The [Secretive] Death of Henry VIII

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Henry VIII died on January 28, 1547, some 37 years after he ascended the throne at just 17. It would be another three days before England was made aware. From within the halls of his court at Westminster, Henry’s death remained a closely guarded secret even as food was dutifully carried in to his private chambers at meal times with all expected fanfare.

Henry’s death ushered in the reign of his nine-year-old son, Edward VI, whose age necessitated a minority government the strength of which was premised on the loyalty of Tudor courtiers – the same men who had spent over a decade working for a king who increasingly resembled a tyrant.

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Henry VIII’s Last Execution & His Daughter-in-Law

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About a year ago we covered the early Howards, including John, 1st Duke of Norfolk who saw his rise through the Yorkist kings, and his son, Thomas, Earl of Surrey, who managed to work his way into the favor of Henry VII. The family’s ascent was solidified by the 1495 marriage of Thomas’s eldest son and heir to Queen Elizabeth’s younger sister, Anne. Unfortunately the only product of the marriage was a short-lived son who passed away around the age of 10. Anne herself died of unknown causes in 1511 and her widower found himself in need of another wife.

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The Flanders Mare: Anne of Cleves

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Poor Anne of Cleves, relegated to history as “the ugly one.” Her marriage to Henry VIII is now viewed as a short blip in-between the domestic dramas of Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour and the scandal of Katherine Howard’s (presumed) adultery and execution. In fact, this fourth marriage of the King’s was important for what it signified – a foreign alliance arranged in the midst of frightening religious factionalism in the English government. The demise of their union – it would last roughly six months – also saw the downfall of the infamous Thomas Cromwell, risen up by the Boleyn family a decade before.

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The Case of Katherine Howard

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While Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn loom the largest of Henry VIII’s wives, all six women have provided controversy and prompted debate centuries after their deaths. Henry’s fifth wife, Katherine Howard, is no exception. Married to the King on July 28, 1540 and executed on February 13, 1542, her reign was brief but littered with misinformation and its legacy shaped by evolving views of female sexuality and abuse.

Katherine first joined court and met Henry in 1539 when she became a lady-in-waiting to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. At that point, Henry had been a widower for two years following the death of Jane Seymour, and his marriage was masterminded by his councilor, Thomas Cromwell, who was determined to find another queen consort who would complement the Protestant Church of England and the ongoing dissolution of the monasteries. Unfortunately for Cromwell, Anne failed to please Henry and he instead fell for the adolescent Katherine Howard, niece to Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, and cousin of his deceased second wife, Anne Boleyn.

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The Rise of the Dukes of Norfolk: The Marriage of Thomas Howard and Anne of York

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Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk

Of all the characters that made up Henry VIII’s court, perhaps none are as famous as his second wife, Anne Boleyn, except the King himself. Equally as notorious was the family behind her – the Boleyns, yes, but also the immensely powerful Howards. At their head was Anne’s uncle, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk (her mother, Elizabeth, was his sister).

By the time Thomas ascended the dukedom in 1524, he was already a central figure in Tudor politics. Ten years later, when his niece was on the throne, he seemed unstoppable. Indeed, he was a force to be reckoned with, even up against the skills of Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell. Like a cat with nine lives, he managed to survive Anne’s downfall in 1536. He saw life again when another of his nieces, this one via his brother, Edmund, married Henry as his fifth wife – the ill-fated Katherine Howard. Once again, he made it through her divorce and execution in 1542.

It wouldn’t be until his eldest son and heir, Thomas, Earl of Surrey, began to eye the throne in preparation of Henry VIII’s death that father and son would be arrested in December 1546. Surrey would be executed on January 19, 1547, while Norfolk would be granted a reprieve by Henry VIII dying before his execution was carried out. His life spared, he spent Edward VI’s reign in the Tower of London, only to be released when Mary I ascended the throne in 1553 and he was duly restored to his offices and titles for the remainder of his life.

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