Thursday 27 September 2012

Henry VIII: the Celibate Years ?


The romance of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn has endured in the popular imagination. Its details are well known, from the arrival of the young, unconventionally attractive Anne, with her foreign upbringing, through to the passionate letters he sent her at Hever Castle and their secret marriage six years later. Presenting himself as a lover in the chivalric tradition, as “Sir Loyal Heart,” Henry’s devotion to Anne before their wedding is unquestionable, as was his desire to father a son to inherit his throne, long after his first wife Catherine of Aragon had failed to bear one. But did that devotion automatically mean he did not look at another woman? As I have argued in my recent book “In Bed With the Tudors,” featured in the Daily Express (26/9/12- see link below), we are anachronistically applying modern standards of romance to the past if we think it does.

Catherine’s menopause occurred around 1525, the year of her fortieth birthday. Henry himself was five and a half years her junior and had already indulged in extra-marital affairs, most famously with Elizabeth “Bessie” Blount, who bore him a son and with Mary Boleyn. Anne’s older sister may have conceived a daughter by the King but the evidence for this is inconclusive. Such behaviour was expected at the time although, most often, men at court sought satisfaction elsewhere. Upper class men would not be condemned for seeking sexual gratification with lower class women, who were seen as more physically pleasing than their aristocratic wives. This made an interesting division, along class lines, of women who were primarily seen as for procreation and others who were purely for pleasure. Gentlemen of Henry’s court would have little trouble finding available females, either in the corridors of power at Westminster or Greenwich or Whitehall, or else in the brothels, or stews on the Southbank. Henry’s courtiers, in particular, Sir William Compton, helped facilitate his affairs, possibly arranging meetings in his London home. Henry also possessed a wealth of small properties and hunting lodges where such liaisons would have been easy.
 The behaviour of Thomas Culpeper is also explainable in this context. As the cousin and lover of Henry's fifth wife, Catherine Howard, Culpeper met his death late in 1541. However, he already had committed worse offences than possible adultery with the Queen. As a young man he had desired a woman he had casually encountered, then raped her when she refused him and murdered her husband. For this he was pardoned, which seems inexplicable to us now and difficult to accept as consistent with the teenage Queen's love for him. However, in the context of sexual relations between the classes, Culpeper's actions indicate a sense of entitlement to possess women of lower station no matter what. Happily, this does not seem to have been the norm. It is a case of modern sensibilities clashing uncomfortably with the realities of the past.

These sexual expectations were actually out of synch with the image Henry VIII desired to project. There appears to be a tension between the sexually active man and the ideal romanticised lover of jousts and court masques. He was notoriously secretive about his affairs, in comparison with other European leaders of the day, or perhaps because of them. His great rival Francis I of France was well known for his many conquests and his subsequent infection with the horrific syphilis. Henry, in contrast, tried to conceal the existence of his lovers and his encounters with them, making them harder to trace. This may have been out of respect for his first wife, who was greatly upset by Henry’s first affair with Anne, sister of the Duke of Buckingham early in the marriage while Catherine was pregnant. Henry did take a more modern approach to the women he slept with; his wives were chosen by romantic criteria, as he wanted a companionate partnership, rather than the union of dynastic expediency his parents had entered into. This did not place him above conforming to the sexual expectations of his era though. In a further departure from past tradition, his weddings were conducted in secrecy. He did not favour vast court celebrations, opting instead for simple and small occasions, often taking place early in the morning in the chapels of his palaces, with a few witnesses. The only exception was his ill-fated union with Anne of Cleves, which proved that such old-style arranged marriages were not for him.

When Henry fell in love with the entrancing Anne Boleyn in around 1527, all this changed. It would have to, if he was to make her his wife. At first, the pair was discreet but soon, Henry’s infatuation became obvious to everyone, including Catherine. The court held at Blackfriars examined the royal marriage but failed to provide the King with the decisive answer he needed; the Pope could not be more help, dreading Henry’s letters and remaining loyal to his aunt, who happened to be Catherine of Aragon. The Queen was removed from court in 1531 and rusticated to various houses in the country but refused to grant Henry the divorce he wanted. Henry and Anne’s liaison was the subject of rumour and gossip throughout Europe but it appears that Anne maintained his interest by withholding her affections, gradually realising she had the opportunity to become his wife, instead of just his mistress.

However, as I suggest in “In Bed with the Tudors,” (Amberley 2012), something about this doesn’t add up. Henry admitted to Cardinal Campeggio that he hadn’t slept with Catherine since 1526. Anne Boleyn did not submit to him until late in 1532.  It is really possible that Henry VIII was celibate for those six years? I think this is a ludicrous assumption, although historians have largely accepted this as fact. Although Henry was in love with Anne, this should not be confused with modern concepts of romance or fidelity. We know it was expected that men would have other sexual partners: at this time the marriage oath only required the fidelity of the wife. To condemn this as a double standard would be anachronistic and unrealistic. Clearly aristocratic women did have sexual relations for pleasure and many made second marriages based purely on affection, as in the case of Mary Boleyn. Many took lovers at court; some them may have slept with the King.

 Although Henry was in pursuit of a legitimate son, these six years represented a significant part of his dwindling fertility. In 1527, he could not have known how long the process would take but as the years passed, was he really true to the construct of romantic chivalry he liked to project and stay celibate all that time ? Considering that he used the motto of “Sir Loyal Heart” to profess devotion to his first wife, while indulging in affairs, it does not seem that romantic devotion necessarily precluded encounters with receptive women of the lower classes. He famously claimed that he was "a man like any other," so we should expect consistency in this area too. In 1537, while Jane Seymour was pregnant, Henry “claimed” a lower class woman he saw on one of his rides and rumours of illegitimate children dating from the period suggest an oral tradition of the King’s promiscuity. Even for Anne, Henry’s romantic veneer was soon tarnished.  Early in their marriage, when Anne was upset at Henry’s infidelity, he told her that she should hold her tongue as her betters had done. This suggests Anne was unaware of any liaisons Henry may have had in the years 1527-32, or that she attributed them to his frustration and hoped they would cease after the ceremony. These possibilities may dispel the romantic image of Henry’s court as projected in the popular imagination but it should not damage Henry’s reputation nor his genuine desire of Anne. It merely redefines concepts of loyalty and romance in line with sixteenth century standards, instead of twenty-first century ones.
Link to the Daily Express article, 26/9/12:


  1. I completely agree Amy. I have never really agreed with the notion that Anne 'held off' Henry for 6 years. Maybe she did, but other women were certainly not holding him off in this time period! As you say, Anne probably did not know, otherwise she may have given in earlier.
    Great article. Debbie.

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  3. Oh, and another thing... where did you get the idea men in the 16th century didn't promise to be faithful? One can Google "medieval or renaissance wedding vows" and ALL of them clearly state that both parties, bride and groom, vow to "forsake all others" - which means "I won't sleep with anyone else." Adultery was adultery, even for kings; they just weren't accustomed to anyone having the backbone to call them on it!

  4. Dear Anonymous, I'm very sorry that your first post was inadvertently removed- please do restate your points if you wish.

    Thank you for your interest in my work. To answer some of the issues from that post, the incident with the huntsman was taken from the State Letters and Papers from the reign of Henry VIII, September 1537, after a complaint was made by a William Webbe. As it was his word against Henry's, his statements are difficult to "prove" but it is interesting that his contemporaries believed that this was possible and is indicative of some beliefs in the King's character.
    Many of the other issues you raise- Henry's nature, his rumoured affairs, his marriage with Anne of Cleves (in fact all his marriages) and the beliefs surrounding sex and pregnancy are addressed at length in my book "In Bed with the Tudors." In it I argue that Henry's character was a mix of modern and medieval sensibilities- I certainly agree with you that his approach to sexuality was complex and romantic. It was important for him to uphold his ideal of the chivalric hero although I don't think sex was seen in quite the same way then as it is now- each era evolves its own cultural codes and Henry's prudery and secrecy, as well as his very complex psychology were not necessarily incompatible with him having casual physical liaisons. From my research- using primary sources- I have found many sixteenth century Assize court records present "illicit" sex in a quite public, matter-of-fact way, as almost a biological function, something that is done to someone else, or how a woman is "used" by a man or as essential to good health. Thus, in the sixteenth century there was "sex" and there was "sex" - differentiated by partner and purpose.
    The rumours of Henry's affairs begin early, with his first supposed mistress being Anne Hastings, during Catherine of Aragon's first pregnancy of 1510. Given the danger that sex was considered to pose to the unborn foetus, Henry could justify his liaison as protecting his wife, while medical advice stated that abstinence could lead to all sorts of illnesses and problems- further explored in my book. The affair is suggested by the reports of his contemporaries, who recorded Catherine's unhappiness at the discovery, Anne's brother's intervention, Anne's banishment from court, Henry and Catherine's quarrel and subsequent payments made to Anne. As with all history, the jigsaw of evidence helps establish a balance of probabilities as to whether Henry did or did not sleep with Anne. Catherine certainly thought he had. After all, though, no one else was in the bedroom with them. To explore the possibilities and deduce, is the historian's job. This, and his other relations with women and their social implications are explored in greater length in my book- this post was taken from the context of wider exploration, as indicated at the bottom of the first paragraph. Of course there is much more to say on the topic, beyond the scope of a blog, hence the book.

    Re Henry's adultery- those of his contemporaries who might have "called him on it" (I wonder how you imagine this happening) might reasonably be considered to be his courtiers/friends and clergy- yet if they themselves were also part of this culture of casual, functional sex- as we know for example William Compton and Cardinal Wolsey were- then they may not see anything to actually "call him" on.

    Thank you again for your response. I welcome debate. I wonder if you think that Henry, as a man in his 30s, keen to father a son, did refrain from sexual activity for 7 years between 1525 and 1532?