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The Downfall of Anne Boleyn

On this day, 2nd May 1536, Anne Boleyn, second queen of King Henry VIII of England, was arrested for sexual crimes (adultery with five men) and plotting to conspire the death of her husband, an act of high treason. The previous day, the Queen had attended the traditional May Day jousts with her husband at Greenwich Palace, where ‘although Anne and Henry sat in their usual places, they had probably arrived separately at the tournament where two of her alleged lovers, Rochford and Norris, were to compete with each other, a public enactment of the charge that she had caused dissension and jealousy among them’. (Warnicke, p225) The Queen, most likely dressed in apple-green, was still an elegant and attractive woman of about thirty-four, even if the previous months had wearied, exhausted and depressed her. She cannot have failed to have been aware of the dark rumours swirling at court, the late-night meetings, the diplomatic difficulties, the mysterious behaviour of her husband, and her rapidly diminishing support, which must have inspired fear and apprehension in her. A quarrel with Master Secretary, Thomas Cromwell, over religious and political matters, and a very public row with her friend Henry Norris during the weekend did not help matters. But this was put to rest – briefly – by attending the jousts, where we are informed that the Queen smiled pleasingly and encouragingly at the jousters.

Much later, the hostile Nicholas Sander, writing in Elizabeth I’s reign (asserting, amongst other things, that Anne was monstrously deformed, gave birth to a shapeless child, and was in fact the daughter of Henry VIII), wrote that the Queen deliberately dropped a handkerchief at the joust as a public demonstration of her love for one of the jousters. But this story was later exposed as malicious fiction designed to blacken Anne’s name. Yet the joust came to an abrupt end when, in the middle of it, the King received a message, causing him to rise and leave the tournament, taking Henry Norris with him. Edward Hall, the court chronicler, reported that many individuals present ‘mused but most chiefely the quene’, who had been so humiliatingly deserted. She must have guessed that it related to something about herself (perhaps the sensational argument she had had with Norris two days earlier, in which she accused him of waiting for the king to die in order to marry her), but probably could not have foreseen that she would never see her husband again.

During their journey, the King accused Norris of committing adultery with his wife, Queen Anne. Norris, shocked and dumbfounded, protested that it was not true, but the King offered him a pardon, if he ‘wolde utter the trewth’ (George Constantine, who was present). Norris retorted, bravely and admirably, that ‘he would not accuse her of anything; and he would die a thousand times, rather than ruin an innocent person’. The King, obviously, was extremely dissatisfied with this answer, and Norris was imprisoned in the Tower of London, where another of Anne’s supposed lovers, the lowborn musician Mark Smeaton, had been incarcerated the previous day.

The next day, May 2, the Queen arose early and spent the morning at Mass, before journeying to watch a tennis match. Anne reportedly was in the midst of regretting she had not placed a bet on her favourite, as he was winning, when a messenger arrived from the King, ordering his wife to present herself before the Privy Council at once. The signs were ominous. According to Warnicke, her uncle the Duke of Norfolk, Sir William Paulet, and William Fitzwilliam (who had long detested her, being a supporter of the late queen Katherine of Aragon) accused her in front of her ladies-in-waiting of enjoying carnal relations with three men; only two of whom, Norris and Mark, were mentioned by name. Anne, plainly, was shocked, but later remarked that ‘to be a Quene, and cruely handled was never sene’. She believed that the king was doing it ‘to prove’ her.

That day, the Queen’s younger brother, George lord Rochford, was also taken to the Tower, accused of committing incest with his sister. At 2 o’clock in the afternoon, the Queen was publicly taken to the Tower of London, where crowds gathered on the sides of the river to jeer publicly at her (Anne Boleyn was never popular with the common people). Entering the Tower by the Court Gate, the Queen was met by Edward Walsingham, the Lieutenant of the Tower. She was then met by Sir William Kingston, the Constable of the Tower, where she dramatically questioned him as to whether she would be imprisoned in a dungeon. His reply was ‘No, Madam. You shall go into the lodging you lay in at your coronation’. Kingston reported that Anne then fell to her knees, laughing but at the same time weeping, crying out that ‘it is too good for me… Jesu have mercy on me’. When Kingston informed her of the arrests, the Queen showed understandable distress about the health of her mother, who ‘wilt die with sorrow’, and later laughed when Kingston assured her that every subject of the King would have justice.

According to Antonia Fraser, the Queen ‘began screaming’ during her imprisonment, but this is unlikely, as noted by Alison Weir, although clearly she was in a very delicate state. She later complained of her uncle Norfolk’s sanctimonious ‘tutting’ during the journey to the Tower. Charles Wriothesley, another Tudor chronicler, wrote that: ‘Anne Bolleine was brought to the Towre of London… entring in, she fell downe on her knees before the said lordes, beseeching God to helpe her as she was not giltie of her a accusement…’ Later that day, Henry VIII met with his illegitimate son by Bessie Blount, Henry Fitzroy, and embraced him intimately, breaking down in tears and warning him that both he and Princess Mary Tudor were lucky to have escaped the hands of Queen Anne, who had planned their deaths by poison, due to her ‘wicked intentions’. 

So what led to the sensational downfall of Queen Anne in the early summer of 1536? Historians have debated it intensely and powerfully during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In the April 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine, Dr Suzannah Lipscomb explored the various theories as to why Anne was arrested, accused of adultery, incest, and plotting the King’s death, and later beheaded, dragging down 5 men with her. So what is the likely explanation? As someone who has read prominent works by Eric Ives, G. W. Bernard, Retha M. Warnicke, Joanna Denny, Antonia Fraser, Alison Weir, Karen Lindsey, and other noted historians, I believe that I have a clear perspective to offer in relation to this.

Contrary to traditional belief, Anne Boleyn had not been in a weak position over the last few months, when many believe that she had been living on ‘borrowed time’, which was only worsened by the King’s developing love for Jane Seymour in the early winter of 1536. Most traditionalists believe that the King’s once intense passion for Anne had quickly turned to hatred, which was significantly exacerbated by her second miscarriage in January 1536. J.J. Scarisbrick adheres to this traditional interpretation, as does Derek Wilson, who stress that the King’s role in ordering Anne’s downfall has been too often ignored or marginalised. They believe, essentially, that it was the sexual dynamics of the marriage which caused the downfall – having once been entranced and captivated by the radiant Anne, Henry became increasingly and, fatally, disillusioned with her sharp tongue, fiery temper and intelligent mind; coupled with her unsuccessful pregnancies and so ordered her arrest and execution in 1536 when evidence was presented to him by his Master Secretary Thomas Cromwell, on the basis of ‘proof’ brought by Anne’s ladies-in-waiting, that the Queen had committed adultery and was planning Henry’s death.

Is it perhaps as simple as that? Other historians believe no. Certainly, Anne Boleyn’s last miscarriage (as I explored in my earlier article) considerably weakened her and may have destroyed Henry VIII’s love and affection for her. George Wyatt offers a sinister interpretation of this event, writing how the King’s last words to his grieving wife were that ‘he would have no more boys by her’, a cruel remark given that Anne had just lost her child and may have suffered a seriously traumatic pregnancy. According to later rumours at court, the King informed a courtier that he had been bewitched by Anne, by means of ‘sortileges and charms’, thus denying his paternity of her lost children and blaming his marriage on witchcraft. The Queen was reported to have an ‘an utter inability to bear male children’, which means that we can perhaps infer that her earlier miscarriage or stillbirth was also of a male child.

Yet, according to Retha M. Warnicke, traditional historians have not attached due importance to this miscarriage as they should perhaps have done. Drawing links with rumours of witchcraft made following the pregnancy, Warnicke asserts that the ‘sole reason’ for Anne’s sudden and traumatic downfall was the fact that she miscarried a deformed male child in January, convincing Henry that this was ‘an evil omen… he [thus] had her accused of engaging in illicit sexual acts with five men and fostered rumors that she had afflicted him with impotence… all of these are activities his contemporaries associated with witchcraft’. According to Warnicke, contemporaries believed that God delivered deformed children upon parents guilty of sexual deviance, thus meaning that Henry believed that, since the child could not have been his, his wife had engaged in adultery; and in Warnicke’s opinion, these men (including her brother) were very probably sodomites. Warnicke suggests that further evidence is provided that the miscarriage was extraordinary because it was not kept secret, in comparison with other royal miscarriages. So the 5 men accused of sleeping with the Queen were ‘chosen’ because they were believed, basically, to engage in forbidden sexual encounters. Thus linking deformity, witchcraft, sorcery, adultery and social beliefs into an outrageous theory, Warnicke concludes that ‘the real story is… more mundane: [Anne] was a victim of her society’s mores and of human ignorance about conception and pregnancy’.

But Warnicke’s theory for Anne’s downfall has fallen apart, when subjected to critical scrutiny by fellow historians. For one thing, there is no evidence that the child was deformed in the first place – it was reported by contemporaries to be ‘beautiful’, while Anne’s earnest enemy, the Spanish ambassador, made no mention of deformity, when he surely would have. This emphasis on witchcraft is also misplaced, since Anne was never accused of witchcraft; she was accused of sexual crimes. Anne died because she was believed to be a whore, not a witch. Thus Warnicke’s version for Anne’s downfall can be discarded.

Another traditional – and for many, convincing – theory for Anne Boleyn’s rapid downfall and death in May 1536 has been put forward by Eric Ives and, later, Alison Weir. This suggests that it was not Henry VIII (who was still supporting his wife publicly a month before her death), but Master Secretary Cromwell, who engineered Anne’s death, in a factional conspiracy designed to replace her with Jane Seymour. Joanna Denny and Antonia Fraser agree, Fraser writing how ‘Cromwell took the lead in what became open season for the destruction of Anne Boleyn’ and, drawing on Ives’ argument, mentions how Cromwell actually told the Spanish ambassador how he ‘thought up and plotted’ Anne’s downfall. This version of Anne’s downfall is the most popular one: ‘Cromwell… set out in cold blood to eliminate five of his political enemies in the privy chamber’ (Warnicke, criticising it). But why did Cromwell turn against Anne? Had they not supported one another in Anne’s rise to power? Well, according to Ives and Weir, Cromwell and the Queen had a vicious argument about the dissolution of the monasteries about to commence in England; while Cromwell was eager to seize the profits for the King, the Queen furiously reprimanded him, believing that the goal of the dissolution should be to provide education and reform. Further conflict occurred between the two due to foreign policy; Anne was believed to favour the Protestant German beliefs, while Cromwell was desperate for an alliance with the Spanish Habsburgs. Believing, in a sense, that it was either her or him, Cromwell suddenly concocted a plot, with the aid of Anne’s enemies, to remove her, in order to save his own skin. Starkey believes that Cromwell had a very real fear of Queen Anne, as she was ‘a brutal and effective politician’ who could quite easily destroy him, if she chose. Ives concludes that it was politics, not sexuality, which destroyed Anne Boleyn.

The argument is fairly convincing. But others have strongly – and perhaps rightfully – criticised it. Some believe it is ‘too neat’. Warnicke questions the choice of men executed; believing that, if a Boleyn ‘faction’ really existed, then surely male individuals more closely associated with the Queen would have been eliminated. This is a fair point, since one of the accused, William Brereton, for instance, had little connections with her. Warnicke believes Ives is relying far too heavily on the dispatches of the Spanish ambassador, who was Anne’s enemy and deliberately misled by Cromwell. Others ask why Cromwell would have needed to have the Queen killed over matters as ‘trivial’ as the dissolution of the monasteries and foreign policy. Still others reckon that this marginalises the King excessively, and makes him look like a puppet in the hands of powerful men when it was he who was in control the whole time. The biggest drawback to this argument is the fact that the people Cromwell supposedly worked with to bring down Anne were, in fact, his own enemies. If they came to power, through Anne’s death, then Cromwell would also face his own downfall. So why would he have plotted with them?

This theory has remained popular however, particularly in Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies. Many respectable historians, including Ives, Starkey, and Fraser, believe that it is the closest we will ever get to understanding why Anne was executed, with 5 men. But others have disagreed. Most radically of all, G. W. Bernard, in his controversial book Fatal Attractions, suggests that the real answer is simple: Anne was guilty of the crimes alleged. He depicts her as a highly sexual woman who enjoyed flirtations and, perhaps terrified that the King would not be able to father a son, began sleeping around – though not with her own brother – in order to become pregnant and pass off a male heir as his. Yet is this true? Few historians agree with it. They criticise Bernard’s reliance on one source for this argument – the work of Lancelot de Carles to the French government. They assert that there is no evidence that Anne was stupid enough to take lovers behind the King’s back – in fact, she was extremely intelligent, even calculating. They also note that she would have needed the assistance of her ladies to help her – yet no woman was ever arrested. Furthermore, Anne swore on her soul before her death that she was innocent. Only one of the men admitted to the charges – Mark Smeaton – and many believe that this was because he was tortured and thus coerced into doing so. Yet Lacey Baldwin Smith, an American professor, in his recent book on Anne agrees, suggesting that she may have been guilty of adultery.

Others believe that it was the King’s love for Jane Seymour which led to Anne’s death; but why, then, would he have needed to have her arrested, convicted and beheaded? Could the marriage not just have been annulled and Anne sent to a nunnery, which Katherine of Aragon was threatened with? But on the other hand, Greg Walker, in an article published in 2002, suggested that theories for Anne’s downfall have been way too complex. He believes that: ‘Anne fell… not as a result of what she did, but of what she said during the May Day weekend of 1536, in a series of incautious conversations with the men who were to be tried and executed with her‘. On the face of it, this is a rational argument – as noted earlier, Anne had had a public row with Henry Norris three days before her arrest, in which she accused him of waiting for the King to die so that he could marry her, and a day later, warned Mark Smeaton that he should not expect Anne to talk to him, because he was an ‘inferior person’. Suzannah Lipscomb seems to agree with this version of events, terming it the ‘cock-up theory’: it was Anne’s own amazingly indiscreet and rash comments to other gentlemen, surely a result of her fear and confusion at court, which convinced the King that she was truly guilty of the crimes presented by Master Cromwell. Walker also emphasises ‘Henry’s own intense emotional investment in the matter‘, disagreeing with Ives who marginalised the King’s role. Walker concludes: ‘it was this personal sense of injury and dishonour that drove Henry to root out the whole story and pursue the offenders to the death’. Anne was convicted because of her own indiscreet and careless remarks: ‘to her brother, as they laughed about the king’s sexual inadequacies… to Mark Smeaton, when she snubbed him publicly less than twenty-four hours before he was arrested, and most obviously to Henry Norris when she foolishly joked about the sacrosanct subject of the king’s death’. 

Perhaps Walker comes the closest. But even this theory does not take into account other things: why, then, were Sir Francis Weston and Sir William Brereton executed, when according to surviving sources Anne never had indiscreet conversations with them, as she supposedly had with the other men? Why were Thomas Wyatt and Richard Page arrested? Why, during her trial, did Anne voice the suspicion that she was being executed for other reasons than those mentioned in the official charges? If it was only a result of Anne’s behaviour during 29-30 April, then why have other scholars attributed Anne’s downfall as early as February or March 1536?

Both Walker, Bernard, Scarisbrick and Wilson are correct in emphasising the central role played by the King. It seems nonsensical to believe that Cromwell could ‘dupe’ the King into playing the part he wanted him to in his own factional conspiracy to get rid of the king’s wife – it was too high-risk and dangerous. The evidence does not support Warnicke’s deformed-foetus story, so that can be dismissed. Weir, Ives and Starkey are all arguably guilty of relying too heavily on the flawed and biased dispatches of a man who was Anne’s bitter enemy, Eustace Chapuys, and their version of Anne’s downfall is, perhaps, too ‘neat’.

A combination of factors probably explain Anne’s downfall. Still in a strong position in January 1536, improved by the death of Katherine of Aragon, Anne suffered a bitter blow when she gave birth to a dead son some weeks later, but this was not the ‘sole reason’ that she later died, as Warnicke believes. The King, bitterly disappointed, began a flirtation with Jane Seymour, which gathered increasing momentum during the spring. Anne’s enemies gathered together and plotted, but what this was related to cannot fully be adduced. Anne began to experience increasing fear and uncertainty about her future, but her husband publicly continued to support her, as late as four weeks before her death. A public quarrel with Cromwell worsened her position, and her own insecurity can be grasped with a furious argument with Henry Norris and irritation at Mark Smeaton’s behaviour.

Walker’s thesis can be coupled together with that of Scarisbrick and Wilson, with some of Ives’ ideas. Disillusioned, perhaps even beginning to loathe, his queen, the King was informed of Anne’s incredibly indiscreet behaviour at the end of April, in which she mentioned his death and marrying another man, and probably ordered Cromwell to get to the bottom of the matter. Cromwell, who was already hostile to Anne because of their religious and political disagreements, interrogated Anne’s ladies and servants – probably hinting that they should provide him with evidence to bring about Anne’s arrest – and discovered ‘evidence’ that she had been committing adultery and plotting the King’s death. Reporting back to the King, the King, already angered, upset and full of hatred towards his wife, ordered her arrest, and she was later executed. This theory brings Henry into the centre – it was him who discovered Anne’s indiscreet behaviour, became suspicious, and ordered an investigation. Cromwell did not plot Anne’s downfall – he assisted the processes willingly and eagerly, because of his own hostility towards the Queen. So he was a willing servant of the King. The reason the Spanish ambassador heard that it was Cromwell, not the King, who brought about Anne’s downfall, is because it could not be admitted that the King himself wanted his wife arrested and, presumably, killed. A scapegoat was needed, and Cromwell would look more powerful than he really was, thus bolstering his own position. In a sense, then, Anne was killed because of her own indiscreet behaviour, coupled with the King’s hatred towards her and strong belief that she was guilty.

This is my personal interpretation, brought about through reading all the major works on Anne and the primary evidence. It also supports my version of Katherine Howard’s downfall some 5 years later – there, too, the role of the King has been much played down, with historians telling us that a Protestant party at court plotted the Queen’s downfall when rumours of her childhood past were dug up. But it was the King who created a new law to ensure her death and who ordered her execution, without even granting her a trial. It seems clear, in conclusion, that he too was the central player in Queen Anne Boleyn’s downfall.



Bernard, G. W. Fatal Attractions (Yale, 2010).


Denny, Joanna, Anne Boleyn: a New History of England’s Tragic Queen (Piatkus, 2004).


Fraser, Antonia, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (Phoenix, 1992).


Ives, E. W., The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (Oxford, 2005).


Starkey, David, Six Queens: The Wives of Henry VIII (Vintage, 2004).


Walker, Greg, ‘Rethinking the Fall of Anne Boleyn’, The Historical Journal 45 (2002), 1-29.

Warnicke, Retha M. The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (Cambridge, 1989).


Weir, Alison, The Lady in the Tower: the Fall of Anne Boleyn (Jonathan Cape, 2009).

Ordinary People & Serfdom in Medieval England

How did ordinary people resist serfdom in 13th and 14th century England?

In thirteenth and fourteenth century England, economic difficulties and social unrest could be seen to account for intensifying conditions of serfdom in villages. Although serfdom existed in England since the early Middle Ages, increasing power of landlords in the thirteenth century and unfavourable social conditions in the fourteenth, largely deriving from the economic devastation resulting from the Black Death, intensified unfree conditions for peasants. However, as will be explored in this essay, ordinary people strongly resisted serfdom due to the heavy working conditions it entailed as well as the unenviable social stigma it carried. Rather than acquiesce to their lords’ demands, peasants resorted to both legal and illegal action to resist serfdom, meaning, as Whittle contends, ‘we now see ordinary people as political actors in their own right [who] found many ways of making their interests and ideas known’.[1] This essay will consider a variety of means by which peasants expressed their dissatisfaction with serfdom and their resistance to it through what can be generally classified as ‘passive resistance’ and direct means illegal in context of medieval England, including violence and flight. Finally, the Peasants’ Revolt (1381) will be discussed in considering the extreme forms resistance to serfdom could take in the central Middle Ages. Social and economic conditions will be considered as central to the nature of, and resistance to, serfdom.
While many ordinary people opposed the conditions under which they worked, Dyer suggests that peasants’ resistance to landlords’ use of coercion should be viewed as being a ‘silent hussle’ whereby ‘latent coercion and grumbling resistance’ characterised lord-tenant relationships in thirteenth and fourteenth century England.[2] Did this mean, therefore, that ordinary people resorted to ‘passive’ forms of resistance, rather than outright action, when opposing the demands made on them by their lords? This issue is complicated since in comparison with the fourteenth century, the thirteenth century saw favourable social conditions from the perspective of ordinary people, in terms of enjoying security of tenure, while economic development saw securer living conditions in rural societies. Why, then, did the thirteenth century see ‘an intensification of pleading and conceptual analysis of the law against a political background of disturbance and reform’?[3]
The evidence suggests that in the thirteenth century ordinary people turned to the legal system in seeking redresses against the demands of serfdom imposed on them by their landlords, rather than utilising violent methods as means of resistance. Harding argued that by the mid-thirteenth century ordinary people became increasingly encouraged to petition the king in opposing the conditions of serfdom under which they lived and used the king’s courts to enlist complaints against their lords.[4] Yet does this mean that, generally speaking, ordinary people across England turned to the legal system to resist serfdom? Dyer believes so, arguing that in the thirteenth century ‘groups of servile tenants and individuals hired lawyers to fight cases in the royal courts against the lord’s assertion of their unfree status’.[5] Dyer’s argument is supported in that ordinary people became aware of the range of courts available to them in the thirteenth century, while some conveyed their hostility to serfdom by taking their lords to court to protest their free conditions and exemptions from serfdom. In 1224 a tenant of the abbot of Battle took his lord to court to resist his lord’s demands made on him as a serf, protesting his free condition.[6] Appeals to the king convey a confident use of the legal system made by ordinary people in the thirteenth century to resist serfdom, as seen in 1280 when the peasants of the manor of Michleover were successful enough to obtain a royal writ freeing them from conditions of serfdom.
Other examples of ‘passive’ resistance support the argument that peaceful methods of opposition or methods involving a lack of violence were utilised in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries in resisting serfdom. Several historians have recognised the prominence of appeals of manumission which evolved later in the thirteenth and the fourteenth centuries, as well as the use of appeals to Domesday Book in order to prove that a particular area was of “ancient demesne” and so its tenants were free from serfdom. Hilton documented the use of the Domesday Book in allowing peasants to claim exemptions from villeinage, which had been occurring in England since the 1270s.[7] Yet it should be considered whether this method was commonly utilised by ordinary people across the country as a means of resisting serfdom. Kent, for instance, did not experience the harsh conditions of serfdom in the central Middle Ages and so never saw appeals made by its tenants to Domesday Book to resist serfdom, thus Whittle and Rigby’s claim that ‘the usual way of attempting to prove [freedom] was to appeal to the Domesday Book’ is doubtful since it appears to have only been in certain areas where the use of the Domesday Book was used to obtain freedom from serfdom.[8] Müller’s evidence for the argument of “ancient demesne” in early-fourteenth century Wiltshire indicates that this particular method of resistance to serfdom was remarkable in that resistance of this type occurred frequently in certain areas rather than being a widespread phenomenon.[9]
By contrast, in the early and later fourteenth century direct action, which could involve violence, developed as a concentrated means by ordinary people in resisting serfdom. A consideration of how social and economic conditions intensified conditions of serfdom in the fourteenth century will be instructive in discussing how opposition to serfdom plausibly changed. War, weather, and disease ‘brought a long period of expansion to a close’ while severe deflation in the period 1336-42 and widespread plague later in the century led to increasing tension. Population growth earlier in the century and extra labour intensified conditions of hardship for ordinary people.[10] Lords tightened their grip on their tenants, demanding extra labour and increasing coercive powers over tenants. Due to harder conditions, it does not seem surprising that many tenants turned to flight as a means of resisting serfdom in the fourteenth century. In Suffolk in 1361 workers went outside their “vill” to escape their hostile conditions and to obtain higher wages.[11] As Schofield argues, the use of flight increased in the later fourteenth century due to population decline and improved wage-labour opportunities elsewhere.[12] Furthermore, Dyer’s claim that ‘it was often the small demands, rather than such major payments as entry fines, which provoked peasant agitations’ is challenged in that on the contrary, violent confrontations seem to have been utilised when demands were viewed as being especially heavy.[13] The abbot of Halesowen’s exploitation of the financial side of his seigneurial rights over his tenants in the later fourteenth century led to ‘an orgy of plundering of the abbey property’ by peasants while the abbey’s servants and officials were assaulted and abused.[14]
Yet forms of direct action which did not involve violence also escalated in the fourteenth century. Poor performance of labour services, withholding money and rent, non-attendance at court and failure to act as suitors were widespread methods involved in resisting serfdom across England. Indeed, it seems questionable to conclude that violent methods of opposition completely replaced ‘passive’ resistance in the fourteenth century. As Schofield recognises, ‘passive’ resistance continued as a common method of opposing serfdom in this later period. Yet in considering the nature of the Peasants’ Revolt, the more direct nature of resistance in making off with charters and goods in Harmondsworth, for instance, and invoking threats implies that resistance to serfdom evolved into utilising more direct methods and, occasionally, violence.[15]
The Peasants’ Revolt shows the most extreme form of resistance to serfdom which could be taken in fourteenth century England. While a revolt of this magnitude can in no way be seen as typical, it does indicate the increasing resentment towards serfdom pervading rural society. The actual nature of these violent acts shows the intensifying desire for freedom from serfdom. The repeated burning of manorial court records occurred, for instance in Essex, while the release from gaol of Robert Belling, a serf, symbolically indicates the rebels’ intent to abolish serfdom and attain widespread freedom.[16] ‘The experience of at least a century and a half of local struggles’ between tenants and lords played a pivotal role in causing the revolt.[17] Yet did the rebellion influence the weakening, or decline, of serfdom? Whittle’s suggestion that it did in that it helped to ensure that serfdom disappeared in the fifteenth century is debateable, since in the sixteenth century serfdom continued, for instance in Norfolk.[18] However it cannot be denied that the revolt severely undermined landlords’ authority. While revolt was not often used to resist serfdom in this period, the Peasants’ Revolt indicates increasingly violent resistance among the peasantry to serfdom and a determination to obtain freedom. The involvement of four counties in this revolt and the burning of manorial rolls in all four suggest that serfdom was both widespread and opposed, although the nature of serfdom ultimately differed depending on location.
This essay has suggested that resistance to serfdom in thirteenth and fourteenth century England did not simply involve violence and rebellion against landlords, but depended significantly on the nature of the demands imposed on ordinary people by their lords, social and economic conditions, and geographical location. ‘Passive’ resistance emerges as a common form of resistance to serfdom, particularly earlier on in this period, including appeals to the legal system and appeals to the Domesday Book, although in some areas more direct action was utilised. Opposition to serfdom appears to have been widespread but was more intense in areas such as East Anglia, whereas areas such as Kent enjoyed comparatively free conditions for ordinary people. Yet the increasing use of direct action by ordinary people in the late fourteenth century reveals intent to abolish serfdom. While individual success was not widespread, by the fifteenth century greater confidence among peasants and favourable social conditions meant that the nature of serfdom was weakened, if not fully eradicated, in rural societies. The underlying means of resistance to serfdom, according to contemporary evidence, was passive in most societies; although scholars should recognise that, even this form of resistance, could involve fierce opposition in the forms of desertion or appeals to the monarch. When unfavourable social and economic conditions intensified, it cannot but be doubted that more violent action was readily utilised, culminating in the outbreak of revolt in 1381. This essay hopefully provides some impetus to social historians to reconsider the nature of serfdom in the late medieval period, and how ordinary people sought to resist an institution many of them clearly found to be intolerable.

[1] J. Whittle and S. H. Rigby, ‘England: Popular Politics and Social Conflict’, in S.H. Rigby (eds.) A Companion to Britain in the Later Middle Ages (Blackwell, 2008), p. 83.
[2] C. Dyer, ‘The Ineffectiveness of Lordship in England, 1200-1400’, Past & Present, Vol. 195, Issue suppl. 2, 2007
[3] P. Hyams, Kings, Lords and Peasants in Medieval England: The Common Law of Villeinage in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries (Clarendon Press, 1980), p. 266.
[4] A. Harding, England in the thirteenth century (Cambridge University Press, 1993)
[5] C. Dyer, Standards of Living in the later Middle Ages: Social change in England c1200-1520 (Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 137.
[6] S. H. Rigby, ‘Agrarian Class Structure and the Forces for Change II’ in English Society in the Later Middle Ages (Macmillan, 1995)
[7] R. H. Hilton, ‘Peasant Movements in England Before 1381’, The Economic History Review, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1949
[8] J. Whittle and S. H. Rigby, ‘England: Popular Politics and Social Conflict’, in S.H. Rigby (eds.) A Companion to Britain in the Later Middle Ages (Blackwell, 2008), p. 76.
[9] M. Müller, ‘The Aims and Organisation of a Peasant Revolt in Early Fourteenth-Century Wiltshire,’ Rural History, Vol. 14, Issue 01, April 2003
[10] S. L. Waugh, England in the reign of Edward III (Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 21-22
[11] E. B. Fryde and N. Fryde, The agrarian history of England and Wales: Vol.3: 1348-1500 (Cambridge University Press, 1991)
[12] P. Schofield, Peasants and Community in Medieval England 1200-1500 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002)
[13] C. Dyer, ‘The Ineffectiveness of Lordship in England, 1200-1400’, Past & Present, Vol. 195, Issue suppl. 2, 2007
[14] Z. Razi, ‘Family, Land and the Village Community’ in T. H. Aston (eds.) Landlords, Peasants and Politics in Medieval England (Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 392.
[15] R.H. Hilton, ‘Peasant Movements in England Before 1381’, The Economic History Review, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1949
[16] N. Brooks, ‘The organization and achievements of the peasants of Kent and Essex in 1381’,  in R.I. Moore and H. Mayr-Harting, Studies in medieval history: presented to R.H.C Davis (London, 1985), p. 256.
[17] R. H. Hilton and H. Fagan, The English Rising of 1381 (London, 1950), p.32.
[18] J. Whittle, ‘Peasant Politics and Class Consciousness: The Norfolk Rebellions of 1381 and 1549 Compared’, Past & Present, Vol. 195, Issue suppl. 2, 2007

Winter King – the Dawn of Tudor England and Henry VII

I recently read Thomas Penn’s highly acclaimed first historical study, Winter King: the Dawn of Tudor England (Penguin, 2011), a witty and compelling account of the reign of King Henry VII (1457-1509) from the middle years of his reign to its dark and complex end in 1509. Known to all Tudor lovers as the first Tudor, the king who defeated history’s arch-villain King Richard III in battle at Bosworth, it seems possible to suggest that Henry remains the most mysterious, perhaps even to an extent the forgotten, Tudor, often eclipsed by his glamorous and energetic son Henry VIII and his enigmatic granddaughter Elizabeth I. Yet, like those other misunderstood Tudors Edward VI and Mary I, Henry VII’s story is highly remarkable, and although he was certainly disliked for his meanness, corrupt methods of ruling and lack of charisma and charm – points often addressed in Penn’s book – I’d argue that Henry VII was ultimately a very capable king who withstood every danger posed to his throne and ultimately established the conditions for a successful succession at his death.

Memorialised by the seventeenth-century biographer Francis Bacon as a ‘dark prince’, Henry Tudor was born on 28 January 1457 (incidentally the date his son died 79 years later) to Edmund, 1st earl of Richmond and a member of the Welsh Tudor family, and Margaret Beaufort, a formidable, religious and educated woman who was Countess of Richmond and later Derby. Margaret was only 13 when she gave birth to Henry, and the pregnancy so crippled her that it left her unable to bear any more children. Incidentally, Edmund died of plague the previous winter, leaving his 13-year widow heavily pregnant with their only son. At that time, the dynastic and political conflict known as The Wars of the Roses had just broken out, and Edmund as a Lancastrian had been taken prisoner by Yorkist forces. Margaret was taken under the arm of her brother-in-law Jasper  to Pembroke Castle, where she gave birth to Henry. A series of events would see Henry becoming the Lancastrian claimant for the throne, undoubtedly influenced by his mother’s ambition and ruthless nature.

Henry Tudor had royal blood due to the fact  that his grandfather Owen Tudor had married the former queen consort Catherine of Valois, widow of Henry V, some years previously. However, their marriage was viewed by some as being illegal; while this was intensified by the fact that  the Beauforts had been identified as being illegitimate and unfit to inherit the throne. Thus, while Henry certainly had royal blood, these two facts meant that his claim to the throne was weak, at best. 

The Wars of the Roses famously resulted in the bloody deaths of the notoriously inept king Henry VI, who was probably mad, and his son Edward Duke of Lancaster in battle, which meant that Henry Tudor, by virtue of this dynastic conflict, became the prime Lancastrian claimant and a serious rival to the Yorkists, who had succeeded through their king Edward IV and later Richard III. Although Lady Margaret’s fourth husband, Lord Stanley, was a Yorkist, she became increasingly influential by 1483 in promoting her twenty-six year old son Henry’s claim to the throne following Edward IV’s death and the mysterious deaths of his sons Edward V and Richard prince of Wales. Henry had spent his childhood in Europe, residing in both France and Brittany. Margaret began plotting with various political figures disaffected by the recent events leading to the usurpation of Richard, including Edward IV’s widow and former queen Elizabeth Woodville. It is clear that Margaret was heavily ambitious for her son and was intent on making him king. This formidable woman would be at the centre of power throughout Henry’s reign as king. When rebellions broke out in England in the autumn of 1483, led by the disaffected Duke of Buckingham (formerly Richard’s staunch supporter), Henry seized the opportunity to invade, but a series of storms meant that the rebellion collapsed. Storms blew Henry back to Normandy; but at Christmas Henry vowed to marry Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward and Elizabeth, and consequently disaffected Yorkists swore allegiance to Henry.

In 1485, after attaining greater support including from the earl of Oxford, Henry managed to gain support in money, ships and men from the French king Charles VIII which spurred him to seek the English crown once more. Landing in England in early August, Henry marched across Wales where he obtained substantial support. Richard, however, had amassed much greater support from Englishmen, meaning that he had the upper hand when the two armies met at Bosworth on 22 August. Yet the strong fighting of the earl of Oxford, who supported Henry, and the reluctance of Richard’s supporters such as the earl of Northumberland to participate on the king’s side, led to a shifting of momentum from the king to the pretender. The Stanleys, who were of course Henry’s relatives, proved decisive in intervening on Henry’s side, leading to Richard’s demise. Henry was proclaimed king shortly after. 

However, as Penn wittily and dramatically makes clear in his book, Henry VII’s accession as king only led to further instability caused by the dynastic problems of the English royal family. Many did not recognise him as king; while the Yorkists only swore to support him because of his marriage to their relative, Elizabeth. However, Elizabeth brought some security to English dynastic politics through bearing the king’s son, Arthur, in September 1486, and proved to be a fertile bride in bearing Princess Margaret (1489), Henry (1491), and Mary (1496), as well as a host of other royal children who tragically died as either infants or newborns. Despite this, several rebellions developed which caused the English king considerable alarm. Lambert Simnel, a boy who was claimed by Yorkists to be the Earl of Warwick (Edward IV’s nephew), was crowned King Edward VI in Dublin in 1487, before the King managed to defeat the rebel forces led by John de la Pole, earl of Lincoln (himself a royal claimant) at the battle of Stoke. Simnel, a mere child, was not killed but put to work in the king’s kitchens.

Nonetheless, Perkin Warbeck’s rebellion in the 1490s was an entirely different story, for this pretender attained far greater support than Simnel had ever achieved, including from royal European figures such as Margaret of York. Claiming to be Richard, the younger of the Princes in the Tower, Penn makes clear that his attempted invasions in 1491 and 1495 severely compromised any political stability Henry VII could hope to enjoy. Landing in Cornwall in 1497, Warbeck’s rebellion fell apart and he was later executed with the hapless and simple Earl of Warwick at the Tower of London in 1499. These executions undoubtedly took place because of Henry’s desire for his thirteen-year old heir Prince Arthur to marry the Spanish princess Katherine of Aragon, and the Spanish monarchs had expressed some concern about the continuing presence of pretenders in England which might jeopardise their daughter’s security. Katherine, apparently, felt guilt for their deaths, later declaring that her marriage had been made in blood.

Penn emphasises how these pretenders severely troubled Henry; a problem which was worsened beyond all proportions with the premature death of his heir Arthur in 1502, just months after his lavish – but controversial – marriage to the Spanish Infanta Katherine. These problems intensified with the death of his beloved queen, Elizabeth, in 1503 on her 37th birthday, days after giving birth to a daughter Katherine who also died shortly afterwards. Henry, however, was intent on preserving the Spanish alliance in face of French threats to England, and in view of this it was arranged that his second son, Prince Henry, would marry Katherine when he became of age. However, the death of Katherine’s influential mother Isabella of Castile wrecked the Spanish alliance, with the prince days before his fourteenth birthday ordered to renounce his vow to marry Katherine. One can only feel pity for this destitute Spanish princess, who by all accounts lived in poverty-stricken conditions following her failed marriage in 1502.

Personal problems almost certainly contributed to increasingly harsh measures in the early 1500s. This is, ultimately, what made Henry VII notorious, which Penn dramatically details in Winter King. I came away from this book realising just how threatened Henry was due to dynastic problems, and the real sense of fear he had about the succession (ironically, as his son would share some thirty years later). The Court of Star Chamber was used mercilessly to deal with troublesome nobles, a process later extended to the notorious Council Learned in the Law and the probably illegal use of bonds and recognisances, which placed heavy amounts of money on nobles which they would be bound to pay if they disobeyed the king’s rule or plotted treason. Other nobles were forced to act as guarantors, something they must have heartily disliked. The king’s eminent financial officials, Edmund Dudley and Richard Empson, became figures of hatred during this time, as they ruthlessly enforced the king’s unpopular policies. Unsurprisingly, on his accession Henry VIII bowed to popular demand and ordered the executions of these hated ministers.

1502 and afterwards saw the king’s worsening ill health, above all the king’s declining eyesight and his struggle to write. He began to suffer periodic illness, especially from 1507 when he fell sick each year in the spring. Lady Margaret sprang into action during these times of crisis, ready to secure the mechanisms of succession for her grandson Henry if her son were to die. There was a growing feeling during Henry VII’s last decade that he was becoming increasingly rapacious and greedy, epitomised by the discontent felt by Thomas More, a promising lawyer later beheaded by Henry VIII for his opposition to the Boleyn marriage. The nobility, such as Buckingham and Northumberland, greatly resented the king’s heavy-handedness and mistrust, feeling that they weren’t enjoying the political power and presence in the kingdom which they felt was theirs by hereditary right. Henry can justly be viewed as suspicious, even paranoid, but after the unstable reign of Henry VI and the problems experienced in the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III, one can understand his mistrust of the nobility and desire to undermine any power they felt they enjoyed.

Although Penn’s book only deals with Henry VII’s in a colourful manner, mainly the years after 1501, his points do suggest that Henry’s foreign policy was successful, particularly in his desire to maintain the Spanish alliance and protect England from the threat of France. His daughter Margaret was married at 13 to the Scottish king, a policy which strengthened Tudor influence outside of England, and his youngest daughter Mary was betrothed to the heir to  the Holy Roman Empire, Charles (Mary later became Queen of France aged 18, during her brother’s reign). 

However, one is left with the unmistakeable sense from Winter King that Henry VII’s reign was plagued by succession troubles, political instability, financial corruption and mutual resentment between the king and his nobles. Can Henry VII’s reign be termed a success? I would say, ultimately yes, because his son successfully acceded to the throne in a bloodless succession in 1509, but it’s undeniable that this was also a matter of luck. Henry faced a series of pretenders, rebellions and questions of loyalty from a variety of men throughout his reign, meaning he never enjoyed any peace. These problems were, of course, worsened by the premature death of his son Arthur and the tragic loss of Queen Elizabeth. Margaret, the king’s mother, was a key political figure in helping the king try to maintain some security at court and in his kingdom. 

Henry undoubtedly lacked the charisma and magnificence of his son Henry VIII, or the glamour of his granddaughter Elizabeth I. In a way, he can be compared to the other ‘forgotten’ Tudors, Edward VI (a child king who died aged 15) and Mary I (a detested monarch). Misunderstood by contemporaries and historians, Henry is shrouded in mystery, a complex figure who comes across in Penn’s book as being dark, highly intelligent, suspicious, fearful, shrewd and ruthless in desiring to maintain his rule at all costs. Lady Margaret emerges as an enigmatic and powerful player at court, while the king’s able advisers and financial officials take centre stage in this book. What I also enjoyed was the attention paid to the foreign merchants and scholars who the king favoured, mostly Italians. A well-written, insightful book, Winter King emphasises in compelling detail the darkness and corruption of Henry VII’s life and reign, something we frequently overlook in our desire to glorify in Henry VIII’s reign and his legion of wives. But this book is essential reading for anyone interested in the first Tudor, who was, ultimately, able to preserve his dynasty and ensure his son’s succession – but only by the skin of his teeth.


“A Shapeless Mass of Flesh”?: Anne Boleyn’s Miscarriage of 1536

In late January or early February 1536, Anne Boleyn, second queen of Henry VIII of England, suffered a miscarriage, believed to be of a male child, at Greenwich Palace. This failure has since been shrouded in mystery and controversy, with a series of myths surrounding the tragic loss of a male heir which, almost certainly, would have guaranteed Anne’s personal safety as queen and confirmed in the eyes of her husband that his second marriage was valid and his first one unlawful. Some scholars have seen Anne’s pregnancy as the direct reason for her downfall, while others suggest that it considerably weakened her position but stress that she was not in fatal danger. So what is the truth of what happened to that tragic, if mysterious, pregnancy? Attempting in this article to separate fact from fiction, and viewing events through the eyes of sixteenth century social and cultural norms, a reasonable explanation will hopefully be offered.

According to later comments, it seems likely that the queen had become pregnant for the third time in mid-October 1535, when travelling with her husband on the annual summer progress.[1] Following another failure in pregnancy in the summer of 1534 – historians debate whether the queen suffered a phantom pregnancy, a miscarriage, or a stillbirth in July or August 1534[2] – both Anne and Henry must have been considerably relieved, because, as has been argued, no queen consort was ever really safe until she gave birth to the highly desired male heir, as conveyed strongly in the king’s first marriage to Katherine of Aragon. Unfortunately, Anne miscarried her child in early 1536, although what happened has been surrounded with fantastical stories born out of hindsight.[3] It is almost impossible, readers should note, to penetrate both contemporary and later sources in order to discern what really happened.

It seems logical to begin with the reports of contemporary observers who were well placed at court, although according to the divided nature of the palace according to royal protocol, status and occupation none of them were actually in the queen’s privy chamber when she suffered this calamity. Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial ambassador and a personal enemy of the queen, wrote that: “on the day of the internment (the funeral of Katherine of Aragon, 29 January), the Concubine [Anne] had an abortion [a miscarriage] which seemed to be a male child which she had not borne 3 ½ months, at which the King has shown great distress. The said concubine wished to lay the blame on the duke of Norfolk, whom she hates, saying he frightened her by bringing the news of the fall the King had six days before.”[4] Chapuys went on to write that it was well-known that this was not the cause of Anne’s miscarriage, and that others at court had speculated that, medically, she was unable to bear male children. Some historians have developed this point and suggested that Anne was rhesus negative, meaning that, following her first successful pregnancy (giving birth to Elizabeth in September 1533), she would never again have been able to bear a healthy child.[5] On a different note, Raphael Holinshed, a Tudor chronicler, also wrote that Anne’s miscarriage occurred on 29 January.

Edward Hall, who wrote a celebrated chronicle of Henry VIII’s reign, stated that: “And in February folowyng was quene Anne brought a bedde of a childe before her tyme, whiche was born dead”.[6] Hall had previously asserted that, following Katherine’s death, Anne had worn yellow in celebration – or possibly in mourning, since yellow was Spain’s national colour of mourning – of the former queen’s passing. Charles Wriothesley, a prominent court observer, wrote: “This yeare also, three daies before Candlemas [ie. 2 February], Queene Anne was brought a bedd and delivered of a man chield, as it was said, afore her tyme, for she said that she had reckoned herself at that tyme but fiftene weekes gonne with chield…”[7] Lancelot de Carles, who wrote a controversial poem about Anne’s downfall in June, wrote that the king’s jousting accident – thus agreeing with Chapuys’ sentiments – caused the queen to miscarry in shock, delivering “un beau filz”, a beautiful son, prematurely.[8]

As can therefore be recognised, there was near universal confusion surrounding the date of the miscarriage, but what can be determined is that the queen: suffered a miscarriage of a male child, at around three and one half months (or 15 weeks), at the end of January or early February 1536. Some actually doubted that the queen had been pregnant at all. The Bishop of Faenza wrote to Ambrogio in March 1536 that the French King had commented that Anne had pretended to be pregnant and her sister Mary was her only attendant, in order to maintain the pretence.[9] Dr Ortiz also wrote to Emperor Charles that month that Anne pretended to be pregnant due to her fear that the king would leave her, hoping to convince him that she was still capable of bearing a male heir.[10] Such statements are clearly garbled with rumour and can be dismissed. Nicholas Sander, a Catholic Reformation historian who wrote a damning portrayal of Anne, suggested that she had given birth to “a shapeless mass of flesh” in 1536, with connotations of deformity – which will be later discussed.[11]

What caused her miscarriage? Sensational stories created by hostile Catholics offered scandalous reasons for the queen’s miscarriage, which they delighted in. According to Jane Dormer, duchess of Feria and a personal friend of Mary I, and thus no admirer of Anne Boleyn, the queen had discovered her husband with Jane Seymour, his mistress, seated on his lap in January 1536 and had flown into a rage. Sander wrote something similar, suggesting that Anne had found her husband with Jane one afternoon in an intimate position, leading Anne to suffer a miscarriage from shock and distress and subsequently blaming her husband for her mishap: “See, how well I must be since the day I caught that abandoned woman Jane sitting on your knees”. Chapuys later commented that Anne had “miscarried of her saviour”. As has been observed, some believed that the queen suffered from a defective constitution and so would never be able to bear male children. Chapuys later spitefully alleged that the queen could not have a male child, which has led some writers to believe that the mysterious miscarriage in the summer of 1534 was also of a boy.[12] A reasonable suggestion would be that the king’s shocking jousting fall a few days earlier on 24 January had caused the queen to experience shock, horror and bewilderment, perhaps directly influencing what later occurred. However, Chapuys stated that she was indifferent to the king’s fall when told.

Whatever did happen, historians have advanced several theories as to this miscarriage, concerning how it impacted upon the queen’s personal relations with her husband, and how it damaged – either fatally or merely badly – both her political position and her personal security. Retha M. Warnicke, an American historian, is perhaps the best known scholar for her controversial, if intriguing, theories on Anne’s final pregnancy. Believing that the Spanish ambassador Chapuys was deliberately misinformed by Master Secretary Thomas Cromwell and other English officials as to both the date of Anne’s miscarriage and the nature of that miscarriage, Warnicke asserts that Anne delivered a deformed child in mid-January 1536, which was the ‘sole reason’ why she was executed four months later, because the birth of deformed children, apparently, was associated with witchcraft and sexual misbehaviour, thus convincing Henry that his wife was both a witch and an adulteress.[13] Warnicke believes that Sander’s comment, that the queen delivered “a shapeless mass of flesh” – written, by the way, some fifty years after that tragic event by someone who was a toddler at the time of Anne’s execution – reflected the truth of what happened to Anne’s pregnancy. This claim was spectacularly developed in Philippa Gregory’s wildly inaccurate novel The Other Boleyn Girl (2001) where Anne gives birth to a shockingly malformed foetus with a splayed spine and a giant head.

Warnicke puts forward several pieces of evidence to support her argument: Anne’s comments when imprisoned in the Tower of London suggested that her miscarriage was unusual, contemporary observers at court wrote that that spring the king was acting as if he was “accursed” and “living in hell”, rumours of witchcraft circulated a few days after the miscarriage, Anne was accused of committing incest with her brother and adultery with four men – in Warnicke’s eyes, had the foetus been normal, there would have been no need to go to such lengths to prove the king was not the father, there was a delay between the miscarriage and when it was reported (around 2 weeks in the case of Chapuys), the nature of the crimes alleged to have been committed by Anne, the fact that all five men were supposedly “libertines” – ie. homosexuals – and thus viewed as monstrous, and the fact that efforts were made to see what Mary, Anne’s stepdaughter, knew about the pregnancy.[14] Warnicke’s argument has proved convincing, with scholars such as John Guy crediting Anne’s downfall in 1536 with the birth of a deformed foetus in January. But can Warnicke’s arguments be supported, and do they suggest that Anne did miscarry a deformed child?

Nicholas Sander did assert that the queen had miscarried “a shapeless mass of flesh”, but we must remember that his work was published fifty years after these events, he never met Anne, and as a Catholic Reformation scholar, portrayed the queen as a monstrous being, with a witch-like character, deformed appearance, and insinuated that she was the daughter of Henry VIII. His account, therefore, is untrustworthy at best, slanderous and venomous at worst. No other contemporary Catholic sources referred to this supposed monstrous pregnancy, when they surely would have exploited such scandalous news to further blacken Anne’s reputation. Chapuys, who loathed the queen, simply described the miscarried child as being male and of around three and a half months in age. The notorious Chronicle of Henry VIII, which asserted incredulously that the queen was guilty of multiple adulteries and contains multiple inaccuracies, did not refer to the pregnancy at all. Neither did Jane Dormer. During Mary I’s reign, when Anne was publicly referred to as being an adulteress, there was no mention made of the deformed foetus. If this really did have connotations of witchcraft, consorting with the Devil and sexual immorality, why was no mention made of it and, more to the point, why was Anne’s daughter Elizabeth not publicly debarred from the succession on account of being the daughter of a witch? Warnicke herself has shown that contemporaries believed that daughters of witches were viewed as witches themselves, but no mention was made of this. What may both convince readers about the dubious nature of this theory – and is yet disturbing for so many people contain to believe it is true – is that there is no mention of a deformed child. As has been shown, contemporary comments only referred to the miscarried child as being male, while de Carles stressed that it was “beautiful”. Furthermore, rumours of witchcraft circulating in February, made by the Imperial ambassador, have been severely and critically questioned by historians, who conclude that this information was at best third-hand. No mention of witchcraft was made in the indictments against Anne and her lovers; the crimes were overwhelmingly sexual, not supernatural in basis.

More to the point, historians have not considered the thriving broadside ballad culture in early modern England, and how this may have been exploited with salacious details about Anne’s supposedly monstrous pregnancy. Particularly in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, ballads became increasingly interested with monstrous births and deformed children, as numerous ballads of this nature attest. A W Bates has written that “monstrous births… were popular subjects for ballads”.[15] There were, apparently, 250 monstrous births between 1503 and 1700, often reported in scandalous detail in early modern ballads.[16] The birth of deformed children, more to the point, was not necessarily believed to have been the result of witchcraft or sexual misbehaviour. A woman’s disturbed imagination could be viewed as leading to her child being born with defects. Other factors could be at work. Couples who had sexual intercourse during menstruation were believed capable of producing a deformed child. Religious differences in belief could be important too. It has been argued, for instance, that whereas Catholics – ie the king and his consort – interpreted a deformed foetus as being the result of natural forces, later Protestants chose to view it as being a sign of God’s direct intervention in the natural world.[17] Historians who support the deformed foetus story therefore fail to answer the simple question: how could a government, no matter how powerful or efficient the ministers and officials, successfully conceal from both country and continent the news of such a monstrous happening as the birth of a deformed child, particularly one born to the most powerful woman in the country, which would surely have invited scandal? This has never been adequately explained. Warnicke claims that the charges of adultery and incest were brought against the men to try and conceal all news of the deformed child, which apparently was more disparaging to the king’s honour than the fact that his wife was apparently violated by five men, one her own brother. This is an unconvincing and dubious argument. No individual, or group of individuals, could successfully conceal such a monstrosity, only for a scholar to ‘discover’ it 450 years later. As Eric Ives has commented, this invites more than a raised eyebrow.[18] To conclude, there is no evidence that a deformed child was born to Queen Anne, so this suggests that there was no deformed child at all. No mention was made of it during the queen’s downfall, no hostile Catholic (or Protestant, for some also opposed Anne) ever scandalised it in literature, no evidence of Anne’s association with witchcraft was brought forward, and claiming that Anne’s conversations in the Tower, the charges that she kissed and seduced courtiers, and the fact that her lovers were supposedly libertines are evidence of a deformed foetus cannot be substantiated.

However, Warnicke’s arguments that fertility and its related matters, such as impotence, were crucial to this miscarriage and its role in Anne’s downfall are somewhat more convincing, and something perhaps neglected by political historians who emphasise the factional nature of Anne’s downfall. The indictments drawn against her did emphasise that “certain ills had befallen” the king’s body, implying impotence – which, interestingly, was a significant issue in his later marriages to Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard – and it was suggested that he had been bewitched into marriage by the queen. I would cautiously suggest that strenuous efforts were made to deny the king’s paternity of Anne’s last child, not because it was deformed, but because it was believed that during the period 1533-35 Anne had rapidly turned to five lovers in desperate attempts to become pregnant, and therefore the king was not the father. Similar issues were addressed in Katherine Howard’s downfall, when her probably innocent meetings with Culpeper and former relations with Dereham were viewed as evidence that she intended to fall pregnant by either in order to provide her impotent husband with an heir.

If it was believed that the queen had turned to other male lovers, as hostile Catholic sources alleged in scandalous detail – possibly due to Henry VIII’s developing impotence – then it makes sense why strong efforts were made to suggest that during a period of two years Anne had enjoyed sexual relations with five men. However, this was only to occur significantly later on. With no evidence of deformity, one cannot argue that Anne’s last miscarriage was the ‘sole reason’ why she was executed four months later. I would tentatively agree with Ives, and other historians, who have argued that ‘the miscarriage of 29 January was neither Anne’s last chance nor the point at which Jane Seymour replaced Anne in Henry’s priorities. It did, nevertheless, make her vulnerable again’.[19] An issue which historians should perhaps consider further is that of the queen’s age. Disagreeing with those who believe Anne was born in 1507, I have argued that she was born most likely during 1501.[20] If the king was aware that his queen was approaching her thirty-fifth birthday, it makes considerable sense why he voiced dissatisfaction and dismay with her second failure in pregnancy. Surely, if she was aged twenty-eight, his reaction would not have been as severe or devastated, for Katherine of Aragon had been pregnant consistently until the age of thirty-three, while Jane Seymour bore her son aged twenty-eight. Since the Imperial ambassador spitefully referred to Anne around this time as being “a thin, old woman” and emphasising that her rival was “a young lady”, it is possible that the queen’s age provoked the king’s concern that, married to Anne, he would never beget a healthy male heir.

This article has indicated how suspect sources which detail Anne Boleyn’s final miscarriage in 1536 are. Many of them are Catholic, written from a hostile perspective designed to disparage the queen and the circumstances of her rule. Many were written much later than the events they describe, and must be viewed with a critical and sceptical eye. Yet the fact that they knew of this miscarriage in the first place suggests that it was significant. Other, perhaps less unsympathetic, court observers simply stated that the queen had aborted a male some three months after conception, making no reference to either a deformity or to a violent separation between the couple. They do, however, suggest that the king was devastated and blamed his queen, fearing that he would never father a male heir by her, while they also show Anne’s grief at following a second unsuccessful pregnancy. In the long term, this miscarriage certainly played an important role in Anne’s downfall. Yet it was not the sole cause, as some historians have suggested. Although an uneasy, even tragic, estrangement between the couple seems to have shortly followed, it was not until late April 1536 that Anne fell into severe royal disfavour, only indirectly influenced by the loss of her son earlier that year.

[1] Charles Wriothesley, a contemporary observer, wrote that Anne believed herself to be ‘but fiftene weekes gonne with chield’, while the Spanish ambassador Eustace Chapuys also stated that the child had been conceived three and a months previously.

[2] G. W. Bernard, Fatal Attractions (Yale, 2010) advances the claim that Queen Anne was never pregnant and was suffering from a phantom pregnancy, which her stepdaughter Mary later infamously experienced in 1554-5. Eric Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (Oxford, 2005) suggests that Anne suffered a miscarriage in the late summer of 1534, stating that it could not have been a stillbirth because she never took to her chamber. Retha M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (Cambridge, 1989) believes that the queen gave birth to a stillborn child in late June 1534. Other historians identify with one of these theories – I believe it is most likely Anne suffered a miscarriage.

[3] Cited by Joanna Denny, Anne Boleyn: a New History of England’s Tragic Queen (London, 2004).

[4] Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII, x.282.

[5] Such as A. Weir, The Lady in the Tower: the Fall of Anne Boleyn (Jonathan Cape, 2009).

[6] Hall’s Chronicle, p. 818.

[7] C. Wriothesley, A Chronicle of England during the reign of the Tudors, from A.D. 1485 to 1559, p. 33.

[8] Poème sur la Mort d’Anne Boleyn, Lancelot de Carles, lines 317-326, in La Grande Bretagne devant L’Opinion Française depuis la Guerre de Cent Ans jusqu’a la Fin du XVI Siècle, George Ascoli.

[9] Letters and Papers, x.450.

[10] Letters and Papers, x.528.

[11] Nicholas Sander, Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism (Burns and Oates, 1887), p.132.

[12] For instance, Weir, Lady in the Tower.

[13] Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) and “Sexual Heresy at the Court of Henry VIII”.

[14] For these arguments, see Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) – Chapter 8 “Sexual Heresy”.

[15] A W Bates ‘Birth defects described in Elizabethan ballads’,



[18] E. W. Ives The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (Oxford, 2005).

[19] Ibid.

Feminism and the Queens of Henry VIII

As I have suggested in my articles thus far on Queen Katherine Howard, one of which will be published in Exeter University’s The Historian in March 2013, gender is certainly a useful concept to employ when interpreting the lives of female figures. I was drawn to writing this article after having become reacquainted with Karen Lindsey’s entertaining Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: A Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII. Lindsey is a feminist scholar, and she is certainly not the first feminist to approach the lives of Henry VIII’s queens. Yet how far can gender and feminism be taken in approaching these extraordinary women’s lives? This article will see a brief summary of each woman’s life and queenship, before considering how gender and feminism can influence our interpretations of them.

Katherine of Aragon (1485-1536), Married June 1509, Marriage annulled May 1533

Queen of England 1509-1533. One child, Mary I (1516-1558) – suffered at least five failures in pregnancy.

Katherine was the youngest daughter of the illustrious couple Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, a formidable queen who allegedly gave birth to Katherine in December 1485 shortly after being involved in warfare against the enemies of the Spaniards, the Moors. Henry VII of England, recognising the power and prestige which the ‘Kings of Spain’, as Katherine’s parents were known, held in Europe, set about achieving an Anglo-Spanish alliance to ensure the security and wellbeing of his nation, while aiming to advance both his lineage and that of his heirs. In view of this, a betrothal was inaugurated between Henry’s eldest son, Prince Arthur, and the Infanta Catalina, as Katherine was known in Spain. Numerous delays for the marriage increased the English king’s impatience, largely because Katherine’s parents appear highly reluctant to let their beloved daughter leave her homeland. Nonetheless, in October 1501 Katherine set sail for England, at the age of fifteen, in order to marry Prince Arthur. She was received at Dogmersfield by the prince and his father in a greeting ceremony typical of the late medieval period, and married Prince Arthur in November in a glorious ceremony at St Paul’s Cathedral. Tragically, the prince died in April 1502 from the sweating sickness, while Katherine herself was gravely ill. Whether or not the couple ever consummated the marriage is a matter of fierce dispute, with momentous consequences for Katherine’s later future. Most historians, in view of Arthur’s physical weaknesses, believe that Katherine remained a virgin, although others such as Joanna Denny insist that it was consummated. 

Katherine was later betrothed to Arthur’s younger brother, Prince Henry, but that was later renounced by the prince on the orders of his father. Katherine endured some seven years in considerable neglect before Henry VII’s death in 1509 saw his seventeen-year old son, now Henry VIII, deciding to marry the admirable Katherine, aged twenty-three. Katherine was extremely short, with beautiful long red-golden hair and blue eyes. She was known to be deeply religious, but was much loved by the English people for her kindness, composure and generosity. Unfortunately, Katherine’s failures in pregnancy eventually led to the loss of her marriage. She suffered no fewer than five failures, resulting in either a miscarriage, a stillbirth, or the death of her child soon after the birth. Tragically, three of these were known to have been sons. One prince, born in 1511, survived for almost two months before his premature death. Nonetheless, Katherine gave birth to a healthy daughter, Princess Mary, in February 1516. By 1519, however, when she was thirty-three, Katherine was no longer able to conceive a child. This led to her husband taking mistresses; his most famous Elizabeth Blount giving birth to a boy, Henry Fitzroy, that year. Mary Boleyn may also have given birth to one or two children by him. 

Feminists usually see Katherine as a much wronged figure, the beloved wife set aside by her unfaithful husband merely because she was ageing and was no longer to bear children. Unsurprisingly, many Englishwomen flocked to her support during the king’s annulment of the marriage. From 1527, Henry’s desire to marry Anne Boleyn was widely known. Katherine was revered as the rightful Queen and Anne a strumpet. Katherine, nonetheless, fought determinedly and bravely to retain her marriage and to protect the rights of her daughter Mary. She lost, but not without achieving the wholehearted support of her people. Katherine died, alone and neglected, in Kimbolton Castle in January 1536. This occurred in the context of the king sending her to numerous castles, each one more unhealthier than the last. Rumours circulated that she had been poisoned after a black growth was found on her heart, but most modern historians believe that she died of cancer. Typically from the feminist perspective, Lindsey interprets Katherine as a strong, determined woman who was motivated to protect everything she held dear, and was unwavering in her love for Henry, despite his cruel treatment of her. Unwittingly, however, Katherine’s resistance ultimately was a decisive cause in the English Reformation and England’s later shape.

Anne Boleyn (c.1500×1507-1536), Married January 1533, Marriage annulled May 17, 1536, Beheaded May 19, 1536

Queen of England 1533-1536. One child, Elizabeth I (1533-1603) – suffered two failures in pregnancy.

Undoubtedly the most notorious of Henry VIII’s queens, Anne Boleyn’s life, more than any other of his wives, is shrouded in mystery and controversy. Even her date of birth remains uncertain. She was the daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn, an influential diplomat and courtier at Henry’s court, and Elizabeth Howard, a member of the most powerful family in the kingdom. In view of this, Anne was of better birth than any of Henry VIII’s other English queens. Historians are unsure when she was born, and yet this gravely affects our interpretation of her career. If she was born around 1501, then she was likely the second child of the marriage, with an elder sister Mary and a younger brother George. Yet if she was born later, in the summer of 1507 as other scholars maintain, then she was the youngest child.

Anne was undoubtedly an intelligent, bright child, and in the summer of 1513 her father afforded her the excellent opportunity of serving Margaret of Austria in her court in Burgundy. Anne later transferred to the service of Mary Tudor, queen of France, in 1514, before passing on to serve Queen Claude until 1521. Later contemporaries praised Anne’s accomplishments, mainly in music, dancing, fashion, and her love of literature and religion. One wrote that she was more French than English. In 1521, Anne returned home because her father desired her to marry James Butler, a distant relative, in order to solve a dispute between the Boleyn and Butler families about which family had the right to the Ormonde title. This marriage never occurred, however. It is possible that in around 1523 Anne had a brief relationship with Henry Percy, later earl of Northumberland, yet the two were unable to marry because Percy was betrothed to Mary Talbot, and Anne’s birth was seen as inferior to his. Not surprisingly, this may have angered Anne. Possibly, she was sent from court in disgrace, yet she had returned some years later.

Henry had briefly enjoyed a relationship with Anne’s sister Mary, but in around 1526 he turned his attentions to the younger, and probably more fascinating, sister. She was a charismatic, confident young woman of medium height, with expressive black eyes, pale skin and glorious dark hair, yet was not a conventional beauty. In terms of the king’s attentions, Anne, however, was highly reluctant. Lindsey suggests that, in the modern sense of the word, Anne Boleyn was the victim of sexual harassment on a grand scale, which Joanna Denny takes further, even likening Henry VIII to a modern day stalker! What is clear is that he sent her a barrage of letters and gifts, pleading her to become his mistress. However, Anne, who clearly was proud of her lineage, refused, and suggested something more respectable. By June 1527 the king was determined to marry Anne. Unfortunately, the couple waited more than six years due to frustrating delays, prevarications by the Pope, foreign policy – since Katherine was the aunt of the Holy Roman Emperor, most powerful man in Europe – and the king’s unwillingness to take an active stand. Anne, not surprisingly, became increasingly frustrated, bewailing that her youth had been lost to no purpose. The couple probably secretly married while abroad in Calais in November 1532, before participating in a more official yet secret ceremony in Whitehall Palace in January, 1533.

Most historians and the general public alike continue to view Anne, probably influenced by ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’, as a cold-hearted, ruthless woman who instructed Henry VIII to leave his virtuous queen and marry her. Yet it is likely that the exact opposite was true. Anne was reluctant to become involved with the king, seen by the evidence of his letters, and she probably agreed to marry him because she was unlikely to achieve a greater prospect and because it would damage her family’s honour if she refused. She was a brilliant, charismatic woman, a charming courtier and yet highly religious, who did much to reshape the English Church. Anne was already pregnant when she was crowned Queen of England in June – the last of Henry’s queens to be granted this lavish honour – and she gave birth to Princess Elizabeth in September. While the child’s sex was a disappointment, the royal couple were not overly concerned as the queen conceived again shortly afterwards.

Catholics slandered Anne violently, maintaining that she was a witch, a concubine and a poisoner, and the Spanish ambassador, who loathed Anne, suggested that she was maltreating her stepdaughter, Mary. Yet Anne often asked Mary to come to court and serve her, if she would only willingly accept that her mother’s marriage was invalid. Mary, stubbornly, refused, and it was only after Anne’s death that she saw who the real culprit was for her mistreatment – the king. Anne, meanwhile, suffered concerns of a different nature, when her second pregnancy mysteriously ended in the summer of 1534. No historian is entirely certain of what occurred. If she became pregnant around November, then the child would have been due in August 1534, but it seems that in around July the queen either suffered a miscarriage or a stillbirth. This probably led to a brief separation between king and queen, due to the king’s disappointment.

Aside from her fertility concerns, Anne was a strong figure who participated enthusiastically in religious and political affairs. She was highly interested in the reform of the monasteries and churches. Anne was known to be exceptionally glamorous, renowned for her love of fashion and her desire to be portrayed well in portraiture. Somewhat ironically, none of her portraits from life survive, probably all destroyed in the wake of her death. 1535 was a disappointing year, with many troubles from the executions of a bishop to bad harvests being blamed on the queen by the people, who loathed her. Yet Anne was in a strong position at the end of the year, as she was again found to be pregnant. Her position was further secured by the death of Katherine in January. Many opponents of Anne alleged that she had poisoned the late queen, yet there was no evidence of this. While the king celebrated in yellow, Anne apparently wept, fearing that her predecessor’s fate would become hers if she did not deliver a healthy son.

The queen, tragically, gave birth to a stillborn son of three months conception in January 1536. One theory is that the child was deformed, an act which horrified the king and convinced him that his wife was a witch, leading him to set in process the annulment of his marriage and her execution. There is, however, no evidence to support this theory. Other contemporaries referred to the son as beautiful. Jane Seymour, whom the king had been flirting with recently, became more of a threat to Anne at this time. Nonetheless, Anne may have remained in a somewhat strong position until April 1536, when shockingly, she suddenly fell from power. No historian is certain of why this happened; Lindsey suggests it was because Henry VIII merely hated her and wanted her dead. Whatever the truth, the queen was arrested with seven men, one her own brother, and was charged with adultery, incest, plotting the king’s death, and possibly witchcraft. Five of those men were executed. Two days later, the queen was beheaded at the Tower. Her courage and bravery was referred to by all contemporaries. It is virtually certain that she was innocent, and died in what one historian has termed a terrible miscarriage of justice. Many feminists view Anne as an outspoken woman, ahead of her time, yet victimised by ruthless male figures at court. Perhaps she was, as Lindsey suggests, a victim of sexual harassment, however anachronistic a term for a period 500 years ago.

Jane Seymour (c.1509-1537), Married May 1536, Died October 24, 1537

Queen of England 1536-1537. One child, Edward VI (1537-1553).

Shockingly, the king married his former queen’s maid of honour, Jane Seymour, merely eleven days after Queen Anne’s execution. Even the English people, who had hated Anne, murmured how strange it was that in the same month that saw Anne ‘flourishing, accused, condemned and executed, another was assumed into her place.’ Jane Seymour, arguably, is the most mysterious of Henry’s queens. Unlike the other five, we know virtually nothing of her personality, thoughts or beliefs; whether she truly believed her former mistress to be guilty, or whether she felt any remorse for it. Readers who have read my last post on Anne Neville may note similarities between these two queens in terms of their opaqueness. 

Probably the eldest daughter of Sir John Seymour and his wife Margery, Jane was born around 1509 in Wiltshire. She had experienced a long, if unremarkable, career at court serving both Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. She certainly was Anne’s maid of honour by Christmas 1533, for she is noted to have received a gift, as other ladies did, from the king. When the king’s flirtation with Jane occurred is unclear, probably either in the autumn of 1535 or in the early winter of 1536. Jane, by this time, was about twenty-seven, a considerably advanced age to remain single in the early modern era. Rumours alleged that she had been betrothed to William Dormer, yet nothing had come of the match. The Spanish ambassador, who supported her when Anne fell from power, implied that Jane was neither as innocent or as honourable as many believed her to be.

Jane was no great beauty, as portraits of her show. She was believed to be of middling height, with fair hair, a pale complexion and a quiet temperament. Probably the most unremarkable of Henry’s wives, as David Starkey scathingly writes: ‘How a woman like Jane Seymour became Queen of England is a mystery. In Tudor terms she came from nowhere and was nothing.’ Most historians, such as Jane’s biographer Elizabeth Norton, suggest that she actively played a crucial role in Anne Boleyn’s downfall. Not surprisingly, Victorian historians castigated her while romanticising Anne.

Jane became Queen at  the end of May 1536, although she was never crowned. She appears to have been an effective consort in terms of managing her household and regulating her affairs, although her queenship lacked the charisma or brilliance of Anne’s court, or the intellectual climate and religiosity of Katherine’s. The king privately worried in the summer of 1536 that his new consort could not conceive, perhaps a sign that this period saw the beginning of his impotence. Jane graciously welcomed Mary, now twenty, to court, and she also showed some kindness to Elizabeth, although this child was largely neglected in the wake of her mother’s death. The one instance where Jane dared to speak up to the king occurred in the autumn of 1536, when rebels rose in the Pilgrimage of Grace. She asked the king to stop the dissolution of the monasteries, but he brutally advised her to remember her predecessor’s fate.

Jane became pregnant in January 1537, and in October she at last gave birth to the king’s long-awaited son, Edward. Tragically, as England celebrated, the queen fell tragically ill. Her condition worsened until, in the early hours of 24 October, she died from childbed fever, a common killer of women in the early modern period. The king mourned her deeply, as did Lady Mary, who had been close to her. Whether the king really loved her best of all his wives is doubtful. She had provided him with the male heir, but their relationship lacked the passion of the marriage to Anne Boleyn, the king’s devotion for Katherine Howard, or his gentle love for Katherine of Aragon. It was perhaps more  alike that of his marriage later to Katherine Parr – affectionate, but not passionate. Feminists interpret Jane as a strong figure who was well aware of what she was doing. That has, however, not prevented Lindsey labelling her ‘the vessel’.

Anne of Cleves (1515-1557), Married January 1540, Marriage annulled July 1540

Queen of England 1540. 

Probably the most comical of Henry’s queens, Anne of Cleves had a superb lineage as a German noblewoman. After being single for two years, the king desired to marry again in order to produce more male heirs. Not surprisingly, many European ladies trembled at the prospect; the seventeen-year old outspoken Duchess of Milan famously remarking that if she had two heads, one would be at the king’s service. Cromwell, the king’s minister, convinced him that an alliance with the Protestant German princes would be advisable for England’s security, due to increasing hostility from both France and Spain. Henry, recognising this, agreed to marry Anne in order to cement an alliance between England and Cleves.

Anne was twenty-four at this time. She was believed to be gentle, composed, highly intelligent, kind and companionable, traits which would be proven with time, but her physical appearance, famously, was believed to be dubious, while she lacked many queenly skills necessary at the English court, including musical ability and enjoyment of dancing. In the strict Protestant climate of Cleves, these pasttimes were viewed as frivolous and ungodly. Nonetheless, Holbein, the king’s painter, painted Anne in 1539, depicting her as delicate and pretty, although it seems likely that he exaggerated her charms. Anne arrived in England in December 1539, when the king, unable to conceal her impatience, decided to greet her formally in Rochester. He was reported to be devastated with his prospective bride. Whether Anne was really unattractive is difficult to fathom. Many modern critics have suggested that her portrait presents her as more attractive than the likes of Jane Seymour and Katherine Parr.

Nonetheless, Anne was a charming woman who quickly became popular with the English people, the French ambassador later remarking that they had never loved a queen more. Unwillingly, Henry married her in a splendid ceremony at Greenwich Palace on 6 January 1540. The new queen seems to have been unaware of her husband’s discontent. Testimony confirms that the marriage was never consummated. Probably a reason for this was Henry’s mounting worry that, because Anne was believed to have been precontracted to the duke of Lorraine earlier, she was not his wife in reality. Cromwell undoubtedly experienced increasing concern, even panic, as the king audibly voiced his discontent. One can only pity Anne. Lindsey maintains that she was a sensible, courageous woman, bearing her state and her marriage well. Unfortunately, despite her respectable qualities and her good relationships with the king’s children, Anne’s marriage was annulled in July 1540. The king quickly married her former maid, Katherine Howard, whom Anne appears to have shown no jealousy or unhappiness towards. She quickly settled down into an enjoyable routine in the country, occasionally visiting court and residing at Hever Castle, Anne Boleyn’s childhood home. When Katherine was executed  two years later, German envoys enquired if the king might be persuaded to take Anne back as his wife, but both they and she were to be disappointed when the king later married Katherine Parr. Anne died in 1557, during Mary I’s reign. Popular with many, she was undoubtedly the most fortunate of Henry’s queens.

Katherine Howard (c.1524-1542), Married July 1540, Beheaded February 13, 1542.

Queen of England 1540-1541/2. 

In contrast with her predecessor, Katherine Howard was undoubtedly the most tragic of Henry’s consorts. Uncommonly beautiful, charming and kind, this gentlewoman attracted the notice of the king in the early spring of 1540, when his discontent with the Queen was rife. Her family, perhaps sensing an excellent opportunity to further the prestige of their family, probably spurred her on, unaware of her the nature of her childhood. The king married Katherine on 28 July 1540 at the pleasant ‘hunting-box’ palace, Oatlands in Surrey. He was aged forty-nine and his new queen no older than seventeen. Not surprisingly, the age difference attracted comment.

Katherine showed some kindness towards Princess Elizabeth, her distant relative since she was a cousin to Anne Boleyn, but she endured a more difficult relationship with Mary, who was around eight years older than her new stepmother. It is unlikely to have been Katherine’s ‘frivolous’ temperament which annoyed Lady Mary, as some historians suggest, but it may have been because Mary was aware of rumours circulating about the new queen’s childhood, which had been reported to, and angrily dismissed by, the king in the summer of 1540. 

Katherine struck a friendship with her husband’s favourite, Thomas Culpeper, in the spring of 1541. Lindsey, like other historians, fiercely believes that the two enjoyed a sexual relationship, and views this from her feminist perspective as evidence that Katherine was a thoroughly modern woman who listened to and gave in to her body’s yearnings, of which she knew she had control over. In the book, this is probably the most dubious interpretation of any of the king’s wives. There is little to no evidence that the couple enjoyed any sexual encounters, and it was probably no more than friendship, although evidence of a letter written by the queen to Culpeper suggests that she may have gradually fallen in love with him. Unfortunately, evidence of this came to the Council’s attention in autumn 1541, when they also became aware of Katherine’s premarital indiscretions with Francis Dereham, who had returned to court, probably hoping to reclaim the woman he viewed as his lawful wife. 

The queen denied everything, but evidence emerged of her encounters with Culpeper, assisted by Jane Rochford, while the councillors strongly suspected she had resumed a sexual relationship with Dereham. Both men were executed brutally in December, while the king mourned his bad luck in choosing wives. Katherine and Jane were beheaded in February 1542, the teenage queen terrified with fright and meekly submitting herself to the axe. Unsurprisingly, this led Victorian historian Agnes Strickland to write: ‘…without granting her the privilege of uttering one word in her own defence she was condemned to die… she was led like a sheep to the slaughter’. She was probably guilty of nothing more than a childhood relationship before her marriage and indiscreet meetings with a courtier at court, yet fertility politics interpreted this differently and sealed her fate.

Katherine Parr (1512-1548), Married July 1543, King died January 28, 1547, Died September 5, 1548.

Queen of England 1543-1547. 

Often unfairly viewed as the most unimportant of the six queens of Henry VIII, Katherine Parr is actually one of the most interesting. The eldest daughter of an influential courtier (similarly to Anne Boleyn) Thomas Parr and his wife Maud, Katherine experienced a privileged childhood where she learned several languages and essential feminine skills such as household management, embroidery, and dancing, taught by her ambitious mother, who at  this time was a lady-in-waiting to Katherine of Aragon. It is likely that Katherine was named after her. Tutors were also employed, and Katherine developed an interest in medicine.

In 1523, when Katherine was only eleven, her mother began to arrange a marriage between her and Henry Scrope, heir to Lord Scrope of Bolton, but nothing came of it. However, in 1529 Katherine married Edward Borough, yet historians doubt whether this was a satisfactory marriage. Following her mother’s death, and that of her husband, Katherine later married John Neville in 1534, who was aged twenty years her senior. He was involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace, to some extent a Catholic rebellion, but ironically it is possible to suggest that Katherine developed an interest in the reformed religion, for which she would become famous, around this time. He died in 1543, leaving Katherine, once more, a widow aged thirty-one.

The previous year, Katherine had successfully achieved a place in the household of Princess Mary, whom she may have known well, since her mother had once served Mary’s mother. Katherine probably obtained this due to the influence of her sister Anne at court, who had served Katherine Howard. It seems around this time that Katherine fell speedily in love with the influential courtier Thomas Seymour, brother to the late queen, although it is possible that he was more interested in her assets rather than her personal charm. However, this affair came to nothing, since the king became enamoured of Katherine’s favourable attributes and proposed marriage. Apparently, she professed concern, but this did not prevent the marriage taking place in July 1543 at Hampton Court. 

Katherine was close with all of the king’s children, and played a highly suitable  role as their new stepmother. The youngest two, Elizabeth and Edward, were highly scholarly, and it seems possible that  the new queen’s Protestant sympathies indirectly, or directly, influenced their religious views. One of Katherine’s greatest achievements came in 1544 when her husband selected her, like the first Katherine, to act as Regent during his wars abroad. She fulfilled  this role excellently, and attracted further praise from contemporaries for her abilities.

Unlike the king’s previous queens, fertility politics did not play a significant role in this marriage, perhaps because the king realised that more children were no longer possible at his advanced age, while the queen, in her mid-thirties, was not regarded as young by Tudor standards. However, the queen’s Protestant views made her vulnerable in a court seething with factional discontent. The conservatives, who probably deeply resented the loss of their influence following Katherine Howard’s disgrace, used Katherine’s sympathies to construct a plot against her in 1546. This was aided by Katherine herself, since the queen liked to engage in religious debates with her husband. This gradually irritated him, seeing his authority as weakened. The notorious execution of the heretic Anne Askew, whom Katherine was believed to have known and perhaps favoured, intensified the plot. A warrant for the Queen’s arrest was drawn up, probably with the king’s knowledge. Luckily, the queen discovered this, and was able to save herself, although she experienced severe shock, remembering her predecessor’s fate. From then on, Katherine realised that discretion was needed with her personal religious views. Luckily, she survived, and her husband died in January 1547 aged fifty-five.

Katherine was a wealthy widow at the time she was widowed, yet scandalously three months later she married Thomas Seymour, alienating Lady Mary and other courtiers. Katherine probably did not know that Seymour had approached both Mary and Elizabeth previously to see whether they would agree to marry him. Tragically, rumours circulated that Elizabeth, who now resided in Katherine’s household at Chelsea, enjoyed a notorious affair with the womaniser Seymour, which the dowager queen to an extent encouraged, probably not realising the risks involved. However, when the affair progressed too far, Katherine decided to send Elizabeth away, which deeply upset the princess. In December 1547 Katherine became pregnant, and was delivered of a daughter Mary in August 1548, who probably died shortly afterwards. Katherine, like Jane Seymour before her, contracted childbed fever, and passed away a week after the birth. She allegedly expressed sorrow to Seymour about his regrettable behaviour. 

Often viewed by historians as a nurse who looked after her ageing husband, Lindsey and other feminists make clear that she was a courageous, devoted woman who did much to shape religious affairs in England, and was a strong political figure in the English court.

This article hopefully conveys the usefulness of gender in historical analysis, and how it can shape our understandings of the past.


The Death of Amy Robsart

Portrait of a lady, possibly Lady Amy Dudley nee Robsart (1532-1560).

The death of Lady Amy Dudley nee Robsart on 8 September 1560 has generated considerable controversy. What led to the death of this prosperous gentlewoman, discovered at the bottom of a flight of stairs in Cumnor Place, Oxfordshire? The only child of Sir John Robsart, Amy married the wealthy and successful Robert Dudley, son of the Duke of Northumberland, in 1550 aged eighteen. Rumours circulated at the time and have intensified in modern times that the couple’s marriage was unhappy, prominently because of Robert’s close relationship – some believed love affair – with the Princess and later Queen Elizabeth. An impenetrable mystery surrounds the circumstances which caused Amy’s death, although there are several possible explanations: suicide, cancer, murder (by either the Queen’s agents, Dudley’s agents, or Cecil’s agents) or, simply but tragically, an accident. For an enjoyable – if taken with a pinch of salt – fictional take of Amy’s relationship with Robert and her eventual death, readers should consider reading Philippa Gregory’s The Virgin’s Lover.

First, let us begin with the facts. Amy Dudley, despite being the daughter-in-law of a duke (later disgraced), did not accompany her husband Robert to court in 1559 when he served the new Queen, Elizabeth I, as her faithful courtier. She seems to have spent her time travelling around the country and visiting family friends, while she seems to have enjoyed spending money on clothes from London.

We do not know the personal details of Robert and Amy’s marriage. In an age in which marriages between the gentry and aristocracy were arranged for social, material and political advantage, individual couples did not prioritise finding happiness or love in marriage, although of course it was beneficial when this did occur. The couple had no children, yet we do not know whether this was due to fertility problems or whether it was because the couple were often separated. Rumours have circulated that Dudley enjoyed a love affair with Queen Elizabeth, scandalously conveyed in Gregory’s novel, yet again, we lack any real proof to fully substantiate this claim. However, courtiers did mention that for over a year before Amy died, the queen and her favourite had merely been waiting for Amy to die so that they could marry.

It is plausible, however, that Robert and Amy’s marriage was not entirely happy. They were often separated, had no children, and since many believed after Amy’s death that Robert had actually murdered his wife, it seems credible to argue that contemporaries were aware that the marriage was somewhat difficult. After the summer of 1559, Robert never saw Amy again.

On 8 September 1560, the day after the Queen’s birthday, Amy Dudley sent away her servants from Cumnor Place, as described by Robert’s steward Thomas Blount:

would not that day suffer one of her own sort to tarry at home, and was so earnest to have them gone to the fair, that with any of her own sort that made reason of tarrying at home she was very angry, and came to Mrs. Odingsells … who refused that day to go to the fair, and was very angry with her also. Because [Mrs. Odingsells] said it was no day for gentlewomen to go … Whereunto my lady answered and said that she might choose and go at her pleasure, but all hers should go; and was very angry. They asked who should keep her company if all they went; she said Mrs. Owen should keep her company at dinner; the same tale doth Picto, who doth dearly love her, confirm. Certainly, my Lord, as little while as I have been here, I have heard divers tales of her that maketh me judge her to be a strange woman of mind.

Perhaps suspiciously, she was later described as being angry when her three servants resisted her desire that they leave. Later that day, she was discovered at the bottom of a flight of stairs with a broken neck and two head wounds. So what caused Amy’s death?

Firstly, this article will consider the modern explanation of Amy suffering a malady in her breasts which caused her death. It was assumed at the time of the death in 1560 that a simple fall could not have caused Amy’s death – there were not particularly many steps as it was a short flight, while Amy’s headdress was described as still remaining perfectly undisturbed on her head.  In 1956, Ian Aird proposed this theory, arguing simultaneously that “a verdict of misadventure, in the case of accident, [is] not easily acceptable”. Aird’s profession as a professor of medicine undoubtedly aided him in putting forward the theory that, rather than suicide, accident or murder, Amy was suffering from breast cancer and so may have meant that her neck was particularly fragile and could break easily. This theory has become somewhat popular in modern times. As he noted: “in a woman of Amy’s age the likeliest cause of a spontaneous fracture of the spine would be a cancer of the breast…” Indeed, the Count of Feria reported in April 1559 that Amy Dudley “had a malady in one of her breasts”. When one reads Aird’s article, his argument that Amy’s death resulted from a fall down the stairs, which was worsened than it would otherwise have been by a weakened spine caused by breast cancer, his viewpoint is compelling. Yet it has been attacked. Simon Adams, for instance, asserts that “this theory accounts for a number of the known circumstances, but a serious illness in April 1559 is difficult to reconcile with her extensive travelling in the following months”.

An alternative explanation is suicide. If she was suffering illness or depression, even potentially breast cancer, this may have led her to commit suicide in an attempt to escape a life no longer bearable. This can be supported by evidence of her “desperation” in some sources, while some historians have put forward the hypothesis that Amy sent away her servants on the morning of 8 September in order to commit suicide secretly. Robert Dudley himself may have alluded to this possibility. However, Aird attacked this view, stating that “to project oneself down a flight of stairs would not occur to a suicide now, and would have occurred even less to an Elizabethan suicide at a time when the steps of staircases were broad and low, and the angle of descent gradual”. Furthermore, it is difficult to believe that, if Amy killed herself, her headdress would still have remained upright on her head when she would not have been able to do this if she was dead by the time she fell to the bottom of the stairs.

Others have suggested that Amy’s death was accidental. James Gairdner, in 1898, suggested that her death was a tragic accident. The coroner’s verdict in 1561 was that Amy Dudley, “being alone in a certain chamber… accidentally fell precipitously down” the stairs next to the chamber “to the very bottom of the same”. This caused two head injuries and injuries to one thumb. Tragically, she had broken her neck in the fall. Because of this, she “died instantly… the Lady Amy… by misfortune came to her death and not otherwise, as they are able to agree at present”. However, historians have suggested that Robert Dudley, as an influential and powerful courtier, was able to influence the jury. Aird has argued that “there are several circumstances in relation to Amy Robsart’s death which made her contemporaries, and which have made the historians of later times, a little hesitant to accept unreservedly the jury’s verdict of misadventure”. 

Perhaps most famously, it has been theorised that Amy was, in fact, murdered. Following her death, there was “grievous and dangerous suspicion, and muttering” in both court and country, as people murmured about Amy’s death and the renewed relationship between the Queen and her favourite, Dudley. William Cecil, who was Principal Secretary and who has been argued felt threatened by Dudley’s increasing influence, informed the Spanish ambassador in the aftermath of Amy’s death that Elizabeth and Dudley had been plotting to murder Amy by poison, “giving out that she was ill but she was not ill at all” (which somewhat contradicts the evidence put forward earlier that she was ill). In 1567, Amy’s half brother John Appleyarde, in irritation with Dudley, stated that he “had not been satisfied with the verdict of the jury at her death; but that for the sake of Dudley he had covered the murder of his sister”. Contemporary evidence raises the possibility that Amy was murdered.

The discovery of the contemporary Spanish ambassadors’ correspondence in the nineteenth century supported the theory of murder, reporting that Amy was ill and her husband had been trying to either poison or divorce her as early as the spring of 1559. The report from 11 September 1560, three days after Amy’s death, states that Cecil believed that Dudley had murdered his wife. A 1563 chronicle, written by someone violently hostile to the Dudleys, suggested that Robert Dudley’s retainer, Sir Richard Verney, murdered Amy by breaking her neck (this is fictionalised in The Virgin’s Lover). Catholic exiles wrote the satirical Leicester’s Commonwealth in 1584 and, hostile to Dudley, suggested that Verney sent Amy’s servants to the market when he arrived at Cumnor Place before breaking Amy Dudley’s neck and placing her at the bottom of the stairs. The Victorian historian James Anthony Froude, having found the Spanish ambassadorial correspondence, wrote in 1863 that: “she was murdered by persons who hoped to profit by his elevation to the throne; and Dudley himself… used private means… to prevent the search from being pressed inconveniently far”. Alison Weir, in 1999, suggested that Cecil, rather than Dudley, arranged Lady Amy’s death because he had a murder motive, ie. to prevent Dudley’s potential marriage to his mistress, Elizabeth I, and because Cecil would benefit as a result of the scandal. Other evidence has been put forward: considerable time before Amy did die, both Robert and the Queen predicted to the Spanish ambassador that she would shortly die.

However, many historians have discredited rumours that Amy was murdered. Dudley’s correspondence with Thomas Blount and William Cecil in the preceding days has been seen as evidence that he was innocent, while others have noted that both he and Queen Elizabeth were highly shocked when news of Amy’s death were brought to them. It has, plausibly, been suggested that he would not have had his wife killed because of the tremendous scandal  that would ensue if he were implicated in his wife’s murder. David Loades went so far as to state that “we can be reasonably certain that Lord Robert had no hand in his wife’s death”. Aird states that there “was no evidence that he [Dudley] had any thought of murdering his wife” even if he did wish to marry the Queen. He also asserts that “a staircase [is not] a convenient weapon for murder. To throw a person downstairs is too uncertain”, it cannot be argued that “she was first murdered by some extreme violence and then thrown downstairs”. Historians have also recognised that poison was a “stock-in trade accusation” in the sixteenth century to discredit political rivals and the fact that sources support one another in suggesting Amy was murdered was “no more than a tradition of gossip”. As Catholic sources, and thus hostile to both Queen and Dudley, we should consider them very cautiously and sceptically. 

To conclude, I have to admit, personally, that I know too little about these mysterious events to put forward my belief of what actually happened on that day. I can only say, however, that it was very suspicious. Why did Amy send away her servants on that particular day? Was it because, to put it nicely but bluntly, she was going mad or even insane due to her illness; was it because she wished to be alone to commit suicide, or was it for some other reason? Why did the Queen and Dudley hint to the Spanish ambassador that Amy Dudley would soon die – was it because they knew she was fatally ill, or is it evidence of murder? Almost all of the sources we have about this event are highly suspect. Thus we cannot conclude with any real certainty about what happened. 

I have suspicions, however. Aird has discredited the notion that Amy was found with her headdress perfectly intact, but if this was true, surely suicide seems much less likely. If Amy threw herself down a flight of stairs, it seems highly unlikely that, dying shortly afterwards, her hood would still be perfectly in position on her head. I am also persuaded by Aird’s arguments that falling down a short flight of stairs is hardly a foolproof method of suicide. However, if Amy was melancholy or despairing at this time, as some sources may indicate, perhaps she did have a motive in wishing to end her life prematurely, particularly if her marriage was unhappy, as possibly the case. Out of all the explanations, however, I believe that suicide is the least likely theory.

This leaves accident, murder, or illness. An accident is perfectly possible, but again, we are left with the simple fact that a short flight of stairs would not ordinarily kill a person. Therefore we must consider Aird’s argument that Amy’s body, because of the malady of her breasts, was weakened considerably, and so a short flight of stairs which, though usually would not result in death, may have caused her death if she was more fragile and physically vulnerable than a ‘normal’ person would be. This was the verdict recorded after her death, and many historians have suggested that it is what happened. Thus accident and illness are intertwined to provide an explanation, tragically, of accidental death.

A more unsettling interpretation is possible. If one literally accepts the Spanish ambassador’s comments, bearing in mind that ambassadors occasionally spoke little to none of the language in the court in which they served, relied on informers, and were frequently deceived by officials and courtiers, it is possible to believe that Amy Dudley was murdered, either by Cecil’s agents or Dudley’s agents. I have to agree, however, with modern historians who argue that Dudley would not have dared have his wife murdered, as the scandal would almost certainly have meant that the Queen would not have dared marry a man who would only bring controversy and even ridicule to her status. But desperate people do desperate things – if Dudley was so determined to marry the Queen, and only saw his wife as an unnecessary complication, who knows what he might have done? 

To conclude, it is impossible to know what really happened. On the basis of the evidence, I would tentatively conclude that Amy’s death was caused by both her breast cancer and an accident; ie. if she had been physically healthy, and had fallen down the stairs, she would not have died, but in tragic circumstances, when her body was physically much more fragile, a simple fall led to her death due to the thinning of her bones. I believe that we can reject suicide as a likely explanation. It is possible that she was murdered, but if one believes that much of the evidence we have for this theory is based on hostile Catholic sources which openly vilified both the Dudleys and Queen Elizabeth, this theory becomes much less tenable. Therefore, I would suggest that accidental death, acting in conjunction with breast cancer, caused Amy’s death, but we cannot rule out murder.

Further Reading

Simon Adams, ‘Amy Dudley, Lady Dudley (1532-1560)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2008), online edition (Last accessed 13 December 2012).

Ian Aird, ‘The Death of Amy Robsart’, The English Historical Review 71 (1956), pp. 69-79.

James Gairdner, ‘The Death of Amy Robsart’, The English Historical Review 1 (1886), 235-259.

James Gairdner, ‘Bishop de Quadra’s Letter and the Death of Amy Robsart’, The English Historical Review 13 (1898), pp. 83-90.

For a fictional take on Amy’s death and Robert and Queen Elizabeth’s relationship, Philippa Gregory, The Virgin’s Lover (2004) (please take it with a pinch of salt, it’s not fact, it’s fiction!)

Wikipedia for a general overview.


A Portrait of Bessie Blount (c.1500-1539?)

Elizabeth, or Bessie, Blount is commonly known in Tudor circles for being the first known mistress of King Henry VIII of England (1491-1547). This article sets out plausible evidence that the above portrait could be of this beautiful gentlewoman, notwithstanding arguments advanced by historians that it depicts Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Mary Boleyn or Jane Seymour. Readers are encouraged to consider whether or not  my arguments to suggest it portrays Bessie are convincing or not.

Before considering the portrait, a brief biography of Bessie is needed. The daughter of John Blount (1484-1531) and his wife Katherine, daughter of Sir Hugh Peshall (1483-1540), Bessie’s birth date is unknown, but scholars have suggested that it was somewhere between 1498 and 1502. However, evidence of Bessie’s appointment at court as a maid of honour to Queen Katherine of Aragon is instructive in indicating Bessie’s truth date of birth.[1] Apparently because of the Blount family’s links with Prince Arthur’s court at Ludlow some years previously, these links were able to afford Bessie an appointment at court from March 1512. The age of maids of honour differed depending on the court. One historian has written that it was necessary for girls to be aged at least thirteen in order to serve as ‘decorative foils’ to their mistresses on ceremonial occasions.[2] The Emperor Maximilian in the mid-sixteenth century expressed the opinion that a girl should commonly be aged around thirteen or fourteen in order to serve a royal lady in the capacity of her maid of honour.[3] In view of this, it is highly unlikely that Bessie was much younger than twelve or thirteen when she was chosen to become Katherine’s maid in the spring of 1512. Since a way of demonstrating age in the Tudor period was in terms of the years one was in – ie. being in one’s ‘twentieth year’ would mean one was aged nineteen – it is possible that Bessie was either in her thirteenth year at the time of appointment, or she was nearing her thirteenth birthday that year. Either way, she was probably aged twelve or thirteen during the  time of this appointment, and so must have been born in around 1499-1500. Historians who have suggested that she was born later, in around 1502, are clearly shown to be mistaken on this reckoning.

Bessie was supposed to be very beautiful. John Barlow, dean of Westbury, was later on to remark that she was, conventionally, more beautiful than Anne Boleyn, which suggests that Bessie’s physical appearance conformed to conventional ideas about how a woman should look.[4] Alison Weir, a biographer of Mary Boleyn, suggested that Bessie may have been blonde because her family were fair in their appearances, a credible argument in view of contemporary praise of Bessie’s beauty, in a period when blonde women were idealised and brunettes regarded with suspicion.[5] Bessie was also praised for her skills in music and dancing, so it would not seem wild to claim that, in many respects, she was the perfect female courtier at the English court. Famously, Bessie enjoyed an affair with King Henry during her time as maid-of-honour to the queen. Whether or not this relationship began as early as 1514, when he is known to have partnered Bessie in a dance, is unknown. What can be surmised is that the relationship had definitely begun by 1518, for Bessie became pregnant with the king’s son, who was born to her in June 1519, and aptly named Henry Fitzroy. The king evidently took great pride in his son, since it relieved any doubts he may have had that his lack of a legitimate son was because of his own biological faults, but it unfortunately irritated and saddened Katherine. Any dislike she may have felt  towards Bessie is, however, unrecorded. Bessie married Gilbert Tailboys in September that year, and in the words of Murphy this marriage ‘was clearly envisioned by the king as a reward to his former mistress’.[6] When Bessie died is unknown, but must have been between 1539 and 1541, when her second husband was described as being unmarried.

This article will suggest that the above portrait, painted by the court painter Lucas Horenbolte, may depict Bessie Blount. In the words of Roland Hui, this portrait ‘has been the subject of a guessing game since the 18th century’.[7] In the eighteenth century, the portrait was initially identified as depicting Katherine of Aragon, the king’s first queen. However, there are several problems with this (mis)identification. Firstly, the portrait appears to have been painted in the mid-1520s, according to the fashion worn by the sitter. The age of the sitter also represents an issue – she was in her twenty-fifth year at the time she was painted. Katherine of Aragon was aged twenty-five between December 1510 and December 1511, which means that this portrait is far too late to have been a miniature of the queen. The 1510s had favoured a headdress with longer frontlets, as conveyed in authenticated portraits of Queen Katherine, in comparison with the gable hood worn in this painting. Other portraits of women painted  during this period evidences that it cannot have been the queen, who was twenty-five some fifteen years, at least, earlier.

Later on, the portrait was tentatively believed to be of Jane Seymour, after being acquired by the Duke of Buccleuch in the nineteenth century. Another duplicate of the miniature, acquired by the Royal Ontario Museum, also accepted the sitter as Jane. This has probably been aided in part by the tradition that the portrait originally belonged to the Seymour family before being passed onto the Duke. But there is another problem with this identification – the exact opposite of that with Katherine, in fact. Jane’s birth date is unknown, but she was referred to by the Spanish ambassador in early 1536 as being a little over twenty-five, while twenty-nine ladies are noted to have participated in her funeral in November 1537 in marking the late queen’s age. According to this therefore, Jane was in her twenty-ninth year in late 1537, and must therefore have been born in 1508/9, or at the latest 1510. In view of this, Jane was aged twenty-five somewhere between 1533 and 1535, when she was serving Queen Anne Boleyn as a lady in waiting. Firstly, Jane was not important enough in that period to have been painted, since it was only gentlewoman of some distinction who were painted, or who had connections with the painter. There is no evidence that either was applicable to Jane in that period. Secondly, fashion and costume had, once more, evolved by the mid-1530s, with ladies who favoured the gable hood embracing a much smaller fashion, known as the ‘whelk’ or ‘whelk-shell’ which had much shorter frontlets. Other ladies discarded the gable hood completely in favour of the more becoming French hood, popularised by both the queen and Henry VIII’s sister Mary Tudor. In view of this, the portrait cannot represent Jane.

A more dubious identification was considered by Roy Strong in the late twentieth century, arriving at the conclusion that the portrait actually was of Anne Boleyn, second queen of Henry VIII. There are obvious flaws with this belief. Firstly, the sitter has no physical traits associated with Anne, who was believed to be of medium height, with expressive dark eyes, high cheekbones, a wide mouth and long, dark hair (although whether it was black, dark-brown or light brown is uncertain). Although it is difficult to tell, the lady in this painting is much fairer, with some evidence that her hair is blonde, or at least fair. Strong’s argument that the emblem on the sitter’s brooch is Anne Boleyn’s falcon badge is dubious, since it cannot clearly be seen. Furthermore, the Queen’s age seems to dismiss the possibility that she was the sitter for this portrait. Anne’s birth date is unknown, but it is likely that she was born in 1500 or 1501, and was therefore aged in her twenty-fifth year in 1524-6. For much of this period, Anne may not have been at court – she is popularly believed to have been banished to Hever Castle due to an ill-informed flirtation – and so would not have qualified as a suitable candidate to be painted. The same issue as with Jane Seymour arises. Anne was not prominent in these years and would likely not therefore have been selected to be painted for an exquisite miniature, as a mere gentlewoman at court. Even if one believes that she was born in 1507 and was aged twenty-five in 1532/3, the portrait cannot be of her because fashion had, once more, evolved by then, as discussed in the section about Jane Seymour.

Other historians have, recently, theorised that the portrait depicts Mary Boleyn, Anne’s elder sister. Believed to have been born in around 1499/1500, Mary was aged twenty-five in 1524/5, a time when this portrait was painted. Weir has speculated that Mary may have sat for this miniature because she gave birth to the king’s daughter, Katherine Carey, in the summer of 1524.[8] Apart from the simple facts that neither Katherine’s birth date nor whether she was the king’s daughter is known, this seems to run directly counter to Weir’s insistence that the court, nor the king, ever celebrated or endorsed this relationship, and thus it appears highly questionable why Mary would have sat for this miniature. Hui has postulated that the badge worn by the sitter may represent the Ormonde falcon associated with the Boleyn family, but again, we cannot clearly see the badge so this is a questionable assertion, at best.[9]  Hui has also suggested that this sitter was Mary because, in 1525 (when Mary may have been aged twenty-five), her father was painted, and because of the Boleyn link with Lucas Horenbolte, Mary may also have sat for him in this time. Mary’s son, Henry – again believed by some historians to have been fathered by the king – was actually born in 1526, not earlier as believed, and so Mary cannot have sat for a portrait out of celebration of a royal bastard’s birth (if he even was Henry VIII’s son). I would not dismiss this identification as Mary out of hand – indeed, I believe it to be a more convincing argument than any which favour Katherine, Anne or Jane as the sitter.

However, I believe the portrait may have a stronger chance of depicting Bessie Blount. Having established her date of birth as 1499/1500, Bessie reached the highpoint of her political and social career in the summer of 1525 when she gave birth to the king’s bastard son, Henry Fitzroy, and unlike Mary Boleyn’s children, there is no uncertainty whatsoever regarding whose son he was. Bessie was celebrated at court, before receiving a grand marriage in September of that year. Bessie was aged around twenty-five that year, and drawing on the arguments by Weir that she was blonde and fair, I believe that these two factors, as well as the circumstances at court at this time, present a compelling argument that she was the sitter in this famous portrait. There is no other likeness of her, sadly, to compare it to. However, it seems possible that the king allowed his mistress to be painted by a renowned artist as a reward for her services. Since Bessie was aged 25 in the period this painting was done – the mid-1520s – it seems as reasonable a claim as any that she is the sitter. Certainly, in my view, there is a stronger chance of it being Bessie whose likeness we can see than it being Mary or Anne Boleyn.

[1] Beverley A. Murphy, “Blount Elizabeth (c1500-1539×41)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

[2] R. M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: Family Politics at the Court of Henry VIII (Cambridge, 1989).

[3] Cited by G. W. Bernard, Fatal Attractions (Yale, 2010).

[4] Cited by Murphy, ‘Blount Elizabeth.’

[5] Alison Weir, Mary Boleyn: The ‘Great and Infamous Whore’ (London, 2011).

[6] Murphy, ‘Blount Elizabeth’.

[7] Roland Hui, ‘Two New Faces? the Horenbolte Portraits of Mary and Thomas Boleyn?’ (2011).

[8] Weir, Mary Boleyn.

[9] Roland Hui, ‘A Reassessment of Queen Anne Boleyn’s Portraiture’ (2000).

“Katherine Howard: Beauty and Appearance”

Queen for merely sixteen months before rumours of her sordid childhood emerged, Katherine Howard’s appearance, like her birth date and affair with Thomas Culpeper, are shrouded in mystery, leaving scholars with very little sense of what Henry VIII’s fifth consort looked like. Historians differ in their receptions to this queen’s beauty. David Starkey, in his 2004 biography of the queens of Henry VIII, stated that Katherine had ‘auburn hair, pale skin, dark eyes and brows, the rather fetching beginnings of a double skin…’, basing this conclusion on the now-accepted portrait of the queen painted most likely in the winter of 1540, or during the early months of 1541. Other scholars cite the French ambassador Marillac’s comments that she was not of spectacular, but rather moderate, beauty, while being of a graceful disposition. The above portrait, while never formally identified as being of Queen Katherine, is likely to depict the Queen, recognised by Susan E. James who suggests that it belongs to the period 1540-42 and may have been painted in the English court. Starkey, in identifying a different portrait miniature, stresses that for a teenager to be painted, she had to have been of very high rank. Since ladies-of-waiting were not usually painted unless they were of noble birth or married to high-status courtiers, the above portrait is unlikely to be of a lady of lesser status than a noblewoman, and is very likely that of the queen, whose birthdate has been pinpointed to around 1523-4 and would therefore have been seventeen in 1540-1.

Understandings of gender relations in the early modern period allow us to consider how women’s beauty was perceived, and why Katherine might therefore have been considered exceptional in her physical appearance, since three other observers, including the French ambassador, somewhat confusingly, emphasised her physical charms emphatically. Warnicke has documented that women were expected to have small breasts with a flat chest, while contemporary ideals held that a woman should be petite, pale-skinned, fair-haired, meek and submissive, rather like the king’s third consort Jane Seymour. Katherine, during her rise to power, was referred to by the Spanish author of ‘The Chronicle of Henry VIII’, written some years after the events, as being the most beautiful woman in the kingdom, while the French ambassador initially described her as being a young woman of ‘extraordinary’, or ‘great’, beauty. Another courtier suggested that she was very ‘beautiful’. According to contemporary ideals, therefore, it seems likely that Katherine was at least fair in order to merit such descriptions, for women who were dark-haired were often perceived as being inferior in their physical appearances. Sceptical comments about Anne Boleyn, a notorious brunette, reinforce this. By contrast, the auburn-haired Katherine of Aragon was believed to be beautiful in her youth, while even Katherine Parr, in her mid-thirties when the king sought a relationship with her, was believed to be pretty – she too was auburn-haired.

Katherine’s portraiture is highly controversial. It is possible that, as in the case of Anne Boleyn, her portraits were destroyed in the wake of her fall. The above portrait, explored in my article about Katherine Howard’s birth date and youth, is highly likely to be the queen, especially because of its similarities to a sketch made after Holbein. In these images, the queen is depicted with auburn, or brown-blonde, hair, a pale complexion, blue-grey eyes, expressive lips, and a petite frame, which conforms to contemporary remarks that she was ‘slender’, even ‘diminutive’. Since the average woman’s height in the Tudor period was around 5’2 or 5’3 – the corpse of Anne Boleyn measured 5’3, and Anne was described as ‘middling’ in her height – it is likely that Katherine was less than five foot tall. Other portraits are almost certainly not of the queen, particularly because they portray a larger, taller woman who seems to be more advanced in her years. The confirmed portrait of Katherine, confirmed by Starkey, depicts a slightly different-looking woman, who is plump, curvaceous and has brown hair, rather than the auburn or dark blonde hair in the other two images. Some scholars have actually suggested that this portrait is of Lady Margaret Douglas, niece to Henry VIII. This is entirely possible; however, the fact that this sitter wears jewels belonging to English queens must render this doubtful. There was no queen in the period 1538-40, on account of Jane’s death in childbed, but it is more likely that Mary Tudor, the king’s daughter, would have adorned this jewels rather than his niece.

To conclude, while Katherine’s exact appearance must remain a matter of some contention, reliable portraits cautiously indicate that she was tiny in appearance, slender, auburn or light-brown haired, blue-grey eyed, with a pale complexion and a pleasing charm. She was certainly superbly dressed during her reign, as the French ambassador approvingly noted – she enjoyed wearing French fashions, followed by her ladies. Since dark-haired women were viewed suspiciously by contemporaries, it is unlikely that Katherine was dark-haired, as some portraits imply, because she received near universal praise surrounding her physical appearance. Rather more likely is that she was much fairer, although whether her hair colour was red, auburn, light brown or even blonde is unknown. However, these reliable portraits conform to the view that the new queen in 1540 was a woman of remarkable beauty, of tender years, who was expected confidently to soon bear her husband the king a second male heir.

Please do not copy any of this article without the author’s permission.

The Birth and Childhood of Katherine Howard, queen of England

The Birth of Katherine Howard*Image

In his biography of Queen Katherine Howard, published in 1961, Professor Lacey Baldwin Smith suggested what would seem to have been a plausible date of birth for Katherine Howard, the fifth queen of Henry VIII. After carefully analysing the evidence, in particular using the likely date of marriage of Katherine’s parents and her subsequent place in the order of children born to Edmund and Joyce Howard, as well as relying upon the dispatches of Charles de Marillac, French ambassador during Katherine’s reign as queen, Smith asserted that a birth date of circa 1521 was plausible.[1] This date of birth has been subsequently accepted by the majority of modern historians who frequently refer to Katherine being a girl of nineteen at the time of her marriage to Henry VIII. However, not all historians have been convinced by Smith’s arguments; Joanna Denny, in her popular biography on the life and reign of Katherine Howard, argued that 1525 was a likelier date of birth. Primarily, the 1521 date has been put forward on the basis of the French ambassador’s dispatches, which referred to Katherine being aged eighteen during the time of her relationship with Francis Dereham in about 1538-9. It will be argued here, however, that the 1521 birth date is based upon an inaccurate reading of the French ambassador’s dispatches – and that he actually referred to the queen in 1541.[2]

Unlike Denny, who relied overwhelmingly on the fact that Katherine had been omitted from a family will made by Sir John Legh in 1524, yet had been included in a later edition made by his wife in 1527[3], this will rely upon comments made by a Spanish citizen in around 1540, the evidence of a portrait which has strong evidence in suggesting it depicts Queen Katherine during 1540-1541, and numerous contemporary remarks made on the queen’s age that a birth date of 1523, as opposed to 1520-1521, is more likely. A correct reading of the French ambassador Marillac’s comments, made in the context of Queen Katherine’s fall, will show that he meant that the queen was thirteen at the time of her first sexual relationship, ie. in 1536. Furthermore, contemporary attitudes to childhood and adolescence will be analysed in order to place the numerous comments about the queen’s age in a coherent context which further supports a later birth date, and advance a wider understanding of social mores in early modern England.

In order to initially establish a plausible date of birth for Katherine, it would seem logical to consider the likely date of her parents’ marriage. This remains an area of mystery for modern historians. Agnes Strickland, the popular Victorian historian, asserted that Katherine’s father, Lord Edmund Howard, a younger son of Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey and later Duke of Norfolk, had been a bachelor nobleman who had escorted Princess Mary Tudor, sister of the future Henry VIII, to France for her marriage to King Louis of France in the autumn of 1514.[4] However, as James Gairdner recognised in his Dictionary of National Biography entry on the queen, there is neither evidence that Lord Edmund accompanied the Princess to France, or that he was a bachelor nobleman, compounded by the fact that Strickland does not cite her sources.[5] This unlikelihood is further developed by the fact that Edmund Howard was hardly a favourite of Henry VIII; in fact, he appears to have been largely excluded from royal favour throughout his career.[6] Thus it remains questionable why he would be accorded such an honour as to accompany the King’s beloved sister to France, unless he were amongst the King’s inner circle. On the other hand, Baldwin Smith suggested that Lord Edmund married his wife, Jocasta Culpeper, after 1514 because beforehand, it would have been unlikely that ‘Edmund, merely as the third son of the Earl of Surrey, could have snared such an eminently respectable and affluent lady’.[7] Since Jocasta was a wealthy and prosperous lady of some standing in Kent – she was co-heir of Sir Richard Culpeper of Aylesford, Kent – this would appear to be a plausible conclusion to make. What is clear from this is that both Edmund and Jocasta were already in their mid-thirties at their marriage in circa 1514-15, a highly late age at which to marry in an era in which girls frequently married as young as twelve and boys were regarded capable of matrimony at fourteen; Katherine Howard’s uncle and Edmund’s brother, Thomas Howard, was himself of the opinion that a girl ‘who strikes the fire of full fourteen, today [is] ripe for a husband’.[8] Gairdner recognised this and commented on the unlikelihood of a marriage as late as 1514 because ‘it is not in itself a very probable thing that he [Edmund] waited till he was over thirty-five to marry a woman who was over thirty.’[9] This rests on the conclusion that Edmund was born in c. 1478 and Jocasta in approximately 1480, as Denny suggested. On the basis of Strickland’s conjecture, in conjunction with Baldwin Smith’s theory on the marriage date, it would seem logical to conclude that the Howards married not before 1514 but certainly before c.1517-18.

Having established a plausible date of marriage, the historian must now consider where Katherine herself fitted into the birth order of the children begotten by her parents. To begin with, it is unclear how many natural children Edmund and Jocasta had.[10] Jocasta had married in around 1496, at the age of sixteen, to Ralph Legh, who was a relative of her stepfather. She certainly had issue with him, but historians have long since supposed that the five or so children she had with Ralph came under the ten ‘starving’ children Edmund was claiming in 1527, whom he accepted as his own.[11] This would seem unlikely. Genealogical tables suggest that Isabel Leigh – nee Baynton – was the eldest daughter of Jocasta’s union with Ralph, born around 1496-7; thus at the time of her mother’s death in the mid to late 1520s, she would have been aged in her early thirties. However, even Isabel’s birthdate is in dispute. She married Edward Baynton on 18 January 1531 and had three children with him; thus, she would have been circa 35 at marriage and around 40 when her son, Henry, was born in 1536, which does not seem plausible that the eldest daughter of a prosperous union would have remained unwed until her mid thirties. Baldwin Smith referred to the ‘hapless confusion’ of how many children Jocasta had with Ralph and were then looked after by Edmund after Ralph’s date in about 1509-10.

Lord Edmund wrote in 1527 to Cardinal Wolsey that he was ‘utterly undone’ by the fact that he had to bring up ten starving children without sufficient means in which to do so.[12] Antonia Fraser suggested that the couple had six children together[13], while other historians’ estimates range between four and ten. Evidence will be put forward to compellingly suggest that Edmund and Jocasta had some six children in around thirteen years of marriage, of which Katherine was the youngest. Firstly, in a will of 1524 made by Sir John Legh, the father-in-law of Edmund Howard, reference was made to the sons of the marriage: Charles, Henry and George. Charles was a prominent nobleman whose influence increased with the rise to power of his sister Katherine; he became famous for an ill-fated relationship with the king’s niece, Lady Margaret Douglas. His early influence at court would seem to indicate that he was the eldest son of the union, born perhaps around 1515-16. Although it has been incorrectly stated that Henry Howard died young[14], there is no evidence to suggest this, and there exists evidence to suggest that, like Charles, he was awarded a knighthood by the king. He married Anne, but which Anne is unclear. Like both his brothers, Henry’s influence increased considerably following his sister’s extraordinary marriage to the king. George Howard was certainly born before 1524, as he was referred to in the will made by Sir John Legh in that year[15]; he was the only one of Katherine’s three brothers to prosper in the long-term in the aftermath of her execution in 1542, acquiring a knighthood in 1547 and various offices in the following decade. It has been established by several historians that he was the youngest of the three sons born to Edmund and Jocasta.[16] Retha Warnicke suggested that George, like his youngest sister Katherine, was brought up by Agnes, dowager Duchess of Norfolk in the early 1530s, spending his childhood there as a result of his father’s escape abroad.[17] Prominent in the reigns of Edward, Mary and Elizabeth, he died in 1580[18], comparatively the most successful – in the long term – of the surviving Howard siblings. If we date Charles’ birth to around 1515 – supporting this is the fact that Lady Margaret Douglas, his lover, was born in October of that year, making it likely that he was close to her in age – it would logically follow that Henry was born the following year or so, with George born in approximately 1519.[19] Genealogical tables which identify George Howard as being born in 1525 are clearly incorrect[20] because, as has been noted, he was mentioned in his grandfather’s will in 1524.

Unlike the Howard sons, of whom there is little evidence in terms of their respective marriages, ample evidence exists of the marriage alliances made by the Howard daughters which exists to provide plausible conjectures for their respective dates of birth. Margaret Howard, who appears to have been the eldest daughter of the union, married Thomas Arundel by settlement dated 20 November 1530.[21] This opposes other claims made that she married him in either 1531 or 1533.[22] Since, legally, girls had to be at least twelve years of age in order to marry – Jocasta, Katherine Howard’s mother, herself married in her mid teens, while one historian would argue that the sister of Anne Boleyn married at just twelve[23] – we can therefore date Margaret’s birth to no later than c.1518. Some evidence exists, however, to suggest that she was in fact born in around 1515 in Tisbury, Wiltshire, where she later died.[24] What this suggests is that Margaret was the eldest daughter and was quite possibly the eldest child of the union, accepting a birth of c.1515. Unlike her sisters Mary and Katherine, Margaret was not referred to in the amended will in 1527 made by her grandmother Isabel. This could alternatively suggest that she was the daughter of Joyce by her first husband, Ralph Legh.

Mary Howard married Edmund Trafford; Denny suggests in 1532, but since she also claims that Mary married Edward Baynton – confusing her with her half-sister, Isabel – this date is questionable.[25] Further complications arise out of the fact that Mary was ‘claimed’ by both Howard and Legh families.[26] Yet the fact that Mary Howard was mentioned in the will of her grandmother Isabel in 1527 would convincingly argue that she was the daughter of Edmund and Joyce Culpeper. If, however, she did marry in the early 1530s – around 1532 – as part of negotiations made by her father, Edmund, similar to those made for Margaret in 1530, this would suggest that she was younger than Margaret, yet was old enough to be married by a father who clearly saw his children as a financial burden.[27] What we can surmise from this is that Mary was born after 1515; yet because she may have married in 1532, must have been born in at least 1520 to have reached the legal marriageable age of twelve. Since her brother George appears to have been born c.1519, we can surmise that either Mary was a year or so older – say, born in 1518 – or a year younger, born in 1520. In context of the fact that she was married fairly recently after her sister Margaret, and in view of the popular social belief that a girl who reached fourteen was at the ‘ripe’ age for a husband, it can be claimed – albeit not certainly – that Mary Howard was born c.1518.

Where does this leave Katherine Howard? The evidence would seem to suggest the following birth order for the six surviving Howard children from the union of Edmund and Jocasta in circa 1514-15: Margaret, Charles, Henry, Mary, George and Katherine. Some historians would no doubt raise eyebrows at the fact that ‘only’ six children resulted from a union which lasted thirteen years until at least the mid 1520s – Starkey claimed that Jocasta was dead by the late 1520s[28], which is borne out by the fact that Edmund remarried in around 1528. The other four children of the ten children Edmund was claiming in 1527 would therefore, reasonably, seem to be the four children from Jocasta’s first marriage with Ralph. It is also plausible that Jocasta suffered miscarriages; these and stillbirths were common enough for the time – Jocasta’s niece by marriage, Anne Boleyn, would suffer two; while Katherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII, suffered at least six. No doubt historians further raise eyebrows at the fact that a forty-four year old woman was still conceiving children; yet this should not be seen as particularly remarkable; the Spanish ambassador Eustace Chapuys referred to women at the age of fifty-one who were conceiving children, while Thomas Cromwell, the king’s secretary, admitted to Chapuys that his own mother had been fifty-one when she had given birth to him in 1485.[29]

Strickland, having considered the evidence, surmised that Katherine could not have been born before 1521-22, if she was one of the younger – here it is theorised she was the youngest – children of the union.[30] This has generally been followed by most modern historians, who have misinterpreted the evidence of the French ambassador Marillac’s exchanges and an erroneous portrait of ‘Katherine’ to suggest the Queen was born in around 1521. Yet the frequent references to the youth of the queen – made from notables such as the Protestant theologian Bullinger to the Queen who Katherine displaced, Anne of Cleves – as well as a possible portrait of c1540-1 portraying the queen does not support this date. Furthermore, historians have frequently relied on Marillac’s dispatches without viewing his dispatches critically. Marillac did not refer to the queen being eighteen years of age during her relationship with Dereham in the period 1538-1539 (which he cannot have known anyway because the only evidence which supports this date is Katherine’s own confession, which does not appear to have been made accessible to the public) but as eighteen when she was experiencing an affair with Dereham. Since the government accused her of carrying on her “abominable” affair with Dereham after her marriage, and the fact that Katherine was initially abused by Henry Manox in 1536-7 may have meant that Marillac confused information relating to Manox which he in fact believed to be related to Dereham, a correct reading of the dispatches therefore suggests a 1523 birth date.[31]

A Spanish observer in the 1540s, who recorded his findings in a document known as ‘The Chronicle of Henry VIII’ – or the so-called ‘Spanish Chronicle’ – suggested that the queen was not above fifteen when she married Henry VIII in 1540.[32] This has been often rejected by modern historians, because the ‘imagination [of the author] is considerably better than his facts’ and could substantially be said to be ‘garbled street gossip, strongly laced with the picaresque’.[33] G.W. Bernard claimed that the Chronicle was created much later than the events it describes, in the reign of Elizabeth I, by Spanish Catholics hostile to her.[34] However, in context of this, it would seem difficult to argue why Catholics, even Spanish Catholics, would be hostile to Katherine and so misrepresent her rise to power and marriage to the king. She herself was Catholic – albeit she was not notably pious or devout – and came from the principal Catholic family of England. One problem with this evidence is that it describes Katherine as about fifteen, while claiming she was in the service of Mary Tudor, the daughter of Henry VIII, in the aftermath of Jane Seymour’s death.[35] This clearly is not true – she had not been at court in the service of Mary in 1537-8; she was appointed a maid of honour to the German Queen Anne of Cleves in the winter of 1539. Furthermore, the marriages to Henry VIII are reversed; instead of being the king’s fifth queen consort, Katherine is instead his fourth, with Anne succeeding as opposed to preceding her.

On the basis of this, the evidence supplied by the ‘Spanish Chronicle’ in relation to the queen’s age is therefore tenuous. Yet in context of the numerous comments made about the queen’s age, a birth of little older than fifteen in 1539-40 does not seem impossible; in fact, it becomes very plausible. The Protestant theologian Bullinger in Zurich was informed by the merchant Richard Hilles that ‘the King’s affections were alienated from the lady Anna [of Cleves] to that young girl Katherine Howard’.[36] [my italics] Before proceeding, we might ask ourselves what a ‘young girl’ was in mid-Tudor England. As has been noted, girls were able to marry at the age of twelve; Katherine’s own uncle believed a fourteen-year old girl was ready, or ‘ripe’, for a husband. There does not seem to have been a concept of childhood at this time, hence why children could be tried and executed – they were seen as adults. A popular historian decisively refuted a later birthdate for Katherine, claiming that puberty occurred later in Tudor England[37], which is nonsensical, to say the least. Since girls could marry at twelve and were able to bear children within a few years – Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, bore him at the age of thirteen, while Warnicke claimed that Mary Boleyn became the King’s mistress at the age of around sixteen[38] – this would seem to suggest that puberty occurred earlier, rather than later. It seems questionable why Hilles would describe Katherine as a ‘young girl’ if she was only five years younger than Anne, as modern historians often suggest.

Anne of Cleves, in the wake of Katherine’s fall in the autumn of 1541, herself referred to Katherine as a ‘child’.[39] Much of the Queen’s behaviour during her short reign could be said to have been explained by an immature girl who was too young to be involved in royal politics. The Spanish observer suggested that her cruel treatment of Princess Mary was because of her youth – she was ‘too young’ to maintain a queenly dignity over her stepdaughter, likening her to a ‘mere child’.[40] Although of course it may have resulted from a plea for mercy from her husband, Katherine frequently referred to her ‘youth’ during her fall: ‘I trust your most benign nature will have some respect unto my youth, my ignorance, my frailness…’ She also, in the same letter, referred to herself as a ‘young girl’ at the time of her relationship with Dereham some two or three years previously.[41] George Cavendish, a former servant of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, alluded to Katherine’s youth no fewer than ten times; this consistent repetition of her youth would seem to indicate that the queen was exceptionally young at her marriage to Henry VIII.[42] Collectively, it would seem astonishing that a variety of well-placed observers, ranging from the king’s rejected fourth wife to an English merchant, would emphasise Katherine Howard’s youth were she no more than four or five years younger than the royal noblewoman, Anne of Cleves, she had displaced. Since her uncle, the duke of Norfolk, expressed the opinion that fourteen-year-old girls were of an age to marry and bear children, this could indicate that his niece Katherine had only somewhat recently surpassed that age, leading to observers commenting upon her remarkable youth.

There is further evidence to indicate a 1523 birth date. In the autumn of 1539, as Henry VIII prepared to marry for the fourth time to the German princess Anne of Cleves, Katherine’s uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, secured appointments for three of his nieces as maids of honour to the new queen as her household was built up, ready for her expected arrival in the winter of 1539 in what must be interpreted as family politics in Henry VIII’s court.[43] These nieces included Katherine, her cousin Katherine Carey, daughter of Mary Boleyn, and Mary Norris, daughter of Henry Norris, who had been executed in 1536 with Anne Boleyn. Their birth dates are significant in providing evidence of Katherine’s own age at appointment. Katherine Carey was born almost certainly in the spring of 1524[44], making her fifteen years old when she was selected by Thomas Howard as a maid-of-honour to the future queen; while Mary Norris was even younger, having been born in 1526. Thus, two of the new queen’s maids of honour were aged thirteen and fifteen at appointment which was fairly usual – the Emperor Maximilian had written earlier in the century that a maid-of-honour was usually aged thirteen or fourteen at appointment.[45] It therefore becomes far less likely that Katherine Howard was born as early as 1519-21. Had she been born in those years, she would have been aged between eighteen and twenty at appointment as a maid-of-honour – it is not impossible that she would have been aged in her later teens, but the fact that she was appointed as a maid-of-honour in the autumn of 1539 along with two young cousins does not tend to support an early birth date. It should be remembered here that Katherine’s cousin was Anne Boleyn, queen consort of Henry VIII, who had been in power from 1533 to 1536. Katherine, as traditionally modern historians would seek to suggest, would have been aged thirteen to fifteen in those years; quite possibly as old as seventeen, if one accepts the 1519 birth date (resulting largely from a questionable portrait identification, which will be discussed in detail). The Duke of Norfolk, as an ambitious nobleman who strongly desired developing the influence of his family at court, would surely have endeavoured to have appointed Katherine to her cousin’s household some years earlier than that of 1539. The reason he did not is almost certainly because Katherine was too young – she seems to have been nine at the time of Anne’s marriage and coronation, and twelve at her execution.

The identification of portraits has been critical in assessing the age of Henry VIII’s fifth queen. In 1898, a portrait was identified as Katherine Howard, because it dates from the late 1530s-early 1540s. The picture portrays a twenty-one year old woman, dressed in black – which has been described as funeral attire, which Katherine of course had no occasion to wear, or black merely to demonstrate the lady’s status and wealth – with a serious expression bordering on matronly subservience. Her eyes are dark and her chin is prominent, with a large nose. Three versions exist of this portrait, which in itself serves to demonstrate this lady’s importance, as she was obviously in high demand as a sitter. Her hair is reddish-brown, with pale skin. How does this appearance correspond with contemporary descriptions of Katherine? The French ambassador Marillac – who has already been noted as a questionable observer – met the queen in 1540, and described her as ‘small and slender’, with a ‘delightful countenance’. This does not match up with the appearance of the sitter. Her frame and height appears larger than ‘small and slender’. Her countenance does not seem ‘delightful’ with neither an expression of youthful happiness or mischievous flirtatiousness, characteristics usually associated with the queen. The portrait would seem to represent Katherine Howard as it was identified by David Starkey as her in 2008. The lavish costume and expensive jewellery proclaim a royal status, reinforced by the dignified, almost superior expression of the sitter. Yet the fact that the sitter wears royal jewels does not automatically mean that it is Katherine. The dress of the sitter suggests that it originates from the late 1530s or early 1540s; particularly in terms of the French hood which evolved from that worn by Anne Boleyn in the early 1530s. More to the point, in the late 1530s there were other notable royal women at court of a similar age: Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII; Lady Margaret Douglas, daughter of Queen Margaret and niece of Henry VIII, Frances Brandon, niece of Henry VIII and married to Henry Grey in 1533, and her sister Eleanor. Any one of these women could have been the sitter in this portrait. Lady Antonia Fraser, in her 1992 biography, argued that the portrait depicted the younger sister of Jane Seymour, Elizabeth.[46] Yet this is unlikely. The sitter does not bear any resemblance to Jane, although Fraser argues otherwise; furthermore, since Elizabeth is generally believed to have been born between 1511 and 1513, she would have been aged twenty-one in 1532-1534, considerably before her sister came to prominence. As recognised by Weir she was not an important enough person to wear such expensive costume or merit wearing royal jewels, as the mere daughter of a knight. Mary Tudor was aged twenty-one in 1537, Lady Margaret in 1536-7, Frances Brandon in 1538 and her sister Eleanor in 1540. Yet because Lady Margaret appears to have been in disgrace in 1536-7, due to her ill-natured liaison with Thomas Howard, this perhaps makes her less likely to have been the sitter, if she was banished from court at that time. The similarity in facial features between Frances Brandon and one version of the portrait formerly identified as Katherine could suggest it actually depicts Frances. There is no confirmed portrait of Eleanor Brandon, so we cannot know for certain what she looked like; Mary Tudor seems, from the basis of a portrait of her in 1544, to have been more slender and fairer than the sitter in the ‘Katherine Howard’ portrait. Both the portrait of Frances and the one thought to be of                         Katherine have a similarly prominent nose, pale skin, round chin and auburn hair. Since Frances appears to have been a favourite of her uncle Henry VIII, and was aged twenty-one in 1538, when the costume worn by the sitter was both fashionable and a symbol of high status, this could, tentatively, be said to depict the future mother of Lady Jane Grey, as opposed to the fifth queen of Henry VIII.

Having, then, considered portraiture as a means of assessing Katherine Howard’s true age, this will also be looked at in supporting the argument that she was aged seventeen when she became Queen of England in the summer of 1540. There exists a portrait in the New York Museum of Metropolitan Art, entitled ‘Portrait of a Young Woman: Style of Hans Holbein the Younger’, English and dated between 1540 and 1550. The portrait depicts a young girl, aged seventeen years old, with pale skin, reddish-blonde hair, dark blue eyes, a small chin and curved lips. Her expression suggests both mischievousness and yet royal superiority. The lavish costume proclaims her highborn status; her expensive jewellery confirms that she is one of the most important ladies at the English court. As Starkey recognised in his identification of a portrait as Jane Grey: “It would be unusual for someone [of evident youth] to sit for a miniature unless they had very high status.”[47] Therefore, the youth of this sitter strongly suggests she must have been very important to warrant being painted. The portrait has, more to the point, been attributed to the early 1540s; Susan E. James and Jamie S. Franco have gone as far to suggest it depicts Katherine Howard. Both the locket and the gold setting for the cameo seem to have been designed by Holbein, perhaps to flatter the young queen. The costume belongs to approximately 1540. The continental dress conforms to what we know of the fashion worn by Katherine Howard; at his visit to court in 1540, the French ambassador Marillac stated that she and her ladies wore the most fashionable French fashions. If we are able, moreover, to date it to approximately 1540, this effectively discounts the other English royal ladies as candidates for the sitter: Mary Tudor would have been twenty-four in 1540, Lady Margaret twenty-five, Frances Brandon twenty-three, and Eleanor Brandon twenty-one. It is unlikely to belong later to the decade because fashions had once more evolved by 1550, as seen in portraits of contemporary English noblewomen. Furthermore, the portrait bears a strong resemblance to a sketch done of Katherine by Holbein, perhaps around the time she became Queen. Henry VIII lavished expensive jewellery on his ‘rose without a thorn’, particularly at Christmas 1540 when Katherine received ‘a square containing 27 table diamonds and 26 clusters of pearls’, a brooch constructed of 33 diamonds and 60 rubies with an  edge of pearl, and a ‘muffler of black velvet furred with sables containing 38 rubies and 572 pearls’.[48] The Queen appears to have adored brooches, particularly one given by her by the King to mark the Feast of All Saints. The brooch in the portrait is singularly prominent, a symbol of powerful status. There is therefore a strong case to be made that this portrait depicts Queen Katherine sometime in 1540-41.

Further evidence of the queen’s likely age is the letter she composed to Thomas Culpeper in the spring of 1541, at the beginning of their liaison. It is appallingly spelt and written, reflecting Katherine’s lack of education which reflected the values of a society which disapproved of the education of women. The handwriting is extremely bad, like that of a young child; a comparison with the letter written by her cousin, Anne Boleyn, at the age of thirteen in 1514 reveals how elementary Katherine’s writing was. It is neither refined nor
elegant, and would support the argument that she was aged around seventeen as opposed to twenty-one or twenty-two, which was an age at which her calligraphy would have been expected to have been somewhat more refined.

In conclusion, taking the collective evidence into account, it seems impossible to date Katherine Howard’s birth to a date as early as 1519-21. The identification of a portrait as her in 1898 seems to have been made incorrectly, at a time when false identifications were notorious (for instance, see the numerous erroneous identifications of portraits as Anne Boleyn). The costume does proclaim a royal lady, but the appearance of the sitter does not match the descriptions we have of Katherine, either as the small and slender girl – to the point of being ‘diminutive’ – suggested by the French ambassador or the most beautiful girl in the kingdom extravagantly described by the Spanish author of the ‘Chronicle of Henry VIII’. I have suggested here that it depicts Lady Frances Brandon, niece of Henry VIII and mother of Jane Grey. The French ambassador’s comment of Katherine being eighteen at the time of her relationship with Francis Dereham has often been cited as evidence that Katherine was born in 1521, but an accurate reading of Marillac’s dispatches disproves this argument by instead suggesting a 1523 birth. Although historians have been dismissed the Spanish chronicler as erroneous and inaccurate – which to some extent is true – he appears to have been informed when he described the Queen as fifteen in 1539-40, when she attracted the attentions of Henry VIII. On the basis of his comments, the likelihood of a portrait depicting the Queen as seventeen in 1540-41, the birth order of her siblings and the numerous comments made about her youth by several different observers, a 1523 birth date seems likely. Historians owe it to the past not to cause further confusion by obscuring the facts and misreading the evidence; satisfactory treatment is required of Queen Katherine Howard, her life and career, and one important aspect which requires addressing is her birth date and childhood. This article should hopefully have led historians to reconsider their theories surrounding the queen’s youth, while providing a central context for Katherine Howard’s career.

* This essay is part of a series detailing the career of Katherine Howard, which I intend to one day publish in a full length study of the queen. I wish to pay tribute and give thanks to Professor Retha M. Warnicke, who generously emailed me her chapter on Katherine Howard from “Wicked Women” which assisted me in my study of the queen’s downfall in 1541-2. I would also like to praise Professor David Starkey for his thought-provoking account of the queen’s downfall, see “Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII” (Vintage, 2004), which has led me to reconsider why Queen Katherine fell from power in 1541. Readers will notice that my footnotes are incomplete; I intend to complete these shortly.


[1] L. Baldwin Smith “A Tudor Tragedy: The Life and Times of Catherine Howard” (London, 1961), p41. See also ‘Appendix’, pp. 194-6.

[2] I wish to pay tribute to Professor Retha M. Warnicke of Arizona State University for pointing this out to me. See R. M. Warnicke, ‘Katherine Howard’, in “Wicked Women of Tudor England: Queens, Aristocrats, Commoners (Queenship and Power” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), pp. 45-77.

[3] J. Denny, “Katherine Howard: A Tudor Conspiracy” (Portrait, 2005), p. 8. However this approach is problematic since, as Baldwin Smith recognised, male relatives often excluded their female dependents from wills in attaining property or land. See Baldwin Smith, ‘Appendix’, pp. 194-6.

[4] See A. Strickland “Lives of the Queens of England”, vol III (1840-1848).

[5] J. Gairdner, ‘Catherine Howard’, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Vol. 09 (1887). (last accessed 21 November 2012)

[6] For a fuller discussion, see Baldwin Smith “A Tudor Tragedy” pp. 34-41.

[7] Baldwin Smith “A Tudor Tragedy”, pp. 40-41.

[8] Cited by Baldwin Smith “A Tudor Tragedy”, p. 45, p. 50.

[9] Gairdner, ‘Catherine Howard’.

[10] This problem has been recognised by Baldwin Smith “A Tudor Tragedy”, pp.40-41. For other views, see A. Fraser “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” (Phoenix, 2009) , D. Starkey “Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII” (Vintage, 2004), and J. Denny “Katherine Howard”, pp. 6-8.

[11] See A. Weir “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” (Vintage, 1992), J. Denny “Katherine Howard”, pp. 6-8, and Baldwin Smith “A Tudor Tragedy”, see ‘Appendix’, pp. 194-6.

[12] Cited by Baldwin Smith “A Tudor Tragedy”.

[13] A. Fraser “Six Wives”.

[14] A. Weir “Six Wives”

[19] This opposes the claim on that he was born c1525.

[27] See his letter to Wolsey, 1527.

[44] This refutes claims that she was born in 1529; if she was, she would have been only eleven years old at appointment, which was younger than the expected thirteen or fourteen.

[48] L.P. XVI 1389, cited by Baldwin Smith ‘A Tudor Tragedy’ p136

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