Crowning glory: A Tudor popularity contest

By Hannah Silverman

In a popularity contest for Henry’s favourite wife, it’s a pretty clear win for Jane Seymore. Despite being his half-way bride, Jane produced a male heir and now lies next to Henry in Windsor Castle’s St George’s Chapel, presumably for all eternity and all that jazz. No competition.

To be fair Jane also didn’t live long enough to be accused of treason, heresy, adultery, witchcraft, flirting, hurting the king’s feelings or any other execution-warranting crime. But she gave Henry a son and really, that was all that mattered.

But to the public, little attention is given to Jane in comparison to Henry’s most famous wife, Anne Boleyn. Anne with her mysterious demise, her cunning marital masterminding and, of course, that gorgeous pearl ‘B’ necklace that almost puts Carrie’s signature golden chain in Sex and the City to shame. So why isn’t similar attention given to the other five wives whose stories are equally as compelling?

Anne Boleyn
The infamous portrait of Anne Boleyn with the gorgeous pearl necklace. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London

I was reading a fun blog on Historical Honey recently about how the author was warming to Henry’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves – and there’s a woman who certainly deserves a sob story and a violin melody. Anne of Cleves was plucked out of her home country in Germany on the whim of an aging monarch in search of his next queen and heir.

But historic airbrushing seems to have been a thing because Henry took one look at her and called a ‘no deal’ on the marriage virtually straight away, annulling it after failing to be “inspired” in the bedroom. He complained that there was little resemblance from real life Anne to the Hans Holbein painting which he based his relationship on (as you do if you’re into things like Tinder or internet dating). Fortunately, it all worked out well for this Anne in the end; she was treated as the kings’s ‘beloved sister’ and given jewels and real estate and honour and the right to keep her head. Basically, she won at life, but not in the eyes of public interest.

Anne of Cleves
Anne of Cleves failed to ‘inspire’ her husband. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Historical Honey’s post got me thinking. Why is Anne Boleyn generally considered the “favourite” among consumers of Tudor tales? She’s favoured by cinema and literature yet arguably Henry VIII’s other wives have just as intriguing storylines, and in some cases, potentially more so.

I understand the intrigue around Anne Boleyn’s life and associates is fascinating. The players include the dominating father, Thomas Boleyn, and her power-hungry uncle, Thomas Howard, not to mention her sister’s relationship with the king before Anne cut her lunch and made him put a ring on it. Anne was witty, beautiful (although supposedly not as much as the others) and smart, until her alleged flirtations at court famously led her to scaffold. Other than portraits on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London, there is very little else we know for visual certainty about these queens (and even that is topically in question), still Anne Boleyn is the one that comes to most minds.

Interestingly, Anne Boleyn’s controversies sounds a lot like her cousin and Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard, to me, and she is rarely discussed in popular forums. Catherine was a 19-year-old when she married the king who was rife with illness and almost 50-years-old when they tied the knot. So there’s less of the romantic allure that Anne’s courtship suggests, but here’s where Catherine’s story gets messier and scandalously more interesting.

Catherine Howard
Henry referred to Catherine Howard as his ‘rose without a thorn’. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London.

Like Anne, Catherine had the gift of the flirt and attracted the roving eye of many a courtier. She was also the only other of Henry’s wives to be condemned to death. But before she lost favour, she had more riches than a teenage pop star and revelled in the attention she was showered.

Catherine, again like Anne, was accused of a series of sexual flings before marriage and those who knew whispers of these alleged affairs came forward, some say demanding money and other such favours in exchange for silence. There were also rumours during her marriage that she engaged in several affairs including with a junior member of the king’s privy council, Thomas Culpepper. Catherine is even said to have referenced him in final words before her execution, too: “I die a queen but would rather die the wife of Culpepper”.

And what of the others? Katherine of Aragon is known for her humiliating inability to produce a son and as the victim in one of the greatest, and certainly the most dramatic, love triangles of Tudor times. This perspective is rarely explored, perhaps because pop culture haven’t been able to find a twist to her otherwise impeccable faithfulness to the king. Was she quite simply too beige to rise to modern day prominence?

Then there’s Catherine Parr, who outlived Henry and finally upon her widowed status, married her former flame, Thomas Seymour (yes, Jane’s brother). Did I mention Catherine was already twice-widowed by the time she married Henry? And there’s another Hollywood plot the silver screen hasn’t yet touched.

Credit National Portrait Gallery in London
Catherine Parr’s four marriages certainly make for an interesting narrative, too. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London.

Indeed many of the stories surrounding the background of the queen’s lives are just as interesting, but not as well known as each other. Not as mysterious. Not as inciting of debate. Should that inspire further research or a commercial eye? Should the media get involved? Hilary Mantel? Baz Luhrmann? Andrew Lloyd Webber? Would a stronger portrayal of these women in the public domain shift the imbalance of their varying degrees of fame? There certainly seems to be enough material there to play with.

To my mind, Anne is crowned as the most popular because of the mystery surrounding her demise and her questionable guilt. She is also so iconic because there is plenty already written about her, particularly as she was the catalyst for the controversial break from Rome, a further scandal that would have been widely discussed and reported on at the time. At the heart of the Anne Boleyn legacy is a love story of courtly passion that divided a church and indeed a nation for years to come. Perhaps the story of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII is just a sexier narrative that draws on a feminine strength and rebellion that is more relatable today than the pious, conserved etiquette Tudor history demanded of their women.

Going forward, I’d like to learn more about the lesser known queens and their courts. While courses, books and other such literature is available, travellers to England have the added benefit of visiting the very sites that set the scenes. I’m touching on that next.

It’s all very well to play favourites, or choose characters of history that resonate with us for certain reasons, but pop culture needs to remember that every queen has her story.

Coming up soon, the English sites you can travel to today to get to know Henry VIII’s six Queens.

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4 thoughts on “Crowning glory: A Tudor popularity contest

    1. Hi, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I haven’t read that book, will have to look it up since it comes so highly acclaimed! I think Anne was definitely hard done by, but at least she didn’t end up on the scaffold and certainly was shamed no more than a very public dumping. Anne of Cleves the movie? I’d go!

      1. The book is an oldie-but-goodie, published in the late 1940s but has been reprinted since then. She also wrote an Anne Boleyn novel, ‘Brief Gaudy Hour’. I’d definitely go to an Anne of Cleves movie! 🙂

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