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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.

 

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