Marital Misadventures of the Sixteenth Century

Scrolling Twitter on my phone this morning, a new article from the BBC caught my eye and I knew I had to read it.

Henry VIII divorces led to copycat splits, Bangor researchers say

To save you a click – researchers from the Universities of Bangor (Wales) and Exeter (England) have found a series of court cases dealing with the marital misadventures of Edward Griffith from Gwynedd. Griffith was a Welshman whose life was contemporaneous with Henry VIII’s.

Griffith had married a young woman named Jane, who died shortly after their wedding, so Griffith married her sister Agnes instead. This apparently didn’t go so well, because Agnes left to live with her family again after a year.

After about two years of living without his wife (around 1529), Griffith decided to marry his mistress, another Jane. So – like the king, Griffith had two living wives. One wonders what Bible verse Griffith used to justify his bigamy, as his king was fond of Leviticus and not as big a fan of Deuteronomy.


“If a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing…they shall be childless.”

Leviticus 20:21

Henry used the above quote to assuage his ‘guilt’ at having taken Katherine of Aragon to be his wife in 1509, because it explained to him exactly why they hadn’t had ‘children.’ Of course, they DID have children. Katherine was pregnant at least 5 times and one of their children survived to adulthood to become England’s first undisputed queen regnant. Henry, though, when speaking of ‘children’ he meant sons.

Griffith was probably a fan of Deuteronomy 25:5, as he’d married his first wife’s sister. Having that Biblical permission makes things a bit easier, but in these cases, at least when royals were concerned, a papal dispensation was required.

If brothers dwell together and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead shall not be remarried outside of the family to a stranger; her husband’s brother shall go into her, and take her as his wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her.

Deuteronomy 25:5

This happened fairly frequently -when a marriage was negotiated for political reasons but there were some Biblical reasons why it shouldn’t happen. Examples from the sixteenth century abound: marrying your dead wife’s sister (Manuel I of Portugal married two of Katherine of Aragon’s older sisters), marrying your dead husband’s brother (Katherine of Aragon married Henry VIII after the death of his older brother, Arthur), marrying a cousin (Charles V had been contracted to marry Mary, his first cousin), or marrying a niece (Philip II , son of Charles V, married Anna of Austria, and this is AFTER marrying his first cousin once removed, Maria Manuela and the above named Mary).

In Griffith’s case, he went back and forth between living with his second and third wives, eventually having three children with his third wife. Apparently he settled down with his third, his bestest most legitimate, wife after a bit and used the King’s marital misadventures to justify his own. Again, not unlike his king.

As Professor Rebecca Probert said, “Viewed in isolation, Edward appears at best indecisive and at worst a complete cad. But if you put his actions in the context of the actions of the king, it seems he felt bound by the arguments put forward by his ruler.”

Of course, that’s if you don’t think Henry, too, was a complete cad.

Now, the reason why I wanted to write about this today is to address some historical inconsistencies in the article. The work itself, by the scholars Probert and Owen, is fascinating and from what I’ve seen, well thought out and put together. The BBC, though, needs to take a bit more care with its captioning.

Awesome screencap from my phone. Cool. Isn’t technology great?

“Anne Boleyn was executed under Henry’s orders while he divorced Catherine of Aragon.”

This is patently untrue and honestly, unclear. The more I read it, the more I wonder what it is they mean exactly. Do they mean that she was executed during the divorce? Do they mean that Henry gave the orders for her execution during the divorce?

The answer to both of those questions is a resounding NO.

Anne Boleyn‘s fall and execution were due to a few different factors, personal and political. One possible factor was Katherine of Aragon’s death on 7 January 1536. Without Katherine around, Henry didn’t need to be as careful of his relations with European powers (who had generally disapproved of his taking Anne to wife). Katherine, even though she had been a thorn in the side of Anne for years, was a safety net at the same time. Henry was not going to put aside Anne, who he’d struggled FOR YEARS to gain recognition for as his One True Lawful Wife in the eyes of his kingly counterparts, while Katherine was still alive. However, once she was dead, that burden was lifted – he didn’t have to struggle to have Anne recognized as such, because at the time, she was the only wife left.

Another possible factor was the fact that Anne suffered a miscarriage of what is generally acknowledged to be a male fetus in late January 1536. Other scholars, notably Eric Ives (biographer of Anne Boleyn), claim that this put doubts in Henry’s head about the validity of THIS marriage. If God didn’t give him sons with Katherine and that marriage was obviously invalid, then the miscarriage of a son after Katherine’s death, when Anne was THE wife, didn’t bode well.

Suzannah Lipscomb, another brilliant historian, notes that Anne’s miscarriage WASN’T evidence in Henry’s mind that God frowned upon this marriage. Even though Henry was upset at the miscarriage (and who wouldn’t be? Both Anne and Henry desperately wanted this child) and had told Anne, “I see that God will not give me male children,” they recovered from their loss and were excited to try again as there would be no stain of illegitimacy on their next child as Katherine was dead. (Lipscomb, 1536 Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2009), 61 & 63).

After her miscarriage, though, Anne’s downfall came swiftly. She would have been in seclusion (or “confinement”) after childbirth for a little over a month, and would have emerged in early March 1536. This gave other factions jockeying for a position at court the opportunity to push Jane Seymour at Henry. Jane, like Anne, refused to be his mistress (but was seemingly content to engage in courtly flirtations). Now Henry had always had a wandering eye, even if he was generally happily married, so this affair in and of itself wouldn’t have been what led to Anne’s death. Katherine had tolerated Henry’s affairs with more grace than did Anne, but this, too, didn’t lead to her death. As Ives notes in Henry’s ODNB (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography) entry, up until a fortnight before her arrest, Henry was still trying to get Anne recognized as his lawful queen by Charles V (Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, was also Katherine’s nephew). So as late as 18 April, Henry acknowledged Anne as his lawful wife.

Ives lays the blame for Anne’s fall squarely on Thomas Cromwell‘s shoulders. Cromwell, Henry’s principal advisor, had been the one behind the divorce, and was a proponent of the Reformed faith (Protestantism). Anne, too, was sympathetic to the Reformed faith, but she and Cromwell were on opposite sides of a debate regarding what to do with all the money that came from the dissolution of the monasteries. Cromwell wanted all of the funds to go into the King’s coffers (and he would most likely be handsomely rewarded) whereas Anne felt the funds should be used for charitable works. On 30 April, the first of Anne’s alleged paramours, Mark Smeaton, was arrested. He, probably after torture, confessed to having slept with Anne. Five more men were accused of committing adultery with Anne (one was acquitted) and she was arrested on 2 May. She was conveyed to the Tower on 6 May for holding until trial.

On 15 May, Anne was tried on the charges of adultery, high treason, and incest. Historians generally believe Anne to have been innocent of all charges. She defended herself well in her trial, but the verdict of the 27 peers who sat as her jury was a unanimous ‘guilty’ and she was executed on 19 May 1536.

So… long story short – Anne couldn’t have been executed under Henry’s orders during his divorce from Katherine, as the caption suggests. Katherine had been dead for months before the machinations of Anne’s swift fall had begun.

While the rest of the article is interesting and adds to historical scholarship, the BBC needs to do better with how that work is presented and what is posted alongside that work. Giving this incorrect information as context is disrespectful to the scholars whose work you’re covering. #dobetter

“Mine Eyes Desire You Above All Things”

So I finally (well, finally in this age of Amazon prime shipping means a week later) have my hands on Margaret Sanders’ Intimate Letters of the Queens of England (London: Museum Press LTD, 1957), which is the source Patrick Williams pointed to for his version of Katherine of Aragon’s final letter to Henry VIII.

I wanted to follow the clues like a good detective and see where Sanders found HER copy of the letter which she printed in Intimate Letters.

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Image result for margaret sanders intimate letters

First off – this is a gorgeous old book and you can tell it is meant for a general audience – it says so in the preface. 🙂 Sanders meant to give readers an introduction to these queens as human beings with complicated emotional lives that can’t be distilled down to ‘divorced, beheaded, died…’ and tried to choose letters that display those relationships with others. “Historians must inevitably be prejudiced, either from religious, political, or personal attitudes,” Sanders notes, and then goes on to say that in her introductions to each of the queens and their letters that she just tried to give the bare minimum of factual information, but, like those aforementioned historians, she exhibits her own bias and personal opinions (apparently Henrietta Maria was “the loveliest of all England’s Queens” and Anna of Denmark had “no great pretensions to beauty” but she had a great personality).

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Henrietta to Sanders?
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Anna to Sanders?

This is particularly evident in Katherine’s introduction where she takes at face value Katherine’s virginity going into her second marriage (which, let’s face it, every historian who works on the Tudor period has their own opinion, but it’s far better as a scholar to present it as a complex unknown full of messy political, personal, and religious meanings rather than “In the meantime, this young widow of an unconsummated marriage…” which, technically, if it were unconsummated, it wouldn’t have been a complete marriage, but that’s beside the point).

Sanders includes helpful footnotes to explain who people are and to provide further context when it’s needed for the general audience who may not know who “My Lady of Salisbury” was… although reading through the footnotes, if I didn’t know that Lady Salisbury was Margaret de la Pole, the countess of Salisbury, I’d be further confused – “state-governess to Mary” and “Mary’s best friend next to her mother” are all that’s used to describe who she was. Another confusing point is that Mary I was “brought up in her mother’s Faith as a strict Roman Catholic.” This is certainly true, but it neglects the important consideration that it was also her father’s faith at the time, if you were a practicing Christian at the time, it most likely was your faith as well because the Roman Catholic church was the dominant church in western Europe.

Anywho, after taking the time to peruse the book and finding other fun tidbits that I may post later, I want to give you the transcription of the Final Letter as put in Intimate Letters and then share with you her citation.

My Lord and Dear Husband,

I commend me unto you. The hour of my death draweth fast on, and my case being such, the tender love I owe you forceth me, with a few words, to put you in remembrance of the health and safeguard of your soul, which you ought to prefer before all worldly matters, and before the care and tendering of your own body, for the which you have cast me into many miseries and yourself into many cares.

For my part I do pardon you all, yea, I do wish and devoutly pray God that He will also pardon you.

For the rest I commend unto you Mary, our daughter, beseeching you to be a good father unto her, as I heretofore desired. I entreat you also, on behalf of my maids, to give them marriage-portions, which is not much, they being but three. For all my other servants, I solicit a year’s pay more than their due, lest they should be unprovided for.

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

Sanders, Intimate Letters, 12.

And there’s one last bit that I’ve been saving for the end. I had to order another book to dig into this mystery. Most of the documents that Sanders brings together are from the royal archives at Windsor Castle, the Strickland sisters’ work The Lives of the Queens of England, or other letter collections. As a historian, one needs to be a good detective – even though it can take forever and lead you down rabbit holes that go nowhere, at least for the project you’re currently working on – and to be a good detective, one needs to follow the clues.

In Sander’s bibliography, The Final Letter wasn’t cited as from an archival source – it’s from another letter collection.

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Live footage of me right now

“Chatterton: Royal Letters” is all we get in Sander’s bibliography to note where SHE got this letter from. So I used my Googlefu and found that this citation refers to Royal Love Letters by E. K. Chatterton, originally published in 1911.

After a little more searching, I found a hardcover copy that will be winging its way to me from England soon. As soon as it does, I will update with more information.

The game is afoot!

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Katherine of Aragon’s “Last Letter”

Listen up let me tell you a story, a story that you think you’ve heard before…

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The Girl Power Cast of SIX

One of the things that is most fascinating to me in history is all of the things that we just plain don’t know – but sometimes – we think we know. History is, of course, a bit of detective work, a bit of scientific information gathering and positing theses, and a lot bit of writing delicious prose that may have been left in the oven too long and comes out dry enough to gag you like my mom’s Thanksgiving turkey.

Now, I work in the early modern period, which is generally understood to have started after the end of the medieval period but ends before the really modern modern period. Got that? Not confusing at all, right? Periodization (or the naming and grouping of ‘periods’ together into larger chunks of time) is so fun to me – but in all seriousness, the early modern period looks differently when you’re talking about different places. In England, where we will focus on for this post, the early modern period roughly/exactly starts when Henry VII usurped the throne of Richard III (also known as ‘the Usurper’). So, 1485, at the beginning of the Tudor dynasty’s spin at running England. The modern period typically is understood to begin at the French Revolution as a blanket date, so the early modern period is roughly 1485-1789.

That’s a lot of time to work with. And it happened, well, several centuries ago, and I can’t find the receipt I got from Whole Foods last week, so it’s understandable that letters, documents, diaries, etc go missing from even further back.

Sometimes, historians are lucky enough to actually find documents that have survived in homes, archives, etc, to work with. Like this:

“Officers of the household of the late Sovereign Lady of blessed memory Queen Elizabeth”

This is taken from inventories of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603)’s household at her funeral and is part of a collected set of documents which describe the materials and costs of those materials needed for her funeral. Having a list of all the people in her household, what jobs they did, and what rank they held was important so that they got the appropriate amount of black cloth to make into clothing for the funeral (as well as any other pensions due to them). So if you’re interested at all in the people who worked Elizabeth’s household on the day to day basis – it’s in here (at least those who were in her employ at her death). This is a pretty fantastic document to have survived four hundred years!

There are other documents which, while the original hasn’t survived, copies of them have. These copies, while they are super helpful still to historians, are more difficult to work with than the originals. Copies, in the early modern period, were all made by hand or by printing and errors could easily creep in during the copying process. So even if we have one copy, it may not tell the whole story and it’s important to find other copies and compare them to one another to see if there are differences and if there are, what are they?

So the point of this post is to look at one letter in particular – Katherine of Aragon’s ‘last’ letter. Supposedly written at the very end of her life to her husband, Henry VIII, it is very much in character for what we know of and believe to be true about Katherine’s attitudes and language usage.

This is believed to be the text of this letter – which you can’t find in an archive, as reported in Giles Tremlett’s fantastic biography of the queen:

My Lord and dear husband,

The hour of my death now approaching, I cannot choose but, out of the love I bear you, to advise you of your soul’s health, which you ought to prefer before all considerations of the world or flesh whatsoever. For which yet you have cast me into many calamities, and yourself into many troubles. But I forgive you all, and pray God to do so likewise. For the rest, I commend unto you Mary, our daughter, beseeching you to be a good father to her. I must entreat you also to look after my maids, and give them in marriage, which is not much, they being but three, and to all my other servants, a year’s pay besides their due, lest otherwise they should be unprovided for until they find new employment. Lastly, I want only one true thing, to make this vow: that, in this life, mine eyes desire you alone. May God protect you.

Tremlett, Giles, Catherine of Aragon: The Spanish Queen of Henry VIII (New York: Walker & Company, 2010), 364.

Tremlett takes this last letter with a healthy dose of skepticism. While it is very much in character for what we as modern readers would expect from Katherine on her deathbed (supposedly she signed it as “Katharyne the Quene”), there aren’t any other corroborating pieces of evidence which make it undeniable that this is the letter she wrote. There’s no mention of it in diplomatic missives – Eustace Chapuys, who was the ambassador from the Holy Roman Empire and Katherine’s nephew Charles V, never mentioned it when writing to his lord. He did write, however, of a request that Katherine made of Henry to take care of her servants after her death (it cannot really be termed a will as at the time English law forbade women from writing wills if their husbands were living – as technically everything the wife owned belonged to the husband).

Knowing that according to English law a wife can make no will while her husband survives, she would not break the said laws, but by way of request caused her physician to write a little bill, which she commanded to be sent to me immediately, and which was signed by her hand, directing some little reward to be made to certain servants who had remained with her.

Eustace Chapuys to Charles V, 21 January 1536.

This is kind of a baller move by Katherine. It shows, one last time, that she never stopped treating herself as Henry’s wife. If she had proclaimed a last will and testament, she would have acknowledged that they were no longer wed, under English law. To her last, she fought to retain her status as queen of England.

Still, though, Chapuys does not mention anything about a last letter to Henry. Chapuys was one of Katherine’s staunchest allies – who fought to protect her rights as queen and her daughter Mary’s status as princess. It would make sense for her to trust Chapuys with the knowledge of such a letter – but there is no mention.

Other scholars take it at face value that such a letter existed – Patrick Williams is one. In his new biography of Katherine, which is exceptionally detailed when it comes to the political intricacies and machinations of the time, Williams writes of Katherine’s last letter as a matter of course – no interrogation of its veracity. His version is different from the one that appears in Tremlett’s biography and I’ve quoted it below:

My Lord and dear husband,

I commend myself to you. The hour of my death draws near, and my condition is such that, because of the tender love that I owe to you, and in only a few words, I put you in remembrance of the heath and safeguard of your soul, which you ought to prefer before all worldly matters and before the care and tendering of your own body, for the which you have cast me into many miseries and yourself into many anxieties.

For my part I do pardon you all, yes I do wish and devoutly pray to God that He will also pardon you.

For the rest, I commend unto you Mary, our daughter, beseeching you to be a good father to her, as I heretofore desired. I entreat you also, on behalf of my maids, to give them marriage-portions, which is not much, since there are only three of them. For all my other servants, I ask for one year’s pay more than their due, lest they should be unprovided for.

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

Williams, Patrick. Katharine of Aragon: The Tragic Story of Henry VIII’s First Unfortunate Wife (Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2013), 374.

So while they largely say the same things, they do so in completely different tones. One of the jobs of an early modern wife was to guide her husband to godly behavior and choices – which ‘Katherine’ does here in her letters. Tremlett’s letter seems more of the devoted wife- ‘because of the love I bear you’ rather than Williams’- ‘because of the tender love I owe to you‘ which sounds more like an obligation rather than her choice. Although, honestly, I can’t really blame her for treating the performance of love as an obligation to Henry at this point.

Tremlett doesn’t say where he got this particular copy of the letter – but it has been circulating and taken as fact for generations. Williams, though, cites another Amberley publication, that by Margaret Sanders (who Williams names “Saunders” in his bibliography). Now I’ve not gotten ahold of her book yet, Intimate Letters of England’s Queens, but it is on the way, and I will write an update when I have it. I hope that she includes her archives for the letters she edited in her collection which will help bring light to this (or make it even more confusing).

As a historian, I have a hard time saying that these letters are totally fake. I can’t, for absolute certain, say that they are fictitious, but the most important question to me is not whether they are fake or real (which, let’s be real here – is super important) but why they exist at all. Let’s say that they are fake – what story is being told by them? How are Katherine and Henry represented by the story told by these letters? Who benefits from presenting the historical figures in this particular way?

That, my friends, is the subject of another blog post.

Stay tuned! Same bat time, same bat channel. Oh, and Carthage must be destroyed.

Combating Loneliness

This is a tough post for me to write, y’all. I have been cooped up for the last couple of months – working on my dissertation. I’ve got two chapters drafted, only four more to go, which is super exciting. In these last few months I have made a lot of progress, and I plan on making more.

I know this is one of the things that you can’t really plan for once you become ABD (all but dissertation), but when you’re not in coursework anymore, when you’re not stopping by the office to say hi to your colleagues or to do a spot of work before heading to teach or to class, it’s incredibly lonely. Some people thrive on that – when it’s just you and the screen all day long.

I am not one of those people.

I thought I could be, but I am most certainly not.

I spend my day obsessively making and drinking tea, researching, and writing. I’ve been trying to be better about getting out of my lovely apartment (much to the chagrin of my needy, needy cat), but I’ve been largely unsuccessful.

So… that’s why I’m writing this today. I want to be better. I want to find a way out of this little lonely hole that I’m putting myself into through intentional isolation. I don’t want to be isolated, or at least to feel that way. There have been days where I don’t see or talk to anyone pretty much all day (luckily my wonderful husband comes home from work in the evenings!) and it’s gnawing away at me, and making it harder for me to concentrate on my work.

This is my public promise to myself. I will try to treat myself how I would treat my friends and loved ones – by following my own advice. I will get out to the climbing gym to do what I love and what helps to keep me focused. I will make it a point to talk to someone, every day, even if it’s just a text or email. I will try to take care of me, and to care as much about my mental and physical health as I do about that never-as-much-as-I-want-it-to-be word count.

I will slip. I will have some days where I utterly fail. That will be OK. It’s the trying again that matters.

I’m also trying something new – I love living the quantified life (woo Fitbit and Garmin!) but I’m a little iffy on gamifying my life… but we’re giving it a go with SuperBetter. It’s a super positive app that wants to help you to make yourself better (by your own definition) in some way. It will give you little bits of encouragement along the way and is bright and colorful and happy and all of those things that I love in an app.

Wish me luck, I’m trying to screw my courage to the sticking place.