The Tudor era has spawned a welter of myths, legends, and misconceptions, some of which have been frustratingly long-lived. Is there any truth to them, or are they all complete fabrications? I’ll be counting down ten of the most enduring, from those that have been widely (and thankfully) debunked to those that remain largely believed – and judging them true or false. In doing so, I’ll consider where these stories come from and what sustains them.
10. Anne Boleyn had six fingers on one hand
False. There is not a shred of evidence from Anne’s lifetime that there was anything abnormal about either hand. Why, then, do we believe there was? To answer this, we need to go back in time – and to pay close attention to dates. The first, infamous reference comes from the Catholic polemicist Nicholas Sander (or Sanders), whose Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism appeared in 1585. He wrote, ‘Anne Boleyn was rather tall of stature with black hair and an oval face of sallow complexion, as if troubled with jaundice. She had a projecting tooth under her upper lip, and on her right hand, six fingers. There was a large wen under her chin, and therefore to hide its ugliness, she wore a high dress covering her throat’. Unfortunately, as a memorable description, this took hold – being portrayed, for example, as accurate in 1972’s Henry VIII and his Six Wives.
But we have reason to doubt its veracity: Sander was born in around 1530 and thus was an infant in Anne’s final years; there is no reason to believe he ever saw her. His motive was simply to associate her – she was then considered a proto-Protestant martyr – with the evil and the witch-like, which were often linked to physical appearance (though Anne was not, as is often claimed, ever charged with witchcraft). Further muddying the waters is the historian George Wyatt’s response: ‘There was found, indeed, upon the side of her nail, upon one of her fingers, some little show of a nail, which yet was small’. This has gained traction as a middle-ground approach – perhaps, some have decided, Anne did indeed have some minor imperfection, which made its way down through the Wyatt family (George having been born well after Anne’s demise, in 1553). But there is no reason to assume that Wyatt had any knowledge of the physical appearance of a woman who had been dead for nearly twenty years before his birth – the idea that he did is pure supposition. His goal was to counter Sander, and it seems entirely possible that in trying to meet his opponent halfway – by conceding a minor fault and suggesting Sander was exaggerating it – he inadvertently gave a complete fabrication a gloss of half-truth, affirming George Bernard Shaw’s later advice: ‘do not wrestle with a pig. You both end up dirty and the pig likes it.’ The reality is that for a time Anne was one of Europe’s most observed and commented-upon women, and during that time not a single word was recorded about either hand being anything but normal. The lesson is: don’t try to meet lies halfway – it only lends them dignity!
9. Henry VIII had syphilis / Henry VIII’s personality changed after an accident
False. The first is an old theory, which gained popularity not just in explaining Henry’s apparently erratic later behaviour (which was in fact less erratic than self-serving and calculating) but as a kind of poetic justice for his supposedly licentious lifestyle. In truth, Henry had a slew of medical problems which were carefully recorded by his team of physicians. He never, according to their accounts, was given the standard treatment for syphilis (then variously known as the French Pox, the Great Pox, or the Neapolitan Disease).
Further, his lifestyle was not, in the great pantheon of sexually active kings, particularly notable; he had relatively few mistresses and the evidence (at least, supposedly, from Anne Boleyn) suggests that he was far from a Casanova. The second, more recent theory – which is sometimes now stated as fact – is that his behaviour changed radically following his 1536 jousting accident, during which he was supposedly unconscious for two hours. However, not only is the claim of the two-hour blackout unsupported by the evidence of eyewitnesses (it comes from a foreign report), but the sad truth is that Henry was a ruthless man well before he hit the ground in 1536. If the Henry of 1535, who sent More and Fisher to the block (and ruthlessly mocked the latter’s cardinal’s hat) was the nice version, it didn’t do his victims much good.
8. Anne of Cleves was called ‘The Flanders Mare’ by her husband
False. In the modern world, we’re pretty use to seeing false attributions of quotes. Thanks to the internet, people seem to think Shakespeare was doling out 1970s self-help mantras, Marilyn Monroe was dispensing astrological advice, and Einstein was dropping bon mots about Twitter (spoiler: they weren’t). But the phenomenon is nothing new. For this legend, Hollywood, too, has a lot to answer for. Despite its typically superb performance by Keith Michell, 1972’s Henry VIII and his Six Wives is again at fault for perpetuating a myth: not only does it show Henry uttering the infamous words, but it features a heavily made up Jenny Bos as Anne, her face marred by pockmarks and her teeth brown, horrifying the English king (though the movie does manage to refrain from putting the Spanish Chronicle’s highly dubious ‘I die a queen, but I’d rather die the wife of Culpeper’ in Catherine Howard’s mouth).
The popular idea is that Henry was so repulsed by Anne on their first meeting that he immediately sought to undo the marriage – and in his spite he sent Cromwell to the block for organising it. In truth, the label of ‘the Flanders Mare’ comes from Gilbert Burnet, Bishop of Salisbury, writing in 1679: ‘[Henry] swore they had brought over a Flanders mare to him.’ Nor did the first meeting between Anne and Henry go as badly as people often assume – the pair engaged courteously enough, at least. Of course, the marriage undoubtedly failed: as a political match, its advantage had stalled even as the pair were meeting. It is true that Henry might have retained what was rapidly showing itself to be a useless political alliance had he genuinely been stirred to passion by Anne, but the pair had nothing in common. Henry wanted out of the politico-religious alliance, and nothing compelled him to retain the linked romantic one. It therefore appears that he seized on Anne’s appearance and body as evidence that it could all be broken off: first, he tried suggesting that she was not a virgin. When that failed, he admitted – with the face-saving caveat that he was still capable – that she could not stir him sexually and thus was unsuitable as a consort. It did not of course matter that Henry himself was by this point grossly overweight, prematurely aged, and personally terrifying. Ultimately, the solution was to conjure up the ghost of an old betrothal on her part, annul the marriage, and accept her as his adoptive sister. It’s a shame that Anne’s reputation – she was reportedly a cheerful and kindly soul – has been sacrificed on the altar of an egotist’s failed policy.
7. Marmalade was invented for Mary Queen of Scots
False (sadly). A huge number of charming (and not so charming) tales of the Tudor era have made their way into the public consciousness: that a cheeky young Shakespeare fled Stratford after poaching at Charlecote Park (not written anywhere until 1709); that Walter Raleigh threw his cape over ‘a plashy place’ so that Elizabeth I wouldn’t dirty her slippers (a pretty story which sadly emerged only in Thomas Fuller’s History of the Worthies of England in 1662); that Francis Drake insisted on finishing his game of bowls before engaging the Spanish Armada (a later legend with no single origin); that the 2nd Earl of Essex sent a life-saving ring to Elizabeth I on the eve of his execution, only for Lady Nottingham to withhold it, prompting Elizabeth to say, ‘May God forgive you, but I never can’ (a tale only explicitly codified in 1695); that Thomas Seymour shot Edward VI’s barking dog during his failed kidnapping attempt (another apocryphal story which was not recounted at the time). Many of these legends endure because they are in keeping with what we know (or think we know) of the players – or because they affirm those beliefs, even if the literal events are highly dubious.
Yet the tale I’ve selected is decidedly not in keeping with what we know of the lady at its heart. The story, though, is cute enough. Mary Stuart, en route from France to Scotland (or vice versa) fell sick. The cry went out: ‘Marie est malade!’ Her apothecary swiftly concocted a sweet new remedy – oranges and sugar syrup. Soon enough, a pun was doing the rounds on deck: ‘Marmalade pour Marie malade’. Supposedly, this was corrupted into marmalade – our modern breakfast staple (which I can affirm is both delicious on toast and does nothing for sickness). Unfortunately, the story is a complete fabrication. For one thing, Mary was famously never seasick – she even lorded it over her companions who did succumb. For another, the world ‘marmalade’ arrived in English in the 1530s, from France, which in turn derived it from the Portuguese ‘marmelada’ – the equivalent of ‘quince jelly’.
6. Bourgeois Tudors blackened their teeth
False. This myth has been a staple of children’s history books for years – it’s one of those ‘facts’ which appeals because it seems so radically odd. The story often recounted, to kids’ bafflement and delight, is that upwardly-mobile Tudor subjects would purposely blacken their teeth with soot so they looked rotten. Why? Because doing so would trick their neighbours into thinking that they were wealthy enough to be munching down on the wildly expensive sugary treats favoured by the elite: marchpane (marzipan), hippocras, et alia.
However, there is not a shred of evidence that anyone was doing this in Tudor England. It appears that the Japanese practice of ohaguro, whereby women painted a solution called kanemizuonto onto their teeth to protect and blacken them (a beauty trend which lasted in some areas until the early twentieth century) has been transplanted and mangled into a myth, before being slapped onto Tudor England.
5. The elderly Elizabeth I coated herself in heavy white lead paint
False. I’ve tackled this one before, so needn’t spend too long on it. Suffice it to say that whilst Venetian ceruse – the famously-deadly white makeup – existed in Elizabeth’s time, there is no evidence that she used it. Multiple accounts of her appearance in her old age exist – some of them quite explicit – and none make any mention of layers of white paint. Only the playwright Ben Jonson, who might or might not have seen her in person, but who certainly commented after her death, mentions makeup at all, and his description is of – bizarrely – red cheeks and a red tip painted on her nose. That is not to say she didn’t use cosmetics; undoubtedly, she used contemporary English ones, the recipes for which suggest that her skin would have been quite radically scrubbed – think a harsh exfoliant – rather than slathered in inches of toxic lead. She would hardly have needed enamelling anyway; her brush with smallpox in 1563 largely left her face largely unmarred, and she was quite willing, in her dotage, to fake absent-mindedness and display her wrinkles to political effect (as when trying to stall the French ambassador de Maisse over discussion of military ventures in 1597).
Why, then, do we believe in an elderly Elizabeth coated in makeup that might’ve been applied by a drunk clown? The earliest links between the queen and garish Venetian ceruse come from Victorian histories, which seemed attached to the idea of the ageing queen as a Miss Havisham figure, forever haunted by her past, and associated always with the exotic and extreme. Since then, even the best productions based on her life have been unable to resist either the shock value or the religious connotations of painting Elizabeth chalk white.
4. Mary Queen of Scots ruled from the heart, not the head
False. Mary Stuart continues to be, as Elizabeth I labelled her, the ‘daughter of debate’. However, the post-Romantic Victorian view of her as a woman driven by passion (often counterposed to her English cousin’s cold cynicism) is a myth.
During her personal rule, Mary maintained a policy of religious toleration, sought to work with various factions, and managed to make domestic political alliances which paid off in the form of a significant ‘Queen’s Party’ that continued to fight for her cause after the successful coup against her. Her marriage to Darnley, often held up as evidence of the ‘led by the heart’ myth, was, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, a political move – and a fairly radical one, as it demonstrates one of the century’s female rulers taking on a husband and hoping to subjugate him. Her downfall came about as a result of her marriage to one of Darnley’s murderers, Bothwell, which she likely entered into after he had raped her – and which might too have been intended as a Protestant counterbalance to her son’s recent Catholic baptism. One can disagree with Mary’s political moves (her decision to seek English support was undoubtedly a dud, albeit understandable given what she’d been led to believe would be forthcoming), but political they were. Mary had spirit and was a fighter – but she was no overly passionate Cloud Cuckoolander.
3. Everyone was dirty and stank
False (with a ‘but’). This is a myth which is applied to just about every historical period. As Ruth Goodman has demonstrated in her superb How to Be a Tudor, during the writing of which she adopted period-appropriate approaches to hygiene, adhering to regular changes of clothes and frequently refreshing linens could actually result in a more than adequate level of cleanliness. Further, although bathing in this period was rare and considered medicinal (with even the communal mediaeval stews having devolved into something altogether spicier), cleanliness was considered a virtue. It was achieved not only be refreshing clothing but by good laundering, careful washing of the body parts, and high standards in personal habits (such as spitting and sneezing).
With all that said, written standards, then as now, give us an ideal – and they were all very well for those who had the time and money to spend on meeting them. The wealthy and middle classes were undoubtedly fairly clean and sweet-smelling. They could afford to be. As in any period, approaches to hygiene would have differed wildly between classes (and probably within them). Further, there was certainly variation between urban and rural living; in town and cities, the population would have been so densely packed, and thus producing so much waste, that sewage would have been primitive by today’s standards. Smells cling, and those living in, for example, London, would probably have found that they couldn’t divest themselves properly of the pong of smoke or waste (whether animal or human). Nor could those down the social scale simply decamp to the country when the city sewer channels backed up or neighbours broke local laws and regulations on dumping. It is telling that disease borne on parasites and bred in filth tore through large cities at such a horrifying rate (though don’t believe all that you see or read: there were no sinister beaked plague doctors patrolling the streets of Elizabeth’s England; the birdlike plague masks weren’t even invented until late into the Jacobean period, in France).
2. Henry VIII was mad-keen on war
True (when it suited him). Reputations can be tricky when it comes to historical figures. Richard III, for example, was not a lurching, tyrannical psychopath, but an effective, forceful ruler whose (probable) hand in the slaying of his nephews was inflated into physical deformity and mass-murder during the tenure of the dynasty which toppled him. Henry VII is frequently reviled as a miser, when the truth is that although he extorted money from his subjects, he also spent like a drunken influencer, so attuned was he to the politics of display; the degradation of his image came largely as a result of those who hoped to rise in the engineered glory of his son’s accession. Likewise, the unpopularity of ‘Bloody Mary’ was the creation of Protestant polemicists hoping to glorify Elizabeth; during Mary’s actual reign, her reputation was as a people’s queen (albeit Catholic people).
This image of Henry VIII as an inveterate war-monger is as old as the Tudor dynasty: from his youth, the ebullient king was supposedly wild on war with France, modelling himself after his hero Henry V. Thereafter, he would seize on any opportunity to go to war, even arguing with his advisers over it. In his old age, he against grasped one final chance to realise his dream by riding out against England’s ancient enemy. We believe it because it seems so in character – and because Henry was quite prepared to make the most of any opportunity to demonstrate his martial prowess. The reality is that Henry VIII did harbour a belief in his own authority over France – he saw the southern kingdom as his birth-right. However, it is wrong to assume that he was so mad with perpetual war fever that he battled his councillors over the issue, with them forcing him to climb down. Henry was always in control. He was, further, not determined on war at any cost. On the contrary, he was quite willing to stall, delay, and avoid conflict when it wasn’t to his (or, as he would’ve argued, England’s) advantage. What Henry wanted, when he was so minded, was war on his terms, or peace on his terms. If the chance to be Europe’s great peacemaker rather than its leading soldier-prince presented itself, he was equally happy to grasp at that. Certainly, the king loved the idea of war and believed in his own expertise in the art – but he loved glory and accolades more, in whatever form he could gain them.
1. Elizabeth I was a warrior queen
True (after a fashion). This is a myth much perpetuated by TV shows and movies: we can all envision Elizabeth of the Armada, decked out in a steel breastplate and wielding a truncheon as she delivers her ‘heart and stomach of a king’ speech. But how true is it? Certainly, Elizabeth almost certainly delivered a version of her famous speech to the troops at Tilbury, though whether she was decked out in steel is far from certain. During the 1580s, Elizabeth’s role as a prospective bride – one she’d played with aplomb for years – came to an end. She was in need of a reinvention. The process of rebranding was, however, out of her hands; it was stage-managed by, primarily, her great love, the Earl of Leicester. Leicester was part of England’s war party, keen on escalating the long cold war with Catholic Spain into actual war, and in the mid-1580s that goal was achieved.
Elizabeth, though, was far from keen. She was habitually averse to war – which she considered ruinously expensive and wasteful – and even as the Armada crisis was reaching its climax she was desperately seeking peace negotiations. In the event, the Armada sailed, failed, and Elizabeth went down in history as an icon of English invincibility (this despite bad weather and English seamanship doing the job for her). Philip II’s future Armadas likewise stuttered and failed, and the queen’s status as a warrior was assured – indeed, it even seems to have eventually gone to her head, as she began to believe in her own expertise in the subjugation of Ireland without ever having set foot in the country. Nevertheless, although the image of a warrior queen was forced on her, Elizabeth wore it with skill – so much so that it outlasted her. In the reign of her peace-seeking successor, her aversion to war was forgotten and Elizabeth the warrior queen became a popular stick with which to beat him. It is thus fair to say that Elizabeth was a warrior in all manner of ways, even if her gender and inclinations mean that she never saw any actual conflict. She prized intellect over arms, and she wielded it with might. Not for nothing did Sixtus V say of her, ‘She certainly is a great queen. Were she only a Catholic, she would be our dearly beloved. Just look how well she governs. She is only a woman – only mistress of half an island – and yet she makes herself feared by Spain, by France, by the Empire, by all.’ Of course, if one is searching for a truly militant warrior queen, it might be worth reassessing Mary Queen of Scots, who certainly did wear steel, brandish a pistol, and ride out with her troops … but that’s another story.
Bonus: Elizabeth I was a boy
False. Bram Stoker (yes, that Bram Stoker) first recounted (or, if you prefer, invented) this one in 1910. In his Famous Imposters, he claimed knowledge of a supposedly centuries-old tale originating in the town of Bisley. There, so the locals had long known, the young Lady Elizabeth (her title of ‘Princess’ had been abolished by the annulment of her parents’ marriage) was apparently brought for a stay in the late mid-1540s, under the care of her governess, Katherine Astley. Unfortunately, the young girls took ill and died – right on the eve of her father’s arrival in town. Disaster! Mrs Astley, terrified of provoking Henry VIII’s wrath, immediately scoured Bisley for a substitute, but only a red-haired boy of suitable age and appearance could be found. He was dolled up, tricked out in a gown and headdress … and so began a lifetime of deception, with ‘the Bisley Boy’ assuming the persona of Elizabeth, and eventually the crown, until his death in 1603. Needless to say, this was why ‘she’ never married – and to misogynists, it also accounts for her ‘masculine’ intelligence.
It's a marvellous conspiracy theory, but absolute nonsense. Elizabeth lived a largely public life, and even went through at least one intrusive medical check-up ahead of her mooted marriage to the Duke of Anjou (the result being that she was declared still able to bear children). One suspects Bram Stoker was simply out to cause a bit of mischief with this silliness. Perhaps he needed a bit of levity after Dracula.
You can read more about Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII, and the Tudor court in my new historical murder mystery, Of Judgement Fallen – available from all good bookshops or here: https://birlinn.co.uk/product/of-judgement-fallen/