Post-classical history


1535–6: The Lady Mary and the White Rose

‘The finger of God in those men’s blood.’

Reginald Pole, Apologia to Charles V1

In 1536 during a tournament at Greenwich the king, who had put on weight in recent years, fell heavily from his horse. For several hours he remained unconscious so that there were grave fears for his life. He never jousted again. He also gave up hunting, and instead had deer driven past a stand from where he could shoot them with a bow.

Earlier falls may have inflicted cumulative brain damage of the type suffered by boxers. Since 1519 his concentration had been hindered by headaches that became increasingly severe, while he was tormented by a sore on his leg, an ulcerated vein or a bone infection. When he ceased to take exercise after his fall, his already gross body swelled to a truly vast size, making him feel even more ill. It affected his temper, his furious rages causing him to aim blows at anyone within reach: Cromwell was beaten about the head at least twice a week. Yet this ferocity – he became the only English monarch to burn women alive for treason – owed more to an already unbalanced temperament than brain damage. The collapse of his health did not so much change his personality as aggravate an innate savagery.2 Even before the fall, he had been fearsome enough. His religious revolution had gathered pace after the Act of Supremacy of 1534 completed the break with Rome and created him ‘Supreme head on earth of the Church of England’. Gifted with an insight denied to previous English monarchs, Henry had realized during the impasse over his divorce that the Bishop of Rome possessed no more authority outside his diocese than any other bishop, and that the provinces of York and Canterbury formed a separate Church. Anyone who disgreed with this revelation risked losing his life.

A new Treason Act proscribed the death penalty for anyone who should ‘deny’ the king any of his titles, or who stated in writing or by word of mouth that he was ‘a heretic, a schismatic, a tyrant or an infidel’. (A testimony to what many people thought of Henry VIII and his policies.) Also denounced in the Treason Act was anyone who declared ‘our sovereign lord’ was ‘a usurper of the crown’. Generally overlooked, this can only refer to Yorkists.3

England soon realized that it had become a very dangerous place. In April 1535 three Carthusian priors were executed at Tyburn with spectacular cruelty for refusing to accept Henry as head of the Church. Opposition or criticism infuriated him. When Pope Paul III made Bishop John Fisher a cardinal in May as a reward for his uncompromising loyalty to Rome, the enraged king had him beheaded the next month – although he did not carry out his threat of sending Fisher’s skull to Rome so that it could wear the red hat.

Sir Thomas More, the former Lord Chancellor, a brilliant scholar and writer who was admired not just in England but all over Europe, followed the bishop to the scaffold in July. Once upon a time he had been among Henry’s closest friends. They were keen astronomers and had watched the stars together from the roof of Greenwich Palace. The king had liked to arrive unannounced at his house in Chelsea, to dine and then stroll around the garden with him arm in arm. However, because of his reputation Sir Thomas was capable of rallying massive opposition, so that it made political sense to eliminate him.

While the pair undoubtedly died for their consciences, the king’s decision to kill them was prompted by more than their loyaty to Rome. Where Fisher was concerned, Cromwell was only stating the facts when he told Sir John Wallop to tell Francis I they had been executed because of ‘their treasons, conspiracies and practises secretly practised as well within the realm as without’ – for planning ‘the destruction of the King’. Although Cromwell could not produce any evidence, by now he had plainly learned something about Fisher’s attempts to start a rebellion. As for More, even if he had not been actively involved he would certainly have approved whole heartedly of Henry’s replacement by the impeccably Catholic Lady Mary.4

Behind the executions, the White Rose party saw a message from on high that Henry was too wicked to remain King of England. Devout Catholics, both Lady Salisbury and Lady Exeter must already have been shocked by the spread of the ‘New Learning’. The break with Rome horrified them. Attributing it entirely to Henry’s passion for Anne Boleyn, they felt, as Elizabethan papists would put it, that the reformed Church of England had come out of the king’s codpiece.

Although Bergavenny’s death in June 1535 was a heavy blow for the White Rose, Lord Darcy remained determined to overthrow Henry. It says volumes that for many months the authorities would not let him return to the North. They knew he was planning something but could not discover what. While detained in London, Darcy sent an aged kinsman to Chapuys, probably Dr Marmaduke Waldby, a prebendary of Carlisle, who told the ambassador he was going to see the emperor and find out if he really meant to help them – if not, they would rise by themselves. Warned that such a mission might alert Henry’s government, the old man answered that once Darcy was back in the North Country there would be no need to worry. Yet when Lord Darcy finally went home he reluctantly decided that he could do nothing without imperial assistance.

The Lady Mary was widely pitied for being disowned by her father and kept away from her mother. It was said that the new queen was constantly urging Henry to have the ‘Princess Dowager’ and her daughter put to death, and that she was humiliating Mary in all sorts of petty ways: ordering a lady-in-waiting to box her ears, trying to have her made a servant to the little Princess Elizabeth. Mary had become a key figure in the White Rose programme and a latent threat to the king.

As it was, Henry grew increasingly irritated by Mary’s refusal to accept the Acts of Supremacy and Succession. At the end of 1535 Lady Exeter warned Chapuys that she had heard that the king was telling his councillors he was tired of all the trouble the princess dowager and her daughter were causing him, and meant to do something about it when Parliament met, which sounded as if he was thinking of getting rid of them by legal murder. It may have been no more than bluster, but it frightened their friends. ‘The Marchioness swears this is true as the Gospel and begs me to inform your Majesty and prays you to have pity on the ladies,’ reported Chapuys.6

Chapuys had grown devoted to the ex-queen and her daughter, and not merely because they were his master’s kindred. In dispatches he stressed how popular Queen Katherine remained, not only among the upper classes but with the common people, who were constantly risking their lives to cheer her. He invariably referred to Henry’s new consort as the ‘whore’ or the ‘concubine’ and called her daughter Elizabeth ‘the little bastard’. He himself was only too anxious for Emperor Charles to rescue Katherine and Mary, yet at the same time had grown nervous about recommending an invasion.

Chapuys spent several days with the princess dowager at Kimbolton Castle, just before she died in January 1536 – expressing her sadness that she could not see her husband for a last farewell. Even her daughter was not allowed to visit her. The king and Queen Anne greeted the news of her death with unseemly delight, dressing in yellow as soon as they heard, instead of wearing mourning. ‘God be praised!’ cried Henry. ‘We are free from all suspicion of war’ – by which he meant that Charles V was unlikely to invade England now that his aunt was dead. No doubt the White Rose folk thought so too and that there was no longer even a faint hope of being rescued by the emperor.

The King’s tournament fall took place shortly after this, making him more dangerous than ever. Despite her rejoicing at Katherine’s death, by now Anne Boleyn was terrified of him, and with reason. On 29 January she suffered another mis carriage, producing a stillborn male child. Not only had she lost her looks and grown painfully thin but, far worse, she had failed to bear the long-desired son and ensure the succession. Moreover, Henry had belatedly discovered, after their marriage, that she was really a rather horrible woman – vindictive, arrogant, domineering and vile-tempered. In any case, he had half fallen in love with one of her ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour.

Besides anatagonizing her uncle Norfolk and a whole host of other courtiers, Anne was stupid enough to make an enemy of Thomas Cromwell, who decided his survival depended on destroying her. Somehow, he learned she had not been a virgin when Henry married her and this discovery had angered the king, especially after her long refusal to become his mistress. Together with Norfolk, for once his ally, Cromwell planted misgivings about her fidelity in the perennially suspicious mind of Henry, who in April set up an official commission to investigate Anne’s private life. Cromwell seized the opportunity to fabricate a list of scabrous accusations.

On 2 May Queen Anne was sent to the Tower, and that evening, bathed in tears, Henry told the Duke of Richmond and the Lady Mary that she had been planning to poison them. Later, he claimed that since her marriage Anne must have committed adultery with at least a hundred men. His lack of balance is apparent from Chapuys’s description of how, after giving vent to frenzied outbursts about being betrayed, he passed his evenings in joyous musical parties on the river in a gilded barge filled with ladies, returning to Greenwich or York House during the small hours of the morning, in an age when most men and women rose at 4 a.m.

A fortnight later, Anne was tried at the Tower before an audience of over 2,000, to be found guilty of preposterous charges of adultery with four lovers and of incest with her brother, despite her convincing rebuttals. She was even accused of plotting her husband’s death, together with her alleged paramours. (The five unfortunate men had already gone to the scaffold.) Her sentence was burning or beheading, at the king’s pleasure. Henry graciously settled for the latter. She went to the block on 19 May, less than three weeks after her arrest, dying under the sword instead of the axe with admirable courage.

Within under a fortnight her husband had married her former lady-in-waiting Jane Seymour. A pale, gentle, mouselike blonde from an old but undistinguished family of Wiltshire knights, not very clever, the new queen was a tranquil-tempered, good-natured and kindly young woman, who upset nobody.

England rejoiced for days on end at ‘the ruin of the concubine’. Everybody believed that now both Anne and Katherine were dead, Henry would return to Rome, while they were delighted by the prospect of the Lady Mary recovering her position. If Chapuys is to be believed, even Queen Jane suggested to Henry that Mary should be reinstated, only to be told she was a fool for asking such a favour. But it was clear that ‘the concubine’s little bastard’ (the future Queen Elizabeth) would also be excluded from the succession.

Even so, Lord Hussey and his wife remained convinced that Mary was going to regain her position as heir to the throne. Had Lady Hussey known about the dreams of the White Rose party, devoted to the Lady Mary as she was, she would certainly have been in sympathy with them. Visiting her in June, she was heard referring to Mary as ‘the princess’, by which she meant Princess of Wales, and was promptly arrested, while her husband was dismissed from his post as the girl’s chamberlain. Sent to the Tower for interrogation, Lady Hussey was not released until the end of September, her health seriously damaged. The king thought she had been encouraging his daughter’s refusal to accept the Act which disinherited her.

By now Henry was so infuriated by his daughter’s obstinacy that he threatened to have her executed. In the end, Chapuys persuaded the isolated, humiliated, girl – who was suffering from constant bouts of painful ill health – to give in and to acknowledge her father as head of the Church. Finally, she accepted that she had become a bastard, even if it meant renouncing her loyalty to Rome and her mother’s memory. Otherwise she would have gone to the scaffold – some of the council were urging the king to put her to death.

In the ambassador’s view, her treatment was intended as a warning to her supporters. Besides Lady Hussey, others who had hoped for Mary’s reinstatement were questioned, among them Lord Exeter and the Treasurer Sir William FitzWilliam, who for a time were not allowed to attend meetings of the council, together with the Master of Horse Sir Nicholas Carew and some gentlemen of the Privy Chamber. Soon a new Succession Act stipulated that the throne must be inherited by Jane Seymour’s children or whoever the king should name in his will. The Act was aimed at the Aragonese–White Rose faction, of whose aims Cromwell and the king were by now well aware.

The fact remained, however, that Queen Jane was still childless. The Lady Mary’s submission to her father did nothing to lessen her popularity, but only increased the pity that people felt for a young princess so cruelly and unjustly bullied into renouncing her inheritance. She remained a rallying point for supporters of the old religion, who at that date included most English men and women. Everybody was delighted when Queen Jane at last prevailed, and in December 1536 Mary was summoned to court although her right to succeed to the throne would not be restored until 1544. They looked forward more than ever to the day when she would replace Henry as their sovereign. Ironically, a Tudor had become the White Rose families’ greatest asset.

24. 1535–6: The Lady Mary and the White Rose

1. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. XIV (i), 200

2. The best study of this character change is S. Lipscomb, 1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII, London, Lion Hudson, 2009.

3. G.R. Elton, The Tudor Constitution: Documents and Commentary, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1960, no. 30, p. 62.

4. For the spy network run by Cromwell, see G.R. Elton, Policy and Police, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1972.

5. R.B. Merriman, Life and Letters of Thomas Cromwell, 2 vols, Oxford, 1902, vol. 1, no. 113.

6. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. IX, 776.

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