Monday, 30 December 2013

Further Indications of Anne Boleyn's Birth Date

This article follows on from my 2012 essay "The Boleyn Marriage and the Birth of Anne Boleyn", accessed at

Although not specifically related to Anne Boleyn herself, other sixteenth century evidence concerned with youth and marriageability specifically from a feminine perspective can be used to support this writer's belief that the Queen was born in c 1501. This therefore agrees with the theories of Hugh Paget, Eric Ives and Alison Weir, and counters claims (mainly put forward by Retha Warnicke) that Anne was born c 1507.

In Eric Ives' 2009 book Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery, he puts forward (p50) a letter written by Jane's father Henry Grey, marquis of Dorset to Thomas Seymour in September 1548, concerning the upbringing of Jane. To put this in context: Katherine Parr had died earlier that month, and since she had been acting as Jane's guardian, Henry Grey was keen to relocate Jane back to the Grey family's household at Bradgate in Leicestershire. In his letter, he emphasised to Seymour:

"I seek in these her young years wherein she now stands..."
"Considering the state of my daughter and her tender years..."

Lady Jane Grey's birth date is unknown but most historians believe it was in the spring of 1537, making her approximately eleven years of age when this letter was penned. Now, as anyone with an interest in Anne Boleyn knows, those who favour the 1507 birth date often cite the comment of Margaret of Austria to Thomas Boleyn in 1513. She found the youthful Anne to be "so bright and so pleasant for her young age..."

Gareth Russell argued that this lends weight to a 1507 birth date: 'why would the Archduchess have made a point of referring to Anne's age as being exceptionally young, if she was the same age as every other maid-of-honour?' But Anne was not the same age as every other maid of honour, for even if she were twelve years old in 1513, as seems likely, it is certain that other maids would have been older. A glance at the list of maids at the English court in the sixteenth century confirms this. Jane Seymour was 21 when she was appointed a maid of honour to Queen Katherine of Aragon in 1529; Anne Basset was 16 when Jane selected her as a maid in 1537; and the Viscountess Montague was also 16 when she was appointed a maid of honour to Queen Mary I. Thus, if Anne were 12 in 1513, she would have seemed youthful compared with the other, older, maids of honour.

Henry Grey's 1548 letter, written about his 11-year old daughter, suggests that references to 'young age' or even 'tender years' do not necessarily have to refer to an infant of seven. Using this as evidence of a 1507 birth date for Anne is, therefore, extremely problematic. If Jane was referred to as 'young' and 'tender' when she was aged 11, it therefore makes sense for Anne, only one year older, to also be viewed as 'young'.

Comments on Anne Boleyn's fertility, made in context of her courtship with Henry VIII during the late 1520s, can also be viewed as supporting an earlier birth date. The king's mistress was praised in 1528-9 for her 'apparent aptness to procreation of children'. It has consequently been argued that she must have been born around 1507, for had she been in her late twenties, her fertility and childbearing potential would have been questioned or openly challenged, not praised. However, the Parliament of June 1536, following on from Jane Seymour's marriage to Henry after Anne's death, emphasised that Jane was 'in age and in form... deemed to be meet and apt for the procreation of children'. She was then 28, thus calling into question suggestions that Anne, at 27, was too old to be described as fit for childbearing.

The seventeenth-century writer William Camden, who wrote that Anne was born in 1507, actually expressed some confusion. Besides recalling that she had been born in 1507, he later commented that Anne had been twenty when the king (aged thirty-eight) had fallen in love with her, thus pushing her birth to 1509. This indicates that he was hardly a reliable source for the early life of Elizabeth I's mother.

As Nell Gavin writes: 'the sources that suggest a later birth year are either questionable, purely speculative, are second or third hand, are noted 80 to 100 years after Anne's death, and/or have no verifiable source for the information'. Gavin notes that, for the 1507 birth date to be true:

* 'Margaret of Austria must have accepted Anne into her employment at age five or six, even though it is both unlikely and undocumented that she would bend the rules to accept a non-royal child. Plus, a pampered upper-class child of that age undoubtedly required more care and supervision than she could offer in service and responsibility'.
* 'Anne must have been completely fluent and literate in her second language by the time she was seven, an age at which most children are struggling with their first language'.

The evidence put forward here in relation to attitudes to youth (Lady Jane Grey, 1548) and marriageability (Jane Seymour, 1536) act alongside the persuasive arguments of Eric Ives, Alison Weir and Hugh Paget to convincingly attest to a birth date of c 1501 for Anne Boleyn. The 1507 birth date is both tenuous and unlikely. Camden and the Duchess of Feria, the only two individuals to have suggested a later birth date, were not reliable sources; Camden because of his second or third hand information and distance from the events he described; and the Duchess because of her hostility to Anne Boleyn and her distance from events. There can be little doubt that Anne was born c 1501.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Favourite Reads of 2013

Antonia Fraser, Marie Antoinette: The Journey (2002).

Myths and misconceptions abound about France's tragic eighteenth century queen, destined to lose her ill-fated life in the brutality of the French Revolution. A biography of Marie Antoinette, fair in its treatment, has been long overdue. Fraser's biography of the queen is stylish, beautifully written, evocative, and compelling. In fact, so successful was it that it inspired Sofia Coppola's 2006 film adaptation starring Kirsten Dunst.

Robert K. Massie, Nicholas & Alexandra (1967).

It may have been published in 1967, but Robert K. Massie's study of the last tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, and his unpopular consort Alexandra remains the definitive biography of the Imperial family. The book is particularly moving when readers learn early on that the author was inspired to write this book because of his son's own haemophilia, shared by the Tsar's son and heir Alexis. The Russian royal family fought to conceal this humiliating and disturbing truth from their subjects, but to no avail. Rasputin's subsequent influence and growing power ruined any hopes of a peaceful succession, and set in train the awful events which led, eventually, to the massacre at Ekaterinburg in 1917.

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890).

Probably Wilde's most famous work, this dark, captivating and brilliant novel encompasses disturbing themes regarding art, morality, sexuality, murder and, of course, beauty. Although his narcissism, selfishness and cruelty contribute to his spectacular downfall, readers sympathise with Dorian's plight. It's worth considering whether his hedonism and narcissism merely reflect the preoccupations and conceited desires of his own age, rather than symbolise in a more narrow sense his own personal faults and failings.

George Orwell, 1984 (1949).

Need I say more? Disturbing and reflective of the totalitarian systems operating in his own age in he aftermath of the Second World War, Orwell's novel remains a classic example of dystopian oppression.

Philippa Gregory, The Lady of the Rivers (2011.

Following on from the success of her The White Queen, Philippa Gregory tackled Elizabeth Woodville's shadowy mother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, in The Lady of the Rivers. Beautifully evoking the factional disputes, prevalent misogyny, and sexual politics of fifteenth-century Europe, Jacquetta proves a strong, determined narrator who takes affairs into her own hands and, after an unsuccessful first marriage, marries for love into the Woodville family and guides her daughter's path to the throne of England. The emphasis on witchcraft and magic might prove a little repetitive, but this novel is probably Gregory's best.

Anna Whitelock, Elizabeth's Bedfellows (2013).

This isn't a traditional biography of the Virgin Queen, which is exactly what makes it refreshing. Beautifully written, Anna Whitelock's impressive scholarly pedigree shines through as she guides us through the intimacy of the Elizabethan court. Themes of beauty, fertility, sexuality, marriage, youth, and age are very much to the forefront here; alongside broader issues of representation and image. A must read for all those interested in Elizabeth.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Consent - the Moral and Psychological Issues

This is not, strictly speaking, a historical article. Nevertheless, consent is an intriguing concept and especially controversial in terms of current debates about sexuality, violence and assault seemingly ever present in the media today.

Oxford Dictionaries describes consent as:

"permission for something to happen or agreement to do something".

In criminal law in Britain the consent must be both positive and genuine in order to apply. Did the defendant honestly believe that the victim consented?

Philosophically speaking, it would be interesting to consider why people consent. In sexual matters, does a person consent because they love the other person and wish to participate in something intimate and loving? Does it signify an act of trust on their part? Of course, for many people, choosing, or consenting, to having sexual intercourse with someone else results from their placing trust in that person. They may have strong feelings and wish to act on them. They may be acting out of love.

Alternatively, does someone consent to sexual acts because they feel they have to? Historically speaking, in relation to female sexuality it has been noted that teenage girls, in particular, consent to sexual intercourse often because of social or cultural pressures, not because of biological compulsions. This can be especially damaging - why should people feel they have to consent to sex, in order to please someone? Paradoxically, you could say they are really being forced into sex, or pressured, as a means of retaining that person's interest. Of course, this can have profound psychological consequences, particularly at a youthful age.

In the early modern period, for example, it was believed that females, being carnal and licentious beings, were so desirous of sex that they wanted to be raped. This shocking view provided justification for men to rape them. Rape was punished, make no mistake about it, but it was punished as an offence against property, since women were viewed as belonging to their menfolk, whether husbands or fathers. Morally, women were viewed as to blame, even if they had not consented. But a belief in what is termed "interior consent" existed: even if women said they did not consent, they were believed to nonetheless have consented. If they said no to rape, in reality they were desirous of it. Perhaps this belief is still held by some today.

But consent affects men, too, in this sphere. Ally Fogg criticised existing perceptions of male sexuality so often seen as 'threatening', 'aggressive', 'dangerous', even 'frightening'. In fact, some have even argued that society does not view men as victims of sex crimes. Shockingly, sexual assault and male victims are often just not associated with one another. The controversy surrounding rapper Danny Brown this year exposes this point. Performing on stage, a female fan pushed her way on stage and performed sexual acts on Brown, in the middle of his performance, without obtaining his consent. This was, in effect, a sexual assault. Just because Brown is male does not mean that he cannot also be a victim. 

Male rape was only recognised by British law in 1994 - nineteen years ago. This demonstrates, perhaps, as nothing else can, how our society views the connections between consent, male sexuality, and assault. As Michael Amherst says, and he is quite right: "It is no longer acceptable to pretend, as some do, that rape and sexual assault are only committed by men against women". Because men are stereotyped as strong, masculine, hypersexualised, thinking of nothing but sex, male rape and sexual assault is often viewed ambiguously, even doubtfully. Yet 'both men and women can still be persecuted for not conforming to gender stereotypes'. 

Consent is often freely given, but it can be coerced, forced, misplaced. Consent is closely linked with control, manipulation, trust. How do you judge whether it's right to consent to something? Is it based on instinct, or experience? It may seem right to consent at the time but later experiences mean consenting to something can be viewed with regret. Whatever happens, however, consent should not be forced, but freely given.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Execution of the Queen's Lovers

On this day in history, 10 December 1541, the alleged lovers of Queen Katherine Howard were put to death at Tyburn: Francis Dereham and Thomas Culpeper. Culpeper was first beheaded, before Dereham suffered the excruciatingly painful death of hanging, drawing and quartering. Charles Wriothesley wrote in his chronicle:

Culpeper and Dereham were drawn from the Tower of London to Tyburn, and there Culpeper, after an exhortation made to the people to pray for him, he standing on the ground by the gallows, kneeled down and had his head stricken off; and then Dereham was hanged, membered, bowelled, headed, and quartered [and both] their heads set on London Bridge.

Contrary to popular myth, Culpeper did not profess his love for Katherine on the scaffold; as Wriothesley makes clear, he merely asked the people present to pray for him, thus giving a very traditional last speech. Although Culpeper had arguably committed the worst offence of the two, in allegedly committing adultery with the queen while she was married to the King, he suffered a 'kinder' death. In my book, I speculate that Dereham suffered the more brutal death not necessarily because Culpeper was the king's favourite and thus the king was more inclined to mercy, but because Dereham had spoken openly about Henry VIII's death (a treasonable offence) and because he had sexually assaulted Katherine as a youth, a criminal offence.

Katherine Howard had become involved with Dereham in 1538, when she was aged around fourteen, and the two had commenced a sexual relationship which lasted around three months, ending in early 1539. That Katherine entered this unwillingly is clear from her confession. She appears to have sought comfort from Dereham after being abused by another young man, Henry Manox, but before long Dereham was pressuring her into marriage and sexual intercourse. When she received an appointment at court, she happily left him behind. When she became queen, however, Dereham blackmailed Katherine into giving him an appointment at court; perhaps in return for his silence regarding their past relationship.

If Katherine hoped that this would keep him silent, she was to be disappointed. Before long, Dereham was openly bragging about his relations with the queen, and intimated that, were Henry VIII to die, he would marry Katherine. Around the same time, Thomas Culpeper began meeting with the queen in secret. There is no convincing evidence that the two ever were in love or had an adulterous relationship. This of course contradicts the portrayal of the affair in The Tudors and other popular works. It is extremely plausible that Culpeper began blackmailing the young queen in return for favours, assisted by Lady Rochford.

Dereham's aggressive behaviour and Culpeper's meetings with the queen occurred at the worst possible time. In the autumn of 1541, the Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was informed by Mary Lascelles, a childhood acquaintance of Katherine, that the queen had not been a virgin when she had married the king, and had had sexual relations with both Manox and Dereham. Under interrogation, Dereham admitted to a pre-marital relationship with Katherine, but, perhaps reacting out of jealousy, claimed that Culpeper had replaced him in the queen's affections.

Above: the relationship between Thomas Culpeper and Katherine Howard was, in reality, very different to that portrayed in The Tudors.

Like Dereham, Culpeper blamed the queen entirely for what had happened. He admitted, however, that he had intended to  'do ill' with her, but claimed that he had only met with her because she had been 'dying of love' for him. A letter written by the queen to Culpeper was found and used as evidence against the pair. Far from being a love letter, the tone is fearful, anxious, afraid. It has been credibly suggested that Culpeper was blackmailing Katherine into meeting him as a means of him increasing his power, in exchange for keeping silent about her past.

Both Dereham and Culpeper were found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. In February 1542, the queen and Lady Rochford followed them to the scaffold. So ended a tragedy which had culminated in the deaths of four people and the heartbreak of an ageing king. Although there was no convincing evidence that Katherine had committed adultery with either Dereham or Culpeper, prevailing attitudes to female sexuality and honour meant that it was all too easy for the interrogators to believe that she had.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

The Birth of Mary, Queen of Scots

Above: Mary Queen of Scots.

On this day in history, 8 December 1542, Mary Stuart, queen consort of France and queen regnant of Scotland, was born at Linlithgow Palace, 'in the coldest of winters'. She was the only child of James V, king of Scotland, and his French consort Mary of Guise. Mary was the great-niece of Henry VIII of England by virtue of the fact that her paternal grandmother Margaret Tudor was Henry's elder sister. As such, she had a claim to the English throne, which as time would tell would ultimately prove to be her downfall.

Six days later, Mary's father died, and so the crown of Scotland passed to a baby girl. John Knox reported that the king exclaimed in regards to the fate of Scotland, when told of the birth of his daughter, 'it came with a lass, it will pass with a lass!' Whether true or not, Knox's comment that 'all men lamented that the realm was left without a male to succeed' is probably more believable. Although rumours suggested that the new princess was weak, even frail, Ralph Sadler, an English diplomat at the Scottish court, confirmed that Mary was a 'goodly child', 'as like to live'. She was baptised at the nearby Church of St. Michael, and was crowned queen in September 1543.

Above: Linlithgow Palace, where Mary was born.

Mary's biographer John Guy claims that 'Mary Stuart was born at a turning point in history'. Two weeks before her birth, her father's forces had been routed by the English at the Battle of Solway Moss. Henry intended for the infant Mary to marry his five-year old son Edward, as a means of uniting the two kingdoms. In July 1543 the Treaty of Greenwich was signed. But the proposed Anglo-Scottish alliance was to disintegrate as rival factions, led by Catholics and Protestants who favoured alliance with either France or England, fought for control of the infant queen. In 1548 she travelled to France, and eventually wed Francis, son of the French king.

Thus were the events set in motion which would lead to Mary becoming queen consort of France alongside queen regnant of Scotland. Her short life in France did not prepare her for the struggles and conflict she would later encounter in her home country. Mary's life was turbulent, dramatic, and ultimately tragic: forty-four years after her birth, she would die at the hands of the executioner in the great hall of Fotheringhay Castle, a declared traitor to Queen Elizabeth I.