Tuesday 16 May 2023
A hitherto overlooked statement in the Calendar of State Papers, Spain offers intriguing information about Henry VIII's relationship with his third wife, Jane Seymour. Sometime in late 1535 or early in 1536, the king began a liaison with Jane - initially courtly in nature - and married her in May 1536, only eleven days after the execution of his second wife Anne Boleyn. Born in about 1509, Jane had served Anne but there is little evidence concerning her relationship with the king and the circumstances in which it began. It was only in February 1536, for example, that the imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys reported the king's 'treatment shown to a lady of the Court, named Mistress Semel [sic], to whom, as many say, he has lately made great presents'.
Thus, in view of the obscure origins of the relationship, the following report deserves attention. On 26 June 1536 from Rome, a month after the execution of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII's marriage to Jane, Dr Ortiz informed Commander Molina that the king had married again, to 'a lady who was already in the family-way by him five or six months ago'. The 'family way' was a term used to describe pregnancy. For example, Chapuys reported in January 1534 that Anne Boleyn 'is now in the family way again, and in a state of health and of an age to have many more children'. Thus, if Ortiz is to be believed, Jane had conceived a child in December 1535/January 1536, several months before her royal marriage.
The suggestion in this report that Jane was the king's mistress in the physical - rather than courtly - sense is interesting in view of her posthumous reputation as a virtuous and chaste figure, allegedly the antithesis of her predecessor, the flirtatious Anne Boleyn. However, other ambassadorial dispatches written shortly before Jane's marriage were similarly ambivalent about her virtues, indicating that Jane's moral, upstanding reputation was not necessarily as widely shared as is generally assumed. On 18 May, the day before Anne's execution, Chapuys wrote to Antoine Perrenot with information about the king's new love, commenting that Jane was of medium height, fair, and 'no great beauty'. He confided his doubts as to whether, having long resided at court, Jane really was a virgin. The ambassador cynically remarked that 'he [Henry] may make a condition in the marriage that she [Jane] be a virgin, and when he has a mind to divorce her he will find enough witnesses'. However, once Jane had become queen and had demonstrated her desire to restore the king's eldest daughter, Mary (daughter of Katherine of Aragon) to Henry's good graces, the ambassador's attitude towards Jane became markedly more positive and complimentary.
It is highly likely, however, that Ortiz was mistaken. There is no evidence that Jane was pregnant as early as December 1535, and such a detail would surely not have escaped the attention of the perceptive, eagle-eyed Chapuys, who keenly watched for any sign that Henry's relationship with Anne was in danger. Ortiz's dispatches, moreover, contain many inaccuracies, based as they are on second- or thirdhand gossip and rumours about the English court; his account of the fall of Anne Boleyn testifies to his limited knowledge of actual events. This is perhaps unsurprising, writing as he was from Rome and thus not in physical proximity to the events he describes. As I have noted elsewhere, ambassadors serving in the royal courts were keenly interested in any sign of a queen's pregnancy. The references to the possible pregnancies of Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour in this blog post, reported by ambassadors, testifies to the envoys' interest in the subject. Similarly, when Henry VIII married for the fifth time in 1540, it was reported in September in Brussels by the Venetian ambassador Francesco Contarini that 'the new Queen Katharine [Howard] is said for certain to be pregnant', a report that echoed the claim of the French ambassador Charles de Marillac in July that Katherine 'is already enceinte'.
Of course, Jane may have been Henry's mistress in the physical sense prior to their wedding in May 1536 and she may have conceived a child, but there is no other evidence to support Ortiz's claim and others, including Chapuys, surely would have reported a pregnancy if it was indeed the case. Chapuys only learned of their relationship in February 1536 and his dispatches suggest that the relationship between Henry and Jane was, at least initially, a courtly one, in which the king sent gifts and letters to his beloved but without the expectation of physical favours. By the spring, however, Henry was determined to set aside Anne and take Jane as his third wife. It is nonetheless interesting that several novelists have explored the idea that Jane conceived a child either before, or during the early months of, her marriage, but which resulted in a miscarriage or stillbirth. Whether or not that was the case, it is indisputable that she gave birth to the future Edward VI on 12 October 1537 at Hampton Court Palace, but the queen tragically died just days later, on 24 October, the only one of Henry's six wives to provide him with a surviving male heir.
Friday 24 September 2021
Above: Portrait of a Lady, perhaps Katherine Howard; Royal Collection Trust
A portrait miniature in the Royal Collection Trust, dating to circa 1540, has for some time been identified as a likeness of Katherine Howard, fifth queen consort of Henry VIII, who was beheaded in 1542. There are two versions of the miniature; the second version is held in the Buccleuch Collection, and was originally owned by Thomas Howard, earl of Arundel. The sitter has customarily been identified as Queen Katherine based on her jewellery; the necklace, in particular, appears to be the same as that worn by Jane Seymour, the king's third wife, in the portrait created of her in 1536-7 (see below).
Above: Portrait miniature of Katherine Howard (?), Buccleuch Collection
The item of jewellery in question also appears to have been passed to Katherine Parr, sixth wife of Henry VIII, when she married the king in the summer of 1543. Given the jewel's appearance in portraits of the king's third and sixth wives, thus identifying it as property of the queen consort, it would make sense that the sitter in Holbein's miniature (and in the version housed in the Buccleuch Collection) was also a Tudor queen consort of England. In 1540, Katherine Howard became queen of England when she married Henry VIII at Oatlands Palace on 28 July 1540, in doing so displacing the king's fourth wife, Anne of Cleves - and yet Anne was also, briefly, queen consort in the year 1540, from January to July.
Above: Jane Seymour and Katherine Parr, third and sixth wives of Henry VIII
The Holbein miniature in the Royal Collection Trust was described in 1660-61, during the Restoration, as 'A small peice Inclineing of a woman after ye Dresse of Henry ye Eights wife by Peter Oliver'. The sitter in the miniature, however, was not formally identified at that point. By 1735-40, however, the version in the Buccleuch Collection (above) had been named as a likeness of Katherine Howard, an identification subsequently associated with the miniature in the Royal Collection Trust. Interestingly, when the Buccleuch version was identified during the eighteenth-century, it was also mooted as a portrait of Henry VIII's younger sister, Mary Tudor, queen consort of France (1496-1533). The costume, however, which dates to the 1540s, clearly rules out Henry's sister - who was also the grandmother of Lady Jane Grey - as the sitter in the portrait.
Unfortunately, the sitter's age was not inscribed on the portrait, which might have been helpful in assisting modern identifications of the sitter's identity. While Katherine has been the most popular candidate for the miniature, other sitters have also been proposed: chiefly, Lady Margaret Douglas, niece of Henry VIII and grandmother of James I of England, and Mary, Lady Monteagle, who served in the household of Jane Seymour.
Although Lacey Baldwin Smith, who published a biography of Katherine in 1961, did not discuss the miniature in his account of the queen's life, and thus offered no opinion as to whether or not it depicted her, Katherine's modern biographers have, by and large, accepted the miniature as a likeness of her, including myself, Josephine Wilkinson, Joanna Denny and Gareth Russell. Denny was, perhaps, the most strident; responding to Susan James' theory that the miniature depicts Margaret Douglas, Denny asserted that 'this does not explain why she [Margaret] is wearing the royal jewels.' Katherine's love of jewellery and fine clothing was recorded by contemporaries: the unknown Spanish author of The Chronicle of Henry VIII, for example, noted that 'the King had no wife who made him spend so much money in dresses and jewels as she did, who every day had some fresh caprice.' Alongside receiving jewels as presents from her besotted husband, Katherine made gifts of them to her female attendants and to her royal relatives, including her stepdaughters Mary and Elizabeth.
In his study of the six wives of Henry VIII, published in 2003, Dr David Starkey opined that the miniature is indeed a likeness of Katherine Howard, based on the inventory of her jewellery given to her when she married the king in July 1540. Starkey concluded that 'it can even be dated as a wedding portrait.' Specifically, the jewels given to Katherine that appear in the Holbein miniature include an 'upper biliment' or trimming for a French hood, 'of goldsmith work enamelled and garnished with 7 fair diamonds, 7 fair rubies and 7 fair pearls'; a 'square' necklace 'containing 29 rubies and 29 clusters of pearls being 4 pearls in every cluster' and an 'ouch', or pendant, 'of gold having a very fair table diamond and a very fair ruby with a long pearl hanging at the same'. The pendant also appears in portraits of Jane Seymour and Katherine Parr, as previously noted. Sir Roy Strong, at that time director of the National Portrait Gallery, also drew attention to the fact that the sitter wears the same jewel that appears in Holbein's portrait of Jane Seymour, thus suggesting that the miniature it is a likeness of Katherine Howard. Starkey may be incorrect, however, in suggesting that the portrait was undertaken in the summer of 1540; while she may have been misled in believing the miniature to be a likeness of Margaret Douglas, Susan James offered the convincing theory that the portrait was painted in the autumn or winter based on the style of the sitter's costume. Denny may, therefore, be more accurate in concluding that the portrait was 'very likely painted during her [Katherine's] first winter as queen'.
The costume itself, in which the sitter wears a French hood, may also lend itself to an identification with Katherine Howard. The French ambassador Charles Marillac, who observed the new queen while he was in attendance at court, wrote in September 1540, two months after her wedding, that 'she and all the Court ladies dress in French style'.
But was Katherine's portrait ever painted during her brief reign as queen? While I offer an extended discussion of her portraiture in my book Katherine Howard: Henry VIII's Slandered Queen, it is interesting to note curator and art historian Brett Dolman's suggestion that 'Catherine [Howard] left no documentary proof that her portrait was ever painted during her lifetime, and, perhaps, we are searching for the impossible.' In my book, I discuss other portraits associated with Katherine, including perhaps the most famous, now housed in the Toledo Museum of Art; it was formerly identified as a likeness of Henry VIII's fifth queen but is now generally agreed to be a portrait of Jane Seymour's younger sister Elizabeth, daughter-in-law of the king's chief minister Thomas Cromwell.
Dolman's recognition that Katherine may never have been painted during her brief queenship is significant in light of the recent suggestion made by art historian Franny Moyle, that the Holbein miniature is not a likeness of Katherine Howard, but a portrait of Anne of Cleves, Katherine's predecessor, who, as noted earlier, was also briefly queen consort of England in 1540, the year in which the portrait seems to have been painted. Moyle's theory is based on several pieces of evidence. Firstly, she notes that Holbein mounted the miniature on the four of diamonds, a playing card that Moyle believes to be significant, since Anne of Cleves was Henry VIII's fourth wife. Art historian Roland Hui, however, has challenged this point, however, in noting that a five of diamonds card appears on the back of Holbein's portrait of Jane Small (now housed in The Victoria and Albert Museum). Hui also clarified that 'part of a king' served as the backing to a miniature of Henry Brandon, the short-lived son of Henry VIII's favourite Charles, duke of Suffolk. In and of itself, therefore, the four of diamonds on the back of Holbein's miniature would not seem sufficient grounds on which to identify the sitter as Anne of Cleves.
Above top: Portrait of a Lady, perhaps Katherine Howard; Royal Collection Trust
Above below: Anne of Cleves, 1539
Historian Franny Moyle believes that both miniatures show the same sitter.
Moyle also argues that the sitter in the Holbein miniature shows an 'uncanny likeness' to Holbein's portrait of Anne (above), painted in 1539, shortly before her marriage to Henry VIII. Moyle draws attention to both sitters sharing a 'soporific expression', as well as distinctive heavy eyelids and thick eyebrows. Moreover, Moyle notes that the contemporary chronicler Edward Hall, who was an eyewitness to events at Henry VIII's court, described Anne the Sunday after her wedding as 'appareiled after the Englishe fassyon, with a Frenche whode [hood], whiche so set forth her beautie and good visage, that euery creature reioysed [rejoiced] to behold her.' Based on Hall's remark, Moyle suggests that, aware of Henry's initial lack of enthusiasm, Anne consciously set aside the - to English court observers, unfashionable - clothing that she had brought with her from Cleves and instead adopted the more stylish French dress favoured at court, in an attempt to please her husband. Taking this further, Moyle argues that the Holbein miniature was painted in the winter of 1540, perhaps in February, in order for the king to 'see a version of Anne that was more appealing.'
As noted earlier in this post, Dolman concluded that there is no documentary evidence that Katherine Howard's portrait was painted during her short tenure as queen. Equally, there is no evidence that Anne of Cleves sat for Holbein in the early months of 1540 wearing a French hood in an attempt to secure favour from her unenthusiastic husband, who had thus far failed to consummate their union; indeed, the marriage was annulled just months later, in July, having never been consummated. While Moyle is correct that Anne is a credible candidate for the sitter in the Holbein miniature on the grounds that there were two queen consorts in 1540, of which she was one, other elements of Moyle's argument are problematic.
Firstly, Moyle suggests that the Holbein miniature is unlikely to depict Katherine because it 'doesn't look like a child bride'. Katherine's date of birth is unknown. My research, which will be published in a forthcoming issue of The Royal Studies Journal, and expands on the arguments put forth in my book Katherine Howard: Henry VIII's Slandered Queen, indicates that she was born probably in 1523 or 1524, making her sixteen or seventeen when she married Henry VIII in 1540, while recent research suggests that Anne of Cleves was born on 28 June 1515, making her a few months short of her twenty-fifth birthday in January 1540 when her wedding took place at Greenwich Palace. Few historians today would characterise Katherine as 'a child bride', especially given how divergent early modern attitudes to childhood (and the life cycle, in general) were from modern perceptions of youth and adolescence. Interestingly, however, the unknown Spanish chronicler did characterise Katherine as 'a mere child', and the religious activist Richard Hilles identified her as a 'young girl' while describing the king's disaffection with Anne and his growing passion for Katherine. Either way, as noted earlier in this post, Holbein did not identify the sitter's age in the miniature, so it is impossible to ascertain how old the woman in the miniature was when she sat for the portrait. This arguably makes it pointless to speculate as to whether the sitter was 'a child bride' or not, as we have no way of knowing.
Secondly, Moyle indicates that the miniature, which apparently does not depict a beautiful woman, is more likely to portray Anne of Cleves, who was described by contemporaries as being 'of medium beauty', rather than Katherine Howard, whose beauty was said to be 'ravishing'. Conceptions of beauty in the sixteenth-century were, of course, very different to those prevalent in the twenty-first century Western world. Perhaps more to the point, surviving descriptions of both queens' physical charms are more complex than Moyle's belief would suggest. In the quotation of above, the chronicler Hall specifically drew attention to Anne's 'beautie and good visage'. The Cleves envoys, when arguing against a sea voyage to England in 1539 in the midst of preparations for Anne's wedding to the king, warned that a sea voyage would harm Anne's 'young and beautiful' appearance. While visiting Cleves, the English ambassadors reported widespread praise of Anne's beauty 'as well for the face, as for the whole body, above all other ladies excellent.' It was said that her beauty excelled that of Christina, duchess of Milan - another candidate for Henry VIII's hand in marriage - 'as the golden sun excelled the silver moon.' In December 1539, the lord admiral reported from Calais that he had heard reports of Anne's 'excellent beauty', which he perceived 'to be no less than was reported in very deed'. Clearly, then, it is somewhat misleading to suggest that Anne's beauty was widely reported as only 'medium'.
Likewise, reports of Katherine Howard's physical appearance were rather more complex than has been suggested. There is a widespread assumption among historians that she was the most attractive of Henry VIII's six consorts; her biographer Baldwin Smith noting in 1961, for example, that 'legend has it that she [Katherine] was Henry's most beautiful queen.' The unknown Spanish chronicler recorded that Katherine 'was more graceful and beautiful than any lady in the Court, or perhaps in the kingdom.' In his Metrical Visions, George Cavendish, who served in the household of Cardinal Wolsey, asserted that Katherine was 'floryshyng in youthe with beawtie freshe and pure'. By contrast, the French ambassador Marillac, who had described Anne of Cleves as being 'of medium beauty' and being neither as beautiful nor as young as everyone had been led to believe, depicted Katherine as a woman of mediocre beauty when he met her in the autumn of 1540. As Retha Warnicke has argued, 'a reasonable inference is that he [Marillac] considered Anne at least as pleasing in appearance as Katherine.' Arguably, it is problematic to identify the sitter in the Holbein miniature on the basis of differing, and somewhat contradictory, reports of the respective physical appearances of Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard.
Above: Mary, Lady Monteagle (1510-before 1544) c. 1538-40, Royal Collection Trust
Finally, Moyle's belief that the sitter in the Holbein miniature is the same as that in Holbein's portrait of Anne created in 1539 due to shared physical features is also questionable. While both sitters do possess heavy eyelids and thick eyebrows, Anne does not appear to have had a double chin, while the sitter in the Holbein miniature does. It is also uncertain, mostly because Anne is facing the viewer, whether she shared the unknown sitter's nose. Perhaps most importantly of all, Anne's hair was described by the chronicler Hall on her wedding day as follows: 'hangyng downe, whych was fayre, yelowe and long'. The unknown sitter in the Holbein miniature does not have blonde hair, as Anne was said to have; instead, the colour can be described as auburn or light brown.
The portrait above is a likeness of Mary, Lady Monteagle (1510-before 1544), and is held by the Royal Collection Trust. The daughter of Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk by his second wife, Anne Browne, Mary served in the household of Queen Jane Seymour, who presented her with gifts of jewellery as a sign of favour. Before 1527, Mary married Thomas Stanley, 2nd Baron Monteagle. On the basis of jewels given to her by Jane Seymour, it is sometimes asserted that the sitter in the Holbein miniature is Mary, Lady Monteagle, especially given notable similarities between her facial features and those in the Holbein miniature. Arguably, there are greater similarities between the sitters in these two portraits than there are between the Holbein miniature and Holbein's portrait of Anne of Cleves. If one were to position Mary's portrait next to the Holbein miniature, a case could be made that they display one and the same sitter.
The above portrait is now thought to depict Elizabeth Cromwell, sister of Jane Seymour and daughter-in-law of Thomas Cromwell (who was executed in 1540), but it was identified as a likeness of Katherine Howard in 1898 and received support from historians including David Starkey; in recent decades, however, its identification with Katherine has been convincingly and overwhelmingly challenged by historians. Nevertheless, on the basis of the sitter's jewellery and physical appearance, some writers continue to believe it depicts Katherine; for example, Alison Weir suggests that the portrait is 'probably of Katherine Howard, by Hans Holbein, at Toledo, Ohio'. While the sitter in the Toledo portrait does not necessarily display the heavy eyelids or thick eyebrows in the Holbein miniature, some have perceived similar physical features between the sitter in the Toledo portrait and the sitter in the Holbein miniature. Yet these alleged facial similarities are ungrounded if the portrait depicts Elizabeth Cromwell.
To conclude, the Holbein miniature of c. 1540, displayed at the top of this post, almost certainly depicts a queen consort of England in that year, of whom there are only two candidates: Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard. Some historians have posited reasons for identifying an alternative candidate as the sitter - for example, Lady Margaret Douglas or Mary, Lady Monteagle - but these theories are far less convincing. Moyle's belief that the miniature is a likeness of Anne of Cleves undertaken in the early months of 1540 is interesting, but further research is necessary before it can be conclusively identified as a portrait of Anne during her six-month tenure as queen consort. The arguments given in this post, however, indicate that Moyle's theory is somewhat problematic. While, as Dolman recognises, there is no documentary evidence that Katherine Howard's portrait was painted during her queenship, there is also no evidence that Anne sat for a portrait wearing a French hood in the period after her wedding. The physical charms of both women were described by contemporaries in more complex ways than is sometimes recognised, and both women were described as wearing French attire, which in and of itself is insufficient to use as evidence for the sitter's identity. Perceptions of beauty, both in the sixteenth-century and now, are subjective, and perceived similarities in facial features between the Holbein miniature and Holbein's portrait of Anne undertaken in 1539 are also subjective, especially since the unknown sitter in miniature has also been thought to bear similarities in appearance to other sitters, notably Mary, Lady Monteagle and (probably) Elizabeth Cromwell. Perhaps the greatest drawback to the argument favouring Anne as the sitter, however, is the chronicler Hall's statement that Henry VIII's fourth queen had blonde hair: the sitter in the Holbein miniature clearly does not. The weight of evidence, then, would seem to lean more in favour, even if slightly, of Katherine Howard.
Saturday 14 November 2020
Seven women held the office of consort in the period 1485–1547, one of whom as the wife of the first Tudor king, Henry VII, and the following six as the wives of his son and successor, Henry VIII. The consorts are Elizabeth of York, Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard and Katherine Parr. These women have long fascinated scholars and the general public alike, with articles, books, films, television shows and even a musical about their dramatic, and in some cases tragic, lives. This article sets out to provide a brief overview of each consort, with further reading included for those who wish to learn more about the life in question. Briefly, however, it is worth noting that Retha M. Warnicke's Elizabeth of York and Her Six Daughters-in-Law (2017) is the only extant study of Tudor queenship in this period, and provides an illuminating and in-depth study of Tudor queenship in the period 1485–1547, offering facts not usually available in other works. Alison Weir (1991), Antonia Fraser (1992), David Starkey (2004) and David Loades (2010) have all written works about Henry VIII's six queens.
Born: 11 February 1466, Westminster Palace, London, England
Died: 11 February 1503, Tower of London, London, England (aged 37)
Father: Edward IV
Mother: Elizabeth Wydeville
Tenure as queen consort of England: 1486–1503 (17 years, 1 month)
Coronation: 25 November 1487
Elizabeth of York was the eldest child of the first Yorkist king, Edward IV, and his consort Elizabeth Wydeville. She was born on 11 February 1466 at Westminster Palace, but had no expectation of ruling England in view of prevailing attitudes to female succession alongside the birth of a number of sons to her parents, including the eldest, Edward (born in 1470). During her childhood, she was briefly betrothed to the Dauphin Charles, son of the king of France, but the marriage did not take place. In 1483, Elizabeth's father died and her uncle, Richard of Gloucester, seized the throne resulting in the deposition of her brother. He and his younger brother, also named Richard, were placed in the Tower of London but their subsequent fate remains a mystery. Elizabeth and her sisters sought sanctuary alongside their mother, but resided at their uncle's court when he reached an agreement with their mother, the dowager queen. Rumours circulated that King Richard intended to marry his niece Elizabeth, in view of reports that Queen Anne was unable to bear children and was in poor health. Some evidence suggests that Elizabeth may have been interested in this match, but the king publicly denied it. Instead, Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, who possessed a somewhat obscure claim to the English throne, schemed with Elizabeth Wydeville for the marriage of Henry to Elizabeth of York. Beautiful, virtuous and pious, Elizabeth became queen of England in January 1486 when she married Henry following his defeat of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. Historians have shown that there is no evidence for later allegations of conflict between Elizabeth and her somewhat domineering mother-in-law Lady Margaret. The king and queen had several children, but only four survived to adulthood: Arthur, Margaret, Henry and Mary. Arthur died in April 1502 at the age of fifteen and his mother died ten months later, on her thirty-seventh birthday at the Tower of London, shortly after giving birth to a short-lived daughter Katherine. She was buried at Westminster Abbey and was joined there by her husband when he died seven years later. Elizabeth's only surviving son, Henry, succeeded his father as king of England in 1509 and her two surviving daughters Margaret and Mary became queen consorts of Scotland and France, respectively.
- Amy Licence, Elizabeth of York: the Forgotten Tudor Queen (2013)
- Alison Weir, Elizabeth of York: the First Tudor Queen (2013)
- Arlene Okerlund, Elizabeth of York (2009)
Born: 16 December 1485, Archiepiscopal Palace of Alcala de Henares, Alcala de Henares, Kingdom of Castile
Died: 7 January 1536, Kimbolton Castle, Cambridgeshire, England (aged 50)
Father: Ferdinand II of Aragon
Mother: Isabella I of Castile
Tenure as queen consort of England: 1509–1533 (23 years, 11 months)
Coronation: 24 June 1509
The youngest daughter of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, Katherine (born in 1485) was betrothed to Arthur, Prince of Wales, eldest son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, in childhood and was thus educated as befitted a queen consort of England. A devout Roman Catholic, Katherine studied a range of subjects including philosophy, theology, history, arithmetic and classical and canon law, and learned languages such as French and Latin. She also acquired experience in domestic skills such as embroidery and sewing. In the summer of 1501, the fifteen-year-old Katherine travelled to England to wed Arthur and their wedding took place at St Paul's Cathedral in November. Whether the young couple consummated their union or not has remained a subject of controversy for the last five hundred years. Tragically, Arthur died the following spring at Ludlow Castle on the borders of Wales, where Katherine was residing with him. Subsequently the English and Spanish monarchs arranged that Katherine would marry Arthur's younger brother, Henry, now heir to the English throne. Ferdinand's procrastination over paying the remainder of his daughter's dowry, however, led to the marriage being postponed while Katherine lived in difficult conditions at Durham House in London. When Henry VII died in 1509, his eighteen-year-old son elected to marry Katherine and the couple were crowned at Westminster Abbey in June. Katherine presided over a court of culture and learning and was appointed regent of England when her husband went to war with France in 1513. When the Scots invaded that year, the queen ordered Thomas Lovell to raise an army in the Midlands and the English army triumphed at the Battle of Flodden.
During her marriage, Katherine was pregnant at least six times but only one child survived, Mary (born in 1516). Like many of his contemporaries, Henry doubted whether a female could successfully rule England and by 1527 believed that his marriage to Katherine had displeased God by virtue of their lack of surviving sons. He was also in love with Anne Boleyn, who served in Katherine's household. The king argued that Katherine's marriage to Arthur in 1501 had been consummated, thus making her subsequent union with Henry invalid according to Biblical law. The queen, however, claimed that she and Arthur had never consummated their marriage. The struggle for an annulment of the Aragon marriage endured for six years, but in 1532 or 1533 Henry married Anne Boleyn in secret and in May, Archbishop Cranmer pronounced the Aragon marriage null and void, rendering the queen's daughter Mary illegitimate and unable to succeed her father. By then banished from court, Katherine resided in a range of residences including The More, Ampthill Castle and Buckden Towers, before spending the final years of her life at Kimbolton Castle, where she died on 7 January 1536, perhaps of cancer, having never accepted her husband's decision to annul their marriage. She was buried at Peterborough Abbey (now Cathedral); her daughter Mary became England's first queen regnant in July 1553.
- Garrett Mattingly, Catherine of Aragon (1941)
- Giles Tremlett, Catherine of Aragon: Henry's Spanish Queen (2010)
- Amy Licence, Catherine of Aragon: An Intimate Life of Henry VIII's True Wife (2016)
Born: Between 1500 and 1507 probably at Blickling Hall, Norfolk or Hever Castle, Kent, England
Died: 19 May 1536, Tower of London, London, England (aged 28–36)
Father: Thomas Boleyn, earl of Wiltshire
Mother: Lady Elizabeth Howard
Tenure as queen consort of England: 1533–1536 (3 years)
Coronation: 1 June 1533
The most famous of Henry VIII's six wives, Anne Boleyn was born between 1500 and 1507. The majority of modern historians favour a birth date of circa 1501, but evidence from her daughter's lifetime supports the later birth date, especially in view of prevailing court customs that decreed that maidens of honour did not receive instruction in languages. It is also questionable why the ambitious Thomas Boleyn would have been content for his daughter to remain unmarried between 1523 and 1527 if she were as old as twenty-seven in the latter year. Anne is thought to have been born at Blickling Hall in Norfolk or perhaps Hever Castle in Kent, although some of her later relatives believed that she had been born in London. Whether she was older or younger than her sister Mary and brother George continues to remain controversial. If born in 1507, Anne was probably the youngest surviving child. In 1513, she was sent to the court of Margaret of Austria in the Low Countries; traditionally thought to have served as a maiden of honour, as noted earlier it was not the custom for maidens to receive an education while they were fulfilling her duties. The following year, Anne wrote a letter to her father in poor French, indicating that she could not speak the language and so would not have been capable of fulfilling the duties of a maiden of honour. Perhaps she initially resided in the royal nursery and served as a maiden at a later date. In 1514, she attended Henry VIII's sister Mary when she married Louis XII of France and later served Claude of France, wife of Francois I. Anne acquired a thorough knowledge of French culture and developed her talents in dancing, music and singing. Her evangelical faith may also have originated in France. In 1521 or 1522, she returned to England to wed James Butler to settle a dispute between the Boleyn and Butler families concerning the earldom of Ormond, but the marriage never took place. Anne fell in love with, and hoped to marry, Henry Percy, heir to the earldom of Northumberland, in 1523, but the couple were prevented from marrying due to the wishes of the king and Cardinal Wolsey and Anne was banished from court, remaining at Hever until 1526 or 1527, when she returned probably in the capacity of maiden of honour to Katherine of Aragon.
Contemporaries described her as being of medium height, with long dark hair, brown or black eyes and a swarthy complexion. Her detractors slandered her as being deformed, while others noted her beauty and elegance. In 1531 she was described as being both 'young' and 'good-looking'; such references to Anne's youth in the late 1520s and early 1530s provide further evidence of a birth in 1507, rather than as early as 1500/1. In 1527, Henry fell passionately in love with the sophisticated and charming Anne, and proposed marriage to her. The couple, however, wed only in late 1532 or early 1533 on account of the long struggle to annul the Aragon marriage. Anne was crowned queen on 1 June 1533, already pregnant, and gave birth to her only surviving child, Elizabeth, on 7 September. Two further pregnancies resulted in a probable stillbirth (in 1534) and in a miscarriage (in 1536). The king and queen's relationship was stormy, punctuated by periods of bitter quarrels and subsequent reconciliation. Many of the king's subjects refused to accept Anne as queen and she was regularly slandered as a whore or prostitute. The marriage was also never recognised in Europe as valid.
Anne exerted significant influence at court, especially in advancing the evangelical faith, and was outspoken on political and religious matters. Despite her influence, the royal couple's lack of a son endangered Anne's security. The queen's precarious position worsened in early 1536 when her husband fell in love with her attendant Jane Seymour. In May, four months after a miscarriage, Anne was accused of treason, adultery and incest with five men, including her brother, and was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Historians continue to debate the reasons for the queen's downfall; suggestions include that a coup was masterminded by Thomas Cromwell to remove Anne and her 'faction' from power; that her husband had grown to hate her and was desperate to marry Jane; that she actually was guilty of the charges; that she gave birth to a deformed foetus, convincing her husband that she was a witch; and that her own incriminating behaviour and conversations in the spring of 1536 created a climate of suspicion and distrust of her loyalty to the king. Irrespective of the reason, most historians believe that she and the men accused with her were not guilty of the charges. All were found guilty and the men were executed on 17 May, the date on which Anne's marriage to Henry was annulled, probably on account of his earlier liaison with the queen's sister Mary. Anne was beheaded within the walls of the Tower of London two days later, the first English queen to suffer execution, and her remains were interred at the Tower chapel of St Peter ad Vincula. Her daughter, Elizabeth, became queen of England in 1558.
- Eric Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (2004)
- Retha M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989)
- G. W. Bernard, Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions (2010)
- Susan Bordo, The Creation of Anne Boleyn (2013)
- Alison Weir, The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn (2009)
Born: About 1509 probably at Wolfhall, Wiltshire, England
Died: 24 October 1537, Hampton Court Palace, London, England (aged about 28)
Father: Sir John Seymour
Mother: Margery Wentworth
Tenure as queen consort of England: 1536–1537 (1 year, 5 months)
Coronation: Never crowned
On 30 May 1536, Jane Seymour became the third wife of Henry VIII when she married him at Whitehall Palace in London. The eldest daughter of Sir John Seymour and Margery Wentworth, Jane was probably born in about 1509, for twenty-nine female mourners are alleged to have participated in her funeral procession, suggesting that when she died, she had been in her twenty-ninth year. The imperial ambassador also described her as being over 25 in 1536. Jane is thought to have served Katherine of Aragon as a maiden of honour, but the evidence is patchy and it is uncertain when she arrived at court. She later attended Anne Boleyn, although she is thought to have remained loyal to the former queen. There is little, if any, evidence for the oft-repeated assertion that Jane revered Katherine of Aragon and later modelled her queenship on that of Katherine's. She received a traditional education as a child, in which she learned skills such as embroidery, housewifery, sewing and needlework, but she was never described as possessing linguistic or musical ability. Jane may have been betrothed to William Dormer, but if so, the marriage took place and by early 1536, at the age of twenty-seven, Jane remained unwed. Henry VIII began courting her that year, perhaps with a view to taking her as his mistress, but Jane, who seems to have been coached by her family, refused the king's proposal. The turbulence of the Boleyn marriage, and the king's lack of sons by the queen, coupled with his interest in Jane, sealed Anne's fate and led to Jane becoming queen of England in May 1536. She was described as being pale and fair, but not beautiful, and while some observers praised her good sense and placid nature, others thought that she was haughty. Jane was never crowned queen due to an outbreak of plague in the capital. Her household was conservative in dress and behaviour, and she exerted little political influence, although she did intercede for the king's daughter Mary and father and daughter were reconciled in 1536. When Jane did attempt to speak out for the abbeys, which the king planned to dissolve in order to seize their revenues, she was brutally warned not to meddle in political matters if she wished to avoid the fate of her predecessor.
In early 1537, the queen conceived a child and on 12 October, at Hampton Court Palace, she gave birth to the king's much-desired son, who was named Edward. Tragically, Jane died twelve days later at the age of about 28, perhaps of puerperal fever or an infection from a retained placenta. She was buried at St George's Chapel, Windsor, and her husband was interred there next to her when he died in 1547.
- Pamela Gross, Jane, the Quene (1999)
- Elizabeth Norton, Jane Seymour: Henry VIII's True Love (2009)
Born: June 1515 in Dusseldorf, Duchy of Berg, Holy Roman Empire
Died: 16 July 1557, Chelsea Old Manor, London, England (aged 42)
Father: John III, duke of Cleves
Mother: Maria of Julich-Berg
Tenure as queen consort of England: 1540 (6 months)
Coronation: Never crowned
Jane Seymour's death in 1537 led Henry VIII and his chief minister Thomas Cromwell to seek a bride from one of the royal houses of Europe. Various candidates were proposed, including Marie of Guise and Christina of Denmark, but the king's desire for an alliance with Cleves - in view of England's isolation and the threat from France and Spain, who were then allies - led him to favour a match with Anne, daughter of John III, duke of Cleves. Anne had initially been betrothed to Francis of Lorraine. Her education was traditional in nature, but she does not seem to have acquired instruction in music and was not viewed as being sophisticated. She was described by observers as attractive, with long fair hair and with a tall, slim build. In 1539 she departed for England in readiness for her marriage to Henry, whom she met for the first time at Rochester Abbey on New Year's Day 1540. The king and a few of his attendants adopted a courtly love convention in which they visited Anne in disguise. Henry was disappointed with Anne, perhaps because she had allegedly 'regarded him little' since she may not have known who he was on account of his disguise. The king also complained that she was 'nothing so fair as she hath been reported', but it is a myth that he described her as a Flanders mare, a claim which dates from a later period. The couple married at Greenwich Palace on 6 January 1540, but the marriage was never consummated and Anne was never crowned. By the spring of that year, Henry was passionately in love with Anne's maiden of honour, Katherine Howard, and international politics, namely the renewal of conflict between France and Spain, meant that the Cleves alliance was no longer welcome or necessary. The king believed that Anne was not legally his wife on account of her earlier precontract to Francis of Lorraine. The marriage was annulled in July and Thomas Cromwell, who had helped to arrange the Cleves marriage, was executed for treason. Anne received a generous settlement; her properties included Richmond Palace and Hever Castle. It is a myth that she was the luckiest of Henry VIII's six queens, for she would not have viewed the situation that way: Anne hoped to be reinstated as queen and when Henry married for the final time to Katherine Parr, she was described as being disappointed and disparaged the new queen's appearance. In some sense Henry was Anne's protector and, after his death, her life became increasingly complicated. She experienced conflict between her servants in her household and confided to her brother that she felt like a stranger in England. When her stepdaughter Mary became queen of England in 1553, Anne congratulated her and participated in the queen's coronation procession. She seems to have lost royal favour the following year on account of her close association with her other stepdaughter Elizabeth, who was implicated in Wyatt's Rebellion, and because she was thought to have intrigued on Elizabeth's behalf during the rebellion. Anne died on 16 July 1557 at Chelsea Old Manor, probably of cancer, and was buried at Westminster Abbey.
- Heather Darsie, Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King's Beloved Sister (2019)
- Retha M. Warnicke, The Marrying of Anne of Cleves. Royal Protocol in Early Modern England (2000)
- Elizabeth Norton, Anne of Cleves: Henry VIII's Discarded Bride (2009)
Born: Between 1523 and 1525 probably in Lambeth, London, England
Died: 13 February 1542, Tower of London, London, England (aged 17–19)
Father: Lord Edmund Howard
Mother: Joyce Culpeper
Tenure as queen consort of England: 1540–1541 (1 year, 4 months)
Coronation: Never crowned
Katherine Howard was the youngest wife of Henry VIII. She was a younger daughter of Lord Edmund Howard and Joyce Culpeper, and was the granddaughter of Thomas, second duke of Norfolk and a niece of Thomas, third duke of Norfolk. She and Anne Boleyn were first cousins, for Anne was the daughter of Edmund's sister Elizabeth. Katherine's date of birth is unknown, but contemporary - albeit fragmentary - evidence indicates that she was born between 1523 and 1525. Certainly she was a teenager when she captivated the ageing king in late 1539 or early 1540. At some point between 1531 and 1536, Katherine was sent to reside in the household of her step-grandmother Agnes, dowager duchess of Norfolk. She began receiving music lessons in 1536, perhaps with a view to serving as maiden of honour to Anne Boleyn or Jane Seymour. That she only began receiving music lessons that year is a further clue to her age, for if born as early as 1520/1 these surely would have taken place earlier with a view to acquiring a place in the queen's household. In the midst of these lessons her music master Henry Manox seduced her, although the two did not have sexual intercourse. She later noted that Manox had beseeched her to grant him sexual favours 'at the flattering and fair persuasions of Manox, being but a young girl'. By 1538, Katherine was involved in a liaison with Francis Dereham, a secretary to the dowager duchess, and rumours circulated in the household that the two hoped to marry. Dereham, born between 1506 and 1509, was then aged between twenty-nine and thirty-two, and Katherine was aged between thirteen and fifteen. It is possible, though uncertain, that Dereham coerced her. By 1539, however, their relationship had ended on account of Katherine's appointment to the household of Anne of Cleves.
An unknown Spanish chronicler later described Katherine as the most beautiful woman in the kingdom. She was elegant, charming and generous, although other contemporaries described her as willful and imperious. Upon her arrival at court, Henry VIII fell headily in love with the teenaged Katherine and the two married on 28 July 1540 at Oatlands Palace. Katherine fulfilled her duties as queen successfully, acting as a patron and intercessor on a number of occasions, and court observers described the king's hope that his new queen would bear a son. Rumours circulated throughout Katherine's queenship that she was pregnant, but if so, she never gave birth to a living child. Like Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleves, Katherine was never crowned, although it was rumoured that she would be crowned in York during the royal couple's progress to the north of England. By the spring of 1541, however, Katherine's life became complicated. Her former suitor Dereham arrived at court, hoping to serve in her household, and soon began boasting of his former relations with the queen. Dereham's aggressive and possessive attitude towards Katherine placed both individuals in danger. At the same time, Katherine began secretly meeting with Thomas Culpeper, a favoured courtier, with the aid of Lady Rochford, sister-in-law to Anne Boleyn. Culpeper was described as handsome but he had a dark reputation as an alleged rapist.
Traditionally, the queen and Culpeper are thought to have had a sexual affair, but both parties denied it. A letter written by Katherine to Culpeper probably in July 1541, usually described as a love letter, instead indicates that she desired him to keep his promise to her, but it remains uncertain what she was referring to. Perhaps the couple were in love, but it is also possible that in a climate of tension and intrigue at court, in which Dereham had recklessly boasted of his former liaison with the queen, that Culpeper had learned of Katherine's background and used it against her in order to win favours and attention. In support of this theory is the fact that Katherine gave him gifts and met with him regularly while chaperoned by Lady Rochford. It is possible that the promise which Katherine referred to in her letter concerned Culpeper's promise not to reveal her past to the king. She also warned him to beware revealing their meetings during his confessions to priests in case Henry VIII, by virtue of his position as head of the Church in England, somehow learned of their liaisons. Irrespective of the nature of their meetings, Katherine behaved recklessly since contemporary customs warned women not to meet secretly with men who were not their husbands. It is also questionable why she did not learn from the experiences of her cousin and predecessor Anne Boleyn, whose allegedly indiscreet conversations had led to her downfall and execution in 1536.
In November 1541, Archbishop Cranmer learned of Katherine's past when John Lascelles, whose sister Mary had resided in the dowager duchess of Norfolk's household alongside Katherine, revealed that the queen had been involved with two men prior to her marriage to the king. The queen and her household were subsequently investigated and the privy councillors eventually learned of her secret meetings with Culpeper in the spring and summer of that year. The distraught king refused to see Katherine and moved away from court. In December, Dereham and Culpeper were executed for treason and in February of the following year, Katherine and Lady Rochford were beheaded at the Tower of London, having been found guilty of treason by an Act of Attainder, thus denying them the right to stand trial. Contrary to popular belief, the queen was not found guilty of adultery but was indicted for intending to commit adultery with Culpeper, which constituted a treasonous offence. Both women were praised for their godly conduct on the scaffold, in which they praised the king and beseeched onlookers to pray for them. After the executions, their remains were interred at the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula. Katherine was aged seventeen to nineteen years when she was executed.
- Conor Byrne, Katherine Howard: Henry VIII's Slandered Queen (2019)
- Gareth Russell, Young and Damned and Fair: The Life and Tragedy of Catherine Howard at the Court of Henry VIII (2017)
- Josephine Wilkinson, Katherine Howard: The Tragic Story of Henry VIII's Fifth Queen (2016)
- Retha M. Warnicke, Wicked Women of Tudor England (2012)
- Lacey Baldwin Smith, A Tudor Tragedy: The Life and Times of Catherine Howard (1961)
Born: 1512 probably in Blackfriars, London, England
Died: 5 September 1548, Sudeley Castle, Gloucestershire, England (aged 36)
Father: Sir Thomas Parr
Mother: Maud Green
Tenure as queen consort of England: 1543–1547 (3 years, 6 months)
Coronation: Never crowned
Katherine was the eldest daughter of Sir Thomas Parr and Maud Green, and was probably born in the summer of 1512 in Blackfriars, London. Her father was a favoured companion of Henry VIII and her mother served in the household of Katherine of Aragon, for whom Katherine Parr was probably named. Katherine acquired an excellent education, which included the learning of languages such as French and Latin, and in 1529, aged seventeen, she married Sir Edward Burgh of Gainsborough, Lincolnshire. Her husband died in 1533 and Katherine probably resided for a time at Sizergh Castle in Westmorland with the Dowager Lady Strickland, the widow of Katherine's cousin Sir Walter Strickland. The following year, Katherine married for the second time to John Neville, Baron Latimer, and acted as stepmother to his two children John and Margaret. In 1537, during the Pilgrimage of Grace, Katherine and her stepchildren were held hostage by the rebels at Snape Castle in Yorkshire. Her husband had been compelled the previous autumn to join the rebellion, and had been threatened with violence if he refused. However, Latimer's involvement in the rebellion led the king and Cromwell to suspect him of being a traitor, and it is possible that Katherine's brother William and their uncle (also named William) intervened for his life as a result. In 1543, Latimer died and at the age of thirty-one, Katherine was once more a widow.
She seems to have fallen in love with Sir Thomas Seymour, brother of the late Queen Jane, but while residing at court, she caught the attention of Henry VIII and the couple were married at Hampton Court Palace on 12 July of that year. Katherine's later correspondence indicates that she had not willingly agreed to marry the king, but felt that God had called her to be queen of England in order to advance true religion. It is a myth that she acted as a nursemaid to her ageing and infirm husband. Katherine was an educated, cultured and elegant queen consort who was known for her love of art, music and fashion. Like Katherine of Aragon, she was made regent of England in 1544 when the king left England to campaign in France. Katherine became close to her three stepchildren Mary, Elizabeth and Edward, and scholars have conjectured that her influence on Elizabeth, in particular, was significant. Katherine possessed a devout religious faith and wrote a number of religious works including The Lamentation of a Sinner (published after her husband's death). She enjoyed reading and discussing scripture with the ladies of her Privy Chamber. However, her adherence to the reformed faith led the conservatives at court, masterminded by Bishop Stephen Gardiner and Lord Wriothesley, to plot against her. Her own outspoken views increasingly alienated the king, and rumours began circulating that Henry planned to marry for the seventh time to the queen's friend Katherine, duchess of Suffolk. Whether there was any truth to these rumours remains uncertain.
In the summer of 1546, shortly after the burning of the heretic Anne Askew, who was thought to have links to some of the queen's ladies-in-waiting, a warrant was drawn up for the queen's arrest on charges of heresy. Fortunately for Katherine, a servant caught sight of the warrant and warned her in time. She convinced the king of her loyalty by claiming that she had only discussed religion with him as a distraction from the suffering caused by his ulcered leg. Henry VIII died on 28 January 1547 and his wife, now queen dowager, retired from court. The queen's swift remarriage to Thomas Seymour, probably in that spring, caused a scandal. In particular, her stepdaughter Mary was reported to be displeased by Katherine's actions. The dowager queen also experienced conflict with the Lord Protector on account of her jewels, since he and his wife argued that Katherine was no longer entitled to wear them.
In the spring of 1548, Katherine conceived a child for the first time. However, her husband's reckless behaviour with her stepdaughter Elizabeth, who was residing with her stepmother, created a scandal in the household, and Elizabeth was dismissed as a result. On 30 August, the dowager queen gave birth to a daughter, Mary, but Katherine died only six days later from puerperal (or childbed) fever. Her daughter is thought to have died in infancy. Katherine was buried at St. Mary's Chapel in the grounds of Sudeley Castle, and remains the only English queen buried on private ground. Thomas Seymour was executed for treason the following March.
- Susan James, Kateryn Parr: The Making of a Queen (1999)
- Linda Porter, Katherine the Queen: The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr (2010)
- Susan James, Catherine Parr: Henry VIII's Last Love (2010)
The Tudor Consorts
This article has sought to provide a brief biography of each of the seven Tudor consorts, alongside offering a list of recommended works for readers interested in learning more about them. Their lives continue to remain fascinating for modern audiences.
Tuesday 22 January 2019
I am delighted to announce that The History Press are publishing my biography of Henry VIII's fifth wife in April 2019, with the title "Katherine Howard: Henry VIII's Slandered Queen". It presents my years of research into Katherine's brief life and offers additional content to my 2014 biography. You can preorder the book here.
I was very fortunate to offer my thoughts about Henry's youngest wife on The History Press website. You can read the thoughts here, in which I note that
Every piece of surviving evidence we have indicates that, contrary to traditional perceptions, Katherine was a conscientious queen who fulfilled her ceremonial duties aptly. I argue in my book that Katherine’s style of queenship may have been directly shaped by Henry VIII’s changing expectations about the queen’s role. Too often it is assumed that she was uninterested in fulfilling her royal duties, but it is barely ever considered that perhaps her husband had a direct say in the way that Katherine responded to her role. Had Katherine given birth to a male heir and had the king never discovered her pre-marital past, then I do believe she would have been regarded as a very successful queen consort.
Every piece of surviving evidence we have indicates that, contrary to traditional perceptions, Katherine was a conscientious queen who fulfilled her ceremonial duties aptly. I argue in my book that Katherine’s style of queenship may have been directly shaped by Henry VIII’s changing expectations about the queen’s role. Too often it is assumed that she was uninterested in fulfilling her royal duties, but it is barely ever considered that perhaps her husband had a direct say in the way that Katherine responded to her role. Had Katherine given birth to a male heir and had the king never discovered her pre-marital past, then I do believe she would have been regarded as a very successful queen consort.
Monday 29 January 2018
I have recently written an article for the website On The Tudor Trail about Anne Boleyn's life in the years 1521-7, a period that remains frustratingly shadowy. In this article, I discuss Anne's return to England from the French court in late 1521; her anticipated marriage to James Butler, heir to the earldom of Ormond; her probable appointment to Katherine of Aragon's household in 1523 and her liaison that year with Henry Percy, heir to the earldom of Northumberland; her dismissal and probable return in late 1526. My approach is closely informed by the extant evidence concerning Anne's age and the Boleyn family goals and ambitions, in which it was anticipated that Anne would be ennobled as the countess of Ormond. As is well known, of course, the marriage did not come to fruition and Anne instead captured the heart of Henry VIII by 1527, four years after her affair with Percy, who inherited the earldom of Northumberland in 1527. You can read the article here.
Thursday 8 June 2017
Five years ago, I published a blog post about the date of birth of Katherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII. In the course of researching and writing about her life, I became increasingly aware of the influence that misconceptions about her continued to play in historical writing. Two years after that blog post, my full-length study of Katherine's life was published. In that book, I argued that Katherine was almost certainly the second daughter of Edmund and Jocasta Howard: her older sister Margaret was born by 1518, and her younger sister Mary was probably born by 1525. We know for a fact that all three girls, and their three surviving brothers Henry, Charles and George, were born by 1527, according to Edmund Howard's own correspondence.
Since that book was published, I have continued to research and reflect on Katherine's probable date of birth. Undoubtedly, when she was born is highly important, for it influences our interpretation of her adolescent relationships in the household of her step-grandmother, the dowager duchess of Norfolk. It also influences how we perceive her relationship with Henry VIII, whom she married in 1540. It is worth thinking about Henry's own marital and sexual preferences, a much-debated issue that perhaps, strangely, neglects the issue of age.
Henry VIII was not yet eighteen when he married Katherine of Aragon, who was twenty-three, in 1509. Sixteenth-century women could legally marry at twelve years old, but it was rare for them to marry at so young an age. Women from the lower classes married, on average, at twenty-five or twenty-six, and even among the nobility, women tended to marry at about twenty, or in their late teens. Anne Boleyn's mother, for example, was probably married by the age of nineteen or twenty, and Jane Parker, wife of George Boleyn, was about nineteen at her marriage. During his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, Henry was involved in liaisons with Bessie Blount (who was born by 1500, if not before, and was therefore nineteen when she gave birth to the king's son in 1519) and Mary Boleyn, who had probably been born by 1501 and was therefore in her early twenties.
In 1527, Henry fell passionately in love with Anne Boleyn, younger sister of a previous mistress. Anne was probably six years younger than most historians assume. In 1527, she was probably twenty years of age. A variety of palace officials, servants and the likes of Cardinal Reginald Pole all characterised her as young. Gareth Russell has also pointed out that not once, during the six arduous and time-consuming years in which Henry fought to secure from the Pope an annulment of his first marriage, was Anne's age queried as a barrier to marriage. Undoubtedly, had she been as old as thirty or thirty-one during Henry's courtship, questions would have been raised as to whether she was a suitable partner for childbearing.
When Anne married the king in late 1532, she was probably twenty-five, and according to an attendant of her stepdaughter Mary, the disgraced queen was not yet twenty-nine when she was executed in May 1536. Her successor Jane Seymour was, according to the Imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys, a little over twenty-five when she became Henry VIII's bride in 1536, suggesting that she was about twenty-six or twenty-seven. At her funeral the following year, there was a female mourner for every year of Jane's life: twenty-nine in all. Probably, according to the contemporary tradition of marking one's age, this referred to Jane dying in the twenty-ninth year of her life, rather than having died at the age of twenty-nine: therefore suggesting that she was born in about 1509.
In 1540, Henry married Anne of Cleves, a twenty-four year old German noblewoman. It was rumoured before his marriage to Anne that Henry had been romantically interested in Anne Basset, a former maiden of Jane Seymour. Mistress Basset was born in 1521 and so would have been sixteen or so when the king's eye fell on her, however briefly. Before the negotiations to marry Anne of Cleves, Henry had expressed an interest in marrying the seventeen-year-old Christina of Milan.
Plainly, Henry's preference was for women in their late teens or early twenties. Bessie Blount and Mary Boleyn, his two most well-known mistresses, were in their late teens, Mary perhaps her early twenties. Katherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves were both in their early twenties, while Henry first became interested in Anne Boleyn when she was about twenty, although she was in her mid-twenties when they married. Jane Seymour, on the other hand, was probably twenty-seven. The glaring exception to this rule was Katherine Parr, who was thirty-one when she married Henry VIII in 1543, but she had already been married twice previously and there does not appear to have been any expectation on the king's behalf that she would provide him with children, unlike all of his previous marriages. It was highly unusual for a noblewoman to remain unwed by her late twenties or early thirties. Indeed, so anomalous was the as-yet unwed Jane Seymour's position in early 1536 that the Imperial ambassador openly questioned both her virginity and her morals. Jane, at twenty-seven, was still unmarried.
When Katherine Howard caught the king's eye in late 1539 or early 1540, contemporary observers not only praised her attractiveness, but they also commented on her youth. According to Richard Hilles, she was a 'young girl', while the French ambassador referred to her as a 'young lady'. The anonymous author of The Chronicle of Henry VIII expressly stated that she was about fifteen when Henry fell in love with her, and also referred to her as a 'mere child'. George Cavendish, in his verses about Katherine's life, mentioned youth ten times. Plainly, the implication was that Katherine's youth and beauty were noticeable.
In the late twentieth-century, modern historians assumed that Katherine was born in 1520-1 because of a portrait housed in the Toledo Museum of Art, with versions also at the National Portrait Gallery and Hever Castle. The well-dressed sitter is, according to an inscription in the painting, in her twenty-first year. Quite why this portrait was identified as a portrait of Katherine remains unclear. The notion that it is an image of the hapless queen has been comprehensively debunked. Recently, it has been suggested that the sitter may plausibly be identified as any one of Frances Brandon, Eleanor Brandon, Margaret Douglas or Elizabeth Cromwell.
By contrast, a portrait housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York depicts a magnificently dressed young woman aged in her seventeenth year, according to the inscription, and it has been dated to c.1540-1545. A number of historians, including myself, Gareth Russell and Susan James, have suggested that Katherine may well be the sitter in the painting. Although the identification is speculative, if it is true then it would suggest that she was born in 1523 or 1524, assuming that the painting was painted in 1540-1. This identification, however, remains tentative.
When she was appointed a maid of honour to Anne of Cleves in late 1539, Katherine joined her cousin Katherine Carey and Mary Norris, who were born in 1524 and 1526, respectively. Undoubtedly, had she been born as early as 1520, Katherine's family would have attempted to arrange for her to serve Anne Boleyn or Jane Seymour in the years 1533-7. There is no evidence that they did so. It is probably significant that she only began receiving music lessons from Henry Manox and Master Barnes in 1536, when she was likely in her early teens.
However, the French ambassador commented that Katherine had been intimately involved with Francis Dereham from her thirteenth to her eighteenth year, thus suggesting a five year relationship. Modern historians have usually taken this comment as evidence that she was born in 1520-1, for the relationship probably ended in early 1539. I am persuaded by Retha Warnicke's argument, however, that the ambassador was probably unaware of Katherine's earlier liaison with Manox, which took place in 1536-7. In the wake of Katherine's downfall, it became apparent that she had appointed Dereham to her service and, it was rumoured, had met with him in a return to their previous relationship. If Katherine was about thirteen in 1536, then she might have been eighteen in 1541 when she confirmed Dereham's appointment to her household, therefore explaining the ambassador's reference to the ages of thirteen and eighteen.
The contradictory comments of the French ambassador and the unknown author of The Chronicle of Henry VIII clearly indicate that there was a degree of confusion about Katherine's exact age; possibly neither man knew for certain when she was born. However, Cavendish's ten references to her youth in his verses is probably significant, as are the other reported remarks about her young age when she became queen. That she was not born earlier than 1523 is a reasonable assumption in view of the ages of her fellow maids of honour, the date at which she began receiving music lessons (probably in readiness for her anticipated appointment to the queen's household) and the evidence of her grandparents' wills. In 1524, her grandfather John Legh's will did not refer to Katherine or her younger sister, but her grandmother Isabel's will, which was written three years later, referred to all three Howard girls. Whether this is evidence that Katherine and Mary were born between 1524 and 1527, however, is unclear, but at the very least it seems to suggest that they were either not yet born or were very young when their grandfather's will was penned.
The traditional argument that Katherine was born as early as 1520-1 has been proven to be shaky and based on a dubious portrait identification. Most modern historians now believe that the portrait is not of the queen, but probably depicts one of the king's nieces or Elizabeth Cromwell, younger sister of Jane Seymour. It is probably significant that the three most recent biographers of Katherine - myself, Josephine Wilkinson and Gareth Russell - all advocate a later birth date. Wilkinson agrees with Joanna Denny that Katherine was born in 1525, probably the latest possible date for her birth. Russell suggests 1522 or 1523. The evidence available, in my opinion, seems to suggest a birth date of 1523. Sixteenth-century children were occasionally named for the saint on whose feast day they were born; St. Katherine's Day is 25 November. Whether this suggests that Katherine Howard was born in November 1523 is impossible to say, but the considerable evidence available to historians probably indicates without a doubt that she was born no earlier than 1523 and no later than 1525. This would mean that she was about seventeen when she married Henry VIII and had probably not yet attained the age of nineteen when she was executed in early 1542.
Friday 19 May 2017
We have no way of knowing whether Anne Boleyn was greeted by warm sunshine and birdsong as she took her final steps out of the queen's apartments and towards the scaffold within the Tower of London. Likewise, it is impossible to say whether the queen and her attendants were showered with rain, or whether blustery winds tugged on the trains of their gowns. Films and television often portray Anne's execution day as beautifully sunny and warm (think Anne of the Thousand Days; The Tudors; Henry VIII, etc.), but contemporary writers writing about that momentous day were uninterested in the finer details of the weather, and it is questionable whether Anne Boleyn herself was all too concerned if her final moments were spent in brilliant May sunshine or unseasonable damp and cold. 19 May 1536 was the date on which an unprecedented act would take place: the execution of an English queen consort, the first of its kind.
Four days earlier, she had been tried and found guilty of adultery with five courtiers, treason and plotting the death of her husband, Henry VIII. Two days later, her marriage had been annulled (probably on the grounds of her sister Mary's liaison with the king a decade earlier) and her co-accused had themselves gone to the scaffold, including her brother George, lord Rochford. Anne's tortuous imprisonment in the Tower had been, understandably, emotionally charged for her: she had experienced hope, despair, confusion, sorrow, anxiety and humour. Sir William Kingston, the constable of the Tower, had been baffled by her behaviour: one minute she seemed ready and willing to die, he reported, but the next minute she would collapse in a fit of weeping. Archbishop Cranmer, who had received patronage and support from Anne and her family, had provided Anne with hope that she would be permitted to spend the rest of her life in a nunnery, but that hope was nothing more than a cruel illusion. As May 19 dawned, the queen was aware that her life would indeed end within the walls of the Tower, rather than behind the walls of a nunnery, but at least her death would be caused by decapitation, a relatively quick form of execution, rather than by being burned at the stake, as was originally feared.
According to Edward Hall, the lawyer and chronicler, Anne spoke these words on the scaffold:
Good Christen people, I am come hether to dye, for accordyng to the lawe and by the lawe I am iudged to dye, and therefore I wyll speake nothyng against it. I am come hether to accuse no man, nor to speake any thyng of that wherof I am accused and condempned to dye, but I pray God saue the king and send him long to reigne ouer you, for a gentler nor a more mercyfull prince was there neuer: and to me he was euer a good, a gentle, & soueraigne lorde. And if any persone wil medle of my cause, I require them to iudge the best. And thus I take my leue of the worlde and of you all, and I heartely desyre you all to pray for me. O lorde haue mercy on me, to God I comende my soule.
Mercifully, Anne's head was swiftly 'stryken of with the sworde', and she was buried at the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula. Modern readers might wonder whether Anne's last words in praise of her husband were spoken with irony, or contempt, or humour: but her speech actually followed contemporary protocol in almost every sense. The condemned was expected to praise the king and the justice of his law; to speak out against it threatened infamy and ruin to the condemned's family, and might result in an even harsher mode of execution for the condemned. Whether or not Anne was thinking of her daughter, the infant Elizabeth, when she spoke these words is uncertain, but it is possible that she was desirous of securing as stable a future as possible for her soon-to-be motherless, bastardised daughter. Criticising Henry or questioning his justice in public would hardly achieve that. In asking those present to judge the best of her case, however, Anne left the events of her ruin open to question and open to debate.
The unexpected accession of her daughter, Elizabeth, in 1558 meant that Anne's memory could be honoured and her status as queen of England celebrated, but had it not been for Elizabeth's accession, it is possible that Anne would have been confined to history as an unpopular and possibly adulterous queen. Her name was rarely spoken, at least in public, during the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI, and Mary I, who understandably blamed Anne for her harsh treatment during the 1530s, openly referred to Anne as an adulteress and heretic, and was desirous of preventing her half-sister Elizabeth from succeeding her. Even during Elizabeth's reign, moreover, a degree of ambivalence remained. Protestant writers, including John Foxe, dutifully celebrated Anne's piety and charity, but they refrained from discussing the events that led to her downfall and execution. To do so, perhaps, would cast doubt on Henry VIII's motives. Elizabeth herself, who gloried in her father's memory, rarely referred to her mother and, unlike her half-sister Mary (who had proclaimed her parents' marriage to be valid upon her succession to the throne in 1553), Elizabeth did not legitimise herself and did not declare her parents' union to be valid. In doing so, she left herself vulnerable to accusations of bastardy for the rest of her reign, and in Catholic Europe, her cousin Mary Queen of Scots was always regarded as the rightful queen of England, by virtue of both her unquestioned legitimacy and her Catholic faith.
Above: Elizabeth I.
Why Elizabeth did not restore the legitimacy of her parents' marriage is understandable: her father had approved the dissolution of his marriage to her mother and had sanctioned her subsequent execution on charges of treason and adultery, charges that called into question Elizabeth's parentage. To have retrospectively declared the marriage to be lawful, rather than null and void, would have effectively cast Henry VIII as a murderer. As mentioned earlier, Elizabeth fondly recalled her father's memory on several occasions during her reign, including at her coronation festivities. Her relative silence concerning her mother need not be taken as evidence that she was ashamed of her, for there is other evidence to suggest that, privately at least, she honoured her mother's memory. Moreover, the likes of Foxe probably encouraged Elizabeth to view Anne Boleyn, correctly or otherwise, as an important patron and supporter of the Protestant faith, a faith with which Elizabeth identified with increasing militancy as her reign saw the introduction of gradually harsher measures against Catholics.
The silence that followed Anne Boleyn's death well into the reign of Elizabeth stands in stark contrast to today: as Susan Bordo notes, in modern times Anne is undoubtedly the most famous of Henry's wives. Countless biographies, novels, films, television dramas and documentaries are produced about her every year. She has been portrayed in virtually every guise, from revolutionary reformer to hapless victim, from scheming adulteress to feminist icon, from deformed witch to courageous intellectual. Everything about her is debated: her date of birth, her hair colour, her facial features, her religious opinions, her character, her sexual life, her relations with her siblings, her political activities, her relationship with Henry VIII and, most explicitly, the reasons for her downfall. She continues to make the headlines in newspapers, as witnessed recently with newfound theories about her portraiture. There is an insatiable lust and desire for all things Anne Boleyn.
I recommend Susan Bordo's original and fascinating book, The Creation of Anne Boleyn, for an engaging analysis of Anne's status as an icon and her legacy, a legacy that transcended her brutal and bloody death in May 1536. Bordo also makes the important point - and one worth remembering - that "Anne Boleyn", in her many cultural guises, has by now largely overshadowed the historical remnants of the real Anne Boleyn. With so little documentary evidence for the historical figure - as noted earlier, even her date of birth is open to question - it is no wonder that historians, novelists and filmmakers alike delight in using their imaginations to fill in the gaps. It is the scarcity of surviving records that account for why Anne is such a polarising figure and why she has been portrayed in virtually every guise imaginable, even those of vampire and prophetess.