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Cream Tea With Six Tudor Queens: Fun at the castle with a well-deserved heroic winner

When one thinks of Hever Castle, they think of beautiful Kentish countryside, a stunning Medieval castle and a romantic backdrop for one of the most written-about periods in English History. Anne Boleyn, the ill-fated second wife of King Henry VIII is arguably one of the castles most famous past residents. However, on Sunday, a panel of six fantastic Tudor historians put forward arguments to help persuade the audience as to which queen should be considered the most significant of all of Henry's wives.

All while enjoying a lovely cream tea! What could possibly be more English?!

Hever castle is known as ‘The Childhood Home of Anne Boleyn’, so many people would be forgiven for feeling she had an unfair advantage in a corner of Kent that some would consider to be her stronghold. However, during a dry Sunday afternoon sipping tea and eating scones and Jam, we were invited to hear six incredible historians and vote on which of Henry’s wives we should give our attention to. Hever has always been somewhere close to my heart. Considering it is the place which started my historical journey and now only ten miles up the road from my home, it is no surprise I was positively itching to get to these event. I have also been a reader and admirer of many of the historians on the bill, so to hear them speak was a fabulous excuse to spend my Sunday at the castle. What I also loved about the event was the fact that they were all together. Due to work and other commitments, sometimes it is hard to get to many different historical festivals where I could hear them speak, so having them all under one roof was a real treat.

First to defend their chosen queen was the incredible Amy Licence! Amy gave a fantastic defence of Catherine of Aragon and it was amazing to see her in person as I have wanted to hear her give a talk for a very long time. Amy is a historian, journalist and author who has written some of my favourite works on the Tudor period, including one on the queen she represented, Catherine of Aragon. So to see and hear her talk about Catherine was fabulous.

Her work 'Woodsmoke and Sage' was a Christmas present in 2022 and I could not put it down. For anyone who has not read it, it details how people from many different walks of life saw and interpreted the world around them using the things they could see, touch, smell, taste, feel and see. It was so different to think of the way the Tudors saw the world rather than just the consequences of their place in the world. Amy has such an incredible way of writing that transports you back to that time that you can almost smell the title jumping from the cover. In fact, I am even a fan of her Tudor novels that again, make you feel like you are right there, seeing it all through their eyes. You can purchase the novel series here.

Anyway........ back to Catherine!

Catherine of Aragon often gets forgotten in amongst the love affair and romantce between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, but Amy made sure that this was not the case! Catherine was Henry's queen for over twenty years and was trusted enough by Henry to govern the country when he was away fighting in France in 1513. She was also a deeply religious and regal woman who commanded dignity and respect wherever she went. Amy echoed this in her talk by noting Catherine's lineage as a princess of Spain, the daughter of two of the most powerful European rulers, Isabella and Ferdinand of Castile.

I think the one area which made the greatest impact on me was how Amy so passionately talked about Catherine's resilience during 'The King's Great Matter' and how she kept herself together for not only her own position and the succession of her daughter but astoundingly for Henry's soul. Even after everything; the humiliation of discussing the details of her wedding night with Arthur and her virginity upon her marriage to Henry, Catherine still cared what would happen to Henry due to his break with Rome. England was Catherine's adopted home and as a princess of Spain, a foreigner to the people of England, she would have had much to prove to show England her love and devotion to them, which she constantly did. By the late 1520's when she was past the age to have children and Henry had not only had many mistresses but also legitimised the son of Bessie Blount, Henry Fitzroy. Even though this had caused Catherine much anguish and public upset, she was still very popular with the English people and many were outraged by the way she was treated. As Amy concluded, in a traditionally Anne Boleyn stronghold, her efforts were met with emotional applause.

And quite rightly so!

Up next should have been Kate McCaffrey representing Anne Boleyn. Sadly Kate was unwell and could not make the event, I really hope she gets well soon. As a result, the fabulous Dr Owen Emmerson kindly stood in and read Kate's supporting argument. Kate has done some wonderful and incredible work as castle historian and assistant curator at Hever. I very much enjoyed the exhibitions Becoming Anne: Connections, Culture, Court and Catherine and Anne: Queens, Rivals, Mothers and the accompanying books which can be found here.

Excitingly, Kate is responsible for ground-breaking work on Anne Boleyn's book of hours and recently was part of the team who discovered Thomas Cromwell's book, famously detailed in a painting by Han Holbein. This was truly remarkable as the item was believed to have been lost for centuries. Again, there is an accompanying book of that discovery which I have linked here.

With this in mind, defending Anne Boleyn is something I am sure Kate does on a daily basis!

Anne Boleyn is arguably many people's 'favourite' wife and being that the event was held at Hever probably made this even more special. Yet what I liked so much about this talk was that Owen/Kate did not give their audience the same or well known story of Anne's life and why she should be considered Henry's most significant wife. In fact, I was totally drawn in by the way Katie's piece encouraged us to look at Anne as a modern and forward-thinking woman with her own mind, surrounding by other intelligent women who questioned and challenged the conventional roles women had.

Anne was educated in Europe, which was often the way for the daughters of aristocracy or successful families to improve their education and make valuable connections in other European courts. Anne's father had secured her a place in the court of Margaret of Austria who herself was acting regent of the Netherlands on behalf of her nephew Charles V. Anne impressed Margaret and she would eventually find herself in the French court, first tending Henry VIII's sister Mary and then Queen Claude. It was in France she would develop her style, etiquette, religious ideas and begin to form her own identity with thanks to another formidable woman, Marguerite de Navarre. Marguerite was an author in her own right who encouraged young women to look deeper into the notion of religious reform, something bordering on heresy in the early modern world. Heretical ideas that would give Henry legitimacy in his pursuit of a divorce with Anne and Cromwell key players. How ironic that those same strong characters would find themselves at a battle of wills that would lead to a dog-eat-dog battle between them which would ultimately lead to Anne's demise.

Anne's education and almost 'exotic' demeanour was one of the reasons Henry became so attracted to her. Anne was not traditionally beautiful by contemporaries. However, she was well skilled in how to use her best assets to her advantage. Those features were noted as being her intellect and how she was able to use her eyes in an enigmatic and charismatic way. Not only did these very things drive Henry wild for her, they also created arguably an unhealthy obsession. This is also because she denied herself to him, which simply made him want her more. No one really knows why Anne did this. Historians have debated this for a very long time, sadly we do not have Anne's letters to Henry which could hopefully give us some insight.

One theory is that she had seen how Henry discarded women he had affairs with and did not want to go the same way. After all, this was quite close to home for Anne, her sister is believed to have been his mistress at one time. Another reason is that she may have hoped he would just turn his attentions to someone else when he became bored, he did not! Henry pursued Anne for years to come, promising to make her his wife and setting England on course for changes which would have an everlasting impact. However, those changes did not include the son the king believed he so desperately needed. How ironic it would be their daughter, with Boleyn blood in her veins, would be one of our most memorable monarchs.

Kate's insightful delve into the character of Anne would also note the works of another fantastic historian, Historic Royal Palaces Joint Chief Curator, Dr Tracy Borman. Recently, Dr Borman released a fantastic book on the relationship between Elizabeth and her mother. History has led us to believe that Elizabeth shied away from any connection with Anne and built this image of 'her father's daughter'. This simply was not true. Elizabeth kept the Carey family, the children of her aunt Mary Boleyn (and possibly her half brother or sister if the rumours about Henry and Mary are to be believed) close to her in her court. She also gave them important positions and it was no secret this was down to the Boleyn connection. Borman notes that Anne was ordering fabrics for clothing for Elizabeth only days before her arrest. She also never confessed to the charges against her at the risk of never seeing her child again. Anne's stead-fast determination that Elizabeth would be heir, her final concern. It has also been argued that Anne's scaffold speech whereby she begged no one 'will meddle in my cause' was a message that any further talk against the king's actions could be at the detriment of her daughter. You can purchase the book here.

The tragedy of this tale is that Anne's failure to produce the son Henry had replaced Catherine in order to get would cause the ill-fated queen to exhibit the same maternal martyrdoms as her predecessor. Anne's refusal to confess her sins, like Catherine's refusal to grant Henry a divorce and admit his marriage to Arthur was consummated, not only sealed their fate but ironically did protect the daughters they left behind. A mother's love for her child and a child that would go on to be one of the greatest monarchs England has ever had.

Powerful stuff!

Anyone who follows these two queens and their incredible historians are going to have a daunting job! Again, not only because we were all in a 'Anne Boleyn stronghold', but because Catherine and Anne are such powerhouses in this debate already. That said, Dr Elizabeth Norton had absolutely nothing to worry about, and quite rightly so. She has many TV shows and well known films under her belt such as Digging up Britain's past and Bloody Tales from the Tower. As well as this, she has published several books on many of our favourite Tudor queens and articles for BBC History Magazine and Who Do You Think You Are?

Dr Norton herself has produced a fantastically detailed account of Jane's life and has worked hard to dismiss many of these myths about Henry's third wife. You can purchase a copy here.

Jane Seymour is often portrayed in one of two ways by both historians and popular myth and culture. On one hand she is known as 'plan Jane', the obedient and simple woman who was thrust into the ring as an alternative to Anne Boleyn by Anne's enemies. when Henry was growing tired of her after she too could not give him a male heir. Or she is seen as happy to step into the role of queen and felt nothing at marrying a the king just eleven days after the execution of his previous wife. Dr Norton argues that neither of these representations of Jane is fair or even true. In fact, we should consider how much she achieved in her short time as queen and give her credit for reuniting the king with his children, using her patronage as queen and the land she was granted to show shrewd business brain more associated with a modern day entrepreneur than an early modern monarch.

Dr Norton also argued that Jane was fully self aware of her own position and even the fact that for a queen of England, she was of lowly birth and therefore may have felt she had more to prove than the two that came before her. Jane's family were also involved in a scandal before she came to court whereby her father seems to have had an affair with her brother's wife. All of this must have played on her mind in an environment known for being cutthroat and deadly. Dr Norton also notes that Jane has an unusual connection to our current royal family in the form of Kate, the Princess of Wales. When Prince William inherits the throne, and Katherine is made consort (or queen as Camilla has been), it will be the first time since Jane sat alongside Henry VIII that a woman of her birth has become queen.

Sadly Jane's potential as a long lasting and successful Tudor queen was cut short when she succumbed to fever and died in childbirth. I think this is one of the reasons we know very little about the things she could have achieved. It is equally sad that the son she had did not live to be the king Henry had so desperately desired too. Regardless of all of this, Dr Norton did a magnificent job of showing why she deserved our vote, and the applause she received summed that up perfectly.

Yet something in me was really eager to hear the next one......

In recent years, there has been much revisionist work carried out on Henry's wives, and arguably none more so than wife number four, Anne of Cleves. I was really looking forward to this one! Anne was represented by the fantastic Sarah Gristwood. Sarah has written various books on Tudor England, including a favourite of mine, Tudors In Love, which you can purchase here. Sarah is also a regular historical expert on Sky and BBC News and this recently released her fantastic new book, Secret Voices which I highly recommend. You can get your copy here!

Traditionally we are geared towards thinking of Anne as dowdy and 'ugly' with 'odd German fashions' and repulsive to Henry VIII. Well, I think it is quite fair to say that by the time of his marriage to Anne, he was no 'oil painting' either. Speaking of oil paintings, this is of course where this whole political mess of unwanted alliances started; with a flattering painting by the renowned Tudor court painter, Hans Holbein. We are led to believe that Holbein was instructed not to paint his subject in anything other than a realistic way. Yet when Henry saw his bride-to-be when they met in Rochester for the first time, he was thoroughly underwhelmed. Pressured, he went along with the marriage until he could not longer keep up the pretence. It was during this time that Henry fell head over heels in love with Catherine Howard! The rest is history.

While this is true in the strictest of terms, it is not the full story, which Sarah ensured we all knew. Anne was no fashionista or well read like Henry's wife which shared her name. She was equally not a powerhouse European catch, like Catherine before her. She was, however, very good at showing loyalty, sensibility and keeping her head down and away from court drama and politics. Anne was no fool! She had realised very quickly the fate of those who had gone against the king. When Henry had decided upon a divorce, Anne did not contest it! In fact, he made her a lucrative deal which guaranteed her financial independence and security which would allow her to stay in England and not return to Germany. She was given Richmond Palace and Hever Castle, in fact, signs of her can still be found at the very castle we now enjoyed this talk! A fascinating article about this very subject (connected to the photo above) can be found here.

Anne was given the title of the King's Sister and in fact, seems to have been so gracious to Catherine Howard upon her marriage to the King that it was almost uncomfortable for the young bride. Yet Anne made sure she remained loyal to her adopted home and those who ruled it. When Catherine Howard fell from grace, it is said Anne's brother petitioned the king to have their marriage reinstated. However, this fell on deaf ears and one does wonder if Anne breathed a sigh of relief over that fact. Anne continued to hold a strong place in the Tudor court under both of Henry's children, Edward and Mary. Although Edward did ask her to leave her royal residence at Bletchingley Palace, Mary in fact had her once-stepmother travel alongside her sister Elizabeth in her coronation procession. Sadly, her alliance with the new queen would not last and even though Anne changed her religion upon Mary's request and adopted the Roman Catholic faith, she was implicated in the Wyatt Rebellion, even though no evidence points to this being true.

Anne would outlive Edward and die just before the reign of Mary would end. Yet she would outlive all of Henry's wives. In truth this means that the classic rhyme about Henry's wives is really, historically inaccurate. Very much like everything popular culture wants you to believe about Anne of Cleves!

Next up we have Dr Owen Emmerson once more, this time he is defending Henry's fifth wife and second queen to be executed, Catherine Howard. Dr Emmerson is no stranger to Hever castle. In fact, he spent six years working as Castle Historian and Assistant Curator and has co-written not only a fantastic book about the Boleyns at Hever Castle with the brilliant Claire Ridgeway but also two exhibition guides alongside Kate McCaffrey and their ground-breaking research on Thomas Cromwell's Book of Hours as mentioned above. Dr Emmerson has also appeared in various documentaries including The Boleyns: A Scandalous Affair, Anne Boleyn: A Condemned Queen and more recently Blood, Sex and Royalty: Anne Boleyn. With this in mind there is probably no one better to represent Anne's cousin.

Catherine Howard is often seen as young, naïve, flirtatious and highly sexualised with a string of lovers who broke the kings heart and was executed at just nineteen. Her name would indicate that she was from wealthy, aristocratic stock. Especially as the Howard family were very powerful in Tudor England. Yet this is not the case for Catherine; her father, Edmund Howard was constantly in and out of debt and as a result, Catherine was sent to live with the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. While living under the Dowager, with various other ladies of about the same age, Catherine lived a rather free and arguably modern life for a young woman of her age. There are tales of the girls sneaking down and letting in boys to have midnight feasts and in fact, while her behaviours would later be used against her in her trial, the reality is she lived much like any normal teenager in today's society.

Before arriving at court, Catherine was said to have had relationships with a few men while under the care of the Dowager, some of which would be used in her trial for adultery when she was queen. These relationships included Henry Mannox who was her music teacher and Francis Dereham who was the Dowager's secretary. Here, Dr Emmerson notes the work of historian Gareth Russell who, in his biography of Catherine comments that the relationship which took place with these men were highly inappropriate on many levels. Russell's book is a fantastic and ground-breaking work. I highly recommend it! You can purchase a copy at the link here. In fact, Dr Emmerson made an incredibly valid point here, backed by Russell's work that many people do not stop to consider, and they should! Catherine may have been higher in status than these men but they were older, more experienced in the ways of the world and ultimately groomed this young impressionable woman for their own means. In today's society that is how it would be seen and that is exactly how it should have been seen back then!

When Catherine arrived at court, she was placed in the household of Henry's fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. It is there she attracted the attention of various courtiers such as Thomas Culpeper and of course, King Henry himself! As was common during these times, if a king showed interest in a woman of the court and her position grew, so did the standing of her family. Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour's families experienced this and very soon Catherine and the Norfolk influence would also benefit from the king's attention. As the marriage between Henry and Anne was annulled, it became very clear that Henry intended Catherine to be wife number five. Throughout his reign, Henry did not seem to care about anniversaries or dates around his relationships and the people closest to him. He married Jane Seymour only eleven days after Anne Boleyn's execution and then again marries Catherine Howard on the day of Thomas Cromwell's execution. Cromwell, Henry's closest advisor, instrumental in the Reformation and Henry's establishment of his own authority in England fell out of favour thanks to the Anne of Cleves marriage. As a result, he ironically found himself suffering the same fate as one of Henry's queen he had gone toe-to-toe with only four years before.

When Catherine was Henry's queen, by all accounts she did try to fulfil her duties such as giving alms to the poor and even showing compassion to the king in his moments of pain and dark moods. However, Catherine was too young to be seriously involved in any matters of state and this naivety and immaturity was manipulated which sadly can be argued helped her downfall. It is well documented that Anne Boleyn was Catherine's cousin, but another figure prominent in both stories is Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford. Jane was married to Anne's brother George and has been painted in history as being one of the players who helped to bring about the downfall of her sister-in- law. She is also painted as the unloved wife who hated the family she married into. Whatever the truth, you would assume that being that close to scandal once would have taught Jane a few lessons. Sadly, Jane seems to have been Catherine's chief look out and even helped her meet Thomas Culpeper who Catherine appears to have fallen for while married to the king. In truth, he was probably another man who manipulated her to gain favours, money and titles amongst other things.

When Catherine was arrested for adultery, she confessed because she believed it would save her. Sadly, it did not. Jane also was driven almost mad by the fear of the axe and the king made sure his physicians declared her sane before she was executed as executing someone that was not sound in their mind was not allowed. of course, that did not stop Henry! He could and did make up many of the rules as he went along, including passing a law that all future queens must declare their sexual history before marrying the king. Sadly, Catherine was still executed on the 13th February 1452 at the Tower of London. It is said the night before her execution she practiced with the block to ensure she did not show any fear when the time came. Dr Emmerson rightly states that this shows incredible bravery for Catherine's young years and I have to agree. Both Dereham and Culpeper were also executed. Both Culpeper and Dereham were executed at Tyburn; Culpeper beheaded and Dereham faced the horrific method of being hung, drawn and quartered.

Another horrific tale of Henry's cruelty.....

Lastly of course we have, Catherine Parr. Catherine was represented by the incredible Dr Nicola Tallis. Dr Tallis took time out from her busy schedule of promoting her new work on the early years of Elizabeth I. The new and exciting book entitled Young Elizabeth: Princess. Prisoner. Queen details the turbulent life of Anne Boleyn's daughter in the years leading up to her time as one of England's most famous queens. You can purchase it here, I promise you will not be disappointed! Dr Tallis is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and has worked as a curator, researcher and lecturer who specialises in the use of jewels in late Medieval and Tudor England. She has also worked on various TV shows including Who Do You Think You Are and is one third of the Tudor Trio alongside Dr Owen Emmerson and Kate McCaffrey. You can follow them and all the exciting work they do here.

Catherine is famous for being 'the wife that got away'. However, did she really? While she survived Henry VIII, in reality she nearly found herself the third wife to end up on the scaffold due to her religious beliefs. Catherine was a devout Protestant and wanted to push forward with the Reformation Henry had started, but ultimately backtracked on. She held book study groups with ladies in her chamber and this was not only considered heresy but also the bold empowerment of women to question those in authority was something most definitely frowned upon at this time. In fact, Stephen Gardner accused Catherine of being a Protestant, something which was considered to be heresy, even though Henry had himself used the religion to secure his annulment from Catherine of Aragon those years before. Incredibly, an arrest warrant was drawn up but somehow Catherine found out about it and was able to talk the King round, something his two previous executed wives had not been able to do. This alone shows us how intelligent and articulate Catherine was.

Dr Tallis argued passionately that Catherine was not only a compassionate queen, taking on the aging and sickly Henry VIII but also confident in her role and even 'looked the part' alongside the king. Catherine loved her jewels! Not only that but she was partial to commissioning them to be made as well as miniature portraits of herself. Catherine was also a very good self promoter and would give items such as those portraits to her friends as gifts. This is one of the reasons so many images of Catherine survive. It is also a reason we can see the stunning pieces of jewellery she had made as she is often depicted wearing finery fit for the wife of a king.

Aside from her miniatures and jewellery, Catherine was also a prolific writer and produced three books in her lifetime. Not only a first for a queen but also trailblazing for a women of the time. In 1544 she published 'Psalms and Prayers', in 1545 'Prayers and Meditations' and in 1547 'The Lamentations of a Sinner'. In fact, for a Christmas present, Princess Elizabeth translated 'Prayers and Meditations' into Latin, French and Italian and presented it to her step mother and father with a cover she embroidered herself. Dr Tallis notes that one of Catherine's great achievements was the role she had in the lives of Edward and Elizabeth and even argues that Catherine's influence is one of the reasons Elizabeth would be the successful monarch she would later be.

Sadly Catherine's achievements have been overlooked in history because she was 'the one that survived'. Not only this but the end of her life is equally heart breaking as any of Henry's other tragic wives. The only difference was it was while she was married to her fourth husband, Thomas Seymour. Seymour was the uncle of Edward VI and the brother of Henry's third wife, Jane Seymour. It is believed that Catherine was in love with Thomas before the king had set his sights on her but when she realised he wanted her for his wife. As a result, she made the decision to marry the king and nurse him as she believe this was God's plan for her. When Henry passed away, Catherine married Thomas and sadly died in childbirth giving birth to a daughter, Mary. Thomas was later executed for treason by his nephew Edward VI. As well as this, baby Mary died at roughly the age of two without either parents. Not the happy ending we all are led to believe for Catherine, but nevertheless Dr Tallis helped show us all what an impressive queen she was.

After much tea and scones, the verdict was in!!

The winner, and deservingly so was Catherine of Aragon. Although I have to say I did vote for Anne of Cleeves, which I know surprised my mum! She was so very sure I would vote for Anne Boleyn. In truth, I loved all of the arguments but I felt Anne of Cleeves is going through her own rejuvenation of sorts. Historians are looking at her very differently to the 'ugly rejected one' and instead seeing her as the shrewd independent women Sarah argued she was. While I actually felt Amy's argument resonated with me the most, and Kate's take on Anne as a modern woman destroyed by misogyny, I decided to go with 'the other Anne girl'. In truth, Catherine was a deserving winner and I truly believe that public perception of her image is changing. A warrior queen who defied a king, held her ground, stayed devoted to her beloved faith and will forever be remembered as Henry's longest standing queen.

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