was the norm in conversations between men and women. But as the Middle Ages segued into the Renaissance and then into the Reformation, people may have become disposed to believe things, based on the exchanges with the men Anne was charged with, that would have been dismissed as ridiculous forty years earlier.

Even in Henry’s courtship of her, Anne got caught in the net of changing romantic conventions. Henry had been raised on tales of King Arthur’s round table, virtuous knights, maidens in distress and chivalrous deeds. Nobility, generosity, mercy, justice, and the power of true love were the stuff of his boyish fantasies. However, by 1526, when Henry began to pursue Anne, Arthurian chivalry, a deeply spiritualized ideal, was well on its way to being transformed into the political “art” of courtly behavior, aimed at creating the right impression, even if deceptive, to achieve ones ends. In his letters to Anne, Henry gives her the impression that she is his Guinevere, and he her loyal servant: “I beseech you,” “if it pleases you,” “begging you,” “fear of wearying you,” “your loyal servant”, “to serve you only.” Etc. etc. Deeply felt emotion, or a pleasurable fiction, designed to woo and win?

Henry was in love, yes. But he was never the helpless swain that he makes himself out to be in his letters. And although he believed in Arthurian honor, which served and protected women as one of its highest goals, he could never have done what Arthur (in the legend) had done: stand nobly and patiently by while his best knight and his wife engaged in a long affair.  In the legend, Guinevere is condemned to death twice for treason (the second time for adultery with Lancelot) and both times is saved from the stake by Lancelot—with King Arthur’s blessings.  Arthur had, in fact, suspected the queen’s infidelity for years, but because of his love for her and for Lancelot, had kept his suspicions a secret.  When Modred and Aggravane, plotting their own coup d’etat, told the King about it, he had no choice but to condemn his queen, while privately hoping she would be rescued.  It was a romantic fantasy—but one which Henry and Anne had grown up with, and which no doubt shaped their ideas about love. Henry had himself been an adroit and seductively tender courtier, who had pledged himself Anne’s “servant” and swore his constancy. The pledges may (or may not) have been made manipulatively, but his infatuation was real and the gestures were convincing.

Until very near the end, Anne had hopes Henry would spare her. Henry had in fact honored her like Guinevere for six years, and if things went according to the old courtly script,  she had every reason to believe Henry would spare her, as Arthur did with Guinevere. But Henry lived in a time when kingly authority—not “knighthood”—was in flower. So while Guinevere, who actually had a sexual relation with another man, was saved by Arthur, Anne Boleyn—guilty of nothing more than a bit of courtly banter—was sent to the scaffold, and Henry never looked back.

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A Formative Childhood? A Comparison of the Reigns of Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor

Above: queens, cousins, rivals. Mary Stuart, queen consort of France and queen regnant of Scotland (left) and Elizabeth Tudor, queen regnant of England (right).

Above: queens, cousins, rivals. Mary Stuart, queen consort of France and queen regnant of Scotland (left) and Elizabeth Tudor, queen regnant of England (right).

Conor Byrne is a history student at the University of Exeter whose research interests include gender, cultural, and social history. His excellent blog focuses on historical issues but also touches upon contemporary political and social events. 

Being a queen regnant in sixteenth-century Europe was no easy task. Prevailing misogynistic notions questioned whether women, as the inferior sex, had the right to rule over their male superiors. John Knox, the vehement Scottish Protestant preacher, opined in his The first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of women, attacking the rule of female monarchs such as Mary Tudor and Mary of Guise and published in 1558, that female rule was contrary to Biblical law. He bitterly concluded: ‘For their [women’s] sight in ciulie regiment, is but blindnes: their strength, weakness: their counsel, foolishenes: and judgement, phrenesie, if it be rightlie considered’. In view of this, the experiences of the queens regnant Mary Stuart, queen of Scotland, and Elizabeth Tudor, queen of England, should be considered in light of the customary expectations of figures such as Knox. 


Modern psychologists often suggest that childhood experiences are formative in governing later choices, actions and motives. Alfred Adler believed that people develop desires and drives during the childhood phase which later affects adulthood. Ann Smith concluded, in her article published by Psychology Today, that ‘our own childhood experiences, which include parents, combined with our own personalities, our reaction to siblings and peers and the context of our lives send us off on a path with a particular set of beliefs and patterns that have a huge impact on our future relationships’. Although the psychology of queen regnants such as Mary and Elizabeth, living four hundred years ago, can only be guessed at, it is credible that the childhood experiences of these two queens, which were vastly different, dictated significantly their later actions and beliefs, particularly in relation to queenship and authority.

Above: John Knox's The first blast of the trumpet (1558) was aimed at attacking female rulers such as Mary Stuart and Mary Tudor (right).

Above: John Knox’s The first blast of the trumpet (1558) was aimed at attacking female rulers such as Mary Stuart and Mary Tudor (right).

Both women descended from the first Tudor king, Henry VII, who had attained the crown of England through his defeat of the last Yorkist king, Richard III, at the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485. Elizabeth Tudor’s birth had only been brought about by the annulment of her father’s first marriage and his subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn in 1533, with her birth occurring in September of that year. This marriage and the accompanied break with the Roman Church proved highly significant in European politics, particularly later on in the sixteenth century, for Catholic powers such as France and Spain viewed Henry VIII’s divorce as illegal and his remarriage void, rendering his second daughter Elizabeth a bastard with no right to accede to the throne of England. Mary Stuart, by contrast, was the grand-niece of Henry VIII since she was the daughter of the Scottish king, James V (nephew of Henry), and his French queen Mary of Guise. Her line of descent and her claim to the English throne came through Henry’s eldest sister Margaret Tudor, second child of Henry VII.


Elizabeth Tudor’s childhood was extremely complex and must be viewed as, at best, topsy turvy. For the first three years of her life, she had occupied a central place in her father’s affections as the heir to his throne following the bastardisation of her elder sister Mary. Besotted with his new wife Anne, the English king continued to hope, however, that she would bear him the much longed-for son to succeed Henry on the throne of England. Like most European rulers, Henry adhered to prevailing ideas that female rulers were unacceptable and contrary to God. This idea had, of course, provided the context for the annulment of his first marriage and his belief that his daughter Mary was illegitimate. Elizabeth enjoyed the luxury and splendour befitting an English princess, with her own household and servants, but because this occurred in the first three years of her life it is questionable to what extent she remembered or fully appreciated these luxurious early years.


In 1536, before her third birthday, Elizabeth’s fortunes changed dramatically with her mother’s loss of favour and eventual execution on charges of treason, adultery, and incest. While most historians firmly believe in Anne’s innocence, her daughter was presumably shattered by the news of her mother’s death, although at two years old how much she understood of the situation was very limited. Historians such as Sarah Gristwood and Maria Perry question how closely Elizabeth had bonded with her mother, for she had never resided with her. Following the custom of sixteenth century royal practice, Elizabeth had been nourished by a wet nurse and had been assigned her own household at Hatfield. Her visits to court had been relatively infrequent. Perhaps, as John Neale suggests, Elizabeth’s ‘emotional life was unaffected by her mother’s fortunes’.


But this is slightly dubious. Following her mother’s execution, Elizabeth was also, like Mary, declared a bastard, no longer in line to the English throne. Her title of princess was stripped from her, and it is probable that her father, by virtue of who her mother was, viewed her with considerable disfavour for a time. Probably Henry neglected Elizabeth in the immediate aftermath of her mother’s death, for in the late summer of 1536 her governess Lady Bryan was forced to beg Cromwell for new clothes for the toddler. Later that year, however, she had returned to court and the Cardinal du Bellay observed the king’s affection for his youngest daughter. By all accounts, during her life Elizabeth revered her father’s memory and proudly proclaimed her parentage. By contrast, she is said to have mentioned Anne Boleyn’s name only three times in her seventy-year long life. Does this indicate suspicion or even hostility towards her mother, who had been executed for the foulest of crimes? Historians such as Alison Weir think not, believing that she may have, as queen, commissioned George Wyatt to write a secret defence of her mother.


Although Elizabeth was probably not severely affected personally in the immediate aftermath of this event, it is likely that her mother’s execution ‘must have overshadowed Elizabeth’s childhood. Over the years, guarded revelations, gossip, rumour and innuendo… and the growing awareness of her bastard status, must have caused the maturing Elizabeth recurring distress and enduring insecurities, and certainly affected her emotional development’ (Weir, 2009). The executions of both Katherine Howard (1542) and Lady Jane Grey (1554, by her sister Queen Mary) likely caused Elizabeth considerable distress, bringing back painful memories of her own mother’s brutal end. But how did these early childhood experiences govern Elizabeth’s decisions and choices as a ruler?


For one thing, as Antonia Fraser suggests, she learned from a very early age to hide her true feelings. Although Elizabeth was notoriously prone to fits of anger, distress, and annoyance, her own personal feelings regarding, for instance, personages such as Anne and her cousin Mary Stuart, queen of Scots, remain mysterious, as do her personal feelings for Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester and her lifelong suitor. Wisely, Elizabeth chose not to become embroiled in plots against her sister Queen Mary, although she was imprisoned in the Tower of London for a time. When Thomas Seymour tried to seduce her in 1549 during the reign of her brother Edward as a means of pursuing power at court, Elizabeth wisely refused to have nothing to do with him, and at the news of his execution she noted his ‘very little judgement’. 

In other ways, too, the impact of Elizabeth’s early childhood experiences can be clearly discerned. She was notoriously touchy about her status, and reacted furiously to allegations that she was a bastard and thus no rightful queen of England. 


Elizabeth’s reign was characterised by her caution and indecisiveness. She sought to placate foreign powers such as Spain while cautiously supporting fellow Protestants in the Netherlands, who sought to free themselves from the tyranny of the Spanish monarchy. Nevertheless, she did not seek to invade Scotland or France as a means of asserting her authority as her father, Henry VIII, sought to do. Her own horror of bloodshed and her desire for clemency can also be explained as a result of her personal aversion to the bloody experiences of her youth. Famously, she spent weeks, even months, agonising over her duty to sign the death warrant of Mary Stuart, and unlike her Catholic sister, refused to instigate a full scale Holocaust of religious deviants during her throne. Notwithstanding this, English Catholics were, of course, harshly persecuted from the 1570s on in light of the menacing threat of Spain and, to a lesser extent, France.


But above all the impact of Elizabeth’s childhood can most illuminatingly be seen in her attitudes to marriage and her decision to remain unmarried as England’s Virgin Queen. Her father had not prioritised her marriage in her youth, although suggestions of a betrothal to the son of the French king had surfaced during her early years. Later, when Mary Tudor sought to marry Elizabeth to the duke of Savoy, Elizabeth personally refused, on grounds of her decision, already made in her early twenties, to remain single, a decision which revolted her unhappily married sister. Why she chose to do so can only be guessed at, although most historians attribute her momentous decision to the bloody experiences of marriage suffered by her mother Anne and her stepmother Katherine Howard. Potentially, the death in childhood of two of her stepmothers, Jane Seymour and Katherine Parr, also influenced Elizabeth’s aversion to marriage, for she may have come to associate the married position with an early death, pain, even bloodshed. Others argue that she feared the loss of both personal and political power if she had to give way to a husband, while some contended that she refused to marry because she was physically unable to bear children.


In her illuminating article ‘Why Elizabeth I Never Married’, Retha Warnicke suggests that political issues were far more important, for ‘every British queen regnant who married soon discovered that her husband and his family complicated her life politically’. The unsuccessful marriages of three other queen regnants at this time, Lady Jane Grey, Mary Tudor and Mary Stuart, probably influenced Elizabeth’s marital beliefs. Jane’s Dudley in-laws were unpopular, while Mary Tudor’s Spanish husband was so hated that a popular rebellion was directed against him in 1554. Mary Stuart’s second marriage to Henry lord Darnley had, of course, ended in his brutal murder, attributed by hostile individuals to the Scottish queen herself. Her third husband brutally raped her and left her alone in a hostile Scotland. In view of Warnicke’s arguments, it is extremely likely that both Elizabeth’s childhood experiences and the experiences of later queen regnants in relation to marriage governed her momentous decision to remain unmarried.

Above: Queens Elizabeth Tudor and Mary Stuart in their youth.

Above: Queens Elizabeth Tudor and Mary Stuart in their youth.

It is clear that Queen Elizabeth’s personal views and decisions regarding foreign policy, marriage, and the shedding of bloodshed were strongly governed by her formative childhood experiences. Is the same notion true for Mary Stuart, queen regnant of Scotland and, at one stage, queen consort of France? As second cousin to the English queen, Mary Stuart had enjoyed a far different childhood to Elizabeth. While Mary as dauphiness of France was to enjoy a life of luxury and splendour similar to that of the English princess before the execution of her mother, beforehand her birth in 1542 to the Scottish king James V occurred at a time of political and foreign difficulties in Scotland. The hostility of Henry VIII, directed in continuing invasions of Scotland, was worsened by the death of James six days after his daughter’s birth. At 6 days old, therefore, Mary Stuart became queen of Scotland. Her mother, Queen Mary, became regent of Scotland during her daughter’s minority, but her French lineage and her Catholic faith rendered her an unpopular figure to Scottish Protestants. It is significant that the Scottish Reformation occurred from this time.


The hostile misadventures of the English king encouraged the Scottish dowager queen’s decision to send her infant daughter to the land of her own birth, France, where she would be brought up by her Guise relatives and groomed for a splendid marriage to the French dauphin, Francois, who would day accede to the crown of France. Although, like Elizabeth, Mary’s infant years had been traumatic and complex, during her adolescence she enjoyed a life of luxury and fulfilment as a princess of France. She grew into a tall, striking, charming woman who enjoyed poetry, music, and dancing, and who sought personal satisfaction in outdoor physical exercise. While she was of the Catholic faith, during her teenage years she was not devout. However, the year 1558 was significant for Mary and the course of her life. Aged fifteen at the time, Mary’s position in Europe was immeasurably strengthened by the death of her cousin Queen Mary Tudor, ruler of England, in November. Because Catholic powers, as mentioned, identified Elizabeth as a bastard, in the eyes of Europe, Mary Stuart was now the rightful queen of England. Elizabeth’s Protestant faith rendered her a heretic, and her illegitimacy was proclaimed to be a pressing reason why she should never accede to the crown of England. Accordingly, Mary and her French husband, whom she had married in April of that year in Paris, began using the royal arms of England alongside those of France and Scotland and it was ordered that they should be referred to as the king and queen of France, Scotland and England.


Mary’s childhood and adolescence had encouraged her to believe that, by virtue of her excellent lineage and her Catholic faith, she was the rightful queen of England. But her future became uncertain in 1560 when, aged only seventeen, the French dauphin died prematurely. No longer queen consort of France, Mary decided to return home to Scotland as its queen regnant, although not after considering a second marriage alliance with a powerful nation such as Spain. Once in Scotland, Mary’s political decisions and choices as queen are intriguing in view of her childhood experiences. Her religious policy was famously fair and liberal, for although she was a Catholic, the Scottish Reformation had progressed so extensively that she quickly discerned that it would be unwise to press for Catholicism to become the state religion. Her own mother had faced mounting hostility in view of her Catholic faith, culminating in an invasion. Wisely, Mary learned from her childhood experiences in accordance with the political and religious situation prevailing in Scotland. Like Elizabeth in the early years of her reign, who famously desired not ‘to make windows into men’s souls’, Queen Mary sought peace and stability in a kingdom which was slowly experiencing increasing inner tensions. She may also have been influenced by the religious violence in France between Catholics and Huguenots during her childhood. As Fraser contends, she seems to have had a personal aversion to bloodshed and violence, like her cousin Elizabeth.


Mary’s beliefs regarding marriage and motherhood were significantly different to those of Elizabeth, most likely because of her own childhood experiences in that regard. While Elizabeth may have equated motherhood and marriage with bloodshed and an early death, Mary’s acquaintance with the fertility of the French royal family, coupled with her own maternal feelings, meant that marriage was a promising prospect for her. She also regarded it as essential in order to preserve dynastic and political stability in Scotland. Unlike Elizabeth, who feared the loss of her authority through marriage, Mary naturally desired a strong ruling hand to aid her in her queenship. In view of this, in 1565 Mary, having fallen in love with the dashing but volatile Henry Stewart, lord Darnley, chose to marry once more. Her choice, aside from his own personal failings, was a wise one, for Henry had royal blood by virtue of being the son of Lady Margaret Douglas, niece of Henry VIII as the daughter of Margaret Tudor. Since Mary Stuart was the granddaughter of Margaret Tudor, she was first cousin to Lord Darnley.


Mary’s political decisions and views were dictated entirely by her childhood experiences in France. There, absolutism reigned, and the monarchy was entirely respected with its due reverence. By contrast, the Scottish monarchy was beset with difficulties in view of increasing religious conflict among the Scottish lords. They were violent and sought only to pursue their own interests. Abduction and rape of rich widows was commonly used as a means of achieving power and greater wealth. It was therefore impossible for Mary to appreciate the tensions and resentment prevalent among her nobility. Despite her religious tolerance, her Catholic faith rendered her unacceptable to hostile Protestants such as John Knox and her brother, the earl of Moray. Her husband, Lord Darnley, soon proved to be a disastrous choice as consort. Immature, jealous and easily manipulated, he was soon embroiled in a plot to kill Mary’s beloved secretary Riccio, who was blamed for causing the Queen’s disillusionment with her second husband. Less than a year after Riccio’s brutal end, Darnley himself had been murdered, his strangled body found at Kirk o’Field. His house had been blown up in a plot to kill him, probably governed largely by the Earl of Bothwell who subsequently abducted the Scottish queen and raped her. Their marriage ceremony followed shortly afterwards. Mary now totally lost any support she had formerly enjoyed from the nobility. Viewing her as an adulteress and whore, they imprisoned her at Lochleven, and forced her to abdicate in favour of her infant son James. Months later, she managed to escape to England, where she would endure 19 years of imprisonment before Queen Elizabeth signed her death warrant, when evidence gradually but quickly emerged that Mary had been involved in a number of plots against her. Mary’s life came to an end at the hands of the executioner’s axe in Fotheringhay Castle in February 1587.


While Elizabeth’s decisions were governed by caution and indecision, Mary’s have often been considered reckless and impulsive, although her early religious policies were tolerant and well-considered. She also sought to pursue a policy of conciliation with the nobility, in order to avoid bloodshed and violence at the Scottish court. Both women were influenced supremely by their childhood experiences. In relation to marriage, Elizabeth shrunk from the prospect due to her own psychological views and her political awareness, while Mary’s association of marriage with lineage and power, formed at the court of France, governed her decisions to remarry once in Scotland. Both women pursued strong alliances with European powers as a means of strengthening their positions politically and personally; Elizabeth because of the experiences of her father and sister in their reigns and because of England’s own insecurities; and Mary because she was aware that Scotland’s conflict could only be assuaged by the helping hand of a loyal Catholic ally. Both women also sought conciliating religious policies since both had a horror of bloodshed and violence. But in the most important decisions, it seems clear that Elizabeth was both more politically astute and more aware of the importance of her people’s opinions. Consequently, she refused to marry Robert Dudley in 1560 following the mysterious death of his wife because she was aware that she was implicated by some in Amy Robsart’s death; she refused to go to war with fellow Protestants because she feared England’s loss of security at the hands of hostile powers such as Spain; and she refused to suffer the loss of her virgin status. Elizabeth was understandably reluctant to place her political and personal authority in doubt were she to marry an overbearing husband. Her own sister’s example had demonstrated such a risk. 


By contrast, Mary Stuart’s decision to marry Darnley appears singularly misguided even if, at the time, it was considered a strong alliance. But her own decision to marry Bothwell scandalised her people and alienated her nobility, although it seems hardly fair to blame Mary since he had both abducted and raped her and it is certain that she had very little choice. But the belief that she was a constant schemer and plotter against the English queen, whatever the truths of it, and the association of her name with murder blackened her reputation irretrievably. Unlike Elizabeth, who at an early age by virtue of her childhood experiences became cautious and indecisive, Mary was more impulsive and reckless by virtue of the fact that her childhood had not prepared her in the same manner for a successful queenship. Her sense of absolutism political sense and her views regarding marriage were significantly different to those of Queen Elizabeth.


Queen regnants faced hostility and suspicion in the sixteenth century, when it was believed that women were inferior to men and as such had no right to rule over them. The example of Queen Elizabeth proved that a woman could rule successfully, while that of Mary Stuart indicated the difficulties a female ruler faced by virtue of her gender. Both women’s childhoods dictated their decisions later in life and their own personal characteristics, but while Elizabeth has been generally praised as a successful ruler and perhaps even England’s greatest monarch, Mary has often been condemned, as a result of her political and religious decisions, as a failure, notwithstanding the prevailing image of her as a religious martyr or tragic figure.

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