SIX WIVES: FOUR MOTHERS
Motherhood was very much on the minds of the six wives of Henry VIII. An awful lot of the time, I would imagine. Every childless month must have brought fresh disappointment, and with it, a feeling of failure. As every ‘barren’ year passed, nagging uncertainty and, in some cases, downright despair must have set in. This was certainly true for the later wives. The first wife, Katherine, a princess of Spain, married to Henry for more than twenty years, remained hopeful for at least ten years that she would finally be able to give him a son and heir but this ebbed away to nothing. Four of them would manage motherhood (Catherine Parr not with the King’s child, but by the man she loved, Thomas Seymour, whom she was initially forced to give up to become Queen). Two of the four wives died as a result of poor hygiene during childbirth: Jane Seymour and Catherine Parr. Two of the six wives died childless: Anne of Cleves, because she was reduced from the status of wife to that of beloved sister. And Catherine Howard because her young life was snatched from her (for a foolhardy affair with her cousin) and with it, the chance of motherhood. In the end, after multiple pregnancies, multiple still births, miscarriages and infant deaths, all Henry’s six queens managed to provide him with were two girls followed by the much anticipated male heir. Amongst all the disappointment and despair, none of them managed a second child. Fatherhood (if not the obsession with it) ended for the unfortunate Henry with wife number three. According to Alison Weir, Henry fathered fifteen children, eight of whom were sons, with seven of the fifteen surviving until adulthood. She attributes the lost eight to poor understanding of pregnancy and childbirth back in the sixteenth century.
* * *
The inspiration for this guest post was a visit I made several years ago with my wonderful sister-in-law, Steph, to the British Library in London where a new exhibition of the Tudors was about to begin. I was due to fly back to France the next day so this was a very exciting finish to my trip. On the way, we must have ‘popped into’ every single charity shop to satisfy Steph’s passion. She was thrilled because Lady Charlotte What’s-Her-Name of Hampstead had been in the last shop the day before and graciously donated half her wardrobe. By the time we arrived at the British Library, of which I was a member, Steph was positively staggering under the weight of this unexpected treasure trove.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t doing so well. It turned out we’d arrived for the Press Preview, not the exhibition which began the next day. ‘PRESS ONLY’, it clearly stated on the poster. Feeling very disappointed, if I’d been alone I know I would have turned for the door. But I was forgetting I was with Steph. Leaving Lady Charlotte’s precious stash with me, she boldly marched up to the desk, explaining that I was an accredited journalist from Nice, France, and asking if it would be possible for me to go in for a “quick peek”. Acknowledging my suddenly acquired credentials with what I hoped was a modest grin, I hurriedly took the press pass from the lady at the desk. “Are you sure you’ll be okay?” I murmured to Steph, feeling both grateful and guilty. “I’ll be absolutely fine,” she answered breezily, shaking out a long red ball gown and a matching silk wrap formerly owned by the generous Lady Charlotte. “I’ll go for a coffee and take a look at all these. You go on in.”
* * *
I needed no second telling and shot up the corridor to the entrance. Imagine my delight when I got in and the first person I saw was a Very Eminent Tudor Historian (several of) whose scholarly books took pride of place on my bookshelves. Elizabeth 1 or Henry VIII themselves might as well have been standing there as far as I was concerned. It was my very own brush with Tudor royalty. Sidling up to the little group of three: the VETH and two clearly awestruck Young Historians, I pretended to be engrossed by a nearby portrait of Katherine of Aragon, my ears closed to anything else, especially their hushed private conversation.
“Do you think her claims of virginity were legitimate?” one of the YHs was asking in a respectful voice.
I couldn’t believe my luck. ‘Was Katherine still a virgin after her marriage to Prince Arthur?’ must be the most asked question in Tudor history. Second only to ‘Did Anne Boleyn really commit adultery?’ and ‘Did Elizabeth die a virgin?’ Lots of interest in the sex lives of these Tudor ladies! Anyway, here I was, standing within touching distance of the very upper reaches of modern Tudor scholarship, breathlessly waiting for the off-record answer from the VETH. Not missing a beat, and with no hesitation, came back the decidedly booming answer. “ABSOLUTELY no doubt whatsoever!” (Only a VETH could be quite so dogmatic and get away with it, I thought). “She never altered her claim. Not even on her deathbed. And no one in those times would lie on their deathbed, risking their immortal souls.” The two YHs were vigorously nodding their heads in unison like those dogs dangling above the dashboard in a car. Hearing this and the VETH’s explanation, I thought about it for a few moments, glancing over at Katherine on the wall. She definitely wasn’t about to give anything away as she stared stonily ahead. Hmm. I wasn’t so convinced. I really wanted to chip in with: “But, on the other hand, she was a mother leaving her precious child behind to a motherless future. She knew an admission of guilt would invalidate her marriage, damn her child for eternity, and rob her of her rightful throne. Isn’t it possible she was willing to risk her immortal soul for that?”
|Henry and Anne|
Unfortunately, I didn’t dare ask my question in case I got packed off to the Tower for impersonating a journalist. What a missed opportunity, though.
* * *
I haven’t changed my opinion about Katherine’s predicament. Amy Licence, in her excellent book, ‘In bed with the Tudors’, discusses Katherine’s claims of virginity: “The question of what the two teenagers did in bed over the course of the next four and a half months would irrevocably determine the course of British history and the development of the Church of England.” The matter of Katherine’s virginity has been picked over at great length, both then and now. For me, it is a somewhat grey area where a young girl and boy of fifteen were put naked into a bed on the understanding that they would do what was expected of them. Katherine claimed that they only shared a bed for seven nights at most…which doesn’t really settle the argument either way. What they actually did, nobody will ever know but they were both highly intelligent and it seems unlikely that they didn’t indulge in at least some kind of attempt at intercourse. Perhaps a fumbling affair that Katherine could later dismiss as non-existent. Who can blame her? The first time, she stood to gain a crown. The second time, in the late 1520s until her death in 1536, she was doing it out of a mother’s love.
There are some poignant moments for the three mothers amongst Henry’s wives. Katherine and her daughter, Mary, ripped apart for the final years of Katherine’s life for not agreeing to Henry’s wishes. Anne at an upstairs window of Greenwich Palace in April, 1536, shortly before her arrest (in my view, merely for flirting with Henry’s friends to make him jealous) and trial for adultery. It was a scene witnessed by many: Anne cradling her small daughter, pleading with Henry. He was clearly angry with her and we can only imagine his cruel words, knowing he had Jane Seymour waiting in the wings. What tragic irony that Anne faced the same unbearable dilemma as Katherine before her death: seeing her daughter reduced to the status of a bastard. Henry’s third queen fared no better than numbers One and Two; how must she have felt when she lay dying in October, 1537, leaving behind a son and heir, knowing this one achievement had cost her everything. In the end, none of Henry’s six wives came out a winner, and for the three of them having a child with the King it led to...death from an extremely rare cancer of the heart; fear, misery and finally death in the Tower of London; premature death after childbirth.
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On that apologetically sombre note, I’d like to thank you, Mary Anne, for inviting me on today. I’d also like to finish by including a short extract from my novel: ‘The House of the Red Duke’. In it, little Valentine de Fleury is listening to her grandmother discussing the royal succession in France with the local Abbot, as well as the vagaries of childbirth. Louis XI, Charles VIII, and Louis XII are the three Valois kings mentioned here, in order of succession. Anne of Brittany was wife to both Charles VIII and Louis XII.
“‘After all,’ said Abbot Anthoine, ‘a possible future king doesn’t marry a woman. He marries a country.’
‘I thought I would die of love. Louis thought he would too. He told me I was the only thing that prevented him from flinging himself off the castle battlements at Blois. Anything to avoid returning to a woman he found so repulsive.’
Abbot Anthoine shook his head. ‘Crookbacked Jeanne with her unfortunate face. Another fine young man forced to marry a girl who was…to be put it kindly… deformed. No wonder he wanted you so badly.’
Valentine’s grandmère gave him a playful punch on the arm. ‘Are you trying to flatter me? I don’t think Louis ever forgave “The Spider King” for forcing his daughter on him, taking malicious glee in the fact that Jeanne would never be able to bear him children.’
‘It was a clever way to end the bloodline of a rival for the throne, you have to admit. Old King Louis certainly deserved his nickname. Like a spider, he lured his enemies into his web and entangled them, with no chance of escape.’
‘Fortunately, he didn’t succeed in destroying my Louis.’
‘Nor did his son manage it either.’
‘I always thought Charles and his sister, Jeanne, resembled a pair of frogs. Don’t you remember how Louis and I used to call Charles “The Frog King”?’ She tutted. ‘My poor Louis. He went to great lengths to divorce Jeanne in order to marry Anne of Brittany but has had no more success in getting a boy on her than Charles did.’
‘We are fortunate to understand the workings of childbearing so much better than we did before. Now we understand that the delivery of a healthy boy, as you might expect, is the product of faith and reason.’
Grandmère Symonne laughed. ‘Whereas the delivery of a girl comes from a defect in the workings of nature.’
‘Or the result of inclement conditions at the time of conception such as a moist south wind. The Queen must pray for a healthy boy next time.’
‘In the meantime, let you and I pray that God sees fit to keep both Louis and my Charles safe in Italy.’
A Phoenix Rising
(The House of the Red Duke, #1)
Charismatic head of one of the most powerful Houses in Tudor England. An indomitable old man approaching eighty: soldier, courtier, politician, a ‘phoenix’ rising from the ashes. After a calamitous period of disgrace, the Howards, renowned for their good looks and charm, are once more riding high at the court of Henry VIII.
Set against the backdrop of the extraordinary 1520 ‘Field of Cloth of Gold’, it is a tale of ambition, love, and intrigue, with Thomas at the centre of this intricate tapestry
Will Thomas’s bold vow be fulfilled? Danger stalks the corridors of the royal courts of Europe. Uneasy lies the head beneath a crown. Every other ruler – a fickle bedfellow…or sworn enemy.
The action takes place in England, Scotland, and France. On either side of the Narrow Sea, four young lives are interwoven, partly unaware of each other, and certainly oblivious to what Dame Fortune has in store for them.
“ laid his lute to one side, hardly bothering to stifle a yawn of boredom. Nevertheless, he couldn’t escape the fact he’d agreed to take on a new wife….”
Explosive family secrets are concealed behind the ancient walls of castles in three lands. But…
The Coffee Pot Book Club
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A Phoenix Rising
Born near historic Winchester in the UK, Vivienne Brereton has been passionate about the Tudors for as long as she can remember. This led to a degree in medieval history at university where she met her future husband. Three sons later and six countries she called home, she finally felt ready to write a novel.
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