The Imperial ambassador to England, Francis Van der Delft, was at Calais in January 1549, as he waited for a break in the stormy weather to continue his journey back to his post. On 27 January, he fell into conversation with two English messengers, both trying to make their own way across the Channel. They told him quite a tale, which he duly set down in a report to his master, Emperor Charles V.
On the night of 16 January 1549, the quiet of Westminster Palace had been broken by frantic barking outside the king’s chamber. On being woken, Sir Michael Stanhope, who slept in the king’s chamber, groped for a light before rushing to the door. There, he found the dog stone dead and immediately cried out ‘Help! Murder!’ as everyone in the vicinity came running. Whoever had killed the dog had fled in the commotion. Yet, there were those at court who had seen Thomas Seymour – uncle to the king and brother of the Lord Protector - lurking there that night, while the guards testified that he had scattered their watch by giving them various errands to run on his behalf.
Further details also later emerged. With a key given to him by one of the king’s chamberlains, Thomas had been able to open the door to the room adjoining the king’s bedchamber, ‘which he entered in the dead of night’, accompanied by unnamed accomplices. There he disturbed a little dog, who usually slept in the king’s bedroom and was his ‘most faithful guardian’. The animal had been accidentally left outside the door that night and, on hearing Seymour, he rushed at him barking, only for the Admiral to run him through with his dagger. At once, a guard entered and challenged the intruder, who said, visibly trembling, ‘that he wished to know whether the prince was safely guarded’ before fleeing home.
The council tried at once to hush this up but word leaked out. It was quickly all over Calais that Thomas had ‘tried to take the king away secretly from the guardianship of the Protector’. Independently, the Emperor in Brussels received word that Thomas had entered the king’s chamber by night (‘at an undue hour’), accompanied by a party of armed men. Even the powerful councillor Sir William Paget confirmed the story, later telling Van der Delft that the final straw for the Protector had come when his brother had been discovered in the palace late at night, with a large company of men, while the dog that kept watch at the king’s door was found dead. It was the rash move of a man who knew his earlier plotting was soon to be uncovered. His contemporaries were adamant, that he had intended to take the king into his custody, before murdering both the boy and his eldest sister, Princess Mary, before claiming the throne as Princess Elizabeth’s husband.
There was no evidence that Thomas meant to murder the king but, he almost certainly tried to take the boy that night. Later, he would be accused of trying ‘to instil into his grace’s head’ the idea that he should ‘take upon himself the government and managing of his own affairs’. In his multiple evening visits to court the week before, did he meet with the king and plan his abduction with him? It would seem plausible that the bedchamber key had been given to him at Edward’s command, since none of his attendants (including Seymour’s friend, John Fowler, who would be the most likely suspect) were ever accused of this.
Only a few weeks later Seymour, while at his lowest ebb, wrote the verse ‘forgetting God to love a king hath been my rod, or else nothing’. By 7 February Thomas’s vigorous protests of innocence were all based on the claim that he had the king’s confidence and approval in everything he had planned. It was not treason to do as the king asked. He probably hoped to collect Elizabeth at Hatfield on the way out of London, before taking both the king and the princess to Holt Castle or Bewdley, where he had laid provisions, to weather the resulting storm. Unfortunately, for him, by leaving his dog in the chamber outside his bedroom, the boy botched his escape attempt.
You can read more about Thomas Seymour’s plotting in my book, The Temptation of Elizabeth Tudor, published by Head of Zeus in the UK and Pegasus in the US.
I was recently asked to review I AM HENRY, a short film produced by Flying Dutchman Films, which is currently winning lots of film awards. Here's my review below - I strongly recommend it:
'I AM HENRY is visually stunning and entirely compelling. It is the most innovative depiction of Henry VIII's story that I have seen in a long time. The film opens shortly after the death of Henry VIII, as he is lying in state on the way to his funeral at Windsor. During the night he meets with the spirits of his first two wives, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, and the now-grown Henry, Duke of Cornwall, his short-lived eldest son. The scenes between Henry and Anne, who was his greatest passion in life, are highly charged, with the chemistry between the two actors apparent. The use of quoted material in the speech of these two, such as Anne's reference to Henry being struck with the dart of love for her (a claim he made in one of his letters) adds authenticity to the scenes. Excellent use was also made of the emotionally disturbing accounts of Anne's time in the Tower following her arrest for treason in 1536.
The scenes between Henry and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, were similarly excellent, with the Spanish queen lamenting the loss of her children. By informing him that these lost infants were present there with them, she offered Henry a possibility of redemption in keeping with the sentiments of her last letter to him as she lay dying in January 1536. Finally, the depiction of Anne Boleyn's execution was superb, which was juxtaposed with Henry's realisation in 1547 of his own death.
I cannot recommend this film highly enough. In just over 20 minutes, it managed to convey the essence of the relationships between Henry and the two most important women in his life, as well as delving into the inner mind of England's most famous king. Historically, it was very accurate, with little period details - such as the fact that Anne Boleyn recognised some of the faces in the crowd at her execution - adding to the realism and the power of the portrayals.'
You can find out more over at http://flyingdutchmanfilms.org/category/i-am-henry/. The Youtube trailer is available here.
Thanks to The Historical Association for the fantastic review of Elfrida: The First Crowned Queen of England, which you can read here.
'This is a well-written, interesting book on a neglected figure in late-Anglo-Saxon England and it is eminently readable'.
Just a quick post to let you know that you can read an author interview with me over at the Lady Jane Grey Reference Guide site. The interview is based on The Temptation of Elizabeth Tudor and you can read it here. The rest of the site, which is dedicated to the life of Lady Jane Grey is also well worth a look.
The wonderful Tudor Times website has just published my guest article on the fall of Thomas Seymour - A Man of Much Wit. It's based on my book, The Temptation of Elizabeth Tudor, and will give you a flavour of the dangerous intrigue at the heart of Princess Elizabeth and Thomas Seymour's relationship.
You can find it here.
Although it was only published yesterday, there have already been some fabulous reviews of The Temptation of Elizabeth Tudor. It's always great to get good feedback about your work!
'A quick, enjoyable read' - The Kirkus Review, 6 October 2015. Link here.
'In another of her well-researched and intriguing Tudor period titles, with this volume, historian Norton (England's Queens; The Anne Boleyn Papers) thoroughly conveys the environment that bred Queen Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, and brought her to the attention of the ambitious (and married) Thomas Seymour... Highly recommended for readers interested in British history and the Tudor dynasty. Fans of historical fiction such as Philippa Gregory's "Tudor Court" series will also find themselves invested in the real-life scandal that befell one of England's most famous queens'.
Library Journal, 1 November 2015. Link here.
'It is a soundly researched and very readable history, and Ms Norton vividly conveys the atmosphere of intrigue between between members of the power-hungry families at the top who were perpetually locked in a war of wits with each other... This vivid account is a more than worthy addition to the shelves'.
The Bookbag, 25 October 2015. Link here.
I am really excited to announce that my new book, The Temptation of Elizabeth Tudor, has now been published in the UK by Head of Zeus. It's a fascinating story, which was wonderful both to write and research - I hope you love reading it as much as I loved working on it!
Here's the blurb:
England, late 1547. King Henry VIII is dead. His 14-year-old daughter Elizabeth is living with the old king's widow Catherine Parr and her new husband Thomas Seymour. Ambitious, charming and dangerous, Seymour begins an overt flirtation with Elizabeth that ends in her being sent away by Catherine.
When Catherine dies in autumn 1548 and Seymour is arrested for treason soon after, the scandal explodes into the open. Alone and in dreadful danger, Elizabeth is closely questioned by the king's regency council: Was she still a virgin? Was there a child? Had she promised to marry Seymour? In her replies, she showed the shrewdness and spirit she would later be famous for. She survived the scandal. Thomas Seymour was not so lucky.
The Seymour Scandal led to the creation of the Virgin Queen. On hearing of Seymour's beheading, Elizabeth observed 'This day died a man of much wit, and very little judgment'. His fate remained with her. She would never allow her heart to rule her head again.
The Illustrated Six Wives of Henry VIII (by me!) was published today by Amberley Publishing. This short book is intended as a heavily illustrated introduction to the fascinating lives of Henry's six unfortunate queens!
(Please do note that this short book is heavily based on the chapter on the six wives in my book England's Queens: The Biography and subsequently published as England's Queens: From Catherine of Aragon to Elizabeth II. Some revisions have been made, as well as an introduction and a chapter on Henry VIII's mistresses added).
Here's the blurb:
Henry VIII had the most controversial love life of the Tudor period, and he remains Britain's most famous king because of it. His pursuit of a male heir for his throne led him to cast aside five consecutive wives and bring about the reformation of the Catholic Church, changing the face of British history as he broke from the pope and tradition. But who were the women who were instrumental in causing this change? Why was Catherine of Aragon divorced and Anne Boleyn beheaded, and what happened to the last wife, Catherine Parr?
Elizabeth Norton provides a lavishly illustrated guide to the six wives of Henry VIII, exploring their private lives as well as the reasons behind the fundamental changes they caused in Tudor history. With a chapter on each wife, and an extra section on his mistresses, this is the ultimate companion to the six wives of Henry VIII.
The July/August issue of Britain magazine (the official magazine of Visit Britain) is now available in all good newsagents. To tie in with the release of England's Queens: From Boudica to Elizabeth of York and England's Queens: From Catherine of Aragon to Elizabeth II, I was invited to write a cover feature for the magazine. My article on 'Women Rule' looks at the best English queens, starting with Boudica and ending with Elizabeth II. Let me know what you think!
The wait goes on for the royal baby. While Prince George is the heir, his younger brother or sister will be 'the spare', ready to step into his place if anything should happen.
Being the spare with no defined role can be an unenviable position. Nonetheless, the history of the English monarchy is full of examples of the Spare becoming monarch.
In the Anglo-Saxon period, it was common for an adult brother to succeed a king rather than infant sons. In this manner, King Alfred succeeded his elder brother Aethelred, while the sons of Edward the Elder: Athelstan, Edgar and Edmund I succeeded in turn. Edmund I's two son, Eadwyg and Edgar also became king in turn (although Edgar was an active participant in an attempt to depose his brother). Edward the Martyr was murdered to make way for his brother, Aethelred II.
In the post-Conquest period it became established that sons succeeded their father in preference to their uncles. In spite of this, the spare often succeeded. William the Conqueror chose his second son, William Rufus, as his heir in England over his eldest son, Robert. Henry I, the youngest of the brothers also became king.
King John was also a brother, but he succeeded Richard I. Richard had also not been their parents' eldest son. This was the short-lived William, while a second son, Henry, died as an adult before becoming king.
Edward I had several sons, including one named Alphonso, but he was eventually succeeded by the youngest son of his first marriage. Richard II, was also a younger brother, becoming heir when his brother died at the age of five. A century later, Richard III, who was his parents' youngest child, very famously became king.
Henry VIII only became heir after the death of his elder brother, Prince Arthur, while Elizabeth I was also a younger child. Charles I became prince of Wales when his very promising adult brother, Prince Henry tragically died. James II and his daughters Queens Mary and Anne were also younger siblings. William IV succeeded his elder brother, George IV, while the current queen's father, George VI, only became king when his elder brother abdicated.
As you can see, the spare is often called upon, by death, sibling childlessness or abdication to step into the heir's place, so the baby born today or later this week might just be very significant indeed. You can read more about the history of the English monarchy in my books, England's Queens: From Boudica to Elizabeth of York and England's Queens: From Catherine of Aragon to Elizabeth II.
By the way, let me know if I've missed anyone above!
I appeared in today's episode of Flog It on BBC 1, talking about the Boleyns at Hever. It's always great to be asked to appear on television and Flog It is a phenomenally popular programme. The episode will be live on the BBC's I Player for the next fews day. You can find it here.
The final three prominent Anglo-Saxon queens are entirely noteworthy, but I didn't want to stay too long in the pre-Conquest period on this run down of fascinating queens. You can read the stories of all of them in my book, England's Queens: From Boudica to Elizabeth of York, which also includes all the lesser known queens. Nonetheless, I couldn't head past 1066 without mentioning Elfrida (or Aelfthryth), Emma of Normandy and Edith Godwin.
If you are interested in reading more about Elfrida, then check out my biography of her: Elfrida, The First Crowned Queen of England, which was published by Amberley back in 2013. She was born in around 940 and was the only daughter of a wealthy West Country thegn and his royally descended wife. Her first marriage, to the eldest son of the famous Athelstan Half-King was a grand one, but it was also brief. Some sources suggest that King Edgar, who fell in love with his friend's wife, arranged his murder. Others assign a more prominent role to Elfrida. It is the first murder with which her name is connected, although the story is unlikely. Elfrida's husband had been dead two years before the king repudiated his second wife to marry her.
As queen, Elfrida was very prominent in the religious reform movement, receiving an official appointment as overseer of the nunneries, while her husband (who had once abducted and married a nun) was placed in authority over the monasteries. She shared Edgar's imperial coronation at Bath in 973 and there is evidence that the king considered this marriage and, thus, Elfrida's children, more legitimate than his earlier unions. When he died suddenly on 8 July 975, Elfrida promoted the claims of her young son, Ethelred, but his older half-brother, Edward, was eventually chosen as king. It is with Edward's murder in 978 that Elfrida's name is indelibly associated, since it took place at her house at Corfe while he visited her. She may have been involved, but contemporary sources point the finger more at Ethelred's followers. The jury is very much still out.
After Ethelred became king, Elfrida took on an unofficial role as regent, appearing prominently at court. After attaining his majority, Ethelred sent his mother away from court, although she was placed in charge of raising his sons. She returned to court with them in the 990s, before dying in 1000 or 1001.
As queen mother, Elfrida entirely overshadowed Ethelred's first wife, Aelfgifu, who played no public role as queen. Ethelred's reign was troubled by substantial Viking incursions and, in 1002, he married Emma, the sister of the Duke of Normandy. The girl was younger than many of Ethelred's children, but she underwent a coronation ceremony in England designed to give additional throneworthiness to her own children. She played only a limited political role during Ethelred's reign, although it was to Normandy that the king fled in 1013 when he lost his throne to the Viking King Sweyn. He returned the following year, but his last years were ones of turmoil. Emma was in London with her husband when he died in 1016.
Following Ethelred's death, the throne was disputed by her stepson, Edmund Ironside, and Cnut, the son of Sweyn. During this period, Emma sent her sons to Normandy for safety. This was a sensible precaution. When Cnut took control of London later that year, he ordered the English queen to be 'fetched' as his wife. When Edmund Ironside suddenly died he became the sole king of England, with Emma as his queen.
Emma was considerably more prominent during her marriage to Cnut, playing a political role. On his death in 1035, she supported the claims of her teenaged son, Harthacnut, who was then in Denmark. When his half-brother, Harold, claimed the throne instead, she wrote to her sons by Ethelred to return. This proved disastrous, since the younger, Alfred, was captured by Harold's men, blinded and murdered. When the elder, Edward, arrived in Winchester to see his mother, he promptly fled back to Normandy on hearing of his brother's death. Emma was herself exiled to Flanders in 1037, although she returned triumphantly with Harthacnut on Harold's death in 1040. During her youngest son's brief reign, Emma persuaded him to invite his half-brother, Edward, to return. This paved the way for the smooth succession of Edward the Confessor on his brother's death in 1042. Unfortunately for Emma, however, her eldest child was far from grateful. After he seized her property, she lived in obscurity until her death in 1052.
If Edward the Confessor disliked his mother, it was nothing compared to his feelings for his wife, Edith, the daughter of the powerful Earl Godwin. Edith had received an excellent education and reveled in her role as queen. Unfortunately, her husband hated her father, who had been responsible for the murder of his brother. When he finally felt strong enough to exile Godwin in 1051, he also attempted to repudiate his childless queen, who was sent to a nunnery. He was forced to take her back the following year when her father returned with an army and she was firmly ensconced as queen when he died in 1066.
Edith played no known political role in the events of 1066, in spite of the fact that her brother, Harold, was proclaimed king on her husband's death. Following the Conquest, William I treated her well as the widow of the Confessor. She died in 1075, after a comfortable retirement.
These are obviously very concise accounts of the lives of three very important Anglo-Saxon women. During their lifetimes they dominated their office of queen, to the extent that other king's wives of the period: Aelfgifu, Aldgyth of the Five Boroughs, Aelfgifu of Northampton, Edith Swanneck and Edith of Mercia were entirely overshadowed. You can also read their stories in England's Queens!
I'll be moving on to the post Conquest queens next week.
Carrying on with posts on England’s most noteworthy queens, no list would be complete without Eadgifu, the third wife of King Edward the Elder. She was one of the most powerful medieval women and I included her in a list of the top ten English queens which I compiled for BBC History magazine last year. Surprisingly, she is very little known today.
Eadgifu, who was born in around 899, was the much younger third wife of Edward the Elder. She was the daughter of the wealthy Kentish ealdorman, Sigehelm, who was killed fighting the Vikings at the Battle of the Holme in 902. She may have been her father’s heiress and, certainly, inherited estates from him in Kent. Eadgifu’s wealth and connections recommended her to Edward the Elder and he married her in 919 after repudiating his second wife. She played no known political role during her husband’s lifetime. This is hardly surprising, however since, in five years of marriage, she produced four children.
Edward’s death in July 924 caused a dispute over the crown. He was initially succeeded by Aelfweard, the eldest son of his second wife, but he died very soon afterwards. This cleared the way for Athelstan, the son of Edward’s first marriage and a man several years older than Eadgifu. It has been suggested that Eadgifu came to terms with Athelstan, offering her support for his claims over that of Aelfweard’s younger brother, Edwin. Certainly, Athelstan seems to have accepted Eadgifu’s young sons as his heirs. He also arranged the prestigious marriage of her eldest daughter to the continental nobleman, Louis of Aquitaine. Eadgifu’s second daughter, Eadburgh, had been dedicated as an infant to the convent at Nunnaminster and was venerated as a saint following her death in around 950.
Eadgifu’s eldest son, Edmund, became king in 939 after Athelstan’s death. As queen mother, she wielded a great deal of influence, using the title of ‘Mater Regis’ (mother of the king), during the reigns of both her sons. She entirely overshadowed both of Edmund’s wives and was regularly at court, appearing prominently in the witness lists of charters. Both of her sons made grants of land to her. In 943, for example, Edmund I, granted Eadgifu estates in Kent. In 953 Eadred granted his mother thirty hides at Felpham in Sussex. Eadred, in particular, was concerned for his mother’s welfare and in his Will he bequeathed land to her at Amesbury, Wantage and Basing, as well as other estates in Sussex, Surrey and Kent.
Edmund died in 946 and was succeeded by Eadred who never married and relied upon his mother as a leading councillor. Eadgifu is remembered as a patron of the early religious reform movement in England and, under Eadred, she played a valuable role in assisting the leading churchmen in the kingdom. The Viking invasions of the late ninth century had impoverished the church. Many monasteries had been burned or deserted during the period and those that survived often failed to live up to the defining principles of monasticism: community life, celibacy and personal poverty.
Eadgifu was very interested in the reform movement, which was led by Edmund’s Archbishop of Canterbury, Oda. She was associated with another leading churchman, Dunstan, who came to prominence during Edmund’s reign. She was also instrumental in the promotion of another leading churchman, Aethelwold. When he petitioned the king to be allowed to study at a continental monastery, Eadgifu – who recognised his promise – persuaded Eadred to refuse. Instead, at his mother’s urging, the king made Aethelwold abbot of the ruined monastery at Abingdon, which later became a centre of reform. Both Eadred and Eadgifu made gifts to the monastery, with the queen mother’s on a ‘lavish scale’.
Eadred’s death in November 955 saw Eadgifu’s fortunes wane. Following a succession disputed between Eadwig and Edgar, the sons of Edmund I, Eadwig came to the throne. Eadgifu, along with her ally, Dunstan, supported her younger grandson, Edgar, and, soon after Eadwig’s accession, she was deprived of her lands and possessions. Dunstan was exiled to Ghent by the young king. Eadwig was not able to establish his authority as king for long and, by 958 Edgar had created his own kingdom north of the Thames. Eadwig died soon afterwards and, with the accession of her younger grandson, Edgar, Eadgifu was one again restored to her lands and possessions. To her satisfaction, Dunstan was appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury and the religious reform reached its peak under King Edgar.
By the late 950s, Eadgifu was considered elderly by her contemporaries and she retired to a religious life, rarely visiting court. She remained an important member of the royal family and, in 966, attended Edgar’s refoundation of the New Minster at Winchester. She was also friendly with Edgar’s queen, the equally reform minded Aelfthryth and, in her Will, she bequeathed to her five hides of land in Essex to be presented on her behalf to the Abbey at Ely. The date of Eadgifu’s death is nowhere recorded, but it appears to have been around 966 or 967 when she was approaching seventy.
The next noteworthy queen is also one of the most shadowy. In 802, Egbert – a man not directly related to his predecessors - came to the throne of Wessex. While he never attained direct control over the whole of what is now known as England, he achieved ascendancy over Cornwall, East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria during his reign, as well as subduing the Welsh. Egbert was the overlord of most of what would become England and he and his wife were the ancestors of all but four future monarchs of England.
For such an important royal ancestress, Egbert’s wife is very obscure. There is no contemporary record of her, although one later medieval document suggests that he was married to a woman called Raedburgh, and that she was a kinswoman of the great Frankish emperor, Charlemagne. This is possible as Egbert was exiled to Francia in around 800, staying at Charlemagne’s court before returning to Wessex to take the throne. Egbert retained contact with the Frankish royal family, and, according to the Annals of St Bertin’s, he corresponded with Charlemagne’s son and successor, Louis the Pious. The most that can be said for Raedburgh is that it is not impossible that she was a kinswoman of Charlemagne who married Egbert during his exile.
Egbert may have had a good reason for keeping Raedburgh in the background. According to the ninth century writer, Asser, the role of the queen was deliberately kept in obscurity during the ninth century. Asser claimed that:
‘The West Saxons did not allow the queen to sit beside the king, nor indeed did they allow her to be called ‘queen’, but rather ‘king’s wife’. The elders of the land maintain that this disputed and indeed infamous custom originated on account of a certain grasping and wicked queen of the same people, who did everything she could against her lord and the whole people, so that not only did she earn hatred for herself, leading to her expulsion from the queen’s throne, but she also brought the same foul stigma on all queens who came after her’.
The queen in question was Eadburh, daughter of Offa of Mercia and the wife of Egbert’s predecessor, King Beohtric. She was politically influential and ultimately murdered her husband, before fleeing the kingdom, leading the people of Wessex to reject the office of queen altogether.
Given the strength of feeling against her predecessor, Raedburgh would never have used the title of queen and, instead, would have been called ‘lady’. She bore more than one son, although only Aethelwulf survived to adulthood. Her only surviving child had been groomed for a career in the church, with his education entrusted by his father to Bishop Helmstan. According to the twelfth century chronicler, William of Malmesbury, he had previously been subdeacon of Winchester, but the deaths of all other legitimate heirs led to him returning to the secular world with the agreement of the pope. There is no evidence that Raedburgh survived her husband, who died in 839.
Given the recent re-release of my England’s Queens: The Biography in two parts, I thought I would think about some of England’s and (later) Great Britain’s, most memorable queens. The word ‘English’ is derived from ‘Angle’ and, as such, the Anglo-Saxon queens are the earliest English queens. The first one that I am going to look at, was not English by birth, however.
Bertha, Queen of Kent, is a relatively well-known figure today as the woman who is usually credited with bringing Christianity to England. She was born in 539 and was the daughter of Charibert I, King of Paris and his wife, Ingerberg. Through her father, she was the great-granddaughter of King Clovis of the Franks who, at the instigation of his wife, Clotild, had converted to Christianity. While Bertha was raised as a Christian, her father was rather less committed to piety than his grandmother had been. According to the historian, Gregory of Tours, he dismissed Bertha’s mother to marry one of her servants, before divorcing his second bride to marry her sister. This led to the couples’ excommunication. Undaunted, Bertha’s father had taken a fourth wife by the time of his death in 567 – his daughter’s own marriage would prove rather more lasting.
At some point before her father’s death, Bertha had married King Ethelbert of Kent, crossing the channel to join him in his kingdom. From Ethelbert’s point of view, it was an excellent match, giving him links to the prestigious Merovingian kings of Francia. Bertha’s religion was important to her and her father secured a promise that she be allowed to practice Christianity before she sailed to Kent. Once there, she was given a converted Roman building to use as a chapel and she and her chaplain, Bishop Liuthard, set about trying to convert the king.
Bertha saw the conversion of England as her duty. According to the Anglo-Saxon historian, Bede, in 596, Pope Gregory decided to begin the conversion of England by sending a churchman, Augustine, and some monks to preach in England. They arrived in Ethelbert’s kingdom of Kent, an ideal landing place given the queen’s Christian beliefs. According to Bede:
‘On receiving this message, [that Augustine and the monks had arrived] the king ordered them to remain in the island where they had landed, and gave directions that they were to be provided with all necessaries until he should decide what action to take. For he had already heard of the Christian religion, having a Christian wife of the Frankish royal house named Bertha’.
Ethelbert agreed to meet with the embassy, while Bertha allowed Augustine to use her chapel to perform mass, preach and baptise his converts. It was there that Ethelbert also came to be baptised.
Bertha’s role in the conversion of Kent was widely known. In 602, she received a letter from Pope Gregory, instructing her to spread her faith to the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, with the pontiff exhorting her to be as Helena – the mother of Constantine – had been to the Romans. It is not clear whether she acted on this letter, although her daughter, Aethelberg, assisted in the conversion of Northumbria through her own marriage. Bertha’s date of death is not known, although her husband had remarried before his own death in 616. He chose to be buried with her in the Church of St Peter and St Paul that had been built in his kingdom.
Have you ever wondered just what your ancestors were doing in the medieval or Tudor periods? If you have taken your family tree back to 1600 with parish records, the censuses and BMD indexes, it is entirely possible to go back further. Issue 4 of the Discover Your Ancestors bookazine is available now, which includes my article 'Back to 1066', which sets out the most important records and how to use them. Who knows, perhaps your ancestor sailed for England with the Conqueror in 1066, or fought at Agincourt? Alternatively, were they hauled before their manorial court? With a lot of hard work and a bit of luck, you can take your family tree back deep into the medieval period.
Ever wondered whether you had gaolbird ancestors? Finding family on the wrong side of the law can come as a shock, but prison records are also a great way of expanding your family tree. I wrote an article called 'Looking Online: Prison Records' for issue 154 of Your Family Tree magazine, which is available now.
I'm just writing an article on England's ruling queens and it occurred to me that there is one queen who is almost always missed off the lists of female monarchs. In fact, few people have even heard of her.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 672 states, matter of factly, that 'here Cenwalh passed away, and Seaxburh, his queen, ruled one year after him'.
This is almost all we know about England's first ruling queen, Seaxburh of Wessex, who may have died in 674, since this is the year from which the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle dates the start of the next reign in Wessex. Her husband, Cenwalh, had first been married to a sister of the Pagan King Penda of Mercia. According to Bede, he then 'took another woman' who may, perhaps be identified with Seaxburh. This led to Penda driving his former brother-in-law from his kingdom, with Cenwalh taking refuge in East Anglia for three years, during which time he became a Christian. He then returned to his kingdom to rule for another twenty-five years.
In the seventh century, Wessex was just one of several kingdoms in England and far from the most important. From the ninth century onwards, however, the kings of Wessex began a programme of uniting England under their rulership and the current queen is a descendant of the kings of Wessex.
Seaxburh may have had a troubled reign, since Bede claimed that, on her husband's death, 'under-kings took over the government of the realm, which they divided amongst them and ruled for about ten years'. Perhaps her authority was disputed, or she was only able to retain control over part of the kingdom? No details survive and she had no known children.
Although Seaxburh's life is almost entirely obscure, the fact that there was a ruling queen in the early Anglo-Saxon period is fascinating. None of her successors as queens of Wessex would reach so high. You can, however, read more about another fascinating Anglo-Saxon queen - Elfrida - in my book, Elfrida: The First Crowned Queen of England. Although not a ruling queen, there is rather more known about the tenth century Elfrida's life!
To celebrate the publication today of England's Queens: From Catherine of Aragon to Elizabeth II, I thought I would write an article about one of the women featured, whose birthday it is today. Not all the women covered in the book were actually queens. One of those was Anne Hyde, the wife of a king and the mother of two ruling queens, but a woman who never wore the crown herself.
Anne is relatively little known today but she was, in her day, as controversial a figure as her husband, James, Duke of York, who became King James II. She was born on 12 March 1637 and has one of the most unlikely backgrounds of any king's wife. Anne was the eldest child of Sir Edward Hyde, a lawyer in the service of the king. She was close to her father, who later commented that 'he had always had a great affection for her, and she, being his eldest child, he had more acquaintance with her than with any of his children'. Her childhood was disrupted by the English Civil War. Her father remained loyal to the Crown throughout, going into in 1646. He was soon joined by his family on the Continent.
During their time in France, Hyde remained a close advisor to the future Charles II, while his eldest daughter served the prince's sister, Mary of Orange, in the Netherlands. She was no beauty, with the diarist Samuel Pepys, commenting that she was 'a plain woman and, like her mother, my lady Chancellor'. Another contemporary more flatteringly considered that she 'had a majestic air, a pretty good shape, not much beauty, a great deal of wit, and so just a discernment of merit, that, whoever of either sex was possessed of it, were sure to be distinguished by her: an air of grandeur in all her actions made her to be considered as if born to support the rank which placed her so near the throne'.
In February 1656 the Princess of Orange returned to Paris, bringing Anne with her. James, Duke of York, came out of Paris to greet his sister and (as he later commented) 'it was there that the Prince for the first time saw Mistress Hyde'. James was a notorious womaniser and had soon seduced young Mistress Hyde. She was already pregnant when she returned to England with her parents in 1660, following Charles II's restoration to the throne.
In order to bed Anne, James had promised before witnesses that he would marry her and, in London, she pressed him to fulfil his promise. Suddenly finding himself heir to the throne, however, James was not so eager to bind himself to Anne. He tried to steal the evidence of the engagement from his fiance, as well as obtaining testimonies that she had enjoyed other lovers. Unfortunately, for James, his brother relied on the support of Anne's father and, when told of the affair, insisted that 'he must drink as he brewed, and live with her whom he had made his wife'. The couple were married a month before the birth of their son.
Anne's time as Duchess of York was largely taken up with childbearing although, of her eight children, only two daughters - Mary and Anne - survived. Her husband was also spectacularly unfaithful, with it well known about court that Anne was 'very troublesome' to her husband due to jealousy. She took her own revenge, enjoying a flirtation with two young courtiers.
Anne, like her namesake daughter, grew hugely fat. She was unkindly called 'one of the highest feeders in England' by one contemporary. By 'gratifying her good appetite' she 'grew so fat and plum, that it was a blessing to see her'. Her health was also poor after the birth of her youngest son, Edgar, in 1667, and, over the next few years she became increasingly unwell. For consolation, she turned to religion. From at least the end of 1669 it was suspected that she was a Roman Catholic. She always publicly denied that she had converted but, privately, she wrote a paper setting out her justification for taking such a drastic (for seventeenth century England) step.
Anne collapsed suddenly in March 1671, soon after the birth of her youngest child. She was probably suffering from breast cancer. The queen, Catherine of Braganza, helped to ensure that no Protestant ceremonies were carried out as her friend died. James was with his wife as she slowly expired, whispering to him at the end 'duke, duke, death is terrible, death is very terrible', before passing away on 31 March 1671. She was thirty-four years old. If she had lived another fourteen years, she would have been queen.
You can read more about Anne Hyde and other queens of England in the two parts of my England's Queens.
England's Queens: From Catherine of Aragon to Elizabeth II is released this week. This is the second part of the reissue of England's Queens: The Biography (so don't buy the new book if you already have the full edition!).
Starting with the six wives of Henry VIII, part 2 of England's Queens traces the lives of the women who have either been queen of England or who were married to one of England's kings. With six ruling queens and a number of remarkable consorts, the five hundred years of history covered are full of drama. My personal favourite is Caroline of Brunswick, who was hilarious, as well as Queen Anne, who came across as much more human and likeable in my research than I had been expecting.
Sorry for the silence recently, I have been working flat out to submit a book to my publishers! Normal service should resume shortly but, in the meantime, here are a few more great reviews that I've spotted.
First up, England's Queens: The Biography was featured in the March 2015 edition of The Good Book Guide. 'Covering two thousand years, this book looks at the lives and reigns, however brief, of each queen'.
The History of Royal Women blog have reviewed Elfrida: The First Crowned Queen of England here.
'Overall I loved reading about Elfrida, a woman about which I knew so little. Elfrida was certainly a powerful figure in the time of the Anglo-Saxons and I wish we knew more about her time out of royal favour and her possible involvement in King Edward's murder. It's still awesome we have an actual letter written by her! The book was a surprisingly easy read despite all the names that look alike'.
'Please go and read about Elfrida!'
The History of Royal Women blog have also reviewed England's Queens: From Boudica to Elizabeth of York (which is the first part of the reissue of England's Queens: The Biography). You can read the review here.
'There are some queens who don't have biographies of their own so it is nice to finally be able to read about them. I was surprised to learn that I definitely have things that I have yet to learn'.
'I love Elizabeth Norton's writing style and this book gives an excellent glimpse into the lives of these women. I would highly recommend it to all history lovers. I'm really looking forward to the second part'.
Sorry for the radio silence recently - I'm up against a book deadline, but will be back with you next month!
In the meantime, I've come across some nice reviews for my books.
Elfrida was reviewed in the January/February 2015 edition of The Good Book Guide. 'Elfrida's life is as good as any thriller and is depicted vividly in this new biography'.
There's a great review of Boleyn Women in the January 2015 issue of Tudor Life magazine, which can be accessed at the Tudor Society's website (here). 'For anyone wanting to find out more about Mary Boleyn, I would suggest this book', 'an exciting and surprising ride' and 'I would recommend this to anyone wanting to read about the Boleyn family, not even just the Boleyn women'.
A considerably earlier book of mine, Catherine Parr, has been reviewed by Tudor Times here. Comments include 'A good introduction to the topic, covering the main aspects of Katherine Parr's life, with plenty of interpretation', 'a very readable work' and 'a welcome addition to a reader seeking a wide range of interpretations of Katherine's life'.
ObituariesHelp.org has just been brought to my attention. As you know, I regularly write for family history magazines and am passionate about helping people to explore their own personal history and that of their ancestors. I have had a browse through the site, which is highly recommended, and it looks like a great resource for anyone with US family. You can search for obituaries by state and then browse through the various newspapers to find your family. If you are researching your US family, do have a look!
England's Queens: From Boudica to Elizabeth of York was published today by Amberley. This a reissue of the first part of my England's Queens: The Biography, which was published a few years ago. It's a nice new edition, with the second part to follow in a few weeks. Don't buy it if you already have England's Queens: The Biography though!
Here's the blurb:
England has always been a place of queens. The earliest known lived nearly 2000 years ago. Early queens, such as Boudica and Cartimandua, are historical figures, while others, such as Cordelia and Guinevere, are mythical. In both historical documents and romantic legends, the early queens of Britain played a prominent role, and this has never ceased to be the case.
Nearly eighty women have sat on the throne of England, either as queen regnant or queen consort, and the voices of all of them survive through their writings and those of their contemporaries. For the first time, the voices of each individual queen can be heard. This volume charts the course of English queenship from our earliest named queen, the fierce Boudica, through the Anglo-Saxons, Normans, Plantagenets, to the queens of the Wars of the Roses and the woman whose marriage brought peace after years of conflict, Elizabeth of York.
Have you ever wondered whether your ancestors had a criminal past? Alternatively, maybe they were involved in a long running Chancery case to rival Bleak House's Jarndyce v Jarndyce? I wrote an article on online court records for issue 151 of Your Family Tree magazine, which is in the shops now.
I just wanted to wish you all a happy New Year!
Tying up news of my books over the year, there have been a few nice mentions of my work.
BBC History magazine have included my quiz on the queens of England as one of their top 10 quizzes of 2014. You can read more here. My friend, Lauren Mackay's quiz on the six wives of Henry VIII is also included and thoroughly enjoyable.
The Boleyn Women was included as one of Anne Boleyn: From Queen to History's top 10 history books of the year: 'A wonderful, captivating and thoroughly enjoyable book'. You can read more here.
Finally, the History of Royal Women blog published a nice review of Elfrida just before Christmas: 'this book is very well researched and finally shows us Elfrida as the queen she really was'. You can read the full review here.
Otherwise, I think that's it for 2014 - five minutes left until 2015 here in the UK!
The excellent Tudor Times website went live earlier this month. It's a fantastic site, full of well researched and reliable information on the period. The first person of the month is Catherine Parr, who I have previously written a biography on. I am also currently researching her later life for my new book, The Seymour Scandal, which will be published by Head of Zeus in the UK and Pegasus in the US. Alison Weir very kindly referred to my book in her guest article on the scandal (here).
You can also read my guest article on Tudor Church Monuments (here). Church monuments are central to my academic research into the Blount family, with the monuments, and other material culture, used as a source.
There are some fascinating articles coming up over at Tudor Times and I recommend that you have a look!
To mark the 150th issue of the fantastic Your Family Tree magazine, I wrote a cover feature on 150 Essential Hints and Tips. If you are just starting out in your family history research or are looking to go back further, take a look at this article. There are suggestions for sources going right back to the pre-Conquest period.
The team at Leicester University have released some very interesting findings regarding Richard III's DNA. Although the maternal line is unbroken up to the present day, the male line of descent from Edward III has a major issue. Both Richard III and the current day Somerset family should share the same Y chromosome, since they are believed to have been direct male line descendants of Edward III (with the Y Chromosome passed down intact from father and son). However, they don't. This means that either in Richard III's immediate ancestry or in the Beaufort (who became the Somersets) family, someone was the not the son of their purported father - someone was illegitimate.
It's unclear who this was and impossible to speculate. It also doesn't affect the current royal family or the Tudor dynasty. For it to affect the Tudors, John of Gaunt or his immediate Beaufort descendants would have needed to be illegitimate. Even if this was the case, Henry VII claimed through conquest and marriage and his wife, Elizabeth of York, was a descendant of Edward III (unless the illegitimacy lay in the Yorkist line). Her daughter, Margaret Tudor, who is the ancestress of the current royal family therefore carried her descent.
You can read more about it in an interesting article in the Daily Telegraph in which I am quoted.
I gave a talk last night to the Isle of Wight branch of the Historical Association, looking at the history of the Boleyn family. It was a fantastic evening, with the talk starting with the family's peasant origins at Salle in Norfolk and and ending with the marriage of Anne Boleyn. It was great to meet members of the society, including a descendant of the man who built Blickling Hall after his family purchased it from the Boleyns.
The talk was based on my book, The Boleyn Women, which came out in paperback last month.
Elfrida, The First Crowned Queen of England, was released in paperback today. It's the first biography of one of England's most remarkable queens. Elfrida (or Aelfthryth as she is more correctly called) was a tenth century noblewoman who became the third wife of King Edgar. An important advocate of monastic reform, her life has been overshadowed by the murder of her stepson, King Edward the Martyr. But was Elfrida really guilty?
I wrote the cover feature for the new issue of Your Family Tree magazine, on using your local archives. Although the internet is great, there's nothing like a visit to your local archives to take your research back further. They are free to use and a fantastic resource for family historians.
I wrote the cover feature for this month's Who Do You Think You Are? magazine. It's called 10 Simple Steps to Track Down a Will. Follow the steps to locate your ancestors' wills - many are online, although others will require a visit to your ancestor's local record office.
There is nothing quite like reading their will to learn about your ancestor's life!
Have you ever wanted to find your ancestors' wills, but didn't know where to look? You can learn more about where to find wills and how to interpret them in this month's BBC Who Do You Think You Are? magazine podcast (here). I'm featured, talking wills and probate!
Yesterday the countdown to Jane Seymour's death came to an end. Her death on 24 October 1537 is almost the end of the story. All that remained was to bury her like the queen she was.
The day after Jane's death, Henry VIII left Hampton Court for Westminster, unwilling to remain near his wife's body. It is a mark of his sincerity that he shut himself away for a time, although the search for a new bride had begun before the end of the year. England now had a Prince of Wales, but it needed a Duke of York to secure the succession further.
The Duke of Norfolk was directed by the king to arrange Jane's funeral. She was the last woman to die as queen in more than thirty years and the peer therefore looked back to the burial of Henry's mother, Elizabeth of York, who had also died in childbirth. When it was noted that Elizabeth's funeral had been attended by seven marquises and earls, sixteen barons, sixty knights and forty squires, it was ruled that Jane should have the same. It was the least that Henry could do for the mother of his longed-for son.
Soon after her death, Jane was embalmed and carried to the presence chamber at Hampton Court, where she lay in state, dressed in a gold and jewelled robe. Once in the presence chamber, Jane's ladies took off their rich clothes and, instead, wore 'mourning habit and white kerchers hanging over their heads and shoulders'. Mass was heard and the women stayed with Jane day and night, with tapers burning around her. On All Saint's Day, Jane was carried through the black hung galleries of the palace and taken to the chapel.
By convention, the king was absent from the funeral and it was his eldest daughter, Mary, who had loved her stepmother, who took the role of chief mourner. She was, however, too grief-stricken to attend the ceremonies on 1 November, with her place instead taken by her friend, the Marchioness of Exeter. The following day, further religious services were held, this time with Mary in attendance. During this period the princess, who had received some of Jane's jewels after her death, made offerings for her stepmother, as well as arranging pensions for members of the deceased queen's household.
Early in the morning of 12 November 1537 Jane was finally moved from the chapel at Hampton Court to a chariot drawn by six horses. With her banners carried behind her and a great procession, the corpse made its stately way to Windsor, where it was intended that she buried. She was finally interred on the morning of 13 November, nearly three weeks after her death.
Today, Jane's grave in the chapel at Windsor Castle is marked by a simple slab, which also bears inscriptions to her husband and later royals who share the grave. She was queen for less than eighteen months, but cemented herself in the Tudor dynasty by bearing her husband a son. She was the only one of Henry VIII's six wives to die a queen.
This is the end of Jane Seymour's story. I've enjoyed following the last few weeks of her life in these posts and hope that you've enjoyed reading them. Look out for other countdowns in recent months, I think it is an effective way of looking at a moment in history. If there is anything that you would particularly like to cover then please do comment below, it's always great to hear from anyone who has enjoyed these posts!
Following her sickness in the night, Jane Seymour’s confessor came to her in the morning of 24 October 1537. By 8am he was preparing to administer the sacrament of extreme unction, which involved anointing with oil and was given to those who were in grave peril of their lives. In his nursery only a short walk away in Hampton Court Palace, little Prince Edward – who was only twelve days old – was about to lose his mother.
The ceremony evidently gave Jane some comfort. Later that day, Sir John Russell was able to report that she was ‘somewhat amended, and if she ‘scape this night, the physicians be in good hope that she be past danger’. Jane’s sickness had already gone on for such a long time that those around her could not see how she could remain in that condition – she had to either improve or die.
Any hopes of her recovery were vain, however. At 8pm, twelve hours after she received extreme unction, the Duke of Norfolk sat down in his chamber at Hampton Court to write to Thomas Cromwell, stating ‘I pray you to be here tomorrow early to comfort our good master, for as for our mistress there is no likelihood of her life, the more pity, and I fear she shall not be alive at the time ye shall read this’. Norfolk was right and the queen slipped quietly away in the night.
The death of Jane Seymour had been expected for more than a week but, as she lingered, those around her continued to hope that she might recover. Henry VIII, who was close by at Hampton Court, also grieved for his wife, although he took some consolation in the survival of his son. In a letter, written to Francis of France in response to congratulations on Edward’s birth, he commented that ‘Divine Providence has mingled my joy with the bitterness of the death of her who brought me this happiness’.
In dying at the moment that Henry loved her the most, Jane retained a special place in his heart. He gave her a royal funeral at Windsor and, in time, asked to be buried with her himself. The couple lie together today. Although it is a romantic gesture, it should be pointed out that there was no other wife that Henry could have asked to be buried with. He denied that he had ever been married to Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Anne of Cleves, while Catherine Howard lay buried as an executed traitor in the Tower. Henry’s last wife, Catherine Parr, was, of course, still alive.
The relationship of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour was no great love affair but, with hindsight, it came to take on more significance for the king as he continued to suffer matrimonial disappointments. Jane, as the mother of his son, came to be looked upon as his true queen – the woman with whom he chose to be depicted in the great painting of his family which can be seen at Hampton Court where Jane died.
Jane Seymour, the third wife of Henry VIII, was cut off at the moment of her greatest triumph, dying on 24 October 1537 before she had even reached her thirtieth birthday.
Jane Seymour from a later engraving. The cause of her death - her baby - is depicted beneath the picture.
By 23 October 1537, Jane Seymour was very weak. She had, by then, been gravely ill for nearly a week, with little sign of improvement in her condition. On the afternoon of 23 October, she finally gave her physicians some cause for hope, having ‘a natural lax’ (i.e. a bowel movement), which caused her condition to improve until nightfall. As those around her hoped and prayed, it soon became apparent that the queen was far from better. All that night, she was very sick, so that her condition seemed worse than ever. No hope remained at all for her life by the following morning.
There is no evidence that Henry visited her, although he remained at Hampton Court. Husbands could certainly be present in their wife’s sick rooms – Thomas Seymour, for example, lay down on the bed beside Catherine Parr in an attempt to calm her as she lay dying of puerperal fever. Perhaps Henry was there for Jane, although throughout his life he had a horror of sickness.
There is some evidence that he was present at the end for Jane by accident rather than by policy: on 24 October Sir John Russell wrote to Cromwell to state that ‘the king was determined, as this day, to have removed to Esher, and, because the queen was very sick this night, and this day, he tarried; but to-morrow, God willing, he intendeth to be there. If she amends he will go and if she amend not, he told me, this day, he could not find it in his heart to tarry’. Henry was evidently fond of Jane and wanted to support her, but he was not prepared to stay close to her in her sickness indefinitely.
For the most part, Jane was attended by the women of her household in her sickness. As queen, she had maintained a close watch on the women, whom Henry always insisted should be fair. Anne Boleyn had popularised the daring and flattering French hood in England, so Jane made a point of wearing the more demure and severe English gable hood. She insisted that those around her did the same, carefully scrutinising their appearances.
When Jane engaged a new maid, Anne Bassett, she insisted that the French-educated girl exchange her French hoods for gable hoods, perhaps because the new headwear ‘became her nothing so well as the French hood’. Jane knew that she, like her predecessor, had risen to become the king’s wife from the queen’s household, something that accounts for her concern over just how appealing the maids appeared. For the most part, however, she seems to have been well-liked by her women. After her death, her maids kept a solemn vigil beside her corpse, while her stepdaughter, Princess Mary, was particularly grief-stricken.
As she lay very sick on the night of 23 October Jane had only a few hours left to live.
Jane's signature as queen
On 22 October 1537, the English court continued to wait to see if the queen would ‘amend’. The woman at the centre of the vigil was, by that stage, oblivious to what was going on around her. Just who was the dying woman, who was the lowest-born woman ever to be queen of England?
Jane Seymour had none of the links to the nobility that her predecessor as queen, Anne Boleyn had. Anne was the granddaughter of the Duke of Norfolk and the great-granddaughter of the Earl of Ormond. Similarly, Henry’s other English wives, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr, had family connections to the nobility (Catherine Howard was, in fact, Anne's first cousin). Jane had none of this: her recent ancestors had all been members of the gentry.
Jane Seymour was the eldest daughter of Sir John Seymour of Wolf Hall in Wiltshire and his wife, Margery Wentworth. The Seymours claimed to have first come to England with William the Conqueror, before arriving at Wolf Hall late in the fourteenth century. They were locally prominent, with family members serving as sheriffs of Wiltshire and sometimes representing the county in parliament, but they had no national standing. Jane’s father was a soldier rather than a courtier, serving in some of the campaigns of the Tudor kings. His wife, Margery, had good connections, since she was the niece of Elizabeth Tylney, Countess of Surrey, who was her mother’s half-sister. Elizabeth Tylney was the maternal grandmother of Anne Boleyn, making Jane and her predecessor second cousins once removed.
Jane’s parents married in 1494 and quickly produced a family. Their first four children were sons: John, Edward, Henry and Thomas, while their fifth was a girl, Jane, who was born in around 1508. She was followed by sisters Elizabeth, Dorothy and Margery and a brother, Anthony. Jane, like her siblings, would have been born at Wolf Hall, which unfortunately does not survive. They worshipped in Great Bedwyn parish church, which contains a number of memorials, including those to Jane’s father and eldest brother. Jane would not have remembered her eldest brother, John, who died in 1510. It was her second brother, Edward, who would dominate her life.
Edward Seymour was a courtier as well as a soldier. It is likely his career, combined with the patronage of Sir Francis Bryan, who was another grandson of Elizabeth Tylney, brought Jane to court as a lady in waiting to Catherine of Aragon. She later transferred to Anne Boleyn’s household, a move that, of course, led to her coming to Henry VIII’s notice.
Jane was no great match. When Francis Bryan attempted to arrange her marriage to William Dormer, the eldest son of a prosperous Buckinghamshire family, she was refused. It was therefore a surprise to everyone when, late the following year, in 1535, she began to attract the attention of the king. Just how she did so was as mystifying to her contemporaries as it appears to us. Jane was pale, past the first flush of youth and far from a beauty according to contemporary reports. She was, however, virtuous, and this seems to have pleased the king.
When he attempted to persuade her to become his mistress, with a letter and a purse of coins, Jane refused them, praying that the king would ‘consider that she was a gentlewoman of good and honourable parents, without reproach, and that she had no greater riches in the world than her honour, which she would not injure for a thousand deaths’. According to Eustace Chapuys, when Henry heard of this response his ‘love and desire towards the said lady was wonderfully increased, and that he had said that she had behaved most virtuously and to show her that he only loved her honourably, he did not intend henceforth to speak with her except in the presence of some of her kin’. Jane’s unavailability only made Henry want her more, as it had been with Anne Boleyn. By late April 1536 he had decided to end his marriage, in order to wed his new love: Jane Seymour.
Jane Seymour can never have imagined that she would one day be queen of England. She was, however, only able to enjoy the position for eighteen brief months. She was as good as dead on 22 October 1537. The following day, on which the crisis again came, was to be her last full day alive.
The tomb of Jane's father in Great Bedwyn church
By 21 October 1537, few of the men and women assembled at Hampton Court can have had hopes of Jane Seymour’s life. As she lay in the room that she had given birth in, only nine days before, everyone knew that it was only a matter of time until the end came.
The queen had been so careful of her health during her pregnancy. The summer of 1537 had seen the sweating sickness return to London, with a member of Thomas Cromwell’s household coming down with the disease in July. Henry was, of course, informed of this turn of events at once, before personally telling his pregnant wife. Jane’s reaction was such that Sir John Russell, who was present, was concerned, ‘whereupon, considering that her Grace is with child; and the case that she is in, I went again to the king and said I perceived the queen was afraid, His Majesty answered that the queen is somewhat afraid’. Henry himself felt that there was no danger in Cromwell continuing to attend court, but in order to calm Jane, he insisted that his chief minister stayed away.
There was little practical that Jane could actually do to avoid the plague, apart from shutting herself away. That same month, she insisted that Lady Rutland be quarantined at Enfield when a member of her household went down with the sickness, with the Calais-based Lady Lisle, who ensured that she stayed on top of all the court gossip, being informed that she would ‘not believe how fearful the queen’s grace is of the sickness’. Jane had a particular reason to fear the sweating sickness, since the outbreak of the disease in 1528 is likely to have caused the deaths of her two youngest siblings, Margery and Anthony.
In the summer of 1537 Jane knew well that any failure to bear the king his expected son would be blamed squarely on her and this accounts for her fear to some extent. However, it is also clear that she wanted to live and be a queen. She spent much of the summer of 1537 closeted at Windsor with a greatly reduced household. It was also agreed that, while she awaited the birth of her child at Hampton Court in September, Henry would stay nearby at Esher in order to reduce the numbers of people near the queen.
Jane’s time as queen had been filled with anxiety, in part at least due to the constant reminders of what had happened to Anne Boleyn. She had taken a worryingly long time to fall pregnant after her marriage and was considered at court in late 1536 to be ‘a woman who is not very secure’. With the birth of her son, she was unassailably queen of England on 21 October 1537. Unfortunately, she only had three days left to enjoy it.
Jane's initials entwined with Henry's outside the chapel at Hampton Court. Jane knew that, should she fall, her initials could be removed as easily as Anne Boleyn's had been before her.
Jane Seymour continued to linger on 20 October 1537, three days after she had been given the last rites. The fact that she survived so long while gravely ill hints at her strength of character and will. Death usually came more swiftly for women who contracted an infection in childbed.
We know very little of Jane Seymour’s character. Unlike her predecessor, Anne Boleyn, she did not excite the indignation of the Imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, who provided many of the surviving accounts of Anne’s spoken words and behaviour. Admittedly, Chapuys recorded none of the good that Anne did, but his accounts do at least give us an idea of her spirit.
Chapuys does not seem to have had a particularly high opinion of Jane. Before her marriage, he commented that she ‘is not a woman of great wit, but she may have good understanding’. He also doubted her virginity at the time of her marriage to Henry (considering it unlikely that any woman could have been at court as long as Jane without taking a lover) and criticised her appearance. It appears that Jane looked better when dressed to impress – Henry VIII’s seventeenth century biographer, Edward Herbert, claimed that Sir John Russell, who had observed Jane believed that ‘the richer Queen Jane was in clothes, the fairer she appeared, but that the other [Anne], the richer she was apparelled, the worse she looked’.
Chapuys believed that Jane had ‘been well taught for the most part by those intimate with the king, who hate the Concubine [Anne], that she must by no means comply with the king’s wishes except by way of marriage; in which she is quite firm’. It appears that she was coached in how to behave with Henry during the last months of his marriage to Anne. She played the role beautifully, showing herself as an honest and demure young woman and adopting the submissive motto 'Bound to Obey and Serve'. She was a great success, just as she was successful in persuading Henry to bring his eldest daughter, Mary, back to court.
Jane also had strong religious views. In the summer of 1536 she showed her support for monasticism when she offered the king 2000 marks if the nunnery at Catesby could be saved. There is also some evidence that she was involved in attempts to save Clementhorpe nunnery in Yorkshire. She certainly attempted to intercede with Henry on behalf of the rebels during the Pilgrimage of Grace, which was a popular uprising in favour of traditional religion in late 1536. Martin Luther considered her to be ‘an enemy of the Gospel’, something which could have made the reign of her son, Edward VI, very different in character had she lived.
The surviving evidence, such as it is, suggests that Jane was not as meek and demure as her public image implied. She was a woman who was able to attract the king and hold his interest, becoming politically involved in a conspiracy that ended in the death of her predecessor. She also attempted to involve herself in the politics of the reign, although, with the threat of Anne Boleyn’s fate hanging over her, she ensured that she trod carefully.
If Jane had lived, it is probable that she would have ruled as regent for her nine year old son in 1547. If this had been the case, we might well remember Henry VIII’s third wife very differently. As it was, however, on 20 October 1537, only eight days after her child’s birth, Jane Seymour was dying.
Princess Mary, Jane's stepdaughter. Jane played a role in her reconciliation with her father.
By 19 October 1537, Jane Seymour had been gravely ill for three days. The very fact that she continued to live, even after the last rites had been given, encouraged some slight hopes of recovery. There was nothing anyone could do but wait and see.
Since it is clear that Jane did not die due to a caesarean section, the question must be asked, what killed her? She had, after all, initially seemed to recover well from her long labour. Cromwell believed that the neglect of her attendants, in allowing her to catch cold and providing her with unsuitable food, caused her decline. While this could, perhaps, have hastened her end, this was not, in itself, enough to kill the queen.
It has been suggested by Dr Loach, in her study of Jane’s son, that the queen was killed by an infection caused by the retention of part of the placenta in her womb. This is entirely possible since, in the event that part of the placenta had remained, it would have been very difficult for her physicians to remove it without causing further injury.
More likely, however, the cause of her death was probably puerperal, or childbed, fever. This was a terrifying prospect for pregnant women before the advent of antibiotics and carried off a good proportion of mothers. Henry VIII’s last wife, Catherine Parr, died of this condition in 1548, with the birth of her first child, while his mother, Elizabeth of York died bearing a short-lived daughter in 1503. Early in the fifteenth century, another queen, Richard II’s widow, Isabella of Valois, died bearing her second husband a child. Before that, Mary de Bohun, the first wife of Henry IV died bearing her daughter, Philippa, in 1394.
Queens were very far from immune in an age where nobody understood the need to wash hands or sterilise implements. It was simply good luck for women who survived childbirth unscathed. Since Jane’s child was her first, she was at greater risk. Labours for a first child tend to be longer, as Jane’s indeed was. This would have increased the need for medical intervention and left her vulnerable to the infection that killed her.
As the fever set in, Jane would have experienced agonising pains and delirium, something which accounts for Cromwell’s comment about her eating unsuitable foods ‘that her fantasy in sickness called for’. She may well also have had lucid periods. Catherine Parr, who was both her successor as Henry’s wife and her future sister-in-law, was able to dictate a short testament when she became aware that she was suffering from childbed fever, proclaiming to those assembled ‘that she, then lying on her death-bed, sick of body, but of good mind, and perfect memory and discretion, being persuaded, and perceiving the extremity of death to approach her’. She later became delirious, spending her last few days raving about the bad conduct of her husband. Jane too, is likely to have been confused and largely unaware of her surroundings by 19 October.
As puerperal fever set in, Jane must have been aware of the bitterness of circumstances. In giving the king a son, she was safe from repudiation or execution: he would never to anything to call Edward’s legitimacy into question. However, in the manner of her death, Jane became just as much a victim in Henry VIII’s quest for a male heir as Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. She was supremely unlucky.
Jane's future sister-in-law and successor as queen, Catherine Parr, also died in childbirth.
Jane Seymour had unexpectedly rallied on 17 October, but on the following day she was still gravely ill. Her little son was six days old – cared for by his nursery staff close by – the christening was almost certainly the last time that his mother saw him. Just what was killing his mother in her fine apartments at Hampton Court?By 1537 Henry VIII had a poor reputation and many people could believe anything of him. When he began looking for a fourth wife, shortly after Jane’s death, he was hampered by rumours that his first wife had been poisoned, his second wife was executed (which was, of course, true) and that his third wife died after being poorly attended following Edward’s birth. It is therefore no surprise that some contemporaries and near-contemporaries began to assign him an active role in Jane’s death.
The near contemporary Chronicle of Henry VIII recorded that ‘it was said that the mother had to be sacrificed for the child’. The later sixteenth century writers Nicholas Harpsfield and Nicholas Sander also stated that Jane’s child was cut from her with Sander going so far as to claim that Henry was asked which life should be spared and replied ‘the boy’s, because he could easily provide himself with other wives’. None of these sources are particularly reliable, however. The Chronicle would later reverse the order of Henry’s fourth and fifth marriage, as well as assigning the deceased Thomas Cromwell an active role in the fall of Catherine Howard. Harpsfield and Sander, who opposed the Reformation and Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I, had their own agenda.
The idea that Jane had a caesarean, did however enter popular currency and is still believed by some today. The popular ballad, the Death of Queen Jane, for example, refers to a caesarean:
'Queen Jane was in labour full six weeks and more,
And the women were weary, and fain would give oer:
‘O women, O women, as women ye be,
Rip open my two sides, and save my baby!’
‘O royal Queen Jane, that thing may not be;
We’ll send for King Henry to come unto thee.’
King Henry came to her, and sate on her bed:
'What ails my dear lady, her eyes look so red?'
‘O royal King Henry, do one thing for me:
Rip open my two sides, and save my baby!’
‘O royal Queen Jane, that thing will not do;
If I lose your fair body, I’ll lose your baby too.’
She wept and she waild, and she wrung her hands sore;
O the flower of England must flurish no more!
She wept and she waild till she fell in a swoond,
They opend her two sides, and the baby was found.
The baby was christened with joy and much mirth,
Whilst poor Queen Jane’s body lay cold under earth:
There was ringing and singing and mourning all day,
The princess Elizabeth went weeping away.
The trumpets in mourning so sadly did sound,
And the pikes and the muskets did trail on the ground’.
I did quite a bit of research into caesareans for my book, Bessie Blount. Caesareans were rare in the sixteenth century, although they did occur. Children born in this manner would be referred to by the contemporaries by such terms as ‘not of woman born’, ‘the fortunate’ and ‘the unborn’. The operation was considered to have a spiritual nature and was performed only on deceased mothers when the midwives believed that the baby was still living and, thus, could be baptised before their death. Such children were not expected to survive and rarely did so, leading to a special religious significance in their offspring. As one historian has commented ‘no other medical procedure was so directly linked to spiritual salvation or damnation’. The operation, although rare, was well known in Jane’s time, with the later sixteenth century physician, Francois Rousset, writing a treatise in 1581 advocating the operation’s performance on living women, whom he believed could survive the procedure – I suspect that he received few willing volunteers! You can read more about caesareans in the really excellent Not of Woman Born by R. Blumenfeld-Kosinski (Ithaca, 1990).
The idea that Jane had a caesarean is impossible. Henry VIII was many things, but he was not a man who would order his wife cut open (something which would certainly kill her), just to save a baby. Caesareans were only performed at the point of death and, since Jane was able to attend the christening celebrations and, according to Cromwell, command her maids to bring herself unsuitable foods in the days following the birth, she had clearly not endured a caesarean.
So, what was killing Jane in October 1537?
You can read more about caesareans, and deaths in childbirth, in Bessie Blount.
Jane Seymour rapidly deteriorated following her son’s christening, reaching a crisis point on 17 October 1537. That day, she received the last rites, with her doctors losing all hope of her life. It is not recorded whether Henry visited his dying wife. He had a horror of sickness all his life, but he remained at Hampton Court during this time, postponing a hunting trip to remain close to Jane. The queen was, in any event, delirious by this stage and probably unaware of anything that was going on around her.
Remarkably, after seeming close to death on 17 October, Jane began to show signs of recovery. Everyone at court held their breath, waiting to see if the queen would survive, but it was not to be and she quickly sickened again.
Although she was well attended, there was little that Jane’s doctors could do. She lived in an age where one doctor, who was frequented by a number of court ladies, carried around a notebook that could confidently declare that a cure for fleas, which involved anointing ‘a staff with the grease of a deer, fox, bear or badger or hedgehog: make a hole in the frame of a great hour glass in the top and bottom, put in a great stick, anoint it with turpentine the fleas will stick fast about it’, was ‘proved’. Without antibiotics, all everyone was able to do was pray and wait and see.
Just what caused Jane’s sickness? There are three main theories which I will set out over the next few days.
Stained glass originally from the Seymours' home of Wolf Hall - the images show Jane's phoenix badge, Tudor roses and the Prince of Wales' feather badge. They were presumably commissioned between 1537 and 1547, while Edward was Prince of Wales.
With the christening over, Jane returned to her bed to rest. She was not expected to emerge from her confinement until she had been churched, a ceremony which was held in order to purify her after giving birth. John Husee, the London agent to the Calais resident Lady Lisle spoke of Jane’s churching in a letter of 16 October, indicating that she was still not widely known to be unwell. There were similar contemporary hopes that she would quickly safeguard the succession with the births of further royal sons in the years to come. It was believed by everyone that Jane had escaped the perils of childbirth. Henry VIII was certainly pleased with the Seymours and looking towards the future, creating Jane’s eldest brother, Edward, Earl of Hertford on the day of the christening, as well as knighting her brother, Thomas.
While the king, court and country celebrated, the woman at the centre of the drama began to rapidly feel unwell. In the eighteen months since her marriage, Jane had become used to getting her own way, receiving regular deliveries of fat quails from Calais to satisfy her cravings during pregnancy, for example. Even as she began to become delirious with fever, her attendants continued to do all she asked in October 1537, with Thomas Cromwell later complaining that ‘our Mistress thorough the fault of them that were about her which suffered her to take great cold and to eat things that her fantasy in sickness called for’. It was not, however, to be the cold or unsuitable foods that killed Queen Jane.
As night fell on 16 October, Queen Jane Seymour had eight days left to live.
Edward Seymour, Jane's brother
I received the paperback version of The Boleyn Women today, which was first published by Amberley last year. The book covers the women of this remarkable family from peasant origins at Salle to the royal court and the crown. The women drove the family's advance, with Anne Hoo Boleyn bringing them in contact with the nobility and Margaret Butler Boleyn bringing wealth and - eventually - an earldom. In the sixteenth century the three sisters-in-law - Elizabeth Howard Boleyn, Elizabeth Wood Boleyn and Anne Tempest Boleyn were prominent at court, while the sisters Anne Boleyn Shelton and Alice Boleyn Clere were in royal service.
Of course, Mary and Anne Boleyn were the most prominent members of the family - with the family line passing through them to their daughters, Elizabeth I and Catherine Carey. My book covers the stories of every Boleyn woman (by marriage or by birth) in this remarkable period.
There is actually one last story that I wanted to tell, but which isn't in the book. Elizabeth I is well known to have favoured her Carey cousins, but her allegiance to the Boleyns went deeper. In 1590 a gentlewoman named Elizabeth Hill suffered a personal disaster when her house burned down, with all her property inside. She had hitherto lived a comfortable life, with her house and goods estimated to have been worth £400, Yet, all she had was consumed by the fire.
Facing financial ruin, Mrs Hill petitioned Elizabeth I, asking for the lands and goods which had been confiscated from some recusant Catholics. The queen 'liking of this petitioner's suit', agreed to the request.
The queen showed considerable favour to the unfortunate Mrs Hill. The personal interest that she took in the matter was based solely on the fact that the petitioner was, like the queen, a daughter of an Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth Hill's mother was Anne, daughter of Sir Edward Boleyn, who had been Queen Anne Boleyn's uncle. Even more than fifty years after her mother's death, the memory of Queen Anne Boleyn meant something to Elizabeth I and she sought to protect and advance her mother's kin.
A Tudor through her father, thanks to her mother, Elizabeth I was the last of the Boleyn women.
Jane Seymour's final public appearance occurred on 15 October 1537. Although, by convention, neither Henry or Jane attended their son's christening, both were expected to play a public role in the ceremonies. In preparation, the queen was wrapped by her attendants in velvet and furs to guard against the cold, before being carried to an anti-chamber where a special sofa had been prepared for her to lie on.
The couple watched as their baby was carried to the chapel in a grand procession, with Jane, although still weak, conscious that she had finally given the king all that he desired. During her marriage, the queen had built a strong relationship with her elder stepdaughter, Mary, who had agreed to stand as one of the prince's godmothers. Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, was godfather. The christening was like a 'who's-who' of the Tudor court. Jane's kinsman, Sir Francis Bryan, served as one of the gentlemen dressed in aprons and holding towels who took charge o the font. Her brother, Edward Seymour, was also prominent, carrying the prince's other half sister, the four year old Elizabeth, who made a rare visit to court.
Once the procession left Jane and Henry, the gentlemen walked in pairs, carrying unlit torches before them. The children and ministers of the king’s chapel followed. Then, the knights, chaplains and other members of the nobility also walked in pairs in procession. Following this, the prince was brought, carried carefully by the Marchioness of Exeter and assisted by her husband and the Duke of Suffolk. Jane’s son was dressed in a great robe with a long train borne by Lord William Howard and, over the prince’s head, a canopy was held by a number of gentlemen, including his uncle, Thomas Seymour.
Once inside the chapel, the baby was announced by the king of heralds as ‘Edward, son and heir to the king of England, Duke of Cornwall, and Earl of Chester’. The name Edward had been chosen by Henry both to mark the fact that the prince was born on the eve of St Edward and as a tribute to his own grandfather, Edward IV.
After the ceremony, the procession finally made its way back to the king and queen, this time with their tapers lit. Edward was handed to his mother and both Jane and Henry gave him their blessing before he was taken away to sleep. Jane’s role was not yet done however and it was past midnight before the last of the guests had left. She was carried tired but triumphant back to her bed in the small hours of the morning to finally get some rest.
14 October 1537 was the day before the christening of Prince Edward, son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour. The young prince was two day's old and cared for by his wet nurse, as well as a staff of servants, including 'rockers'. While the queen continued to recuperate in bed, Hampton Court was bustling with activity as preparations for the christening were made.
Over fifty years earlier, the baby's great-grandmother, Margaret Beaufort, who was the formidable mother of Henry VII, had laid down ordinances for how a royal baby should be cared for and christened. Margaret's ordinances, on just how a Tudor baby should be raised, included detail on the furnishings for the nursery, the appointment of servants and precautions taken in the selection and management of the wet nurse. This lady, who enjoyed a privileged position at court, was to be observed by a doctor at every meal to ensure that 'she giveth the Child seasonable Meat and Drink'. Edward's household was to be run like a military operation.
On 14 October, servants would have begun hanging tapestries around the walls of the chapel royal, in accordance with Margaret's ordinances. The altar was to be similarly arrayed with arras or cloth of gold, while the chancel was to be carpeted - a practical concern given the cold October weather. Margaret required that 'the font of silver that is at Canterbury be sent for', 'or else a new font made of purpose'. A canopy was to hang above the font. Margaret even provided that 'there must be provided a little taper for the child to carry in his hand up to the high altar after his christening'. These ordinances had been prepared for Prince Edward's uncle, Prince Arthur, who had been heir to the throne and who, like the little baby being christened in 1537, did not live to see his sixteenth birthday.
You can read Margaret's Ordinances in John Leland's Antiquarii de Rebus Britannicis Collectanea, vol IV from p179, which is available at archive.org.
Edward VI's birth, on 12 October 1537, was the last birth in the English royal family for more than sixty years. As Edward's mother, Jane Seymour was responsible for announcing the royal birth. Official announcements had already been prepared and were sent out as she began to recuperate from the long labour. Here's one of the announcements:
'Right trusty and wellbeloved, we greet you well, and for as much as by the inestimable goodness and grace of Almighty God, we be delivered and brought in childbed of a prince, conceived in most lawful matrimony between my lord the king’s majesty and us, doubting not but that for the love and affection which you bear unto us and to the commonwealth of this realm, the knowledge thereof should be joyous and glad tidings unto you, we have thought good to certify you of the same. To the intent you might not only render unto God condign thanks and prayers for so great a benefit but also continually pray for the long continuance and preservation of the same here in this life to the honour of God, joy and pleasure of my lord the king and us, and the universal weal, quiet and tranquillity of this whole realm’
This is one of the few surviving letters written by Jane who, by 13 October 1537, had less than two weeks left to live...
Another ‘on this day in history’ post today. Several years ago, I wrote a book about Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife. Jane is an interesting character and I wish that there were more sources available on her. She could have been an important political figure, if only she had lived.
12 October 1537 was the happiest day of Jane Seymour’s life. She had taken to her chamber at Hampton Court on 16 September, in order to await the birth of her son. Finally, on 9 October, she went into labour. Things did not progress as they should and, on 11 October, a procession was ordered through London to pray for the queen’s safe delivery. It was this prolonged labour that soon led to rumours circulating that Jane gave birth by caesarean section. This was, of course, false, since a sixteenth century caesarean would always result in the rapid death of the mother and such an operation was only carried out after a woman died in labour as a desperate attempt to save the child. Instead, Jane finally gave birth naturally to a healthy son on 12 October, to great rejoicing.
After two days and three nights in labour, Jane must have been exhausted, but she was also jubilant. She had succeeded where her two predecessors as queen had failed – provided, of course, that her son survived infancy. Jane seemed to recover well from the birth and, on 15 October, attended the celebrations for her son’s christening. The following day, however, she began to feel unwell…
You can read more about Jane Seymour in my book, ‘Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s True Love’, which was published by Amberley in 2009. There is also a section on her in ‘England’s Queens: The Biography’ (Amberley, 2011). I will do a few more posts on her in the coming days to mark the anniversary of her death. Happy birthday Edward VI!
Sorry, I should have posted about this earlier! I set the quiz for BBC History magazine a few weeks ago, on the queens of England. You can visit their website to test your knowledge of fifteen hundred years of English queenship. Which English king was Queen Elfrida rumoured to have murdered? Which pair of sisters were both medieval queen consorts of England? See how well you do...
My feature on 10 things you (probably) didn't know about Anne Boleyn is now available in BBC History Magazine.
Did you know that Anne's great-grandfather was a hatter, or that she was related to a saintly martyr? Which second cousin did Anne physically fight with at court and who did she unwittingly send to his death?
Find out these and more. Also, does anyone else have any surprising facts about Henry VIII's most famous queen?
Continuing with the Oscar Best Picture Winner challenge, we watched The Godfather, which won in 1972. I've seen the film before, but it is still fresh and fantastic. To be honest, I think it would be hard to top The Godfather, although, as I recall, The Godfather Part II is even better.
For anyone who doesn't know, it tells the story of the Corleone family, who are headed by the Mafia boss, Vito Corleone. The film charts the development of his son, Michael, who slowly finds himself sucked back into the family business.
I am very excited to announce the launch today of my latest book, The Tudor Treasury, published by Andre Deutsch. It's a collection of fascinating facts and insights about the Tudor dynasty. Here's the blurb:
A time of treason, rebellion, exile and intrigue, three generations of Tudors ruled England for nearly 120 years, from 1485 to 1603. These years were some of the most prosperous England had ever seen, and dramatically altered the course of world history.
The Tudor Treasury delves into the archives of British history to reveal why this period has caught people's imaginations like no other, including:
- Important additions to the worlds of poetry and literature, with William Shakespeare and his contemporaries bringing the theatre to the masses.
- The invention of the flushing toilet and its seal of approval by Elizabeth I.
- English piracy as one of the direct causes of the Spanish Armada.
- The beheading of three English queens.
With fascinating facts and stories, The Tudor Treasury tells the public and private story of England's most famous royal family and the people they rules.
In the past 1500 years, England has seen many queens, but just who were the best? Check out BBC History Magazine for my attempt to find the ten best English queens in history. From the pious Bertha of Kent, to the politically powerful Eadgifu, the post-Conquest period saw Matilda of Scotland - the woman who united the old English royal family with the new - and Eleanor of Aquitaine - probably the most famous medieval woman. Philippa of Hainault was the archetypal medieval queen, while Elizabeth I was England's greatest queen regnant. Queen Anne was the first monarch of a united Great Britain, while Caroline of Ansbach was the real power behind her husband's throne. Queen Victoria was the longest reigning queen, but Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was the longest lived.
Who do you think was the best? You can vote in BBC History Magazine's poll. Elizabeth I gets my vote!
I gave a paper at the European Reformation Research Group Conference at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge on Tuesday 9th September 2014. It was a great experience and my paper 'The Blounts of the West Midlands: A Gentry Family's Religion in the Reformation Period', which opened the conference got great feedback.
My paper looked at the religious activities and views of the Blounts of the West Midlands (Bessie Blount's family) during the Reformation period. This included an analysis of their interaction with the traditional church, their response to the dissolution of the monasteries and their links to Christian Humanism.
There were some fascinating papers during the two days of the conference, including studies of tolerance in the Elizabethan Catholic community, the material culture of the sixteenth century Catholics in the Netherlands and early modern English murder pamphlets. There were also studies of the works and theology of Martin Luther, Erasmus and John Frith. I was also able to catch the first day of the Reformation Studies Coloquium which opened on 10 September and will run until tomorrow. This is one of the most important conferences for scholars of the Reformation in England and the speakers and their papers were both highly innovative and thought provoking.
Issue 147 of Your Family Tree Magazine is now available. Look out for my article on Catholic records. These can be a great resource for family historians, since the Elizabethan and Jacobean state kept detailed records of the people that it persecuted. Recusants - people who refused to attend Anglican church services - are especially visible. Find out how to access and make use of the records for your own family tree.
I have just received my copy of the Transactions of the Shropshire Archaeological and Historical Society, vol LXXXVII (2012), which was issued last month (although dated 2012 for the journal series). You can find a copy in most academic libraries.
This volume contains my article on 'The Depiction of Children on the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Century Tombs in Kinlet Church', which looks at the tombs relating to the Blount and Cornwall families in the church (Bessie Blount's family), all of which include the commemorated individual's children.
Attitudes to children in the medieval and early modern period have always been seriously debated by historians. There is no doubt that infant mortality was high, but the evidence suggests that early parents loved their offspring as much as modern parents. Certainly, the evidence of their commemoration supports this.
If you get a chance to read the article, let me know what you think!
For the past couple of years, I have been keeping a blog over at http://www.elizabethnortonhistorian.blogspot.co.uk. It's been great fun but, over the last few months, I have come to the view that it would be better placed here on my website. I'm therefore going to post all future posts her, as well as re-post some of my old articles.
Enjoy - and, as usual, feel free to add a comment. Let's get some discussions going!
There's a great review of my book, The Boleyn Women, over at Anne Boleyn: From Queen to History:
'Elizabeth Norton's book is a captivating and compelling read focussing on the women of the Boleyn family from the fourteenth century to the last Boleyn women, Elizabeth I and Catherine Carey, daughter of Mary Boleyn'.
'Elizabeth Norton gives these women life, gives them a voice by which to tell their stories, their life's adventures and their rise through not only marriage but also through their own skills and cunning'.
'Norton's book is brilliantly researched and it is obvious through the amount of detail that is put into the book that Norton has a strong love and interest in the women of the Boleyn family'.
'This was a wonderful, captivating and thoroughly enjoyable book and I would recommend it to anyone interested in Tudor history or the study of women'.
There's also another lovely review of my Margaret Beaufort, which has been published by the author, Rebecca Henderson Palmer:
'Filled with detail and representing a more balanced view (and probably a more realistic one) than what Philippa Gregory offers in The Red Queen, Norton's story is captivating and provides Margaret with the attention and credit she deserves as the main force behind the House of Tudor'.
'Analytical, yet evenhanded, this is a solid read for those who want to push past the hype and consider the facts of this remarkable figure'.
August 2014 marks the 300th anniversary of the death of Queen Anne, the last Stuart monarch and the first ruler of a united Great Britain. Anne is often overlooked, but presided over twelve years of significant importance to Britain. Her personal life was also fascinating - she was one of the chief sources of claims that her half brother, the Old Pretender, was a changeling, smuggled into the royal bedchamber in a warming pan. Anne always had one eye on her possible accession to the throne, referring to the anticipated event as her 'sunshine day'. A physical invalid by the time that she became queen, Anne suffered the loss of seventeen children, eventually being succeeded by her German cousins, the Hannoverians.
You can read more about Queen Anne and her importance in my guest post over at the Post Office Shop Blog. They also have other posts on Anne and other events of historical importance.
The August 2014 issue of Discover Your History magazine was published today. You can pick up an electronic copy here. I wrote an article called 'From Peasant to Princess in Six Generations' which looks at the dramatic rise of the Boleyn family. Over the course of a century they went from peasants, farming a medieval manor, to princesses, with Anne Boleyn and her daughter both crowned as queens of England.
You can find out more about this dramatic rise in my article (and, of course, in my book 'Boleyn Women'!). The family demonstrate just how socially mobile some families could be in the period.
Issue 145 of Your Family Tree magazine is now available. Look our for my article on Looking Online: Find Old Records. It has never been so easy to take your family tree back into the sixteenth century and earlier. Find out how to carry out research for free!
Just a quick post to let you know that The Daily Star also featured the story on my Tudor matchmaking with eHarmony. You can read their piece on Henry VIII's 'Epic Fail' here.
History Revealed magazine have now covered my Tudor matchmaking with eHarmony. You can read their piece here. It's great that it's getting so much interest. The profiling was intended to be fun, but I was really pleased to see how accurate the results appeared to be. It's pretty much the order I would put the wives in I think, although I possibly would have put Catherine Parr (the wife who survived marriage to Henry) a bit higher! What does everyone else think?
I was recently invited by eHarmony to try out a bit of Tudor matchmaking by profiling Henry VIII and his six wives. It was great fun and the results were brilliant. I think they really do reflect Henry and his wives.
The results suggested that Henry would have been hard to match with anyone if he happened to join eHarmony's books looking for love. However, of the six, Anne Boleyn was the best match. Perhaps he should have given their relationship a bit longer? Anne of Cleves was second and represents another wasted opportunity of Henry's to find lasting love. The couple got on well after the end of their marriage, perhaps the king should have tried harder to make it work.
Next came Catherine of Aragon. She and Henry had the longest relationship, but they were not always well matched in relation to their pastimes. Jane Seymour was in the bottom three, but that is perhaps not surprising. She doesn't appear to have had much in common with Henry.
Fifth was Catherine Howard, while Catherine Parr - who was too intellectual for Henry - came last.
The Oscar Best Picture winners challenge continues with Cimarron, which won in 1931. It is a very tricky film to comment on. Firstly, there are some unpleasant stereotypes in the film (something that it has in common with some other films of the time), which make it a difficult watch. It's also very dated and the picture quality of the version we had did not help matters. That said, the opening sequence of pioneers rushing to settle Oklahoma was amazing. In 1931 they obviously wouldn't have had any CGI and must have filmed the huge number of wagons and horses racing across the screen - it looks dangerous and felt very real! Personally, I thought the main character was a bit of an idiot, but I liked his wife who grows as a person. The film is really about her development, which I thought was great. So, all in all, it's not the best of the Oscar winners for me by a long chalk, but it was interesting!
BBC History Magazine were kind enough to ask me to contribute a second piece for their excellent Kings and Queens in Profile series. You can find my article on Jane Seymour on their website now.
I find Jane fascinating. I think we didn't see the best of her, thanks to the fact that she died so young. If Jane had lived, her position as queen was guaranteed - Henry VIII would never have risked discarding the mother of his only legitimate son. In January 1547 she would have become regent for Edward VI. Who knows what she would have done or achieved?
There are very few sources for Jane but those that exist hint that she was very far from the meek and mild woman she is usually portrayed as.
Visit the BBC History Magazine's website for my contribution to their excellent Kings and Queens in Profile series. I look at the life of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII's most famous wife and a queen consort who played a very real political role in England.
We've just watched another film in our Oscar Best Picture challenge, this time it's last year's winner, Argo. I'd not seen the film before, although had seen some of the films it was up against, including the excellent Lincoln. I also admit that I knew nothing about the 'Canadian Caper' on which the film was based.
Argo follows attempts to free a group of American embassy staff who escaped from the embassy in Iran when it came under attack following the revolution there. Ben Affleck starred as the CIA operative tasked with getting them back, enlisting Hollywood in a fake cover the sneak the group out of the country.
I thought Argo was really enjoyable - one of the best we have watched so far. I know that it is generally considered a weaker winner but, as a piece of entertainment, it was great! I'm not sure how true to real events it was though...
Did anyone catch episode 3 of Bloody Tales of the Tower, which was broadcast on Channel 5 in the UK this week. The episode focuses on royal sex scandals includes the story of Catherine Howard. I appear in the episode (right at the end), retracing Catherine's last journey to the Tower from Syon. For Catherine, the journey by boat must have been horrific, since it involved passing under London Bridge where the heads of her two lovers, Francis Dereham and Thomas Culpeper were displayed. She also knew that, once she reached the Tower, she was unlikely ever to leave.
Anyway, the programme is still available to watch here, as well as the earlier episodes from the series. It's a great programme and really brings the story of the Tower to life.
Just a quick post to let you know that issue 143 (June 2014) of Your Family Tree magazine is now available. I wrote the article on Workhouses and Institutions, which is a great introduction to tracing your pauper and institutionalised ancestors. Also, check out my professional tip in the 5 minute fixes cover feature.
While workhouses were not always as harsh as Oliver Twist depicts, there is no doubt that it was a hard life for the inmates. Workhouses were deliberately intended to be undesirable, in order to ensure that only the completely desperate entered them. Surprisingly, they remained in use for some years of the twentieth century. The records can be a valuable resource for tracing your ancestors and learning more about their lives.
Although my countdown to the fall of Anne Boleyn finished yesterday, I've been enjoying the daily posts so thought I would add one more!
Jane Seymour, who had been one of Anne's ladies in waiting was in a house close to the river in London when she received news of her former mistress's execution. Jane, whose mother was a first cousin of Anne's mother, had close family links to the dead queen, but she can have felt no grief. Instead, Anne's death cleared the way to her own ascent to the throne.
Jane Seymour was the daughter of Sir John Seymour and Margery Wentworth of Wolf Hall in Wiltshire. She was a few years younger than her cousin, Anne Boleyn, and first came to court in the dying days of Catherine of Aragon's queenship. Following Catherine's fall, she transferred to Anne's service, assisted by her kinsman, Sir Francis Bryan, who had previously tried - and failed - to find Jane a husband.
Jane Seymour was no great match. In 1536 she was probably already in her late twenties and by no means considered a beauty. However, she had an air of quiet modesty and dutifulness which attracted the queen and, by the early months of 1536 she was firmly established as his new love. The pair met under the chaperonage of Jane's brother, Edward Seymour, and, by April had agreed to marry.
On 20 May 1536 Jane left her lodgings, sailing quickly to Chelsea where she was greeted by the newly single king. At nine o'clock in the morning, in front of witnesses, the couple were solemnly betrothed.
This ceremony meant that Jane's rise to queenship was certain, but she was not yet queen. Following the ceremony, she returned to her lodging to await her marriage. On 30 May 1536 she travelled to York Place in London, where she was married to Henry VIII in the Queen's Closet (or chapel). The couple spent a brief honeymoon together until 2 June 1536 when Jane first appeared publicly as queen. One contemporary declared 'She is as gentle a lady as ever I knew, and as fair a queen as any in Christendom. The king hath come out of hell into heaven, for the gentleness of this, and the cursedness and unhappiness in the other'. For Jane, however, with her unfortunate predecessor only two week's dead, the future must have seemed both glittering and alarming.
You can read more about Jane in my book, Jane Seymour: Henry VIII's True Love (Amberley, 2009)
The great History Behind the Game of Thrones site has just published an interview with me on Anne Boleyn and Henry Percy. Henry Percy, the heir to the Earl of Northumberland, was the love of Anne's youth, causing her to be rusticated from court when it was discovered. But were the pair engaged and was this enough to invalidate her marriage to the king?
On the morning of 19 May 1536 Anne Boleyn stepped out of her lodgings in the Tower and made her way to Tower Green, where a crowd of grandees had assembled. She climbed up to the newly erected scaffold and, standing on the straw, made her final speech:
'Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, gentle, and sovereign lord. And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. O lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul'.
Four women had been permitted to accompany Anne to the scaffold and, weeping, one stepped forward to cover her eyes with a cloth. The executioner, who had been sent for from either Calaise or St Omer for the purpose, then stepped forward. Unlike execution by axe, there was no need of a block. Instead, Anne Boleyn, former queen of England, knelt on the straw of the scaffold. As her lips mouthed the words of a prayer, the swordsman stepped up behind her, severing her head with one stroke.
Anne Boleyn's story always ends tragically, regardless of how many times it is told. She was around thirty-five years old and left a two year old daughter, as well as a father, and a mother whom she feared would die of grief. As a woman and as a queen she had been both loved and hated, but it is perhaps telling that it was her ladies - half dead themselves with grief - who gathered up her body in a white covering and carried it for burial. They were devoted enough to ensure that she was decently treated, even after death.
The execution of Anne Boleyn shocked many. She was the woman that Henry VIII had waited long years to possess. However, even as Anne was dying, the king was preparing for his next marriage. The following day - 20 May 1536 - he was betrothed to Jane Seymour.
The Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, where Anne is buried. The scaffold site is in the foreground.
18 May 1536 was to be Anne Boleyn's last full day alive. The five men with whom she was accused were all dead and she was no longer either Henry's wife or the queen.
For Anne, there was nothing left to do but swear her innocence on the sacrament, which she did before Sir William Kingston. For a woman who would face death imminently, this is strong proof that she was indeed not guilty since Anne, and her contemporaries, knew that to lie in such an oath would be to damn her soul.
Anne expected to die at any moment and, that morning she sent to Sir William Kingston, asking 'Mr Kingston, I hear say I shall not die before noon, & I am very sorry therefore; for I thought then to be dead and past my pain'. Kingston sought to reassure her, telling her 'it should be no pain it was so subtle' - an empty reassurance given the fact that headsmen often bungled their office and that few heads were severed with only one blow. Nonetheless, as a small concession to the woman he had once loved, Henry VIII had sent for an expert swordsman from the continent to strike the blow. Anne knew this, declaring 'I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a litte neck' before putting her hands around her neck and laughing heartily.
While Sir William Kingston marvelled at Anne, who appeared to him as having 'much joy and pleasure in death', she rose from her bed at two in the morning and spent most of the time with her chaplain, praying. Tired and apprehensive the hours must have passed slowly as she awaited her death.
The Tower of London
Carrying on with the Oscar Best Picture challenge, we've just watched Grand Hotel, which won in 1932. I was really looking forward to this film. I don't think I have ever seen a film with Greta Garbo in before, while the rest of the cast is equally starry (Joan Crawford, John Barrymore etc.!).
The film didn't disappoint and is well worth watching. It's set in the Grand Hotel in Berlin and focusses on a terminally ill clerk who has withdrawn his savings and is living the high life for his last few months. He meets his boss, a dislikable industrialist, a cat burgling baron, a disillusioned ballerina and a scandalous typist along the way. I actually liked Joan Crawford's character more than Greta Garbo's, while Lionel Barrymore as the dying clerk stole the film. It was a great watch and by far the best of the early best picture Oscar winners that we have watched so far. In fact, it is one of the best that we have seen so far - although I still like Rain Man better!
On the morning of 17 May 1536, Anne's five 'lovers' were led out to a scaffold on Tower Hill to die. Lord Rochford, the highest ranking of the five, made a long speech declaring:
'Christian men, I am born under the law, and judged under the law, and die under the law, and the law hath condemned me. Masters all, I am not come hither for to preach, but for to die, for I have deserved to die if I had twenty lives, more shamefully than can be devised for I am a wretched sinner, and I have sinned shamefully, I have known no man so evil, and to rehearse my sins openly it were no pleasure to you to hear them, nor for me to rehearse them, for God knoweth all; therefore, masters all, I pray you take heed by me, and especially my lords and gentlemen of the court, the which I have been among, take heed by me, and beware of such a fall'.
Anne's brother continued in a similar vein, recognising, as was expected by his contemporiaries, that he was worthy to die. He significantly admitted no guilt, however. Nor did any of the other four men, although Mark Smeaton (of course) had already confessed. William Brereton went so far as to deny any wrongdoing with Anne, declaring 'I have deserved to die if it were a thousand deaths, but the cause wherefore I die judge not: But if ye judge, judge the best'. Many did. Even Eustace Chapuys believed that the charges against Anne were suspicious. Nothing could stop the progress of Tudor justice, however, and the men were quickly dispatched.
Still in the Tower, Anne was informed of the men's executions. The delay in her own death may just have sparked a hope for herself. At dinner the day before, after her visit from Cranmer, she had spoken to Sir William Kingston of the fact that she would be sent to a nunnery and was 'in hope of life'. Perhaps Cranmer offered her this hope in exchange for her compliance to the annulment of her marriage? Certainly, he convened a church court at Lambeth on 17 May 1536 at which he annuled Anne's marriage either on the grounds of her earlier engagement to Henry Percy or the king's relationship with her sister, Mary Boleyn. These false hopes were particularly cruel and, by the evening of 17 May, Anne knew that they had been dashed.
The following day was to be her last full day alive.
My second book, Anne Boleyn: Henry VIII's Obsession (Amberley, 2008), which was written as an introduction to Anne's life.
Sir William Kingston, Lieutenant of the Tower of London, sat down to write to Thomas Cromwell on 16 May 1536, as he had done several times before since he had acquired his high profile prisoners. He had spent time with Lord Rochford since his trial, and was able to report that Anne's brother was anxious to speak personally with Cromwell regarding some petitions that he wished to make. Kingston had delivered a heavy message to Rochford that day, informing him that he should 'be in readyness tomorrow to suffer execution'. Anne's brother took the news well, saying that he would do his best to be ready.
Kingston had also been thinking about the queen. The king had already informed him that Anne was to have her friend, Thomas Cranmer, minister to her in her last hours, something which would have pleased her. The Archbishop visited her on 16 May 1536, the day after her trial, in order to give her some comfort.
Kingston was also a practical man, asking Cromwell for details of how he should prepare the scaffold, as well as other details of the executions. Anne's apartments were not far from Tower Green, where she would die, and she must have been aware of hammering and sawing as the scaffold on which she was to die was erected.
Anne's thoughts do not survive as she spent her last days in the Tower. Her contemporary, Cavendish, put words into her mouth, declaring:
'Alas, wretched woman, what shall I do or say?
And why, alas, was I borne this woe to susteyn?
Oh how unfortunate I am at this day,
That reigned in joy, and now in endless pain,
The world universal hath me in disdain;
The slander of my name will ever be green,
And called of each man the most vicious queen'.
Anne, however, in real life, always stated that she was innocent. She probably spent 16 May 1536 preparing for death quietly with Thomas Cromwell. Perhaps she thought of her daughter, who was two years old and whom she had last seen a few weeks before, carrying her in her arms in the gardens at Greenwich. Perhaps she thought of her mother, who she believed would die of grief over her? She had very little time left to live.
Anne's daughter, Elizabeth, as queen. Anne can have had no idea of the future her only child would enjoy. At the time of her execution there were rumours than Henry would declare that Elizabeth was in fact the illegitimate daughter of Henry Norris. His elder daughter, Mary, later claimed that Elizabeth looked like Mark Smeaton.
Although Mark Smeaton, Henry Norris, Francis Weston and William Brereton had all been tried and found guilty of adultery with Anne, the queen and her brother had still not been tried. This all changed on 15 May 1536, when Anne set out to plead for a hopeless cause - her life.
Unlike the four men, Anne was tried in the Tower. She brought into the hall, where a great scaffold had been erected on which benches had been placed for Anne's peers. Her own uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, with whom she had previously quarrelled, presided as High Steward, while Anne's own father, Thomas Boleyn, may also have been there. Her former flame, Henry Percy, certainly was.
Records of her trial are scant. As the trial convened, the king's commission was read and the queen was brought in, led by Sir William Kingston. A chair had been brought for her, which she sat in, before the charges were read. Anne pleaded not guilty and, although her words do not survive, 'she made so wise ad discreet answers to all things laid against her, excusing herself with her words so clearly'. Anne spoke for her life, although she can have been under no illusion, with the assembled peers finding her guilty of the charges.
The sentence was 'to be burned or beheaded as shall please the King'. Given all that had happened over the last few weeks, Anne cannot have been at all sure that she would be granted the more merciful death of decapitation. According to Lancelot de Carles, after the sentence was given Anne made a speech, appealing to God whether the sentence was deserved, before also saying that she believed she condemned for some other reason than the cause alleged. She stated that she had always been faithful to the king, before confirming that she was prepared to die. Eustace Chapuys also believed that the queen spoke out to express her concern that innocent men were to die for her. Anne was then brought back to her rooms in the Tower.
Once Anne's trial was over, her brother, George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, was brought in for his own trial. He was charged with incest with his sister, as well as spreading a rumour that Princess Elizabeth was illegitimate - something which was treason under the terms of Henry's Act of Succession. He was also given a piece of paper to consider, containing a delicate matter and, to the embarrassment of the king's ministers, read it allowed. It stated that Anne had told his wife that Henry was impotent.
Again, Rochford's words do not survive, but it is clear from surviving accounts that he spoke well. The Chronicle of Calais considered that 'he made answer so prudently and wisely to all articles laid against him, that marvel it was to hear, and never would confess anything, but made himself as clear as though he had never offended'. Lancelot de Carles also believed that he showed a calm demeanour and made a good defence, with the judges at first not unanimous in a guilty verdict. They were soon in agreement, however, with Rocford also sentenced to death.
As night fell on 15 May 1536, Anne Boleyn knew that she had, at most, days left to live.
The tomb of Anne's uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, at Framlingham. He presided at her trial and sentenced her to death.
On 14 May 1536, the day before Anne and George's trials, Thomas Cromwell sat down to write to the English ambassadors in France. Cromwell - the king's chief minister - had played an instrumental part in Anne's fall. Shortly before her arrest, she had quarrelled with the minister and told him that 'she would like to see his head off his shoulders'. Instead, he resolved to take hers, allying himself with the Imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, who represented Princess Mary, as well as the Seymours, who were the family of Henry's new love, Jane Seymour. It was an unlikely alliance but this, coupled with the king's own animosity towards Anne was enough to bring her down.
On 14 May 1536 Thomas Cromwell was the victor and Anne the loser. He informed the ambassadors that 'the king's highness thought convenient that I should advertise you of a chance, as most detestably and abominably devised contrived, imagined, done and continued, so most happily and graciously by the ordinance of God revealed, manifested and notoriously known to all men'. He continued by declaring that 'the queen's abomination both in incontinent living, and other offence towards the king's highness was so rank and common, that her ladies of her privy cahmber, and her chamberers could not contain it within their breasts, but detesting the same had so often communications and conferences of it that at the last it came so plainly to the ears of some of his grace's council that with their duty to his Majesty they could not conceal it from him'.
The official line was that Anne was guilty as charged. The following day she would also be condemned.
On 13 May 1536 - even before Anne's trial - her household was broken up and her maids and officers sent home. Although still legally the king's wife, she was no longer queen. Once again, this must have been proof to her that she would never leave the Tower alive.
Anne was also not going to remain the kings wife for much longer. Although the four men who were tried on 12 May 1536, were condemned for adultery with Anne, Henry was planning to rewrite history - as he had done with his first marriage - and deny that he had ever been married before. Divorce was impossible in sixteenth century Europe. If Henry wanted to remarry in May 1536, he had three options: he could persuade Anne to become a nun (something which usually freed a husband to remarry), he could annul his marriage (effectively proof that it had never been valid and, thus, had never happened), or he could kill his wife. He chose options 2 and 3.
Henry's preferred ground for annuling his marriage appears to have been on the basis that Anne had entered into a valid precontract with Henry Percy, heir to the Earl of Northumberland, back when she was first at court. Under church law, a precontract - where a couple promised to marry - could be as binding as a marriage ceremony. In fact, no ceremony would actually be required for a couple to be considered married and their children legitimate, providing they could prove a binding promise.
Anne and Percy had fallen in love when she was one of Catherine of Aragon's maids and he was in the service of Cardinal Wolsey. According to William Cavendish, who served alongside Percy with the Cardinal, 'there grew such a secret love between them that, at length, they were insured together, intending to marry'. When Wolsey heard of the arrangement, he ordered the couple to be separated and sent for Percy's father. Percy had been quickly married off to a more suitable bride, although the relationship was not forgotten During Anne's long engagement to Henry VIII Percy's wife had attempted to annul her marriage on the grounds of her husband's precontract to Anne Boleyn.
This, then, was a convenient way out of his marriage for Henry VIII. Unfortunately, Henry Percy, who was by then Earl of Northumberland, was having none of it. On 13 May 1536 he sat down angrily to write to Thomas Cromwell, complaining of the interrogations that he had recently been subject to on the subject. He declared that he had sworn an oath on the sacrament, before the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, to declare that there had been no precontract and 'that the same may be to my damnation, if ever there were any contract or promise of marriage between her and me'.
With both Anne and Percy refusing to admit any precontract, it appears that Henry VIII was forced to fall back on more certain - although more embarrassing (for him) - grounds. On 17 May 1536 Anne was informed that she was no longer Henry VIII's wife and that her marriage had been annulled. According to the well-informed Eustace Chapuys, the marriage had always 'been unlawful and null in consequence of the King himself having had connection with Anne's sister'.
It is a bitter irony that Anne died for the crime of adultery, when she had never legally been Henry VIII's wife. As she took to her bed on 13 May 1536, however, she was a condemned woman and she had still not even been tried.
Henry and Anne's entwined initials - a rare survival from Cambridge. After her death Henry took steps to obliterate any trace of a woman who, as far as he was concerned, had never legally been his wife.
On Friday 12 May 1536 any hope that Anne still had, was almost certainly lost. That day Mark Smeaton, Henry Norris, Francis Weston and William Brereton were taken out of the Tower to be tried in the Guildhall. As they walked in procession, their guards turned the back of their axes towards them - with the heads facing away. Once in the Guildhall, they were 'condemned of high treason against the King for using fornication with Queen Anne, wife to the King, and also for conspiracy of the king's death, and there judged to be hanged, drawn and quartered, and their members cut off and burnt before them, their heads cut off and quartered'. As the four men made their way back to the Tower, the axes which had before been turned away had been spun to face them. They were all condemned men and had less than five days left to live.
These are the bare facts of the trial. Very few details actually survive. Lancelot De Carles, in his poem on the fall of Anne Boleyn, believed that, once again, Mark Smeaton confessed to adultery, but the others admitted no guilt. The Imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, added further detail, writing in one of his dispaches that Smeaton had confessed to adultery with Anne on three different occasions: 'all the others were sentenced on mere presumption or on very slight grounds, without legal proof or valid confession'.
According to De Carles, the people at court were particularly moved by Weston's sentence, since he was both young and popular. His mother 'oppressed with grief' petitioned the king, while his wife offered both rents and goods for him to be freed. Like the other men, there was to be no escape for him. Anne, still a prisoner in the Tower, must have known that there would also be no escape for her. It had already been 'proven' in court that she was an adulteress. The result of her own trial would be a foregone conclusion.
The Anne Boleyn Papers (Amberley, 2013). All the sources used above (and many more!) are included in this source book.
If Lady Rochford can largely be discounted as the main source of the evidence against Anne, then where did it come from?
Little evidence survives surrounding the charges, although Sir John Spelman, a judge who sat on the bench during Anne's trial, noted that she had originally been accused by Lady Wingfield. Lady Wingfield was an old friend of Anne's, who had died in either 1533 or 1534, apparently leaving a deathbed statement in which she accused the queen of being morally lax. This document does not survive but, given the date of Lady Wingfield's death, perhaps refers to an affair before Anne's marriage.
While she was still unmarried, Anne had written to Lady Wingfield in veyr subservient terms, suggesting that the pair were well known to each other. It is impossible to know what Lady Wingfield said, but it is possible that Anne's relationship with Henry Percy, whom she hoped once to marry, was raised, since his name was mentioned in the enquiries in 1536. A lack of chastity before marriage could be a ground for divorce, but it wasn't treason.
A more damning accusation was made by Anne's friend, the Countess of Worcester, and it is this which seems to have caused the enquiries into Anne's conduct to begin. One gentleman, present at court in May 1536, recorded 'the first accuserrs, the Lady Worcester, and Nan Cobham, with one maid more. But Lady Worcester was the first ground'.
Nan Cobham has never been identified, but Lady Worcester was a member of Anne's household. Following Anne's death, she wrote to Cromwell to say that Anne had lent her £100 - a vast sum - and one in which she was 'very loath it should come to my lord my husband's knowledge thereof, I am in doubt how he will take it'. Lady Worcester had a lover in early 1536 and her brother, Sir Anthony Browne, berated her for her immoral conduct. In her anger, she blurted out that she was not the worst and that her brother should look to the conduct of the queen herself.
This was enough for investigations to begin, with Cromwell's agents visiting Anne's household to 'tempt her porter and serving men with bribes, there is nothing which they do not promise the ladies of her bedchamber. They affirm that the king hated the queen, because she hath not presented him with an heir to the realm, nor was there any prospect of her doing so'.
With the evidence gathered, it was time for the men with whom Anne was accused to go on trial for their lives.
The Countess of Worcester, from her tomb at Chepstow
On 10 May 1536, it was decided that Anne and her 'lovers' should be indicted to appear before a jury of their peers, in order to determine whether or not they were guilty of the crimes of which they were accused. The grand jury of Middlesex, who considered the charges, believed that there was sufficient evidence for the trials to begin.
The crimes of which Anne and the five men were accused were lurid, but was the evidence for them? Much of the information against the queen appears to have come from women that she knew at court.
Anne's sister-in-law, Jane Parker, Lady Rochford, who was married to George Boleyn, is usually assigned a role in events. Gilbert Burnet, writing 150 years later, believed that Jane gave evidence against her husband and his sister due to the fact that she was jealous of the sibling's close relationship, as well as the fact that she was 'a woman of no sort of virtue'. He claimed that Jane 'carried many stories to the king, or some about him, to persuade, that there was a familiarity between the queen and her brother, beyond what so near a relation could justify. All that could be said for it was only this; that he was once seen leaning upon her bed, which bred great suspicion'.
In spite of one contemporary's claim that Jane had not been a 'chaste wife', there is no real evidence of discord between her and her husband. Indeed, Jane appears to have remained wearing widow's black up until her death nearly six years later, as well as seeking to get a message to George in the Tower and promising to 'humbly suit unto the king's highness' on his behalf.
Much of the rumour surrounding Jane is probably based on the fact that she was later herself executed for involving herself in a love affair between Henry VIII's fifth wife, Catherine Howard, and Thomas Culpepper. It made sense to early historians to portray her as an immoral figure.
That said, Jane and Anne appear to have quarrelled during Anne's time as queen, while Jane had strong family and friendship ties to Princess Mary - dividing her loyalties. If she was a government informer, however, she received little reward, being later forced to write to Thomas Cromwell for aid in her widowhood. One of the charges against George was that he had laughed at the king's clothes and that he had discussed Anne's concerns that Henry was impotent. This evidence may well have come from Jane when she was questioned. She may also have been the source of claims that George had jokingly questioned Princess Elizabeth's legitimacy. There is nothing else to suggest that the evidence against Anne came from her.
There were, however, two further women who played a rather more important role in the investigation - one deceased and one very much alive.
You can read more about Jane in my book, The Boleyn Women (Amberley, 2013)
I attended the launch of Lauren Mackay's Inside the Tudor Court yesterday evening near the Barbican in central London. It was a great event - lovely to meet Lauren.
I am looking forward to reading the book, it looks absolutely fascinating and is an excellent subject. Eustace Chapuys, who arrived at court during Henry VIII's attempts to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, became her champion. He remained at court through the king's Great Matter, the queenship and fall of Anne Boleyn, as well as the reigns of Henry's later wives. He left court not long before Henry VIII's death, after having a touching last interview with Princess Mary and her last stepmother, Catherine Parr.
I always think that Eustace Chapuys is the forgotten man of the Tudor court. We get so used to using him as a source that it is almost as if his agency and presence in the events that he described are forgotten. I am particularly interested in reading Lauren's take on Chapuys' role in the fall of Anne Boleyn - he was right at the centre of events and his dispatch about a meeting with Thomas Cromwell not long before Anne's fall is a very important source for the events of May 1536. Did Chapuys - the Imperial Ambassador - really help to bring down a queen?
You can also read extracts of Chapuys' dispatches in my book, The Anne Boleyn Papers (Amberley, 2013).