Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I in their own words: 5 fascinating letters from Tudor monarchs

When Henry VII and his successors put quill to paper, they left us a priceless insight into their desires, fears and motivations. Andrea Clarke tells the story of the five Tudor monarchs via their letters and diaries...

Saint Barbara, by unknown artist, 16th century. Hétel Dieu, Greuze Museum, Tournus France. (Photo by: Leemage/UIG via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the June 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Henry VII’s dynastic ambitions

The first Tudor king pens a gushing welcome to his son’s wife-to-be, 1501

This missive to the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon is one of the only known examples of a letter written in the hand of Henry VII. It appears that the king took great pleasure in writing it, for it presaged an event that, Henry believed, would help secure his grip on the throne – Catherine’s marriage to his son Arthur.

Henry wrote the letter in October 1501 – 16 years after seizing the English crown from the Yorkist king Richard III at the battle of Bosworth. Henry’s own Lancastrian claim to the throne was tenuous, and even though he quickly married Elizabeth of York, eldest daughter of Edward IV, to unite the rival dynasties of York and Lancaster, a succession of Yorkist plots to unseat him followed.

In response, the king shrewdly arranged strategic marriages for his children to bolster the new Tudor dynasty by linking it into a network of European royalty. In March 1488, Henry initiated talks with the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, to negotiate an alliance with Spain and the marriage of his eldest son and heir, Prince Arthur, to their youngest daughter, Catherine. The following year, the Anglo-Spanish Treaty of Medina del Campo was concluded and Arthur and Catherine, aged two and three, were pledged to be married.

Catherine’s departure from Spain was repeatedly delayed by disputes over the payment of her dowry but she eventually set sail for England in September 1501. Henry’s excitement at the news is palpable in his letter. “Madam, [your late arrival] here in our realm is to us so very agreeable that we cannot adequately say or express the great pleasure, joy [and] relief which we feel,” the king gushes. The arrival of a princess from one of the greatest royal houses in Europe to marry his eldest son and heir was a triumphant endorsement of the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty.

Catherine and Arthur were married on 14 November 1501, but the union was short-lived. Arthur succumbed to the sweating sickness and died in April 1502, leaving Catherine to face an uncertain future in England.

Extract: “We cannot adequately express our joy”

“Madam, [your late arrival] here in our realm is to us so very agreeable that we cannot adequately say or express the great pleasure, joy, [and] relief which we feel, nor the anticipation of seeing your noble presence, which we have often desired, both for the great graces and virtues which we hear it has pleased [God] to give to your person, and also [for the] mutual amity, confederation, and good alliance between our good cousins the King and Queen of Spain [your] parents and us, which [your presence] will now greatly augment. ” 

The wedding planner

Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII seek news on their marriage negotiations, 1528

This remarkable letter, jointly written by Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn to Cardinal Wolsey, provides a fascinating window into the couple’s relationship. In August 1528, Anne and Henry were desperate to be married, and the realisation of this goal depended very much on Wolsey.

Henry had become infatuated with Anne some time in 1526 – 17 years into his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon – but Anne had resolutely refused to become his mistress. Tormented by the fact that his marriage to Catherine had yet to produce him a male heir, Henry decided to seek a papal annulment so that he could marry Anne.

In May 1527, Catherine’s nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, sacked Rome and imprisoned Pope Clement VII, thus preventing him from granting Henry the annulment that he craved. So the English king turned to Wolsey, his trusted minister and senior churchman. Wolsey persuaded the pope to allow the final decision on the validity of the king’s marriage to be made in England, and to send papal legate Cardinal Campeggio to preside over a legatine court alongside Wolsey.

In this letter – requesting news about the progress of Cardinal Campeggio’s journey to England – Anne put pen to paper first, expressing her gratitude to Wolsey and reminding him that she longed to receive good news about the cardinal. “My Lord I do assure y[ou I do long to hear] from you some news of the Legate,” she writes. Anne then managed to persuade Henry, an unenthusiastic letter writer, to add some words of his own – and, no doubt, exert some extra pressure on the hard-pressed Wolsey.

Extract: “I pray for good news”

“My lord, in my most humblest wise that my heart can think, [I desire you to pardon] me that I am so bold to trouble you with my simple and [rude writing]… My Lord I do assure y[ou I do long to hear] from you some news of the Legate, for I do hope and [pray they] shall be very good, and I am sure that you desire [it as much as I,] and more if it were possible as I know it is not, [and thus remaining] in a steadfast hope I make an end of my letter [written in the hand] of her that is most bound to be. ”

Extract: “We trust in your vigilance”

“The writer of this letter would not cease till she had [caused me likewise] to set to my hand, desiring you, though it be short, to t[ake it in good part.] … The not hearing of the Legate’s arrival in [France causeth] us somewhat to muse, notwithstanding we trust by your dilig[ence and vigilancy] (with the assistance of Almighty God) shortly to be eased out [of that trouble]. … By your loving so[vereign and] friend. Henr[y R]. ”

A death in the family

Edward VI records his father’s demise with cool detachment, 1547

The rather scruffy handwriting you see here belongs to Edward VI, documenting in his diary (or ‘chronicle’) the fall-out from his father Henry VIII’s death in 1547. The first page of the young king’s chronicle explains that his uncle, Edward Seymour, rode to the medieval palace of Hertford to take him to his sister Elizabeth’s residence at the palace of Enfield. It was here, writes Edward – referring to himself in the third person – “the death of his father was first showed him, and the same day the death of his father was showed in London”.

Edward and Elizabeth are said to have wept in each other’s arms when they were told of their father’s death, but Edward recorded nothing of his personal feelings. What we are left with is his rather detached observation that Henry’s death caused “great lamentation and weeping” in England’s capital city.

The rest of Edward’s Chronicle focuses on the political and military events of his reign, revealing that he took a keen interest in the business of government and policy-making. This, and other papers he wrote on finance, trade, state and diplomacy, indicate that – though he became king at nine years old – Edward possessed the talent to become a great ruler. But his reign was one of unfulfilled potential, for Edward contracted tuberculosis and died in 1553, aged 15.

Extract: “A great lamentation” 

 “After the death of King Henry the Eighth, his son Edward, Prince of Wales, was come to at Hertford by the Earl of Hertford and Sir Anthony Browne, Master of the Horse, for whom before was made great preparation that he might [be] created Prince of Wales, and afterward was brought to Enfield, where the death of his father was first showed him, and the same day the death of his father was showed in London, where [there] was great lamentation and weeping; and suddenly he [was] proclaimed king. ”

Extract: “The people said ‘Yea’”

 “Afterward, all things being prepared for the coronation, the king, being then but nine years old, passed through the City of London as heretofore hath been used, and came to the palace of Westminster, and the next day came into Westminster Hall, and it was asked [of] the people whether they would have him to be their king, who answered ‘Yea, yea’. ”

Siblings at war

Princess Mary rails against her brother’s Protestant agenda, c1551

Unlike Henry VIII, whose break with Rome and flirtations with Protestantism had been politically motivated, his son Edward held strong evangelical beliefs and advocated a full-scale Protestant Reformation in England.

The evangelical establishment around Edward VI, led by his Uncle Edward Seymour, now Lord Protector Somerset, and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, initiated a series of religious reforms aimed at framing the evangelical agenda in law. In doing so they enraged Edward’s devoutly Catholic sister, Mary, who refused to accept the legality of the reformist religious legislation, and provoked her into writing this letter to the lords of the Privy Council.

Showing the same spirit and steely resolve as her late mother, Catherine of Aragon, Mary remonstrated with them for breaking the oaths they had sworn to her late father, Henry VIII, and for ignoring his wishes. “It grieveth me I say,” she wrote, “for the love I bear to them, to see both how they break his will, and what usurped power they take upon them.”

Mary persisted in having Latin mass celebrated in her household but, in doing so, she misjudged her brother, who by 1551 would no longer tolerate her disobedience. On 28 January, the 13-year-old king informed his sister: “It is a scandalous thing that so high a personage should deny our sovereignty.”

Two months later, they had an emotional confrontation at Westminster, but neither Mary’s tears nor her declaration that she was prepared to die for her faith persuaded Edward to relent. For the next two years, the king maintained the ban on the mass in Mary’s private chapels.

Extract: “It is against the law of God”

“It is no small grief to me to perceive that they whom the king’s majesty, my father (whose soul God pardon) made in this world of nothing in respect of that they be come to now, and at his last end put in trust to see his will performed, whereunto they were all sworn upon a book. It grieveth me I say, for the love I bear to them, to see both how they break his will, and what usurped power they take upon them, in making (as they call it) laws both clean contrary to his proceedings and will, and also against the custom of all Christendom, and (in my conscience) against the law of God and his church, which passeth all the rest. ”

Elizabeth I’s words of wisdom

The queen offers James VI of Scotland some hard-headed advice, 1603

Following the death of Mary I in 1558, her sister, Elizabeth, ascended the English throne as the last direct heir of the Tudor dynasty. Concerned that the future of the Tudor monarchy depended on the survival of one woman, Elizabeth’s councillors regularly urged her to either marry or to name her successor.

But Elizabeth steadfastly refused, famously declaring that choosing a successor would be tantamount to setting “my winding-sheet [shroud] before my eyes”.

Despite this, towards the end of her reign, Elizabeth came round to the idea that James VI of Scotland should succeed her.

In this letter to James, written just 11 weeks before her death, the queen expresses her pleasure at the king’s willingness to seek advice from her: “It pleaseth me not a little that my true intents, without glosses or guiles, are by you so gratefully taken.”

She also provides her thoughts on Scotland’s diplomatic relations with Spain, France and the Vatican. Tellingly, she advises him against opening diplomatic relations with Spain.

Elizabeth’s flourished signature is instantly recognisable but the elegant italic hand of her youth has been replaced with her virtually illegible “skrating” hand, for which she apologises. For all that, the letter reveals that Elizabeth remained as sharp-minded and politically acute in the final year of her reign as she had the previous 44.

James and Elizabeth never met, but they corresponded regularly from the early 1580s, with Elizabeth frequently providing the Scottish king with outspoken advice on the craft of monarchy.

Elizabeth’s death in 1603 brought to a close the rule of the Tudors. The crown did indeed pass to James VI of Scotland, who – as James I of England – became the first Stuart monarch and ‘King of Great Britain and Ireland’.

Extract: “Your loving sister”

“Thus you see how to fulfil your trust reposed in me, which to infringe I never mind, I have sincerely made patent my sincerity; yet stuffed with great good will. I hope you will bear with my molesting you too long with my skrating hand, as proceeding from a heart that shall ever be filled with the sure affection of your loving and friendly sister, Elizabeth R. ”

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Andrea Clarke is curator of early modern historical manuscripts at the British Library. She is author of Tudor Monarchs: Lives in Letters (British Library Publishing, 2017).