Eric Ives looks at the cases of two English monarchs who broke with convention by selecting spouses for reasons of the heart, rather than political convenience.
Monarchs and heirs to the throne have never had the freedom of choice which their subjects enjoy. Since the Norman Conquest (setting aside the present Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles), the only two English or British monarchs to have personally chosen wives are Edward IV (r.1461-83) and his grandson, Henry VIII (r.1509-47). Heirs presumptive have succeeded when already married, but for monarchs, arranged marriage has been the rule and so too for heirs apparent, (Edward the Black Prince was the only exception). In recent centuries some attention has been paid to individual preference. Queen Victoria was allowed the pretence that Albert had freely chosen her. Yet the underlying assumption has always been that reasons of state should determine royal marriages and that monarchs would, if necessary, satisfy their emotional needs elsewhere.
Three basic principles have governed the choice of a royal consort. First, international prestige demanded that the ruler marry someone of suitable status; second, a royal marriage was a valuable diplomatic asset not to be wasted; third, a spouse should be a foreigner, since to marry within a realm was to risk disturbing the balance of internal politics. Edward and Henry, however, defied this conventional wisdom, chose Englishwomen known to them and aborted diplomatic negotiations in progress to find wives abroad.
The story of Edward IV’s marriage is that in 1464 the twenty-four-year-old king stopped at Stony Stratford on a march north to counter Lancastrian threats. Very early on May Day he slipped away to the manor of Grafton, five miles away and there in secrecy married Elizabeth Grey, née Woodville, the beautiful but impoverished widow of a knight killed fighting against the Yorkists three years earlier. Edward consummated the marriage immediately and then returned to his entourage. Then, before continuing northwards, he took up residence at Grafton for three days during which time Elizabeth was brought to him secretly each night. Edward kept his horrendous mésalliance secret for five months, allowing the Earl of Warwick to continue discussions about a possible royal bride from France.
Henry VIII’s marriage to his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, was made in the cause of diplomacy and when it broke down Cardinal Wolsey proposed a French bride. Instead, behind the Cardinal’s back, the King committed himself to Anne Boleyn who had been a lady at court for the previous six years. Eight years later Anne was replaced by Jane Seymour, another court lady, and although Henry’s marriage to her successor, Anne of Cleves, was a reversion to a diplomatic wife, wives five and six, Katherine Howard and Katherine Parr, were also the King’s personal selection from within the court.
This personal involvement started off the marriages of Edward IV and Henry VIII on a totally novel basis. All rulers prior to Edward, and every ruler for centuries after Henry, could expect to meet the intended consort only after marriage had been agreed and she had arrived in England. Any choice had been made indirectly, based on second-hand information. Equally limited was a monarch’s freedom to consent. Once a bride had arrived in England it was too late to back out without creating a diplomatic incident of unmanageable proportions. Henry VIII went to his wedding with Anne of Cleves saying ‘If it were not to satisfy the world and my realm, I would not do that I must do this day for none earthly thing’. Often, too, the die had been cast before the bride had left home. Katherine of Aragon arrived to wed Prince Arthur in 1501 having already been married to him by proxy on three separate occasions.
Under these circumstances, emotional commitment was never a real possibility early in a conventional royal marriage. Henry VIII certainly behaved gallantly when he married Katherine of Aragon but was this more than posturing? In 1511 he held a tournament in honour of his wife on the birth of their first son, only for the child to die a week later. Undoubtedly Henry was disappointed but his response was to embark on a bout of gambling and then to order another tournament. One can, if one likes, say that here was another emotionally repressed male, but the episode certainly does not suggest real closeness between him and his grieving wife.
By contrast, the romantic behaviour of Edward and Henry was more normally associated with an affair. In the case of Anne Boleyn, we have the unique evidence of Henry’s letters. In the earliest of these he tries to get her to take him seriously – after all, he had just ended a liaison with her married elder sister, Mary. Anne, however, refused blandishments and financial inducements to replace Mary in the King’s bed. After a year, Henry demanded that she give herself up to him ‘body and soul’ – effectively to becomemaitresse en titre as in the French court – but Anne continued to respond with less than enthusiasm. When Henry tried to force the issue – in what way we do not know – she took refuge with her parents. Only when he had decided to break with Katherine of Aragon did Henry’s perception (and Anne’s attitude?) change; he began to see Anne as the ideal replacement – a wife chosen by, not for him, their relationship based not on nuptial formality but on burning passion.
The courtship of Elizabeth Woodville by Henry’s grandfather was remarkably similar, though no letters remain. Edward laid out bribes to her father, Richard Woodville, Lord Rivers, and made financial offers to Elizabeth. In the end, he too tried to force the issue. Contemporary stories tell of Edward’s reaching the point of putting a knife to Elizabeth’s throat and being told that she was ‘determined to die rather than live unchastely with the King’. Again, only marriage gave him what he wanted.
Henry VIII’s later courtships were equally sexually driven. He wooed Jane Seymour with gifts and bribes to members of her family, but only decided to abandon Anne Boleyn days and possibly hours before she was arrested. In the case of Katherine Howard the transition from would-be mistress to consort is evident. Henry was in full pursuit within weeks of seeing her – not without a degree of encouragement on her part which should have indicated to him that she was more experienced than was claimed. They were married three weeks after the Cleves divorce and by then Katherine may already have begun sleeping with Henry.
Grandfather and grandson effectively confused two identities, that of the mistress with that of the consort, and ended up marrying when they had intended something less. As a result relations with their wives were decidedly out of the ordinary. Edward and his wife enjoyed an active intimate life, with the queen producing ten children in sixteen years, the last at the age of forty-three. Elizabeth was involved enough to see the King’s notorious philandering as a personal affront, not something a queen must expect. Henry VIII described his feelings for Anne Boleyn as ‘his so great folly’ and was later reported to follow her around like a little dog. The death of her successor, Jane Seymour, broke him emotionally. During her final illness at Hampton Court, Henry said that if anything happened to her he could not bear to remain at the palace. Court mourning lasted nearly fifteen weeks, well over twice as long as followed his father’s death. The King’s subsequent match with Katherine Howard renewed his youth. In the eighteen months or so that it lasted, Henry showed himself, when fit, head over heels in love, spending more on dresses and jewels for her than he had for any of his previous wives and breaking down into paroxysms of grief when he learned about her dubious behaviour.
What are more difficult to assess are the feelings of the women concerned. Contemporaries vilified Elizabeth Woodville and Anne Boleyn as Delilahs, and even talked of witchcraft, but how realistic was it for a woman to reject a king’s offer of marriage? Katherine Parr agreed to become Henry VIII’s sixth wife even though she wanted to marry the young and personable Thomas Seymour. On the other hand, Anne Boleyn, once she and Henry had become betrothed in the belief that he had never been lawfully married, responded to the King’s billets doux enthusiastically, sent him eleborate love tokens and allowed some physical intimacies short of intercourse. The subsequent marriage, too, gave plenty of evidence of passion on both sides. Of the two responses, Anne’s was possibly the more unusual. The accepted measure of an aristocratic marriage was status, and the most exalted prize of all was the throne. Most consorts certainly seem to have enjoyed their position. Then, too, one must ask about alternative options. Elizabeth Woodville was a widow, no great heiress, and already twenty-seven years old; not only was Edward the grandest match in the kingdom, but her future otherwise was limited. Jane Seymour too had few prospects and at twenty-seven might expect to be on the shelf. Anne Boleyn was of a similar age when she agreed to marry Henry and after two years of stalemate over his divorce she complained,
I have been waiting long and might in the meanwhile have contracted some advantageous marriage, out of which I might have had issue, which is the greatest consolation in this world. But alas! Farewell to my time and youth spent to no purpose at all.
Manoeuvres at court also played their part. Jane Seymour and Katherine Howard were put forward with the deliberate intention of catching the eye of a monarch who was thought to be susceptible. Each was carefully coached in how to trap the King, but how willing they were to be used is not clear. The story that Katherine said ‘I die a queen, but would rather die the wife of Culpeper’ is apocryphal, but she can only have seen the obese and unhealthy Henry as a ‘sugar daddy’, not a husband of choice.
To modern thinking, emotional commitment in a royal marriage ought to be a source of strength, but historically the liabilities have been considerable. A match based on choice and passion had nothing external to support it. In 1470 Margaret of Anjou could be assisted by her cousin Louis XI of France to restore her husband Henry VI to the English throne. With no equivalent connections, all that Elizabeth Woodville could do as her husband escaped to the Low Countries was to take sanctuary at Westminster ‘in great trouble, sorrow and heaviness’. When on the death of Edward IV in April 1483, her relatives were arrested and her eldest son seized by his uncle Richard of Gloucester, again her only option was recourse to the protection of Westminster.
Sixty years later Katherine of Aragon was able to oppose her demotion and the demotion of her daughter because she had powerful Habsburg connections. Anne Boleyn had no such protection. Although she represented an Anglo-French entente, there was nothing to prevent the French abandoning her or the English likewise. It is often argued that Anne would have been secure if she had had a son. Certainly, but not because Henry VIII was poised to discard his wife if the story did not end as he wanted. Rather a son would have given the marriage precisely the objective endorsement it lacked. Passion would have been underpinned by parenthood.
With Katherine Howard, although nothing could have saved her marriage once her indiscretions were exposed, international connections would have saved her life since adultery was a moral, not a treasonable offence. As it was, Henry was able to summon Parliament to enact that Katherine was a traitor, and so would be any future adulterous queen. English support was useless. Her uncle and patron, the Duke of Norfolk, had only one thought – how to save his own neck – and Bishop Stephen Gardiner, who had actively encouraged Henry’s passion for Katherine, was equally keen to abandon her.
Another weakness in a romantic marriage was that it could appear suspect. Elizabeth Woodville’s marriage smelt of doubtful legality, not only the ceremony itself, but her unsuitability as a widow and someone of inferior birth. At the time the Royal Council was reported to be seeking ways to void the marriage and in his later bid for the throne Richard of Gloucester exploited the circumstances to produce a plausible case that his brother’s sons were illegitimate. A particularly difficult situation was created for Anne Boleyn by the five-year delay in her marriage to Henry. A relationship short of marriage but becoming closer and closer emotionally was typical of a lover/mistress relationship, not a potential consort. What then was Anne? Ambassadors assumed – wrongly – that she was the royal mistress but even Henry wasn’t always certain. In the autumn of 1532, before plucking up courage to marry her, he granted Anne the title ‘Marchioness of Pembroke’ with the remarkable clause granting the remainder to her son ‘whether or not born in wedlock’.
The need to give an unconventional marriage external credibility explains the importance Edward and Henry placed on the coronation of their consorts. The kings had chosen ordinary women who had to be made extraordinary, and this regal status, pageantry and the blessing of the Church could confer. Once Edward IV had made his marriage public, preparations began to give Elizabeth a hugely impressive coronation. This involved massive expense and included inviting a delegation of her noble relatives from abroad. Henry VIII acted similarly for Anne Boleyn, dragooning every notable except Thomas More to pay public homage to his new wife. Plague in Westminster Abbey halted the arrangements for Jane Seymour’s coronation on October 29th, 1536, but when in December a frozen Thames prevented the court travelling to Greenwich by water, the opportunity was taken to mount something equivalent to a coronation procession through a London warned to be en fête .
One key difference between marriage and a liaison is permanence. A diplomatic marriage was until death and guaranteed by foreign backing. Henry never really managed to be free of Katherine of Aragon. His sense of liberation was palpable on hearing she was dead: ‘God be praised that we are free of all suspicion of war’. In practice, of course, a king could keep marriage effectively separate from his private life. Francis I of France disliked sleeping with Eleanor of Portugal but their union was unaffected; a minimum expected attention was all that was required. By contrast, a relationship based on attraction ends when passion has run its course. Edward jettisoned his mistresses with almost no trace. Henry quietly disposed of Bessie Blount, his first known mistress, by marrying her off. His second, Mary Boleyn, was conveniently already the wife of a favoured courtier, making specific compensation unnecessary. But what if a passionate relationship that had been regularised by marriage became rocky? Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn was storms and sunshine, and every time the two quarrelled observers prophesied disaster. ‘A king’, Henry grumbled, ‘should not have to stand that kind of treatment from a wife!’ From a mistress he would expect it.
Confusion about how to end a relationship when the mistress is a wife was clear in the case of Katherine Howard. The first thought seems to have been to treat her as a mistress and repudiate her publicly. Orders went out within days of the revelation of her offences that Katherine had forfeited her honours and should no longer be called queen. But in law she was queen, and hence the chicanery of Parliamentary condemnation three months later. In the bloody outcome one must also allow for passion turned sour. Henry had a perfect case for annulling the Howard marriage since one of the accused, Francis Dereham, could at canon law claim to be Katherine’s husband. Yet that would have left the insult to Henry’s manhood unavenged. The unfortunate Dereham was thus subjected to the full horror of drawing, hanging, disembowelling and quartering for having made love to his own wife.
A further weakness of a marriage based on a monarch’s feelings was the possibility of challenge. The conventional consort might be threatened with rivals in her husband’s bed, but not on her throne. But where one woman had succeeded in ‘trapping’ the king, might not another follow? Here Elizabeth Woodville was fortunate. Edward’s affairs did not threaten her status because, notoriously, he preferred the thrill of the chase to the conquest and dumped his mistresses once he had enjoyed them. However, Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn was always questioned and an element of doubt continued to linger over her successors. Consequently, the English wives Henry chose were always vulnerable to another woman following the same path to success they themselves had trod. After all, the relationships between Henry and Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour and Katherine Howard each began while the King was married to someone else. This meant that if Henry began to show interest in another woman, the current wife had to take the threat much more seriously than a conventional consort.
There are other differences between conventional royal marriages and those of Edward and Henry to their English brides. What about language? The love letters Henry wrote to Anne were principally in French, but not the most sexually explicit of them. Did it make a difference that the King could talk to his wife in English? Moreover, what about the quality of marital discourse? In the early years of marriage Katherine of Aragon clearly brought a valuable international perspective to talks with Henry VIII, but after a few years she would have become an echo, substantially dependent on what she was told in the enclosed circle in which she lived. By contrast, Elizabeth Woodville had a network of her own and was certainly credited with having considerable influence over her husband’s political assessments. Anne Boleyn, with her long experience of European courts, her own appreciation of events taking place in England and her own sources of information, could well have been constructive critic rather than mere sounding board. Katherine Parr, Henry’s last English wife, had lively theological debates with her husband and on one occasion seriously annoyed him by proving him wrong.
Another difference between a queen chosen for diplomatic reasons and one chosen for love or lust was their relationship with courtiers. Part of the vulnerability of the mistress-turned-wife was that she lacked the protection of distance which foreign princesses enjoyed. She came to the royal bed with ready-formed relationships which could not be abandoned. Friends would never have accepted that their now-royal relative or friend should enter some sort of regal purdah. Elizabeth Woodville’s relatives did very nicely out of the marriage. Edward used his influence to corner the aristocratic marriage market for their benefit, and as soon as she produced her first child, he made Elizabeth’s father an earl and gave her brother the lordship of the Isle of Wight. Jane Seymour’s marriage made her elder brother a viscount and her successful pregnancy raised that to an earldom. Not a bad reward for a bit of procuring. Nor was it just a matter of gain. An Englishwoman attaining the royal bed was a major coup in the factional struggle for royal favour. Lively young things did not simply exhibit themselves before Henry VIII dazzled by his sex appeal or his glamour. Jane Seymour was dangled before the king like an over-ripe plum as part of the plot to destroy Anne Boleyn. Katherine Howard was pimped by the conservative opposition to Thomas Cromwell, and as with Salome the reward was a head on a platter.
In one or two cases a queen by royal choice went even further and became a significant political figure within a faction. At Edward IV’s court the Woodvilles formed an important grouping which he foolishly built up to balance the influence of his brother Richard and the Lord Chamberlain, Thomas, Lord Hastings. His wife Elizabeth was actively involved in this, as events leading to the fall of the Duke of Clarence and Richard III’s usurpation make clear. Anne Boleyn was another such case. She became the patron and focus of evangelical reformers at Henry’s court. Katherine Parr, Henry’s choice at the age of fifty-two, may not have stirred the King’s blood – if that was still physically possible – and he certainly did not stir hers, but she was a major piece on the factional board at the end of the reign and narrowly escaped the fate of her predecessors.
There was, however, more to the court than faction and here Henry’s English wives faced another problem, except, perhaps, Katherine Parr. Anne, Jane and Katherine Howard became royal consorts because they were sought after as royal mistresses, and royal mistresses they had to remain, despite their new status. Unlike a wife chosen from abroad, they could not ignore the courtly scrum. Significantly one of the challengers whom Anne had to see off was described as ‘the damsel whom the King has been accustomed to serve’, a term from the game of courtly love later also used to describe Jane Seymour. A particular dimension of this courtly scene was that each of the women had links with male courtiers which antedated any thought of marrying the King. The Woodville family had seized on the advantage of Elizabeth’s marriage to pursue old vendettas with new enthusiasm. In Anne Boleyn’s case the heir to the earldom of Northumberland had wanted to marry her, Thomas Wyatt had fluttered round like a moth round a candle, and Henry Norris, the King’s most intimate attendant, had become a close friend. Katherine Howard wasted no time in putting her intimates in positions at court. When such a court lady married the King she already had her own circle of admirers and, in consequence, ‘pastime in the queen’s chamber’ was inevitably more free and intimate than under a foreign consort.
It was this aspect of the position of the wife/mistress which provides the sting in the tail of their story. Easy relations made for comfort but easy relations in a competitive court could be fatal. Katherine Howard had minimal respect for court protocol and refused to draw a line between her position before and after becoming the King’s wife. The reason she survived as long as she did was down to the difficulty of finding someone brave enough to risk telling the King. In the case of Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell had political reasons for wanting to destroy her, but what gave him the weapons he needed were her easy relations with the male courtiers who surrounded her, some of whom she had known for fifteen years.
With the death of Henry VIII the English experiment of a queen who was both consort and mistress came to an end. It had made personal satisfaction the test of royal marriage, but had hardly been a success. The tragedy that befell his sons cannot be isolated from Edward IV’s marriage. Henry VIII’s matrimonial romances raised four Englishwomen to unheard of personal distinction but two of them died on the scaffold. Katherine Parr nearly followed suit. A foreign princess observing the scene might agree that it must be exciting for an Englishwoman to be the passion of a king’s life, but be grateful none the less that in a conventional international marriage one at least could expect to die in bed.
- Keith Dockray, Edward IV, a source book (Sutton, 1999)
- Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1992)
- E.W. Ives, Anne Boleyn (Blackwell, 1986)
- David MacGibbon, Elizabeth Woodville (Arthur Baker, 1938)
- C Ross, Edward IV (Eyre Methuen, 1974)
- C Ross, Richard III (Eyre Methuen, 1981)