For some figures in extended royal history, it’s easy to capture them in a single post. With others that’s less true simply because of the wealth of information out there. I’m never going to write a post that’s a straight up and down summary of the life of Henry VIII, for example, or really any monarch. Instead, aspects of their life will be written about over time…unless I suddenly find myself able to knock out 20,000 words in a sitting.
This is certainly true of Elizabeth I as well, which is why she hasn’t been written about too much here so far. But she will be, little by little, and today we’re going to take a beat to consider her relationship with Thomas Seymour.
I refer to him as the second man in Elizabeth’s life since the first would obviously be her father, Henry VIII. But perhaps a more accurate summation would be that Thomas was the second man in Elizabeth’s life that makes it seem less unusual that she never married, because let’s be honest, these really weren’t top notch examples of men were they?
So, who was Thomas Seymour? Thomas was the brother of Jane Seymour, the woman who replaced Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, as Henry’s wife and queen. Literally. Henry and Jane married less than 24 hours after Anne’s execution and about a year and a half later Jane died shortly after giving birth to Henry’s only surviving legitimate son, the future Edward VI. From that point onward, the Seymours were regular fixtures of Henry’s court, and though the same couldn’t be said for Elizabeth, she would certainly have known Thomas since girlhood.
Their paths crossed meaningfully again in 1547 when Thomas secretly married another of Elizabeth’s stepmothers, Katherine Parr, who had been widowed by Henry’s death earlier that year. Apparently eager to wed, and perhaps in love, the two didn’t wait what was considered a suitable or respectful mourning period, infuriating Elizabeth’s older sister, Princess Mary.
But Elizabeth was extremely fond of Katherine and her father’s death had left her an orphan at only 13. Elizabeth joined Katherine’s household and Thomas became a sort of stepfather.
The two already had a bit of backstory. Thomas was an attractive bachelor and well-positioned as the new king’s uncle. Kat Ashley, Elizabeth’s governess, seems to have been under the impression in the years leading up to Henry’s death that Thomas was a serious contender for Elizabeth’s hand. Those rumors heightened once Edward ascended the throne, and Thomas reportedly considered making an offer of marriage to either Mary or Elizabeth. Thomas’s brother’s ascent to Lord Protector knocked the possibility out of the water thanks to a little sibling rivalry – or perhaps just common sense on Edward Seymour’s part, as we’ll see.
Instead Thomas comforted himself with Katherine Parr, who seems to have genuinely cared for him. To Ashley, who expressed regret that he hadn’t made a play for Elizabeth, he responded, “Nay, I love not to lose my life for a wife. It has been spoken unto, but it cannot be.”
And so that could have been the end of that.
Thomas moved into Katherine’s household once their marriage was discovered and quickly took over as its head, becoming a popular figure with the house’s occupants at every rank. To quote Elizabeth’s biographer, Anne Somerset:
“The Lord Admiral [Thomas] also possessed an ability to communicate with young people which was particularly remarkable in an age when adults were not expected to make an effort to understand them, and as a result Elizabeth was captivated by his glamour and magnetism. Indeed, she developed something of an adolescent crush on the Admiral, for the most observant members of the household noted that she habitually blushed on hearing his name, and appeared pleased if he was praised in her presence.”
Unfortunately, the adults in question didn’t act like adults – though, to be fair, the line between girl and woman was a bit different in Tudor England and Elizabeth was on the cusp of being of a suitable age for marriage. Not, however, with a married man, and certainly not with a man married to her beloved stepmother.
But Thomas liked to tease Elizabeth, engaging her in playful banter that crossed the line into outright flirtation. He took to coming into her bedchamber first thing in the morning before she was fully clothed, which occasionally also included “[striking] her upon the back or on the buttocks familiarly.” If she was still in bed he would pull back the curtains and attempt to reach her there, once going so far as to try and kiss her.
At first, none of this was stopped by Ashley, but over time, as the “playfulness” only increased, she began to have second thoughts. When Thomas came to visit the princess while only wearing a nightshirt, she told him, “It was an unseemly sight to come so bare-legged to a maiden’s chamber.” Ashley went to Katherine, who decided to accompany Thomas on his visits, but this only led to them both holding her down and tickling her, Katherine apparently not sensing anything nefarious in the interactions.
Less innocent, though, was an incident in the house’s garden when Katherine held Elizabeth back as Seymour cut her gown “in a hundred pieces.” At some point the Dowager Queen’s perception shifted. By the early months of 1548 she was pregnant with her first child and it seems that somewhere in this window of time something occurred which changed her mind about the nature of her husband’s relationship with her stepdaughter. At one point Ashley told another servant that Katherine had found Elizabeth in Thomas’s arms, but she later denied it, saying Katherine had told her that Thomas had seen Elizabeth embracing a strange man, a story Ashley believed was meant to make her watch her charge more closely.
Whatever the case, Elizabeth was sent from the house for an extended trip, Katherine giving her a stern lecture about the vulnerabilities of her position as an unmarried princess. Away from Thomas and his visits, Elizabeth reached out to her stepmother and thanked her for her wisdom, her words bearing more than a little hint of an apology for whatever transpired.
By that September, unfortunately, Katherine was dead. Having delivered a daughter, she appears to have fallen prey to childbed fever. For Elizabeth what this meant was that Thomas was once again single – or, more accurately, it’s what Ashley wanted it to mean for her. The Princess, meanwhile, was disinclined to go back down that road.
That Christmas, Elizabeth found herself without a London residence and sent one of her servants to Thomas to see if he could be of service in scrounging something up. Instead, he offered her a place in his own home and, while he had the ear of a member of Elizabeth’s household, he also inquired in detail about her finances. When the servant relayed this to his mistress she appeared pleased, but she was less so when he asked her directly if she would marry him if Council agreed to it.
In typical Elizabeth fashion, she responded, “When that comes to pass I will do as God shall put in my mind.”
Unfortunately, Thomas was roped up in any number of schemes, not least of which was attempting to gain control of his nephew, Edward VI, to the detriment of his older brother. That, alongside illegal financial activity and the discovery of his plans to marry Elizabeth, was enough to secure his arrest, as well as that of the servant Elizabeth had sent to London and Ashley.
Elizabeth, meanwhile, was interrogated over the course of a few weeks by a member of Edward Seymour’s Council, who was attempting to secure a full confession from her. But even at 15 Elizabeth was a skilled politico and she gave away only what she had to while otherwise holding her cards close to the vest. What she couldn’t account for, however, was the full confession of her servants, who broke under fear in the Tower and gave a full account of all of Thomas’s visits to her bedchamber and the entire unhealthy dynamic in Katherine’s house.
Luckily, for all that their confessions were embarrassing, they also made it clear Elizabeth had no intention of committing treason, insisting that the marriage would never have gone through without the consent of Council. Elizabeth and her servants would eventually be set at liberty, but Thomas wasn’t so lucky. He was tried, found guilty and condemned to death, beheaded on the orders of his brother on March 20, 1549.
Again, to quote Somerset:
“[T]hough she had been realistic enough to resign herself to Seymour’s fate, this did not mean that she was indifferent to it. While it would be an exaggeration to say that the Seymour affair permanently stunted Elizabeth’s emotional development – her feelings had not been sufficiently deeply engaged for that – the Lord Admiral did not go unmourned.
“She gave some indication of her true feelings five years after Seymour’s execution, when her sister Mary was on the throne, and she herself was ordered to the Tower on suspicion of treason. Terrified that she would be condemned without having been given a chance to explain herself to the Queen, she wrote to Mary begging her to reconsider. Hoping to move her sister, she told her that she had heard the Duke of Somerset [Edward Seymour] say of his brother’s execution that if Seymour had been allowed ‘to speak with him he never suffered, but persuasions were made to him so great, that he has brought in belief that he could not live safely if the Admiral lived; and that made him consent to his death.’
“Not only is it clear that Elizabeth believed the Lord Admiral’s death to have been unjustified, but it is notable that even when facing the greatest crisis of her life, she found the memory of his fate so poignant that she thought her sister could not fail to be moved by it.”
I agree with this assessment to a point. Certainly this event in a vacuum didn’t form Elizabeth’s character or outlook on life – and as we can see from Elizabeth’s demeanor, intelligence and raw skill, a great deal of her personality was likely nature and not nurture – but taken together with her childhood leading up until this point and we have a clear pattern. She saw, time and again, people undone by love, sex and attraction. She saw women’s reputations and futures trashed by a failure to comport themselves correctly, or even simply by becoming the victims of a rumor. She saw women’s fortunes made off men’s esteem, specifically via their physical appearance.
If we want to pin point a fact of life that likely scarred Elizabeth the most, it was probably learning that her mother was executed by her father on charges of adultery and incest. But consider, too, that perhaps the first man for whom she ever developed feelings ended up meeting her mother’s exact fate – beheaded at the Tower on debatable evidence.
Did Thomas make or break Elizabeth? No, probably not. But this event did nothing to untangle a belief that marriage, men and love meant a loss of one’s control, power and even life.