Tuesday, 29 January 2013

"A Shapeless Mass of Flesh" or a "Beautiful Son"? Anne Boleyn's Mysterious Pregnancy in 1536

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Charles Wriothesley, a contemporary observer, wrote that Anne believed herself to be ‘but fiftene weekes gonne with chield’, while the Spanish ambassador Eustace Chapuys also stated that the child had been conceived three and a months previously.
[2] G. W. Bernard, Fatal Attractions (Yale, 2010) advances the claim that Queen Anne was never pregnant and was suffering from a phantom pregnancy, which her stepdaughter Mary later infamously experienced in 1554-5. Eric Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (Oxford, 2005) suggests that Anne suffered a miscarriage in the late summer of 1534, stating that it could not have been a stillbirth because she never took to her chamber. Retha M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (Cambridge, 1989) believes that the queen gave birth to a stillborn child in late June 1534. Other historians identify with one of these theories – I believe it is most likely Anne suffered a miscarriage.
[3] Cited by Joanna Denny, Anne Boleyn: a New History of England’s Tragic Queen (London, 2004).
[4] Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII, x.282.
[5] Such as A. Weir, The Lady in the Tower: the Fall of Anne Boleyn (Jonathan Cape, 2009).
[6] Hall’s Chronicle, p. 818.
[7] C. Wriothesley, A Chronicle of England during the reign of the Tudors, from A.D. 1485 to 1559, p. 33.
[8] Poème sur la Mort d’Anne Boleyn, Lancelot de Carles, lines 317-326, in La Grande Bretagne devant L’Opinion Française depuis la Guerre de Cent Ans jusqu’a la Fin du XVI Siècle, George Ascoli.
[9] Letters and Papers, x.450.
[10] Letters and Papers, x.528.
[11] Nicholas Sander, Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism (Burns and Oates, 1887), p.132.
[12] For instance, Weir, Lady in the Tower.
[13] Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) and “Sexual Heresy at the Court of Henry VIII”.
[14] For these arguments, see Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) – Chapter 8 “Sexual Heresy”.
[15] A W Bates ‘Birth defects described in Elizabethan ballads’, http://www.jrsm.rsmjournals.com/content/93/4/202.full.pdf.
[16] http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=11902
[17] http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=11902
[18] E. W. Ives The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (Oxford, 2005).
[19] Ibid.
[20] See http://www.conorbyrnex.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/the-boleyn-marriage-and-birth-of-anne.html

Friday, 18 January 2013

Mary Boleyn

Left: Scarlett Johansson as Mary Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl (2008).
Right: Unknown woman, c.1525, possibly Mary Boleyn.

I was drawn to writing this blog post after reading a fascinating article by Gareth Russell entitled 'Why do we care about Mary Boleyn?' It would be fair to say that since the publication of Philippa Gregory's highly successful, if scandalously inaccurate, novel The Other Boleyn Girl in 2001, Mary has evolved into something of a historical celebrity. She represents feminism, love and bravery to many women who enjoy this period, although others continue to view her dubiously as someone who was, essentially, highly ordinary, and has only become known due to this successful book. Only a handful of her letters survive, we don't know what she looked like, when she was born, her relationships with her siblings or the nature of her childhood experiences. Rumours circulated that she was a 'great and infamous whore', but modern historians, such as Alison Weir, have questioned whether Mary was really the sexually-charged prostitute she is so often depicted as being.

Mary was probably the eldest child born to Sir Thomas Boleyn, a highly successful diplomat at Henry VIII's court, and his highborn wife Lady Elizabeth Howard. When they married is unknown, but it was before 1501 since Elizabeth's jointure was settled on her in November of that year. It is likely that Mary was born around 1500. She had a younger brother, George (born around 1504), and her infamous younger sister Anne, born either in 1501 or in 1507. Mary's appearance is unknown; she is often portrayed as being blonde, pale-skinned, blue-eyed and provocatively sexual. Rumours that she was more beautiful than Anne should be looked at sceptically, but if she attracted two kings Mary must have possessed some charm and physical attractions. Probably born at Blickling Hall, Norfolk, Mary was afforded the splendid opportunity of becoming maid of honour to Mary Tudor, queen of France, in 1514, when she was aged around fourteen. Apparently at the French court, she attracted a reputation of wantonness; some historians suggest that King Francis referred to her as 'the great prostitute' or a 'whore' who he boasted of riding. Leading many to conclude that Mary was at one point the French King's mistress, Weir has questioned whether Mary was really flighty, sceptically looking at these sources and suggesting they were written by those hostile to the Boleyns. Since Francis was a notorious womaniser, he may have been merely representing the prevailing gender beliefs of his time, in an age which identified women as sexually licentious and prone to seducing men when given the chance.

What happened to Mary next is something of a mystery, with some speculating that she returned to England. Her family afforded her a successful marriage to Sir William Carey, a courtier who served Henry VIII, in February 1520. Portrayed in The Other Boleyn Girl as colourless, dull and manipulated by her family, Mary's marriage to William may not have been a love marriage, but it is likely that she had  two children with him, Katherine (b. 1524) and Henry (b. 1526), both of whom later became favourites of their cousin, Elizabeth I. However, some historians - and Gregory portrays it in her novel - suggest that one, or both, children were fathered by Henry VIII, since it is likely that Mary became his mistress somewhere around 1522. The relationship was almost certainly not the great romance it is so often portrayed as being. Weir contends that Mary was manipulated by both her family and the king, while those who served the Pope later suggested that she had been violated, or raped, by  the King. Her husband achieved excellent rewards, probably due to his own capabilities, but his wife's pleasing nature may also have helped. How Mary we felt about this - we don't know. Her thoughts, feelings and beliefs are shrouded in mystery.

In 1526, Mary was, famously, replaced by her charismatic younger sister Anne, who attracted the king. However, unlike Mary, Anne famously refused to become his mistress; whether she actively tempted the king into annulling his marriage to Queen Katherine of Aragon or whether it was based more on his intense desire for a male heir is a matter of notorious dispute between historians. The Boleyn family gradually enjoyed greater and greater success in the late 1520s, with Anne's father becoming an earl and her brother, George, being made a viscount. Mary, however, enjoyed no such rewards. One historian speculates that she became a 'pariah', or embarrassment, to the Boleyn family. She certainly experienced some tragedy in 1528, when her husband William died from the sweating sickness. The 2008 film, with Scarlett Johansson, does not depict this. However, the novel suggests that the two may have enjoyed greater affection and intimacy after Mary was discarded by the king.

After that, not much more is known of Mary. She accompanied Anne to France in 1532, when she entertained the French king - the one who may have boasted of Mary's sexual nature. However, a shocking event occurred in 1534, when Mary, perhaps revealing her determined personality, finally took matters into her own hands. Aged around thirty-four, she married William Stafford, a man of little wealth or lineage, and became pregnant by him immediately. Unfortunately, Mary was forced to reveal this scandalous secret to her sister, who was by now Queen, and Anne understandably reacted with fury and outrage. Not only had Mary married a mere commoner, a highly unsuitable match for a woman who was not only a relative of the powerful Howard family but sister to the Queen herself, but she had not asked royal permission to marry which, as a member of the royal family, she needed to have. Anne banished Mary from court straightaway. This is where The Other Boleyn Girl really frustrates me. Anne, probably, never saw Mary again. So realistically, the book should end there. But no, it portrays Mary as running back to court to serve Anne when Anne begins to suffer mental breakdown after mental breakdown. Readers should note that this never happened. Anne was so shocked at her sister's behaviour that she never saw her again.

Mary's new marriage appears to have been affectionate. However, any children she had by Stafford seem to have died young. They probably retired to the country, although Weir suggests that they actually moved to Calais and resided there until some years later, which I find difficult to believe. Tragically, Mary's siblings, George and Anne, were both executed on trumped-up charges of treason, adultery and incest in May 1536. How Mary reacted to this is impossible to say, but she was probably shocked at the very least, although there is NO evidence - contrary to the book - that she was ever particularly close to her siblings. Her daughter, Katherine, went on to serve Henry's fourth queen Anne of Cleves in 1540, and then her cousin Katherine Howard, before Katherine Howard was executed on similar charges to Anne Boleyn in 1542. Mary died in July 1543, aged around forty-three. What she died of we don't know. Her burial place, similarly, remains a mystery.

It can therefore be concluded that Mary's life is a mystery. We know almost nothing of her, save that she was the sister of a Queen, the wife of a successful courtier, and the aunt of Elizabeth I. The Other Boleyn Girl needs to be recognised for what it is - highly mythologised, romanticised fiction. Philippa Gregory has declared Mary to be her hero, but as Russell bluntly and scathingly points out:

"Why on earth should Mary Boleyn qualify as anyone's historical heroine, out of all the hundreds of magnificent women who have peopled the pages of history? One need not look too far in Mary Boleyn's own gene pool to find women who actually did something with their lives. In contrast, the historical Mary Boleyn did absolutely nothing unremarkable, either by the standards of her own generation or ours".

I have to agree with Gareth Russell. If it wasn't for the widespread success of Philippa Gregory's novel, I doubt that anyone would even be vaguely aware of who Mary Boleyn was, let alone idolise and romanticise about her. The fact is, nothing can be known of her. She was almost certainly not as charming, intelligent, religious, influential, charismatic or mesmerising as her sister Anne. All that she is known for, sadly but truthfully, is for being a whore, the mistress of two kings.

Alison Weir has debated and challenged this view of Mary. Her counterarguments are largely successful - Mary probably wasn't the 'great whore' she is so saliciously depicted as being. But the problems are that in going against history and portraying Mary as a naive innocent, the tool of her family, Gregory dehumanises her sister Anne Boleyn, depicting her as a witch, murderess, adulteress, and poisoner. And this is supposedly from a feminist writer. Surely if she was a true feminist Gregory would applaud Anne for being a strong, ambitious woman who sought to make something of herself in a male-dominated world. But no, she doesn't, and as I wrote on my Amazon review, she betrays both Boleyn girls. I think both Anne and Mary would be shocked and offended at how they're portrayed in her novel.

The film, produced in 2008, is even worse. All of  the actors - none of whom are British, by the way - admitted to reading nothing but the novel as part of their research. Natalie Portman even admitted she didn't identify with Anne Boleyn at all. Contrast this with the incredible Natalie Dormer, who portrayed Anne in The Tudors (2007-10), who read book after book about Anne Boleyn, and even condemned the producers for the way they were presenting her in the series (!) because she was so determined not to betray her historical heroine. The Other Boleyn Girl smacks of laziness, contempt, and a desire to make Anne a scapegoat, and her sister a heroine. Those who know better will scorn the laughable attempts in this work to do so. The sad fact remains this - contrary to Gregory's attempts, Anne is the charismatic queen adored, even idolised, by many today and seen as a romantic victim, and not as the murdering whore portrayed in the novel, while her sister Mary, far from being a heroine for modern English women, is seen at best as colourless and unremarkable and at worst as a woman of very dubious sexual morals.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Feminism and the Wives of Henry VIII?

Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: A Feminist Reinterpretation Of The Wives Of Henry VIII

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

Katherine of Aragon (1485-1536), Married June 1509, Marriage annulled May 1533
Queen of England 1509-1533. One child, Mary I (1516-1558) - suffered at least five failures in pregnancy.

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

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

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

Anne Boleyn (c.1500x1507-1536), Married January 1533, Marriage annulled May 17, 1536, Beheaded May 19, 1536
Queen of England 1533-1536. One child, Elizabeth I (1533-1603) - suffered two failures in pregnancy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jane Seymour (c.1509-1537), Married May 1536, Died October 24, 1537
Queen of England 1536-1537. One child, Edward VI (1537-1553).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine Howard (c.1524-1542), Married July 1540, Beheaded February 13, 1542.
Queen of England 1540-1541/2. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Medieval Queens: A "Beautiful Woman" and a "Reluctant Queen"

Sisters-in-law and successive Queens of England, Elizabeth Woodville (or Wydeville) and Anne Neville are two of England's forgotten medieval queens. Eclipsed by more charismatic and intriguing consorts, such as Anne Boleyn, or foreign princesses such as Eleanor of Aquitaine or Katherine of Aragon, this seems somewhat surprising, given that both played a significant role in the civil conflict known as 'The Wars of the Roses' in the period 1464-85. Exceedingly different in their personalities, Elizabeth and Anne endured strikingly different marriages and queenships.

Elizabeth Woodville (1437?-1492)

Elizabeth was the eldest daughter of Sir Richard Woodville, who became 1st Earl Rivers, and his foreign wife, the wealthy Jacquetta of Luxembourg, dowager duchess of Bedford and, according to legend, descendant of the goddess Mesulina, likely born in 1437-8. This marriage was seen as shocking, for Jacquetta, with her superb foreign lineage and prestigious first marriage, was believed to be too great a prospect for the relatively lowly Woodville. As examples of Jacquetta's breeding, she was connected with European emperors and her relatives held important positions in Europe as bishops or counts. In view of this, her decision to align herself with a gentry family considerably disparaged her social status in the eyes of contemporaries. Nonetheless, this striking lineage is likely to have been considerably important to her daughter, Elizabeth, when she married a king some years later and was resented by other court figures for her 'lowly' position. Elizabeth's younger siblings comprised five brothers and six daughters. Undoubtedly, the size of the Woodville family attracted substantial hostility in later years when it was felt they were monopolising prestigious marriage alliances in England.

Some scholars have maintained that Elizabeth, at the age of eight years old, became a maid-of-honour to the French queen Margaret of Anjou, English queen consort of King Henry VI, in 1445. Those with knowledge of medieval and early modern customs will appreciate that adolescent females were usually expected to be around thirteen years old to serve as maids of honour to queens, as the controversial later case of Anne Boleyn demonstrates. Other historians, such as Michael Hicks, suggest that this identification is mistaken. Certainly, Elizabeth spent her childhood in Northamptonshire probably acquiring social and marital skills viewed by the gentry as fundamental, including the ability to manage one's household, to sing, dance, and acquire proficiency in traditional feminine areas such as sewing and embroidery.

According to contemporary sources, Elizabeth was very beautiful. One remarked that she was "the most beautiful woman in the Island of Britain", but her eyes were referred to as being "heavy-lidded like those of a dragon". If made during her queenship, this comment was perhaps disparaging of Elizabeth, viewing her as scheming, volatile or unpredictable, which may have been characteristics associated with the dragon, a mythical creature central in medieval culture. The above portrait, painted in the sixteenth century, conveys a well-dressed, confident young woman. The fact that Elizabeth was the first queen to sit for an individual portrait suggests that she regarded appearance as highly important. She was believed to have a pale complexion and superb long blonde hair.

In 1456, at the age of about nineteen, Elizabeth married her first husband, Sir John Grey, who was the eldest son and heir of Edward, Lord Ferrers of Groby. According to medieval family and social customs, it seems likely that Elizabeth's parents arranged this marriage for her, which can be seen as a highly successful alliance. Daughters often married in their teenage years to achieve alliances with other prominent families in order to ensure social security and prestige. Elizabeth gave birth to two sons, Thomas, future marquess of Dorset, and Richard. Sir John, unfortunately, died in 1461 after only five years of marriage.

The circumstances of Elizabeth's meeting with Edward IV, king of England following the successful deposition of the insane Henry VI, are highly controversial and have been mythologised spectacularly, as seen in Philippa Gregory's novel "The White Queen" (2009). What is clear is that following John's death Elizabeth was left in considerable financial difficulties. These difficulties meant that she was forced to turn to the king himself for assistance. However, the fact that Sir John Grey had fought on the Lancastrian side at the Second Battle of St Albans, a significant battle during the prolonged Wars of the Roses, was not likely to endear Edward IV, the Yorkist king, to his beautiful if, in his eyes, disloyal widow. After having sought the assistance of William, Lord Hastings, the king's chamberlain, Elizabeth petitioned the king.

According to later stories - which must be seen as suspect - Edward IV intended to persuade Elizabeth to sleep with him, after having agreed to her suit. The new king, only in his early twenties, was amorous and jovial, enamoured of beautiful ladies. Mythologised dramatically in Gregory's novel, Elizabeth is said to have refused assertively, even drawing her dagger and threatening to stab herself if the king dared to violate her. Edward, apparently, was so impressed that he immediately proposed marriage to her. Although this account is far-fetched, to say the least, it is plausible that King Edward fell deeply in love with Elizabeth Woodville when he met her, for she was confident, enigmatic, beautiful and, perhaps most important to a new king, of fruitful stock, having borne 2 sons herself and having no less than eleven siblings. The two married on 1 May 1464 at Elizabeth's residence in Northamptonshire. This must be interpreted as a spectacular family triumph for the Woodvilles. Unfortunately, it attracted considerable hostility from other nobles, while the king's closest advisers, namely Richard, earl of Warwick, viewed the king's actions as stupid and reckless. According to medieval royal customs, kings traditionally married females from other royal houses to ensure strong alliances between countries and to improve or bolster their familial lineage. By marrying a commoner, Edward set a precedent for later queens of England, most famously for those of his grandson Henry VIII.

On 26 May 1465, Elizabeth was formally crowned queen of England. According to contemporaries, there was 'universal disapproval' to the match, in the words of Michael Hicks. Polydore Vergil, a Tudor historian, asserted that it was motivated by 'blynde affection, and not be reule of reason'. Even the king's relatives, including his formidable mother the duchess of York and his brother Richard, were not enamoured of his new wife. Elizabeth gave birth to the couple's first child, Elizabeth later queen of England, in February 1466. Like her mother, Elizabeth proved to be a fruitful bride, giving birth to ten children in some nineteen years of marriage, of whom eight survived to adulthood. She was granted secure revenues as queen, although these were worth considerably less than those of previous medieval queens.

Elizabeth was not a popular queen. Her family was perceived to be scheming and greedy; her eleven siblings caused substantial resentment, since because they all had to be married to other nobles, this left few other marriage alliances possible for other nobles. Katherine, the queen's younger sister, was married to the youth Henry Stafford, second Duke of Buckingham, who apparently responded by throwing a tantrum. Elizabeth's brother John, who was twenty years old, was married to the 69-year old Katherine, duchess of Norfolk, which caused major controversy and disbelief. Ironically, John predeceased his aged wife. The queen's other siblings were married to the sons of the earls of Kent, Pembroke and Essex. However, while this angered other nobles, it should surely be seen as natural for the queen to achieve successful marriage alliances at court for her relatives and friends, well established in royal precedent.

The queen's personality is something of an enigma. Judging by later actions, she was brave, courageous and resourceful, but during her queenship she was perceived to be cold, ruthless, calculating, scheming, manipulative and common; like Anne Boleyn sixty-five years later, it was commonly believed that Edward had only married Elizabeth for her beauty, ignoring her lack of suitable qualities to be queen. Viewing Elizabeth with gender and sexuality in mind allows a more nuanced understanding. Her beauty and sexual fascination attracted curiosity or hostility, yet she was in some ways a suitable medieval consort, in particular due to her ability to bear many children. This was necessary, for, as has been pointed out, no consort was ever really safe until she had done that. Others associated her and her mother with witchcraft, largely because of the belief that they were related to Melusina, the goddess and/or witch of legend. Jacquetta was accused of witchcraft by one of Warwick's followers, but was shortly after acquitted. This occurred in context of Warwick's increasing dissatisfaction with the king, intensified by his hostility to his marriage with Elizabeth.

Warwick resented the Woodvilles' increasing hold on power in the English court. Fearing his loss of influence, he associated himself with the king's dissatisfied younger brother, George duke of Clarence, and it is possible that the two plotted to remove Edward and establish George as king. Rumours alleged that the king's mother was also involved. Warwick rebelled in 1469, aiming to eliminate members of Elizabeth's family prominent at court. This spectacular coup saw the king fleeing into exile in October 1470, while the queen sought sanctuary at Westminster Abbey, where she gave birth to her son and heir, Edward Prince of Wales, who was later murdered as one of the Princes in the Tower. Her husband successfully returned to power in 1471, and the unfortunate Henry VI, who had briefly become king again, was murdered on the orders of the king in the Tower. Warwick had died in battle at Barnet.

Elizabeth was a conventional medieval queen consort in participating in pious acts and by co-founding Queens' College, Cambridge, although some have alleged that she did this merely to attempt to wipe out the memory of its previous founder, Margaret of Anjou. 1478 saw Elizabeth's younger son, Richard, who was merely five years old, marrying Anne Mowbray. That same year saw the execution of the king's brother Clarence, an act which revolted English society and was laid at the hands of the queen. She had certainly supported Edward's other brother, Richard, against Clarence, and in the words of Hicks, Clarence's 'trial was peppered with substantial Woodville involvement'. Considering gender, however, allows one to modify this view. Although Elizabeth may have feared or resented Clarence, it was ultimately the king who ordered the judicial murder of his own brother. Medieval society always blamed the woman, identifying them as evil and instruments of the devil. Elizabeth was almost certainly portrayed as evil or murderous in order to present her as a scapegoat for her husband's actions.

Elizabeth became Queen Mother following the death of her husband in 1483 at the comparatively young age of forty-one. His lust and gluttony was held responsible for his premature demise. The Woodvilles and Hastings' faction had become bitterly divided at court and, although Edward had tried to reconcile the two on his deathbed, conflict erupted following his death. The queen and her family dominated the council in the wake of the king's death and plans were on hand for the immediate coronation of the eldest royal son, Edward, aged twelve. Unfortunately, however, it seems likely that the hostility towards the queen's family intensified now, and the queen was more vulnerable without her husband's protective influence. Richard, duke of Gloucester, who had previously co-operated with both Edward and Elizabeth, appears to have panicked, fearing his loss of influence at court, although others alleged that his conspiracy to attain the throne had been devised and planned for some time. Anthony Woodville, brother to the queen, and her father John were both arrested and beheaded, a cruel act which must have angered and upset the queen. The new king, Edward V, was also seized by his uncle.

Although Edward V was conveyed to London by Richard, Elizabeth was not reassured by Richard's letters, mistrusting and fearing him. Demonstrating his panic, Richard had Hastings, the king's closest friend, beheaded in the early summer. On 25 June 1483, the act 'Titulus Regius' asserted that the late king's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville had never been valid, on the grounds of his precontract to Eleanor Butler. In effect, the new king and his brother, Richard, were bastards, and their uncle, Richard, the only legitimate claimant to the throne. The queen was accused of plotting against Richard with several others, including the late king's mistress Jane Shore, and was also accused of witchcraft. She resided in sanctuary at Westminster Abbey, although she later gave up her younger son, Richard, into the hands of the by now new king Richard III.

Whether Elizabeth actually gave up her younger son to Richard is fiercely contested. There have been controversial theories about the deaths of the two Princes in the Tower, relating to whether it was Richard III, Henry VII, or someone else who had them murdered, and whether both boys were the Princes, or whether one was an impostor and the real young Prince Richard protected. Undoubtedly, the legitimate king Edward V was murdered, aged twelve. By the autumn of 1483, the boys were no longer seen at the Tower, making it virtually certain they had been killed by that time.

Elizabeth remained a figurehead for rebellion. She appears to have begun plotting with Lady Margaret Beaufort, a Lancastrian, and arranged for her daughter Elizabeth of York to marry Margaret's son, Henry Tudor, if he successfully became king. We know with hindsight that he did, defeating Richard at Bosworth in 1485 and marrying Elizabeth of York in 1486, who gave birth to her first son Arthur that year. However, the Queen Mother did not enjoy complete happiness during her daughter's queenship. Her dower lands were confiscated, and it was alleged that she was plotting against her new daughter, for which there is no proof. She died in 1492 and was buried beside her husband, Edward IV, at St George's Chapel, Windsor. Never a popular queen, Elizabeth lived a spectacular life. Although probably both her sons tragically were murdered, she ultimately triumphed with the accession of her daughter to the throne, having married the Lancastrian king, Henry Tudor, and founding a new Tudor dynasty.

Anne Neville (1456-1485)

The woman who followed Elizabeth Woodville to the throne following the death of her husband Edward IV was Anne Neville, her sister-in-law. She was the daughter of Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, who had rebelled against Edward in the 1460s before dying at Barnet in 1470. Like Elizabeth, Anne was a prominent figure in the Wars of the Roses. Her life, like Elizabeth, was extraordinary. Little is known about Anne personally. Like another queen consort, Jane Seymour, who reigned fifty years later, Anne's personality is shrouded in mystery. A chronicler, knowing her personally, described her as being beautiful, virtuous and gracious.

Anne was of better birth than Elizabeth Woodville, since her father was of an old and noble family prominent in the north of England. Anne spent most of her childhood at Middleham Castle, where she and her younger sister Isabella later met the Duke of York's sons, Richard (later king) and George duke of Clarence. In 1469, Isabella married Clarence and, the following year, Anne was betrothed to Richard duke of Gloucester.

However, Anne was not fated to marry Richard at this time. Political unrest and dissatisfaction at court, led by Anne's father Warwick, had led to the insane king Henry VI reigning again and the deposing of Edward IV. The Treaty of Angers, conveying the international scale which the Wars of the Roses had encompassed, provided for Anne Neville to marry Edward, prince of Wales, who was the son of Henry VI and his queen, Margaret of Anjou. They were betrothed on 25 July and married in December 1470. Anne's husband, Edward, died at the battle of Tewkesbury, leading to the successful coup by Edward IV in recovering his throne.

This left Anne in a precarious situation. Not only had her father Warwick been slain at Barnet in 1470, but she was now a widow at fifteen years old, and probably suspected of disloyalty by the king and his queen. Since she was a powerful heiress in her own right, she was a magnet for wealthy and ambitious courtiers seeking to improve their financial and social status. Richard, however, still desired to marry Anne. On 12 July 1472, Anne and Richard were married at Westminster Abbey, while their principal residence was Anne's childhood home, Middleham Castle. Anne gave birth to a son, Edward in 1473, who tragically died in 1484, aged eleven, meaning that Richard, who by then was king, had no male heir to succeed him.

Having established the events of the coup of 1483,  following his triumph as king, Richard's wife Anne became Queen of England that summer. Since she was accompanied by less than half the knights Elizabeth Woodville had enjoyed, this has been seen as evidence that the new royal couple were viewed with hostility or discontent by the English population. Of course, we do not know Anne's private thoughts either about her new status or her husband. Since she came from an ambitious family, it is possible that she enjoyed being queen, the highest social and political status a medieval woman could aspire to.

However, Hicks has downplayed her importance, suggesting that she was 'an insignificant queen' because of her frequent ill health. She did not control her own inheritance or have the dowerlands assigned to other queens. The death of her son severely upset Anne, but she was unable to provide Richard with another one. Perhaps in view of this, rumours circulated that Richard meant to put aside his queen and replace her with his own niece, Elizabeth of York, daughter of Elizabeth Woodville. This problem was tragically, if speedily, resolved on 16 March 1485, when Queen Anne died at Westminster, perhaps of tuberculosis. Nonetheless, Richard's enemies alleged that he had poisoned his young queen, since she was unable to provide him with a male heir following the death of the prince a year previously. Anne was later buried in Westminster Abbey.

It would be fair to say that Anne Neville is one of the more neglected or insignificant queens of England in our history. Like Jane Seymour, we know nothing about her personal thoughts, motivations or feelings during her life. A typical medieval woman in that her life was controlled and shaped according to the wishes of her father and later two husbands, she reigned for only two years before her untimely demise, although it seems that she had been suffering from ill health for a conspicuous period. What is reasonable to suggest is that she was the antithesis of her predecessor, Elizabeth Woodville, a courageous and determined woman who nonetheless alienated many at the English court. Both women, however, played important roles in the Wars of the Roses, even if they saw significantly differing experiences as queen.