Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Katherine Howard: History Press

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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.

Monday, 29 January 2018

On The Tudor Trail - Anne Boleyn's Life, 1521-1527

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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

Katherine Howard's Age

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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. 

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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.

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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

19 May 1536: Anne Boleyn's Execution

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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.

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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. 

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Kindle Countdown: Queenship in England

Queenship in England: 1308-1485 Gender and Power in the Late Middle Ages by [Byrne, Conor]

*Exciting Opportunity* If you own a Kindle, today and tomorrow, you can buy my book Queenship in England 1308-1485 for only 99p on Amazon UK and 99c on Amazon.com. It's a great deal and well worth taking advantage of. 

Amazon UK link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Queenship-England-1308-1485-Gender-Middle-ebook/dp/B01MT5OVGK/ref=la_B00MPFTO6E_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1493819053&sr=1-2

Amazon.com link: https://www.amazon.com/Queenship-England-1308-1485-Gender-Middle-ebook/dp/B01MT5OVGK/ref=la_B00K2QAHAU_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1493819193&sr=1-2

If you don't own a Kindle, rest assured: you can still buy the book in paperback, but please note that the Amazon countdown deal doesn't apply to paperbacks, only to Kindle. I hope you think this a worthwhile deal - if you're looking for something to read, I'd love you to read (and review) the book!

Sunday, 23 April 2017

23 April 1445: The Wedding of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou

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On 23 April - some sources suggest 22 April - 1445, Henry VI married Margaret of Anjou at Titchfield Abbey in Hampshire. The king was twenty-three years old and his new bride was fifteen. Margaret, who was born in Lorraine, had arrived in England on 9 April and met Henry shortly afterwards. The marriage was expressly designed to achieve peace between the warring kingdoms of England and France, although Margaret's dowry was rather unimpressive. 

On her wedding day, the king provided Margaret with jewels, including a gold wedding ring. On 28 May, Margaret entered London and was crowned queen at Westminster Abbey two days later. The surviving evidence indicates that Henry and Margaret felt affection, possibly love, for one another, and the records demonstrate that king and queen cooperated on matters of policy during the early years of their marriage. However, Margaret's inability to conceive contributed to growing tensions at court and in the realm more generally. This childlessness, coupled with the perceived shortcomings of the Anjou alliance, meant that Margaret was unable to enjoy popularity among her subjects. 

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In 1453, eight years after her marriage, Margaret finally conceived and gave birth to a son, Edward, on 13 October. However, the birth of her child coincided with Henry VI's illness and compelled Margaret to take a politically active role at the centre of government. Her bid for the regency failed and the duke of York was made protector. As is well-known, Henry's incapacity and the ensuing crisis of kingship led to civil war. 

In my book, Queenship in England - which can be purchased here - I examine Margaret's controversial tenure as queen:

Henry VI’s incapacity created a crisis at the centre of governance. Contemporaries feared the consequences of the king’s infirmity: ‘the reame of Englonde was out of all governaunce… for the kyng was simple… held ne householde ne meyntened no warres’. It is not true that the queen was an avaricious, grasping woman determined to enjoy power irrespective of the consequences; however, her husband’s collapse placed her in an ambiguous and uncomfortable position. Indeed, it was circumstances, including the collapse of her husband and growing discontent among the nobility, that required the queen to play a more directly political role after 1453, alongside her realisation that her son’s inheritance had to be safeguarded.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

The Execution of Lady Anne Lisle

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I have visited Winchester several times. It is a beautiful and historic city with much to see for the history lover, including the grand and imposing Winchester Cathedral, where Mary I married Philip of Spain in 1554. However, I did not know that on 2 September 1685 a landed gentlewoman of the county was publicly executed in Winchester for harbouring fugitives after the defeat of the Monmouth Rebellion.

Lady Alice Lisle was the last woman to be beheaded in England. The unlucky women that were executed by beheading in English history were mostly queens: Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard, Lady Jane Grey and Mary Queen of Scots. Margaret, Countess of Salisbury, niece of Edward IV and Richard III, was beheaded at the age of sixty-seven. In 1685, Alice Lisle was of a similar age to the unfortunate countess. She is thought to have been born in or around 1617, and thus would have been about sixty-eight when she met her fate.

In July 1685, shortly after the Battle of Monmouth, Lady Alice agreed to shelter the nonconformist minister John Hickes at her residence near Ringwood, in Hampshire. He was accompanied by Richard Nelthorpe, a lawyer and conspirator in the Rye House Plot under the sentence of outlawry. Like Alice, Nelthorpe was executed.

In August 1685, the Bloody Assizes commenced at Winchester in the aftermath of the Battle of Sedgemoor. Five judges were appointed and were led by 'the hanging judge', Lord Chief Justice George Jeffreys, who gained notoriety for his harsh sentences. The court progressed from Hampshire to Dorset and Somerset, and hundreds of executions took place.

Above: George Jeffreys, 'the hanging judge'.

Lady Alice pleaded that she had no knowledge of the seriousness of Hickes' offence, and confirmed that she had known nothing of Nelthorpe. It has been suggested that the harshness of the prosecution case derived in part from Alice's status as the widow of John Lisle, one of the regicides of Charles I. Perhaps, then, Alice's demise could be read as a process of revenge for the events of the mid seventeenth-century. She was convicted and sentenced to be burned at the stake, although the sentence was later commuted to beheading.

On 2 September 1685, Lady Alice walked out of the Eclipse Inn, where she had spent her final hours, and was executed in the market place, and was recorded as having met her fate with dignity and courage. She was buried at Ellingham, Hampshire. For harbouring fugitives, Lady Alice was convicted and executed as a traitor, but she has been viewed as a victim of judicial murder; the contemporary historian and philosopher Gilbert Burnet referred to her as a martyr.