The Tudors behind closed doors

Was Henry VIII a hypochondriac? Did Elizabeth I wish that she was a man? And could Mary I have been addicted to gambling? Tracy Borman reveals the private reality behind the well-crafted public image of the Tudors' lives...

Mary I was defined by her intense piety and sober-mindedness but, says Tracy Borman, England’s first crown queen regnant was a different woman in the closeted world of her privy chamber. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the June 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Henry VII

The myth: He was a dour old miser

Henry VII has long had the reputation of a penny-pinching killjoy whose only pleasure in life was to scrutinise his accounts and swell the royal coffers. But there was a good deal more to the first Tudor king than that. True, he was careful with money to the point of parsimony, but he also knew how to spend it when the occasion demanded. One of his first acts upon becoming king after defeating Richard III at Bosworth in 1485 was to order a lavish new set of clothes. During the two years that followed, he spent a staggering £5,386 (equivalent to £3m today) on his wardrobe.

Although he liked to appear as a sober-minded and pious king, in private Henry was much more light-hearted. His household accounts reveal that he was fond of playing cards, even though he regularly suffered heavy losses – most notably in June 1492, when he was obliged to raid the royal coffers for £40 (£20,000 today) in order to pay off his creditor.

Physically fit from his years of campaigning, Henry held regular jousts and liked to play tennis, and later in his reign he employed two professional players to act as coaches. The king also employed a fool, a troop of minstrels, lute players, pipers, dancers and a group of singing children.

The new king had other pleasures too. There is evidence to suggest that he bedded his beautiful wife, Elizabeth of York, before they were married. Their first child, Arthur, was born just eight months after the wedding.

Although it had begun as a political marriage, Henry grew to love his wife deeply and he was grief-stricken when she died in 1503, having given birth to no fewer than seven children. But Henry was not content to stay a widower for long. Among the nubile young brides that the middle-aged king considered marrying was Joanna, Queen of Naples, who was more than 20 years his junior.

This was more than just a diplomatic move: Henry instructed his ambassadors to describe in great detail every aspect of Joanna’s appearance – the colour of her hair, the condition of her teeth, the size and shape of her nose, the smoothness of her complexion, even whether she had hair on her upper lip. They should also, he demanded, pay particular attention to “her breasts… whether they be big or small”.

The truth: He was a pleasure-loving king with an eye for the ladies

Henry VIII

The myth: He was a model of physical vigour and kingly power

Henry VIII stood – literally – head and shoulders above the rest of his court.

At 6ft 2ins tall, with a 42-inch chest and a 32‑inch waist, he was an imposing, athletic figure. “Among a thousand noble companions, the king stands out the tallest, and his strength fits his majestic body,” enthused Thomas More. “There is fiery power in his eyes, beauty in his face, and the colour of twin roses in his cheeks.”

But behind this impressive façade lay a hypochondriac who was regularly thrown into a panic at any sign of illness at court. The French ambassador described him as “the most timid person in such matters you could meet”. The fact that Henry’s brother, Arthur, had died at the age of 15, before he had the chance to bear any heirs, may have sparked Henry’s paranoia. The new king willingly subjected himself to the examination of his physicians every morning, and also concocted remedies of his own from the cabinet of medicines that he kept hidden in his private apartments.

Although he was physically fit for the first two decades of his reign, Henry’s health began to seriously decline as a result of various injuries sustained from jousting. Tormented by the constant pain and frustrated by being unable to exercise as he once had, Henry rapidly gained weight, which made him even more incapacitated.

The private correspondence of Henry’s most personal body servant, Thomas Heneage, groom of the stool, reveals that he suffered from other, more embarrassing ailments. His love of red meat and lack of exercise led to severe constipation, which necessitated prolonged and often painful visits to his close stool. During one particularly bad bout in 1539, the king’s physicians prescribed an enema – a pig’s bladder with a greased metal tube fixed in it, which was inserted into the king’s anus. The bladder contained more than a pint of a weak solution of salt and infused herbs and it remained in place for two hours, after which Heneage reported that his royal master had been relieved by “a very fair siege”.

There are also hints in the contemporary sources that Henry started to lose his famed virility. As part of the evidence that was gathered for Anne Boleyn’s trial, the disgraced queen was alleged to have said that her husband lacked “puissance” in the marital bed. He was unable to consummate his marriage to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. Although he blamed it on her ugliness and made his private physician testify that he still had wet dreams, he seemed to protest a little too much.

The truth: He was a constipated hypochondriac who may well have suffered from impotency

Edward VI

The myth: He was a frail boy-king, dominated by his advisers

Edward has long been portrayed as the fragile boy-king, dominated by the overbearing presence of the dukes of Somerset and Northumberland. But he was made of sterner stuff than that. In fact, he was a chip off the old block.

Far from being a sickly child, Edward was a robust little boy and, as Henry VIII’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell put it, “sucketh like a child of his puissance”. Living in a succession of luxurious nurseries, as prince he was regularly spoilt with gifts and allowed to indulge in a diet of rich foods. One tactful visitor noted in October 1541 that the four-year-old Edward was “well fed”, adding that he was also “handsome” and “remarkably tall for his age”. It was only when Edward contracted measles as a teenager, that his constitution was dangerously weakened.

At times, Edward displayed flashes of his father’s notoriously savage temper. Reginald Pole, later archbishop of Canterbury, claimed that in a fit of rage, the young prince once tore a living falcon into four pieces in front of his tutors.

When he became king, Edward started to keep a diary – the only Tudor monarch to do so. A rather staid account of the key events of his reign, it also portrays the young king as cold, unfeeling and uncompromising – a dangerous blend of traits that might have hardened into tyranny if he had lived to maturity. Although he had been close to his uncle, Lord Protector Somerset, Edward afforded his demise no more than the following cursory mention in his journal: “The Duke of Somerset had his head cut off upon Tower Hill between eight and nine o’clock in the morning.”

On the issue of religion, though, Edward had all the passion of a zealot. “In the court there is no bishop, and no man of learning so ready to argue in support of the new doctrine as the king,” wrote the imperial ambassador.

Edward spent several hours a day in private devotion and, determined that his subjects should conform to his faith, he spent much of his short reign implementing a series of radical reforms. These also affected those closest to the young king. An entry in Edward’s journal for January 1552 records: “The emperor’s ambassador moved me severally that my sister Mary might have mass, which, with no little reasoning with him, was denied him.” If he had lived to maturity, there is little doubt that Edward would have persecuted any non-conformists with increasing severity – even more so, perhaps, than his elder sister did.

The truth: He was a spoilt brat with the makings of a tyrant

Mary I

The myth: She was defined by her intense piety and sober-mindedness

Mary has gone down in history as a severe, humourless monarch. Although she lacked the charisma of her father, Henry VIII, and half-sister, Elizabeth, England’s first crown queen regnant was a different woman in the closeted world of her privy chamber.

One of Mary’s favourite companions there was her female jester, Jane Cooper, known as ‘Jane the Fool’. In common with other ‘fools’ of the period, Jane may have had learning disabilities. The queen was extremely fond of her and gave her many valuable clothes, as well as an unusual number of shoes. Jane was joined by another jester, ‘Lucretia the Tumbler’. Although she and Jane sometimes performed together, Lucretia was a trained entertainer with impressive (and presumably acrobatic) skills.

Mary was also an avid gambler and loved to play cards and board games. Like her father, she was fond of masques and plays, and cherished an abiding love of music. She also loved to provide entertainments and feasts for her court. One Spanish visitor claimed that she spent more than 300,000 ducats a year on her table and that she and her court “drink more than would fill the Valladolid river”.

Nowhere was Mary’s passionate nature more obvious than in her relationship with her husband, Philip of Spain. She fell head over heels in love with him after seeing only his portrait, and lavished affection on him after they were married. According to his adviser, Philip himself was rather less enamoured, as his wife was “no good from the point of view of fleshly sensuality”.

The truth: She was passionate and had a host of ‘guilty pleasures’ at court

Elizabeth I

The myth: She was a man’s woman

It’s well known that Elizabeth I was comfortable in men’s company. She loved to flirt with the many ambitious young men who frequented her court. Her liaison with Robert Dudley is well documented, as is her infatuation in old age with his stepson, the Earl of Essex, and her more sober relationships with trusted advisers such as Lord Burghley and Sir Francis Walsingham. The queen herself seemed to regret that she had been born a “weak and feeble woman”, and was forever decrying the shortcomings of her sex.

But all of this was a deliberate ploy on Elizabeth’s part. Far from believing her own publicity, she only pretended to regret that she had been born a woman in order to manipulate her male courtiers and establish her authority in what was essentially a man’s world. In her own private world, it was the women who held sway.

When she retreated to the privacy of her ‘secret lodgings’ at court, Elizabeth was attended by a coterie of trusted ladies. They included her former nurse, Blanche Parry, who had served her since she was a baby and would notch up 57 years as a member of the queen’s inner sanctum. Kat Astley, Elizabeth’s old governess, was the most senior of her ladies and attended the queen in her most private hours – including her visits to the new flushing lavatories at court.

Lady Elizabeth Fiennes de Clinton was probably Elizabeth’s closest friend. It was said that the queen trusted her “more than all others”. Katherine Dudley, the youngest sister of Elizabeth’s great favourite, was another constant companion and was often observed to be “very private” with her royal mistress.

These women would help the queen relax by playing cards with her, embroidering, practising dance steps and gossiping about the affairs of the court. They would see her divested of her courtly splendour and knew the secrets of her carefully crafted image as the Virgin Queen. So familiar were they with their royal mistress’s person that foreign ambassadors offered them bribes to confide whether she menstruated regularly and was therefore capable of bearing children.

While her male courtiers and councillors were obliged to wait around in the public rooms beyond, Elizabeth’s ladies would spend hours alone with her, sharing her innermost thoughts and secrets. And in an age when access equalled power, this gave the women of Elizabeth’s private world considerable influence in the public arena beyond.

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The truth: She preferred the company of her ladies

Tracy Borman is a historian and author.