by Adrienne Dillard
The annals of history are filled with the stories and exploits of the men and women who roamed the hallowed halls of the Tudor Court. Their lives and loves have colored the imaginations of the people who came after them for more than five centuries. One could say that, if history were high school, the people of the Tudor era would be among the most popular. Henry VIII would be captain of the football team; his wife, Catherine of Aragon, Head Cheerleader. Anne Boleyn would be the beautiful and exotic foreign exchange student that everyone is clambering to know more about. You know how the story goes…The hunky jock is so besotted with this gorgeous stranger that his long-time steady, the cheerleader, gets tossed aside just in time for prom. The stories of Marie Curie, the science geek, and Mozart, the band nerd, just can’t seem to compete with the torrid dramas of sixteenth century England.
Just like in high school, the most compelling personalities are the hidden gems of the population. My most favored personality of the Tudor Era, Catherine Carey is one such gem. Her story is often an afterthought. It wasn’t until 2014, almost 446 years after her death that she became the central subject of a book. She was always relegated to a supporting role and, even then, her role was brief and perfunctory. Happily, Catherine has enjoyed a prominent place in the spotlight in the last year. Catherine Carey in a Nutshell is the fourth book in which she takes on a starring role.
There are hidden gems, just like Catherine, that dot the pages of Tudor history. Some are more well-known than others, but most of them have, for the most part, played supporting roles. Yet, each one of them has captured my imagination over the course of my eight-year obsession with the Tudors. Here are my top three:
Sir Francis Knollys
The husband of Catherine Carey is definitely high on my list of “Tudor Favorites.” Francis was born, the eldest son, to Robert Knollys and Lettice Peniston. It is unknown where exactly he was birthed, but he was most likely raised at Rotherfield Greys in Oxfordshire in the manor which was given to his father by Henry VIII for an annual rent of a single red rose at Mid-Summer. Francis entered Henry’s service at some point before 1539, the year he was enlisted to welcome Anne of Cleves in Calais.
Francis spent the early years of their marriage in service to the crown as a gentleman pensioner and Member of Parliament. He joined the king in battle at Boulogne and continued his military exploits under the rule of Henry’s heir, Edward VI. His bravery at the Battle of Pinkie earned him knighthood on the battle field by his Commander in Chief, the Duke of Somerset.
Francis was one of the leading Protestants of the exile communities set up on the continent after Mary I’s ascension. Catherine and five of their children made the treacherous journey across the English Channel to join him in the crowded household of London merchant, John Weller, in Frankfurt.
Once Catherine’s cousin, Elizabeth, took her place on the throne they returned in glory to take up important positions in her court. Francis was appointed to the Privy Council and was made Vice Chamberlain of the Household. He served Elizabeth in many roles, but his time as guardian to Mary Queen of Scots is what struck me the most. Mary was known for her charming and manipulative nature. Elizabeth needed some one she trusted who could not be easily swayed by a pretty face. More importantly, she needed some one who would never allow his morals to become compromised. In the decade that Francis served Elizabeth, he had earned her trust and was known for his unfailing honesty. Francis seemed to always speak candidly, even when he knew it could anger the queen.
The letters that Francis sent back to court to his anointed sovereign and her secretary during his time with the Queen of Scots are blunt and, at times, downright rude. He was infuriated that Elizabeth refused to heed his advice. What was the point of his being there if she wasn’t going to listen to him? Once he was finally allowed to return to London after the untimely death of his wife, Francis spoke plainly to the queen’s council about his heartbreak and his need to take a respite from court.
Francis eventually returned to court and served the queen as Treasurer of the Royal Household and in several other capacities. Though he always spoke frankly, often to her great annoyance, he never once lost her favor; even when his daughter, Lettice, was banished from court for her rash marriage to Robert Dudley.
As someone who spends most of her time with her foot in her mouth, I identify with Francis. I find great value in those willing to speak their mind, even if it goes against popular opinion. I admire how loyal Francis was to the queen, even when he didn’t agree with her.
Lady Anne Bassett
Anne came to my attention a few years ago when I read a lovely historical fiction novel by Kate Emerson. I had seen her name mentioned here and there in my research, but I had never been compelled to dig much deeper. I was struck by Emerson’s characterization of Anne and it inspired me to look closer at her history.
Most of what we know about Anne comes from the Lisle Letters, a collection of letters that transpired between the Lisle family, and the Lisle’s agent at court, John Hussee. Anne’s stepfather, Viscount Lisle, was the illegitimate son of Edward IV and the last surviving Plantagenet son after 1485. As such, he was treated well by both Henry VII and Henry VIII. He received appointments to many offices, one of which was the Governorship of Calais. This appointment kept him tied to the small piece of land in France and far away from the intrigues at court. John Hussee was hired, not only to report back to Lisles and keep them informed of the mood at court, but also to advocate for them when needed since they couldn’t be there to do it for themselves.
Anne’s own letters to her mother, Honor Lisle, can be found in the collection and, by them, we can deduce most of Anne’s early life. In early 1534, Anne was sent to Pont de Remy to be brought up in the household of Madame de Riou. In a letter from May of that year, Anne writes to her mother to ask for red cloth to make a cloak and mentions that she would be happy if her sister were to join her in France. The next month she travelled to Bours to visit another noble French family and welcome her sister, Mary.
For three years, Anne served in the household of Madame de Riou and, by all accounts, was adored and treated well by her host family. Her letters back to Calais paint the picture of a dutiful daughter who, like most teenaged girls, was very particular about her clothing.
The execution of Anne Boleyn and the marriage of Henry VIII to Jane Seymour created an opportunity that Honor had been waiting for. Anne’s name was immediately put forth as a candidate for maid of honor to the new queen. The fact that Anne was put forth before her older sisters says a lot about her personality. However, while fair looks and charm would get you far in the Tudor court, it was decided that Anne was too young and her sister, Katherine, was pitched for the position instead.
Honor was not deterred when Katherine was not accepted into the queen’s household. Negotiations began in earnest to place her in the household of the Duchess of Suffolk and Anne into the household of Lady Rutland. When the queen, in the early stages of her pregnancy, developed a taste for quail, Honor snatched the opportunity that was presented to her and made sure that the queen would never want for the delicacy. In early September 1537, Anne was finally sworn into the queen’s household. This success encouraged Honor to use bribery in most of her negotiations going forward.
For a brief period of time after Queen Jane’s unfortunate death, it was whispered that Anne would be the next wife. It seems that the king took a special interest in her and gave her a gift of a horse and a saddle. Had Lord Cromwell been unsuccessful in his determination to marry Henry into a foreign alliance, it’s possible that Henry’s fourth wife could have been Anne Bassett rather than Anne of Cleves.
Anne went on to serve all of Henry’s wives and, though he never married her, the king always held some affection for the stepdaughter of his cousin. Even when Lord and Lady Lisle were suspected in a treasonous plot against England, Anne stayed clean of the stain. Anne was again rumored to have the eye of the king after the execution of Catherine Howard, but it was Katherine Parr who was chosen to be the sixth and final wife instead.
After the king’s death, Anne retired from court life only to return six years later to take a position as Lady of the Privy Chamber at Mary Tudor’s court. Less than a year later she was married to Walter Hungerford before the queen in her private chapel at Richmond. The marriage was short lived by Anne’s death in 1557.
Jane Parker Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford
Most people know Jane for the way she is portrayed in popular culture. She was the scheming voyeur who not only caused the death of her husband and sister-in-law, but also the destruction of poor naïve Catherine Howard. The truth of the matter is far more complex than that.
Jane was born to the pragmatic Henry Parker, Lord Morley at the family home in Norfolk. She came to court sometime before 1520 to serve Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and she accompanied the household on the diplomatic visit to France known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold. In 1522, she was chosen as one of the leading performers in the Chateau Vert masque representing Constancy. Two of the other performers, Anne and Mary Boleyn, became her sisters-in-law a few short years later when Jane married their brother, George.
Contrary to what has been portrayed in novels and on television, George and Jane had a rather unremarkable marriage. Though George seems to have been quite good at courtly flirtation, there is no record of him ever breaking his fidelity to his wife, much less engaging in same-sex affairs. Jane has often been portrayed as being rather hateful towards her in-laws and the subject of their vilification in return, but primary sources reveal no acrimony between the two families. In fact, Jane went out of her way to help her sister-in-law chase off a woman who had captured the king’s fancy even though it meant a short banishment from court.
During Anne and George’s fall, Jane was interrogated along with all of the queen’s ladies, but there is absolutely no evidence that she was the one to accuse them of incest. Furthermore, George’s fall meant the loss of Jane’s security, so it is unlikely that she would have played an active role in his downfall. Jane managed to survive this tumultuous time and returned to court to serve the king’s third and fourth wives.
Jane always seemed to find herself in the midst of controversy, but she usually managed to escape unharmed for the most part. That all changed the moment she decided to help the king’s fifth wife Catherine Howard.
It is still a mystery to most historians how Jane came to be mired in Catherine’s extramarital activities. Some think she may have been the instigator, others think she was an innocent bystander, but the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Regardless of how she became involved, it is Jane’s reputation that has come out the worst from the incident. Catherine is often given a “pass” for her youth and feigned ignorance while Jane is vilified for influencing her behavior.
I sympathize with Jane because I feel that, like most of us, she just really wanted to belong. She was eager to please and did what was asked of her. Unfortunately, that left her as the “fall guy” when things went sour and, eventually, she paid the ultimate price.
I often wonder what Jane’s life would have been like had George escaped his fate. The odds were good that he would be exonerated even if his sister wasn’t. Would they have been allowed to return to court or would they have retreated to the safety of the countryside and lived out their days quietly? Would they have had children? I would be willing to bet that Jane often asked herself that very same question during her dark days in the tower: What if?
Other Tudor Gems
While these three Tudor personalities are at the top of my list, there are a few other people that I have enjoyed getting to know over the past eight years. Catherine’s brother, Henry Carey, was a very interesting man. There is a story Alison Weir relates in her Mary Boleyn biography about Henry dragging in a German doctor to care for Elizabeth when she fell ill of the pox in 1562. When the doctor had all but given up hope, Henry was said to have threatened him with a dagger to inspire him to try harder to save the queen’s life.
Henry VIII’s mother, Elizabeth of York, lived an extraordinary life. It’s hard to imagine the fear surrounding the young princess after the death of her father, Edward IV, and Richard III’s rise to the throne. Whatever emotions she had towards her uncle and whether she suspected him in her brothers’ disappearance will probably never be known, but it would be safe to say that Elizabeth demonstrated great bravery and resilience in her lifetime.
And finally I leave with Mary Grey. Mary was the youngest of three daughters born to Frances Brandon and Henry Grey. Frances was the daughter of Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk, and Mary Tudor, Dowager Queen of France and sister to King Henry. Mary’s sister, Jane, is the most well-known of the Grey sisters for her time as the Nine Day’s Queen, but Katherine and Mary led very interesting lives of their own.
While I was researching Catherine Carey, I came upon the story of Mary’s wedding. While the queen was away celebrating the marriage of Catherine’s son, Henry, Mary slipped off to marry Elizabeth’s serjeant porter, Thomas Keyes. She should have learned from her sister’s imprisonment in the tower that it wasn’t a good idea to marry without the queen’s consent, but she did it anyways and made sure that she had three witnesses present. This unsuitable marriage provoked the queen’s rage and Mary soon found herself under house arrest while Thomas was sent to the Fleet prison. Mary seems to have been shuffled around to the care of various relatives, but eventually she found her way back into the queen’s affections and regained her position in the queen’s household.
Adrienne Dillard, author of Cor Rotto: A Novel of Catherine Carey and Catherine Carey in a Nutshell is a graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies with emphasis in History from Montana State University-Northern.
Adrienne has been an eager student of history for most of her life and has completed in-depth research on the American Revolutionary War time period in American History and the history and sinking of the Titanic. Her senior university capstone paper was on the discrepancies in passenger lists on the ill-fated liner and Adrienne was able to work with Philip Hind of Encyclopedia Titanica for much of her research on that subject.
Cor Rotto: A Novel of Catherine Carey is Adrienne’s first published novel, while Catherine Carey is a Nutshell is her first non-fiction book. For more information, visit: MadeGlobal.com: Adrienne Dillard.
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