The hidden lives of Henry VIII's six wives

As a long-serving ambassador to the Tudor court, Eustace Chapuys was in the rare position of meeting all of Henry VIII’s consorts. Lauren Mackay, author of a book on Chapuys, reveals what his writings tell us about the queens’ characters.

This article was first published in the March 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

1) Catherine of Aragon: from beautiful warrior queen to desolate estranged wife

Catherine of Aragon was the daughter of the power couple of Europe, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, and aunt to the powerful Holy Roman emperor Charles V. She was reputedly a blue-eyed, red-haired beauty who captured Henry’s heart and the hearts of her subjects, only to be discarded after 20 years of marriage when Henry met the beguiling Anne Boleyn.

Catherine vehemently resisted attempts by Henry to replace her with Anne as his wife and queen, but she could not do this alone. Catherine needed a legal mind, someone who possessed diplomatic shrewdness, experience and cool reasoning, someone who could argue her cause before the king and maintain cordial relations between Charles V and Henry. That man was Eustace Chapuys, a gifted lawyer and diplomat at Charles’s imperial court

Following a particularly successful mediation between the royal Hapsburg family and the independent Duchy of Savoy, this accomplished Savoyard from the small town of Annecy in what is now south-east France was appointed imperial ambassador to the Tudor court.

While the conflicting accounts of Catherine’s character have been drawn more along the battle lines of the bitter divorce with Henry VIII, it is through Chapuys’ dispatches that she is revealed to us as a fearless warrior queen – who defeated the Scots in battle in 1513 – and a vulnerable, desolate wife.

A portrait of Catherine of Aragon. Chapuys was bowled over by her “sheer kindness and benevolence”. © Art Archive

Catherine’s admiration of Chapuys is evident in her correspondence with Charles: “You could not have chosen a better ambassador, his wisdom encourages and comforts me, and when my councillors through fear hesitate to answer the charges against me, he is always ready to undertake the burden of my defence... I consider him deserving of all your favour.”

Catherine was cast aside by her husband and the court and eventually neglected by her nephew Charles. And so Chapuys became her counsellor, advisor, advocate, life coach and her window to the world.

In 1536, with Catherine clearly ailing after her seven-year battle with Henry, Chapuys rushed to her bedside to once again rally her spirits. He reported on what would be their last meeting: “She was pleased, out of sheer kindness and benevolence, and without any occasion or merit it on my part, to thank me for the many services which, she said, I had rendered her on former occasions, as well as the trouble I had taken in coming down to visit her, at a time too when, if it should please God to take her to Himself, it would at least be a consolation to die as it were in my arms, and not all alone like a beast.”

Catherine died at Kimbolton Caste in Cambridgeshire as Chapuys was returning to London. In his final, intensely personal report he reveals his deep affection for a woman who, in his view, could never be replaced as Queen of England.

 

2) Anne Boleyn: a beguiling combination of intelligence, insecurity and relentless ambition

Anne Boleyn's elusive personality and contradictory reputation continue to enthrall us, but it is through Chapuys’ dispatches that she emerges as an enticingly unique creature: intelligent, impetuous and ambitious.

Chapuys had loyally served some of the most powerful women in Europe: both governesses of the Low Countries – Margaret of Austria and Mary of Hungary – and Charles V’s wife, the Empress Isabella. He recognised in Anne the same political ingenuity.

Anne was a tempest of life. She was rash and bold and often quarrelled violently with Henry. We have Chapuys to thank for preserving several of the most quoted and evocative of Anne’s outbursts as he deftly captured her moods, her insecurities and growing frustrations as queen-in-waiting: “I see that some fine morning you [Henry]... will cast me off. I have been waiting long, and might in the meanwhile have contracted some advantageous marriage... but alas! Farewell to my time and youth spent to no purpose at all.”

Chapuys’ support of Catherine of Aragon and opposition to Anne Boleyn has so often been construed as a mark of his opposition to Lutheranism and the English Reformation. However it was his commission as ambassador to attempt to reconcile Catherine and Henry and restore Catherine to her rightful place on the throne of England. He could therefore hardly have been a supporter of Anne, whatever her religious leanings.

A woodcut showing Anne Boleyn’s coronation on 1 June 1533. Chapuys refused to believe the charges that led to Anne’s death. © AKG Images

Chapuys also offers us an insight into Anne’s downfall, caused by the machinations of Henry and his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. Chapuys and Cromwell had an intense and complex relationship, a mixture of rivalry and mutual admiration, yet Chapuys could not shake from his mind how instrumental Cromwell had been in engineering Anne’s downfall.

Crucially, Chapuys addressed the charge which has long stained Anne’s reputation and that of her brother: the accusation of incest. He refused to believe a word of it, reporting that “no proof of his guilt was produced except that of his having once passed many hours in her company, and other little follies”.

Whatever he felt about Anne’s treatment of Catherine and her daughter, Chapuys believed that the execution of Anne, and the five men condemned with her, was unconscionable - for him they were innocent of the charges.

Although not present at the executions, Chapuys provides one of the vital narratives of the bloody events. His final entry on Anne is a testament to the woman he thought her to be: “No one ever showed more courage or greater readiness to meet death than she did... When orders came from the king to have (her execution) delayed until today, she seemed sorry... since she was well disposed and prepared for death, she should be dispatched immediately.”

His words are heartfelt in their admiration.

 

3) Jane Seymour: a master of managing the king – without him realising it

Jane Seymour was a more complex figure than many nowadays believe. Popular perceptions range from either a simple, soft spoken, docile and subservient woman of whom Henry would eventually have tired, or a shrewd and calculating young woman who seized the chance to snare a monarch. Chapuys however recognised her skilfulness in managing Henry without him realising it – the perfect wife.

Chapuys’ first impressions of Jane were of a woman “of middle stature and no great beauty, so fair that one would call her rather pale than otherwise. She is over 25 years old... not a woman of great wit, but she may have good understanding.”

Chapuys’ observations suggest that, while Jane may not have been of great intellect, she may have been more astute than she let on. Though lacking Anne Boleyn’s legendary sensuality, she nevertheless possessed an easy grace and innocence.

Jane Seymour in c1536. Her easy grace and quiet determination appear to have served her well in Henry’s court. © Bridgeman Art Library

Chapuys keenly appreciated the mutual affection and loyalty that developed between Jane and Mary, the only surviving child of Henry’s marriage with Catherine of Aragon. Jane was sincere in her desire to restore Mary’s position at court.

From Chapuys’ few accounts of Jane, we gain an insight into a quiet, determined woman who could entreat Henry for the lives of Catholic rebels as well as fight to reunite her step-daughter Mary with her father. From Chapuys’ first audience with Jane, his admiration is evident; he had again found a queen he could revere.

“I ended by begging her to take care of the princess’s affairs; which she kindly promised to do, saying that she would work in earnest to deserve the honorable name which I had given her of pacificator, that is, ‘preserver and guardian of peace’.”

Chapuys provides us with a sympathetic image of Jane: mediator, queen and mother of Henry’s only male heir.

 

4) Anne of Cleves: not so dim, ugly and socially inept as Henry would have us believe

Chapuys was in Brussels for the first six months of 1540, and missed Henry’s disastrous and brief marriage to Anne of Cleves. Our glimpses of her during this time are few and limited to Henry’s damning observations: dim, ugly and socially inept.

Thankfully, the real Anne becomes more illuminated through Chapuys’ constant stream of dispatches following her divorce from Henry. Anne was reported to be a statuesque, slender, woman, “of middling beauty, with determined and resolute countenance”.

Henry’s assessment of Anne, shown in a Hans Holbein the Younger portrait, may not have been strictly accurate. © Bridgeman Art Library

It was during Christmas 1541 that Chapuys first set eyes on Anne. He wrote that she made a supremely dignified entrance at Hampton Court, where she met her successor as queen, Catherine Howard. “Having entered the room, Lady Anne approached the queen with as much reverence and punctilious ceremony as if she herself were the most insignificant damsel about court.”

Chapuys was well aware of Anne’s reformist inclinations. But on a personal level his reports are generous in their admiration, and he was pleased to see the genuine warmth between her and Henry’s daughter Mary.

Anne was a true survivor. She would outlive Henry and go on to experience her stepdaughter Mary’s reign.

 

5) Catherine Howard: all she wanted to do was please those around her – but in one critical respect, she failed

Of Anne’s successor, Catherine Howard, popular culture has left us an image of a pretty, vapid, ineffectual young woman whose allegedly unbridled sexuality would be her undoing. Chapuys, however, saw her vulnerability and the precarious position into which she was forced. He shifts the focus away from that famous sexuality to more significant aspects of her nature, namely her relationship with Henry, the firm hold her relatives had on her, and her rather endearingly earnest desire to please those around her.

Often dismissed as a queen with little power or political sway, she is viewed as more of a trophy wife admired by her considerably older husband. But this is not the Catherine of Chapuys’ letters. He perceived that Henry’s intention was to mould Catherine into the ideal Tudor queen, something that had eluded him for a number of years.

From her inauguration festivities Chapuys keenly observed her role: “[She] took occasion and courage to beg and entreat the king for the release of Maistre Huyet (Thomas Wyatt) a prisoner in the said Tower, which petition the king granted.”

Catherine Howard was at the mercy of her ambitious family and a king who wished to mould her into the ideal queen. © Bridgeman Art Library

Catherine won the hearts of her subjects, her predecessor, and to an extent Chapuys himself, but he regretted that she and Mary had a fractious relationship – hardly surprising, as Mary was around five years older than her new stepmother.

Within two years Catherine would be executed for adultery with two men, Francis Dereham, with whom she was involved before her marriage to Henry, and Thomas Culpepper, although there is no evidence that the affair went beyond words. Catherine’s last weeks are meticulously recorded by the ambassador, including a peculiar request that the executioner’s block be sent to her room.

“In the same evening she asked to see the block, pretending that she wanted to know how she was to place her head on it. This was granted, and the block being brought in, she herself tried and placed her head on it by way of experiment.”

Even in death, Catherine had not wanted to disappoint.

 

6) Katherine Parr: a shrewd political operator and a calming foil for Henry's rages

By the time Henry married his sixth and final wife, Katherine Parr, Chapuys and the rest of Europe were almost indifferent to his penchant for weddings. But by then, Chapuys was beginning to feel his age. He worried constantly that Mary would have no one to promote her claim to the Tudor throne after he was gone. He could not have been more relieved then, upon meeting Katherine Parr for the first time, to find her graceful, a good role model for Mary, and a calming foil for Henry’s increasingly bad temper.

Chapuys was thrilled to report that she was a firm supporter of Mary’s rehabilitation at court; it seemed that she was to pick up where Jane Seymour had left off.

Katherine also displayed a certain political acumen, which was evident in her efforts to maintain good relations with the Holy Roman emperor (still Charles V). Chapuys trusted that Katherine would do all she could to preserve this alliance. From his first real audience with Katherine, the ambassador had a chance to observe Mary and her new stepmother together. He was gratified to see a genuine affection between the two women and thanked Katherine for the “good offices which she had always exercised towards the preservation of friendship between your majesty and the king; and also thanked her for the favour she showed to the Lady Mary”.

A c1545 painting of Katherine Parr, who was one of the few to acknowledge Chapuys’ contribution to the English court over 15 years. © National Portrait Gallery

Katherine warmly assured Chapuys that his gracious words were too kind, but that it was her affection for – and duty to – Mary that influenced her; indeed, she wished she could do more. Chapuys was thoroughly conquered by Katherine’s modest response.

One of Chapuys’ last dispatches brings to life their touching farewell audience. Despite his crippling gout, Chapuys was determined to show Katherine and Mary his respect and devotion, and remained standing despite the severe pain he was in. Katherine could see his discomfort and anxiously insisted that he be seated in her presence.

She was one of the few at Henry’s court who acknowledged Chapuys’ great service to England. Clearly flattered, the ambassador was finally able to leave England (he moved to the now Belgian town of Louvain in 1545, and died 11 years later). At last he felt he had discharged his mission entrusted to him by Catherine of Aragon all those years ago.

Lauren Mackay is a historian based at the University of Newcastle in Australia. She is currently researching her PhD on Thomas and George Boleyn

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