Given the popularity of the Tudor era, it’s no surprise that scholars and novelists have advanced a whole range of theories about the dynasty and its people. Some theories – such as the idea that there was a ‘mid-Tudor crisis’ during which the regime was close to collapse – have been modified and adulterated by more recent scholarship, though one can see where the originators were coming from. Others, however, remain far more contentious. Here are my Top 10 Outlandish Tudor Theories, from the curious to the ridiculous (though in no particular order).
10. How do you find the defendant? Anne Boleyn was guilty
It is widely accepted that Anne Boleyn was innocent of the monstrous charges – of adultery, incest, and treason – laid against her. Even at the time of the trials of the queen and her co-accused, eyebrows were raised, with the Imperial ambassador Eustache Chapuys – no friend of Anne’s – noting, ‘Although the generality of people here are glad of the execution of the said concubine, still a few find fault and grumble at the manner in which the proceedings against her have been conducted, and the condemnation of her and the rest, which is generally thought strange enough.’ The general view is that Anne was the victim of a bloody palace coup, organised by her husband and his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. Yet not everyone agrees. There are some who claim that, despite the passionate sympathy Anne Boleyn still arouses in Tudor historians, the lady was guilty.
Most recently, this theory has been put forward by the eminent Tudor historian G. W. Bernard in his “Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions” (2010): a tome which continues to provoke strong reactions. Bernard suggests that even if the queen was not quite the debauchee her trial suggested, she was certainly an adulterer, perhaps in the pursuit of a successful pregnancy (an idea given weight by her supposed claims that Henry himself was increasingly sexually inutile). It is his further contention that it was not Anne who held back from sexual relations during the courtship, but a chaste and increasingly God-fearing Henry. As the surviving trial records accuse her of unchastity at times and in places which couldn’t possibly have been true, Bernard further argues that the material accusations were less important than their substance: Anne had been unfaithful, everyone presiding over the trial knew it, and therefore the specific allegations were relatively unimportant. The notion is interesting, at least insofar as it lets Henry, Cromwell, and the jury of peers who found against the queen off the hook (to an extent). Bernard is to be commended for saying something new and provocative in the debate about Anne Boleyn, but given that almost nobody has taken up the theory of the queen’s guilt, it’s clear that few minds have been changed. Anne remains, in the eyes of most impartial historians, innocent. And rightly so.
9. I Put a Spell on You: Anne Boleyn gave birth to a deformed, stillborn son
Still on the subject of Anne, it is generally accepted that her husband abandoned her – or worse, began actively plotting to rid himself of her – following the stillbirth of a male foetus in late January 1536. Yet the exact date of this stillbirth has given rise to a number of hypotheses, not least of which is that the foetus was so heavily deformed that it provoked the king’s horror and revulsion and required a coverup. Thus arises a theory as to why Henry VIII so suddenly turned his back on his wife; here we have, in one tragedy, a gruesome reason for her downfall. It is an idea that has been taken up by novelists, certainly, and it is still occasionally seen touted as fact. But is there any truth to it? As a theory explaining Anne’s fall, does it hold up?
For starters, it is not the mere invention of novelists; as a modern theory, it has its basis in academia. Retha Warnicke, in her “The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn” (1989) did much to make it mainstream. Warnicke’s argument gives credence to the earliest reference to a deformed foetus: the ‘shapeless mass of flesh’ reported by Nicholas Sander (a Catholic polemicist who, it should be remembered, was an infant when Anne died, and who wrote his account decades after the events he recorded). To Warnicke, the stillbirth really was a deformed male, and on this she builds an interesting argument on the associations which the early modern mind made between deformity, witchcraft, and sin. To further bolster her case, she notes the hazy timing of the news of the stillbirth being made public: evidence, surely, of a panicked coverup? Anne needn’t have been guilty of adultery under this theory – her production of that ‘shapeless mass of flesh’ was enough to ruin her. Yet the problems here are legion. No one at the time left a single word about the child being anything other than premature and male; Sander – who also invented a host of witchy attributes and ascribed them to Anne – was hardly reliable; and the queen was never charged with witchcraft (that faulty notion rests on a supposed claim from Henry that he’d been ‘seduced and forced’ into his second marriage by ‘charms and sortileges’. In other words, the theory falls apart – primarily because the foundations on which it is built are hopelessly shaky.
8. A Barren Stock: Elizabeth I was incapable of bearing children
This is rather an old theory, but it is something of a hydra. During her lifetime, Elizabeth was plagued by accusations that she was both incapable of bearing children, on the one hand, and merrily firing out bastards with the regularity of a one o’clock gun, on the other. Famously, she herself was claimed (by Sir James Melville) to have lamented her ‘barren’ state (this in comparison to Mary Queen of Scots’s fecundity), and after her death, the poet and wit Ben Jonson would remark that she ‘had a membrana on her which made her uncapable of man’ (the means by which he knew this are probably better left unexplored). More recently, the theory has been put forward that the Virgin Queen lived with androgen insensitivity syndrome (or testicular feminization syndrome): a rare condition that results in women appearing female – with ‘adequate breast development and external genitalia, a vagina of variable depth, absent uterus, and sparse or absent pubic hair and axillary hair’. Writing in “Medical Hypotheses” (1985), R. Bakan proposes that ‘Queen Elizabeth I was a case of testicular feminization (male pseudohermaphroditism) and … she never married because of some congenital defect. The phenotypical characteristics of the testicular feminization syndrome are strikingly similar to descriptions of Elizabeth's appearance, personality, behaviour, and, particularly, to those physical defects which her contemporaries believed made her sterile and unwilling to marry’. Is there any truth to the theory?
No. Retroactive diagnoses are always risky, and this one is particularly problematic. It rests not only on shaky evidence (reports of the queen’s appearance are often partial, and her behaviour is far better explained by her position and role than medical conjecture). More importantly, Elizabeth had sound political reasons for both toying with and rejecting every potential marriage which came her way. Sir James Melville (who also, for political reasons, claimed she was incapable of producing children) probably hit the nail on the head when he told Elizabeth, ‘You think if you were married, you would be but queen of England. Now you are king and queen both. You may not suffer a commander.’ Further, when Elizabeth was going through her last serious marriage negotiation (with the duke of Anjou), she was subject to an invasive medical inspection, the results of which were, according to her chief minister Burghley’s private papers, that she was still capable of childbearing. Elizabeth did not avoid marriage and she was not forceful and imperious because she had a medical condition. She had no wish to concede power nor to risk civil war (or be drawn into foreign wars), and she was attuned to the power of magisterial display.
7. Dr Freud to the Privy Chamber, Please: Henry ‘Oedipus’ Rex
Fuelled by Freud, early-twentieth-century historians and theorists provided the first wave of what we might term ‘psycho-sexual’ biographies. The psychoanalyst John Carl Flügel was particularly influential when it came to analysing and explaining the maddeningly elusive and often capricious personality of Henry VIII. Rather than looking into bodily explanations (as those who focus on the king’s physical health have done), Flügel sought to examine Henry’s mind. What he found was that the king was motivated by a powerful Oedipus Complex, characterised by an interlocking obsession with and horror of incest, which shaped his sexuality and marriages. Those taking up this theory have stressed not only his relations with the Boleyn women, but the blood ties Henry had to his other wives (for example, Jane Seymour was a fifth cousin, which curiously resulted in a dispensation for the marriage being sought on the grounds of affinity in the third degree). Was Henry, then, a mass of Freudian complexes?
No. Freud is now much derided (due to the lack of clinical evidence for his theories) and, in any case, to argue that Henry’s relationships were deliberately incestuous is to misunderstand the inescapably incestuous nature of early modern kinship, particular in the upper ranks of society. Jane Seymour was descended from Edward III (as was Henry), but an enormous number of noblewomen were descended from one ancient sovereign or another. Incest, in Anne Boleyn’s downfall, was simply a tool by which the Boleyn clan could be ruined and the accused queen cast in as lurid and monstrous a light as possible (thus reducing the likelihood that Henry’s cuckold’s horns would be the central talking point at home and abroad). Henry VIII does indeed make for a fascinating psychological study; he was seemingly incapable of regret or shame, prone to extreme self-pity, and quite willing to destroy anyone who dared tell him ‘no’. But we don’t need to go blaming ‘mother’ in his case.
6. Game of Thrones: Henry VIII mercilessly sought to destroy his rivals
On the face of it, this is a fairly convincing theory – and it’s certainly one beloved of those biographers of Henry VIII who have likened him to 20th century dictators. It holds that Henry was so insecure in both his dynastic aims and his hold on the English throne that he launched a bloodthirsty campaign of terror. His goal? To eliminate anyone who might have a better claim to the crown than his own. Thus are explained the executions of Edmund de la Pole, 6th Earl of Suffolk (a leading Yorkist claimant, who was beheaded in 1513); Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham (whose Plantagenet blood supposedly led to trumped-up charges of treason and the block in 1521); Henry Courtenay, 1st Marquess of Exeter (beheaded in 1538 for allegedly plotting on behalf of Reginald Pole); Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (who was accused of tilting at the throne, and who went to the block in 1547). Explained also by this alleged purge of rivals is Henry’s long-term quest to seize Richard de la Pole (the ‘White Rose’, who fled England and opposed Henry from abroad until his death at Pavia in 1525). Was there really a coordinated purge?
No. Henry was a monster, to be sure, and the insecurity of his dynasty was real enough; his approach, however, was less proactive (even if no less bloodthirsty for that). If one looks at the catalogue of executions in detail, one finds that the victims were often, at least prior to their downfalls, encouraged to make their obeisance and join the Tudor fold. Most of them chose to do so. This suited the king, who might then be seen for all the world as the unquestioned leader of a stable, settled political nation. All might have been well, but for their discontent (notable, for example, in the case of Buckingham). Henry had little sympathy for even whispers of treasonable talk (or thought), and he was increasingly unwilling to tolerate the slightest resistance to his rule. He was quite prepared to pounce as soon as seditious talk was reported, and then the weight of the law – and the axe – could do its work. But the idea of Henry VIII actively setting out to clear the English chessboard of rivals is faulty; rather, he simply seized the advantage whenever those rivals gave in to disappointment or discontent and slipped up (or when they were accused of doing so). Henry wasn’t, at least in terms of political rivals, a hunter, but an opportunistic killer.
5. Margaret Beaufort, in the Tower, with the Candlestick: Margaret Beaufort killed the princes in the Tower
This is a fairly modern theory, sometimes promulgated by those keen to absolve the long-term leading suspect – Richard III – of guilt in the deaths of Edward V and Prince Richard. The theory runs that far from being murdered in the autumn of 1483– under Richard’s watch – the boys lived on. They survived, in fact, until either just before or just after the accession of Henry VII (which Henry predated to before the Battle of Bosworth, in order to cast those who had fought against him as retroactive traitors). Supposedly, Margaret Beaufort, Henry’s mother, was a creature of limitless ambition. By some means or other – poison is usually suggested – she got to the princes and killed them, transferring the blame to Richard to make her son’s passage to the throne far more palatable (the people, surely, would prefer her gallant lad than a child-killing hunchback, as generations of Tudor-era writers would claim Richard to have been). Others, on similar lines, claim that the wicked Margaret only succeeded in killing Edward V, whilst little Prince Richard was spirited away to begin a new life as Perkin Warbeck (and thus the claim is made that the Perkin Warbeck who later haunted the courts of Europe as a pretender was the genuine article rather than a Flemish clothing model). Is any of this true?
No. The idea that Margaret Beaufort killed the princes – at any point – is about as likely as a sociopathic Pope Innocent VIII having flown over from Rome to do it. There is no evidence that the boys lived on after the autumn of 1583, and Margaret was in no position to murder any prisoner in Richard’s stronghold at that time. Nor is there anything in the lady’s life or reported personality to suggest a wicked murderess. On the contrary, Margaret was a reportedly devout woman – ambitious, for sure, but no more than any other high-blooded notable figure of her time. The idea that Warbeck really was either of the boys is likewise fantasy (and in fact less interesting than his being a commoner trained, and perhaps even what we might now call brainwashed, into believing he was someone he wasn’t). The theory makes for great historical fiction, but it has no merit as a realistic solution to the problem of the lost princes.
4. The Virgin’s Sons: Prince Tudor theories
This bit of nonsense can be traced to a group calling themselves ‘Baconians’: people who believe Sir Francis Bacon, later 1st Viscount St Alban, wrote the works credited to William Shakespeare. Not only that, but they claimed he was the love-child of Elizabeth I by her great favourite, Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester. Later variants on the theory continue on much the same theme: Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, was also Elizabeth’s son (by Thomas Seymour, produced when the queen was 14 and merely the Lady Elizabeth). Oxford then went on to have an incestuous relationship with his mother, producing his own son and brother, who was raised as Henry Wriotheseley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. Others prefer to argue that the son produced by Elizabeth and Oxford was in fact one William Hughes, who went on to adopt the name William Shakespeare. Keeping up? Don’t bother.
The Prince Tudor theories are all too goofy to require serious discussion, and it’s a shame that they continue to excite such interest. There is not a shred of evidence that Elizabeth had secret children by anyone, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere. Beyond that, it should raise anyone’s suspicion that these tall tales of sexual scandal in high places are generally used in the service of increasingly wild arguments about Shakespearean authorship (which is reason enough to dump them in the sea). Among those luminaries now championed as the ‘real’ author of the plays and poems are: William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby (often suggested as having been in cahoots with Oxford, his father-in-law, in the coverup); Mary Queen of Scots (who apparently needed more than embroidery to fill those lonely years in Yorkshire and Staffordshire); James VI and I (who supposedly used his rustication in hunting lodges to dash off plays); Fulke Greville (who was at least alive until 1628); Sir Thomas More (because dying decades before the Renaissance theatre took off is no bar to a Catholic Saint); and Cardinal Wolsey (proposed in 1887 – because why not, at this point?). Oddly, none of those sceptical of the idea that William Shakespeare wrote the plays seems willing to promote anyone other than an early modern celebrity as the true (secret) author. I see no real reason to doubt the Bard’s authorship – nor any reason why a coverup would have been necessary or even agreed to by the sundry theatrical figures required to keep the secret. I see plenty of reasons to doubt the Prince Tudor theories, however.
3. The Flanders Foal: Anne of Cleves had a secret child
This is a new one, recently presented by leading expert on the era Alison Weir – albeit she concedes happily that it is only a ‘what if’, offered up as a fictional treatment in her excellent series of novels on Henry’s wives. The theory holds that, at some point, Anne of Cleves produced a child unknown to history. Weir has not simply invented this for the fun of it – rather, she draws on disparate threads in the historical record. Certainly, Henry claimed that, on first sharing her bed, he found Anne to be no virgin (albeit this was probably part of a desperate plot to undo a marriage which no longer had any political expedient). In the seventeenth century, rumours arose that there were other details about Anne’s life prior to her marriage which had been kept hidden. Following the annulment, interestingly, yet more tales emerged, with the French ambassador claiming in late 1540 that Anne was rumoured to be pregnant. In late 1541, it was even whispered that the ex-queen – now legally adopted as Henry’s sister – was pregnant to the king himself. These rumours – that Anne had produced a child, probably the king’s – in late 1541 even led to the arrests of gossiping servants, as Henry, nonplussed, charged his Privy Council with investigating. The theory thus holds that Anne had a secret dalliance with a lover and produced a child, which those aware of the scandal assumed to be the king’s. Is it true?
Almost certainly not. Apart from these scraps of evidence – rumours, whispers, and investigations – there is no proof that Anne of Cleves produced a child either before or after her marriage. The talk of a child before was, as noted, a pathetic political tool wielded – awkwardly – by Henry as a way of undoing his political match. The rumours of a baby born following Anne’s annulment are just that: gossipy stories told by servants, mangled, investigated, and found lacking. Anne lived fairly happily and independently for most of the rest of her life in England (until money troubles caught up with in her final years). She was by all accounts cheerful, gregarious, boisterous, and loving. But there is nothing to convincingly suggest that she quite that loving.
2. Like It or Not, the Church is Falling: The Catholic Church was collapsing on the eve of Reformation
A theory long used to explain the speed of the English Reformation is that the Catholic Church in early-sixteenth-century England was so corrupt, unwieldy, and terminally ill as to make the break with Rome not only easy but inevitable. The problems, however, are obvious. The Reformation – a shift which long outlived Henry VIII’s dismissal of papal authority – was not particularly speedy (nor was it comprehensive), and the Catholic Church was in fact hale and hearty in the first decades of 1500s – all of which make the success of the break with Rome even more remarkable. Still, it is not unusual to read lurid tales of fornicating priests, monks and nuns, of indefensible and widespread simony, and of senior clergymen holding multiple benefices (none of which they took an interest in) in histories of the era. This is still too often presented in almost Whiggish terms: the Catholic Church was corrupt, the people were fed up, even the nobility had moved on to endowing educational institutions rather than monasteries, and so the Reformation found fertile ground. Does the argument hold up?
Not really. As noted, in the early sixteenth century the Catholic Church in England was booming. Tithes were being paid, pilgrimages were being made, and chantries were being endowed. The monasteries were still providing popular services (such as basic medical treatments and hospitality), and efforts were being made to reform those religious houses which had either decayed or which boasted only small numbers of monastics (Wolsey himself set out on a ‘little Dissolution’ in the mid-1520s). Very few people were seriously challenging the Church, and those who did were apt to be persecuted (either via forced recantations or, for the more persistent offenders, the flames – increasingly so as Henry VIII inflamed tensions). Furthermore, Henry’s eventual break with Rome was not framed as a revolution – far from it. The king was keen to stress that he was simply re-establishing ancient English liberties; his path would be idiosyncratic, retaining enough Catholic dogma and ritual to satisfy his own theological position whilst dissolving enormous elements of popular religious life (including, but not limited to, the veneration of Saints and relics). The Dissolution of the Monasteries would provoke rebellion, albeit the king’s distribution of former ecclesiastical lands would ensure he had enough noble goodwill to see it off. Throughout the century, all attempts to more comprehensively reform Anglican doctrine would be short-lived or fail, and the retention of a Catholic-style ecclesiastical hierarchy would remain – and remains – part of the English reformed religion. Ultimately, the notion of England having grown tired of a mediaeval Catholic Church and welcoming change is far too simplistic; the Reformation happened because Henry VIII and Cromwell broke with Rome and took the political nation – and thus the rest of the nation – with them. Thereafter, the English Church would be built along uniquely English lines: it was not Catholicism without the pope (another tired myth, given the lie by the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which changed the spiritual landscape of the country), but nor was it a complete rewriting of faith from the ground up. Henry, rather remarkably, broke with Rome for largely personal reasons – and on the heels of that victory, he set in motion an enduring break with a still-popular faith.
1. ‘I have become a virgin”: Elizabeth I and the Virgin Mary
A popular 20th century theory argues that Elizabeth I, during her long reign, actively cast herself as an icon: the Virgin Queen. This was not for nothing; the suggestion is that in doing so, she sought to co-opt the dormant veneration of the Virgin Mary. Thus there is imagined a mass psychological need on the part of the Tudor masses for a figure to worship. With the reformed religion being inherently sceptical towards the Catholic cult of saints, Elizabeth stepped into the breach with her own ‘cult of Elizabeth’. In short, she gave the people what they craved: a virgin to worship. This is certainly the line taken by the movie “Elizabeth” (1998). Is it true?
I very much doubt it. The theory, though, appears attractive enough: we can all appreciate the iconography of Elizabeth, and we can certainly see her use of virginal imagery (for example, contemporary portraiture often depicts her carrying sieves, in deliberate association with the Vestal Virgin Tuccia, who was supposedly so pure she could carry a sieve-full of water without spilling a drop). But the extent to which the imagery associated with Elizabeth was a deliberate attempt to inhabit the ground departed by the Virgin Mary is far from certain. More questionable still is the notion that the people of England had any kind of psychological need to worship a virginal heroine. It is far more likely that Elizabeth’s perpetual virginity was a tool used at first to increase her value on the international marriage market, and latterly as part of her arsenal in maintaining the monarchical image with which she had begun her reign (and which, one suspects, had ultimately become something of a trap). Further, it is not entirely clear how much of the queen’s image she crafted herself and how much was down to the army of painters and poets who sought patronage: once the image of the Virgin Queen had been built, as it had from her earliest days on the throne, Elizabeth had to live up to it. The idea that there was even a widespread ‘cult of Elizabeth’, coordinated from the top and holding an uncritical populace in mesmerised thrall, is likewise highly dubious. The reasons for the Virgin Queen image (and iconography) are thus probably to be found more in politics and patronage than in psychology or religious appropriation.
Bonus: The Stigma of Print
Originating in the late-Victorian period, a theory has long held that in the Tudor era there was a silent but effective social prohibition on print. This supposedly applied to the aristocracy (and those aspiring to it); the new technology of the common press was for the lower orders. Gentlefolk and the nobility took nothing to do with it; their fine words – particularly creative words – were only to be recorded by the pen, and shared within private social circles. The idea has thus been labelled ‘the stigma of print’, and it is certainly true that very few noble-penned poems were printed early in the Tudor era, and even late into Elizabeth’s reign, poetry and plays written by the upper classes were often ‘closet’ works, shared only in manuscript form. Was the printing press really an object of contempt to the upper classes?
Not really (although undoubtedly some did voice a preference for courtly and closet circulation). It is difficult to argue that the higher ranks found the press to be anathema when some of the highest – in Scotland, James VI, for example – retained royal printers and sent their works out in typescript (as James did with his Essays of a Prentice in the Divine Art of Poesy  and its sequel, His Majesties Poeticall Exercises ). If there was a disdain for print in England, it certainly didn’t reach the ears of Henry Parker, 8th Baron Morley, who in Mary I’s reign printed his translation of The Tryumphes of Petrarch, to which he appended his own poetry. Also apparently missing the unspoken rule that the upper classes should avoid print were Sir George Buc, Sir Thomas Wroth, Lady Mary Wroth, Sir Arthur Gorges, and Sir John Harington. Rather, what seems likely is that the printing of works by those high up in the social hierarchy gradually increased as the popularity of printing increased (as one would expect). Yet it didn’t follow that all works would be printed, as the majority of those in the upper classes who wrote poetry (and that was most of them at some point, poetry being as much fashion statement as literary exercise) wrote it for reasons that didn’t require printing: they wrote either meditatively or for the amusement of their friends (and to show off their skills to those friends, naturally). There probably was no widespread ‘stigma of print’; it is simply the case that there was not much interest in exploiting the press by those who had no immediate financial, social, or cultural imperative to put their literary exercises in the wider public eye. Of course, the theory has been subverted as a means of giving weight to the notion that some notable figure wrote the works of Shakespeare, using the mercenary Will’s name as an allonym – but I’ve said quite enough about that…
Can’t get enough of the Tudors? You might like my new novel, “Of Judgement Fallen”: a murder mystery set against the backdrop of Henry VIII’s 1523 ‘Black Parliament’. You can grab it here (or at all good bookshops): https://www.amazon.co.uk/Judgement-Fallen-Anthony-Blanke-Mystery-ebook/dp/B0BPFLWHXH
Henry VIII readies England for war with France. The King’s chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey, prepares to open Parliament at Blackfriars. The eyes of the country turn towards London. But all is not well in Wolsey’s household. A visiting critic of the Cardinal is found brutally slain whilst awaiting an audience at Richmond Palace. He will not be the last to die.
Anthony Blanke, trumpeter and groom, is once again called upon to unmask a murderer. Joining forces with Sir Thomas More, he is forced to confront the unpopularity of his master’s rule. As the bodies of the Cardinal’s enemies mount up around him, Anthony finds himself under suspicion. Journeying through the opulence of More’s home, the magnificence of Wolsey’s York Place, and the dank dungeons of London’s gaols, he must discover whether the murderer of the Cardinal’s critics is friend or foe.
With time running out before Parliament sits, Anthony must clear his name and catch the killer before the King’s justice falls blindly upon him.