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Top 10 Tudor Secrets

The Tudor era was an age of secrecy. The state witnessed it everywhere: spies were engaged in monitoring dissidents; merchants were always alert to the movements of licit and illicit shipping; the political system operated on knowledge which other nations were keen to keep quiet; rebels were frequently engaged in clandestine plotting; and even trade guilds retained their status as quasi-secret societies guarding ‘mysteries’. With that in mind, here are my Top 10 Tudor Secrets: the things the Tudor monarchs (and their politicians) really didn’t want us to know the truth about.

10. A Matter of Secrecy: Henry VIII’s ‘Great Matter’

The road to Henry VIII’s annulment of his first marriage – to Katherine of Aragon – began with a secret, and from there it snowballed into a great mass of hidden schemes, backroom plots, and covert missions abroad. Historians remain divided as to exactly what sparked Henry’s decision to end his first marriage, with the king claiming that his conscience had been pricked by his reading of Leviticus (and this not supposedly helped by French diplomats querying the legitimacy of his daughter by that marriage, Mary). Others put forward the rise of Anne Boleyn as the catalyst: the enchanting, French-educated young woman had been at court since 1522, but appears to have caught Henry’s eye in early 1526 (though no one is absolutely sure when) and thereafter provided the king with a reason to dissolve his marriage to Katherine and take a new wife. This is, however, conjecture, even if reasonable conjecture – and it arises because Henry’s early relationship with Anne was shrouded in secrecy. We don’t know when or how exactly it began, nor when (or how, or if) it motivated him to begin pursuing his nullity suit.

What we do know is that the late 1520s became mired in secrecy. Henry, in fact, was probably the most open in his intentions, believing as he did that he had right on his side. It is indeed ironic that a man who supposedly once said, ‘if I thought that my cap knew my counsel, I would cast it into the fire and burn it!’ should have been so open about his intentions (to the point of alerting his wife to the need for counsel of her own). Nevertheless, forewarn her he did. After announcing his doubts about their marriage to Katherine in 1527, the queen immediately began her own clandestine operations, despatching her servant Felipez to her nephew, the Emperor Charles V, to inform him of the shocking news. Henry, getting wind of this, planned to intercept Felipez, but the wily fellow slipped the net and reached the Imperial court at Valladolid. There, Charles announced himself fully behind his aunt. The king’s ‘Great Matter’ was now out in the open – but the secrecy and duplicity of its labyrinthine path continued. Henry, notwithstanding the fact that his chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey, was on his way to France with the aim of establishing a collegiate approach to resolving the affair, secretly sent William Knight directly to Pope Clement VII (then a prisoner of the emperor) to secure a more direct route to divorce. Though these attempts at resolution both failed, the pope agreed to send Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio to England to work with Wolsey in convening a legatine court which would hear the case. Campeggio’s secret instructions? To reach no firm conclusion. In the midst of all this, Katherine would again show herself no slouch in the game of secrets. Whilst Wolsey struggled to satisfy his royal master by making the legatine court work – in the king’s favour, of course – the queen would privately appeal to Rome for revocation of the case to the papal curia (this in April 1529). In all, Henry VIII’s first nullity suit began with a secret – the true cause of it all – which has kept us all theorising since; but that was only the first of many secret manoeuvres in a protracted process which ultimately cost careers, lives, and England’s old faith.

9. “Marriage may well be call'd a yoke!”: Secret marriages at the court of Queen Elizabeth

A stereotype exists – thanks in part to some rather hackneyed psycho-sexual readings – of Elizabeth I as a chronically embittered woman who raged against her courtiers for daring to marry whilst she was cursed with permanent virginity. It is an image that requires reassessment. Certainly, Elizabeth did occasionally imprison those at her court who married without her consent – such as Sir Walter Raleigh and his wife, Elizabeth Throckmorton, or the unfortunate Grey sisters. So too did she rage against the likes of Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, for marrying Lettice Knollys in secret. Courtiers were aware of this – and yet with baffling frequency they nevertheless chose to marry (and conduct affairs) in great secrecy.

However, it is wrong to imagine that these matches were undertaken clandestinely purely out of knowledge that the queen was apt to be jealous and bitter. On the contrary, Elizabeth showed herself, throughout her life, perfectly happy to permit the men and women about her to pair off – as long as they were open in their intentions and sought her approval. The problem was that she was in charge of a court routinely criticised by her enemies for its – and her – ostensible lack of morals. Additionally, part of the queen’s monarchical image was that she was fully in control of her court and its people (as memorably shown in the so-called ‘Rainbow Portrait’, which depicts her in a gown embroidered with watchful eyes and ever-listening ears). Clandestine marriages gave the lie to the notion of the omnipotent sovereign, and thus risked damaging Elizabeth’s credibility and political power. Why, then, did her courtiers undertake these secret matches, and why did they result in spells in prison? In the cases of those which drew the queen’s ire, the players were generally either too politically important to be allowed to marry where they chose (the Grey sisters, for example, were potential royal claimants); they were too close to the queen and thus risked undermining her confidence if they wed (as in the case of Leicester); or their sexual relationships and subsequent shotgun marriages risked the reputation of the royal court. Those men and women who married secretly did so not because they feared a pathologically jealous monarch, but because they had either been exhibiting loose morals (always anathema to the queen) and were keen to clothe their antics in religious and legal rectitude, or because doing things correctly – with the queen’s approval, that is – might have risked protracted discussions about their political ambitions.

8. Weekend at Henry’s: Henry VIII’s death

When Henry VIII died on January 28th, 1547, it is hard to imagine that his council didn’t heave a collective sigh of relief. However, any reaction was limited to that small group of politicians, at least at first. For three days, the people the king had ruled (with an increasingly heavy fist) were kept in ignorance of the old monster’s death. Meals were delivered to his chamber, and rumours continued to circulate that, even as his corpse was stiffening, he was busy planning the investiture of his son, Edward, as prince of Wales. Behind the scenes, the dry stamp had been wielded with impunity as those men who sought to establish themselves in the coming regime handed out royal gifts to themselves and their allies.

The reasons for this secrecy were several. For one thing, no one knew quite what to do about the imprisoned Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, who had been attainted for treason (and who would remain in the Tower for years before eventually being released in the reign of Mary I). For another, no one knew whether the late king’s demand that a council of regency govern England in Edward’s minority should be followed, or if it would be better to have one man in overall charge. Beyond that, how was the old king’s funeral to be arranged and paid for? The nation’s ports, too, had to be closed off and all communications with the continent shut down (for fear that the news might leak and provoke opportunistic hostilities from abroad). All of this discussion swallowed up those harried days of secrecy and panic, and all the time Henry VIII lay dead; the general public would not learn that he’d gone until the official announcement went out on 31st of January. It was a fitting end as, throughout the king’s life, the state of his health had been closely guarded: secrecy had always been deemed necessary when the stability of the realm hinged on a single life. Nor would this approach end with Henry’s death. In late 1550, when Edward VI fell ill, the news was suppressed. Though he would survive that bout of illness, his eventual death in 1553 would again be kept as secret as possible – though leaks would ensure that his sister, Mary, could depart for East Anglia to build a support base for her legal claim to the throne. When Elizabeth I died in 1603, a hastily convened council met and the gates of Richmond were locked whilst preparations could be made for the announcement of the Stuart succession. If a monarch’s life was full of secrets, so too was his or her death.

7. “Set as it were upon stages”: Elizabeth I’s real attitude towards her people

So successful was Elizabeth I’s self-promotion as a thoroughly English and English-loving monarch that it endures to this day. The queen made great play of her double dose of English blood and, further, she knew how to work a crowd. In terms of what we would now call PR, she was a past master; from the beginning of her reign to the end, she knew the value of being seen. More than that, she knew the power of the people, and she was keen to be seen bestowing smiles on her subjects and graciously thanking them for the gifts they pressed on her when she rode or was conveyed through the streets of London, or when touring the southern provinces on her annual progresses.

Yet all of this was, to some extent, a sham. She admitted as much when pressed by parliament to name her successor in 1561: ‘ I know,’ she said, ‘the inconstancy of the people of England, how they ever mislike the present government and have their eyes fixed upon that person that is next to succeed.’ Her view was thus rather cynical, if fair – and it is one that is probably still recognised by world leaders across the globe. The people were not the object of misty-eyed affection; in massed multitude, they were a potential problem that had to be managed with soft words, or else kept from knowledge of public affairs so that they could not make trouble. This, of course, was not something Elizabeth wanted generally known. Instead, she was eager to mythologise her sacred bond with those same troublesome English people and thus, as far as possible, to obviate their irritating inconstancy by stressing her supposed love for them and presenting herself as a semi-eternal being. Elizabeth no more loved her people than any other early modern monarch (or modern-day political leader). She distrusted them. But she was a consummate actress and knew exactly how well the rhetoric of mutual affection played to the gallery.

6. Illegitimate Grievances: Henry VIII’s intentions for Henry Fitzroy

In 1525, Henry VIII took the surprising step of raising his illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy (born in 1519 to the king’s then mistress, Bessie Blount) to the dukedom of Richmond, in addition to making him a Knight of the Garter. Hitherto, Fitzroy had been a rather shadowy figure; now, Henry VIII seemed intent on publicising the child. Ever since, historians have wondered – and theorised, and argued – about the king’s intentions in doing so. Did Henry intend to place Fitzroy in the line of succession (at least before the young man’s untimely death in 1536 rendered the possibility moot), with the elevation intended to test the waters? Was it a bluff? An attempt to remind the world of the king’s virility? Did he intend to embarrass his then wife Katherine of Aragon at a time when he might have been toying with the idea of divorcing her?

In truth, we don’t know. Henry’s reasons for elevating Fitzroy to a place of public prominence – and the boy would be given a nominal role as Lord President of the Council of the North, before talk arose in 1529 that he might be declared king of Ireland – remain tantalising. The secrets of Henry’s mind were so well kept that we’ll never know what he intended for his acknowledged bastard. However, the surviving evidence does rather suggest that the king was keeping his options open. He made no move to try and legitimise Fitzroy (this being virtually impossible, given that there was no suggestion of the relationship with Bessie Blount ever having been more than an affair), and he never gave up on seeking a legitimate male heir. If anything, Henry was probably trying to ensure that, given he had only one daughter in the 1520s, his illegitimate son was of sufficiently high rank and standing that, in the event that God never granted him legitimate male issue, he would have someone in reserve if other options were needed. It’s unlikely the king was deluded enough to think that an undeniably illegitimate son could smoothly inherit the English throne – but it suited him to keep people guessing as to what he might really intend.

5. Running Interference: Elizabeth I’s mischief-making in Scotland

Unlike her father, Elizabeth I did not have a belligerent or acquisitive attitude towards Scotland. Her means of dealing with the northern kingdom were far sneakier, more duplicitous, and more successful. When it came to Anglo-Scottish negotiations, Queen Elizabeth had, understandably, a ‘what’s in it for me?’ attitude, with the ‘me’ being, to her, synonymous with ‘England’. Her approach was greatly helped by the fact that first Mary Queen of Scots and then her son were willing to play Elizabeth’s game, because both bought into the idea that their English cousin’s personal endorsement was needed if their English succession rights (stemming from the union of Margaret Tudor and James IV) were to be legally recognised (an idea which was ultimately shown to be nonsense when Elizabeth eventually died in 1603, and any wishes she might have had were subordinated by realpolitik). Yet, whilst encouraging Anglo-Scottish amity, Elizabeth was quite prepared to use any underhanded means at her disposal when it came to interfering in Scottish affairs, and happily she always seemed to have a quiver of discontented Scottish peers in pocket.

Indeed, the extent of the English queen’s mischief-making in Scotland was so well hidden that even today scholars are divided on what exactly she knew, what she encouraged, and what she simply took advantage of. Elizabeth was lucky in that Scotland’s successive minority governments – and its civil wars, Reformation, and the absence of its monarch when Mary Queen of Scots was in France – had left the country riven by domestic factions. She was willing to promote that division to England’s benefit, and it is unclear even now how much the English government sponsored or approved, for example, the murder of David Riccio or the death of Lord Darnley. Certainly, key Scottish figures – such as Mary’s half-brother, Moray – were quite willing, on the basis of shared religious sympathies, to sell Scotland’s state secrets. Even Mary Queen of Scots herself occasionally granted the English ambassador, Randolph, access to Scottish privy council meetings, hoping thereby to demonstrate the goodwill of her country and her government’s willingness to cooperate with England. After Mary’s deposition, successive Scottish regents would also foster close ties with England, and when James reached maturity, his desire for recognition of those English succession rights (and his need for money) would again allow Elizabeth to meddle at will. When the young king proved too independent, of course, Scottish troublemakers (such as Francis Stewart, 5th Earl of Bothwell) could be given English handouts and encouraged to cause mischief. All of this, of course, took place in great secrecy; outwardly, first Elizabeth and Mary, and then Elizabeth and James, were all smiles, amity, and denials of any wrongdoing.

4. To Kill a Queen: Who really killed Mary Queen of Scots?

Still on the subject of Scotland, perhaps Elizabeth I’s greatest secret – one she doggedly refused to shed any real light on – came in the winter of 1586/7. In February 1587, following a trial and multiple sittings of a parliament baying for blood, Mary Queen of Scots’s death warrant reached her prison at Fotheringhay. She went to the block on the 8th of February, accused of treason against her cousin Elizabeth (a crime, she accurately if fruitlessly pointed out, she was incapable of committing, as she was not Elizabeth’s subject). Immediately, tears, angry outbursts, and denials of having been responsible for any part in the affair flowed from the English queen. She had (inadvertently, she occasionally said) signed the warrant only for safety’s sake; she had certainly not intended that her officials – Robert Beale as clerk of the council and William Davison as royal secretary – should actually despatch it to Fotheringhay. This was the line Elizabeth held to, as she waited to see whether Mary’s son, James, would accept it. After a politic display of shocked silence, he did, and the pair thus re-established diplomatic relations. The ‘miserable accident’, as Elizabeth called it, was to be forgotten, with the hapless royal officials given the blame (and in Davison’s case an exorbitant fine which no one expected would ever be paid). Yet the secret of Elizabeth’s role in the matter was an open one. Few now believe that anything approaching an administrative error had occurred. Elizabeth was one of England’s finest politicians and hardly likely to have overlooked a death warrant which might – had James been in a stronger position and not so beholden to either English cash or a belief in Elizabeth’s power over the succession – have led to war. Queen Elizabeth may have wanted her role kept secret – as she had wanted her desire for Mary to be murdered quietly in captivity kept secret – but history has largely exposed her part in the execution. How she squared her conscience – and unlike her father, she really had one – with the unconvincing cover story, and the attaching of blame to convenient scapegoats, remains a mystery.

3. The Numbers Game: Robert Cecil’s secret negotiations with James VI

Robert Cecil, son of Elizabeth I’s longest-lived and most influential chief minister, Lord Burghley, was a shrewd little man. Throughout his career as a privy councillor and royal secretary, he was dedicated to maintaining England’s political stability – not least because a stable England ensured a stable career and rich pickings for Robert Cecil. Thus he was by nature averse to the political vacuum that was Elizabeth’s refusal to engage in any way with the succession question. This became a pressing issue in the 1590s, as the queen aged, the Anglo-Spanish war raged on, and Cecil’s rival, the dashing Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, launched into a secret correspondence with the likeliest candidate for the throne, James VI of Scotland. James was, by the ancient law of primogeniture, and by virtue of both his experience as a sovereign and his thriving family, the natural choice – if only the mouldering will of Henry VIII (which inconveniently ignored the line descending from his sister Margaret) could be ignored. James’s view was that this could best be achieved by Elizabeth’s formal sponsorship of him as her heir, despite Elizabeth, for decades, having danced around the issue and, at various points, outright thwarted any attempt to get her to name any single candidate as her favourite. Essex had unwisely promised rather more martial backing for the Stuarts.

Thankfully for Cecil, Essex disgraced himself in Ireland, before attempting a palace coup and losing his head. Thereafter, the cunning secretary was himself able to slip into the role of architect of the succession; Cecil, with the assistance of Lord Henry Howard, became James’s new sponsor and primary English contact. Between Essex’s death in 1601 and Elizabeth’s in 1603, ciphered correspondence passed up and down the Great North Road between London and Edinburgh, in which Cecil was codenamed ‘10’, James ‘30’, and Elizabeth ‘24’. Elizabeth, of course, had to be kept from all this scheming, and if she suspected it was going on, she let sleeping dogs lie. Cecil, masterfully, courted the Scottish king with fair words and promises, and spent a great deal of their early association trying to stop the impatient James from continually pressing Elizabeth for recognition of his rights – because Cecil knew, and James apparently didn’t, that the succession would be sorted out secretly by the pens of politicians rather than by the will of the tetchy old queen or the entreaties of her headstrong cousin.

2. No Hard Feelings: Henry VIII’s sex life

Henry VIII – long immortalised as Bluff King Hal – is not a sovereign we often associate with discretion. When it came to the bedroom, however, he could show himself prudish – and in fact he conducted several of his romantic affairs in such secrecy that we cannot be sure when they began or ended, or even how far they went. On the one hand, Katherine of Aragon’s list of pregnancies – many of which, tragically, ended in stillbirths – suggest that the king had an active sex life, at least during his prime. On the other, he acknowledged only one illegitimate child (a paltry effort compared to his compatriots in Scotland, James IV and James V, who each left behind motley troupes of troublemaking bastards by various women). One secret which almost certainly would’ve caused the king blushes, however, was the issue of his potency – or increasing lack of it – in the bedchamber.

Like the king’s broader physical health, his libido could have serious political ramifications. It is therefore unsurprising that, during his attempts to have the Cleves marriage annulled, he was keen to protest that though he could not perform with Anne, he would certainly still be capable with other women; he was still, his doctors wrote, subject to ‘nocturnal emissions’. Questions about Henry’s potency were nothing new by that point. During the trial of Anne Boleyn’s brother, Rochford, a note was passed to the accused man which he was instructed to read silently before verifying or denying its contents. Rochford instead opted to read aloud words which accused his sister of announcing that King Henry ‘was not skilful in copulating with a woman, and had neither virtue nor potency’. This was mortifying for the king and his council, and it is unsurprising that Anne – if she really had acknowledged her husband’s impotence – and the men accused with her went to their deaths. So too does it explain Henry’s overt carousing on the Thames with Jane Seymour, and his later public fondling of Katherine Howard: it seems likely that this was all a matter of an increasingly infirm king protesting too much. Certainly, after Jane’s death, there were no more royal pregnancies in any of Henry’s subsequent marriages, and it is unclear if the king, who had exercised a fair degree of discretion in sexual matters from the mid-1520s onwards, was at all active with his last wife, Catherine Parr. Of course, there are some secrets we are probably all happier not knowing.

1. Not Always the Same: Elizabeth’s intentions for the English succession

Elizabeth I is still celebrated as one of England’s most powerful, successful, and indeed legendary sovereigns. Yet, in one of the key aspects of monarchy, she was a complete failure. If one accepts the idea that part of a hereditary monarch’s duty was to provide stability for the nation via the perpetuation of a secure dynasty – in other words, to provide for the succession – the last Tudor queen seems to have been remarkably willing to leave the matter in God’s hands. Her obstinacy on this issue had, by the end of her reign, gone beyond careful policy (she had never wanted debate about a successor to threaten her own position) and begun approaching mania; under no circumstances would she give any indication of how England should be governed – or by whom – after her death. That was all for the Almighty to sort out.

Thankfully, God didn’t have to do the donkey work. As noted, the key architect of the Stuart succession was Robert Cecil, who was forced by his queen’s intransigence to work in secrecy. James VI and I came to the throne peacefully despite Elizabeth, not because of her. But in the process, dubious tales would emerge that, at the last, the old queen had signalled her approval of James. Only a king, she supposedly claimed (but almost certainly didn’t) should take her place. It was rumoured that when asked, on her deathbed, who should succeed her, she raised her hands in the shape of a crown, thus indicating her Scottish cousin. Still others claimed that by various signals – squeezed hands or mumbled words – she voiced a preference for James. All are either wishful thinking or the product of politicians eager to add some royal varnish to their backstage manoeuvring for the succession. It seems likely that Elizabeth did expect James to succeed her, but to the end she kept everyone guessing. Whether she actually wanted him to take her place is more doubtful. I suspect that, for Elizabeth, dying at all was a major disappointment, and the prospect of anyone succeeding to her throne would have dismayed her. As Henry VIII had sought a kind of posthumous power via using his will – and parliament – to dictate the succession (unsuccessfully, in the end), so Elizabeth sought to maintain a form of control by holding all in secrecy in suspense. In the end, the last Tudor monarch’s attitude towards the succession – for all she kept it secret – mattered not a bit.

Bonus: Henry VIII’s weddings to Anne Boleyn

In the Henrician period, royal marriages were not public affairs. Partly due to Henry VIII’s colourful uxorial history (his first marriage being to his brother’s widow), they moved indoors and out of the public eye. As his second marriage – to Anne Boleyn – was even more mired in complications, it too was a secret affair. It was so secret, in fact, that it’s unclear exactly when they were wed. What appears to have happened is that a secret ceremony took place in mid-November 1532, which gave the couple cause to continue (or begin) their sexual relationship. This resulted, to the delight of both, in pregnancy, and a further marriage was celebrated (the precise date of which, though largely agreed to have been in early 1533, is unknown). Only a handful of witnesses were present at the pre-dawn ceremony, and it is uncertain exactly where in Whitehall Palace it took place (though tradition plausibly places it high up in the old gatehouse, widely if inaccurately known as the ‘Holbein Gate’). Following this, the annulment of the Aragon match was pronounced by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who likewise ruled the Boleyn match legal.

Following all these shady goings-on, Cranmer would eventually have to perform a U-turn and dissolve the Boleyn marriage entirely (which he did prior to Anne’s execution, rendering her, bizarrely, entirely innocent of the adultery charges which had partly condemned her, as she had now legally never been married to Henry in the first place). The king would be wed privately to Jane Seymour in late May 1536; to Anne of Cleves at Greenwich (again privately) in 1540; to Katherine Howard later in 1540; and to Catherine Parr in yet another private ceremony at Hampton Court. It seems apt that his relationship with Anne Boleyn, the origins of which are shrouded in mystery, should have reached its matrimonial climax under a similar veil of secrecy.

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):

Of Judgement Fallen

Spring, 1523.

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.

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