In this rogue’s gallery, I’ll be judging ten reputed nasties of the era and considering whether they deserve to be reviled or reassessed…
10. Anne Seymour née Stanhope, Duchess of Somerset
Anne has had a bad rap, particularly from novelists, who find much material in her supposed feud with the dowager Queen Catherine Parr. In fictional treatments of Anne, who was, whilst her husband was England’s Lord Protector, England’s most powerful woman (a Queen in all but name), we can find ruthlessness, pride, and greed. Her contemporaries were also sometimes scathing: ‘if Master Admiral [Thomas Seymour] teach his wife [Catherine Parr] no better manners, I am she that will,’ she supposedly said. She infamously pushed the dowager out of the way during processions, intent on being seen as England’s first lady ahead of Henry VIII’s widow, and she was accused of being ‘more presumptuous than Lucifer’. In all, Anne has, historically, been portrayed as a bit of a bitch. But was she? Does she deserve her villainous reputation?
Verdict: No. The duchess was part of a system which was based on precedence and hierarchy. In asserting her rights, she was doing no more or less than many other noble and royal figures. In doing so, of course, she made plenty of enemies. It is telling, however, that whenever her husband fell from power, she remained loyal, steadfast, and dutiful. Further, after his ultimate downfall and execution, she faced imprisonment and ultimately went on to remarry and lead, as far as anyone knows, a peaceful and trouble-free life. The system made Anne, Duchess of Somerset a touchy woman, sensitive to hierarchy. Her enemies and subsequent dramatists and novelists have made her a villain.
9. Thomas Boleyn, 1st Earl of Wiltshire
Thomas Boleyn is routinely castigated as a nasty piece of work: a Machiavellian figure who pimped out his daughters to a concupiscent King Henry VIII in return for power and influence. It’s not unusual to see him portrayed on television and in film as a greedy, grasping figure, unmoved by his children’s downfall. But was he?
Verdict: Not really. Boleyn was a mover and shaker before the rise of Anne Boleyn in Henry VIII’s life: he was a champion jouster, a diplomat, and an up-and-comer at court. Indeed, when his daughter Anne first rose to prominence, he was reportedly against the affair – but what could he do? His career certainly benefitted from his daughters’ (first Mary and then Anne’s) involvement with Henry VIII, but in the end Boleyn was forced to stand back as his son and daughter were cruelly condemned. He lived on for only three years, but in the end he is better viewed as a victim rather than a villain.
8. Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk
Norfolk is another favourite amongst TV scriptwriters and filmmakers, lately expertly played by Bernard Hill in the BBC’s production of Wolf Hall. I’ve always been thoroughly convinced that he was an unutterably nasty piece of work, who didn’t deserve to die in his bed. This was the man who profited by Anne Boleyn and then turned on her when she stood up to him; the man who cried crocodile tears whilst presiding over her trial; the man who ruthlessly and bloodily put down the north. But was he really a villain?
Verdict: Yes, but not for the reasons you might think – and it depends who you believe. Norfolk was the ultimate king’s man. He would fall in line with Henry’s wishes at every turn, was utterly committed to the system and his place in it, and robotically carried out whatever instructions the Crown gave him. It’s unfair to judge him a villain on that score. Where he did go beyond the pale, however, was in his treatment of his wife, Lady Elizabeth (a daughter of the 3rd Duke of Buckingham). The marriage was a failure and Norfolk began a long affair with one Bess Holland. As the marriage broke down, Lady Norfolk made serious allegations of violence committed by her husband, including his beating her, binding her, and sitting on her chest. Norfolk, however, dismissed these as ‘false lies’. If she was being truthful, he was certainly a villain (even by the standards of the day, these were serious claims). If not, we might let him off the hook as an essentially supine man who never failed to do his master’s bidding. When his own downfall came, it was in tandem with his son Surrey’s. Surrey would go to the block on curious treason charges; Henry VIII would die before Norfolk could lose his head. The old man was pardoned by Mary I and went peacefully in his sleep in 1554. It’s what he would’ve wanted.
7. Jane Boleyn née Parker, Viscountess Rochford
You had to see this one coming. Jane Boleyn is often portrayed as the ultimate woman scorned: an embittered shrew who took great delight in bringing down her sister-in-law Anne Boleyn and husband, George. Her story has been embroidered almost beyond recognition: we have seen her pass Cromwell information, enjoy any chance to engage in intrigue, and ultimately meet a deserved death on the block when her scheming with Catherine Howard came back to bite her. But how much of this is based on fact? Was she really such a villainess?
Verdict: No. There simply isn’t any contemporary evidence that Jane spitefully schemed to bring down either her husband or sister-in-law, and the forces ranged against them were far bigger than she was. Certainly, she answered questions about her husband’s relationship with his sister: those answers, amounted to little, but that hardly mattered to the investigators, who were set on trumping up charges regardless of what was said. And on the basis of her later involvement in the assignations between Catherine Howard and her lover, we can probably arrive at the truth about Jane, Viscountess Rochford. She was a rather simple soul, who had no enemies and wanted to please people. Unfortunately, those people included her husband’s enemies and a married queen in love with a man other than her husband. Given how women of the period were encouraged from childhood to do as their superiors told them without question, it’s a wonder there weren’t more Jane Rochfords – and it was her misfortune that she crossed paths with superiors who told her to do things that killed first the Boleyn siblings and then herself.
6. Henry, Lord Darnley, King of Scots
In what’s becoming a theme, we’ve all seen Darnley on film and TV, whether it was Douglas Walton’s turn as a simpering popinjay, Timothy Dalton’s as a vicious coward, or Jack Lowden’s as a violent rapist. He is routinely cast as Mary’s great folly; and she, in turn, becomes a woman who, to use a cliched phrase I’ve come to loathe, ‘ruled from the heart rather the head’. He, we are told, hid his viciousness until after the wedding, whereupon he revealed himself to be a drunken boor, potentially a homosexual (sometimes, in films, used a kind of signifier of deviance), and definitely a mistake on Mary’s part. But was he?
Verdict: No. The truth is far more interesting. Rather than Mary going weak at the knees for the reputedly handsome, tall youth, in fact the marriage was a political one. Darnley had strong claims to both the Scottish and English thrones – and the latter was of especial concern to Mary. When Darnley arrived in Scotland in 1565 (after an apparently spotless period at the English court), she immediately sought about marrying him. This was not because of his looks (though presumably they helped), but rather because by marrying and side-lining him, she could neutralise a potential rival. Darnley, not overburdened with intelligence, complied, thinking he had won the proverbial watch. It was only when Mary made clear that she did not intend for him to share power that he turned to drink, was easily led by her more rebellious nobles into a plot to murder her French secretary Riccio (a Savoyard former musician), and after the birth of their son, James, was murdered at Kirk o’ Field. He was twenty years old. Certainly, Darnley’s involvement in the Riccio murder plot was villainous – but it should be remembered that by entering into a bond with his fellow plotters, a semi-legal gloss had been given to the appalling affair. Claims that Darnley had been involved in a homosexual relationship with Riccio before the murder are bunkum, embroidered from the acknowledgement that they had shared a bed (a common practice in the period; Mary’s half-brother Moray shared one with the English ambassador on occasion, and yet neither has been tacitly labelled ‘deviant’). Darnley acted out of misguided self-interest, hoping to execute the man he’d been led to believe was sharing his wife’s bed and confidences, but this was probably more due to youthful ignorance than genuine villainy. Ultimately, he was a callow young man, beholden to the period’s ideas about male superiority and female weakness, and outclassed by a powerful female. A lightweight out of his depth? Yes. A villain? Not really.
5. Richard III
Here he is: the great villain of the Tudor era, immortalised on stage as Shakespeare’s corrupt, hunchbacked, villainous monarch. Enough has been said about Richard by both Ricardians and anti-Ricardians that his story hardly needs rehearsed. His reputation has undergone assessment and reassessment (and then the process has been repeated). It is now widely accepted that he governed rather well, that he didn’t kill his wife, and that at best he lived with a mild form of scoliosis. The idea that England under Richard was a dark, terrifying place has been thoroughly debunked. The question of his villainy therefore comes down to one question: did he kill the princes in the Tower?
Verdict: Certainly not the villain of Shakespeare’s play, but not a maligned historical hero either. If Richard did it, then it cannot be excused as a sign of the cutthroat times; even by the standards of the day, the potential murders of the princes was considered an outrage. The lack of official cover story – a sudden illness, or a tragedy affirmed by paid physicians – suggests that Richard, a capable administrator, was unprepared for the deaths. It is unlikely that, had he commanded and planned for them, he would not have provided a more conclusive and plausibly natural looking end. Of course, his error might have been entrusting the job to men who carried it out poorly. Whilst we cannot prove he ordered the slayings (and it’s extremely likely the boys were slain), we can absolutely say that he was lax in protecting them. He allowed the conditions for their murders. This does not prove villainy on his part but does prove that a careful and canny man, with whom the buck stops and who benefitted by the loss of the boys, was supremely negligent. And whilst it seems rather likely he did it, or at least that he approved it, the want of a smoking gun means that he must remain off the hook on the charge of wilful murder. We must therefore admit that the historical evidence that Richard III was a villain is lacking – but the charge of negligence and the murky circumstances provide enough circumstantial evidence that he cannot be fairly cast as a maligned hero. Ironically, Shakespeare, often castigated for doing down the dead Dick, gave more to the world than the unfortunate king, and he has ensured that Richard’s memory has lived on – to be debated amongst Ricardians and anti-Ricardians – far more than had his epic never been written.
4. Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester
The period’s religious figures are tricky ones when it comes to compiling a list such as this. Faith-based divisions have had a long history, and England’s Tudor-era see-sawing between adherence to Rome and separation has resulted in the ultimately successful Protestantism (assured during Elizabeth’s long reign) making folk devils of those prominent Catholic figures who, admittedly, undertook widescale persecutions. For that reason, Edmund ‘Bloody’ Bonner, Bishop of London, didn’t make the list: to some he is a martyr whose record of burnings is mitigated by his desire to save lives, and by the fact that his diocese simply had the highest concentration of Protestants. Yet Stephen Gardiner has fared less well. He is often seen as an extreme conservative – a man whose commitment to Catholicism led him into very personal vendettas against anyone who dared challenge his doctrinal views. Was he really that bad?
Verdict: Yes. When even Henry VIII considers you ungovernable, you’re in trouble – and Henry explicitly did not want Gardiner to have any place in the minority council operating under his son, Edward VI. Yet for all he was an unpleasant man, Gardiner led an interesting life. Operating as a secretary under Wolsey, he rose to prominence in his pursuit of Henry VIII’s divorce – and yet, ever afterwards, he was absolutely committed to keeping England’s faith, with or without the pope, as Catholic in flavour as possible. His absolutist views meant that he was an enemy to such reformers as Cromwell, Cranmer, and Catherine Parr. Though he fell from power under Edward VI, he rose again under Mary I, whereupon he resumed his role as a persecutor, eventually dying in 1555. He might not have overseen quite as many burnings as Bonner, nor have personally turned the rack (as did another nasty, Lord Chancellor Wriothesley), but he was never likely to win any congeniality contests.
3. Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich
Rich is well known as one of the agents behind Thomas More’s downfall – the man whose testimony, probably sexed up, brought the great scholar to the block. His historical reputation remains simple: he was a weaselly profiteer (with no offence meant to weasels). Rich was one of those men who changed sides like the weather, and always seemed to emerge triumphant; he opposed the Catholic More, he enriched his coffers by the tumbling of the monasteries, he helped torture accused heretic Anne Askew, and despite his cruelty to Mary I during her youth, he survived her reign quite cheerfully and went on to prosper under Elizabeth. Was he really such a snake?
Verdict: Yes. Rich was not just a symptom of Henry VIII’s tumultuous reign – one which saw men forced to change sides to keep the monarch’s favour – but an active participant in it. He was a liar, a profiteer, and a thoroughly repellent little worm. But … what a survivor!
2. Thomas Cromwell
It’s difficult now to divorce Thomas Cromwell from Hilary Mantel’s glorious creation. It’s easy to forget that before she had produced her sparkling, witty, charming humanist, Cromwell had long been portrayed as the definitive London hard-man: Henry VIII’s remorseless fixer. Who, then, was the real Cromwell – and was he a villain? Verdict: Yes. In working for a monster, Thomas Cromwell became one. He was, in reality, the ultimate manager – a man who made and sustained lasting (and lucrative) friendships with all the right people, and who could tackle problems others could barely anticipate. Cromwell was, above all, a realist. He knew what he wanted from life – to create a legacy and found a dynasty – and he was determined to achieve it. He understood, above all, that his success in doing so rested entirely on Henry VIII’s will, and so he would do anything – really, anything – that would give the king what he wanted. The unfortunate result was a perennial bucket of blood tossed over various scaffolds. Certainly, Cromwell was a hyper-intelligent man with a keen sense of people – how to please them and how to befriend them – and he was no brutal thug. In another lifetime, he might have been an extremely successful CEO. In still another, he might have been the right hand of a twentieth-century dictator. Cromwell, in short, got things done, and by any methods (and no sensitivity to the human cost) necessary. He went to the block himself only when he failed Henry over the Cleves match. It’s not what he would’ve wanted. But it’s no more than he’d have done to anyone else.
1. Henry VIII
There was never any doubt. Henry VIII was not Charles Laughton’s Bluff King Hal. He was a domineering, terrifying presence. From the outset of his reign, he was willing to manipulate public opinion in his favour, and as his life went on, nothing was ever his fault. But was there not a sensitive human being beneath the bluster? Was he really such a villain?
Verdict: Yes. Henry’s detractors can fairly point out his unbelievable ego and willingness to condemn wives and ministers to death. His defenders might, on the other hand, argue that he was a ruthless man in a ruthless age. Yet it is notable that even his contemporaries were frequently agog at his actions (‘how many wives,’ one asked, ‘will this king have?’). Notable too is that Henry’s subjects had to be silenced via the law (the Treasons Act 1534 made it illegal for the first time to even say certain things), which rather suggests they had something to say about him and his governance which he’d no intention of hearing. The only oddity is, of course, that the old tyrant was so swiftly recast as a hearty figure who lived on in the cultural memory as a great king. Henry has – now and then – benefitted from the period’s religious divisions, which saw him as an early architect of the Reformation via his break with Rome – a move lamented by Catholics and supported by Protestants. Yet, when he did either the right thing or the wrong thing (and depending on one’s religious position, mileage will vary), it was always for the same reason: his own desires and his governing belief in his own infallibility. Henry was a monster, to be sure – a monster of ego. Whether he was a villain or not is almost immaterial – the question of what drove him to villainous acts – whether it was upbringing, the concept of monarchy as it stood in his day, or nature – is what makes Tudor England’s greatest villain so interesting.
Richard Topcliffe As an added bonus to this hall of infamy, Richard Topcliffe, Queen Elizabeth’s torturer, deserves a special mention. Like many men of the period, Topcliffe entered the Inns of Court without intending to practice law; the Inns were then a training ground for young gentlemen. Before becoming an MP (for Beverly) he, by his own account, became a personal friend to Elizabeth herself. Thereafter, and at his own expense, he threw himself into the murky world of intelligence, casting himself as one of England’s most active spymasters during first the cold war, and then the real war, with Catholic Spain. It appears to have been both his job and his pleasure to personally rack and torture suspected Jesuits in his own home – and in the process of hunting one of them, he (or one of his followers) took part in a rape. By the account of one Jesuit, who survived his encounter with Topcliffe, the torturer also harboured strange fantasies about Queen Elizabeth. As he engaged his prisoner in conversation, he allegedly boasted, ‘that he was so familiar with Her Majesty that he many times putteth his hands between her breasts and paps and in her neck; that he hath not only seen her legs and knees, but feeleth them with his hands above her knees; that he hath felt her belly, and said unto Her Majesty that she had the softest belly of any woman kind.’ Elizabeth supposedly – and rather lasciviously – then asked ‘be these not the arms, legs, and body of King Henry?’ The mind reels.
Verdict: Topcliffe appears to have been a sadist, when sexual fantasy and torture were merely a glint in the Marquis de Sade’s eye.