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Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens
Jane Dunn

At her coronation the pageants stressed this contract with the people. One had Clio, muse of history, chant ‘Anna comes, bright image of chastity, she whom Henry has chosen to his partner. Worthy husband, worthy wife! May heaven bless these nuptuals, and make her a fruitful mother of men-children.’

(#litres_trial_promo) It was the first day of June and Anne was already almost six months pregnant. The whole of Christendom had been defied for the sake of this baby; no one seemed to doubt that it would be a boy. But childbirth was dangerous for both mother and baby. It was customary for a woman who had any property to leave, to make her will before entering the dark wood of labour for there was real uncertainty as to whether she would return. But the omens were fair: the late summer weather had been warm and sunny, the harvest was expected to be a good one, there were no epidemics or plagues to disturb the surface calm. Good order was all around: the spirits seemed appeased.

There was an underlying uneasiness and dissension, however, in all segments of society. People did not like to see their good queen Catherine, who had behaved with nobility and utmost probity throughout, so humiliated and ill-treated. Henry’s subjects were largely conservative and did not care for the extreme measures he had pursued in order to satisfy his desire to marry again and produce an heir. Happy as they may have been at the thought that the excesses and corruption of the established church in England would be redressed, there was less support for so radical a reform of religion that papal authority was abandoned and spiritual power vested in the king. Certainly the pope’s

(#ulink_94188e5d-dfa7-5cc2-92fa-dede0df51a45) excommunication of Henry in July, and the declaration that his marriage to Anne was invalid, was serious and unwelcome to a conservative and still Catholic people.

During the summer of 1533, augury and prognostication were more prolific than ever. Most significant perhaps were those of a visionary, Elizabeth Barton, known as ‘the Maid of Kent’, who was well known and respected for her power of prophecy. However when she began prophesying that Henry would cease to be king one month after marrying Anne Boleyn, and that in God’s eyes his status as divinely ordained monarch would be immediately forfeit, there was real consternation. Many eminent churchmen and politicians, amongst them Sir Thomas More himself, considered her to have genuine spiritual authority. But such reckless courage and moral fervour was dangerous. A month after the coronation this young nun was arrested, tortured and imprisoned in the Tower. She and her associates were eventually convicted of high treason and hanged the following spring.

So with more weighty anticipation perhaps than accompanied any other royal birth either before or since, Queen Anne settled in to Greenwich, the favoured royal palace and birthplace of Henry himself, to await the event which would seal the fates of many. The expectant father had already chosen the baby’s names, Edward or Henry, and had ordered the elaborate celebrations expected to honour a male heir. Anne seemed to be as certain as Henry was of the desired outcome of her pregnancy. In dismissing a book which claimed that marrying the king would literally be the death of her, she reputedly said: ‘I think the book a bauble; yet for the hope I have that the realm may be happy by my issue, I am resolved to have him [the king] whatsoever might become of me.’


Elizabeth’s birth was not easy. She was her mother’s first child and the labour, according to Anne’s earliest biographer, was particularly painful: the sight of the red-faced infant lacking the prerequisite male genitalia would not immediately have replaced pain with triumphant euphoria. The same biographer mentions that the baby looked more like her father than her mother, which was less surprising given that many newborn babies seem to bear a passing resemblance to Henry VIII, whose features by that time were beginning to sink into his surrounding cheeks and multiple chins.


‘The King’s mistress was delivered of a girl, to the great disappointment and sorrow of the King, of the Lady herself, and of others of her party, and to the great shame and confusion of physicians, astrologers, wizards, and witches, all of whom affirmed that it would be a boy,’

(#litres_trial_promo) reported Chapuys, ambassador to Charles V. As a stalwart Catholic representing the Holy Roman Empire whose emperor, Charles, was the nephew of the divorced Catherine, any schadenfreude at the unexpected confounding of Henry’s schemes was only to be expected.

The sixteenth-century mind sought significance in everything, made connections between apparently random events and attempted to bring order and understanding to chaos. Anne, confronted with her fundamental failure in bringing forth a daughter, pointed out the fortuitous circumstances of this baby’s birth in an attempt to salvage some divine justification for her life from the critical flaw of her sex. She was born on the eve of the Virgin Mary’s own feast day, and in a room hung with tapestries depicting the histories of the holy virgins, a room which had therefore become known as the chamber of virgins. Anne too would have grown up knowing that Saint Anne, after whom she was named, was the mother of the Virgin herself. So the symbolism of the pre-eminent Virgin, the woman elevated above all others, was associated with Elizabeth from the moment of her birth.

None of the mother’s frantic reasonings, however, mitigated the outraged disappointment of the baby’s father. Surely he had done all he could, endured enough penance, prayed night and morning, changed his wife for someone younger and untainted by scriptural ambiguity, even altered the tenets of Christianity. Such a blatant blighting of his hopes had to have some deeper message, and it could not be a comforting one.

Eustace Chapuys, admittedly a hostile witness, gave a verdict on Henry’s disappointment which most of Catholic Europe and many of his own English subjects would have shared: ‘God has entirely abandoned this King, and left him prey to his own misfortune, and to his obstinate blindness that he may be punished and completely ruined.’

(#litres_trial_promo) The pageant and jousting which had been organized to celebrate the birth of a son was cancelled, although the elaborate christening and confirmation went ahead as planned three days later in the friars’ church at Greenwich. But there was no disguising the general sense of disappointment underlying the ancient rituals and the lack of spontaneous enthusiasm on the streets. There were even many who were as hostile to this new princess as they were to her mother. They could not accept the sophistry which had transformed Queen Catherine from faithful wife of twenty-four years to Henry’s unwitting concubine, and reduced her daughter from Princess Mary, her father’s heir, to Lady Mary, her father’s bastard. To these sceptics, Anne Boleyn was the impostor queen and Elizabeth her cuckoo in the nest, although the epithets used then were more frequently ‘whore’ and ‘bastard’.

Oblivious to all these adult judgements, the baby Elizabeth was carried back from her christening to the palace and to her mother who was traditionally in seclusion until ‘churched’ about a month after childbirth. Certainly Henry was not expected to be present at the christening but there was no mention that he was even at Greenwich that day. As was the custom, a wet nurse was immediately found for Elizabeth, for queens of England and noblewomen generally did not feed their babies themselves. Royal and aristocratic women were mostly of value as brood mares and binding up the breasts of a new mother to staunch her milk would make her sooner able to conceive again, thereby continuing her procreative duty.

In fact by the beginning of 1534, just four months or so after Elizabeth’s birth, Anne was thought to be pregnant again. But strain and anxiety were an inevitable part of the pressure to produce, a pressure which the baby Elizabeth’s sex had intensified. By the late summer a miscarriage, or possibly the realization that her symptoms were due to a hysterical pregnancy, had robbed Anne and Henry again of their longed-for prince. Anne had failed twice and her hold on Henry and the throne was beginning to feel precarious.

Elizabeth spent only three months in Greenwich Palace with her mother and the court before being sent to the old palace at Hatfield, some thirty miles from London, to establish her own household under her governess Margaret, Lady Bryan. Elizabeth’s day-to-day care was already the responsibility of her women attendants, with the queen’s role more as visitor to the nursery, but this banishment from her mother at such a young age would not have been a conscious wrench. Elizabeth was never to live with her again.

At the same time, by orders of their father, Elizabeth’s half-sister Mary was deprived of her own household and sent to become a lady-in-waiting to the new heir presumptive. The manor she had been ordered to leave had been granted to Queen Anne’s brother, George Rochford, and the new governess to whom she was subject, Lady Anne Shelton, was the new queen’s aunt. In this way the influence of the Boleyns extended even into Mary’s most private life and could only seem to her to be all-pervasive and utterly malign. Together with the insults to her much-loved mother, whom since 1531 she had been forbidden to see, these new strictures were particularly cruel humiliations for an unhappy young woman of seventeen. She was to take these hurts, unforgiven, to her grave. Despite her loneliness and misery, however, Mary seems to have been as taken with her baby sister as anyone, commending her to their father when she was three: ‘My sister Elizabeth is in good health (thanks to our Lord), and such a child toward [a forward child], as I doubt not, but your Highness shall have cause to rejoice of in time coming.’


If a girl child was unwelcome as heir to a king, she did have her uses as a future bride in the strategic game of dynastic alliances. When Elizabeth was barely six months old, Henry opened negotiations with François I to see if they could reach an agreement to marry his new daughter, and currently still his heir, to Francis’s third son, Charles, Duc d’Angoulême. The French and Spanish ambassadors were introduced to the baby princess who was presented in full regal apparel: ‘[she] was brought out to them splendidly accoutred and dressed, and in princely state, with all the ceremonial her governess could think of, after which they saw her quite undressed’.

(#litres_trial_promo) The undressing of high-born infants, whose health and survival – and sex – were of strategic importance in their families’ marital bartering, was a common enough procedure at the time. Nine years later, the baby Mary Queen of Scots was to be undressed in the coldest of Scottish winters to show her health to Henry VIII’s envoy. Elizabeth, however, was pronounced a healthy and anatomically perfect girl but her father’s demands were excessive and the marriage negotiations eventually came to nought.

As the baby Elizabeth thrived in the care of her attendants in the country, a terrible momentum was building which would catch her mother helplessly in its tide. Anne Boleyn had never been a popular queen. And she was too clever and forthright, too vivacious and sexually bold to overcome these natural prejudices against her. A French diplomat reported back from a mission to visit Henry and Anne’s court in the early autumn of 1535: ‘the lower people are greatly exasperated with the Queen, saying a thousand ill and improper things against her’.

(#litres_trial_promo) For many years before their marriage and for a short while after, the king had been blatantly obsessed with her. A contemporary Scottish theologian, Alexander Alesius,

(#ulink_1dab0eda-902e-5dfc-b80b-d259103c5b25) known for his eyewitness accounts, described the king’s emotional avidity: ‘so ardent was he when he had begun to form an attachment, that he could give himself no rest; so much so that when he was raving about Queen Anne and some of his friends were dissuading him from the divorce, he said he preferred the love of the Queen to half his realm’.


In a society used to dynastic marriages, brokered by diplomats, and public displays of affection bounded by the etiquette of courtly love, the love-struck middle-aged man was an unsettling sight. When that ageing man was a king, ordained by God, the uneasiness grew, for here was an all-powerful being in thrall to a woman, an omniscient monarch behaving like a fool. In Henry’s case, however, the obvious way to absolve that feeling of unseemliness in the spectator was to blame Anne. The harlot had somehow made him succumb to her wishes through the exercise of her powers, and those were most probably unnatural. Rumour abounded as to the nature of Anne’s hold over him.

Gossip, rumour and innuendo are a powerful triad in any royal court when too much power, patronage and money circulates in a closed society of ambitious people with too little to do. In Henry’s court, life was made more treacherous by the sense of the nearness of death – through sudden illness, injury or an inexplicable eclipse from royal favour. At this point in his life, Henry was a sun king turned tyrant, and his whims could be fearsome. This ever-present threat of random violence was made more unnerving by the widespread belief in the supernatural, the practice of necromancy and the ready presence in everyday life of the devil. Rumour and speculation energized idle chatter, but too easily gained a life of its own: whispered puffballs had a habit of turning into stone-shod facts. When those rumours were of bewitchment and sexual depravity then the sixteenth-century victim of these accusations had little chance of restoring any reputation for virtue and probity. She had not much better odds of escaping with her life.

The court was full also of the stories of Henry’s new mistresses, one even a cousin of Anne’s. There was talk of the king no longer in thrall to his wife, resentful of her temper, intelligence and assertiveness. The Venetian ambassador reported home that Henry ‘was already tired to satiety of this new Queen’.

(#litres_trial_promo) But the bitter accusations and estrangements were followed still by reconciliations with much merriment. Anne continued to view Catherine of Aragon’s existence as a threat and her daughter Mary, whose obstinacy and flagrant rudeness to her new stepmother – whose status she refused to acknowledge – was a constant thorn. Both were a continuing barrier to her own daughter’s inheritance and the further advancement of her ambitious family.

A story, aimed at revealing Anne’s ruthlessness and malice, did the rounds of the court and diplomatic reports in the early summer of 1535. Anne was supposed to have paid a man to proclaim – to Thomas Cromwell and even to Henry himself – that he had had a revelation that the queen would not conceive again as long as Catherine and her daughter lived. Lives could hang on threads of trumped-up prophecy, divination and manipulative lies. And rumours could kill.

But it was not just Anne’s appearance of sexual boldness which exercised her detractors; her strong evangelical leanings and active promotion of the reformed religion gained her some important enemies who were working always to find a way of diminishing, if not effacing, her influence on the king. Certainly her library was known for its inclusion of radical reform literature from the Continent and she was credited with introducing to Henry the polemical Obedience of a Christen Man by William Tyndale, a copy of whose English translation of the New Testament she owned soon after publication in 1534. All the chaplains she promoted to her service were evangelicals. According to Alesius, however, the interference in religious policy that focused the hostile forces against her was her instigation through Henry of the delegation sent to the German Lutheran princes in 1536. Before they had returned the trumped-up charges against her had been contrived.

In fact, Henry’s ruthlessness towards the moral leaders of the opposition to his Reformation, specifically Sir Thomas More, his Lord Chancellor, and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, was to shock the whole of Catholic Europe. Fisher, whom the pope provocatively had made a cardinal while he was imprisoned in the Tower, was the most bold and implacable of opponents and his downfall came when he refused to take the oath of succession, which placed Elizabeth as her father’s heir over Mary. Incarcerated in the Tower, both men were eventually executed in 1535, along with a number of other Catholic martyrs, as a result of a new treason act, which made ‘malicious’ denial of the king’s title punishable by death. The bluff and hearty Good King Hal had completed his metamorphosis into the paranoid tyrant of his later years. And Anne was blamed by many for the executions. It was even possible that Henry’s uneasiness at having destroyed More, once so close and admired a friend, meant he exorcised some of his guilt by blaming his wife for this too.

In this atmosphere of alarm and fear, there was a short respite for Anne, for by the end of 1535 she was pregnant again. Despite the rumour, there was no indication that harm had been done to Catherine or her daughter to ensure this pregnancy. Quite soon, however, the divorced queen was mortally ill. Although her health had been failing for a long time, when Catherine finally died in January 1536 at the age of fifty, there were the inevitable rumours that Anne had succeeded at last in having her poisoned. This story was given some credence at the time by the news that when Catherine’s body was opened up they found her heart was ‘black and hideous to look at’ with a dark growth attached. Subsequent medical experts have stated this was much more likely to be a signature of the cancer which probably killed her.

(#litres_trial_promo) The royal lack of sympathy for Catherine was evident up to and beyond death. Right to the end, she and her daughter Mary had been forbidden to see each other, in an act of petty malice. And the news of her death after much suffering was greeted by the king without any show of guilt or sorrow.

Anne and Henry celebrated in unseemly delight, with Anne – and possibly the king too – clothed from head to foot in yellow, more the symbolic colour of jealousy and betrayal than of mourning. Elizabeth, just over two years old, was taken to church in grand ceremonial ‘to the sound of trumpets’ and then, in her father’s embrace, shown off to his courtiers.

(#litres_trial_promo) Here was his legitimate heir, his actions proclaimed, although Henry still hoped to displace her with a son.

This celebration of Elizabeth’s place in the succession, however, was to be short-lived. Rather than consolidating Anne’s position, Catherine’s death left the queen horribly exposed. While Catherine lived Henry would have found it very difficult to cast Anne off in order to marry for a third time. Now that protection was gone. There was a powerful argument, maintained by the conservative Catholic faction and which many in the general populace found sympathetic, that Henry’s marriage to Anne had never been legal and now, with his only true wife dead, he was an unencumbered widower who was free to marry again. But although the momentum was building inexorably against her, Anne still felt a certain optimism and relief: her new pregnancy brought hope. Her personal wheel of fortune she believed must have revolved by now. This time her body had to be nurturing a healthy boy. On this her fate, even her life, depended.

What happened next was a catastrophe for Anne. In late January 1536, the precious prince was born, but so premature at just over three months that Henry and Anne’s son was more a miscarriage than a stillbirth. Anne blamed this untimely birth on the shock to her nervous system caused by news that Henry had fallen heavily while jousting and, it was rumoured, lain unconscious for two hours. She also said that her husband’s blatant flirtations, particularly with one of her own ladies in waiting, Jane Seymour, had added to her upset and strain during this precarious time. Anne was desperate to absolve herself from some of the blame for the failure of this last pregnancy. But the tragedy was possibly even graver than the loss of a prince, for Henry articulated the chilling accusation that Anne’s powers sprang from a sinister and supernatural source, and this miscarriage of the longed-for son was her punishment alone, relieving him from responsibility. Chapuys, the busy and hostile Spanish ambassador, reported something the king had said in confidence to one of his courtiers in a serious and confessional tone: ‘that he [the king] had made this marriage seduced by witchcraft, and for that reason he considered it null; and that this was evident, because God did not permit them to have male issue’.

(#litres_trial_promo) The fact that it was assumed that Anne was now incapable of producing a healthy male heir could be an expression of the fear that Anne was somehow tainted by her involvement with unnatural practices, like sorcery.

(#ulink_4c605ec6-06c3-5b46-ae9e-9341d0bed39c) Her many detractors now had a powerful weapon to use against her.

Accusations of witchcraft were easily made and impossible to disprove. The existence of witches was accepted even by the learned and rational. It was self-evident that their powers were malignant and destructive, the result of a supposed secret pact with the devil. They often bore the brunt of the everyday struggle to manage and understand the natural world. It was generally believed that with a few incantations and a sacrifice or two a witch could blight the harvest, turn milk sour, make bonny children sicken and die. She could create a flash flood out of nothing, dry up the wells, invoke a freak storm, kill lambs with a glance and strike land, animals and women barren.

It was in the area of sex that the activities of witches were most feared and decried. A witch was represented as the embodiment of the inverted qualities of womankind: where natural women were weaker than men and submissive, witches were harsh, with access to forbidden power; where women had kindness and charm, witches were full of vengeance and the will to harm; where women were sexually passive, witches were voracious in their appetites and depraved. Witches were privy to recipes for aphrodisiacs and could make men fall helplessly in love with the most unlikely of women – even with their own benighted selves.

Lust was the domain of witchcraft. Incest and sodomy were intercourse with the devil and witches invariably gave birth to deformed children as a result of these deviant practices. Certainly it was believed that just as a man could be bewitched into illicit sex so he could also be rendered impotent. It was rumoured witches would even sacrifice babies in the pursuit of their terrible power.

The fact that proof of witchcraft was spurious was no obstacle to the accusation. It was a powerful and ancient belief which gave a meaning to misfortune in a world of suffering, and a cathartic focus for blame and revenge. Any woman who was somehow eccentric to her immediate society, difficult, lonely, odd in her behaviour, unbridled in her speech – even just the possessor of a cat – was at risk of becoming the scapegoat for her community, her perceived malevolence responsible for all the ills that befell it. Witchcraft was established as a crime in the parliamentary acts of 1542 and 1563 and evidence was a congeries of hearsay, superstition, malice and fear. There were periods when witch-hunts were instigated as a manifestation of the spiritual war between God and the devil. Likely women were sought out and prosecuted, their confessions often extracted under torture. Many were executed as witches, often on the vaguest anecdotes of a neighbour’s ill fortune and a run of unlucky coincidences.

Accusations of witchcraft were largely made against poor rural women. But it was a charge that could be levelled against any woman (men were rarely charged) and there were cases of aristocratic women accused of weaving malevolent spells, with mysterious powers to do harm, the crime being maleficium. Anne Boleyn’s confidence and sense of power had been noted as unbecoming in a woman. Now, in her failure for a third time to present the king and his people with the necessary male heir, Anne’s downfall was inevitable. This was all the more brutally so if the failure of her last pregnancy could be used to intimate her gross malevolence and unnatural appetites.

The speed and ruthlessness of Queen Anne’s destruction suggest fear of her power amongst the king’s closest advisers, most notably Cromwell, and a growing animus towards her, disgust even, on Henry’s part. Henry was susceptible to his own propaganda, and it was only a small matter to transform convenient surmise into cold reality. There was a widespread belief that a witch bore a mark on her face or body which revealed her true nature: either hidden peculiarities like a third nipple, a hairy birthmark, an odd lump, indentation or discoloration, or outright deformities. In the attempt to defame Anne as a witch, stories gained momentum after her death of an extra finger or some grotesque mole-like growth on her neck.

The main published source for details of her disfigurement came from a Catholic priest who never knew or even saw her. Nicholas Sander’s tract De origine et progressu schismatis Anglicani, posthumously published in 1585, described her fantastically libidinous life, labelled her marriage with the king as incestuous (claiming Anne was Henry’s daughter) and listed her physical imperfections thus: ‘Anne Boleyn was rather tall of stature, with black hair and an oval face of a sallowish complexion, as if troubled with jaundice. She had a projecting tooth under the top lip, and on her right hand six fingers. There was a large wen under her chin, and therefore to hide its ugliness she wore a high dress covering her throat.’

(#litres_trial_promo) Despite being under the closest scrutiny during her life as consort and queen, none of the contemporary chroniclers of the time mentioned any abnormalities in Anne’s appearance. In fact, the Venetian ambassador who, like his fellow hostile ambassadors, was avid for any disparaging detail to report home, thought her ‘of middling stature, swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, bosom not much raised … and eyes, which are black and beautiful’.

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