"Provides an excellent insight into the love life of one of our most popular kings, and the 12 women who knew the man behind the mask." —Majesty magazine
Mistresses of Henry VIIIby Kelly Hart
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Seventeen-year-old Henry VIII was 'a youngling, he cares for nothing but girls and hunting.' Henry was considered a demi-god by his subjects, so each woman he chose was someone who had managed to stand out in a crowd of stunning ladies. This book offers an insight into the love life of Henry, and the twelve women who knew the man behind the mask.
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The Mistresses of Henry VIII
By Kelly Hart
The History PressCopyright © 2010 Kelly Hart,
All rights reserved.
The Teenage King
'Company with honesty
is virtue – and vice to flee ...'
Henry VII had been seen by his people as a miser, and had died an old man without the magnetism and charisma, the common touch, that his son seemed to have been born with. The nation rejoiced at the sight of Henry VIII, a magnificent, fun-loving giant, who was determined to spend his inheritance on lavish displays of power and prosperity. Young Henry had become the only hope of the Tudor dynasty after the death of his brother, Prince Arthur, in 1502, and so his father had mollycoddled him, preventing him from mixing freely with the court or participating in the dangerous sports to which he would dedicate much of his adult life. The Spanish envoy, Don Gutierre Gomez de Fuensalida, wrote that the young Henry was 'locked away like a woman ... he is so subjugated that he does not speak a word except in response to what the King asks him'. Unlike many kings, Henry may not have had a mistress before he ascended the throne.
Once king, Henry began to make up for lost time, and was 'never still or quiet'. He was now revelling in his new-found freedom, and as his courtiers knew, this was likely to include spending time with beautiful women; many of the nobles would have been competing to find him a mistress. One courtier, George Cavendish, described Henry at his accession as 'young, lusty and courageous'. Thomas More wrote that: 'Among a thousand noble companions, the King stands out the tallest, and his strength fits his majestic body. There is fiery power in his eyes, beauty in his face, and the colour of twin roses in his cheeks.' And with his crown, as well as his personal attributes, many ladies would have been very attracted to the teenage king.
According to the French ambassador, in 1509: 'Henry is a youngling, he cares for nothing but girls and hunting'. His councillors could deal with the rest. The young king quickly became the centre of a group of young and hedonistic men, all of whom were anxious to keep him amused. He spent little time with his aged councillors and began to favour those who had not served his cautious father. However, matters of state did not weigh heavily on Henry's young mind; he wished to pursue women, to entertain and to be entertained, to bring back the glamour and excitement that the court had lacked during his father's reign.
But there was one important issue for Henry to resolve. He was betrothed to Princess Eleanor of Austria, but announced that his father had begged him to marry Princess Katherine of Aragon instead. Henry had previously been affianced to Katherine, but this had been set aside because the alliance was no longer so advantageous to the English, and her father had not paid her dowry in full. The betrothal had easily been declared void, after genuine concern from ecclesiastics, including William Warham, archbishop of Canterbury, over the legality of any marriage between Henry and Katherine. This was because she had been, for five months, the wife of Henry's brother. Even though she insisted the marriage had never been consummated, this still made her Henry's sister under church laws, and as such he could not marry her. A papal dispensation had allayed most people's concerns, but this affinity was still an easy ground on which to end the engagement – and later the marriage.
Declaring that it had been his father's dying wish was one way to placate the rejected Princess Eleanor and her powerful family, but the marriage was probably Henry's decision alone. It was a choice based on politics and attraction; it certainly caused great relief and joy to Katherine and her servants. It was a show of England's might that Henry was married to a daughter of the Catholic king. Princess Eleanor would have been as good a match, but Katherine and Henry had met at court many times and, throughout her widowhood, Katherine had clung to the belief that Henry would marry her if he was allowed to. The Spanish ambassador saw 'no likelihood of it' but Katherine was proved right. Now the chivalrous knight had rescued the damsel in distress.
The Infanta Katherine had been in England, impoverished and excluded, for over six years waiting to see if the king would marry her, caught between the tight-fistedness of her father and of her father-in-law. She had been kept deliberately short of clothes, of the servants that were considered essential to the dignity of a daughter of Spain, of money to pay the servants she did have. She was now the queen and she and the nobility were exultant. It had been six years since there had been a queen of England, and so there had been few women at court. Now Henry was in charge of his own destiny – and many young women were arriving, excited to become ladies-in-waiting, and ready to serve their queen – and their king.
Katherine was a popular choice as queen, with the courtiers, the common people and with the king. She was strong-willed but deferred to her husband; she was astute and had been trained from birth to play the role of queen consort. She set about befriending the highest nobles in the land, defusing some of the annoyance felt at court that the king befriended any man who amused him, and she chose as her motto: 'Humble and loyal'. The twenty-three-year-old princess was considered attractive; she was very short, and had fair skin, which may have come from her English heritage. She had long, auburn hair, and she often wore it loose. She was slightly plump, which was considered both attractive and a sign of fertility, the most important attribute a queen could have.
Isabella and Ferdinand had five children who survived to adulthood, so the English hoped that Katherine would be as fertile as the mother she resembled in many other ways. Fertility in a wife was so important that it was endlessly speculated about, with all the court trying to work out from the woman's mother and grandmothers if she was likely to be a good breeder. Yet Katherine does not seem to have always taken care of herself. Even from early on in Henry's reign, Katherine's fasting was very committed, with Luis Caroz, the Spanish ambassador, reporting that it was causing irregular periods. Courtiers would repeat Henry's private information to foreign ambassadors, even regarding the queen's menstrual cycles, to help ascertain if she was pregnant or likely to become so.
On 11 June 1509, fifty days after Henry VII's death, Henry and Katherine were married and they had a spectacular joint coronation. Henry wrote to his father-in-law that 'My wife and I be in good and perfect love as any two creatures can be'. This appears to have been more than mere flattery, but any passion from Henry's side seems to have evaporated within the first five years of marriage. Yet chivalry, admiration, friendship and respect for her lineage remained. Katherine was a significant influence on Henry, particularly in the early years of their marriage, although his respect for her opinions was partly based on the usefulness of the alliance between England and Spain. Katherine was devoted, from the very beginning of her marriage, to the young man who had rescued her after six years of insult and deprivation. Her obvious attachment to her husband was touching and pleased the court.
Katherine has been described as Henry's first love; she was certainly the first woman he publicly displayed affection for. Her good looks and exotic appeal may have encouraged Henry to marry her without worrying about the rest of the dowry or the theological objections to marrying one's brother's widow. Henry is said to have bragged openly at court about how his wife had been a virgin on their wedding night, which later he dismissed as 'spoke in jest, as a man jesting and feasting says many things which are not true'. Doubts about their marriage would come later, when Katherine was older and unattractive.
The royal couple enjoyed hawking, riding, dancing and all the other festivities of the court. After being in limbo for so long, Queen Katherine must have been euphoric, and pleasing this young woman would have appealed greatly to Henry. Katherine was probably the only one, other than his sisters, who could really understand Henry's childhood and his responsibilities, as she had also been born and raised to rule. She admired, studied and patronised the work of English humanists and encouraged Henry to do the same, as well as helping many foreigners come to England to spread their knowledge and to study further. She was one of the most highly educated young women of her age, and, like Henry, had been educated in the humanist tradition. Erasmus, the leading humanist scholar of his age, thought Henry very learned, but Katherine of Aragon even more so. They seemed a good match.
In 1511, at the christening of their son Prince Henry, who lived for only seven weeks, Henry wore clothes embroidered with the letters H and K entwined on them. At some earlier jousts, Henry wore Katherine's initials on his sleeve. This was unusual; princes did not usually choose their wives to pay court to. Henry did far more than was expected of a royal husband to show affection for his wife. The king seems to have been genuinely enamoured; in the books the entertainment costs were repeatedly written down as 'for the Queen's pleasure' and 'for a gladness to the Queen's grace'. He valued her opinions on everything from music to politics.
Their lives were a constant round of entertainments and the ladies were the centre of court life, of the dances and the masques. As a person's rank was judged by how many servants he or she had, a queen had to have a plethora of attendants. Noble blood was not always enough to get them a place at court – Henry VIII demanded that all his wife's ladies be 'fair' and that they had to be dressed splendidly, at their own considerable cost. Ladies-in-waiting spent most of their time with the queen; but, as Katherine would learn, many of them also spent time with the king.
It has often been asserted that Henry was faithful to Katherine until he was first linked to Bessie Blount, five years into his reign. In reality, Henry was involved with other women from the very beginning of his first marriage. He seems to have been attracted to Katherine at first – a bonus for an arranged marriage – but there were many other tempting offers for the teenage king. And within a year of marriage, the whole court was aware of who the king's lover was. And his wife was devastated by his betrayal.
Henry's desire for Lady Anne Stafford caused a scandal that reverberated around Europe. In May 1510, only a year into his marriage and while the devoted Queen Katherine was pregnant, Henry strayed. Anne Stafford was a dangerous choice – she was the sister of the premier peer of England, Henry's second cousin, and a married woman. Edward, duke of Buckingham, was outraged that his sister could demean the family by becoming the mistress of any man, even a king. Descended from Edward III several times over, the Staffords were suspected of considering themselves more royal than the Tudors.
Most families would have been pleased that the king had chosen their relative. The personal was truly the political under Henry VIII, and so the courtiers tried to excel at the pastimes he enjoyed, and went to extreme lengths to gain his friendship. Court was all about trying to get the ear of the king; it was natural that to spend nights next to that ear would be an advantage much sought after. Mistresses provided sex and companionship for their lover, but they were also useful to other courtiers, as being close to the king's favourite meant being close to the king himself. A mistress would often distribute patronage or even head factions. This is why families were often happy for their relatives to commit adultery if it was with the king – it provided the whole clan with access to power. Unfortunately for Henry, the duke of Buckingham did not see it that way.
In 1503, it had looked likely that Henry VII would die without an adult heir; his son was then only twelve years old. As Henry VII claimed the crown more through conquest than through bloodline, this did not bode well for the future of the Tudor dynasty. People began to speak of offering the throne to the duke of Buckingham, or perhaps Edmund de la Pole, if the King died, but 'none of them spoke of my lord prince'. Knowing this would have left Henry VIII very wary of these noble families of royal lineage. If Henry VII had died then, it is likely that the Lady Anne Stafford would have become a princess and young Henry would have mysteriously died, or at best been driven into exile. It is little wonder that, only seven years later, the duke of Buckingham thought his sister too good to be the mistress of a Tudor.
The Staffords were the most aristocratic family in the country. In the fifteenth century, when the mighty Howards were yet to have a member rise even to the position of baron, the Staffords were a well-established ducal family. Anne Stafford was descended from Edward III through three lines, and she was Henry's cousin several times over. Her family had a much simpler and less disputed lineage than that of the Tudors. A Lord Stafford was called to Parliament in 1299 – the Tudors were unheard of until two centuries later. But Buckingham failed to realise that times had changed – without the support of the king of England, all his titles, his impressive ancestry, meant nothing.
With Anne Stafford, as with his other mistresses, Henry tried to conceal his affairs from the queen and his court. He had very little privacy, just like all other Englishmen of his era. He was not alone when he went to sleep, dressed or when he went to the toilet – even ordering a plate of food involved an elaborate procedure, with strict etiquette to be observed. His father had created a separate area, the Privy Chamber, where entry was heavily restricted and those servants who were allowed access were selected most carefully. Here he had his bedroom and private rooms, his library, his own gardens. This gave the monarch an air of unavailability that made contact with the king all the more sought-after.
Henry VIII took this one step further and built more rooms within his palaces to separate himself. This meant he could be more discreet as to whose company he kept than could most courtiers and kings. Francis I of France had only three rooms to himself. Yet secrets were still extremely difficult to keep at Henry's court, with everyone living in such close proximity to one other. It was then that friends such as William Compton were useful, as they could arrange for the king to meet women in their London residences or houses near to whichever palace the king was then residing in.
If the king wished to spend the night with his wife, there was a ceremonial aspect to it; he would be dressed in his night robe and led by his gentlemen of the chamber and other servants to his wife's apartments. He would usually have sent a message that he would soon be arriving, or occasionally he would appear unannounced. His grooms would accompany him down the passageway connecting his apartments to his wife's and then some would wait outside to accompany him on his return and to guard him. Before they left the room, they would have to check for intruders by thrusting their swords beneath the mattress and into any other potential hiding place. His sexual visits to his wife were governed by etiquette based on years of tradition but a similar procedure must have been required for when he saw his mistresses, for there was the constant danger of assassination. Henry's two uncles, known to history as the Princes in the Tower, had 'disappeared' and his maternal grandfather had tried to have Henry's father murdered on a number of occasions. It was unthinkable for the king to be left entirely alone.
As soon as the queen had received the message that he wished to spend the night, her ladies-in-waiting would have begun to prepare her for bed. They would have undressed her, helped her into her nightclothes, taken off her headdress and combed her hair. Then her attendants would disappear and the two would be left alone. The lady who would usually sleep at the bottom of the queen's bed would discreetly absent herself. The ladies-in-waiting would all therefore have been aware how often Henry was visiting his wife at night. Anne Stafford would have regularly prepared Queen Katherine for bed with the king, with both women fully aware of the other's relationship with him.
The duke of Buckingham was informed, allegedly by his sister Lady Elizabeth Stafford, of Anne's affair and he went to investigate.
Whilst the Duke was in the private apartments of his sister, who was suspected with the King, Compton came there to talk with her, saw the Duke, who intercepted him, quarrelled with him, and the end of it is that he [Compton] was reproached in many very hard words. The King was so offended at this that he reprimanded the Duke angrily. The same night, the Duke left the palace, and did not return for some days. At the same time, the husband of that lady went away, carried her off and placed her in a convent sixty miles from here, that no one may see her.
The King, having understood that all this proceeds from [Elizabeth Stafford], the day after she [Anne] was gone, [he] turned her [sister] out of the palace, and her husband with her. Believing that there were other women in the employment of the favourite such as go about the palace insidiously spying out every unwatched movement in order to tell the Queen, the King would have liked to turn them all out, only that it has appeared to him too great a scandal. Afterwards, almost all the Court knew that the Queen had been vexed with the King, and the King with her, and that the storm went on between them.
Excerpted from The Mistresses of Henry VIII by Kelly Hart. Copyright © 2010 Kelly Hart,. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Meet the Author
Kelly Hart is a historian, author, and teacher, specializing in the women of the Tudor period.
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