Home » A Year With The Tudors

They Were Almost Tudors

They captivate our imagination, and they inhabit our multi-media screens—and so for the year 2008 Steve Donoghue will examine their comings and goings, their makings and unmakings. Open Letters presents the eleventh installment of Steve Donoghue’s Year with the Tudors.

Over the course of ten months, we’ve seen their procession, so well-known to historians. There’s Henry VII, the groundbreaker, the calm and sober founder of the Tudor dynasty. There’s Henry VIII, volatile and eruptive, by turns exulting in his passions and whipped by them. There’s young Edward VI, barely a few steps onto the world stage before the boards are pulled out from under him. There’s sour, doctrinaire Mary I. And then there’s the outsized capstone, the great and still-enigmatic Elizabeth I, who thoroughly dominated the age that ended with her.

Almost involuntarily, we come to think of them as eternal beings, as unalterable as facts in a history book, but this does them a disservice. It was a brutal age they lived in, and yet they were to some extent (even Edward – indeed, perhaps most so Edward) all survivors, sensing with the very sinews of their bodies the perils of power, darting their superb brains down all the twisting probabilities that lurked on even the clearest of days. Barely a citizen anywhere in 15th century England failed to grasp how quickly Fortune’s wheel could dash you from the height of comfort and renown to utter catastrophe – and that danger increased enormously the more comfort and renown you had to lose. Every Tudor monarch lived every day in the awareness of that monarchy’s fragility; famines, uprisings, infecundities, and invasions loomed in every decade, threatening peace and stability, requiring fancy footwork.

And they danced, these Tudors, as we’ve seen. Henry VII worked his way past exile and storms at sea to make war on a sitting king and take his crown, and for years afterwards, he himself faced armed pretenders intent on doing the same thing. Henry VIII attacked the 1500-year-old power of the Catholic Church, and he did it in part so that no man in his little island could claim more authority than the king. Edward pitted his fierce brain as much against the machinations of his older and worldlier counselors as against the threats to his beloved new religion. Mary raised her standard at Framlingham in the face of men who had always scorned her very existence, and when she demanded the loyalty of her country lords, she got it. The Armada that tried to destroy Elizabeth’s kingdom was no less formidable than the dead weight of a tradition that said no woman could rule alone in her own right. There were sicknesses, bad falls from horseback, poisoned gifts, lunging, desperate men with knives or pistols. These were part of royal life in all of the 15th century and all monarchs faced their share – but none were fighters quite like the Tudors, none bawled their defiance of fate quite so forthrightly, nor in such ringing prose. It’s impossible not to smile at the sight of them, these flashing names in gray annals.

But they weren’t all eternal, though, and some of them didn’t get much chance to flash, or any chance at all. The sheer shot and moment of the survivors – each one more dramatic and variously meaningful than entire dynasties of lesser houses, in lesser ages – draws our attention to the runners by the wayside, the sight turns onto paths not taken. We have looked with admiration and skepticism on the Tudors who worked in the light – Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I – but in a way we owe it to the very nature of their splendor to spare a moment and look into the shadows. There are others, ghosting alongside the well-trod historical narratives. They were not the Tudors of lore and legend, the names and audacities we’ve come to know. They weren’t survivors, even in the truncated sense that Edward was a survivor. They were almost-Tudors.

1.The first of these was named for a myth and would certainly have become one, had he lived.Henry VII had but newly installed himself on a throne taken by force, and as a gesture of unity, he’d married Elizabeth of York, a daughter of the late King Edward IV. It was Henry’s hope to thus appease the adherents of both York and Lancaster and put an end once and for all to the civil strife of the Wars of the Roses. He was a pragmatist, and this was an eminently sensible marriage; he can’t have expected to fall in love. But our scanty sources for the period attest to a genuine affection between husband and wife (especially surprising given the persistent rumor that the husband killed the wife’s brothers, the celebrated “Princes in the Tower”).Very shortly after the marriage (just about as shortly as propriety would bear, then or now), Elizabeth was pregnant, and Henry VII was pressuring his court poets and historians for something textual with which to increase the significance of the birth. These researchers knew where favor lay and told the king – who’d been born in Wales and took a great deal of pride in his Welsh background – that the legendary citadel of Camelot very probably stood on what is now Winchester. Henry liked it, and he carted up a very pregnant Elizabeth and sent her to Winchester for her lying-in. And there, in 1486, Henry VII’s firstborn son, named Arthur for the famous lord of Camelot, was born.

From the first instant he drew breath, Arthur was as much a symbol and instrument to Henry VII as he was a living person, as is often the way with royal births. Henry waited only long enough to be certain in his own mind that the child would live to leave the nursery, and then he put the boy on the marriage-market.

Henry VII’s new dynasty’s living future looked assured, but he still wanted a prestigious international match to further cement England’s standing as a newly stabilized and legitimate kingdom. In 1488, when Arthur was only two, Henry got the best possible match he could for the boy: Catalina, called Katherine, daughter of two of the most powerful monarchs in the Western world, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. The marriage would ally England with the most powerful nation on Earth; one wonders if he rejoiced more on the day it was finalized than on the day of Arthur’s birth.Honors were showered on the boy; Prince of Wales at 3, Knight of the Garter at 5, given the finest training and tutors this wealthy new court could provide. First John Rede and then the blind poet Bernard Andre instructed the heir to the throne in music (the child had a good ear), comportment (very well-coordinated, and an excellent dancer), and languages (the Tudor facility cropping up early – Andre sang the praises of Arthur’s ability with Latin and Greek).

On 14 November 1501, young Prince Arthur was wedded to young Princess Katherine at St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the two of them were ceremonially undressed and sent to bed by a watchful, happy court. In Arthur’s later boasting that being a husband was “thirsty work” (“for I have been in Spain,” this well-mannered little boy was reputed to have said) sounds crass and unconvincing even through five centuries of muffling; it must have fooled virtually nobody at the time.

The pair was installed at Ludlow, on the Welsh border, in a miniature court. Henry VII was eager that Arthur should begin to learn the ways and appearances of ruling, and for half a year the heir held court of his own, surrounded by advisors picked by his father, absorbing who knows what into the deep chambers of that growing Tudor brain of his. As those six months wore on, as husband and wife danced together and ate together and no doubt found ways to laugh together even though they couldn’t understand each other and had to speak through interpreters (and even this last detail need not necessarily be true, though every Tudor historian repeats it; both knew some Latin, after all, and Arthur was well-able to learn the rudiments of Spanish in half a year of trying), who knows what emotions may have grown? We might suspect that once the settled order of their lives at Ludlow calmed them down, they might have found their way to physical intimacy. We cannot know for certain; in later years, Henry VIII would swear they did and Katherine herself would swear they didn’t. They cannot possibly both be lying, and yet readers of their story feel they somehow are.

A world of importance would hang on the question of that consummation, because in April of 1502, Arthur suddenly died.

Doctors rushed to Ludlow (the cause of death was unknown and remains so); yet more doctors rushed to Katherine, to determine whether or not she was with child; Henry VII and Elizabeth rushed to be with each other; history rushed to place the future of the Tudor dynasty on the shoulders of Henry VII’s second son, Prince Henry. Novelists have had a field day with those six months Arthur lived with Katherine – they’ve been quick to infer love where there might only have been awkwardness (Katherine certainly loved Henry VIII, and she doesn’t seem like an inconstant woman, or one who’s given to loving many people).

Historians have likewise been quick to speculate; a healthy Arthur grown to manhood, perhaps fathering many children, would have utterly changed the face of the following century.
As it is, in Worcester Cathedral there’s a modest chapel the curious can visit.

2.The most speculative of these almost-Tudors was a boy named Henry Fitzroy, who was born in 1519 to Elizabeth Blount, one of Katherine’s ladies-in-waiting (a great scandal, but Henry was wont to hint that kings took their sport where they willed). As the fanciful surname indicates, the father was King Henry VIII, who was at the time still married to Katherine. The boy was born in Essex, and he was pink and healthy (Henry called him his “worldly jewel”). He, too was showered with favor and titles – Knight of the Garter, Lord High Admiral, Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, Ward of the Cinque Ports, and most significantly, Duke of Richmond – the title Henry VII had held before he became king.

This boy Fitzroy was given the finest tutors (one senses that if the courtly fashion of princes being well-educated hadn’t already existed, the Tudors would have invented it); Richard Croke and John Palsgrave (author of the first French grammar in English) were entrusted with his education and reported the usual superlatives. The boy excelled in music, horsemanship, and of course languages, and Henry was seen to glow with pride. There was talk of making Fitzroy king of Ireland, and there was movement in parliamentary circles to give the king the power to nominate anybody he wanted to succeed him, legitimate or otherwise.

This can only have been dismaying for Katherine, but at least it’s understandable behavior on Henry’s part: between 1510 and 1518, Katherine had given him six children, and only one, Mary, had lived. It’s quite possible that in Fitzroy Henry saw the Tudor dynasty’s only real hope for the future.

Many foreign matches were contemplated, but in 1533 Fitzroy was married to a wonderful girl named Mary, daughter of Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk (and sister to our old friend the Earl of Surrey). The pair was reportedly happy together, and Fitzroy was comfortable moving in royal circles, attending court and riding to hounds. In May of 1536, he was present at the execution of Henry’s infamous second wife, Anne Boleyn, and as the king’s favored bastard son, we can only guess the emotions he must have been feeling.

Two months later, in July, he died at age 17.

As is usual when a young person dies, there was immediately speculation that he had never been healthy in the first place (this same speculation would surround the death of Henry’s legitimate son, Edward VI). What scanty records we have of Fitzroy say otherwise – he was a normal, healthy, athletic teenaged boy. Who had no access to modern antibiotics, emergency rooms, and surgeons. Henry had been willing to disinherit his daughter Elizabeth for the sake of this boy born of a mistress, and we will never know if the boy himself would have merited the effort. Instead, he lies in a church in Framlingham, where his embattled half-sister Mary would later headquarter her efforts to secure her throne against a rival claimant on the death of Edward VI.

3.The strangest of all the almost-Tudors was that rival claimant, Lady Jane Grey.She was born in Leicestershire in 1537, the oldest living daughter of Henry Grey, Marquis of Dorset and later Duke of Suffolk. Henry’s wife was Frances, daughter of Charles Brandon and Henry’s sister Mary. As tenuous as this may seem, it’s not: Tudor nurseries weren’t exactly crawling with healthy children. If they had been, Henry VIII’s sister’s granddaughter might have led the quiet, studious life she so clearly wanted. Jane was given a royal upbringing (at age nine she entered the service of Queen Catherine Parr) and a fine education; by age 14, she was astounding her tutor, John Aylmer, with her talent at Latin and Greek (later claims that she knew scores of additional languages owe more to the drama of her eventual fate than to the historical record).But while she was blissfully reading and studying, court upheavals about which she cared nothing were etching the outlines of her fate.

After Henry VIII’s death, Catherine Parr married Thomas Seymour and took Jane in as her ward, intent that she should marry Henry’s heir, Edward VI. Thomas Seymour was a bluff, honest, foolish man, and when he was arrested after rashly gaining entry to Edward’s bedchamber at night (to talk with the boy? To kidnap him?), John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland and temperamentally the opposite of Seymour in every way, gained in stature what Seymour had lost. Seymour was executed, but Edward VI also died. Poison was again suspected, especially since after Edward altered the succession to include Jane Grey, Dudley had married her to his son Guilford.

This was self-preservation on Dudley’s part; if the conservative, Catholic Mary gained the throne, she would have no use for the Protestant lord who had been her harshest critic during the long years when she and her mother Katherine were out of favor.

Edward VI died on 6 July 1553. The news of his death was kept secret until the 8th, and from the 9th to the 19th, against all probability, Jane Grey was Queen of England. Hers was just a wisp of power, the time it takes for a head cold to come and go; she signed a few papers, made a few appointments, dined in state once, maybe twice, and then it was over. First the countryside and then London rose in loyalty to Queen Mary, and suddenly John Dudley was (somewhat unconvincingly) contrite and Queen Jane was Jane Grey again.

Just when it seemed Mary was determined to spare her life (it’s possible the two had been friends; they were certainly similar enough in mind and interests to warrant the idea), Jane’s father Suffolk took part in Wyatt’s Rebellion to unseat Mary. A father complicit in a serious rebellion, and a daughter who’d actually sat on the throne: the combination was fatal, and Jane was executed in 1554. Due to the blood in her veins, she would have ruled as the first Tudor queen, Jane I. Or maybe, just for ten days, she did.

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, by Paul Delaroche (1797-1859)

4.There’s one almost-Tudor, however, whose story is worse and more painful and more heart-racking than all the others, because he alone among them was pure. Arthur was quasi-virginal, but he might have been a boor, and he decided the fate of men before he died; Fitzroy was by some accounts a bit of a fop, and it’s possible he was happy at the extent to which he was spoiled; Jane Grey was a budding scholar, and she would not have been the first intellectual to feel the allure of worldly power. But our last little glimpse in this chapter is incomparably sadder than the others, because no shadow falls on his motives, and no doubts lurk in his lineage.His name was Henry, and he was born on New Year’s Day 1511. His father and mother, the King and Queen of England, were young and glorious and very much in love, and all England rejoiced at news of the boy’s birth. London became one enormous pageant; Te Deums were sung in the churches, beacons and bonfires were lit, and wine flowed from the fountains. The doors of the palace were thrown open to a rampaging, overjoyed populace which shook the king’s arm and patted his back and cheered with him and sang late into the night. Debts were forgiven, petty criminals released, and strangers hugged each other in the streets. After the sorrow of a stillborn daughter the year before, King Henry VIII and his Queen Katherine at last had a son, no doubt the first of many.He was christened at Richmond Palace by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and great tournaments were held to celebrate his birth. Henry, his proud father, rode as champion, and nobody would have had it otherwise.A month later, at Richmond on 22 February, little Henry died.

We cannot count the deaths that rippled outward from that small, piteous start. Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey, Anne Boleyn’s stillborn babies, Anne Boleyn herself, hundreds of simple folk who now found themselves called ‘heretics,’ many thousands and thousands more in England, in Germany, all over Europe, in America, and especially in Ireland … all dead because this little innocent child, fat hands grasping at his blankets, bubbles blowing on lips that would so soon be cold, died first and so a Church and a faith would come to be torn in two. Had that child lived…. Some speculations are simply too painful.

Henry VIII, it was said at the time, “made no great mourning outwardly.” But down in kennels under the palace, he cried such raw and ripping tears that even the fiercest of his great hounds whimpered in sympathy. Random chance had taken his heir after only a month in the sunlight. He would have to make another heir, or find one – and so the tangle of Tudor history was born.

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A bosun on the HMS Belleisle, Steve Donoghue fought in the Battle of Trafalgar. He took to land afterwards with a dull clerkship and recaptured the ferocity of the fight in his writing, which can be seen on his literary blog Stevereads.