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Henry VIII (1509–1547): Up the Stairs, Pulled by an Engine
The King was now overgrown with corpulency and fatness.
By 1540, Henry VIII had discarded his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, and beheaded his second, Anne Boleyn, on a false charge of adultery. He also married his third wife, Jane Seymour, who died right after giving Henry the son he had desired all along. Now—as the king grew monstrously obese—three more wives were in for the royal treatment.
Henry VIII was huge; a colossus who dominated not only his era but, as he grew heavier, his horse as well. The poor beast was on the losing end of the chunky king’s decision to don his plus-sized armor, saddle up, and lead his English forces into battle against France in 1544. “It was no longer a glorious young prince who was to lead his Englishmen toward Boulogne,” wrote Antonia Fraser, “but an unwieldy invalid who had to be winched aboard his horse with his armour cut away from his swollen leg.”
Miserable as it must have been for the horse to have the obese monarch bouncing on top of it, so much worse it was for Henry’s teenaged queen, Catherine Howard, when she found herself in the same position. Henry was pushing fifty when he married for the fifth time, a bloated tyrant with badly ulcerated legs that left the once vigorously athletic monarch largely immobile and subject to savage bouts of temper.
“The King was now overgrown with corpulency and fatness,” reported the contemporary chronicler Edward Hall, “so that he became more and more unwieldy. He could not go up or down stairs unless he was raised up or let down by an engine.” (The Duke of Norfolk also noted that Henry “was let up and down by a device,” but there is no record of how the “engine” or “device” actually worked.)
Only his diminutive young queen seemed to make Henry happy. He called her his “blushing rose without a thorn” and couldn’t keep his fat paws off her. “The King’s affection was so marvelously set upon that gentlewoman,” wrote Thomas Cranmer’s secretary, Ralph Morice, “as it was never known that he had the like to any woman.”
Young Catherine had vowed at her wedding to be “bonair [yielding] and buxom in bed,” but that was no doubt difficult. King Henry was by this time so enormous that the Spanish chronicler reported “three of the biggest men that could be found could get inside his doublet.” Little wonder, then, that Catherine risked everything and took on a lover of more pleasing dimensions; a man who could make her happy. Unfortunately, it cost the young queen her head.
Henry’s fourth wife, Catherine’s predecessor Anne of Cleves, had been spared the fifth queen’s ordeals in bed because the king never deigned to sleep with her. “I like her not,” Henry sniffed after meeting the German bride selected for him by his minister, Thomas Cromwell. It was the only politically arranged union of the king’s long marital career, and after seeing Anne, he entered into this “unendurable bargain” with extreme reluctance. “My Lord,” the king said to Cromwell on the morning of his wedding, “if it were not to satisfy the world, and my Realm, I would not do that I must this day for none earthly thing.”
The king, who would be lusting after Catherine Howard later the same year, could not bear to consummate his marriage to Anne of Cleves. “I liked her before not well,” he said the morning after his wedding, “but now I like her much worse.” What had spared Anne the agony of Henry’s sexual advances? He claimed her breasts sagged.
Instead of having the grunting monster flopping on top of her, as Catherine Howard would later, Anne had a much easier time of it. “When he comes to bed,” she told her ladies, “he kisses me and taketh me by the hand, and biddeth me ‘good night sweetheart’ and in the morning, kisses me, and biddeth me ‘Farewell, darling.’”
Anne of Cleves had been so exceedingly sheltered growing up that she actually believed this was what married couples did in bed. Had she known better, she might have been more grateful to Catherine Howard—her former lady-in-waiting—for taking her hefty husband off her hands. Henry quickly divorced her. Fortunately for Anne, it was an amicable split and she lived comfortably for the rest of her life as the king’s “good sister.”
Three years after marrying Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard (both in 1540), Henry wed his sixth and final wife, Katherine Parr, whose job it was to nurse and comfort the ailing king. She just barely managed to survive him. Katherine dared dispute with the king on religious matters—never a good idea—but wisely humbled herself before the headsman did.
Henry VIII died on January 28, 1547. He was fifty-five, with a waist that measured about the same. It would take sixteen exceptionally strong yeoman of the guard to lower his enormous coffin into the tomb beneath St. George’s Chapel at Windsor.
Edward VI (1547–1553): The Boy King
This whole realm’s most precious jewel.
—King Henry viii
Henry VIII was succeeded by his nine-year-old son, Edward, the child upon whom the late king had placed all his hope for the future of the Tudor dynasty. Though the reign of Edward VI was brief—just six years—it was packed with intrigue.
The little boy of nine sat without squirming throughout the seemingly endless coronation ceremony. Though tender of age, he was proclaimed not only England’s sovereign but a divinely ordained savior, “a second Josiah”* who would see “idolatry destroyed, the tyranny of the bishops of Rome banished from [his] subjects, and images removed.” Heightening the display of power and majesty, the boy king—propped up on pillows—shimmered in full royal regalia. Upon his head was a gold crown, made especially for his small size, adorned with rubies, diamonds, emeralds, and pearls. Before him bowed all the great nobles of the land, there to pay homage to the son Henry VIII had longed for, and who now claimed his inheritance as Edward VI.
The ancient coronation ritual was believed to imbue the monarch with near mystical properties, but King Edward—God’s chosen—was still a child and incapable of ruling on his own. His brief, six-year reign would be marked by intrigue and treachery as those closest to the boy tried to gain control over him and rule England in his name. Two of the king’s uncles would lose their heads in various power struggles before Edward began to assert his own will, and, in the end, betray his own sisters.
Henry VIII was overjoyed when his third wife, Jane Seymour, delivered a baby boy on October 12, 1537. Two thousand rounds of ammunition were fired from the Tower of London in celebration, while church bells continuously pealed all across the city. For her tremendous reproductive success, Queen Jane became Henry’s “entirely beloved,” foremost among all his wives for giving him what he wanted most: a male heir to carry on the Tudor dynasty. The king had waited twenty-seven years for this momentous occasion, discarding two wives in the process and dissolving all ties to Rome. Given that, the death of Jane Seymour just two weeks after giving birth, while sad, was really of no consequence. It was the son who mattered, the child Henry declared to be “this whole realm’s most precious jewel.”
“There is no less rejoicing in these parts from the birth of our Prince, whom we hungered for for so long, than there was, I trow, at the birth of St. John the Baptist,” Bishop Hugh Latimer wrote from Worcester. “God give us grace to be thankful.”
The king became obsessed with Edward’s health and safety and issued an exacting set of instructions for the care of his miraculous offspring. The prince was to be watched constantly, his food and clothing thoroughly tested. Doctors swarmed around the child, monitoring every nuance of his health, while access was strictly limited for fear of infection. Loitering anywhere near the palace was prohibited. “If any beggar shall presume to draw near the gates,” Henry warned, “then they be appointed to be grievously punished to the example of others.”
Despite the fastidious environment in which he was raised, Edward seems to have had a happy and robust early childhood. “My Lord Prince’s grace is in good health and merry,” reported Lady Byron, the head of Edward’s household. “His grace danced and played so wantonly that he could not stand still, and was as full of pretty toys as ever I saw in my life.”
Edward had a carefully selected group of playmates that included his close friend and confidant Barnaby Fitzpatrick and a girl named Jane Dormer, with whom the prince seemed quite taken. “My Jane,” he called her. “His inclination and natural disposition was of great towardness to all virtuous parts and princely qualities,” Jane later wrote, “a marvelous sweet child, of very mild and generous condition.”
The future king had a close relationship with his half sisters, Mary and Elizabeth—daughters of Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, respectively—as well as with his father’s sixth wife, Katherine Parr, whom he called his “most dear mother.” It was Queen Katherine who brought all of Henry VIII’s children closer to him, and who encouraged Edward in his studies. The curriculum was extremely rigorous and included, as Edward wrote, “learning of tongues, of the Scriptures, of philosophy and the liberal sciences.”
The prince excelled in all his scholastic endeavors. He was, in fact, a child prodigy, but he could also be a bit of a prig. In one letter to Katherine Parr, for example, Edward wrote that his sister Mary—twenty years his senior—needed to be protected “from all the wiles and enchantments of the evil one,” and begged the queen to persuade her “to attend no longer to foreign dances and merriments which do not become a most Christian princess.” The boy was eight at the time.
Though the prince enjoyed close family connections with his sisters and stepmother, the most important figure in his life, his father, was also the most remote. Edward held the king in awe and was desperately grateful for any instance of fatherly affection. Henry was always concerned about his son’s well-being, but from afar, and tried to fill the void created by his absence with baubles.
“You have treated me so kindly, like a most loving father, and one who would wish me always to act rightly,” Edward wrote to the king. “I also thank you that you have given me great and costly gifts, as chains, rings, jewelled buttons, neck-chains, and breast-pins, and necklaces, garments, and very many other things; in which things and gifts is conspicuous your fatherly affection towards me; for, if you didn’t love me, you would not give me these fine gifts of jewellery.”
Father and son never really knew each other, and before Edward turned ten, Henry VIII was dead. Now the new king’s maternal uncles, Edward and Thomas Seymour, would vie with each other to gain control over their royal nephew.
Henry VIII’s will specified that a regency council should rule with equal say during his son’s minority. Yet as soon as the king breathed his last, Edward Seymour managed to subvert his brother-in-law’s wishes. With a combination of shrewd backroom maneuvering and outright bribery, he managed to secure all power for himself. Seymour became Lord Protector—a king in all but name. He “governs everything absolutely,” reported the imperial ambassador Van der Delft.
Soon enough, the Protector was so intoxicated with power that he began to see himself as royal. One of his first acts as de facto sovereign was to make himself Duke of Somerset (the title by which he will be referred to henceforth). That elevation was followed by his adoption of a coat of arms closely resembling those of his late sister, Queen Jane. Somerset even had the temerity to address the French king as his brother, a presumption that earned him a sharp rebuke from across the Channel.
Like most kings, Somerset believed that his role had been divinely ordained. “Thou, Lord, by thy providence hast called me to rule,” he said in a prayer after becoming Protector; “make me therefore able to follow thy calling.”
Seething in the shadows during his older brother’s rapid ascent was Thomas Seymour, an erratic but charming rascal, bursting with ambition. Though he had been given the office of Lord Admiral, and all the land and income that accompanied it, Seymour wasn’t satisfied. He wanted a share in his brother’s power, to be appointed governor of their young nephew, the king. “Why was he [Somerset] made Protector?” Seymour fumed. “It was not the King’s will that dead is that any one man should have both the Government of the King . . . and also the Realm.”
Thwarted in his aim to be young Edward’s governor, Seymour sought advantage elsewhere. He set his sights on Henry VIII’s widow, Queen Katherine Parr, with whom he had shared a love affair before Henry decided she would become his sixth wife. Now that Katherine was free from the ill-tempered ogre she had dutifully attended, she was ready for some real passion. Thomas Seymour, on the other hand, was ready for an influential ally.
The couple wed in secret, without Somerset’s permission, which was dangerous. So to insulate himself from his brother’s wrath, Seymour convinced his pliable young nephew the king to write a letter to Katherine, essentially urging her to marry Seymour and promising his protection.
“Wherefore ye shall not need to fear any grief to come, or to suspect lack of aid in need,” King Edward wrote to his stepmother; “seeing that he [Somerset], being mine uncle, is so good in nature that he will not be troublesome . . . if any grief shall befall, I shall be a sufficient succor.”
Somerset was incensed not only by his brother’s blatant defiance of his authority but because he had no recourse, given the king’s promise of protection. Even Edward felt his uncle’s anger, noting in his journal that “the Lord Protector [Somerset] was much offended.” In time, Seymour would give his brother Somerset even more cause for grief.
Exacerbating the tension brewing between the Seymour brothers were their wives, who, one observer noted, “raised so much dust at last to put out the eyes of their husbands.” Somerset’s impossibly proud spouse, Anne—“more presumptuous than Lucifer,” as one court observer described her—loathed Katherine Parr, whom she had once served as lady-in-waiting. The Duchess of Somerset insisted that she, as the Protector’s wife, now had precedence over the widowed wife of Henry VIII. Katherine disagreed, and on one occasion commanded Anne, or “that Hell,” as she called the duchess, to carry her train. This Anne flatly refused to do, for, as the nineteenth-century historian William Camden put it, “It was unsuitable for her to submit to perform that service for the wife of her husband’s younger brother.”