Anne Boleyn is one of history’s villains. So why do we love her so much?

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Maybe it was ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’’.  ‘The Tudors’ probably packed a punch.  It could just be the natural fascination we all have with tales of triumph that turn to disaster.  But whatever the reason, Anne Boleyn is loved by 21st century history geeks.

I guess her courtship with Henry had all the great ingredients of a classic love story – and her downfall the perfect tragedy.  She captures the imagination of the romantic, and as Alison Weir notes, in our 21st century mindset, she has reached the status of ‘celebrity’.

She deserves our interests – maybe even our fascination.  But should she really command our love?

Let’s recap for a minute.  This is a woman who ruthlessly forced a devout and caring woman off the throne and did her level best to ensure that she was treated as badly as possible for the remainder of her life.  As Queen she did all she could to see the Lady Mary, Catherine of Aragon’s daughter humbled and harmed.  If anyone got in her way, she destroyed them.

I’m not sure I’d want a girl like that for a friend.

Perhaps we’re reacting to centuries of Anne being treated unfairly.  The ruthless ‘qualities’ that allowed her to prosper were much admired in men.  Indeed, the equally savage Henry VIII has gone down in history as one of England’s greatest Kings.  And of course, the (almost certainly) false charges levied against her have meant that previous generations regarded her as a sexually perverse harlot.

Her intelligence, her cunning and her determination now receive much greater recognition from historians.  This is positive.  But am I the only one that thinks there’s something freakishly ironic about how the blogsphere fawns over Anne as if she’s some kind of tragic heroine.  If the character of Anne Boleyn was cast on Eastenders she would be seen as far worse than a soap bitch.  She would be hounded as an undisputable villain.

Okay Boleyn fans…are you going to let me get away this this?  Show me where I’m going wrong.

I’m not sure we needed another ‘Six wives’ series – but some of the critics can do one!

I’ll admit, I was unsure as to whether we REALLY needed another series of the sixth wives of Henry VIII.  Not only did we have one earlier this year but there’s several easy to read popular history books on the subject not to mention countless novels.  Children even study it in school.  Couldn’t we have delved into something else?

But even I was very disappointed to see such a sarcastic and bitchy review by Joel Golby in the Guardian of last night’s ‘Six Wives’ with Lucy Worsley on BBC 1, which was described as ‘awful’ and ‘tedious’.  Even after reading it several times, I wasn’t exactly clear what the criticism was.

I’m not quite sure if Golby is saying that a) the story of Catherine of Aragon just isn’t interesting so no one should try and make it so, or that b) it is interesting therefore the dramatic antics of the presenter were unnecessary.

Either way it’s a criticism that makes little sense.  How can anyone really fail to acknowledge the voyeuristic appeal of the marriage antics of England’s most powerful ruler?   Yes, ultra-geeks like me would like to see other topics explored, but I recognise the reason we hear so much about this subject is because of its widespread popularity.  And in my opinion, having Worsley pop up as a commentating cast member was a fresh and novel approach – I liked it.

So enough of the sarcasm thank you Mr Golby.

Last night, I watched the programme with an open mind.  I’m still not sure it was the right choice of topic, but I will say this for it:

  • I enjoyed it.  As I said above the approach was novel.
  • There were a few things I hadn’t considered before; the emphasis on Catherine’s first pregnancy being essentially a phantom is one that I hadn’t dwelt on before and I will be checking the history books to see how big a deal it was.
  • It got people talking.  I was involved in several conversations on Twitter last night – and during today – about the show.  People liked it and there’s clearly an audience for it.

Geeks like me are always going to want to go to the next levels, to greater depth.  But for as long as there’s an audience for the Six Wives of Henry VIII, TV producers have every right to keep pumping out the content.

I’ll be watching next week.

Which of his wives, was Henry VIII actually in love with?


This week we’re going to have a post about the Henry VIII era every day.  If I haven’t said it before, let me say it again – we are super cool people!

Want to kick it off with some #QuickFireThoughts on which of his wives Henry VIII was actually in love with.  It’s one of those fairly meaningless questions which can’t be proved wrong or right either way – but hopefully you’re getting the gist of this blog by now.

Of course, ‘love’ is a subjective term at the best of times.  It’s not 100% clear what it means to us today, let alone how we decipher it against the backdrop of the Tudor marriage market and different expectations about fidelity on the part of the husband.  But ultimately love is timeless.  What we’re looking for in this post, are indications of Henry’s passion and commitment to his respective spouse; feelings driven more from the heart than a logical pragmatism and a passion that was deeper than physical.

Let’s go.

  • Katherine of Aragon – He was certainly enthusiastic about marrying her and treated her (in public) fairly well to start with.  But there were probably other motives.  He was keen for the alliance with Spain (of which her father was effectively King) and wanted to appear like a man rather than a boy.  A prestigious wife helped with that.  Alison Weir argues that Henry’s ‘love’ for Catherine was never really passion.  I think she is probably right.  As I’ve argued in another post, Henry was probably unfaithful to Katherine within a year of their marriage.
  • Anne Boleyn – Surely this is a no-brainer?  I guess you could argue it was infatuation rather than love but I think that’s splitting hairs.  I also don’t think the violent reversal in his feeling suggests it was never love to start with and that, in part, may have been fuelled by feelings of betrayal.  Yep, with Anne it was love; heart and soul.   Until it became hate.
  • Jane Seymour – Hmm…tricky one.  She was in the right place at the right time and being the polar opposite of Anne certainly helped.  And who knows what would have happened had she lived.  But we have to go on what we have – and remember that no love is without questionable motives.  She was the Queen that he always mourned and remembered.  As Roxette might say, “it must have been love.”
  • Anne of Cleaves – Actually I have an unusual but credible theory on this.  There is newly discovered evidence that – ah sorry, can’t keep this up!  No.  Just, no!
  • Catherine Howard – Perhaps the trickiest one of all.  But I’m going for no.  I think it was lust.  He was hurt by her betrayal but I’m not sure the feelings ran deep.  But I am prepared to be out-argued on this one…
  • Katherine Parr – He admired her.  Respected her.  Cared for her.  But it’s difficult to see that a flame was burning.  During her time, he still lauded the memory of Jane – but then she had given Henry his only son.  It’s a toss up, but I’m going to land on ‘no.’

And now…over to you geeks.  Have I underestimated his feelings for Catherine Howard?  Were his feelings for his first wife genuine love that faded with time?  Were his lasting affections for Jane entirely rooted to the fact that she had delivered a son?  I want to know what you think!

Wildcard: Did Margaret Beaufort protect the virginity of a teenage Katherine?

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A #WildCard post is an opportunity to have fun by testing theories that there is no actual historical evidence for, but nonetheless are enjoyable to think about.  They should be taken with more than a pinch of salt and even the authors themselves do not necessarily agree with them.

Previously I’ve written about the likelihood of Katherine of Aragon emerging from her first marriage ‘untouched by man’.  Weighing up the evidence available, I concluded that when she wed Henry VIII, she did so with virginity intact.

As I drafted the piece a thought struck me.  A thought backed up by absolutely no evidence, but one I think worthy of a #WildCard’.

When Prince Arthur died, there was a gap of six months before his brother Henry’s creation as Prince of Wales.  Ostensibly, this was in order to be sure that Katherine was not pregnant with Arthur’s child who would have taken precedence in the succession, even if born posthumously.   However, despite this formality, the powers that be seemed relatively content that the marriage had never been consummated.  Indeed, it is said that Henry VII only agreed to the second marriage on that premise.

This got me thinking.  Why was Henry VII so confident that his son had never fully performed his marital duties?  Teenage sex was not always encouraged in Tudor times but there was a general expectation the couple would at least consummate the union.  Katherine’s senior Spanish lady-in-waiting had testified to a lack of activity – but would that really have been enough for the ever paranoid and habitually suspicious Henry?

I think not.

Henry VII was paranoid by nature and his paranoia was not without a foundation in logic.  The Tudor dynasty hung by a thread – or at least, it felt like it did.  If the King married the widowed Katherine to his second son and the marriage was later questioned, it could place his future heirs in great jeopardy.  True, there may have been Papal dispensation for the marriage regardless of the circumstances, but as later events showed, if the political climate was right, this could be done away with.

Instead it seems more likely that Henry VII would not have agreed to the marriage unless he had a cast iron guarantee that the deed was not done.

Could it be that Prince Arthur, despite his lusty brags to his friends, had never intended to consummate his marriage in his early years?  Could it be that he was actually under instruction not to?

History is full of things we don’t know, but for a moment, let’s stand back and look at some of the things that we do.

Sex in this time was seen as potentially dangerous for young people.  We know that Henry was paranoid about losing his heir.  We also know that in domestic matters, the King listened and acted on the advice of his mother.

Lady Margaret Beaufort is famous in history for her status as a child bride.  Married at 12 to a man twice her age, she gave birth to her only child when she was only just a teenager.  A lack of later issue despite two further marriages suggests that this scared her physically; other evidence leads us to believe that it scared her emotionally.

When her granddaughter and namesake was pledged to be married to the Scottish King, her heart went out to her.  Not naïve to the importance of political manoeuvrings and dynastic alliances, Margaret would have supported the match, but she pleaded with her son not to dispatch her north of the boarder too early, reminding him that the Scots King ‘would not wait and harm her.’

Is it possible that she intervened again?  Had this woman of great compassion and maternal instinct taken pity on her future granddaughter-in-law even before she met her?

The circumstances were not the same.  The marriage of both Margarets had been to much older men.  Katherine and Arthur were similar in age, but nonetheless it deserves thinking about.

Margaret, I am confident, would not have broached the subject directly with Arthur.  I don’t know much about their relationship, but it would have hardly been a conversation that would dignify the King’s Mother.  Instead, it is more logical to suspect a conversation took place between the great matriarch, her son and Elizabeth of York.  Perhaps the King himself then broached the subject with his heir-apparent and it was this conversation, and subsequent ones, that gave the King confidence that the marriage was one of legal union alone.

Let me reiterate, there is no evidence for this – but that’s part of the fun of the #WildCard posts.

Who would win ‘Tudor Big Brother?’

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As I was watching the Celebrity Big Brother Final on Friday, a strange thought occurred to me.  In a house full of contestants from the Tudor era who would emerge victorious?  Would Thomas Cromwell calculate a winning game plan?  Would Anne Boleyn see off Katherine of Aragon, even though she didn’t have seven years in which to do so?  Who would Catherine Howard hook up with, and how many minutes would it take her to do so?  In other words ‘who would win Tudor Big Brother’?

For a #BitofFun I decided to bash out a blog post with #NoHistoricalValue to explore this very question.  Here we go…


Up for eviction: Catherine Howard, Henry VII, Anne Boleyn, Anne of Cleaves
Evicted: Anne Boleyn

It is perhaps no great surprise that the Lady Anne becomes the first housemate to leave the Tudor Big Brother House.  Having made no secret of her brazen game plan to win at any cost, she quickly earnt the disdain of her female housemates, every one of whom nominated her for eviction.  While she held a ‘fascination’ for some male members of the house, her brittle manner clearly grated with the English public who have sent her to the block at their first opportunity.  For many, the final straw was her guns-a-blazing row with fellow housemate Jane Seymour, which earned her a reprimand from Big Brother for ripping a locket off the ‘little wench’s’ neck.

“No one minds a girl on the make,” comments TV Vicar Rev.Thomas Cramner, “but it’s the 16th century people – we expect some subtlety!”

Up for eviction: Catherine Howard, Henry VII, Mary Tudor (The French Queen), Thomas Wolsey
Evicted: Henry VII

After two weeks and two evictions in the Tudor Big Brother House, there have still been no surprises.  Despite Catherine of Aragon’s spectacular fall out with Thomas Wolsey (which saw the former punished by Big Brother for orchestrating a nominations campaign against the latter) there was never any real doubt that it was Henry VII that would incur the wrath of housemates and the public alike.  While a few boundaries here and there might be helpful, the contestant’s obsessive need to impose fines on fellow housemates for the slightest misdemeanour was never likely to ingratiate him with others and once you’ve charged Charles Brandon £100 for not doing the dishes seven times, it quickly ceases to be gripping viewing.

“He spent his early years in France,” his mother, Margaret Beaufort told sister show ‘Big Brother’s Wench on the Side’, “and it’s possible he picked up one or two bad autocratic habits over there.  But at the end of the day I just wish everyone saw him like I do – after all, he is my dear King and all my worldly joy!”



Nominated for eviction: Charles Brandon, Henry VIII, Catherine Howard, Thomas Wolsey
Evicted: Charles Brandon, Catherine Howard

It had all started so well for the dashing Brandon.  Charming to the ladies, eloquent in the diary room and part of a bromance with fellow housemate Henry VIII which captured the imagination of the public.  But then he broke the brother code.  What seemed like a harmless flirtation with Mary Tudor stepped up a notch this week, earning him the jealous disinterest of female housemates  and the rage of his new flame’s brother.  The arguments that followed were too much for the Tudor Big Brother House and from the pile of nominations Brandon received, it’s clear the housemates sided with Henry.  Tonight’s eviction shows that no traitor can ever keep the affections of the English people, however much he might be able to steal the heart of their Princess.

Catherine Howard on the other hand, has done well to survive as long as she has, having faced the public vote every week of the contest.  Her girlish antics including hours at the make-up station and constantly trying to start pillow fights may have amused her male housemates, but quickly earned her the chagrin of their female counterparts.

“It’s pretty obvious why she survived the first two weeks though,” says celebrity commentator Thomas Culpepper.  “She’s petite, plump and pretty – every bloke in the country’s been voting for her!  With tonight’s eviction the eye-candy quota is seriously on the slide.”


**SHOCK TWIST – Public vote to evict two contestants WITHOUT nominations from the house**

Evicted: Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Wosley

Has Big Brother ever seen a bigger pair of game players?  By deploying every tactic under the sun and cosying up to whoever holds the balance of power in the house, as well as keeping everyone on side by taking most of the boring chores off their hands, these two strategists had largely avoided nomination.  However the public had seen what housemates had not.  The secret strategy sessions,  the willingness to throw others (including each other) under the bus and the sinister comments in the diary room.  This week, voters finally got chance to cast their own judgement and it was ‘off with their head’ for both of them.



Nominated for eviction: Henry VIII, Mary Tudor, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleaves
Evicted: Henry VIII, Mary Tudor

Just weeks ago, the stunning, learned and cultivated Henry VIII had been the bookies favourite to win but as the days went by his star slowly diminished as he faced problem after problem.  First of course, was the slight irritation of other housemates when he kept stringing along Katherine of Aragon.  Then there was the bust up with Brandon, but the moment the public really began to lose sympathy with the auburn haired Tudor, was his decision last week to nominate Anne of Cleaves, purely on the basis that she ‘looked like a horse.’  It wasn’t that he was saying anything that people weren’t thinking – but this is England, and there are some things you don’t say,

“The public have no idea how hard it is to keep a trim waistline inside that house,” says Edward III, winner of ‘Plantagenet Big Brother’, “but the way Henry piled on the pounds in there was something else altogether.  At the end of the day, this is the Tudor era and image is everything.”

There is however, far less to say about Mary “the French Queen” Tudor’s eviction.  And that’s definitely not because the author of this post has yet to read a really good biography on her and has only limited knowledge, making it difficult to think of something funny to say.  Oh no.  It’s not that at all.


Finalists: Anne of Cleaves, Katherine of Aragon, Katherine Parr, Elizabeth of York.

It’s an all-girl final on ‘Tudor Big Brother’ – the lines are closed and the results are in.

Fourth place – Anne of Cleaves – In the first couple of weeks, no one expected the shy and reserved Lady Anna to last all the way to the final.  Struggling with the language and keeping herself to herself, she wouldn’t even remove her veil for the first few days.  Most worryingly, fellow housemates kept complaining about ‘offensive odours’ emanating from her direction, but suddenly things got better.  Some impressive country dancing, an emerging sense of dignity and a thirst for survival managed to endear her to housemates, saving her from facing the public vote until last week.  Loving nothing more than the rushing to the rescue of a wronged woman, the public chose instead to eject Henry VIII who had, quite frankly, been rather mean about poor Anna ever since week 1.

Third place – Elizabeth of York – Didn’t she do well?  By instantly adopting the position of house Mum, ‘our Liz’ (as she is commonly known) was adored by the housemates who in diary room visit after diary room visit just couldn’t find a bad word to say against her.  Although her constant bragging that she was ‘young enough to have more children’ started to grate with some of the other girls, her redeeming qualities saved her from being nominated even once, handing her a place in the final without even having to face the public vote.

Second place – Katherine of Aragon – At first, things didn’t look good for the house’s only Spanish contestant.  Fawning over Henry VIII – who fluctuated between leading her on and callously rejecting her – and being bullied by Anne Boleyn, housemates, the public and commentators alike were wondering when this woman was going to grow a backbone and that’s exactly what she did.  From her vengeful gloating at the eviction of Anne Boleyn to her fierce rowing with Wolsey, the Infanta showed us all that she was nobody’s victim and has taken the fight all the way to the final.

WINNER – Katherine Parr – Surely from now on to be known as ‘the great survivor’ this lowly knight’s daughter has delivered entertainment, enrichment and excellent game-play over an entire series.  Helpful and chirpy around the house, this year’s winner was no wall flower, arguing about religion and squaring up to opponents.  She knew how to survive, even when it meant backing down.

TV psychologist Katherine Willoughby says, “Any woman who can stay up most of the night reading illegal protestant books with a torch under her covers, but is also first up for morning mass the next day is going to be complex psychologically as well as pretty hard headed.  I certainly wouldn’t want to take her on.”


Editor’s note: Unfortunately Jane Seymour was removed from the house in week three due to ill health.


Anyway, just some thoughts from me.  But the question is geeks – who would you want to see in the Tudor Big Brother House and what do you think would happen?

Book review – Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen – by Alison Weir

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When I first held my copy of ‘Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen’ in my hands, I knew it was going to be special.  Not only was it my first history book to be personally signed by author Alison Weir, but it was also the beginning of a series of historical novels about the six Queens of Henry VIII – a topic any Royal History Geek could lose themselves in for hours.

But despite my anticipation of enjoyment, I was not expecting this book to teach me an awful lot.  After all, the stories of Henry VIII’s wives are amongst history’s most recounted and the factual writings of Weir, Starkey and others had already taught me much.  Surely there was little more I could learn?

I was wrong.

History is of course about so much more than the digestion of facts.  It involves travelling back to an era unfamiliar to us and reimagining what actually happened.  In this, fiction provides a greater degree of freedom, especially when the writer possesses Weir’s rare ability to combine robust research with sensible empathy.  For me, the new insights into Katherine’s relationships with Henry, her household and the ‘powers that be’ back in Spain, has shed new light on my understanding of the tempestuous and often traumatic episodes of her life.

The story begins as the young Spanish Infanta makes her bold trek to England. As a born and bred Janner, I was ecstatic to see the opening pages give a thorough description of the city (then town) of Plymouth, the first piece of English soil that Katherine descended upon.  We then follow the Princess as she progresses from teenage wife to penniless widow before being redeemed by a young Henry VIII; at first her knight in shining armour before gradually growing into her tratious tormentor.

Through Weir’s vivid storytelling, Katherine’s varied circumstances and emotional reaction to them become tangible and accessible.  The reader is struck by the profound paradox of a series of strong and powerful women who, despite their many qualities, are entirely dependent on the actions and decisions of men.  Throughout her long life in England, Katherine’s virtuous character rarely waivers, but the actions of her father, father-in-law, husband and nephew are the real factors that shape her ever changing and often unhappy destiny.

As with all fiction from this author, the book is well researched and sticks closely to the historical facts available.  However, as Weir herself has stated, fiction allows the author a degree of experimentation with thought-through theories that would be quite out of place in a history book but nonetheless can make a valid contribution to historical debate.  This freedom is used credibly and effectively to explore what really happened on the night of Catherine’s controversial first marriage and at other parts in the narrative.

If book one is anything to go by, Tudor lovers have much to look forward to from the remaining five in the series.  Perhaps the only thing that will frustrate fans is that there are many months to wait until book two – Anne Boleyn, a King’s Obsession – is released next May.

‘Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen’ by Alison Weir is published by Headline Review and is available on Amazon from £6.99

Was Henry VIII unfaithful within a year of his first marriage?

A few weeks ago, I blogged some #QuickFireThoughts on the extra-marital antics of the young Henry VIII.  While I maintain my view that he was probably a virgin upon marriage, I’ve had cause to doubt my suggestions that he might have been faithful to Catherine of Aragon in the early years of marriage.

Although I didn’t go into detail in my previous post, my reflections were based largely on David Loades’ view that accusations of Henry getting all Marvin Gay* with Anne Hastings (nee Stafford) had been misinterpreted by some historians.  This lady of high-breeding was the first woman that Henry was accused of playing away with.  According to Loades, it would be wiser to interpret their affair as simply being one of courtly love – a kind of permitted flirtation involving tokens, love letters and gestures – rather than one of a sexual nature.

This seemed credible.  But having had the chance to #DigALittleDeeper I’ve started to (as Celine would say) think twice.

Rumours of the King’s affair with Anne Stafford come down to us because they are preserved in a letter home by Don Luis Caroz, the Spanish Ambassador.  Now pay attention – this next bit gets complicated!

The story goes that Anne’s sister, Lady Fitzwalter (when both were at court), was getting pretty anxious about the attentions being paid to her sibling by William Compton, a courtier and BFF of Henry VIII.  Lady Fitz got so worked up that she had a quiet word with her brother, the Duke of Buckingham who decided to intervene directly.  Now remember Tudor fans, the Stafford family were descended from Edward III through two separate lines.  They were brimming with old royal blood and considered the Tudors as under-qualified upstarts.  The thought of his sister carrying on with the lowly Compton would have horrified old Buckingham.

When he went to his sister to confront her, he actually found her to be in Compton’s presence, perhaps confirming his worst fear.  He upbraided them both before Anne’s husband, Lord Hastings, packed her off a nunnery.

The problem is that rumours persisted that Compton had only been a stalking horse.  Really, he was providing cover for an affair underway between Anne and Henry and these were rumours that the Spanish ambassador believed.

Henry guessed straight away that Lady Fitzwalter – a favourite lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine of Aragon – had been the source of the exposure and banished her from court.  The Queen was furious about the whole situation and struggled to conceal her wrath.

What then should we, all these years later, make of it?

On the one hand there is no evidence – just rumour – that Henry had been involved with Anne at all.   Nonetheless, I believe there is every reason to think that he had been behaving less than honourably.

To start with, is the King’s reaction, which the ambassador certainly believes to be, incriminating.  True, Henry might not have liked the thought of Lady Fitzwalter bad mouthing his good mate, but would this really have been enough to trigger such a reaction?  Similarly we must consider the Queen’s anger.  Is it likely she would have allowed it to become so widely known that she was quarreling with the King simply because of the behaviour of his friend?  It is also unlikely that she would be quite so miffed if the only interactions between Anne and Henry had been those of innocent courtly love.

I think the most compelling reason to believe in Henry’s guilt is that the Spanish ambassador, a man who knew the characters involved and possibly had access to more information than we see in the letter, had reason to think Henry had strayed.  At the time of writing, Catherine’s father was the effective King of Spain – the ambassador is unlikely to have reported gossip that he was not sure could be substantiated, especially when it affected his reader’s daughter so personally.  That said, it is clear from internal evidence that a big reason for writing was to try and get Catherine’s Friar – who he believed had goaded the Queen into over-reacting and therefore potentially costing Spain influence – into trouble with authorities back home.

As ever, we can never be 100% sure.  But at the very least, I’m happy to confess that my previous suggestion about Henry’s early faithfulness should now be discarded.  For more on this subject, I suggest readers check out David Loades’ book on Henry VIII and ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ by Alison Weir.  While researching I also came across this extremely good blog post by Susan Higginbotham, which is well worth checking out.

So geeks…over to you.  Am I being too quick to judge?  Am I simply being swayed by Henry’s unfair reputation as a womaniser?  Or have I hit the nail on the head?

*And getting it on

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.

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?