Sunday, 21 December 2014

Anne Stanhope, Duchess of Somerset

Above: Anne Stanhope (c.1510-87), duchess of Somerset.

Anne Stanhope, duchess of Somerset, has long had a negative reputation. Mary Dewar described her in 1964 as 'the terror' of her husband Edward Seymour's household and as 'a hated meddler'. William Seymour, who was a descendant of Somerset's second son by his rejected first wife, characterised Anne Stanhope as a 'proud, domineering woman, with a passion for precedence and an overwhelming interest in personal aggrandizement'. Susan E. James referred, in her biography of Queen Katherine Parr, to Anne's 'myopic arrogance'. Finally, the popular writer Alison Weir wrote of Anne Stanhope's 'monstrous' pride; she was 'a termagant who exercised much influence over her weaker husband by the lash of her tongue'.

Like other elite Tudor women, including Frances Grey, duchess of Suffolk, Anne has been slandered and criticised for perceived faults in her character. Her character has been termed arrogant, overbearing, ruthless and haughty. If she was ambitious, she was, so it goes, monstrously so. If she sought the best for her family, writers believe, it was because of her pride and her desire to out manoeuvre those she disliked. The story goes that she was married to a weak and ineffective man who she was able to dominate and manipulate. In short, she was a 'wicked woman' who was cordially despised by her contemporaries. 

Popular culture either views Anne, duchess of Somerset, as a haughty she-wolf or, thanks to The Tudors, as a cunning nymphomaniac. Suffice it to say that neither can be supported with historical evidence. These negative depictions draw on polarising gender stereotypes of women that have featured in societies for millennia. The real Anne Seymour, duchess of Somerset, was a very different woman.

Above: The Duchess of Somerset in The Tudors.

Anne Stanhope was born in around 1510 to Sir Edward Stanhope and his second wife Elizabeth Bourchier. By her father's first marriage, Anne had two half brothers: Richard and Michael. Anne's uncle, John Bourchier, was earl of Bath. At an early age, Anne arrived at court and served in the household of Queen Katherine of Aragon. There, she seems to have met Edward Seymour, son of John and Margery. Edward was knighted in 1523 and became an esquire of the king's household and esquire of the king's body. His first marriage to Katherine Filliol was annulled because Edward questioned the paternity of the elder of his two sons by her. A later manuscript alleged that Katherine had had an affair with her father-in-law John Seymour, but there is no corroborative evidence to support this. 

By the spring of 1535, Anne had married Edward Seymour, with whom she had ten children: Edward (who died young); Anne; Edward; Henry; Margaret; Jane; Mary; Katherine; Edward; and Elizabeth. Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn stayed with the couple at Elvetham, Hampshire, in October of that year. Anne had married into an ambitious and enterprising family. Several months after his royal visit, the king was publicly favouring Anne's sister-in-law Jane Seymour, who was perhaps two years older than her. Anne and her husband Edward acted as Jane's chaperones at Greenwich Palace, when the king desired to spend time in his new love's company. In May 1536, Queen Anne was executed and the king married Jane several days later. Anne Seymour became sister-in-law to the new Queen of England and could therefore expect political and social rewards as a result. 

Hans Holbein the Younger - Jane Seymour, Queen of England - Google Art Project.jpgCatherine Parr from NPG.jpg
Above: Jane Seymour (left) and Katherine Parr (right). At different stages, Anne Seymour was sister-in-law to both of these queens of England. 

In June 1536, Edward Seymour was ennobled by the king as Viscount Beauchamp, and following the birth of the queen's son in October 1537, Seymour became earl of Hertford. As countess of Hertford, Anne Seymour enjoyed a prominent and important place at court. She was involved in the reception of Anne of Cleves at Greenwich in January 1540, and attended Katherine Howard when she became queen. The Countess of Hertford enjoyed a close and warm relationship with Mary Tudor, the elder daughter of Henry VIII, with whom she played cards and exchanged gifts. Anne also appears initially to have enjoyed good relations with Katherine Parr, last queen of Henry VIII. She petitioned Queen Katherine for Hertford's return in 1544 when he was engaged in Newcastle overseeing the Scottish Borders.

Anne Seymour's religious devotions were well known and respected. She sent ten shillings to the condemned heretic Anne Askew in 1546, suggesting that the countess harboured radical religious views. In the reign of Edward VI, which sought to eliminate Catholic forms of worship, Anne Seymour was permitted to openly celebrate her Protestantism. Eight different works were dedicated to her between 1548 and 1551. As Retha Warnicke notes, 'more publications were dedicated to her than to any other woman in early Tudor England'. These works were primarily translations of books used to uphold the doctrines of Protestantism. Walter Lynne, who dedicated a book to her, referred to Anne as 'the most gracious patroness and supporter both of good learning and also of godly men'. He found her to be 'the most worthy example of all noble women, whose Godly study all Christian hearts do rejoice in'. Clearly Anne's religious beliefs were well known, while she was respected and esteemed. This respect for her encouraged individuals to seek out her patronage. 

Above: Anne Seymour's tomb in Westminster Abbey.

Following Henry VIII's death in early 1547, his nine-year-old son Edward succeeded to the throne as Edward VI. Because of his youth, Edward Seymour, who at this time ennobled himself as Duke of Somerset, became Lord Protector and controlled the regency council appointed by the late king to govern the realm during his son's minority. The Lord Protector experienced growing tensions with his younger brother Thomas Seymour, who married some months later the dowager queen Katherine. This marriage caused considerable scandal and horror at court, as it was viewed as a sign of disrespect to King Henry. Both contemporaries and modern historians blamed Anne, duchess of Somerset, for the brothers' conflict. As Caroline Armbruster noted, 'allowing wives to take the blame for the misdeeds of their husbands was nothing new for sixteenth-century observers', as can be identified with the scapegoating of Anne Boleyn and Lettice Dudley for the actions of their husbands. In the fifteenth-century, Queen Elizabeth Wydeville had been blamed for the execution of her brother-in-law, the duke of Clarence; yet, as Charles Ross asserted, Elizabeth's husband Edward IV 'alone must bear responsibility for his brother's execution'. Armbruster noted that the same could be said for Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset.

Those who disliked Somerset's rule began to attack his wife as a way of attacking him. An anonymous Spanish chronicler described the Duchess of Somerset as 'more presumptuous than Luther', because she claimed precedence over the dowager queen Katherine, who was now her sister-in-law. The chronicler claimed that the duchess urged her husband to execute Thomas Seymour: 'My Lord, I tell you that if your brother does not die, he will be your death'. Writing in 1603, John Clapham specifically alleged that the dislike between the Duchess and the Queen Dowager was the cause of the hatred between Edward and Thomas: 'It hath been reported, a disagreement between Lady Somerset and Katherine [Parr] about precedency, a matter that... breeds many quarrels among women... This feminine quarrel was the first occasion of the breach between the Protector [Edward Seymour] and... his brother [Thomas Seymour]'.

Above: Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset (left), husband to Anne; and Thomas Seymour (right). Anne was blamed for the execution of Thomas Seymour in 1549.

It seems clear that the Duchess of Somerset and the Queen Dowager disliked one another and were estranged from one another, but as Warnicke notes, 'the women did not cause their husbands' disagreements'. Both the Duke and Duchess objected to Thomas Seymour's hasty marriage to Katherine Parr. If anything, it signalled disrespect for the memory of the late king, and the Somersets were not alone in reacting negatively. Mary Tudor, who had formerly been close to her stepmother Katherine, was horrified and distanced herself from the affair. Katherine and the Duke of Somerset experienced conflict with one another. Katherine complained that the duke was ignoring her requests and was disputing with her over his leasing of her dower property, Fausterne Park. It was Somerset, rather than his wife, who Katherine was displeased with, although she appears not to have liked the duchess.

The evidence for Anne Seymour's haughtiness is problematic, for none survives from before the arrest of Thomas Seymour in early 1549. No statements from this time even accused the duchess of urging her husband to order Seymour's death. The Earl of Warwick and his supporters tended to be blamed for Seymour's end. Meanwhile, renowned scholars such as John Cheke, tutor to Edward VI, continued to seek Anne's assistance and support. Cheke wrote to her in praise of her 'singular favour' and expressed thanks for her 'undeserved...goodness'. 

From Henry VIII's death to the execution of the Duke of Somerset in January 1552, Anne Seymour, duchess of Somerset, was the most powerful and, arguably, important woman in England. In late 1551, Somerset was brought down by the Earl of Warwick and his allies. Following Somerset's execution for treason, Warwick ennobled himself as the Duke of Northumberland. He ordered Anne Seymour to be imprisoned in the Tower alongside her half-brother Michael, who was executed in February 1552. In the space of a few weeks, the duchess had been imprisoned and had lost both her husband and brother. Her emotional turmoil, anguish and despair can only be guessed at. The duchess remained imprisoned for two years. In August 1553, she was freed by Queen Mary, her close friend. 

By January 1559, Anne Seymour had remarried. Her husband was an esquire, Francis Newdigate. Newdigate had served Edward Seymour as a gentleman usher, which is probably how the duchess became aware of him. These years involved scandal for Anne. In 1561, her son Edward's clandestine marriage to Lady Catherine Grey, younger sister of the beheaded Jane, came to light. Because Lady Catherine was popularly viewed as successor to Elizabeth I, the marriage was greeted with horror and controversy. Queen Elizabeth ordered the unfortunate couple to be incarcerated in the Tower of London where, in November 1561, Catherine was delivered of a son, Edward. Catherine gave birth to a second son, Thomas, in February 1563. The marriage had been declared invalid the year before. The boys were declared bastards and barred from inheriting their father's estates. Catherine died in 1568.

Above: Lady Catherine Grey, daughter-in-law of Anne Seymour.

Anne's final years were less troublesome and tumultuous. She died on 16 April 1587, aged around seventy-seven, at Hanworth Palace in Middlesex, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. The Duchess of Somerset was respected and esteemed in her own lifetime for her extensive religious patronage. She was regarded by authors as a pious, godly matron. Her social rank undoubtedly made her an attractive patron. Anne's family loyalty and devotion to her husband, Edward Seymour, were also recognised. She bore him ten children, and enjoyed close relations with Mary Tudor, who later became Mary I. Anne was sister-in-law to two queens of England - Jane Seymour and Katherine Parr. She seems to have been close to Queen Jane, but experienced conflict with Queen Katherine, whom she disliked. Anne did not urge her husband to put to death Thomas Seymour; contemporaries identified the Earl of Warwick as the instigator, while some actually attributed Seymour's end to the Protector himself. Warnicke rightly explains that 'Lady Somerset's reputation as an aggressively proud woman, who greatly influenced the governmental policies of the lord protector is largely a myth'. 

Writers who did not know her, including the anonymous Spanish chronicler, identified her as a proud, greedy and insufferable woman who ruled her weak husband and manipulated his decisions. Historians have tended to accept these negative judgements alongside Katherine Parr's letters, in which she admitted her dislike of the duchess. Yet a wealth of other evidence offers a different view of Anne Seymour, duchess of Somerset. Those who did know her viewed her with respect and esteem, and her Protestantism encouraged religious writers to regard her as a pious and virtuous woman. In her own lifetime, Anne Seymour was never accused of promiscuity or wanton behaviour. The portrayal of her in the television series The Tudors, therefore, which depicts her as promiscuous and the mother of illegitimate children, could not be any further from the truth, for the real Anne Seymour was a loving and attentive wife who had 10 children by Edward Seymour. 


  1. It's a shame she gets portrayed so horribly, first as haughty and spiteful and then as a slut in *cough* *cough* The Tudors which I just hated, they did her a great disservice. As far as from what I read before, and this post confirms it, she did love her husband, she was the only one who begged mercy for him, who did the impossible to get him out. She was a good mother and she was influential -she was a religious matron who was friends with many Protestant thinkers but also some Catholics like Mary before she became Queen. It seems that every time a woman has some influence in this time period (whether it is because of her religious contributions or political sphere) she is immediately classified as haughty, domineering or controlling, etc ... The same has been done to Meg Beaufort -since the late sixteenth century, even worse in the seventeenth century and it has gotten more and more terrible these last decades- and Frances Grey nee Brandon.
    This is Carolina, the administrator of Tudors fact vs fiction aka Athena.

    I hope a book is published about her or more study is done. I always loved about doing a book about her but with my current situation I find that difficult.

  2. well, not everyone liked her, Katherine Parr clearly did not. The truth may be that her character has been exaggerated, but there may be truth in it. Perhaps she did influence her husband to a certain extent, we can't really know the truth of what went on between them.