Alison Weir shares the inspiration behind her new Six Tudor Queens series
The idea of writing a series of six novels about the wives of Henry VIII came suddenly to me as I was discussing another proposal with my agent. It was an obvious choice, for I have studied Henry’s queens over several decades, and published books on them, notably a collective biography in 1991, which I am now re-researching and rewriting.
The lives of the six wives make for dramatic stories. The extensive research I have done has afforded new insights into their lives. In all the romancing, for example, has anyone noticed the evidence that tells us what Anne Boleyn felt about being pursued by Henry VIII? Or that Henry VIII, an overprotected teenager, was prudish when it came to sex? I could go on …
I want to seek out the truths that lie behind the historical evidence and, for this, fiction is a versatile medium because it offers scope to develop ideas that have no place in a history book, but which can help to illuminate the lives of these queens. A historian uses such inventiveness at her peril – but a novelist has the power to get inside her heroine`s head, which can afford insights that would not be permissible to a historian, yet can have a legitimate value of their own – although I believe that the fictionalised version must be compatible with what is known about the subject.
It has become fashionable to talk up the roles of women in the past. Until quite recently women’s histories were largely overlooked but in the wake of feminism there has been increasing interest in retrieving them. This has led, inevitably, to the case being overstated; but if a novel can portray the gritty reality of life for women in the Tudor age – poor education, complete legal subjection to men and the high risks of dying in childbirth – then the ascendancy of women such as Anne Boleyn can rightly be portrayed as a triumph, and remarkable.
The intrigues that surrounded these queens and often wrecked their lives fascinate me. They lived in a court dominated by an egocentric, suggestible king, in which factions fought each other with often bloody consequences. It was the duty of the King’s wives to bear him male heirs – and in that they mostly failed spectacularly, and so exposed themselves to their enemies.
Theirs are grim and tragic stories, played out in glittering palaces, birth chambers, gilded prisons – even on the scaffold itself. They inhabited a lost world of splendour and brutality, a world dominated by religious change, in which there were few saints.
Katherine of Aragon came to England in 1501 to marry Arthur, Prince of Wales, heir to Henry VII, first sovereign of the Tudor dynasty. Henry’s throne was established on shaky ground, and he needed the friendship of Katherine’s parents, the mighty Spanish sovereigns, Ferdinand and Isabella.
Katherine was a great prize in the European marriage market. There was much public rejoicing at her wedding to Prince Arthur in St Paul’s Cathedral. Afterwards, the young couple were sent to Ludlow Castle on the Welsh border, so that Arthur could learn the art of kingship. But he was already mortally ill. Was his marriage to Katherine consummated? There is new evidence that settles this long-debated question, which was to assume such importance in the years to come.
Tragically Arthur died in 1502. Henry VII had no wish to lose Katherine’s dowry or the Spanish alliance, so he decided to wed her to his surviving son, eleven-year-old Henry, now heir to the throne. Her six-year seniority was not seen as an impediment, for this was an age in which royal marriages were made for policy or dynastic advantage. The serious obstacle was the bar in Scripture to a man marrying his brother’s wife. But after Katherine revealed that her marriage was never consummated, the Pope issued a dispensation, and the betrothal took place.
A year later, however, Katherine’s mother died, and the Spanish kingdoms were divided. Marrying her to the Prince did not now seem such an attractive proposition, but Henry VII still wanted her dowry. So he kept Katherine in England, in increasing penury, until his death in 1509.
Henry VIII, a handsome, learned and athletic young man of eighteen, now ascended the throne with high ideals of glory. Like a knight errant of old, he rescued Katherine from poverty and married her, ignoring warnings that their union was forbidden in Scripture – and Katherine surrendered her heart unreservedly to her magnificent young husband. The early years of their marriage were a whirl of tournaments, pageants and revelry.
Yet there were clouds on the horizon from the start. Katherine’s first child was stillborn. Three sons died soon after birth. In 1516 the Princess Mary was born. Another daughter died young. Then Henry and Katherine had to face the fact that there would be no more children. When, in 1527, a French ambassador raised the question of the Princess Mary’s legitimacy, Henry began to voice doubts that his marriage was lawful. When Katherine learned this, she collapsed in grief.
Soon it became obvious that Henry had fallen in love with the vivacious, accomplished and ambitious Anne Boleyn. Having spent years at the sophisticated French court, she was as poised and fashionable as ‘a Frenchwoman born’. Henry was desperate to have her, but Anne kept saying no, and so he resolved upon marriage.
Spurred by his desire for Anne, and his need for a son, the King asked the Pope for an annulment of his marriage. But Rome had just been sacked by mercenary troops of the Holy Roman Emperor, Katherine’s nephew. The Pope, now in thrall to the Emperor, kept deferring a decision on Henry’s suit. When he finally sent a cardinal to England to try the King’s case with Cardinal Wolsey, Katherine refused to acknowledge the court and made a dramatic plea on her knees before the King. That gave the Pope the pretext he needed to refer the case back to Rome, and an angry Henry took out his wrath on Wolsey. Furious because Katherine still steadfastly maintained that they were lawfully married, Henry banished her and the Princess Mary from court.
In all, the Pope kept the King waiting for seven years before he declared his marriage lawful. By then Henry had broken with Rome and declared himself Supreme Head of the Church of England. Thomas Cranmer, his new Archbishop of Canterbury, had annulled Henry’s union with Katherine and confirmed his marriage to Anne Boleyn. For, learning that Anne was pregnant, Henry had already married her. After Anne was proclaimed queen, Katherine was commanded to call herself Princess Dowager of Wales, and her daughter Mary was declared a bastard.
Marriage to Anne broke the spell for Henry. He was unfaithful to her during her pregnancy, and when she complained, he brutally told her to shut her eyes as more worthy persons had done. In 1533, to his crushing disappointment, she bore him a daughter, Elizabeth. A stillborn child, probably a son, followed in 1534.
Katherine’s health was now declining fast, but her spirit remained strong. To the end she remained adamant she was Henry’s true Queen, and she fought bravely for her daughter’s rights. Infuriated, Henry imprisoned her in one decaying house after another, hoping to break her resistance. When she was dying in 1536 she wrote to him: ‘Lastly, I make this vow: that my eyes desire you above all things.’ Then she defiantly signed herself ‘Katherine the Queen’.
Her death paved the way for Anne Boleyn’s fall. On the day of Katherine’s funeral, Anne miscarried of a son. By then Henry had strayed several times, and was now paying court to her maid-of-honour, Jane Seymour.
Anne had made an enemy of the King’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. In April 1536, realising that it would be his neck or hers, Cromwell ‘thought up and plotted’ a convincing case against her, laying before Henry evidence that she had betrayed him with five men, one her own brother, and had planned to assassinate him. In May Anne was arrested, imprisoned in the Tower of London and found guilty of treason. She faced death on the scaffold with great courage. In her final confession, she had sworn that she had never offended with her body against the King …
Ten days later Henry married Jane Seymour, who was pale in colouring and considered plain. But Henry was impressed by her virtue and her gentle, submissive character – so in contrast to Anne’s. Yet Jane had to tread a perilous path. She showed courage on two occasions. After Henry had forced his unhappy daughter Mary to acknowledge that her mother’s marriage was incestuous and unlawful, Jane persuaded him to receive Mary back into favour. And when he began to close down the monasteries, Jane knelt and pleaded with him to spare them. But he brushed her away, reminding her that the last queen died because she had meddled too much in politics. Jane never spoke out again.
At last, in October 1537, after a long labour, she bore Henry his longed-for son and heir, Edward. But as the kingdom erupted in celebration, Jane fell into a fever.
Henry mourned her sincerely, yet he was soon ‘framing his mind’ to marry a fourth time, for the good of his realm.
There followed a long search for a suitable bride. At forty-six, despite growing obese and infirm, Henry pressed his suit to the beautiful Christina of Denmark, only to be told by that young lady that, if she had two heads, one would be at his Majesty’s disposal. At length Henry decided upon a German princess, Anna of Cleves, whose beauty, Cromwell assured him, excelled that of Christina ‘as the golden sun excelleth the silver moon’.
Henry sent Hans Holbein to Cleves to paint Anna’s portrait. An ambassador vouched that it was a good likeness, but it showed her from the most flattering viewpoint. Henry was enchanted, and pressed ahead eagerly with the marriage negotiations. He was shocked to find Anne so unlike what he had expected. It was the most disastrous of beginnings.
The marriage went ahead, in January 1540. On the wedding night Henry pawed Anna’s breasts and belly, but ventured no further, for by these tokens, he was to declare, she was no virgin. We might wonder what he meant by that.
That spring the King’s amorous eye lighted on pretty young Katherine Howard. In July he found a pretext to have the Cleves marriage annulled. Anna consented with unflattering alacrity, and was rewarded with several properties and the honour of being able to call herself the King’s sister.
Immediately Henry married Katherine Howard. She delighted in being queen and in the rich gifts showered on her by her besotted husband. The King could not stop proclaiming to the world what a jewel of virtuous womanhood he had found in her. But Katherine had a past of which Henry knew nothing, and it came back increasingly to haunt her.
She had been brought up by the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, who neglected her. At an early age she was corrupted by her music master. The girls in the dormitory she shared admitted young men late at night, and Katherine became involved with the unscrupulous Francis Dereham. Soon they were sleeping together and calling each other husband and wife. Then Dereham went away and Katherine was called to a higher destiny.
Several young women who had witnessed her amorous adventures were found places in her household – possibly as a result of blackmail. Unwisely Katherine appointed Dereham her secretary. Then she began an affair with Thomas Culpeper, a favourite of the King. During a royal progress to York she met secretly with him, even in her privy. Meanwhile Culpeper and Dereham were jealously quarrelling.
After the progress Henry commanded that the whole realm give thanks for his happiness with Katherine. When confronted with evidence about her past, he refused to believe it, but when indisputable proofs were laid before him, he broke down and called for a sword with which to slay her.
Katherine became hysterical under questioning and denied everything. At first it seemed that she was guilty only of misconduct before marriage, but then Dereham incriminated Culpeper, and adultery in a queen was high treason.
Dereham and Culpeper were executed, and Katherine was sent to Syon Abbey. In 1542, an Act of Attainder depriving her of her life and possessions was passed. What happened next to this ignorant girl is one of the saddest chapters in English history.
The tragedy left Henry VIII old before his time and in no hurry to remarry. According to one ambassador, few ladies at court were aspiring to the honour. But in 1543 the King proposed marriage to Katherine Parr, a comely, intelligent, twice-widowed woman of thirty.
Katherine was reluctant to marry the King because she was in love with Sir Thomas Seymour, Queen Jane’s brother. But Henry could not be gainsaid. Katherine had to hide her feelings for Seymour, and her Protestant views, because the King was zealously burning Protestants for heresy.
Katherine proved a loving stepmother to Henry’s children. She was popular, and such was the King’s trust in her that, when he invaded France in 1544, he appointed her Regent of England in his absence. But in 1546 the Catholic party planted suspicions in his mind about Katherine’s religious opinions, and he ordered that she be questioned. Fortunately the warrant for her arrest was dropped in a gallery and found by one of her women. Reading it, Katherine became so hysterical that the King hastened to her, and she was able to deflect his suspicions.
Henry VIII died in January 1547, leaving Katherine a rich widow. His nine-year-old son, Edward VI, succeeded him, and Katherine retired to Chelsea.
Weeks after Henry’s death, Thomas Seymour renewed his suit, and he and Katherine married secretly. The Privy Council was scandalised, for if the Queen bore a child there might be doubts as to whether it was the late King’s, which could prejudice the succession. But the scandal died down, and Katherine welcomed her stepdaughter Elizabeth into her household. She failed to see anything amiss in her husband romping openly with the princess. Sometimes she joined in.
In 1548 Katherine discovered that she was pregnant, but her joy was curtailed when she surprised her husband and Elizabeth together. Elizabeth was sent away, but the scandal soon spread, and there were even rumours of a child born in great secrecy …
In August Katherine bore a daughter, but soon afterwards she died of puerperal fever.
Only one of Henry VIII’s wives left an enduring legacy. Ironically it was Anne Boleyn, who died violently and shamefully. That legacy was Queen Elizabeth I. No one would have been more surprised than Henry, who had chopped and changed wives to get a male heir. No wonder Shakespeare wrote, ‘I would not be a queen for all the world.’
About the contributor: Alison Weir is the top-selling female historian (and the fifth best-selling historian overall) in the United Kingdom, and has sold over 2.7 million books worldwide. She has published 17 history books, including The Six Wives of Henry VIII, The Princes in the Tower, Elizabeth the Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry VIII: King and Court, Katherine Swynford, The Lady in the Tower and Elizabeth of York. Alison has also published five historical novels, including Innocent Traitor and The Lady Elizabeth. Her latest biography is The Lost Tudor Princess, about Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox. Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen is the first in a series of novels about the wives of Henry VIII. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and Sciences and an Honorary Life Patron of Historic Royal Palaces, and is married with two adult children.