|Portrait of Mary Tudor by an unknown artist in the French school|
Derek Wilson looks at a new book by David Loades
The Tudor Queens of England
David Loades, Continuum 264pp £25 ISBN 978 1847250193
One of the more remarkable features of 16th-century royal history is the large number of women rulers, consorts or regents who, at various times and in different places, held the fate of nations in their hands. It is remarkable because the received wisdom at the time was that it was against the divinely ordained scheme of things for a woman to hold the reins of power. Yet this prejudice faltered when major European royal dynasties were forced to rely on women for their survival.
Mary of Guise and Mary Stuart in Scotland, Catherine de Medici in France, Isabella of Castille, first joint ruler of a united Spain, Margaret, Duchess of Savoy and Margaret, Duchess of Parma, both of whom ruled the Spanish Netherlands in the Habsburg interest, were all vital to their respective families. And, of course, in England the Tudor dynasty was kept alive for exactly half a century by Mary and Elizabeth. There is certainly a rich vein of material to be quarried here by any scholars wanting to write about not only the political history of the period but also complex attitudes to gender.
Professor Loades’ book offers a way in to this multi-layered subject, though the title is strangely misleading. Loades begins his account with Catherine de Valois, who became Henry V’s queen in 1420, and he then moves on to tell the stories of Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s queen, Elizabeth Woodville, consort to Edward IV, and Elizabeth of York, who can only be regarded as a ‘Tudor’ queen because she married Henry VII. Henry VIII’s wives and daughters duly make their appearances but interspersed with them are Jane Grey and Mary Stuart. In all, Loades chronicles the lives of 14 royal ladies, only eight of whom actually qualify as ‘Tudor’.
The scheme of the book is both chronological and thematic. Thus, while spinning a continuous thread from Catherine de Valois to Elizabeth I, the author also presents a typology. Margaret of Anjou is characterised as a ‘dominatrix’ and Elizabeth Woodville as a ‘lover’. Some are grouped: Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour and Catherine Parr are the ‘Domestic Queens’ and Jane Grey and Mary Stuart, the ‘Queens who Never Were’.
In his introductory essay, ‘Image and Reality’, Loades explains how the English monarchy, over the last 600 years, has repeatedly had to redefine itself. In late medieval times, if all went well in the royal marriage bed, the queen was a subordinate creature helping to set the tone of the court and, above all, manufacturing sons. Unfortunately, all did not always go well. When the king died, as Henry V did after only two years of married life, the consort became a non-person. Catherine de Valois had to resign herself to the placing of her son with others who attended to his upbringing and ruled in his name. But at least she was free to marry again.
But what if the king was ineffectual, prevented by mental weakness from keeping a firm hand on the tiller? Such was the case with Henry VI. His consort, Margaret of Anjou, could have stayed in the background while rival nobles squabbled for power. But Margaret, concerned for the rightful inheritance of her son, became embroiled in the Wars of the Roses and was destined to endure the death of her son in battle and the murder of her husband in the Tower. Nothing was left for her but to retire eventually to peaceful seclusion in her native France.
Marriage for medieval kings was a dynastic and national duty involving negotiation with other royal houses. Therefore Edward IV’s clandestine nuptials with Elizabeth Woodville, the daughter of a mere English gentleman, inevitably caused resentment and jealousy from which neither dynasty nor nation recovered.
By the time Edward VI died in 1553 the nobility were no longer able to lay violent hands on the crown. The political nation was determined on the maintenance of the Tudor dynasty even though it meant Mary and, after her, Elizabeth ruling as queens in their own right. But England struggled with this novelty. Mary provoked rebellion by her marriage to Philip of Spain and Elizabeth caused scarcely less angst by declining to take a husband. By 1603 England had still not made up its mind what queens were for. The process of discovery would continue for another three centuries.