It is never easy to emerge from the considerable shadow of Henry VIII, but it’s fair to say that during her brief life, the mighty king’s younger sister Mary tried her damndest to seize at least some of the attention. Unlike Elizabeth Woodville, as recent fiction work might have you believe, Mary Tudor truly was known as the White Queen during her lifetime, referred to by the French for the colour of her mourning clothes after the death of her husband Louis XII in 1515, and it is this particular Tudor queen that author Sarah Bryson chooses to explore in her latest work ‘La Reine Blanche; Mary Tudor, a Life in Letters’.
The author notes in her introduction that the Tudor age was a period dominated by men, but there were nonetheless many strong, independent and intellectually gifted women, one of which she asserts was Mary, the youngest daughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. As this book, a chronological biography, progresses, it is difficult to argue otherwise with Bryson’s opinion.
La Reine Blanche covers Mary’s life, and in fact pre-life in the case of the opening chapter exploring the origins of the Tudors, following her early life as part-princess, part-martial pawn, including a commendably detailed look at her childhood betrothal to Archduke Charles, before exploring her brief tenure as Queen of France after she was married at eighteen to the elderly Louis XII in October 1514. The union was part of a treaty between Mary’s brother Henry VIII and her new husband, but the French king only lived three more months. Mary, however, was proud of her rank as Queen of France, and in fact, Bryson tells us, she never stopped referring to herself as such, despite a subsequent marriage.
That remarriage was her controversial decision to wed Charles Brandon, her brother’s close friend and the parvenu Duke of Suffolk, shortly after King Louis’ death, behind the back of the English king to whom they were forced to beg for forgiveness after the fact. What does this impulsive act say about Mary Tudor, a renowned beauty? Bryson tells us it proves it was an “opportunity to show the strong, self-willed, determined woman she had always been”, and this is an understatement. It was a remarkable decision, followed by a fascinating period in which she was forced to beg her brother’s forgiveness through a series of letters.
It is these letters where Bryson’s book has particular worth. Too often narrative history books only carry the odd line or two of contemporary sources, and often even then it is a famous excerpt that is repeated across the board. Bryson has utilised scores of letters written to and from Mary, or involving matters relating to her, and more often than not has included them the source in full, which is refreshing in allowing the reader to formulate their own opinion on the topic in question. In short, we are treated not only to Mary’s story in Bryson’s words, but also Mary’s story in Mary’s words.
We also discover, through these letters, just how wise Mary was, conjuring up all her wiles to convince her brother to forgive her marriage to Brandon, flattering him until he submitted. Bryson is astute when she notes that Mary “was able to manipulate the men around her, to convince them of her loyalty and to gain her heart’s desire by playing the weak female. She wept, she feared for her life, she worried and played herb role perfectly, all the while manoeuvring the men to her purpose; a marriage of her own choosing”. Tudors more often than not got their way, and Mary was no different, even when the person she was up against was her own flesh and blood. How many others went against Henry VIII and lived to tell the tale?
In short, La Reine Blanche is a passionate and detailed account that is a welcome addition to the Tudor genre, in which Sarah Bryson does justice to the extraordinary life and times of Mary Tudor. Essential reading to gain a fresh perspective of the early years in the most famous royal court in English history.
Sarah Bryson is a researcher, writer and educator who has a Bachelor of Early Childhood Education with Honours. She currently works with children with disabilities. She is passionate about Tudor history and has a deep interest in Mary Tudor, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk and the reign of Henry VIII and the people of his court. She has run a website dedicated to Tudor history for many years and has written for various websites including ‘On the Tudor Trail’ and “QueenAnneBoleyn’. She has been studying primary sources to tell the story of Mary Tudor for a decade. Sarah lives in Australia, enjoys reading, writing and Tudor costume enactment.
It is probably fair to suggest that Margaret Tudor, the eldest daughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, is the lesser known of his four surviving children, yet it is her descendants, and not those of her siblings, that currently sit on the British throne 477 years after her death, an astonishing achievement. Everyone knows Henry VIII, Margaret’s little brother, with increasing attention paid in recent years to her other siblings Arthur and Mary, but the Tudor who became a queen of Scotland remains somewhat unexplored, until now.
The sub-title of this very book is perhaps telling when one thinks of Margaret Tudor – “The Life of King Henry VIIIs Sister”, but fortunately Sarah-Beth Watkins valiantly attempts to remove her subject from her brother’s considerable shadow, something in which she succeeds. Born in 1489 and named for her maternal grandmother Margaret Beaufort, our Margaret was the second child of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, inheriting blood from both sides of the Wars of the Roses divide and ensuring she would be a highly-sought after princess on the competitive bridal market. It was the Scottish with whom she was eventually matched, and in 1503 at the age of just 13 travelled north to marry James IV, shortly after the death of her mother and eldest brother Arthur, which must have been emotionally taxing for the young girl. Life as queen, however, would be no plain sailing.
Margaret was very much a typical Tudor, and exhibited as much determination, stubbornness and questionable judgement as any of her more-famous relations, particularly after her royal husband’s death fighting against her brother in 1513, a period which must have caused considerable anxiety to the queen of Scots. Throughout her life, Margaret’s two loyalties were torn between both her families (and therefore her countries), Tudor and Stewart, and after she made the disastrous decision to remarry to Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus, political opinion against her prompted a brief return home to the English court of her brother in London. By 1524, however, Margaret had bravely returned to Scotland and even engineered a coup to reclaim power on behalf of her underage son James V in a manner befitting one of Tudor bearing.
Not dissimilar to her brother, however, Margaret’s personal life obscured any political ambition, and she petitioned the Pope for a divorce, incurring the wrath of Henry VIII who himself would ironically follow suit just a few years later. She married for the third time to Henry Stewart, before falling out of favour in Scottish politics and passing away in 1541. Her legacy as queen of Scots and an English princess endures however; upon the failure of her brother’s line after the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, it was Margaret’s great-grandson James VI of Scotland who inherited the Tudor crown, ushering in the Stuart period of kings of England.
Margaret Tudor’s tumultuous life, therefore, was without doubt a dramatic period in this island’s history, one of far greater significance than either she or her contemporaries perhaps anticipated. At only 168 pages, Watkins’ chronological biography cannot be anything other than a brief exploration of these life and times, but that is not necessarily a negative mark against the author’s work – it covers all the key moments aforementioned, allowing the reader to assume their own extracurricular research on a particular aspect if so inclined.
Perhaps because of the length of the book, the narrative is concise, fast-paced and unrelenting, creating an engrossing and well-written account that the reader will race through in no time, whether expert or beginner. The inclusion of primary sourced material, in particular letters written by the subject herself, were also a pleasing addition, somewhat humanising a woman who lived 500 years ago. I was particularly captivated by her varying relationship with Henry VIII, as explored through her own words. In 1517, for example, we have Margaret writing to Henry where she beseeched ‘your grace to continue good and kind brother to me, as you have ever been’ whilst by 1524 the tone had altered somwhat, Margaret chastening her brother for his meddling in Scottish affairs by saying ‘it is right unkindly that your grace hath done this to me your sister’. Siblings, huh?
Overall, Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scots; The Life of Henry VIII’s Sister is a worthwhile read that hopefully goes someway to bringing Margaret , the true conduit of her father’ legacy as Watkins’ explores in her final chapter, firmly out of the shadow of her ubiquitous little brother.
Sarah-Beth Watkins grew up in Richmond, Surrey and began soaking up history from an early age. Her love of writing has seen her articles published in various publications over the past twenty years. Her history works are Ireland’s Suffragettes, Lady Katherine Knollys: The Unacknowledged Daughter of King Henry VIII, The Tudor Brandons, Catherine of Braganza, Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scots: The Life of King Henry VIII’s Sister and the forthcoming Anne of Cleves: Henry VIII’s Unwanted Wife.
Interest in the life and times of the Tudor monarchs is as strong as ever, and so finding new ways to take a fresh look at a well-studied dynasty is always a difficulty for the historian wishing to bring something new to the table. As individuals, Henry VIII and his eldest surviving child Mary I have incurred considerable attention in recent years, but in The King’s Peal by Melita Thomas, the author has focused on dealings between father and daughter, and the result is an accomplished study of a complex and often fractious relationship that helps us understand better Mary the queen.
It is Thomas’ opinion that Mary, ‘a pearl of the world’, was a gambler – a headstrong force who risked everything she had in 1553 – her life, freedom and religion, in bidding for the throne, and this bold if reckless rise to become queen had its roots in her dealing with her father Henry, who both ‘loved and bullied’ his daughter throughout her youth. Recent re-evaluation of Mary’s reign has started to portray a queen who was more tragic than bloody, a victim of her father, but as Thomas exhibits throughout her work, their relationship was more complex than that – Mary was unquestionably doted upon by Henry when a girl but not so much when she developed into an obdurate teenager who questioned his setting aside her mother for Anne Boleyn.
When Mary continued to refuse to recognise Henry as the Supreme Head of the Church after both her mother and Anne’s deaths, matters reached a head in 1536, by which point father and daughter had been estranged for 4 years, when the king wrote to his daughter advising if she didn’t accept his will he would take leave of her forever, thinking her the most “ungrate, unnatural, and most obstinate person living”. Harsh words indeed, and just an insight into the tumultuous relationship of the pair.
And yet, as Thomas explores in The King’s Pearl, Mary remained the only figure to ever publicly clash in such a manner with the mighty king and not be destroyed. Wives, mentors and friends came and went, yet Mary remained, if at times firmly out of favour. Henry could willingly destroy any and every one, but he could never bring himself to wholly ruin his daughter, although it must be speculated upon how much such behaviour later affected her outlook.
Although the father-daughter personal relationship was complex and often confused by external political factors, Thomas’ book retains a gripping narrative throughout, never short on detail but always engaging. Well-referenced and commendably impartial, Thomas succeeds in not treating Mary or Henry as stereotypical two-dimensional parodies, and doesn’t take an obvious side in her study, preferring to present the evidence with reasoned commentary.
The book is a thought-provoking read that will help contextualise the later reign of Mary I, and perhaps explain the decisions taken by pearl who would, against the odds, one day become queen. Mary was far more her father’s daughter than is sometimes presumed, as this book superbly highlights.
Melita Thomas is the co-founder and editor of Tudor Times, a repository of information about Tudors and Stewarts in the period 1485-1625 http://www.tudortimes.co.uk. Her first book ‘The King’s Pearl: Henry VIII and his daughter Mary’ is available now.
Some may argue that the topic of Henry VIII and his six wives is a subject that has suffered oversaturation in recent decades, with innumerable works produced analysing every possible aspect of the Tudor king’s relationship with the women in his life. The Six Wives and Many Mistresses of Henry VIII by Amy Licence, however, proves to be another worthy addition to the genre, taking a fresh look at an old subject as has become the author’s trademark in recent years.
Subtitled ‘The Women’s Stories’, this gives you an indication of what to expect from an author well-known for her work on the female gender of 15th and 16th century England, and this isn’t a negative thing. As with her previous, and probably future, books, this isn’t a work written by woman that is only intended to be read by women. Licence’s goal is to discuss the subject of Henry VIII and his tumultuous love life from the perspectives of his female companions, a varied and intriguing array of women whose voices have sometimes become obscured by the drama that surrounded this larger-than-life monarch. Even the most casual of observers is generally aware of Henry’s wants, needs and desires, noting how he infamously ploughed through several wives to satisfy his thirst; indeed, it has been documented time and time again.
In this particular work, however, Licence sets out, and succeeds, in her objective to bring sometime-queens such as Katherine of Aragon and Catherine Howard back to life, using contemporary sources to support her conclusions, some of which are mainstream and others which are innovative in their deduction. Where Licence’s book has worth, however, is in her thorough accounts of the lives of Henry’s lesser-known lovers, from Bessie Blount to Mary Boleyn, and from Elizabeth Carew to Jane Popincourt, women often reduced to a mere sentence or two in other works.
It soon becomes apparent that this isn’t a biography of Henry VIII, and true to her intention, the book is rather divided into sections documenting the life and times of the women, with each chapter and sub-section introduced with a contemporary quote, a nice touch. Part 1 of Six Wives covers the life of Catherine of Aragon, from her birth in 1485 to 1509, the year Henry VII died and Henry VIII became king, as well as her husband. Even so, Henry was powerful, handsome and lusty during the early years of his marriage, and Part 2 looks at Queen Catherine’s rivals in the Tudor court between 1510 and 1515, including Anne Hastings, the little-known Flemish maid Etiennette de la Baume, and the aforementioned ladies Popincourt and Carew. Etiennette, in particular, is an interesting addition as even well-read Tudor aficionados may not be aware of Henry’s French conquest, or another known mysteriously only as ‘Madame the Bastard’. Part 3, meanwhile, documents the king’s affair with Bessie Blount, the only woman with whom he had an acknowledged bastard, whilst parts 4-9 cover his remaining wives.
I particularly enjoyed the brief description of a man named William Webbe who cried vengeance against the king for Henry’s liaison with a woman described in official records as a ‘wench’, and whom he installed in a property for the purposes of adultery. I wished we knew more about Webbe, for it must have taken considerable courage to accuse the king when other men remained tight-lipped in such scenarios, out of fear no doubt.
What is evident from Licence’s study is that the women in Henry’s life were, as simply as it sounds, just that; living, breathing women, full of the same hopes and fears for their future as any woman walking the planet today. This may seem like an obvious statement, but too often in books relating to the Tudor era are the women reduced to caricatures – the proud woman, the scheming woman, the flirty woman and so on. The human mind is far more complex than this, shaped by circumstances both within and without each person’s control. Whilst we have the benefit of hindsight in knowing how their actions would shape their destiny, these women didn’t have that luxury. Licence attempts to explain those she is studying with this concept in mind, and in my opinion is successful in her endeavour. The myth, in essence, is stripped away until we’re faced with the reality.
Amy Licence is unquestionably one of the most popular Tudor authors of her generation, a reputation created from her clear style of writing, attention to detail and refreshing takes on a well-worn subject. The blurb for The Six Wives and Many Mistresses of Henry VIII pointedly asks “What was it like to be Mrs Henry VIII?”. After finishing this book, you will have a much better idea. A valuable addition to the study of both Tudor and female history.
Amy Licence is the author of several books on the Tudor dynasty and the Wars of the Roses, including In Bed With the Tudors (‘A fascinating book examining the sex lives of the Tudors in unprecedented detail’ Daily Express), Anne Neville, Elizabeth of York and The Six Wives & Many Mistresses of Henry VIII, all published by Amberley. Amy has written for the Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement and BBC History Magazine and has appeared on BBC radio and television. She lives in Canterbury with her husband and two children
The term ‘Wolf Hall’ has become widely recognised in recent years thanks to the title of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning tour de force, released to much acclaim in 2010. Whilst the protagonist of Mantel’s fictional work is a certain Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall itself refers to the family home of the Seymours, a provincially important dynasty based in the Wiltshire manor house.
David Loades book unquestionably intends to capitalise on the considerable attention given to Wolf Hall and its one-time inhabitants through Mantel’s award-winning words, but this isn’t to diminish the scope of Loades’ work; this is a long overdue assessment of the life and times of the foremost of the Seymours, briefly encompassing their beginnings to the apex of their influence during the reigns of Henry VIII and the Seymour-blooded Edward VI. As Loades notes at the outset; “The Seymour family was one of the most prominent at the Tudor court”. Their worth as subjects of such a work does not stem solely from Mantel’s influence.
The book is subtitled ‘A Tudor Family Story’, and with good reason, as the focus of the book is unquestionably Edward and Thomas Seymour, the brothers of Queen Jane who rose high in the Tudor court after their sister’s marriage to Henry VIII in 1537. Edward gradually replaced Thomas Cromwell as King Henry’s chief servant after 1540, becoming earl of Hertford, duke of Somerset and, after the accession of his nephew Edward VI, Lord Protector of England. Thomas was Lord High Admiral, and based at Sudeley Castle with his wife Katherine Parr, the final wife of King Henry, was briefly in custody of the young Princess Elizabeth. Queen Jane, meanwhile, was the focus of Loades’ previous work ‘Jane Seymour: Henry VIII’s Favourite Wife’, which serves as a great companion piece to this particular work.
The author is an Emeritus Professor of the University of Wales, not to mention a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and as to be expected from such an accomplished academic figure, the book is a thorough, thought-provoking, masterpiece when it comes to the Seymour family in the sixteenth century. You won’t find irrational leaps of opinion or wild speculation in this book unlike many other similar productions, but rather hard fact and logical conclusions drawn directly from available primary source material. Loades’ book is about the real Seymours and how they lived, politicked and endured, not fictional conjecture with little basis in reality. I do feel the book glosses over the origins of the family, founded in the seventh century, and quickly advances to the life and times of Sir John Seymour, the queen’s father, but this is probably not an issue for an intended audience primarily concerned with learning about the Tudor Seymours. This criticism is quickly offset by the engaging introduction from Professor Loades where he effectively justifies the necessity of his work.
‘The Seymours of Wolf Hall’ is ultimately a much-recommended companion to the more mainstream works on Henry VIII and his extraordinary reign, whilst also serving as a splendid book in its own right. It serves as an ideal read for those looking to broaden their horizons on all things Tudor, and ultimately, whether on topic or off, Professor Loades is one of the most eminent authorities on the Tudor court. There is much to learn from this book.
David Loades was Emeritus Professor of the University of Wales and an Honorary Member of the University of Oxford, History Faculty. He was also a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, Vice-President of the Navy Record Society and former President of the Ecclesiastical History Society. He is the author of over thirty books on the sixteenth century, specializing in the Tudors.
MadeGlobal’s “All About” series is the perfect choice for anyone who wants to know more about the key characters of history. The books are colourfully illustrated throughout, have a simple narrative to explain the key points in the character’s life and more detailed sections for the more- able reader or teacher. The book also contains a section of thought-provoking questions which can be used to further discussions about history.
Henry VIII is probably the most famous Tudor. He was a handsome, athletic young man; he never expected to become king and so was determined to enjoy his reign. Henry had six wives but could hate as passionately as he loved. He even had two wives executed. Henry surrounded himself with extraordinary men, including Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell, and, during his reign, he changed religion forever in England. His son and daughters went on to be famous monarchs too.
Why did Henry have so many wives? Why was his reign so important?
Here are ten myths often mentioned when discussing Henry VIII
Henry had six wives.
Well, yes and no. It depends on who you ask. Today we accept all the six women- Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr- as Henry’s wives and queens. He went through a wedding ceremony with each of them willingly, save for Anne of Cleves, which he wanted to wriggle out of, but it was diplomatically difficult. Yet if you asked Henry himself, he would say he had two or three true wives. According to the king, his unions with Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Anne of Cleves were all invalid because of precontracts or other circumstances, meaning that he had been mistaken at best, deceived at worst. Henry would claim Jane Seymour as his first wife and certainly Catherine Parr as his last. His fifth wife, Catherine Howard was executed, so there was no lengthy annulment, but her precontract with Francis Dereham would have made that match invalid in the king’s eyes too.
2. Henry was huge.
At the end of his life, in his late forties and early fifties, Henry did put on weight, so this is true of that time. By his death, he had a fifty-three inch chest and a fifty-two inch waist. However, for years before this, Henry was handsome, athletic and strong. His punishing physical routine of hunting and jousting kept him in shape and he was considered to be one of the most attractive men of his day, with his red-gold hair and angelic features, as Thomas More described them.
3. Henry had syphilis.
This is very unlikely. The theory didn’t actually emerge until the late nineteenth century, when a historian identified a “ridge” on the king’s nose, in a portrait, which was supposed to indicate the final stages of the disease. However, Henry showed no symptoms of it during his lifetime and was never subjected to the contemporary mercury treatments for syphilis that his French counterpart, Francis I, took regularly. Equally, none of Henry’s children displayed signs of congenital syphilis.
4. Henry was originally intended for the church.
No, he wasn’t. It’s certainly true that Henry wasn’t intended for the throne, as he had an elder brother Arthur, who was being trained up by their father as the next Tudor king. Arthur received a very different education at Ludlow Castle, while Henry was brought up with his sisters at Eltham Palace. Yet it would have been very unlikely that his parents had ever destined him for the church and his upbringing shows no signs of it. If he had been the fourth, fifth, or sixth son, this might have been the case but, although Arthur’s death was not expected, life was fragile and could swiftly end. Henry VII and Elizabeth of York had lost a couple of children in infancy and knew the dangers. Prince Henry was raised as the spare heir but, from the age of eleven, was in line to inherit. This misapprehension may arise from descriptions of him during his teens, in which an observer commented that he was kept closeted away.
5. Henry was a big eater.
Reputedly so, but then he would have needed to eat lots to replace the calories he burned off, spending days in the saddle. There would have been no throwing the bones into the fire though, as some popular films have suggested. Impeccable manners were an essential at court.
6. Henry was something of a prude.
This one is difficult to know, as it’s all about what happened behind closed doors. While Henry was definitely not the celebrated Romeo that Francis I proved to be, he did have mistresses and fathered at least one illegitimate child that we know of. And that’s the key to this one: it’s about what we do know and what we don’t know. Henry wasn’t so much a prude, as very private and discreet. We only know about his affair with Bessie Blount because she fell pregnant and about Mary Boleyn because it raised potential problems when he wanted to marry her sister. Without those accidents, we would know nothing about Henry’s mistresses at all. So there may well have been others.
7. Henry nearly died twice.
He did indeed! In 1536, the king suffered a terrible fall during a joust, in which his horse fell on top of him, leaving him unconscious for two hours. Then, in 1538, the ulcer on his leg became infected and he writhed in pain for over a week, reputedly turning black in the face, so that his life was despaired of. Things would have been very different in England, had either of those occasions finished him off. He must have been very strong indeed to survive both.
8. Henry was a Protestant.
No! Henry broke with the Pope and established himself as the head of the church of England but, until the day he died, he considered himself to be a reformed Catholic. It was the abuses of the Catholic church he rejected and continued to persecute Protestants as heretics. Sometimes his reforms did seem to send mixed messages, and he drew back from some of them towards the end of his life.
9. Henry executed lots of people.
Henry did not shy away from inflicting “justice.” Especially towards the end of his life, he stepped up his campaign to rid himself of his enemies, even those who had formerly been his close friends, ministers or even his relatives. After the death of Anne Boleyn in 1536, he pursued any perceived treason very harshly, with another purge of his “enemies” in 1538 and, 1541, sending the elderly Margaret Pole to the block. He was ready to make an example of those who rose against him too, ordering mass executions of those protesting against religious reform following the Pilgrimage of Grace. Those who spoke out against his regime, him, or his wives, in the 1530s and 1540s, even through reported gossip, could expect the worst.
10. Henry’s palaces were dirty and smelly.
Well, they were, but only after several weeks of the court being in residence there. Henry himself was rather a clean freak, obsessed with avoiding the bad odours and airs that were thought to spread illness. He had baths installed in his palaces, either made of stone or of wood lined with linen, all supplied by pumped water. He gave detailed instructions for the regular cleaning of his son Edward’s apartments and moved regularly to allow cleaning to take place. His close-stools were regularly changed, his laundry washed and scented, and his rooms swept and perfumed. In later years, the ulcer on his leg did emit unpleasant smells, but that was the result of illness, not lack of hygiene.
Amy Licence is an historian of women’s lives in the medieval and early modern period, from Queens to commoners. Her particular interest lies in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, in gender relations, Queenship and identity, rites of passage, pilgrimage, female orthodoxy and rebellion, superstition, magic, fertility and childbirth. She is also interested in Modernism, specifically Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group, Picasso and Post-Impressionism.
Amy has written for The Guardian, The TLS, The New Statesman, BBC History, The English Review, The Huffington Post, The London Magazine and other places. She has been interviewed regularly for BBC radio, including Woman’s Hour, and made her TV debut in “The Real White Queen and her Rivals” documentary, for BBC2, in 2013. She also writes literary fiction and has been shortlisted twice for the Asham Award.
Her website can be found at amylicence.weebly.com and her new book can be found at the following Amazon link;
I’ve said in previous book reviews for Amy Licence, that she is unquestionably the most prolific historian writing today. Her output of books in recent years is incredible, the culmination of a life’s fascination and study of the subject, and this continues with her latest offering, Catherine of Aragon, an Intimate Life of Henry VIII’s True Wife.
My first thought upon receiving the book, is that it’s MASSIVE. It’s a seriously thick book, comprising 560 pages split across 7 separate parts. Covered are Catherine’s birth and childhood in Spain, her marriage to Prince Arthur, her widowhood, her early marriage years to Henry VIII, her life as Queen of England, the downfall of her marriage and her final, tragic years. It’s fair to say, this may just be the definitive account of the life of Catherine of Aragon.
Licence’s speciality is the study of the Tudor women, as women in their own right, not as mere decorations of their husbands, fathers or brothers, and it is this expertise she applies to Catherine of Aragon, the foremost Tudor woman for the first quarter of the sixteenth century.
The author leaves no stone unturned, and covers the entirety of Queen Catherine’s life, not just her more infamous moments. Anyone with a passing interest in the Tudors will know of Catherine’s doomed marriage to Arthur, followed by her second union with his brother, Henry. This does not, and should not, define Catherine, however, and the author does a great job in examining the early life of the Spanish princess, from her birth in 1485 to her upbringing amongst the fascinating and colourful royal court of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, Europe’s renowned Catholic Monarchs. Catherine’s later devoutness and stubbornness did not come from nowhere, it was imbued in her as a product of this illustrious Spanish union.
Particularly fascinating, and crucial to Catherine’s life, is the detailed account of her 1501 wedding to Arthur, particularly the subsequent ‘did they, didn’t they?’ bedding ceremony, or ‘the most famous bedding ceremony of all time’ as Licence aptly puts it. Intriguingly, Licence offers a third, graphic, scenario as to what happened on that fateful night, a compelling theory that may just make you blush.
We are also treated to an in-depth insight into Catherine’s life in between her marriages. It is often overlooked that this span of time was eight years, that is almost a decade of character growth which is often disregarded in other books on the subject. It is these insights into the lesser-known minutiae of the queen’s life that make Licence’s book a worthwhile purchase. In fact, I’d argue it’s a necessity for anyone who wishes to study, or gain greater knowledge, of the first half of the Tudor century of rule.
As expected perhaps from the leading Tudor historian on female matters, this book is sympathetic and understanding of its subject, but that’s not to say in a biased or predisposed way. Licence comes to her conclusions about Katherine through sheer research of her character, her influences and her actions, and puts forward a compelling case of a pious and courageous woman who only sought to serve her god, and serve her husband, in the manner she thought best. This is a compassionate and positive portrayal of Catherine, but that is only because it is the least the woman deserves.
Quite simply, there doesn’t appear to be anything more said on the subject of Catherine of Aragon, that what Amy Licence has covered in her colossal biography.
Many people today use the term Whitehall to refer to the government of the present day, but not many of those will be aware that the term emanates from the Palace of Whitehall which once stood on the site of modern governmental buildings in Westminster. One man who is more than aware of this is historian and researcher Phil Roberts, who has put together this handy history of the main London residence of the kings and queens of England from 1530 to 1698.
Roberts is an enthusiastic student of his subject, captivated by its history and eager to share his knowledge with the wider public. His book ‘Whitehall Palace in a Nutshell’ is the first step to achieving this aim. Although the book is concise, part of publisher Made Global’s intriguing ‘in a Nutshell’ series, Roberts commendably succeeds in covering all aspects of the Palace’s history, from its requisition by Henry VIII to the reign of James I, also taking into account its place in the English Civil War, the execution of Charles I, and the Cromwellian era. His attention to detail is noted, including trivia such as Henry VIII paying £1,130 in 1531 to buy up the buildings around the palace or that he owned over 2028 pieces of plate and 2000 pieces of tapestry by 1547. The miscellany of events towards the end of the book is particularly a mine of information.
The palace started life as York Place, the London residence of the Archbishops of York, but after Cardinal Wolsey’s fall, was acquired by Henry VIII in 1530. Within two years, it was known as White Hall and became the favoured residence of the king and Anne Boleyn when in the capital. It was a massive complex, growing to contain 2000 rooms and covering 23 acres, eclipsing Versailles, the Vatican and Hampton Court. His account of the fire that finally brought the Palace tumbling down is particularly gripping, highlighting how we lost one of the most splendid Tudor palaces in the country. ‘Whitehall Burnt! Nothing but walls and ruins left’ exclaimed the diarist John Evelyn, reporting the tragedy, as shown in Roberts’ book, robbed us of a wonderful building.
The maps are a helpful guide for the modern visitor to London to place themselves on the spot where kings once rested their heads, although unfortunately there isn’t much remaining. In fact, the wine cellar still survives below street level and whilst is not open to the public, Roberts used personal connections to gain access, a benefit which is noticeable in his work, particularly in photographs of the interior.
All things considered, Whitehall Palace is a short read that is detailed enough to give new information and small enough to be used as a guide book when traipsing through the streets of London. Whitehall Palace in a Nutshell is a valuable addition for any student of both Tudor and Stuart periods, whether academic or amateur. An interesting read that is enough to compel me to pay more attention to my surroundings next time I am down by the Thames in Westminster. I suspect that was the author’s aim.
Philip Roberts, author of Whitehall Palace in a Nutshell, is employed as an ambulance crew member. He is also a Tudor era enthusiast, having been a member of the Mary Rose Trust Information Group Team for well over twenty years, educating people on King Henry VIII’s warship, and on everyday Tudor life. He has also been a reenactor as a Tudor at Kentwell Hall, Suffolk, the world famous Elizabethan mansion, and still re-enacts at the Mary Rose Museum at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.
Whilst everyone assumes that I am into the ‘Tudors subject’ as a whole, 1485 to 1603 is a substantial period of time covering many aspects. I find myself drawn to the early period of the Tudors and in particular the reign of Henry VII and the Wars of the Roses that preceded his rise. Henry VIII interests me, his multiple wives and successors less so.
Therefore I was expecting to be intrigued by this new offering from Morris and Greuninger, just not overly so. With books like this, focusing on parts of the Tudor reign that I normally choose to overlook as matter of preference, I tend to try and focus on any information relating to Henry VII that I didn’t previously know. Any concerns I may have had about being bored by the subject matter at hand however, was dispelled as soon as I saw the contents page. Castle after Castle and Palace after Palace, including some oddly unfamiliar ones.
This book follows on the heels of the pairs’ much-lauded book In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn, a release that has become a must-have for those stimulated by the charismatic enigma that was Henry VIII’s second queen. Casting the net wider, this new offering seeks to, self-explanatory, follow in the footsteps of not only Anne, but also her five other fellow queens of Henry VIII.
Guide books like this are a particular favourite of mine. I not only enjoy reading history, I enjoy visiting history and judging from the continued survival of many of Britain’s historic treasures, this seems to be a widely held sentiment. Being able to picture a location from words alone can be rewarding, but to physically visit a site is even better. For those unable to, due to time, distance or otherwise, books like this are an invaluable aid in furthering ones knowledge. But do not be mistaken, this is not a basic guide book light on historical content.
The book is split into seven sections, with one covering the principal royal residences known to all, followed by an individual section dedicated to each queen. In total we are provided eighty locations, with a detailed history of each along with information on any interesting artefacts or features still extant. This is bolstered by over 130 pictures of the sites for those unable to physically visit. A welcome inclusion is the plethora of family trees, maps and timelines that augment the text. Each entry has also been visited by the authors, which is evident in their narrative as they paint a vivid mental picture with their words. Furthermore each queen is introduced with a short biography so even if you have no prior knowledge of the personalities involved, you are catered for. It’s information-overload in the best sense of the word.
The old favourites are here; Hampton Court Palace, Whitehall Palace and Windsor Castle. But where this book stands on its own is the inclusion of the lesser known sites which once hosted queens of England. Acton Court near Bristol has a room where Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII dined in whilst for the first time that I’m aware of we are introduced to the various locations in Germany and Spain with Tudor connections. Dusseldorf features prominently in reference to Anne of Cleves with Spanish sites such as the Royal Palace of Medina del Campo, Alcazar of Seville or the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral providing a thorough account of the early life of Katherine of Aragon. An example of the detailed narrative can be found in the entry for the Archbishop’s Palace, Alcala de Henares in Madrid, where Katherine was born. The authors describe the palace as;
“a vast complex of buildings, gardens and courtyards, more than double the size of the original fortress. It comprised several patios (courtyards), towers, galleries and chambers, including la sala de la Reyna, the queen’s chamber, elaborately decorated in Gothic-Mudejar style, and on the floor above, el Salon de Concilios, or Council Wing”.
Elsewhere, I hadn’t heard of the Echateau d’Amboise or the Schloss Dusselforf for example, so these were fascinating to discover. Closer to home, I hadn’t come across places such as Beddington Place, the Manor of Bletchingley or Thornton Abbey before. The research cannot be faulted.
In the introduction to the book, the authors note that In the Footsteps… takes the reader ‘from the sun-baked plains of Spain in the south, through the lush mountains of the Rhine Valley in Germany to the east, via the great abbeys of England’s West Country to the medieval cities of northern England’. They’re not wrong. Thoroughly enjoyable read, that can be used as and when you need it as a handy reference guide. I’ll certainly be taking it out and about next time I’m visiting any Tudor sites.
Sarah Morris runs the website http://www.anneboleynbook.com, dedicated to her non-fiction and fiction writing about England’s most famous queen consort.
Natalie Grueninger is a researcher, writer and educator, and founder of http://www.onthetudortrail.com, a site about Anne Boleyn and Tudor England. She is the co-author, with Sarah Morris, of In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn.
Kent is undeniably one of the most beautiful parts of England and is generally known as the ‘Garden of England’. Suitably located between London and the port of Calais, it is unsurprising to discover that Kent possesses substantial Tudor heritage. Throughout the county are an abundance of castles, abbeys and churches with sixteenth century connections and this article will document some of those.
Hever Castle is without a doubt the jewel in Kent’s Tudor crown and is notable for its connection to the Boleyn family. Although it contains thirteenth century origins the castle truly came into being when it was converted into a substantial manor house by Mayor of London Geoffrey Boleyn in 1462. Geoffrey’s grandson Thomas Boleyn inherited Hever in 1505 and lived there with his wife Elizabeth and children George, Mary and Anne.
Hever Castle was extensively restored by American magnate William Waldorf Astor during the early twentieth century and the result is a quintessential castle with very few equals in Europe. The crenellated keep has an abundance of arrow loops and complex chimneys with a moat that ensures Hever Castle creates an awe-striking impression upon the visitor. The wooden drawbridge and portcullis which leads to through the gatehouse and into the courtyard is considered to be as it was when the Boleyn’s journeyed through it during the sixteenth century.
On permanent display in the castle is Anne’s personal Book of Hours, complete with examples of her handwriting, whilst another temporary exhibition showcasing the marital bed of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York can be viewed in the Long Gallery, built by Thomas Boleyn in 1506 and which at various times hosted Henry VIII.
Although the castle’s association with Anne Boleyn is the primary reason Hever has remained so evocative it should be noted the premises was owned by Henry VIII’s fourth wife Anne of Cleves between 1540 and her death in 1557, bestowed upon her a part of her divorce settlement. Intriguing to note is the hidden catholic chapel that was built at Hever in 1584 by then-owners the Waldegrave family, recusant Roman Catholics worshipping in secret at a time when it was outlawed by Anne’s daughter Queen Elizabeth I. The castle was saved from possible ruin by Astor and his careful and delicate restoration has resulted in Hever’s heritage to be savoured 500 years after its most famous resident loitered amongst the confines.
St Peter’s Church, Hever
St Peter’s Church in Hever is notable as the final resting place of Sir Thomas Boleyn, resident of the nearby castle and controversial father of the Anne Boleyn. Sir Thomas’ tomb can be found in a place of honour near the altar and is a simple affair, perhaps indicative of the discreet way his life ended with shamed exile from court. Thomas Boleyn died on 12 March 1539 and his tomb is adorned with a brass plate depicting the one-time queen’s father in the robes of a Knight of the Garter which he was once accustomed to wearing. Noticeable above his shoulder is the Boleyn family emblem of a falcon. St Peter’s has been the parish church of Hever since at least the fourteenth century and during her childhood at Hever it is not fanciful to suggest that Anne, along with the wider Boleyn family, were well acquainted with the church.
Leeds Castle is a dramatic medieval fortress-turned-palatial home partially enclosed by a substantial moat and with its charming setting in the centre of a sprawling garden estate it can certainly rival Hever Castle in its fairy-tale appearance.
The castle has origins in the twelfth century and by the end of the thirteenth century was known to be a favoured residence of King Edward I. During the early fifteenth century the castle was owned by Katherine de Valois, widow of King Henry V. Katherine’s scandalous marriage to Welshman Owen Tudor introduced the Tudors into English society and their grandson Henry Tudor would secure the crown at Bosworth in 1485. It is tantalising to suggest that Katherine and Owen may have shared romantic trysts in Leeds enchanting surroundings. As part of the crown estate the castle passed into the control of the Tudors after their accession to the throne of England and in 1519 Henry VIII presented Leeds Castle to his first wife Katherine of Aragon. Still evident in the Queen’s Gallery are dynastic engravings relating to Katherine, including her heraldic badge of the pomegranate.
In 1520 Leeds Castle played host to the royal court when Henry, his queen, and a retinue numbering in the thousands stayed in the castle grounds prior to crossing the English Channel on the way to France for the fabled Field of the Cloth of Gold summit with French king Francis I. In 1552 the castle was granted to Sir Anthony St Leger, ending over 300 years of royal ownership. During Queen Elizabeth’s reign it appears four marble busts were commission of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth herself and these are still on display in the gallery.
Substantial investment and renovation has taken place at Leeds over the centuries, notably in the early twentieth century. The result is a palatial complex considered to be the ‘loveliest castle in the world’ and although genuine Tudor features are at a minimum, it is nonetheless a location worthy of exploration.
Rochester Castle’s Norman keep is a domineering stone structure that overlooks the River Medway with an authoritative confidence that was a trademark of the twelfth century. Whilst the majority of the castle lies in ruins the keep itself is generally intact, which is perhaps indicative of the quality of its workmanship when one considers the castle was sacked during the Peasants Revolt in 1381.
It was within the medieval fortress that Henry VIII first met his fourth wife Anne of Cleves, an encounter which has been told and retold with such embellishment in popular culture the truth has become somewhat obscured by myth. Anne begun her lengthy journey to England in the winter of 1539 and by New Years’ Eve had arrived at Rochester. The king could hardly contain his excitement and journeyed from London the following day with boyish enthusiasm to surprise his new wife, incognito. The disguised king burst into Anne’s room with five of his companions and begun to make romantic advances towards the startled duchess, unaware of this English custom. His attempts failed; Anne barely responded and the humiliated king stormed out of the room, the marriage doomed from the first day. Whilst the ‘flander’s mare’ comment is a seventeenth century invention, it was reported that Henry nonetheless declared that the Duchess was ‘nothing so well as she was spoken off’. By July the marriage had been annulled.
St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury
Christianity was brought to Canterbury and England by St Augustine, who established a Benedictine abbey in the city in 598. Augustine’s abbey was one of the largest and wealthiest in the kingdom for over nine hundred years until its dissolution in 1538 under the reign of Henry VIII. As part of Henry’s Reformation the abbey was surrendered to the king’s commissioners on 30 July that year and the property became part of the crown estate. The king set about transforming part of the erstwhile ecclesiastical building into a luxurious palatial retreat which was initially used by Henry’s fourth wife Anne of Cleves. Queen Elizabeth I was also known to have stayed at the new palace during one of her Kent progresses although the building gradually fell into disrepair during the seventeenth century. Although now a dramatic ruin the red bricks of the Tudor palace are still visible along with the original abbey walls. Furthermore two gatehouses mark the former entrances into the abbey ground’s and are reminiscent of similar gates at Hampton Court.
Christ Church Gate, Canterbury
The splendid gateway which stands in the city’s Butter Market area provides access into the Cathedral grounds but is a wonderful display of early sixteenth century architecture in itself. The gate was completed in 1517 and is a celebration of the reign of Henry Tudor, the father of then-king Henry VIII.
Prominent on the façade of the gatehouse are the collection of coats of arms with preferential placement afforded to the arms of Henry VII, his son Prince Arthur and daughter-in-law Katherine of Aragon. Also present is the crowned Tudor Rose and Beaufort portcullis, two traditional emblems of the first Tudor king. Another large Tudor Rose adornment can be viewed inside the gatehouse on the ceiling, capturing the attention of all who walk through the passageway and into the cathedral grounds.
Canterbury Cathedral is the mother church of the Anglican communion and has been considered the premier holy seat of England for over a thousand years. Although the cathedral is perhaps best known as the location of Thomas Becket’s brutal murder in 1170 it does also possess a substantial Tudor heritage. Upon the approach to the cathedral immediately striking is the 250 foot central tower, often referred to as the Bell Harry tower. This was erected in 1498 during the reign of Henry VII and was financed in part by Archbishop John Morton, whose tomb lies inside the cathedral’s crypt. Cardinal Morton was one of the king’s closest and most trusted advisors and assisted in ruling the country, in time becoming notorious for his harsh financial policies which helped bolster the royal treasury. He served as archbishop from 1486 until 1500 and became a cardinal in 1493. Morton died on 15 September 1500 and his tomb in the crypt is arguably the most extravagant in the cathedral, generously covered in Tudor imagery such as the red and white rose as well as angels and cardinal’s caps. Also featured are a collection of tun barrels inscribed with the word Mor, a pun on his name Mor-ton.
Although the killing of Becket occurred over 300 years before the Tudors came to power, by the late fifteenth century the beatified saint was revered throughout the kingdom, particularly by monarch’s seeking the goodwill of God. That being said, the Henrican Reformation of the late 1530s witnessed a dramatic change in how England began to view Christianity and amongst the many changes which Henry VIII brought in was the abolishing of shrines. A notable casualty of his policy was Becket’s shrine in Canterbury, which was routinely destroyed with great pleasure upon the orders of the authoritative king. It was recorded that the treasures found in Becket’s shrine were so substantial it took twenty-six carts to tow it all away. The location of Becket’s shrine is now marked with a solitary candle, a poignant reminder of the site of medieval England’s greatest such monument.
As well as Morton, located elsewhere in the cathedral are a number of other tombs related to the Tudors. Located close to where Thomas Becket met his end is the elaborate effigy of William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury between 1503 and 1532. Warham was initially employed by Henry VII as a diplomat and helped arrange the marriage of Prince Arthur to Katherine of Aragon in 1502. After becoming archbishop a year later he also served for a time as Lord Chancellor. In 1509 Warham crowned Henry VIII at Westminster Abbey and also married the young king to Katherine of Aragon. Two decades later he would play a role in the divorce crisis that threatened to tear apart the kingdom, initially taking a view that Henry should be granted his request although later clashing with the king over his attempts to break with Rome. His death in August 1532 saved him from the king’s wrath and Warham was interred in Canterbury on 10 September that year.
Another notable tomb located in the cathedral is that of Thomas Bourchier who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1454. Bourchier was notable for his role in the reigns of three kings towards the end of the Wars of the Roses. Bourchier crowned kings Edward IV, Richard III and Henry VII and also officiated at the wedding of the latter king to Elizabeth of York which symbolically united the houses of York and Lancaster. Unlike many clerics Bourchier had an impeccable aristocratic pedigree and was a great-grandson of Edward III as well as brother of Henry Bourchier, 1st Earl of Essex, and half-brother of Humphrey Stafford, 1st Duke of Buckingham. Bourchier died on 30 March 1486 and was accorded a lavish burial fit for a high-ranking member of both the nobility and the church. His tomb is located close to where the shrine of Thomas Becket once stood, a position of honour.
Situated on the cathedral’s west front are a collection of Victorian statues which depict various monarchs throughout English history. Notable amongst these are Henry VII, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.
Dover Castle is often considered to be England’s oldest fort and is currently a vast complex of buildings which collectively represent every era of the nation’s history. There are Roman, Saxon, Medieval and Tudor remains at the castle as well as an array of buildings which played key roles in the two twentieth century World Wars. Dover Castle has been a fortress at the forefront of England’s defences for over a thousand years.
It is unsurprising to discover this was particularly true during the sixteenth century when Henry VIII regularly tussled with Spain and France for supremacy in this part of Europe. At various points it seemed that invasion was likely therefore Henry proceeded to bolster the defences at Dover, including the construction of a couple of Bulwark towers to support the great Norman keep that looms high above the acclaimed white cliffs. Henry held the title of Constable of Dover as a child and may have felt a degree of connection with the castle. He notably stayed at the castle for two weeks in June 1513, using the keep’s royal apartments to good effect. He was again based at Dover in May 1520 prior to departing for France for a summit with King Francis I, a meeting better known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Although the surrounding buildings are generally of a later period, the keep itself remains as it was during the Tudor period and offers incredible views across the English Channel, a view Henry may have taken in as he dreamt of winning great victories across the water.
Eltham Palace is perhaps the lesser known royal palace within the modern London boundaries, often overlooked in favour of Hampton Court, the Tower of London or Greenwich Palace. It may be because the vast majority of the palace is today an art-deco masterpiece which gained a new lease of life during the early twentieth century.
Nonetheless Eltham still has surviving architectural features which would have been recognisable to the Tudors, particularly the splendid Great Hall. Eltham’s hall was built in the 1470s by King Edward IV who used the palace as a peaceful country retreat in the Kent countryside. After Henry Tudor came to the throne in 1485 he inherited the palace as part of the crown estate and equally felt favourable towards the property. Ideally situated away from the bustling and polluted London but close enough to visit, Henry based his royal nursery at Eltham, positioning most of his young children within the palace walls. Amongst those who spent a sizable amount of time at Eltham was the future Henry VIII, who would have roamed around the grounds as an impressionable and enthusiastic young boy. His sisters Margaret and Mary also joined him for periods of time as did his younger siblings Edmund and Elizabeth, both of whom would tragically die in childhood. The Princess Elizabeth actually passed away at Eltham, succumbing from disease on 14 September 1495.
Four years later the royal nursery was visited by Thomas More and his friend Desiderius Erasmus, who came across a buoyant and expectant Prince Henry. The Dutch humanist would later comment that the young royal ‘had a vivid and active mind, above measure to execute whatever tasks he undertook’. Henry was also educated at Eltham by the poet John Skelton and it seems that it was whilst growing up at this palace he began to develop an intellect and outlook on life that would later become both charismatic and deadly as an adult.
The Great Hall went through periods of ruin during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but was rescued when the property came into the ownership of the wealthy Courtauld family in the 1930s. The hall was restored and the oak hammer-beam roof appears as spectacular on first viewing as it must have done to the Tudors five hundred years ago. It is fair to suggest that Henry cherished his time at Eltham for he later extended part of the palace in 1519 when he was king as well as spending reasonable amounts time visiting. No other monarch after Henry VIII considered Eltham Palace to be worthy of their time. Anne Boleyn is said to have visited Eltham at various times during her marriage and courtship to Henry.
A modern embellishment which is nonetheless worthy of attention is the stained glass window which depicts various royal coats of arms, including that of Henry VII erroneously credited to his son Henry VIII. Also noteworthy is the stone bridge which gives modern access to the grounds which is off fifteenth century provenance and which would have once been passed by various members of the Tudor dynasty.
Deal and Walmer Castles
Deal and Walmer Castles are a pair of remarkable coastal forts which were built under the orders of Henry VIII in 1539 to defend his kingdom against Spanish and French aggression following the Reformation. The two forts are situated under two miles apart and would have combined to provide a degree of protection against any ships which approached the coast of Kent. A third castle was also based at nearby Sandown but this has no surviving ruins.
What makes Deal and Walmer particularly unique is their layout – both appear from the air to resemble the Tudor rose, a result of their multiple semi-circular bastion towers. These towers contain a variety of rooms inside, such as guard quarters and gunpowder stores, whilst their roofs have stone platforms which were loaded with cannon guns directed out to sea. Both were once accessed via a wooden drawbridge built across a moat but today stone bridges offer a permanent crossing. It is thought that Henry personally inspected his sea forts although ultimately they were not utilised during his reign as the invasion threat from the continent never truly materialised.