Thursday, 25 June 2015

25 June 1533: The Death of Mary Tudor, Queen of France

On a midsummer day in late June, the former queen of France lay dying at her residence of Westhorpe Hall in Suffolk. Mary Tudor, the universally acknowledged beautiful younger sister of Henry VIII, was only thirty-seven years of age at the time of her death. Fiery, charismatic and passionate, Mary is perhaps better known for being the beautiful duchess of Suffolk rather than queen of France, a position she occupied for only three months. The 'white queen', as Mary has sometimes been known, was surrounded by only a few attendants in the gentle seclusion of her Suffolk estate. It is entirely possible that her husband was not at her side in her last hours. 

In her youth, Mary had been described as 'a Paradise - tall, slender, grey-eyed, possessing an extreme pallor'. She was born at the palace of Sheen in March 1496, the youngest surviving child of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. When she was only six years old, her eldest brother Arthur died and her mother followed Arthur to the grave only ten months later. Mary appears to have been close with her brother Henry, later Henry VIII. He was to name his only surviving child after her, a princess born in 1516. 

Mary had been married to Charles, duke of Suffolk since May 1515. Their marriage had scandalised Europe and had outraged King Henry, who was furious with the couple's failure to secure royal permission for their marriage. The couple were fortunate to escape with a heavy fine: by the standards of the time, Henry's honour had been disparaged by his sister's actions, and her husband the duke could have been imprisoned or even executed. Although the king and his younger sister had traditionally been close, their relationship was further strained after 1527, when Henry pursued marriage with Anne Boleyn. Mary was close to his wife, Katherine of Aragon, whom she had known since her early years. As David Loades writes, Mary and Anne 'exchanged insults of a semi-public nature'. Henry's annoyance with his sister's behaviour means that he seems to have failed to mourn her death. He left no comment when informed of her demise, although this reaction is perhaps explained by the fact that he had just remarried and was spending time with his new consort. 

Mary's widower, Charles Brandon, was left with three children: Frances (born in 1517; she married Henry Grey the same year); Eleanor (born in 1519); and Henry (who was to die the following year). Less than three months after his wife's passing, the duke remarried. His second wife was fourteen-year-old Katherine Willoughby. The thirty-five year age difference between the duke and his teenage bride did not pass without comment, but the marriage was a successful one.

In the story of the early Tudors, Mary tends to be overshadowed by her volatile brother and the drama of his six marriages. Yet she was a passionate, intelligent and charismatic woman who was a teenaged Queen of France and who caused considerable controversy when she decided to marry her husband's favourite without seeking royal permission. Two decades after Mary's death, her granddaughter Lady Jane Grey briefly became queen of England, an event that Mary could never have foreseen. 

Thursday, 18 June 2015

A 'New History' of Katherine Howard

Writers must always be prepared for the fact that not all readers will enjoy their books, or agree with the conclusions that have been reached. While this can sometimes be difficult to accept, it is in fact inevitable. Historians, in particular, must reconcile this with the fact that history is a contentious discipline. The further one goes back, the more difficult it becomes to ascertain what really happened. It becomes more challenging to discover the truth of the times about which one is writing. Facts are often few and far between, meaning that opinion more than anything else mostly holds sway. 

My full length study of Queen Katherine Howard was published in the summer of 2014 and has proved to be controversial. Reviews of it thus far have been decidedly mixed. Detractors often questioned the appropriateness of the book's title: A New History. What was it about this book, they wondered, that rendered it a new history of Katherine Howard? How could it purport to be original, or innovative, or different? What new conclusions did it reach about this queen, and how did it challenge current thinking about her? Did it unsettle received opinion about her, as it had in fact hoped to do? 

I believe that the title A New History is an accurate one and I would like to set out my reasoning for this. Firstly, the biography is the first full-length biography of Katherine Howard that challenges the assumption that she was an adulterous queen, that is, guilty of the charges for which she was executed in 1542. The majority of modern historians have accepted that she embarked on an adulterous relationship with Thomas Culpeper during her reign as the king's consort. Even writers who questioned whether she was technically guilty of the charges, including David Starkey and Antonia Fraser, eventually concluded that she certainly possessed intent to commit what amounted to treason, in the eyes of the law. In modern times, Professor Retha Warnicke is the only scholar to have challenged this notion, in her recent study of notorious women in Tudor England. Elisabeth Wheeler's study of ambitious male courtiers at the court of Henry VIII argued that neither Anne Boleyn nor Katherine Howard were guilty of adultery, although her work has not marketed itself as a biography of either queen. Biographies published by Lacey Baldwin Smith, Joanna Denny and David Loades have all concluded that the queen was guilty of the crimes for which she died.

Secondly, my study questioned prevailing notions about Katherine's portraiture. It should be noted that I now doubt the accuracy of my belief that the above portrait (painted circa 1540) is not of Katherine, as expressed in the biography. I raised the possibility (thus giving credence to Susan James' theory) that the portrait might depict Lady Margaret Douglas rather than Queen Katherine. Since the biography was published, however, I have rethought this idea and concluded that the miniature probably is of the queen rather than her niece-by-marriage. The portrait of an unknown woman housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which features on the front cover of Katherine Howard: A New History, might portray Katherine during her queenship, but I recognise that this is only a possibility. Indeed, on her website Alison Weir noted that the portrait might date to as early as 1522, which would definitively rule out Katherine as the sitter. 

Thirdly, I challenged traditional beliefs about Katherine's actual character and achievements as queen. I dispelled the misleading theory that she was an empty-headed, promiscuous delinquent, and put forward evidence to suggest that she was rather more responsible, level-headed and intelligent than previously thought. However, she was young (especially given that Henry's other wives were, by the standards of the day, mature when they became queen), and might more fairly be considered to have been naive and inexperienced, rather than stupid or lacking in wit. I also indicated that her relationship with her stepdaughter Mary Tudor might have been less fraught than previously thought. Certainly, it cannot now be doubted that Katherine was an effective intercessor and sought to act as patron to her ambitious and large family. 

As suggested in this blog post, there are aspects of the biography that I now disagree with. But that is the point of working in the field of history: it is constantly open to reinterpretation and historians are happy to reconsider conclusions that they previously reached. I appreciate reviews and feedback on my work. I hope, in this blog post, to have put forward a compelling argument for why I believe my biography deserves its title of A New History. In the end, the most potent reason for this is because the traditional notion of Katherine Howard as an adulterous wife must now be challenged and, at the very least, doubted. As John Weever noted in his work of 1631, like her cousin and predecessor Anne Boleyn, Katherine was most likely a victim of 'false suggestions' that reached the ears of her suspicious husband Henry VIII, who was known to have been 'unconstant in his affections'. 

Thursday, 4 June 2015

4 June 1550: The Wedding of Robert Dudley and Amy Robsart

Above left: Lord Robert Dudley, later earl of Leicester.
Above right: Portrait of an unknown woman, c. 1550, thought by some to be Amy Robsart.

On 4 June 1550, Robert Dudley married Amy Robsart at the royal palace of Sheen. The couple were both several days short of their eighteenth birthday, Amy celebrating her birthday on 7 June and Robert celebrating his on 24 June. Amy's father had made a marriage contract on 24 May with Robert's father John Dudley, earl of Warwick and later duke of Northumberland. In it, Robsart granted his daughter and her husband an annuity of £20 per annum until they inherited the Robsart estate after his and his wife's death. Warwick obtained for his son and daughter-in-law the lands of Coxford Priory. While Warwick might have hoped for a more ambitious marriage for his son, the marriage was beneficial in that it strengthened the earl's influence in Norfolk. As Simon Adams has written, 'the two estates combined would make the couple major figures in the county'. 

Born in June 1532, Amy was the daughter of Sir John Robsart and his wife Elizabeth. Her father was a Norfolk landowner and she was probably born at Stanfield Hall in Norfolk. Robert was the fifth son of John Dudley (1504?-1553), an ambitious nobleman who became earl of Warwick and later duke of Northumberland. Robert was reputed to be gifted at languages and writing and, after growing up in the court of Henry VIII, served as a companion to the teenage king Edward VI. He was handsome, charismatic, flirtatious, outspoken and charming. 

Historians have conjectured that Robert and Amy probably met during the campaign against Ket's Rebellion in 1549, when the earl of Warwick and his sons stayed near Stanfield, Amy's family residence. Evidence suggests that the young couple fell in love and decided to marry in their passion for one another. William Cecil disapprovingly remarked of the union: 'Carnal marriages begin in joy and end in weeping'. 

On their wedding day, the couple were honoured by the attendance of Edward VI, the twelve-year old king of England. Scarce evidence survives of their married life together. We do not know if they were happy with one another after the initial passion of their courtship. At the time of the young king's death in 1553, Robert and Amy were residing at Somerset House, the former residence of the disgraced Earl of Somerset. That year, Robert was imprisoned in the Tower of London by Mary I on account of the support he gave for Lady Jane Grey's usurpation. His father was beheaded in August 1553, but Robert was fortunate enough to escape this grisly fate. Amy is known to have visited him while he was incarcerated in the Tower. Only in 1557, with the death of her mother (her father had died in 1554) was Amy able to inherit the Robsart estate. 

Above: Elizabeth I acceded to the throne in 1558.

Elizabeth's accession in 1558, however, can be viewed as effecting a turning point in the Dudleys' marriage. As is well known, Robert Dudley was an intimate favourite of the new queen, and spent considerable time at court. Amy did not accompany her husband to court following Elizabeth's accession, but spent her time at Throcking, Hertfordshire. By December 1559 she had departed for Cumnor Place, Berkshire. Nine months later, on 8 September, she was found dead at the foot of a pair of stairs. Mystery surrounds the events of her death. It is still debated today whether she was murdered, suffered an accidental death, or committed suicide. According to contemporary evidence, Amy's death caused 'grievous and dangerous suspicion, and muttering' in the country.

Click for large image of "Cumner Place"!
Above: Engraving of Cumnor Place. 

On 4 June 1550, however, all of this was well in the future. Evidence suggests that Robert and Amy's marriage was a love match. Tragically, their marriage was not fated to be a long-lasting one.