Monday, 23 July 2012

Beyond a stereotype

Recently, I was at a dinner party in Leicestershire and I had the pleasure of sitting next to a published Tudor historian. Conversation turned to the six wives of Henry VIII and it was generally agreed that the wife you'd want to hit the town for a couple of martinis with was definitely Anne Boleyn. Discussion of Anne's chic glamour soon led to a game of comparisons with Henry's other queens and, in particular, Anne's predecessor - Katherine of Aragon.

Whilst Anne has a decidedly chequered historical reputation - with people loving and loathing her in equal measure - Katherine of Aragon rests much more securely in her position as a de facto kind of saint. (There's a movement to turn her into a de jure one, too, but I digress.) She is the archetype and symbol of the wronged woman, the original president of the "first wives' club" and all the qualities traditionally associated with the perfect royal woman have been attributed to her. It is rare, to the point of startling, to find anyone who is prepared to query this  - let alone to criticise. Which is why I remember being distinctly shocked (putting-down-the-glass-of-wine-shocked), when the historian to my right said, with passion, "But she could be so cruel to people. She could be so, so cruel." 

Well, she's right. Katherine of Aragon was capable of perfectly vile acts of nastiness, which in popular legend are usually attributed to queens like Anne Boleyn or Elizabeth Woodville. Her vindictive bullying of her father's Jewish ambassador, her vicious desire to ritually humiliate the corpse of King James IV of Scotland and her complete indifference to anything but her own position make Katherine, in my eyes at least, an often thoroughly unpleasant character. Her melodramatic insistence that her living conditions during her widowhood and then divorce were purgatorial are patently untrue and we can tell that by looking at the surviving accounts book. That Henry VIII's first wife was also dignified, intelligent and magnificently tenacious is also beyond doubt. Katherine of Aragon is a far more interesting and more complex, but perhaps significantly less sympathetic, character than the saint created by the relentless PR machine set-up in her own lifetime.

Anne Boleyn, on the other hand, who ranks as my personal favourite of the six, was in many ways a much more fragile character than both her enemies and supporters like to think. What Anne Boleyn had, almost seeping out of her fingertips, was charm and charisma. As it turns out, a dangerous gift. She had something that we would now recognise as star quality; what the French recognised, even then, as je ne sais quoi. Like most naturally clever people, she was often accused of being manipulative or disingenuous. Like Katherine, she could also be unpleasantly oblivious to the humanitarian cost of her political causes. Unlike Katherine, she was neurotic, although both women shared a slightly hysterical bent to their characters. Anne was explosively temperamental and she got worse as she got older. The unmistakable impression given off in eyewitness accounts of the final months of Anne's life is that of a young woman trying desperately to hold everything together, as her life fell inexplicably and irretrievably apart. There are ample anecdotes of Anne's personal kindness and her generosity to those around her, but there are almost moments where she behaved recklessly and foolishly. To paraphrase a Tudor novelist of the 1950s, in many ways Anne Boleyn was clever, but she was not always wise. 

Jane Seymour is another problematic soul. The romantic legend that she was the great love of Henry VIII's life and the perfect antidote to Katherine's pride and Anne's temper is sheer nonsense. Evidently, the couple married quickly and, as the old saying goes: marry in haste and repent at leisure. Within a few weeks, Henry was commenting on his new wife's pretty maids of honour and lamenting that he had not met them before marriage to the queen. The problem with figuring out Jane Seymour's actual personality is that there is almost nothing in any source that gives us an example of her doing anything proactively. In fact, of doing anything, at all. Her supposed support for Mary Tudor counted for less than nothing, because she only showed favour to Mary after Henry had publicly humiliated her, forced her to acknowledge the Reformation and brought her back to court to be paraded as the regime's number one prize turncoat. Given the scars left on Mary's psychology, health and spirit, Jane's gift of a diamond ring doesn't seem like it would have helped that much. Although, I suppose a diamond didn't hurt. 

Similarly, there is absolutely no documentary evidence to support the idea that Jane took a protective interest in Anne Boleyn's motherless baby, Elizabeth. A slightly obsessive-compulsive preoccupation with controlling her maids and a pregnancy-inspired craving for quails from Calais are the only glimpses we get into Jane Seymour's day-to-day-life as queen. Then, eighteen months after securing the crown, she was struck down in unimaginable agony and died as a result of post-childbirth complications - like thousands of poor souls both before and after her. She rests today in Saint George's Chapel at Windsor Castle, beneath a black marble stone as inscrutable as she herself was in life.

In direct opposition to how it's often played out in life, history can be quite kind to ugly girls. Especially if they're fat and a bit jolly. Anne of Cleves, the "ugo" of Henry's marital misadventures, is therefore rather fondly remember in Britain today, because of her metaphorical love for a strudel and a giggle. Divorced after only six months as queen because Henry allegedly found her sexually repulsive, Anne accepted a generous divorce settlement and actually got on rather well with her replacement, Catherine Howard. The two women even held a New Year's party together at Hampton Court and went through the deliciously Hilton-sisters-meets-Kardashian-style ritual of exchanging gifts of pet puppies and some bling. It is often assumed, therefore, that German Anne was contented with her lot and lived the last two decades of her life in perfect peace and happiness - thoroughly relieved to have escaped a life of being trapped under the sweating, ulcerous man-mountain that was Henry VIII. 

In fact, like most things in history, it was a good deal more complicated than that. Whilst Anne had partied hard with Catherine Howard, she was moved to fits of furious weeping when she heard that her ex-husband was going to marry Katherine Parr in 1543. Far from being relieved that she was no longer queen, Anne took her husband's sixth marriage as a slap in the face. She claimed that she was far prettier than Katherine and she had apparently believed a rumour that with Catherine Howard now dead, Henry was going to come back to her. There is no record of any puppy-giving fiestas to wifey number six. Apparently, even for this sensible and jolly woman, the allure of the crown and the prestige of human attention was too much to walk away from.

Anne's replacement - the sexy and nubile Catherine Howard - is a Tudor novelist's wet dream. Sometimes, I fear, quite literally. The teenage daughter of an impoverished aristocrat, the story goes that Catherine was forced into the middle-aged monarch's sight-line by her ambitious and amoral uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, who essentially pimped her out to his royal master. Slipped in between the monarch's sheets in the spring of 1540, he speedily chucked Anne of Cleves for her and beheaded his chief minister, for good measure.  (Chop and change, etc.) Showered with gifts, jewels and parties, Catherine was the ultimate trophy wife. A sensuous young bimbo on the arm of a hideous and obese wealthy businessman. Then, she was caught with the sexy pool boy - or, one of her husband's grooms, in this case. Him, her, a helpful lady-in-waiting and one of the queen's pre-marital lovers were all shipped off to the executioner's block, where the poor girl ended her life before her twentieth birthday. A sacrifice to the illogical fantasies of men and kings and the appalling double standard of western sexuality.

Much of that is true. Catherine died horribly for something that she need not have died for under English law; it was Henry's insistence that she die that made her death an inevitability. She was also the King's middle-aged fantasy. But to shift all blame off Catherine for her own actions is unfair and inaccurate. At times, she behaved with near-suicidal levels of stupidity and self-indulgent recklessness. Sometimes, this was because she listened to truly terrible advice from her family and ladies-in-waiting; other times, it was because she herself was bored and wanted distractions. Capable of acts of thoughtful kindness, particularly to those less fortunate than herself, as well as being fun-loving and surprisingly elegant when carrying out her public duties, Catherine Howard's story is one that shows the terrifying way in which a human life can be shaped, and even ended, by a combination of bad decisions, bad advice and bad luck.

In contrast to Catherine the nymphet, Henry's sixth and final wife, Katherine Parr, is usually presented as an elegant and intelligent bookworm. The perfect stepmother, if you like. For Victorians, the fact that Katherine was a devout Protestant made her more easily related to. She seemed like one of them. And that's how she's been remembered - as the perfect Victorian lady, in a gorgeous Tudor frock. In reality, Protestantism in the 1540s was a much more passionate affair than the sedate Anglicanism of Victoria's era. And Katherine gave herself over to the new religion with all the vigour of a woman throwing herself into the arms of a new lover. She was possessed and consumed by it; penning near-hysterical prayer books, extolling Protestantism's "born again" theology of justification by faith alone and sola scriptura. She came to loath the Catholic faith of her childhood and only by, quite literally, throwing herself at her husband's feet, did she escape being burned alive for heresy in 1546.

Although the Victorian version of Katherine as loving, charming and well-read is certainly true, there is therefore another side to her personality - passionate, outrageous and a risk-taker. It helps explain why she earned the dislike (one suspects) of both her stepdaughters in May 1547, when she eloped with Thomas Seymour, only a few months after King Henry's death. It was a gutsy move, made for love, which her eldest stepdaughter Mary was outraged by and which even the young Elizabeth confessed to being uncomfortable with. 

The six wives of Henry VIII hover in our collective imagination, fulfilling our need for female stereotypes or historical fantasies. From the stereotypes' point of view, they respectively stand-in for the noble queen, the scheming temptress, the wallflower, the fat girl, the sexy bimbo and the sexless governess. We form opinions on them based on the impression we have of their characters. I should know; I've done it myself. And we are extremely reluctant to abandon those preconceptions, even when faced with an avalanche of contradictory evidence. Their lives were often tragic, often inspirational and invariably much, much more interesting than what they've been reduced to. 


  1. Thanks for this interesting alternative look at these interesting women.

  2. Anne Boleyn has always been my favorite. Thanks for giving perspective on each of them.

  3. Your best blog post in some time, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

  4. I am not sure why you claim that Catherine Howard did not commit a crime that she need not have died for. In actual fact, Henry sent Cranmer to get a confession from her and give her a ray of hope. But the girl was already too frightened to say anything, and perished along with everyone else. Henry was undecided about her for a long time, so one can hardly say that he insisted on this, until the very end,

  5. This is so predictable and just like any other blog I've ever read from an Anne fan.

  6. This was really interesting Gareth. It's amazing how historians view these women so differently. Starkey and Warnicke, for instance, have both made me reconsider the true nature of Katherine Howard, showing her life to have been more complex that what it is usually reduced to.

  7. Dear "Anonymous," in modesty - it most certainly is not. And I am not an "Anne fan." I am a graduate of the University of Oxford and a published author. If you disagree with my personal assessment of these women's personality, perhaps because you salivate over the posthumous reps of Katherine of Aragon and Jane Seymour, then that's your business. But don't refer to me as a fan - I'm an historian.

    Dear Bluffkinghal - I'm afraid that isn't entirely true. That Henry hesitated in the opening months of the inquiry does not negate the fact that between January and February he was the driving force in demanding Catherine's death for a crime that was not yet treasonable or punishable by death under English statute law and which was, in fact, seriously opposed by the House of Lords. He over-rode both jurisprudence and the concerns of the upper house of parliament in order to secure his fifth wife's death.

  8. Thank you. After writing so many serious and longer articles or speeches on the six wives of Henry VIII, it was fun to write something a little bit lighter and hopefully more entertaining.

  9. Your assessment that Anne Boleyn ‘was not always wise’ is a good one.

    Anne’s indiscreet conversations with Henry Norris and Francis Weston in the weeks prior to her arrest certainly gave her enemies added ammunition to plan her downfall.

    What is interesting is that Anne, while in the Tower, apparently still failed to understand realize how damaging her conversations were (that Norris would have her if the King were dead, and that Weston had a crush on her), and she very freely disclosed them to the women who guarded her; ladies whom she openly disliked, and were spying on her, reporting very word she said to the authorities.

  10. Gareth-
    Loved the blog! It would be fascinating to see each wife in their own "Country Life" debutante page. Miss our over the top discussions since coming home!

    Shannon :0)

  11. Anne Boleyn isn't a saint. She also was able to lie, manipulate and be ruthless. It was also arrogant and intolerant. She had no compassion for her enemies. I prefer to Queen Catherine Parr.

  12. At no point in the above article did I say Anne Boleyn was a saint. And as queen, Catherine Parr did not attempt to intercede for those whose religious views contrasted with her own and suffered for them. They were women of their eras.

  13. But Anne did offer help to her ultimate enemy- Mary Tudor. Anne offered to turn Mary legitment if she recongnised Anne and Elizabeth as queen. But Mary, being stubborn and headstrong, called Anne; "the concubine" and refused her help each time Anne offered. In fact none of the other wives had campassion for their enemies. Catherine of Aragon slaughter her brother in law (James IV of scotland) in battle and the next second she sent sympathetic letters to James' widow. Jane Seymour let Anne face the axe without even raising a finger and neglected little Elizabeth. Anne of Cleves threw a fit over Katherine Parr when she married Henry. Katherine Howard married on the same day that Cromwell was beheaded. Catherine Parr let Catholics die without helping them. Obviously i am only high lighting the bad points about each of the wives, and i know each of them have some good points, to try and prove a points. No-one was perfect, everyone has flaws.

  14. This is one of the best short article of these 6 ladies I have read. I have a Fb page on Marie Queen of Scots, but naturally I have done much reading on Henry's Queens. They all had their faults, and their place in the story of his turbulent and often unhappy life. I especially agree about your assessment of Katherine of Aragon. Having Queen Isabella as her Mother certainly gave her a strong example of strength and cruelty. She was ruthless in the extermination of the Jews during the inquisition, and a very strong influence. I have always felt her stubborn intractable attitude about the divorce was what destroyed her daughter Mary. Had she bowed out, she could have retired in dignity, and made a better childhood for Mary. They could have lived together in luxury, and been shielded somewhat from the storm surrounding Anne and Elizabeth. KOA knew she was past menopause, and that Henry wanted a son she could not possibly give him. I certainly would love to sit next to you at a dinner party! My Fb page Is Marie Queen of Scots I will enjoy following your blog, and I will read your books in a timely manor. Ty

  15. May I ask who was Ferdinand's "Jewish Ambassador" that KOA bullied?

  16. Dr Rodrigo Gonzalez de Puebla was Jewish, or to be technical a converso, and Katherine demanded he be brought home and punished for failing to promote her best interests at Henry VII's court. De Puebla had also quarrelled with one of the other Spanish ambassadors to the British Isles, Don Pedro de Ayala, who may have helped stir up Katherine's detestation of the converso. Either way, de Puebla's ancestry made him vulnerable.

  17. Ty very much for clearing that up. I know so little about Isabella's story, and the history of Spain. The inquisition is an entire study in itself, and my interest is focused primarily on Marie Queen of Scots. However, she was a strong Catholic Queen as was Katherine of Aragon, and her daughter Mary.

  18. I agree that KOA had her faults (she's human), but I have to disagree with some of your arguments. With the Battle of Flodden, well, her behavior certainly doesn't stand out considering she was in a time period where traitors had their heads on spikes as examples, and people were left in gibbets. As for Kings, Richard III himself was stripped and tossed over a horse and paraded about before being buried. And even then, KOA didn't send the body, she sent the blood stained coat of a man who thought he was being slick by attacking England when Henry had left the country with an army to invade France.

    As for her Jewish ambassador, was this not the same ambassador whom Katherine believed worked for Henry VIII to the detriment of his supposed masters (Isabella and Ferdinand)? That might have something to do with her behavior towards him.

    Indifference to anything except her own position? I disagree, true, Katherine did believe in her position as Queen of England, but that didn't mean she was indifferent to anyone else's. Considering she was a popular, kind and generous Queen of England, who at least on one occasion intervened for those rebels at the Evil May Day riots, I think plenty of occasions she demonstrated a concern for other's positions. But in case this is in reference to the Great Matter? Sorry, but I completely understand her position of not giving in, number one Henry couldn't be trusted to keep his word, and she was concerned for her daughter's legitimacy and right as the sole and rightful heir of Henry VIII. She believed not in her position as Henry's wife, but that Mary was the future Queen of England. She wasn't going to jeopardize that by giving in to Henry. And she did care what happened to people during the break with Rome. Of all the things that can be attributed to KOA, indifferent is not a description I would agree with.

    As for her treatment, it was despicable and atrocious on both accounts. Her father wasn't seeing properly to her, and taking care of, and there was conflict and money issues in her household. After the Great matter, she was banished to old, and drafty castles which was terrible for her already bad health and separated from her only child due to the commands of her husband. Exactly what is there to exaggerate? That certainly isn't an enviable lifestyle on either account. The men in her life treated her horrifically.

    And frankly each and everyone of these behaviors you ascribe to Katherine of Aragon, can be ascribed to Anne Boleyn as well. She was cruel, vindictive, a bully, and indifferent to the positions of others as well. I mean the only thing she cared about was securing her position as Queen of England and Henry's rightful wife. Did she care that people were being killed due to the changes that came with her marriage? Nope. Did she care about the fact that Mary was uprooted from her rightful position? No, in fact she had the audacity to tell Mary she would reconcile her with Henry VIII, if she would recognize Anne as Queen of England. She even said she would have Mary burned, and talked about killing KOA and Mary. Yet KOA is the unpleasant and less sympathetic one?

    Now back to KOA, I said I agreed with the fact that she wasn't perfect and that she wasn't a saint. How about arguments to back this such as when: she lied to her father about the timing of her miscarriage? How about her conduct and misjudgment of character with people such as Fray Diego Fernandez? The man was a lecher and wholly unfit for his role, yet KOA still defended him and when he was dismissed asked for a good word for him. Those are unpleasant features of her character.

    1. Dear Couture Byrd,

      If I could qualify that the point of this article was to highlight "beyond the stereotype" by offering parts of the queens' personalities that flesh-out the popular image of them. Since Katherine's reputation shines so brightly, I sought to highlight her more ambivalent, confusing or unlikable traits. Equally, with Anne Boleyn, who you set in the balance against her, I attempted to focus more on the positive attributes in the face of a generally-negative historical reputation. To be quite clear, I must in fairness disagree utterly with the line, "Yet KOA is the unpleasant and less sympathetic one?" as the very point of this article was to suggest that we need to stop weighing one queen against the other, as if there is a finite quantity of virtue to go around these six ladies.

      In regards the point, "Did she care about the fact that Mary was uprooted from her rightful position? No, in fact she had the audacity to tell Mary she would reconcile her with Henry VIII, if she would recognize Anne as Queen of England." I feel you must know that Anne Boleyn did not regard Mary Tudor's position as princess as "rightful", even though it would take a heart of stone in the 21st century not to be moved by Mary's demotion. The "audacity", as you call it to offer to restore Mary to a position of significant wealth and influence at the court in return for recognising a political development that Anne Boleyn regarded as a mixture of legislative fact and the clear will of God. See Venetian reports, I believe, on Anne's view of her rise as being part of God's will, hardly unusual in the 16th century, I know, but sufficient to remind us that we can't exactly accuse her of having the "audacity" of disregarding what was "rightful" when she would have viewed it as anything but.

      I had commented earlier about the ambassadors and Katherine's dissatisfaction with them. The description of the castles Katherine was sent to after 1531 is inaccurate; they were, by any standards, in excellent condition, particularly the first home she was sent to, The More. Her descriptions of them are not borne out by any of the other surviving accounts of them. Although, as I think I suggested, the humiliation of her demotion has a greater tragedy than manufactured complaints about the standard of her accommodation. You can read more about the houses she was kept in Julia Fox's biography of Lady Rochford, and Simon Thurley's wonderful "The Royal Palaces of Tudor England".

      Katherine herself remarked that she resisted sending James IV's corpse because of a backlash from the English. That's found in her surviving letters to her husband.

      In regards the points regarding Fray Diego, this was not an exhaustive biography, there was not time to cover everything. I agree completely that he was unsuitable to his role, as you say, although I do think Katherine's unhappiness and mental fragility in the years between 1502 and 1509 shine a kindlier or more empathetic light on how he managed to hold onto her favour.

      Thank you for your comment. It's always intriguing to see such spirited debate from a post.


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