When, in 1527, King Henry VIII began seeking an annulment from his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, it would have far-reaching political, diplomatic and religious repercussions, resulting in England’s schism with the Catholic Church. Catherine herself was banished from court and refused permission to see her daughter, Mary, before her death in 1536. But the separation also had severe consequences for the former queen’s household.


The king reportedly “felt himself so much aggrieved at the expense of her allowance”, that “he would not defray her expenses, nor the wages of her servants”. The household was banished along with Catherine, ostracised from king and court, meaning that her servants could no longer hope to gain from the nonmonetary perquisites and rewards accrued in royal service. Richard Wood, Catherine’s page, is said to have “sustained great losses without recompense”.

The queen’s servants must have feared that their careers were all but over, and few men and women now aspired to serve her. Thomas, Lord Vaux, who had been dispatched by Henry to administer Catherine’s household, remarked in 1533 that he would “rather die in some other of the King’s service than continue here much longer”. Sir Richard Baker refused such an appointment, as he was “loath now to serve anybody but the King” and “hath rather chosen to abide his fortune and so trust unto the King’s gracious goodness than to serve” Catherine.

Hever castle in the sunlight
Hever Castle, where Henry VIII's second wife Anne Boleyn lived. (Photo by Dreamstime)

A queen’s household – established before or shortly after she married the king – would be swiftly discharged when she no longer wore the crown. For those who rallied behind Henry’s queens when they had fallen out of favour, they risked incurring the king’s wrath. Both María de Salinas, Lady Willoughby, whom Catherine loved “more than any other mortal”, and Elizabeth Stafford, Duchess of Norfolk, who “spoke too freely, and declared herself more than they liked for the Queen”, were discharged.

A question of loyalty: king or queen

Confronted with the question of their allegiance, many of the queen’s servants would defy their sovereign and forfeit their careers out of obligation to their mistress. William Mountjoy, Catherine’s lord chamberlain, refused to give up the names of those in her household who had shown themselves loyal to the queen. “It shall not lie in me to accomplish the King’s pleasure herein”, he remarked, begging to be discharged “without the King’s displeasure”.

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Mountjoy felt that, though Catherine’s servants “never ceased to call her by the name of Queen”, they did “bear their true hearts service and allegiance to the King’s grace”. This was the conflict dealt with by many servants who found themselves in such an unenviable position: anxious not to upset the king, yet not willing to betray their mistress.

Shortly after Anne Boleyn was arrested in 1536 on suspicion of committing adultery, the king discharged all of her servants from their offices, and a new queen’s household was established for his third wife, Jane Seymour, within a few weeks. Some owed their appointment to the queen, others to the king, and the rest to their friends at court who could bend the royal ear to speak on their behalf.

As a new queen brought with her many of her own servants, those of her predecessor were inevitably displaced. On the day of Anne’s execution, it was reported that “most of the late queen’s servants are set at liberty to seek service elsewhere”; a poem described them as “sheep without a shepherd”.

Shortly after Anne Boleyn was arrested in 1536 on suspicion of committing adultery, the king discharged all of her servants from their offices, and a new queen’s household was established for his third wife, Jane Seymour, within a few weeks

Of course, with Henry marrying six times, the queen’s household had to be discharged, its servants disbanded, and many careers cut short on five occasions from 1527 to his death in 1547. It is difficult to measure the impact of this on the lives of his queens’ servants, as once they were discharged they often disappear from the record. Some retired to their homes, while others continued to seek preferment.

Without the queen to speak on their behalf, few of Anne’s kinsmen and women survived the scandal, though one exception was George Taylor, her receiver-general, who, it was observed, was “merry”, for he had been given some assurance of his place. “I trust the King’s Highness will be good and gracious lord unto me”, he remarked, “and so I have a special trust in his Grace.” He was not the only one. It was reported that “the King’s Highness of his goodness hath retained, as is said, some of them” who had served the late queen.

Unlike Mountjoy, Anne’s vice-chamberlain, Sir Edward Baynton, abided by the king’s orders and cooperated directly with the Privy Council in the examination of her household in 1536. Tasked with extracting testimony from her servants, he reported that one of her maids, Margery Horsman, frustrated the efforts of the investigation.

Baynton struggled to wrest a confession from her, suspecting that there was “great friendship” between mistress and servant. Although Horsman had shown herself reluctant to implicate Anne, she may eventually have turned king’s evidence, as she went on to serve her successor, Jane, as did Baynton. Clearly it was pragmatic to remain, even if only outwardly, loyal to the crown.

In need of a patron, or a way out?

When the household was reshuffled between queens, a patron, or lack thereof, could be decisive in determining who kept their office, and who did not. John Croft, who had served his cousin Jane, struggled to find a foothold at court for many years after her death in 1537.

Wymond Carew, the late queen’s receiver-general, wrote on his behalf to the king’s privy chamber so that he might be appointed as a gentleman waiter (“even without wages”) to Prince Edward, Jane’s son and future Edward VI. “I am bound to do for this gentleman, Mr. Croft, all I can”, Carew began, before reminding them that Croft had served Jane “honestly” and the queen “did favour him well”.

Unlike Croft, Jane’s maid-of-honour Anne Basset was promised by Henry that she shall “have her place whensoever the time shall come”. Servants who kept in the king’s favour were strategically well-placed to find preferment not if, but when, he remarried. “I trust we shall have a mistress shortly,” Anne wrote to her mother at the end of 1539, anticipating the arrival of Anne of Cleves, Henry’s fourth wife.

Within six months of their marriage, Henry was seeking an annulment, with the contention that his union with Anne had not been consummated. To substantiate this, the king had Eleanor, Countess of Rutland; Jane, Lady Rochford; and Katherine, Lady Edgecombe, of the queen’s privy chamber journey from Richmond to Westminster and sign a deposition relating a conversation with the queen.

In that deposition, she is supposed to have remarked, “when he comes to bed he kisses me, and taketh me by the hand, and biddeth me, ‘Good night, sweetheart’: and in the morning kisses me, and biddeth me, ‘Farewell, darling’. Is not this enough?” It was the intimacy of their position as the queen’s servants which saw many of them drawn inexorably into the king’s matrimonial affairs.

When Catherine Howard, Henry’s fifth wife, was alleged to have committed adultery in 1541, her chamberers Katherine Tylney, Margaret Morton and Maude Lovekyn, were all questioned “whether the Queen went out of her chamber any night late”. Willingly, or reluctantly, they gave depositions that were incriminating enough to condemn their mistress to death. Sir Thomas Wriothesley, of the king’s council, declared that Tylney “hath done us good service”, indicating that she may have been offered a reprieve for her cooperation.

Morton and Lovekyn were reappointed to serve Henry’s sixth wife, Katherine Parr. Their testimony placed them firmly on the side of the king. Servants of the queen may have rushed with indecent haste to demonstrate their loyalty to Henry, as the treacherous Jane, Lady Rochford, did so often in her career. Yet for her involvement in aiding and abetting the queen’s alleged adultery, she too lost her head.

The constancy of the king

Investigating the impact of Henry VIII’s marital instability reveals that the fortune, or misfortune, of his queens and their servants were closely aligned. Yet careers in the queen’s household were not inextricably caught up with the fate of their mistress. Henry’s queens came and went, but the king was a constant. In the intervening periods when there was no queen, Henry himself maintained a privileged few of his queens’ servants and kept them at court.

When Catherine Howard’s household was discharged at the end of 1541, the Privy Council declared that “order must be also taken with the maidens, that they repair each of them to their friends, there to remain”, further acknowledging that if there were any of the queen’s servants unprovided for that “the King’s Highness should have consideration”.

Relationships, both with the queen – their mistress – and with the king – their sovereign – were crucial for building and sustaining a career, but in surviving what Henry’s wives did not, it was their relationship with him that truly mattered.


James Taffe is a Tudor historian, specialising in the royal servants in the households of King Henry VIII and his queens. He is the author of Courting Scandal: The Rise and Fall of Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford