How ‘experienced’ was Henry VIII before his first marriage?


Henry VIII has gone down in history as a great womaniser.  Given that he took six (almost seven) women in marriage, you can see where subsequent generations are coming from.  However, a closer look at the facts suggest he may not have been as active in extra-marital activities as fans of Tudor history might assume – at least not to begin with.

We know that after a decade of marriage Henry had started to play away.  His mistress, Bessie Blount, had done what Queen Katherine of Aragon had proved unable to and delivered him a healthy son.  He was prepared to shout it from the roof tops.  This experience perhaps, gave him the taste for adultery and he had soon moved on to Mary Boleyn before, infamously, becoming infatuated with her sister.

There is talk of dalliances before Elizabeth Blount and of course it is entirely possible that details of these are lost to us.  But David Loades has recently argued that some of the early flirtations laid at Henry’s door were nothing more than the accepted pantomime of ‘courtly love,’ where aristocrats exchanged gifts, tokens and letters that conveyed affection which did not (in theory) lead to any physical interaction.

The real question though that I’ve been scratching my head over is: when Henry married Katherine, as a newly ascended 17 year old, did he do so as a virgin, as of course she famously claimed to?  I’m not sure how we can ever know, but for the following reasons, I’m inclined to think he was as a pure as a winter snow flake:

  • He was young – Henry was still 17 when he came to the throne and married. The most obvious argument to support chastity up until this point is that he hadn’t had much time to do anything else.
  • He was sheltered – After losing his first son to an untimely demise, Henry VII was hyper-protective of the only remaining Tudor heir. He banned Henry junior from dangerous sports and went to great lengths to keep him safe.  I have no evidence that this extended to shielding his son from the wiles of women, but it is conceivable.  In Tudor times, teenage sex was often seen as dangerous to health and even married young couples were sometimes encouraged to refrain from it.  Also, some believe that Prince Henry’s upbringing was largely overseen by his grandmother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, who had more than enough reason of her own to be fearful of such antics at a young age.  That being said, I find it hard to believe this was a subject she would have raised directly with her grandson.
  • He may have been genuinely confused about Katherine’s virginity – Many considered Henry’s case for a valid divorce from his first wife to hinge around whether she was a virgin upon their marriage (she had previously been married as a teenager to Henry’s elder brother Arthur, but denied that the marriage had ever been consummated). When the King later married Anne of Cleves, he described in great detail why he, somewhat strangely, believed her to be ‘no maid’.  He never had the confidence to do so with Katherine, which could be a major hint toward his inexperience with women in 1509.  It is also possible that the more familiar the King became with the female form, the more he had genuinely growing doubts about his wife’s precondition and the validity of his marriage – although this is perhaps a far too sympathetic understanding of the King’s ‘great matter.’

Anyway, these are just some #QuickFireThoughts for what they’re worth.  Either way, it isn’t a particularly significant question, but it does go to show that despite public perceptions of England’s most famous ruler, all is not always what it seems.

Would Katherine Parr really have had pre-marital sex with Seymour?


I do enjoy a good Philippa Gregory novel.  Not only does her poetic style really bring the historical characters to life, but she clearly makes a monumental effort to research her subjects – even if her interpretation often differs from mine.

Currently I’m having a good time wading through her epic novel on Katherine Parr, sixth and final wife of Henry VIII.  It’s a great read, but within the first few pages I was already growing a tad concerned about some misunderstandings that were no doubt bound to influence people’s understanding of the great Queen Consort.  For, in the very earliest part of the book, she has given herself to Thomas Seymour in body as well as heart.

Fans of Katherine Parr will know that Thomas Seymour did indeed become her husband, after the ultimate demise of Henry VIII.  There was also certainly some kind of mutual attraction and discussion of marriage prior to Katherine’s elevation to Queen.  But for me, the suggestion that she would have been foolish enough to have slept with him in 1543 is a bridge too far.

Here’s why:

  • Discovery would have risked everything – In the Tudor court people gossiped.  Would Katherine really have risked this destruction of her reputation, especially if she had already got wind of the fact that the King was after her?
  • She was a woman of virtue – Gregory’s Katherine is a woman who is not much-bothered by religion prior to her marriage to Henry.  It’s fair to say that people used to think her devout Protestantism was something that developed later, but most historians now think that her conversion had taken place before 1543.  It is unlikely that she would have so easily surrendered to a man in defiance of God’s will.
  • She would have been scared of pregnancy – Contraception was not exactly top-notch in Tudor times.  Katherine knew that if she fell pregnant it would have been game over for her place in society.
  • She didn’t get pregnant – “Ah-ha”, I hear some of you say in response to my point above.  “Perhaps Katherine didn’t fear pregnancy because after two childless marriages she believed she couldn’t actually get pregnant.”  This is possible; some contemporaries did speculate that she was infertile so it’s not impossible that she believed that herself.  But she was probably realistic enough to put that down to first being married to a sickly teenager and then to a much older man.  Besides, even if she had believed this, we all know that when she did eventually marry Seymour, she conceived rather quickly.  The fact that she did not fall pregnant in 1543 argues against a relationship of heated sexual congress.

All this being said, I have to recognise that when it came to Seymour, Katherine did lose her often level-headed outlook.  Her passion for him was such that she married him with unseemly haste after Henry VIII’s demise, and at risk to her reputation.  The circumstances though were different and Katherine knew it was her last shot at happiness and I don’t think this consideration can override those I have outlined above.

Where does this leave us?  Simple: read Philippa Gregory’s ‘The Taming of the Queen’ by all means, but read some historical biographies about Katherine as well.  That way you can get all the entertainment necessary to storytelling, as well as being sure that you’re across the facts.

I recommend the following:

Katherine the Queen by Linda Porter


Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII by David Starkey

The Six Wives of Henry VIII  by Alison Weir


Could Catherine of Aragon have saved her daughter from illegitimacy?


Unlike my teenage self, I’m not too quick to defend Henry VIII.  I used to – perhaps somewhat precociously – try and convince my history teacher that his savage treatment of his wives could be justified by his fear of a ‘war of the roses relapse.’  While I don’t discount this argument entirely, I no longer believe it provides the late king with a blank cheque of justification.

So when it comes to his divorce of Catherine of Aragon, I tend to side with the wronged woman.  As I’ve blogged recently, I believe her when she says she entered her marriage to Henry a virgin, the crux of his case to obtain a divorce.

Catherine went to her grave maintaining that she remained both Henry’s true wife and the Queen of England.   This has often been deemed to be a sure sign of her grit, determination and noble perseverance.  I believe it was all of those things.  But it was also a radical display of pride.

I doubt there’s anything Catherine could have done to save herself, but the question I’m really interested in is – could she have cast her pride aside in the interest of saving her only child?

Let’s recap for a minute.  Henry and Catherine had just one child who survived infancy, the Princess Mary.  Mary, every inch her mother’s daughter, swung firmly behind Catherine and, perhaps in part because of her defiance, was declared illegitimate and unable to inherit once Henry had split from Rome and obtained his divorce.

Mary was robbed of her royal status, separated from Catherine and eventually made to serve her infant sister Elizabeth.  She was alienated and demeaned.

The trauma caused the teenager to develop health problems that lasted the rest of her life.

Catherine would ‘commend Mary’ to Henry with her dying breath, but could she actually have done more to protect her?

Let me explain.

There was probably no circumstance in which Henry would rest until he was rid of his first wife, but the humbling of Mary did not have to automatically follow.  When couples had their marriages annulled, it was possible that the children of the union could retain their legitimacy if it was deemed that their parents had married in ‘good faith.’  This wasn’t just a theoretical exemption; in 1527, Henry VIII’s sister Margaret had divorced the Earl of Angus  and their daughter, the English-resident Lady Margaret Douglas, experienced no change in status.  It was a scenario fresh on the Tudor consciousness.

Of course, I cannot prove that Henry would have been prepared to give any ground and it’s certainly conceivable that Anne Boleyn would not have been able to tolerate Mary remaining in the line of succession.   But when the King wanted rid of wife number 4 (Anne of Cleves), he showed he was prepared to give her a good deal so long as he ultimately got what he wanted.

Could Catherine not have sensed which way the wind was blowing and entered negotiations?  Perhaps she could have looked past her own pride and made her daughter’s legitimacy a condition of her ‘going quietly.’  Mary would still have been displaced in the succession by the birth of children to Anne, but she would have been spared the stain of bastardy and able to maintain her status as a Princess.  She would not have been publicly disgraced.

None of this changes that fact that I still believe Catherine was the injured party and Henry was fundamentally to blame for the cruel treatment of Mary.  But Catherine is not free from guilt.  A parent’s job, both in Tudor times as it is now, is to forsake their own happiness in order to do everything possible for their child.  Catherine’s high pride blinded her from her maternal duties and Mary would live with the consequences for the rest of her life.

Okay geeks…what do you think?  Have I been way to harsh on Catherine?  Have I over-estimated Henry’s capacity to compromise?  Would Mary have ever been satisfied with this deal?  I want to know what YOU think!

Alison Weir’s new series: The six things I’m most looking forward to discovering


Like most history enthusiasts, I do my level best to view everything I read with an objective and critical eye.  When it comes to unearthing the secrets of the past, loyalty to any historian or school of thought is misplaced.  The truth is all that matters.

Nonetheless, we wouldn’t be human if, when it came to authors and historians, we didn’t develop our favourites.  People whose style, both of writing and research, not to mention interpretation, seems to grip us; often for the very reason that they think differently to ourselves and challenge our thinking.

As many of you know, my favourite is Alison Weir.  So it was with great excitement that I discovered she had announced she was revisiting the subject of ‘the six wives of Henry VIII’ both in the form of a revision of her early 90’s work and in six new novels, one for each wife.

All new works are exciting, but there’s something extra special about the novels.  As the author herself has said, the novelist has a great deal more freedom than the historian.  She can use this medium to test theories and speculate in a way that wouldn’t be appropriate in a history book.  However, if this speculation is rooted in well-researched fact, it still has a high degree of historical value.

The first book on Catherine of Aragon will be released later this year and so I wanted to take this chance to say which six things I am most looking forward to discovering as the series unfold.

  1. Was Catherine of Aragon’s first marriage to Arthur, Prince of Wales consummated? It was the peg that Henry VIII later hung his divorce case on and Catherine went to her grave denying that she had known the touch of man prior to marriage number 2.  Recently, based largely on Alison’s arguments in previous books, I argued that Catherine was probably telling the truth.  However, Alison has been tantalising teasing that new evidence has come to light which solves the question conclusively.  I will be very interesting to see what path she takes in the novel…
  1. Had Anne Boleyn sinned against Henry in her heart? In Alison’s excellent book ‘The Lady in the Tower’ she notes that second wife Anne, swore that she had never sinned against Henry in body, potentially suggesting that she could have in some other way.  I will be fascinated to see whether Mrs Weir interprets Anne as having a heart which belongs to another.
  1. Exactly what kind of person was Jane Seymour? Jane is famous for giving Henry his longed for only (legitimate) son but I’ve always felt she died too suddenly for history to make much of a judgement on her.  I can’t wait to see how Alison interprets her personality.
  1. What did Anne of Cleves make of Henry VIII?  It’s well known that Henry was not enamoured with this German Princess (“she looks like a horse”) but history is generally silent on what she thought of the obese, older man.  I’m sure however, that Alison will have a view…
  1. How old was Catherine Howard? The age of wife number 4 is disputed by about 4 years and I actually think it makes quite a big difference as to how we interpret her ‘flighty’ behaviour.  It might sound geeky (and it probably is), but I’m keen to see what Alison’s current view on it is.
  1. How close did ‘the one that survived’ come to not surviving? Henry was the King of mind games (actually, he was the King of England, but you know what I mean).  I’ve never been sure how much he considered getting rid of Katherine Parr (a warrent for her arrest was prepared and discovered) or whether that was just another trick.  Alison, no doubt, will be able to set me straight.

Anyway, as you would expect, I will review all the books on the site as they are published.

So geeks…over to you.  Anyone else looking forward to the series?  What things would you most like to learn about Henry VIII’s six wives?

In defence of Queen Victoria


As you can imagine, I like a good Royal documentary as much as the next person.  A few years back, when the Queen celebrated her diamond jubilee, it was a cause of great joy to me that TV makers were inspired to turn their attention to the only other monarch to have marked that milestone.  Victoria.

But as I’ve blogged before, something concerns me about what is entering the public consciousness as a result.  Last week when ‘Queen Victoria’s children’ was re-run, I noticed again that social media was filling up with criticism of the late monarch.

Some of it was justified.  She was a self-centred woman.  She could be callous about and to, her children.  If you made an enemy of her, she was anything but gracious.  But this is only one side of the story; it’s time the other one was told.  To that end, I want to offer a few #QuickFireThoughts.

To start with, when it came to parenting, it should be remembered that her 9 children were no picnic.  The Prince of Wales in particular, indulged in antics that would drive almost any  parent to distraction.  She treated her youngest daughter horrifically when she announced she wanted to marry – but she also eventually embraced her son-in-law and helped advance him in life.  All of this of course should be viewed against the backdrop that she was horrifically parented herself.

Aside from parenting, there were many admirable parts to her personality and character that deserve honourable mention:

  • She was significantly less racist than her contemporaries – Her embracing of Indian servants enraged the establishment, but she would constantly defend them against the glare of the English superiority complex that was rampant.  I’m not suggesting that her world view would survive the scrutiny of 21st century standards, but it was considerably more advanced than those around her.
  • She embraced the underdog – Perhaps aware of her own heritage (she probably always felt like a first-generation immigrant despite being born in England) she was keen to champion the minority.  Be it in her love of Scotland over England or her preference for the Jewish Disraeli over the establishment produced Gladstone, she often acted in a way that people would not expect their ruler to; this has to be to her credit.
  • She placed less stock in hierarchy than most Royals – Perhaps seen most evidently in her relationships with her highland servants, Victoria craved informality in a way that often made other Royals, including her children, uncomfortable.  She was also disturbed by the Germanic practice of morganatic marriages, which was when a continental noble chose to wed someone of lower social status.  Such arrangements meant that a woman marrying a man of higher nobility could not claim his titles and precedence.  She was glad no such practice existed in Britain.
  • She genuinely valued friendship – The close associations she struck up were both unpredictable and frequent.  While she never forgot that she was a Queen-Empress, she coveted connections that would allow people to approach her as something resembling an equal.  Victoria was a woman who wanted at least some people to know her as a human being.

None of this is to suggest that the late matriarch was a forward-thinking liberal.  She was vehemently opposed to women’s rights throughout her reign.  But she was not the cold, callous egomaniac that recent documentaries have portrayed her as.

Or at the very least, that wasn’t all she was.

What do you think geeks?  Am I being too hard on the documentary makers?  Am I too quick to overlook the faults of the Queen-Empress?  Have I over-emphasised her positive character traits?  I want to know what YOU think?