Elizabeth I may have been the one of England’s longest reigning monarchs but, from her very first breath to the day she died, Elizabeth I was surrounded by enemies who threatened her crown and her life.
In a 2017 series on the queen for Channel Five, Dan Jones and I considered the threats posed by her many enemies. In the first episode, we examined the allegation that the teenage Princess Elizabeth was sexually abused by Thomas Seymour after Henry VIII’s death in January 1547. Seymour was the brother of one of her stepmothers, Jane Seymour, and the husband of another, Katherine Parr. So what’s the evidence and did it happen?
Nearly everything we know about this case comes from Elizabeth’s servants. Her governess, Kat Ashley, and Thomas Parry, her ‘cofferer’, or accountant, testified in response to a Privy Council investigation in 1549 into whether Seymour tried to marry Elizabeth without the council’s consent.
What’s the evidence?
Here are the facts as best we know them.
Thomas Seymour asked the 13-year-old Princess Elizabeth to marry him by letter in February 1547, within a month of her father, Henry VIII’s, death. Seymour probably believed that marrying Elizabeth would increase his hold on power; his brother, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, had just been made Lord Protector, and the ambitious Thomas was probably envious of Edward’s position. Elizabeth rejected his proposal elegantly, also by letter, saying she was too young (she was 13 years old; he, at 38, was 25 years older than she) and would be in mourning for her father for two years.
Within a month or so of receiving her rejection, Thomas Seymour married the queen dowager Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s widow and Elizabeth’s stepmother. Katherine had been in love with him since before her marriage to Henry, but it is possible that Thomas married her to get closer to Elizabeth.
At almost exactly this time, Elizabeth started living with Katherine. Soon afterwards, Thomas moved in to live with his new wife.
According to testimonies given in 1549 by Elizabeth’s governess and companion, Kat Ashley, and her cofferer, Thomas Parry, from June 1547 – within days of Seymour’s arrival – Elizabeth started to receive early-morning visits from him. He would “make as though he would come at her” and she would shrink back. The next day, she rose earlier so that he wouldn’t find her in bed, but when he arrived, she was still dressed only in a nightdress, he in a short nightgown, “barelegged in his slippers”. He greeted her and reached out to “strike her on the back or the buttocks familiarly”. Another time he climbed into Elizabeth’s bed, while she was still in it. She continued to get up earlier – if she were dressed, he would bid her good morning and then go on his way.
Kat Ashley – in her depositions – said that she grew concerned about his visits, and came to sit in her mistress’s rooms in the early mornings, but that Seymour continued his behaviour. She maintained that she told him to “go away for shame” and squared up to him on one occasion saying that word of his behaviour was getting out. Seymour replied that “he meant no evil”.
On two occasions, Katherine Parr joined Seymour in his morning visits to the now 14-year-old girl, and they tickled her in bed. On another occasion, Seymour wrestled with Elizabeth in the gardens at Hanworth on an autumnal day, with Katherine nearby – he cut Elizabeth’s gown “into a hundred pieces” while Katherine “held her”. The nature of Katherine’s holding is not clear – held her down? Held her to protect her? Laughingly participated in mere horseplay? We don’t know how Elizabeth reacted.
Soon after this incident, Katherine asked Kat Ashley to keep watch on Elizabeth’s behaviour. She claimed that Seymour claimed to have seen Elizabeth “cast her arms about a man’s neck” in an embrace, but no one else in the household had seen it and Ashley came to believe that Katherine had made it up to get her to spy on Elizabeth and Seymour.
Katherine and Seymour moved to his London house for several months, and Elizabeth did not go with them. When in spring 1548, she arrived to join them, he started up his morning visits again. Kat Ashley says she again reprimanded him for coming in a state of undress into “a maiden’s chamber”.
In June 1548, Katherine wrote to Seymour, and asked Elizabeth to arrange a messenger to get the letter to him. Elizabeth wrote on the outside of the letter, in Latin, “Thou, touch me not”, then deleted it, and wrote instead, “Let him not touch me” – suggesting his advances were unwanted, but that she feared to speak too directly to him about it.
Kat Ashley said, however, that Elizabeth “did bear some affection” towards Seymour and would blush when he was spoken of.
Finally, on 11 June 1548, according to Thomas Parry, Katherine came across her husband and stepdaughter embracing in a room alone together, and Katherine reacted with anger: “they were all alone, he having her in his arms, wherefore the queen fell out” with Seymour and Elizabeth.
The very next day, Elizabeth went to live with Sir Anthony and Joan Denny – Kat Ashley’s sister – at Cheshunt in Hertfordshire, and Katherine and Seymour went to Sudeley Castle. It is not clear whether Elizabeth chose to leave or was sent away.
Throughout that summer, Elizabeth was ill with migraines, jaundice, digestive problems, and irregular menstruation. About 60 years later, an urban legend started to circulate that Elizabeth had been pregnant during this time – but the evidence is laughably slender and easily refuted. It seems more likely that Elizabeth was stressed and traumatised by the separation from her stepmother and the sexual harassment by her stepfather.
Katherine wrote Elizabeth affectionate letters while they were apart. On 5 September 1548, a week after giving birth, Katherine died. There had been no reconciliation in person between Katherine and Elizabeth since the events in June.
The newly single Seymour sent his nephew, John Seymour, to accompany Elizabeth as she moved to set up her own household at Hatfield soon after, and (according to Thomas Parry), Seymour told John to enquire of Elizabeth: “whether her great buttocks were grown any less or no?”
Rumours started to circulate about this time that Seymour planned to marry Elizabeth. Parry asked her if she would marry Seymour if he asked; she replied, “when that comes to pass, I will do as God shall put in my mind” – a characteristically ambiguous response. Parry thought Elizabeth aware of Seymour’s interest but that it was not reciprocal.
In January 1549, Seymour was arrested for trying to kidnap the king, marry Elizabeth without the council’s consent, and make himself de facto king. Ashley and Parry were questioned to find out if Elizabeth was in on it. With their testimonies, and her own witty defence, Elizabeth managed to extract herself from blame, and Seymour was beheaded on Tower Hill on 20 March.
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What we know – and don’t know
As Kat Ashley and Thomas Parry’s evidence was given in response to the 1549 Privy Council investigation into whether Seymour tried to marry Elizabeth without the council’s consent, it was in their interests to appear as if they had acted impeccably throughout. That might mean that Ashley pretended to have been shocked or to have tried to send Thomas Seymour away, when she never actually did so.
We don’t know how Katherine felt: was she jealous? Did she think Elizabeth was just a young girl infatuated with her handsome husband? Did she see it as mere high jinks? Or did she resist seeing what was happening in front of her face?
It seems possible that she saw it, at first, as a bit of fun – and then, as Elizabeth matured, and when Katherine herself fell pregnant, became concerned that it was something more worrying. It is possible that Katherine sent Elizabeth away in order to protect her, as the heavily pregnant Katherine knew that she would soon have been going into confinement and would not be able to stop Seymour’s advances.
We also don’t know how Elizabeth felt. Kat Ashley said that Elizabeth blushed when Seymour was spoken of, but this might not indicate affection, or fancy, so much as shame.
From a modern perspective, a 13/14-year-old is a child and cannot give consent. But a 14-year-old of aristocratic birth could marry in Tudor England, even if it were not normal to cohabit (and, therefore, consummate a marriage) until the age of 16.
So, did Thomas Seymour sexually abuse Elizabeth?
We cannot conclude with absolute certainty that he did, but he visited her in a state of undress, when she was in her nightgown, and his behaviour was thought to be shameful by her servants. If we cannot say for certain that he sexually abused her, we can, at least, say that he seems to have been trying do so; he harassed her and made her deeply uncomfortable, as indicated by her note on Katherine’s letter. He also may have been trying to groom her into marriage at a future point.
These incidents from her childhood seem very likely to have affected the adult queen. It may well be that Elizabeth’s later decision not to marry was associated with this sexual harassment, at a pivotal period of her life. When she wrote “let him not touch me”, she prophesised not just about Thomas Seymour but about all the men she would encounter. As a result of Seymour’s actions, Elizabeth knew that when a man came a-courting, he would have one eye on her and one on the throne, and she was determined not to let any of them get their hands on it, or her.
Dr Suzannah Lipscomb is a senior lecturer in early modern history at the New College of the Humanities. Further viewing: Suzannah Lipscomb and Dan Jones’s series Elizabeth I and her Enemies aired on Channel Five in 2017. Further reading: Elizabeth Norton, The Temptation of Elizabeth Tudor (Head of Zeus, 2016)
This article was first published on HistoryExtra in May 2017