Category Archives: Anne Boleyn

Dangerous Women

Last month, I wrote an article for the Dangerous Women Project. The project asked what it means to be a “dangerous woman” (partly in response to such an accusation aimed at Scotland’s First Minister in 2016). Some of the most dangerous women I could think of were the prostitutes of Renaissance Florence, and so I wrote a piece about them.

The article comes out of my academic work and written for a general audience. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

You can read it here, along with a whole host of other fascinating posts about dangerous women. There are posts about all sorts of women, from past to present. Of particular interest are posts on Anne Boleyn, Mary Queen of Scots, and her mother Marie de Guise.

Lucas Cranach, The Peasant and the Prostitute

Lucas Cranach, The Peasant and the Prostitute

You can no doubt imagine my interest in this project: Dangerous Women is pretty close to Infamous Women! As the lack of posting here shows, I’ve found it very difficult to juggle this blog with academic research. It’s great to see others working on similar themes. I was especially happy to see how many people wrote about historical women for the Dangerous Women Project. I think this indicates how interested people are in women’s history, and how relevant it is even hundreds of years after the events we study.

Katherine Howard- Some Misconceptions

On 13 February 1542, Katherine Howard, the fifth wife of Henry VIII, was beheaded in the grounds of the Tower of London. An Act of Attainder had been passed, convicting her of adultery and treason, without the formality of a trial. However, many of the well-known facts about Katherine are wrong.

Katherine Howard miniature

Miniature identified as Katherine Howard

A Frivolous Teenager

Well, probably not. We don’t know Katherine’s date of birth but scholars are increasingly in favour of an earlier date than was previously thought. Until recently, her year of birth was thought to be as late as 1525, making her only 17 years old at her execution. It seems more likely that it was 1520-1. This would mean that she was a mature, by Tudor standards, 21-22 years old at her death.

Of course, even 22 is horribly young to die, but in the sixteenth century, 22 was a lot more mature than it is now. By her early twenties, a Tudor woman could expect to be married and have had one or more children. Katherine’s youth is put more sharply into context by the relative age of her husband- Henry was 49 years old when they married. This too, though, was not unusual. Noblewomen in particular were likely to marry an older man. A woman would marry for the first time in her mid- to late teens, a man in his late twenties or early thirties. If it was the man’s second marriage, he would be older still. For example, Catherine Parr’s second marriage took place when she was 20 and her husband 40.

No Better Than She Ought To Be

Katherine Howard’s reputation suffers from a rather unjust assessment of her character. We are encouraged to believe that she was involved in a sexual relationship with Thomas Culpeper during her marriage because she admitted to a sexual relationship with Francis Dereham prior to it. Katherine’s past was laid out for all to see in a way which would make horrible modern gossip magazines rub their hands with glee. What is revealed is an unsupervised childhood during which she was involved in a relationship with her music tutor. It was the sort of “relationship” we would now call child abuse. She then became involved with Francis Dereham, a young man with far better breeding and prospects than her creepy music teacher. It is likely that she and Dereham intended to marry and this might indeed have come to pass had not the king shown an interest in her.

Katherine’s letter to Culpeper shows that she was indeed in love with him in 1541 but David Starkey’s research in his 2004 Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII demonstrates that the physicality of their relationship was far less certain. It appears from the detail of her confession that all the couple got up to was some hand-holding and earnest sighing.

This fact- the fact of Katherine Howard’s essential innocence- is often overlooked. She oddly, naïvely, believed that her husband was some sort of semi-divine being and she cautioned Culpeper not to speak of their relationship even in the confessional lest Henry find out that way. It may have been that she suspected the priest would inform Henry, but she may had simply believed that as Supreme Head of the Church, Henry would know the way that God knew.

Katherine Howard to Thomas Culpepper, 1541

Manuscript of Katherine Howard’s letter to Thomas Culpeper, 1541

“I die a Queen, but I would rather die the wife of Culpeper.”

There is a romantic story that on the scaffold, Katherine announced that she would have been married to her supposed lover, Thomas Culpeper, than Henry, with the above words. However, the etiquette of execution made such a statement unthinkable. The victim was permitted to address the crowd gathered to see their end, but it was expected that they would speak of their regret, ask for forgiveness and the prayers of those who would survive them and generally be contrite and uncontroversial. Neither Anne Boleyn nor any of the men executed for adultery with her protested their innocence from the scaffold, although they were all almost certainly innocent. It just wasn’t done.

It’s therefore unthinkable that Katherine Howard would say such a thing. Her actual words are far more dignified than the romantic nonsense would give her credit for. This is a woman who was so keen to meet her maker with some grace that she asked for the executioner’s block to be brought to her room the night before so that she could practice placing her head on it.

The Afterlife of Katherine Howard

Visitors to the splendid Hampton Court Palace are often treated to the tale of poor Katherine’s ghost. It is said to linger in the Haunted Gallery. On her arrest, Katherine broke free from her guards and ran down the gallery looking for her husband in order to plead for her life. She was quickly recaptured by the guards and dragged screaming back down the gallery and into imprisonment. Or so the story goes.

Aside from the supernatural question, there are several holes in this story. Firstly, is it plausible that Katherine could have slipped her guards, even for a moment? She was a young woman held by one or two strong men. Royal guards were not in the habit of relaxing their grip on accused traitors. The story also ignores one rather pertinent fact: by the time of her arrest, Henry had already left Hampton Court. He was not in the habit of lingering once he had put his plan to be rid of a wife into action. Anne Boleyn, for example, never set eyes on Henry after the May Day joust, the day before her arrest. He was said to be so bitterly disappointed in Katherine that he could not stand to see her again and he fled the palace so as to avoid her.

14 October Anniversaries

14 October is a bit of a hotspot for historical anniversaries, many of which are connected to an infamous (or otherwise interesting) lady.

In 1066, William the Conqueror defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. William’s wife Matilda of Flanders is the subject of Matilda: Queen of the Conqueror, a new book by Tracy Borman. (In fact, Matilda is not really infamous at all but was rather pious and good, however her granddaughter was the Empress Matilda who was the first woman to claim the English throne and ended up fighting a bitter twenty year civil war with her cousin Stephen over it.)

Death of King Harold, Bayeux Tapestry

The Battle of Hastings, which took place between the Norman and English armies, took place on Seniac Hill, around six miles away from the Hastings town of Battle. If you are fascinated by history and enjoy learning about infamous women throughout history, why not make yourself drink, sit at your computer and play games like Party Poker while you read through the important historic events which took place on 14 October. Did you known that Empress Matilda was betrothed to Henry V Holy Roman Emperor at the age of seven? One year later she was crowned Queen of Romans and in 1114, at the age of 12, she married the 28 year old Emperor at Mainz.

Other important 14 October events include:

In 1322, Robert the Bruce’s Scots forces routed Edward II’s English army at the Battle of Old Byland. Isabella of France, Edward’s wife, would later lead an invasion of England and depose him in favour of their son.

In 1499, Claude of France was born. I wrote a bit about her here.

In 1586, the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots began.

In 1793, the trial of Marie Antoinette before the Revolutionary Tribunal began.

Trial of Marie Antoinette

Henry Fitzroy: The Boy Who Would Be King

On 15 June 1519, Henry VIII’s son was born. Unfortunately for the king, the boy’s mother, Elizabeth “Bessie” Blount, was his mistress and not his wife. The child was illegitimate and therefore barred from the succession to the English throne.

Henry’s wife at the time was the redoubtable Catherine of Aragon, the youngest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Most Catholic Kings of Spain. Catherine’s royal pedigree was beyond reproach and she was popular in England. After numerous pregnancies since their marriage in 1507, the only child which had survived was a daughter, Mary, then 16 months old.

Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset, Lucas Horen, 1534

Henry’s joy in his new born son was obvious, not least because it demonstrated once and for all that he could produce a boy, even if his wife couldn’t. The boy was named Henry Fitzroy (“son of the king”). It was a bitter blow to Catherine and it would not be the last. In 1525, Henry made his six year old son Earl of Nottingham and Duke of Richmond and Somerset and sparked rumours that he meant to make his son, rather than Princess Mary, his heir.

Fitzroy was raised in Yorkshire and bestowed with various other titles over the years (including Admiral of England, Ireland and Normandy; Warden of the Cinque Ports; Lieutenant of Ireland). The king took great interest in his son, and in 1533 arranged a good marriage for him. It was rumoured around this time that Fitzroy should marry Mary, his half-sister, in order to ensure the succession! Henry VIII was an adulterer, a serial philanderer and a bigamist but even he drew the line at forcing his children into an incestuous marriage. Fitzroy was instead married to Mary Howard, daughter of Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, and Anne Boleyn’s cousin.

Mary Howard, Duchess Of Richmond and Somerset, sketch by Holbein

Fitzroy witnessed Anne Boleyn’s execution at the Tower of London on 19 Mary 1536. By that time, he was ill himself and within weeks he had succumbed to consumption, dying on 23 July at Richmond Palace.

At the time of his death, his father was putting a bill through Parliament which, if passed, would disinherit his daughter with Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth (Mary had already been disinherited) and permit him to designate a successor of his choice. It is not certain that Fitzroy would have been the designate, but it is very likely that he would have been the king’s first choice in want of a legitimate heir. Fitzroy’s premature death means that we can only guess at what the repercussions of such a move would have been. As it was, Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, gave birth to the longed for, legitimate son fifteen months after Fitzroy’s death.

Some Early Female Influences on Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn is often portrayed as uniquely ambitious and self-determined in a time when women were expected to be obedient and dutiful. However, she had some interesting role models in her youth, both women to emulate, and those whose lives were object lessons.

Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands.

Margaret offered prestigious positions in her court to young gentlemen and ladies, scions of Europe’s noble families. Thomas Boleyn had impressed Margaret while on diplomatic missions to her court and she offered one of his daughters a maid of honour position at her court in Mechelen, in what is now Belgium.

Margaret of Austria

Thomas and his wife Elizabeth Howard had two surviving daughters. The dates and even order of birth of the Boleyn children are uncertain but it seems likely that Mary was the elder. If this is the case, Thomas must have seen more promise in Anne than Mary as custom would otherwise have dictated that the older girl took up the opportunity in the Netherlands.

In her earliest letters home, Anne showed a good grasp of French, which was to become fluent. She was a quick learner though and her language skills improved. She thrived at Margaret’s court where she witnessed real power wielded by a charismatic, intelligent woman. Margaret was interested in humanism and was very well educated. She was a successful ruler who held the regency of the Netherlands intermittently throughout her life. The influence of Anne’s early exposure to a powerful, political woman can hardly be overestimated. Margaret defied the expectations of Early Modern womanhood. With three marriages over by the age of twenty four and no surviving children, Margaret had retired from the royal marriage market in defiance of her father, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, who had seen no reason that his daughter’s marital career should not continue apace.

Margaret held the respectable position of a widow which traditionally allowed women a degree of freedom their never-married contemporaries did not have. She was entrusted by her father with the regency of the Netherlands for her nephew who would eventually succeed her father as Holy Roman Emperor in 1519. She proved to be an able and successful ruler, bringing prosperity to the Netherlands through commercial treaties with England which were favourable to her country’s cloth merchants.

Margaret of Austria

The bright, impressionable young Englishwoman at Margaret’s court could not have failed to be inspired by what she saw there.

Queen Claude of France

In 1514, however, Henry VIII’s sister Mary was betrothed to the king of France, Louis XII, and Anne was sent to Paris to wait on her. Thomas Boleyn had also secured a place in the new queen’s retinue for his elder daughter, Mary too. Louis died only three months after the marriage, reputedly worn out by his exertions in the bedchamber. Anne and her sister remained in France as ladies-in-waiting to the new queen of France, Claude.

The contrast between Margaret of Austria and Queen Claude could not have been more striking. Louis had no surviving sons and so Claude, as the eldest surviving child, was his heir. However, in France the Salic Law prevented a woman from inheriting her father’s land and so Claude could not become queen in her own right. She was duly married to her cousin, François, the heir presumptive with a view to her becoming queen consort.

François was one of the great figures of Early Modern Europe and totally eclipsed his diminutive wife. Claude and François were married for ten years during which time Claude was almost continually pregnant, producing no less than seven children. She dutifully followed her husband’s relentless wandering round France and died at the age of twenty-five, exhausted. Claude, though, fulfilled the contemporary ideal of womanhood and queenship: she produced five children who survived, including three sons; she lived chastely (although it would seem unlikely that she had the time or the energy to be unfaithful) and she turned a blind eye to her husband’s constant philandering.

She is remembered with a plum which was named after her (a greengage is une reine claude or une bonne reine in France).

Claude of France

As much as Margaret of Austria was an inspiration, Claude was a warning to Anne. Claude was a perfect illustration of the potential fate of a dutiful wife. During his wife’s perpetual pregnancies, François was neglectful and preferred to spend his time in the embraces of other women. In fact, the king surrounded himself with attractive, witty young women, preferring female company to that of his male courtiers. It would seem likely that King François would have found his wife’s young English attendant as fascinating as her compatriots did on her later return to England. Anne, however, would not have risked her marriage prospects in England with a dalliance with the notoriously philandering king of France had he shown interest in her.

Marguerite of Navarre

As well as Queen Claude, Anne seems to have come under the influence of François’s sister, Marguerite of Navarre. As much as the king neglected his dutiful wife, he lavished attention on his brilliant elder sister. He even turned a blind eye to her increasing sympathies with the ideas of religious reform sweeping the kingdom. John Calvin had fled his native France and remained in exile in Switzerland. His ideas on reform of the Church were widely, if secretly, imported into France and fed the growing population of Huguenots, the colloquial name given to French Protestants, which troubled the king. France’s relationship with the Holy See had been unique and frequently strained for centuries and while François was a great pragmatist in religious matters, he would not countenance a full schism and therefore took measures to restrict Huguenot religious freedom. His legacy of religious ambivalence was one which Catherine de’ Medici would have to tackle some thirty years later.

Marguerite of Navarre

The indulgence of her brother was a safeguard for Marguerite who was not only a patron of humanists in France and her small Pyrenean kingdom of Navarre, but also a writer herself. Her mystical, devotional work, Miroir de l’âme pécheresse (Mirror of the Sinful Soul), was a popular, radical work in her day. Indeed, in years to come Anne’s daughter, the princess Elizabeth, would translate it as a New Year’s gift for her last stepmother, Catherine Parr. Elizabeth may even have worked from Marguerite’s original manuscript which she reputedly gave to Anne. Anne, although no author, would similarly come to rely on Henry’s protection with her choice of radical books.

Anne Boleyn portrait

We have little in the way of contemporary portraits of Anne Boleyn although there are some descriptions of her looks in letters from ambassadors at the English court.

Late sixteenth century copy of an earlier work

Anne Boleyn

This famous portrait of her, a late sixteenth century copy of an earlier work, in the National Portrait Gallery in London is in need of urgent conservation. The NPG has launched an appeal for donations to help ensure this important work is undertaken and the painting is preserved for future generations. Information is here. Please help if you can.

I’m visiting London next month so will definitely be visiting the NPG for a look at their Tudor, and other, works. I’m also teaching a class on Anne and her step-daughter Mary tomorrow night as part of the Infamous Women course.

Catherine of Aragon

Catherine of AragonOn 7th January 1536, Catherine of Aragon died in Kimbolton Castle, near Peterborough (where she would be buried). She was 51 years old. Married first to Arthur Tudor and then his younger brother, Henry VIII, she was cast aside when Henry decided to marry Anne Boleyn. Although he had banished her from court, forbidden her from seeing their daughter and even from writing to him, she remained steadfast in her resolve never to acknowledge the dissolution of their marriage nor his new marriage to Anne.

Her last letter was to him, forgiving him everything.

My most dear lord, king and husband,

The hour of my death now drawing on, the tender love I owe you forceth me, my case being such, to commend myself to you, and to put you in remembrance with a few words of the health and safeguard of your soul which you ought to prefer before all worldly matters, and before the care and pampering of your body, for the which you have cast me into many calamities and yourself into many troubles. For my part, I pardon you everything, and I wish to devoutly pray God that He will pardon you also. For the rest, I commend unto you our daughter Mary, beseeching you to be a good father unto her, as I have heretofore desired. I entreat you also, on behalf of my maids, to give them marriage portions, which is not much, they being but three. For all my other servants I solicit the wages due them, and a year more, lest they be unprovided for.

Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things.

Katharine the Quene

Off to London to see (some dead) queens

Tomorrow I am off to London. My partner’s work have sent him down there for a course so I am taking advantage of his plush hotel and joining him. We’ll be staying in Kensington, just along the road from the Natural History Museum and the V&A and just round the corner from the French bookshops I love. I haven’t spent much time in the V&A so I am hoping to remedy this.

Aside from that, I am planning another trip to the Tower. I will sit through the Yeoman Warden’s iffy history once again in order to do my little pilgrimage to the graves of Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey. I wish you could spend a little time there alone but sadly not.

I am also planning a trip to the National Gallery to see the Delaroche exhibition which centres on his spectacular Execution of Lady Jane Grey.

Since I will be in the vicinity, I might pay a visit to Kensington Palace as I have never been before and the Enchanted Palace exhibition looks fun.

Then, when I get back to Edinburgh, Stranger Than Fiction, our new non-fiction writers’ group has its first meeting on the 474th anniversary of Anne Boleyn’s execution. I am hoping this proves to be a good omen! Art for the site and posters is by my co-organiser Sharon- more of her work at her blog, The Sapient Pig.

In other news- big website revamp is being planned.

More Reading

Well, the end of Classical Greece is only a few pages away (more of that in another post soon). However, a good two weeks ahead of schedule, Amazon have sent me this.Anne Boleyn - Fatal Attractions I’ve had this on pre-order since January.

There have been numerous new books published in the last few years about the Tudors, Anne Boleyn in particular. With the popularity of the US t.v. show, a lot of authors seem to have leapt on the bandwagon and churned out a biography, few saying anything that hasn’t been said before (and better). Many of them have dug out old myths, discredited for years by more able historians, and regurgitated them for audiences who don’t know the field well enough to separate the wheat from the chaff. Some make grand, if misleading, promises to break new ground on the subject (for example, Alison Weir’s recent The Lady In The Tower may well be the first book focused solely on Anne Boleyn’s downfall; it is not, however, the first book to tackle it, or by far the best).

Bernard’s book is different. For one thing, the man’s actually studied history (which puts him in a minority for historical biographers, your history graduate author grumbles). For another, he’s genuinely got something controversial to say.

Bernard is unique among Anne’s recent biographers (the good and the less so) because not only does he claim that it was Henry, not Anne, who insisted on their long celibacy, but that the charges of adultery she faced in 1536 were not a vicious fabrication, the result of court faction, but were, at least in part, true.

He has written about this in the past, though in less detail. Part of his theory, as I understand it, relies on his interpretation of remarks in Henry’s love letters to Anne. Bernard believes that a line in which Henry tells his love that he hopes to soon be her lover physically as well as emotionally (I paraphrase) indicates that it is he who has decreed that there will be no premarital sex between the two of them and that this line is intended to pacify (the insatiable?) Anne with a promise that his injunction will soon be lifted.

To me this reads more as a frustrated lover trying to wheedle and persuade his mistress that their marriage is all but a done deal so what harm could there be to granting him those final favours?

Bernard suggests that Henry’s uncharacteristic moderation is due to his determination that his children with Anne will be of definite legitimacy and so refuses to sleep with her in order to avoid any inconvenient illegitimate pregnancies wrecking his plans. I’d almost buy this if Henry hadn’t made some provisions for their illegitimate children when he promoted Anne to Marquess of Pemboke: in the letters patent, it is stated that Anne’s children will inherit the lands and title but the clause “lawfully begotten” is notable by its absence. By 1532 he is considering the possibility that he may not have “lawfully begotten,” that is legitimate, children with her.

I haven’t delved into Bernard’s new book yet so have summarised his arguments in his book The King’s Reformation. He will have to come up with some pretty good evidence to convince me of his claims as Eric Ives has done a thorough job of demonstrating the improbability of Anne’s guilt. I will certainly be posting about this when I can get stuck into this book. It’s the first Anne Boleyn book I’ve looked forward to for a long time.

Role Models

I often say that one of the reasons I feel so passionately about this project is that modern girls and young women lack good heroines. Cheryl Cole seems like a perfectly pleasant woman but is she really the best we can aspire to? A reality t.v. show pop start, married (though apparently not for much longer) to an unfaithful footballer. Is getting on the cover of a gossip magazine really the pinnacle of human achievement?

When I was about ten years old, I went through a phase of being rather obsessed with Joan of Arc. (Looking back, I accept I was probably something of an odd child.) I admired her bravery, her faith and her determination. I accepted, not without relief, that life was almost certainly not going to offer me the opportunity to lead an army against invading foreigners. I didn’t believe in her god but even at that age found other people’s faith fascinating (I went on to study religion, along with history, at university). I may not have exactly wanted to be like Joan of Arc, but I aspired to many of the qualities I saw in her.

Miniature of Joan of Arc, c. 1450-1500

Joan of Arc, c.1450-1500

Now I’m older and have a more nuanced view of what makes a person admirable, I see many of the infamous women I’m investigating as being brimful of the qualities I aspire to. No, these women weren’t always “good.” More often than not they refused to toe the line; frequently failed to do their wifely duties and often disregarded contemporary standards of acceptable behaviour, it’s true. Their faults, even including criminality, serve to make them more interesting people (Cheryl Cole’s conviction for common assault notwithstanding.)

Cleopatra refused to be a victim, even in defeat. Eleanor of Aquitaine sought out her own path through life, refusing to bow to other people’s demands. Anne Boleyn was offered a good opportunity, saw a way to make it great and took it, on her own terms. Catherine de’ Medicis was ruthless in the defence of her family. Anne Bonny and Mary Read both found escape from unsatisfying lives for the excitement and adventure of a life on the high seas.

I can’t help but think that those qualities are worth more than fame, wealth and great hair.