Context is king


I don’t know why, but recently I’ve been answering lots of emails and comments on social media with a reminder for people to think about the context of the event or person’s actions when they are judging that person or coming to a conclusion. It’s inspired me to write this article which is rather rambling, and for that I apologise.

The Oxford Dictionaries website define “context” as “The circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood.” Now when we are discussing Tudor history and Tudor people, we are talking about things that happened and people that lived 400-500 years ago. The world was a very different place then, “the circumstances that form the setting” for these people’s lives would be quite alien to us.

How was it different?

Well, that’s a huge question, and it’s hard to answer without being able to travel back in time. Let’s consider just a few differences.

The Tudors were very religious and superstitious. The religious calendar controlled people’s daily lives – when they could eat meat, when they could get married or have sexual relations, when they could work or rest, everything. It also affected the way they thought. They believed in original sin and believed that they were all sinners deserving of death, which is why you have people accepting their fates on the scaffold even if they were innocent of the crime with which they had been charged.

Henry was God’s anointed sovereign, he had been anointed with holy oil at his coronation and he was obviously the monarch that God wanted to lead England, or so he and his people believed. Accusations are often levelled at Anne Boleyn, with her being branded a home-wrecker, and people often ask how Anne could do what she did to Catherine of Aragon. But, if you put yourself in Anne’s shoes, if you consider the context, then you can begin to understand. The King of England chose her. Here was God’s anointed sovereign, the man chosen by God to govern England, telling her that his marriage to Catherine was invalid and wrong, and telling her that he wanted her. Anne rebuffed the king for a time, but I expect that he was very persuasive, and what was she supposed to believe or do? I expect that like Catherine Parr in 1543, Anne accepted the king’s wishes as her destiny, as her path, as God’s will for her.

Although we find it ridiculous that Henry VIII believed that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was cursed, that it was not blessed by God because it was against God’s law, and it appears to be a convenient excuse to annul it, it is highly likely that Henry really believed this. In Henry’s eyes, there must have been a reason for Catherine suffering stillbirths and miscarriages, for little Henry, Duke of Cornwall, dying in infancy: God must not have been happy.

Of course, when Anne produced a girl and the lost two babies it left Henry VIII thinking that God wasn’t happy this time round either.

It’s hard for us today to understand Henry VIII’s obsession with having a son. We live in more enlightened times, we know that women can govern a country just as well as men, but we have to consider context when we look at Henry VIII. England wasn’t long out of a time of civil war, decades of struggles and battles caused by two royal houses fighting for the throne, so Henry VIII needed to make the succession secure, and for that, he needed a son, and a spare to be on the safe side. A girl was no good. Women were seen as incapable of ruling, and if a queen married a foreign prince then her husband, and a foreign power, would control the country. Henry VIII had every reason to want and need a son. And don’t forget that death was all around. People did not expect to live a long life, and so it was important to secure the future of their family, and in Henry VIII’s case the throne.

The Tudors also believed in destiny, fate and omens. Women who were pregnant tried to avoid seeing gruesome sights as it was thought this would affect their unborn child. Eating strawberries while pregnant may cause the baby to have a strawberry birth mark, seeing a hare might cause the baby to have a hare lip… These were superstitious times. No wonder Henry VIII doubted his marriage to Catherine when he was God’s anointed king and should have been blessed with children. Dead babies were surely omens, signs that something wasn’t right.

Then we have the different views on women, children, childhood and education. I realise that our modern world still has some way to go with regard to equality of the sexes, but the role of women was very different back in Tudor times. Girls were brought up to run a household and to care for children. Men like Thomas More, Thomas Boleyn and Anthony Cooke, who educated their daughters to a high standard, were unusual. A father didn’t want to over-educate his daughter as it might put off a husband, it was best to simply give her the skills she needed.

Noble parents would be on the lookout early on for a suitable match for their daughter. Royal and noble betrothals could be conducted with very young children, after all, you wouldn’t want to miss out on securing a match between your daughter and the local heir to a fortune, and marriages could take place around the age of 12-14 for girls and 14 for boys. These boys and girls weren’t seen as children; they were adults. Children under seven were treated as children, they were innocent and incapable of mortal sin, but after seven they began a more formal education and were treated more like mini-adults. By 12-14 they were marriageable, and if they belonged to the lower classes, then they could start an apprenticeship.

We often think of medieval and Tudor parents as harsh, but they loved their children just like we love ours. As Ralph Houlbrooke points out in his book, The English Family, it was believed that spoiling children led to them being physically and morally soft and prone to sickness and vices. It was the parents’ responsibility to ensure that their children were not pampered, but instead strictly controlled for the good of their bodies and souls. Affection and love for children was seen as natural and instinctive, but it was not to be lavished on children. Discipline and restraint were the key elements in bringing up children the right way and many medieval and early Tudor writers urged corporal punishment for correction. Proverbs 13 verse 24 says “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him” and this was taken quite literally. We may think of Tudor parents as abusive; they would see themselves as loving, as doing the best by their children. You didn’t strike your child out of hatred or cruelty (well, most parents didn’t), you did it out of love. You didn’t force your 14-year-old daughter into marriage because you didn’t love her, you were making a good match for her and securing her future. An older man didn’t marry a much younger woman, a girl even, because he was a paedophile, he was doing something that was normal at that time, he was offering a young girl security, status and wealth in return for children.

As I said earlier in this post, the monarch was God’s anointed sovereign, God’s chosen leader for the country. That is what the common people believed, and noble families felt that it was their duty to serve that monarch, it was their destiny. There are often comments today on social media about how families were irresponsible or stupid for sending their children to court to serve the king because of the risk of execution or daughters becoming involved romantically with Henry VIII etc. but that’s nonsense. It was your duty to serve your king, and it was a great honour for your son or daughter to be appointed to serve the king or his queen. If your child or relative was executed as a traitor, then you grieved in private, picked yourself back up and dusted yourself off and got back to serving God’s anointed sovereign as was your duty. You now had to prove your loyalty, and that of your family. You had to put your master and king first, and the future security of your family depended on your loyal service to the king. When Thomas Boleyn returned to court after his children’s executions, he wasn’t heartless, it isn’t proof that he didn’t love them, that he was overambitious or that he was an awful father, he was doing his duty and doing the best by his surviving family.

Here, I am really only scratching the surface. These people lived according to their faith, their routines were controlled by religion, the position of the sun in the sky, the seasons and religious feasts, the farming calendar… Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird tells Scout “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it”, and it’s so true. We have absolutely no hope of completely understanding the likes of Henry VIII, Thomas Boleyn, Anne Boleyn, or any Tudor person. We cannot climb into their skin, we cannot walk a mile in their shoes, we can never understand their context, the world they lived in, the lives they led, we’re just too far removed. And if we cannot understand their world then how can we judge them?

Context is king. Context is everything.

I’m sure you can think of other things that we should take into account when we consider life in the Tudor period, so please do share in the comments section below.

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94 thoughts on “Context is king”
  1. Very interesting, Claire. We can be aware of the differences between their lives and ours, but putting ourselves in their place is a different thing altogether. I think you might agree that Henry’s wives’ actions are frequently commented upon and judgements made upon them as though those ladies were living in our own times.

  2. I completely agree Claire. When I am studying or reading history I am certainly guilty of coming to conclusions or rushing to judgments based on the only reality in which I have experience and that is the times in which I live. It is very difficult as a human being to put yourself into the era of your subject but I will try harder to make conclusions based on the context of their times.

  3. Excellent article. I believe you are correct in the thought process that we read about things that were done and are judging people/actions by 21st century standards. Just think how much things have changes in the last 50 years…. Now think about the last 400 years.

  4. Hoe can we judge them? That is so true, we are guilty of judging these long dead people by our age beliefs and standards, yet they lived in a very different age and their behaviour was moulded by the superstions and beliefs of that age, an eclipse of the sun meant that god was displeased with them, failed harvests and plagues were thought to be a sign of gods curse, a woman menstruating was not allowed to handle the milk vat as it was believed she would turn the milk sour, I do believe that Henry genuinely believed his first marriage was cursed, and Katherine spent so many hours praying for a healthy son she too must have thought she had displeased him in some way, yet she went on pilgrimages and fasted all to no avail, Henry began to be troubled, children were a sigh that their marriage was blessed, his father had many children, and sons though Arthur had died young, but Henry after many years only had a girl and this was a sign God was not happy with his marriage, although a girl was a sigh Katherine was fertile, female offspring represented a childless union and this is what people today do not understand, what’s wrong with a female ruler they say? In our age where we have had one woman prime minister and have a current one, and where some women now are running their own businesses successfully and some are the main breadwinner in a family, where our present day monarchy has a successful monarch although parliament rules, it is difficult to understand the mindset of people then especially for a King to have only a girl to leave his kingdom to, there was a risk that a female ruler may marry a ruler whose ambition was to swallow up England as part of his domain, hence the reason why his daughter Marys marriage to Philip of Spain was so frowned upon, he also brought the threat of the inquisition with him, a woman could not lead an army into battle and fight amongst them, she was merely the pro creator of childbirth and domesticity, God had not intended women to rule they were subservient creatures, the descendants of Eve tempted by the snake in the garden of Eden, and forever cursed, Henry was a product of his age as Katherine was and Anne was, Anne has been hailed as a modern woman, a woman born into the wrong age, she was not subservient, she was determined to bow down to no one, yet she too was very much a 16th century woman, bound by the beliefs and superstions that was responsible for the thought patterns of the time, an interesting article Claire well done!

    1. Hello, Christine, very well said. If Anne isn’t been slagged off on social media, just as she was blamed for everything, the weather included, save by those who really knew her, she is hailed as a modern woman. Unfortunately, Anne can’t be called a modern woman as at the end of the day she was still subject to her husband, father, brother, male guardian or authority, which for Anne was dangerous as her husband was her King. Anne was certainly sophisticated, maybe slightly ahead of her time, forward thinking and well educated. She refused to be a puppet or a house wife. However, she did want a husband and children and she wanted to be Queen, after some time avoiding the King. She was certainly a match for Henry but like Katherine and every other woman in the sixteenth century, she was ultimately bound by the rules and gender construction of her time. Anne still did not believe a woman should be Queen and saw that Henry needed a son. She worried that she had not yet given him one for several months in 1534. She may have had many advantages and she was privileged but we can’t say she was a feminist or modern woman, although I think she is one person who might do well in our age. We see how trapped by the situation she had stepped into Anne became, realising Henry was not giving up other women, during her pregnancy, for example and that she wasn’t always his chief advisor once they were married. Anne had a role of shaping policy and reform, but in the end her main purpose was to provide a couple of male children. In the context of the sixteenth century it was her fault and poor Anne didn’t escape blame by either Henry or trouble makers. Henry welcomed Elizabeth, who was healthy but remarked about boys coming, hint , hint as he did when Mary was born. In the end Henry blamed Anne after her final miscarriage, although she blamed him back, but we have to see the context. Henry was getting older and he was on the throne for 28 years now, married for all of those years as well and he had lost child after child, son after son. He had ended one marriage to get a true wife and now the same pattern was happening. What have I still done wrong? I am the Annointed of God, what else do I have to do to get a son, Lord? His thought process cannot have been very positive. Anne must have felt desperately abandoned and we cannot imagine the fear and upset after these events. It is very easy to blame Henry as some kind of unfeeling monster as well, but if we try to step into the moment, all you really see is a man in despair and distress and a woman devastated by her sad loss. They must have been angry and distraught, but we don’t know beyond the slightest hints in tatty bits of scroll from 500 years ago. In the context Henry can only see another curse on his marriage, Anne cannot know what will happen next and is vulnerable. We may believe it is wrong to blame Anne and of course it is, but as the article says, this was a true belief and fear in a time before we knew why a miscarriage happens, for example. Even reformers still held some of the same belief about pregnancy and childbirth because a medical revolution didn’t come along with it. You were somewhat at the mercy of fate or God’s will, with little else to go on. Henry was expressing valid concerns for the context he lived in and Anne knew now she was no more mistress of her own fate than Katherine had been. A modern woman would have had the advantage of a way out but only Henry as the man and King could do that. We know Henry and Anne were somewhat reconciled, that she was not abandoned by Henry and she didn’t die because of the loss of a son. However, it was her failure which made her vulnerable and Henry was moved by an unfortunate state of circumstances and plots to turn against his wife and kill her. It is again ridiculous to say het failure, I know, but that was the way Henry saw it. Anne may have even believed she had failed. She may have been well educated but there is no indication that she didn’t think in the same conditioned manner of any other woman when it came to the need to provide a male heir. Anne was no feminist. She had advanced ideas, certainly, but we fail to grasp the reality of life married yo a Tudor man, especially a King, if we believe her a modern woman.

      1. Thank you Bq, I was just thinking that although superstions do not rule our lives and we are not horrified by the thought of hell anymore, indeed it is now believed amongst some Christians and mediums that hell does not exist, superstions do infiltrate in our lives still albeit subtly, there are many who believe that if you spill salt, you should throw it over your left shoulder and my mum used to say it was lucky if you saw a black cat, next month we will be in Halloween and some still believe it really is the witching hour when the souls of the dead walk along with goblins werewolves and witches, now it’s very comercialised of course and for youngsters it’s just an excuse to have a good party but in early times it was a time for very real fear and dread.

      2. Dear Banditqueen
        I do agree with most of what you wrote but not with the fact that it was the sign of times that Henry saw his marriage as cursed because of the lack of sons. Henry saw what suited his desires. In this situation he wanted a new wife which could provide him a son, so after 24(?) years he gets rid of Katherine and takes a new wife, and the same with Anne: his marriage was never valid because of his relationship with Annes sister, Mary (he should have thought of that before he got married) but he still executes her for adultery. But howecome? If they were never married, then she was never unfaithfull to him (ridiculous).
        And last but not least I would like to add that there were other queens whom “failed” to produce a male heir without having their head cut off or being tossed aside. In Annes case there were even her devoted enemies (one of them was Chapuys whom always called her a wh*re) that took pitty on her which proves that it was not normal back them. As well as having six wives (because 4 of them didn’t do their job and fifth died trying) was not normal at that time. When he was looking for a wife number 4 there weren’t that many candidates because everybody knew what happens to his wifes and none of the women were up for it.

        1. I agree, Henry definitely believed what was or may appear to be convenient, or at least that is what we have tended to gleam but do we really know? The reaction to the loss of his son in 1536 is actually an interesting one, because for once we know how both Anne and Henry reacted because we have a record, very unusual in most cases. They were both devastated, but we also know they had a ding dong, a rather emotional and nasty row. Henry tried to keep his bitter disappointment under wraps until Anne blames his loving others, then he gets all fatalistic and states God will give him no male children, but the implications can be seen as ominous here….Anne has not given me any male children, why? (I am paraphrasing of course) What now? I was of course thinking of how he may react, but there is some evidence that he felt he was still cursed. This is how people felt in the sixteenth century and Henry was no different, making no secret of it. He wasn’t thinking of immediately ending his marriage to Anne in February 1536, he was distressed at the loss of a child and genuinely so. He made a glib remark that he may take another wife, but it was not the action he took at once and there is also evidence that he and Anne were on good terms within weeks of the miscarriage. This is why context is important. It is really difficult to know why after three years Henry suddenly wanted out. The only clue is the fact that history appeared to be repeating itself.

          Now, this is were Henry finds things to be convenient. The unexpected or maybe not so unexpected turn of events in April and May 1536_are definitely as you describe used by Henry to find a convenient way out of his marriage. The person of convenience is Mary Boleyn, used partly for an application for support from Rome to marry Anne as he had a relationship with her, then to get out of his marriage. He did consult with a canon law expert about March or April and this shows he wanted a new wife. He still does not act and now it has to be asked did he have something more permanent in mind at that time for Anne or are the events of April 29th and 30th which led to those very charges of treason and incest and adultery a variety of more convenient things which gave validation to the movement to get rid of Anne? This is were the who did it questions arise? Was it a clever plot fuelled by a change in foreign policy or feuds designed by Cromwell and Anne’s conversation with Henry Norris just makes sense after he is named as her lover by a terrified Mark Smeaton or did Henry merely order Cromwell to get rid of Anne at all costs as others believe or as Susanna Lipscomb argued was it a list of unfortunate events which fell into place to make Anne look guilty? Or was it a combination of various things? I leave you make up your own mind, but there is evidence for all of the above and the only thing for certain is that Anne and five gentlemen were accused of crimes they didn’t commit so as Henry could be free. Why not annul his marriage and move on, buy her off with a palace or two and the odd sanctioned visit with Elizabeth? Maybe that was his original intention, but there were rumours as well which a now slightly paranoid Henry who may or may not have had a personality shift, seems to have been convinced very easily that Anne had committed adultery. Is this convenient or did he really believe the charges? Why would he execute her even if he did? Again, the context is important. To the public and to the observation of the day, masculine honour was very important and it was something Henry was very upset about, generally because of his lack of sons. It has been argued that one lover was bad enough, but five was too much for him or any sixteenth century husband to take and if she then plotted to kill him or even pass of a child as his heir from her lover, then she puts the dynasty in danger. This was the theory. Yes, other Queens had committed adultery, but they had also had children. Henry had a long marriage to Katherine of Aragon but she was also a royal princess and Anne was an English subject. That made her more vulnerable, with no powerful allies at home or abroad. One of the young Queens of Naples or somewhere was beheaded for adultery, Maria of somewhere which escapes me without much judicial process even though she had done nothing. Henry suddenly hated Anne and wanted her gone, it is very true, but why he chose this route is the subject of hot debate and has earned him a terrible name, but maybe it is not so simple as we cannot really know what sparked that sudden hatred or his actions, not without a lot more analysis and understanding of the context. Anne was innocent and she could not understand what had happened or why, so how can we after 500 years? It was with great irony that as he had used incest to justify his first marriage being wrong, which he genuinely believed, his instructions to Cranmer are the same reason, a previous sexual relationship. Not that he ever had a contract with Mary, she was his mistress, not his betrothed or wife, but he didn’t need a papal dispensation this time just an English one. So Mary Boleyn was given as the reason for annulment of a marriage which would have ended automatically on Anne’s death. Why? Again context. Henry wanted a clean break and no doubts about the legal claims of his children he hoped to have with his new Queen, Jane Seymour. He could only legitimately ask Parliament to declare Elizabeth a bastard if he wasn’t lawfully married to her mother. Convenient, absolutely. Necessary, maybe, but logically to Henry it made perfect sense in the context of his insecure attitude to his authority, his masculinity and the succession. To us it may sound like a load of dark crap, but to a man who had no son after 28 years of married life, to Henry Viii, who wanted no more rivals or doubts to all of that, this all made perfect sense.

  5. We often forget that we live 500 years or more in their future. When we read about the death penalty for someone for being the wrong type of Christian or for minor crimes it seems terrible and it is, but it was unfortunately part of life. We would be aliens in the worlds of the past and it is impossible to put ourselves into their time. Trying to work out how someone thought or their motivation, let alone the truth behind who they were or what they did is like looking down a very long microscope with a dirty lense at the end, we cannot do it very well. Even with years of study and sources, we never seem to really get to the heart of the matter. Wonderful article. A lot to think about. Oh and thanks for the picture of Ned Stark, aka Sean Bean, still looking.

    1. Very right in life 500 years ago is nothing like today. In fact 100 years ago would be more like it as well.
      Water was not drinkable, children drank ale or mead as did adults.

      1. Hi John, yes, it’s all too close for comfort, sometimes, when we remember that the nineteenth century up to the 1950s still saw such terrible suffering before so many wonder drugs and operations began to be refined to save lives. Standing on the quay of Chepstow harbours recently, I was drawn to a blue plaque on the pub wall which told of some of the men called Chartists who were sent to the worst of the colonial parts from their after their trial at Newtown. They had marched to ask Queen Victoria early in her reign for the vote and reforms but it all got out of hand and they were arrested as riots broke out and hungry people were left desperate and ignored. The people arrested were charged with treason and sentenced to hanging, drawing and quartering, a death sentence normally identified with the Medieval, Tudor or Stuart era. The Queen intervened and used her power of clemency. This is how they were sent to Tasmania. Imagine, being sent to the other side of the world for demanding votes and bread and the end of corruption!

        However, again we come down to context. Europe was still in uproar from revolutionary ideas and France had several even up to the 1840s. The British Government was twitchy and believed they needed to send a message and wanted an example so as society would conform to the strict rules laid down. Yes, the nineteenth century, surprisingly had not moved on much from the Tudors. However, the century also saw many of the medical and social and scientific advances we take for granted. The cultural context may be very different, but as humans they were not so different for they suffered, lost, loved, lived, died, worried, felt joy and anger and despair, danced, laughed and cried and looked for meaning were they could, just like us. In fact, without our high technology, our medical advances, we are them, no matter which century we live in.

    2. Actually, I think that’s Sean Bean as Boromir from Lord Of The Rings. A good Catholic novel! 😉

      There’s no question that people in the past had a different way of thinking. Their entire lives were centred around their beliefs. You just couldn’t write a convincing fantasy novel, say, set in a Tudor-style world without the religion in it. It just wouldn’t work – and I recall a novel by Odo Hirsch set in a sort of European 16th century and nobody seemed to go to church! Church wasn’t even mentioned.

      That doesn’t mean I will ever sympathise with poor Henry and his wish for a son. Too many probably-innocent people died for it. Sorry!

      1. Yes, I agree, even in many fantasy or fictions set in the past, not the actual past but a made up past, there is a sense of religious observance and the gods ruling the lives of the people. You can’t write a historical story without every day reference to the Church. The hours were toned to say when you prayed, the type of prayer, you could only have sex on certain days and within marriage, although the Church court records show very clearly those rules were ignored, but the seasons were marked by religious ritual, holydays, pilgrimages, processions, the passage of life events had many rituals and for most people some natural magic and what we may call superstition, went hand in hand with those rituals and the Church was present at every step. I believe in the rituals of my Faith but I don’t have the connection I would have had 500 years ago with those things or the visual connections they had. It was a world of the senses as well as the tangible. It is an era just beyond our reach.

        While I do sympathise with Henry’s desire for a son, I don’t understand or sympathize with his all consuming passion and tunnel vision for this. Most certainly too many people died, especially after his break from Rome and his second and third marriage. Anne wasn’t to blame for those who died as a consequence of her marriage to Henry, but his legal changes, designed to silence opposition made that opposition treason, with the inevitable consequences which followed. The unfortunate souls who perished, blamed her and so did Henry on occasion, but I am certain she did her best to be a compassionate and merciful Queen and we know she intervened for people in prison, an aspect of her nature as a devout lady overlooked.

        1. It’s certainly true that she tried to help others and she was also aware of the suffering of the poor and needy, she would stitch and sew for hours garments for the poor which people do tend to forget, whilst one biographer of hers said she was trying to outdo her rival Katherine, I genuinely believe she did her best to help them, she like any high born lady was aware of the extreme poverty of the lower classes, many of them just ate broth made out of vegetables and only had one set of clothes, they relied on medicines from the local wise woman or concocted their own made from herbs they grew themselves, some had never tasted meat at all or sugar and any of the marvellous desserts which the courts confectioners made, they lived in one up one down hovels and the children from an early age were made to help their parents as soon as they were old enough, people also tend to forget that she was very pious and would endure nothing less amongst the people in her household, these aspects of her character were overlooked by her enemies.

  6. Excellent Claire! And I can say with great confidence, as a Master’s in History student who recently finished a class in historiography, that context is indeed king. And it must be hammered continually into our brains that looking at any period in history through 21st Century eyes can be tricky. We must not let our life experience impose too much on our study of the lives of those in the past. Thank you for a great article!

  7. How intimidating to have the realisation that God had chosen you out of all others – to be king, to be queen, to be consort to a king. Free will wasn’t deeply sought, I’d guess. Thank you, Claire, for the information on Anne Boleyn’s resistance to Henry VIII having been coloured with her duty to God, King, Country, Family and Church (put it in the order that suits you best, lol.)

    Previous to reading your post, I’d not considered the weight of all that and how it would affect the actions of Anne Boleyn. You’ve given her yet another dimension through which to consider her.

  8. Very well said, Claire! Context is so needed. And even then, we can’t understand the Tudors properly. We can’t walk in their shoes. But getting as much context as possible is a good thing, and something we should all strive for. Do write more on this subject! Please! By the way, I also want to mention the lack of knowledge about the human body in Tudor times, it had quite an impact on their attitudes towards each other, especially regarding childbirth, procreation and sickness.


  9. Nicely done, Claire. A completely different world view, all based on God and the Great Chain of Being. And a REAL fear of hellfire and brimstone! Thank you!

  10. Excellent article. I have had quite a hard time trying to convince others that centuries ago, people did not necessarily think and act as we do today. I’ve had to defend Henry VIII on many occasions, and in the end finally had to quit out of frustration. The world by and large looked very differently through Tudor eyes. There was even the fear of traveling in the dark because the woods were full of fearsome entities ready to pounce on humans. Superstitions abounded. Your well-written explanation on this subject will provide me with more examples to help people understand that we cannot judge the past through modern eyes. Still, it will remain a “hard sell” to a lot of detractors who find it hard to step out of the present and go back in time.

  11. Wow, Claire, brilliantly done! I have continually wondered why so many went to the block without a great deal of resistance. The belief in original sin and the fact that their sins deserved punishment makes so much sense. I am not sure the “common man” typically felt this way when the going got tough. The foot soldier who cut and ran from Bosworth Field when the battle turned, wasn’t thinking about his sinful ways! Or take CJ Sansom’s Mathew Shardlake, and how he questioned God’s presence as he struggled with his deformed body. But the idea of context is essential but oh so often overlooked! Brilliant!!
    Best, Bill Wolff
    Novato California USA

  12. This was a really informative article and should be used in history lessons. I’ve long been fascinated by the Tudors and their contemporaries. It wasn’t until I read ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ by the fantastic author, Philippa Gregory, that I was made aware of how claustrophobic the English court was at that time. The same families, the Howards and the Seymours, jostled for position. Their daughters were mere pawns in their power games. Gregory’s novels set in these times underline the fact that it was no honour for the King’s eye to fall upon a young woman.

  13. Excellent explanation of historical context. This is something so many people ignore when they mount their ‘soapboxes’. We cannot view the past through 21st century eyes. Well said, Claire!

  14. Well said Claire. And so very timely. As an American, watching our history being taken out of “context” has led to so much distruction and misunderstanding.

  15. Thank you! One of my pet peeves, the judgement of historical figures by our current social standards. Well said.

  16. I think there is a huge difference between ignoring the historical context (on the one hand) and debating the correct historical context (on the other). For example, the status you claim for Henry VIII is (IMO) not necessarily the correct context for judging Anne Boleyn’s actions — prior to Henry, the fates of crowned kings such as Edward II, Richard II, Henry VI and Richard III all showed that the crowned king was not always regarded as divinely appointed (or at least that the king’s will and G-d’s will did not always coincide); this would be further established by the rebellions against Mary and Elizabeth. I also have grave doubts that Henry was as concerned with the succession as he claimed to be — genuine concern would prevent the unnecessary bastardization of Mary by using the Church’s “good faith exception”, at least until a son was born; she was only a “one strike loser” (her gender) whereas Elizabeth was a “two strike loser” (age as well as gender).

    1. Esther, interesting comments…can l ask what leads you to believe Henry was not as concerned over the succession as is thought?
      I do agree that not everyone thought that a King, or Queen where applicable, were divinely chosen, but you could assume this was because someone was thought to have a closer blood line to the throne, or a personal gains preference as they would fair better under a different monarch .
      It’s said there was more royal blood running through the veins of Margaret Pole and her family than the Tudors and she was executed, was she ‘removed’ because of this…it shows concern if she was. His ‘non’ marriages to Catherine and Anne were annulled because of so called discrepancies, therefore Mary and Elizabeth were seen as being born out of wedlock, to not declare them bastards could be seen that he was wrong in putting Catherine aside, admitting he commited bigamy by marrying Ann and removing her head for no reason, not a good image. We all know Henry wanted it all ways, considered hypocritical and changed his mind as often as they changed his bandages on his leg, but would he really leave his throne up for grabs without good reason or concern? I’m not so sure…he did this, in my mind, because he was concerned, making a clear path for any heirs by Jane leaving an uncontested crown preferably for a son.

    2. Esther, of course and with regards to the Henry VIII succession point that is why I said “highly likely”.
      I disagree with you regarding the status of kings and queens, we’ll have to agree to disagree on that. I think the status of kings and queens as God’s anointed sovereign is why Elizabeth was so reluctant to execute Mary, Queen of Scots; why rebels such as the Pilgrimage of Grace rebels were rebelling against the changes and the evil advice the king was receiving rather than the king himself. Regarding Mary and Elizabeth, those rebels did not believe that the queens were God’s chosen queens. Just my opinion though, but beliefs about the monarchy were strong and anointing at coronation was more than just an action. Did this stop them being killed, usurped etc.? No, but it made it a huge thing to act against a monarch.
      Regarding the succession, the more I read, the more convinced I am that Henry really did believe that his lost children were signs that God was not happy with his marriage and, of course, it would be down to the woman and not him. I don’t the bastardization of Mary means that he wasn’t genuinely concerned about the succession, I think he simply believed that women were not fit to rule, as others would have thought too, and I think he was convinced that he would have sons in the future, just not with Catherine.

      1. Yes Claire, Elizabeth was appalled by Marys treatment when her people rose up against her in Scotland after her marriage to Bothwell and she was taken prisoner amid the insults of the crowd shouting at her and calling for her to be burned as an adulteress, Elizabeth was painfully aware how easily kings and queens could topple from their throne, she had a high regard for the divine right of kings, gods anointed on earth, she preserved her life for over twenty years only reluctantly agreeing to her execution when it was proved she had plotted against her, however as you say, there were always rebels who did not support the present monarch because of their sex, religion etc, as in the case of James 1st who nearly became a victim of The gunpowder plot, dreamt up by catholic dissidents, not everyone believed the present monarch was gods anointed, and although we think today how archaic the views were of the medieval and Tudor man in believing women were not fit to rule, women are and always have been the weaker sex and considered more so in those violent ages when there was a strong sense of chivalry apparent, for eg high born women were delicate soft creatures who stayed at home and kept house and bore children, they had musicians play to them and were the object of love ballads, it was unthinkable that one of these creatures could ever rule a kingdom, and we have to remember that there had only been one female ruler before – Matilda daughter of Henry 1st whose desperate fued with her cousin Stephen caused such strife in England, briefly being queen she was haughty and overbearing that the nobles turned against her and sided with Stephen, she made several attempts to regain the crown but eventually had to concede defeat, there was civil war and Henry V111 and indeed, every monarch not only in England but on the continent as well have always dreaded civil war, this was what he tried to avoid, his fear was very real, and in fact in France they had the Salic law which forbade women to inherit the French throne, thus avoiding a good deal of unrest.

  17. I think we have a tendency to judge everything and everyone according to our lives and belief systems. We judge other cultures and religions i.e. Islam vs. Feminism and Christian beliefs and democratic values. It’s been that way for centuries. In America, we are so divided over the concept of liberalism and conservatism. Like the old Monkees’ song goes, I’m a Little Bit Wrong and You’re a Little Bit Right. Personally, I think any radical ideas are wrong when it comes to the treatment of other people, and prefer the middle ground. Henry may have been an ogre in my eyes, but he needed a son to secure the line, and, honestly, I think he was looking for a woman just like the one who married his dear old dad.

  18. Well said Claire! I believe this is true not only in studying history but in any study of peoples’ and the human condition.

    Thanks so much for your website! I really enjoy it!

    Lori from Savannah Georgia USA

  19. It is very true what you have written Claire, it is also very easy for us in this age to forget that life back in every period of history, even as little as 50 years ago were different worlds with different values to now. And l personally think that the context which we are discussing is going to become more and more difficult to grasp as social and systematic barriers are brought down.

    For example, basic life whether rich or poor, throughout the annals of time has been, you grow up, if you’re lucky, you find or are found a partner, you become engaged/betrothed usually with permission/acceptance of some degree.. you are bound/married, make a home together, (with or without servants) then hopefully along come the children. Today, you meet someone, be it a male and female coupling or same sex, freely move in together, have the kids then perhaps marry, and you are at liberty to move on and do the same again with as many partners as you like and no one bats an eyelid anymore, therefore trying to understand life governed by a much stricter moral code, laws, religion and superstition, powerful hierarchy, and social conditioning are bound to become an even greater perspective to try and comprenhend as time moves on.

    Putting their way of living aside, unjust as it may seem, the hardest things l find to perceive in history are the buildings, ecclesiastical and large domestic, which were constructed with such precision, with materials sourced at times from great distances away, erecting them on the mainland or small islands with the most basic of tools…utterly incredible. Such amazingly talented craftsmen which to all intents and purposes have disappeared now!! We may think that we have a more superior, just and equal society, but the architects and builders of history are something l feel we could never claim superiority over.

    Yep! Context is King…or Queen if we are remembering our equality ‘laws’ haha

  20. I agree we have to look at people in the context of the era they lived in, and I agree we can’t judge them by the beliefs and standards etc of the day. But I do think that, whatever the context of the era, we can still judge a person’s actions. Judicially murdering your wife on trumped up charges of treason has never been acceptable, not even in the sixteenth century. Henry’s actions and decisions can be judged, and I’m judging them by the context of the era he lived in. Taken to it’s logical conclusion, by condoning Henry’s actions in his pursuit of a son, then it could also be seen as condoning the judicial murder of Anne Boleyn. In ‘context’ he was justified in getting rid of her to enable him to marry a woman who could potentially give him a son.

    Henry’s treatment of Catherine of Aragon and Mary was deplorable, irrespective of whether he ‘genuinely’ believed his marriage to be cursed. That didn’t stop him marrying Anne Boleyn, applying for a dispensation to do so having already had sex with her sister. If he genuinely believed the Papal dispensation to marry Catherine was wrong, then he made the same mistake again by marrying Anne and later annulling that marriage in the same manner as he had Catherine’s. Seems somewhat hypocritical to me. If the primary objection was to have a son rather than marry the woman he wanted then why not marry a woman he didn’t need to apply for a dispensation to marry?

    Yes he needed a son, but to exile a loyal wife into misery, and then to murder another exhibits a brutal cruelty. If that cruelty was all about gaining a son then what about Catherine Howard? Did he really need to kill her? That was spite which owed nothing to his desire for a son. The Dissolution of the Monasteries, The Pilgrimage of Grace, the treatment of More, Fisher, Cromwell, the Carthusian Monks etc etc etc.

    We can’t condone cruelty and brutality just because the person being brutal and cruel may have thought they had a good reason for being so within the context of the world they lived in. No matter what the context is, Henry’s actions were still cruel and brutal as well as being hypocritical and selfish. Surely you shouldn’t be entitled do what you want to do in the name of religion or personal desire no matter what era you come from or who you are. It may have been important for Henry to have a son, but his actions in trying to bring that about were ultimately not in the best interests of his country. His actions caused enormous upheaval and danger to the country. So I judge Henry by the era he lived in, and in doing so I believe him to have been an appalling excuse for a man, let alone a King.

    1. To our modern eyes, Henry VIII was vindictive and cruel in his treatment of his wives. What astonishes me are the victim blaming narratives, especially in regards to Anne Boleyn, in which she is blamed or held at least partly responsible for her downfall and execution. I think Henry’s contemporaries undoubtedly expressed shock and bewilderment at his marital decisions and affairs. Chapuys, for example, despite his personal dislike of Anne Boleyn. You are also right that there was seemingly no good reason to execute Katherine Howard. To our modern selves, it seems unjust and cruel to execute a young girl (no more than seventeen or eighteen) simply because she had premarital sex. Nothing was ever proven with Thomas Culpeper. The evidence is circumstantial and open to question. But as Claire reminds us, we need context. We need to at least try and understand the sixteenth century mind. Katherine was labelled a wh*re and an adulteress by her contemporaries. Her age, her childhood, the disparity in social class – these might all be mitigating factors today but back then that was not the case. If you were ten years old you could be tried and executed. Jane Grey was executed at 16, Katherine Howard at 17/18. To us this is shocking, it is unjust and it is cruel. But it was not the case then.

      1. Jane Grey was a potential threat to Mary; Catherine Howard was no threat to Henry. He could have sent her to a convent but chose to execute her instead. Henry’s actions and decisions were condemned during his lifetime, not only by foreigners but also by his own subjects. If we start condoning his actions now then isn’t there a risk that we are taking his actions out of context rather than the other way around?

        1. I don’t mean to be a sore puss but how do we know if Kathryn Howard was no threat to Henry Viii? We don’t know if she committed adultery, that is true, we don’t know if she really intended to, that is true. We only know that she and Thomas Culpepper both agreed under questions that they both wanted to and intended to go further, if possible. Now I agree that Kathryn probably wasn’t a threat and I in no way condone Henry’s actions for judicial murder, but a perceived threat existed, at least in the minds of those charged with finding out the truth of the matter. However, what if Kathryn was a clever minx capable of plotting to see the King off once she was safely pregnant with her lovers child? Yes, o.k. she probably wasn’t, but this is how those questioning her and how her accusers came to construct the case against her. I doubt that Kathryn Howard was a threat, she was foolish to be meeting a gentleman late at night, even if it was innocent. Kathryn was not an idiot as she is often shown, but she really didn’t think of anyone but herself in these circumstances. A more mature lady or one raised to be a Queen possibly would have listened to, don’t be foolish, but even Queens had flings and committed adultery as we know, so even that argument falls a little flat. However, Henry had already sent one Queen to her death on trumped up charges, her own cousin, so that should have been a clue to go to bed early, pray and sow, and keep male company only in public, during the day and surrounded by other women. I also believe another solution yo Katherine existed, but as Conor has pointed out, this was an age when you were definitely seen as an adult at her age, plus she was a Queen, there to set an example of virtue. Henry had a rather badly bruised ego at this time and he chose a brutal path. There still remains the question, however, how do we really know Kathryn was no threat to Henry or not capable of plotting to have him killed if we don’t even know what she talked to Tom Culpepper about? Yes, it would have weakened her position and I believe she enjoyed and did well at being a Queen, but if she had a child and it was not Henry’s, would she not have motive? Her position would also be raised if she had a son and Henry died, suddenly in his sleep and women had a knowledge of herbs and poisonous methods. His food was tasted, yes, but it was still possible. Mind you, she may have worn him out before that, any way. In the context of a court driven by factions and ambition and removing ones rivals, Kathryn Howard and Anne Boleyn and a litany of others were in reality victims of the machinations of others, but anything could be made to sound real and a deeply paranoid man believed or influenced to see pretended plots as real.

      2. Also for a queen to commit adultery was seen as treason as she put the succession at risk, the penalty for which was death, although there was no actual proof of adultery Catherine inferred it by the meetings at night and the note she wrote him, that made the meetings appear much more sinister, of course any husband would think something was going on with his wife and alleged lover, no he did not have to execute her just banish her to a nunnery but we have to also take into account his traumatic head injury, it is highly likely that that was responsible for his later brutal behaviour, only recently on the Jeremy Kyle show there was a young man who had been the victim of a savage attack which had left him with a bad head injury, he became bad tempered and violent, lashing out anyone, head injuries are always serious and i sincerely believe that was responsible for his change of character.

        1. Catherine was found guilty of adultery with intent, not adultery. Henry could have spared the young girl if he had wished, but his pride was greater than his mercy. I take the head injury with a pinch of salt.That this affected his behaviour is a theory, but Henry exhibited brutal behaviour well before the jousting accident.

        2. Yes I agree it was not adultery she was found guilty of but adultery with intent was just as bad, she was Queen Of England not the kitchen maid, his pride was hurt and he felt a fool, all the court were laughing at him he supposed, he could have been merciful towards her and he must have heard reports of her hysterical behaviour from Cranmer but sadly his heart was hardened towards her, he had idolised his charming child bride and was deeply hurt by her betrayal, those who love deeply also hate deeply, his vengeance also extended towards Derham who had ‘soiled ‘ Catherine for him.

        3. Katherine should never have been queen. She was beautiful and charming, but in an ideal world Henry would have been like Charles II or Edward IV and he would have been content to take her as a mistress. It is a shame that he could not have stayed happily married to Katherine of Aragon and none of these problems would have ensued. Anne Boleyn and Katherine would not have lost their heads and Jane Seymour wouldn’t have died in childbirth during marriage to him. And Anne of Cleves wouldn’t have been publicly branded an ugly, sexually experienced consort.

      3. I think it’s important not to confuse understanding with condoning. No matter how much Henry’s actions outrage us in the 21ct, we still need to accept that the status of women at this time was very low. Wives and children belonged to their husbands/fathers. They were a disposable commodity; the higher up the social scale, the more valuable they were. I’m really enjoying these comments.

        1. But as I said, yes it is shocking to us in the twenty first century West that a forty nine year old, obese and rotting man marries a beautiful sixteen year old and expects complete fidelity from her. Of course it is shocking and verges on the distasteful. It is also obscene that he publicly accuses her of adultery and treason and beheads her before her nineteenth birthday. It is obscene and seems reprehensible. But he was the king in an absolutist age so of course no one will accuse him or condemn him or ask him to account for his actions. This after all is a man who has already beheaded one wife and several of his closest friends. This is a man who expels his beloved first wife from court, separates her from their teenage daughter and publicly brands her a lying adulteress. This is a man who brands Anne of Cleves an ugly sexual liar and threatens Katherine Parr with the punishment for heresy. Of course we shouldn’t be surprised. Such conduct would not have been accounted for in the way it would be today.

    2. I’m not saying that his actions are excusable, I’m just saying that the way he thought about his marriages made sense to him in the context of the time. Believing that your marriage is contrary to God’s law is one thing, and understandable in the context of the time, trumping up charges to judicially murder another person/people is quite another and is not excusable or understandable even in the context. Annulment: yes, murder: no.

      1. Henry applied for a dispensation to marry Catherine. When he couldn’t get a son with her he argued the dispensation should never have been granted. OK, I can buy the suggestion that was because he genuinely thought his marriage was wrong in the eyes of God. So he annulled his marriage with Catherine. But what puts his conscience into question is that he married Anne Boleyn. To do so he had to get a dispensation having already enjoyed Anne’s sister. If the primary concern was to remarry in order to get a son to secure the secession then why choose Anne? He had already suspected that his marriage with Catherine was wrong in the eyes of God, so why would he risk applying for yet another dispensation to marry Anne? He did so because he wanted Anne. He could have married some other fertile young woman who could have done the job. But no, he wanted Anne, and when he tired of her he annulled the marriage. That’s why I think he was a hypocrite.

        1. Oh yes, I definitely agree that he was a hypocrite. I think you’re misunderstanding me, I’m simply talking about how his obsession with a son is understandable in the context of his time, as was his belief that there was something wrong with the marriage, and that it must be something to do with Catherine as it couldn’t be to do with him. I’m not condoning his behaviour or agreeing with it, I’m just putting his obsession with a son in context. No, his actions don’t make sense, particularly as it may have been his relationship with Mary that then was used for grounds to annul his marriage in 1536, and I do think he was hypocritical. He came to believe that that marriage was also wrong and was looking for reasons, and obviously a way to get out of it.

        2. I think we should remember that Henry was surrounded by sycophants; Wolsey, Cromwell to name but two. This was the son who wasn’t expected to become king. We might speculate that he was overindulged in childhood. He was certainly self-centred, nowadays we might call him a Narcissist. I believe he was highly susceptible to flattery and manipulation, and not always able to foresee of the consequences of his choices. I don’t find the adult Henry an attractive person but I can understand why such horrific events took place, seemingly with his consent.

        3. Yes, and the sycophants would be part of that context too. Henry thought something and those around him agreed with him and massaged his ego.

  21. Wonderful article ! How indeed can we judge people of another age ? Sometimes it is also difficult to judge people in our own times … i completely agree ,ither concepts of life in Tudor times ,and that is the reason why history is such a fascinating subject ,because human beings are fascinating and different in all ages and times including our own time of life ……

  22. The reason Henry felt his marriage to Catherine was not valid was because she had married and consummated the marriage with his brother. Catherine had vowed that she did not consummate that marriage so her marriage to Henry was legitimate. I’m sure Henry knew whether she was a virgin or not on their wedding night. He was just so anxious to get out of the marriage.

  23. If anyone is interested in the arguments around who may have witnessed what or given evidence on behalf of Katherine of Aragon being a virgin and nothing happened on their marriage night or afterwards, the new biography by Amy Linace has two excellent chapters on the people who witnessed Katherine and her distress after her marriage night and testified that nothing happened with Arthur. There was also an investigation in Spain who tracked down the original servants and aids who were present or outside. While only Katherine and Arthur knew really what happens, it appears his youth and inexperience showed and nothing really happened. Katherine and Arthur were kept separate for a time afterwards and then went to Ludlow. While it is of course possible that they consummated their marriage in the few weeks of health here, they were both ill for several weeks and Arthur died while Katherine lay very sick in another apartment. Katherine also vowed on her immortal soul she was a virgin and I believe Henry knew his wife was a virgin. His marriage to Katherine of Aragon was one of two young people who very much wanted each other and there seems to be little doubt their wedding night went well. Henry again, seems to have deceived himself with his other wives, not wanting to believe what was not convenient. Maybe he was deceived by Katherine Howard, maybe he didn’t pay too much notice or maybe he did but didn’t care. He was besotted with her. I don’t really go with Henry didn’t know if his wives were virgins. He was experienced enough by his later years, but well, then again, you never know.

        1. Thanks Michael, I got her book for Christmas but have only just started to read it and the amount of detail is fantastic. How they tracked down all those people from 20 plus years earlier to testify in Spain was real detective work as most had returned to their homes. She is writing a new book on Anne Boleyn as well, next year, I believe.

      1. Yes, definitely agree. I recently got his biography on Isabella, which is also excellent. He has spent something like 20 or more years with the Spanish archives. Patrick Collinson and the joint bio by Julia Fox of Katherine and her sister, Juanna are excellent. Collinson puts the explanation of the dispensation and alternatives about the annulment into legal contexts. I would also recommend Catherine Fletcher and her biography on the English nuncio at the papal court The Divorce of Henry Viii The Untold Story for an insider view of the political goings on which made the annulment almost impossible. The only problem is you may need to raid a bank first, although there are always third party sellers on Amazon. I think the existence of such a wide expanse of material is fantastic but it also reminds us that there was more than just the desires of two people to be married or remain married going on, but a whole set of political, social and religious authorities either getting in the way or seriously looking at their case. Henry expected it to be clear cut and over in weeks, he didn’t reckon with Katherine saying no, the army of the Emperor and the sack of Rome, all of which got in the way of his end to his marriage. I think Helen Castor put it very well in her three part series on the passage of life events, birth, marriage and death and how they have significant rituals attached to them back then, when she stated it was easy to get into marriage, but the Church ensured it was as difficult as possible to get out off.

        1. BQ I agree with you: Amy Licence, Giles Tremlett and Julia Fox have all produced wonderful books and how lucky we are to have them. Such gifted writers. Katherine of Aragon is one of my favourite English queens and it is partly down to these gifted historians that we are able to know so much about her.

    1. Thank you Banditqueen. The one point I will make is that when Catherine is painted in her widow weeds, why is she looking down?

  24. Henry was egotistical from the word go, and developed into a bloody and cruel hypocrite. Spiteful, vindictive, cold hearted. Vengeful, unrelenting, vitriolic and malign. And many other negative adjectives to boot. Which King before him, and after is innocent of what we would consider an atrocity? It was such until Oliver Cromwell came along and changed the rules!

    Edward 1st, Hammer of the Scots, and the Welsh, attributed with the designing of the Hang, Draw and Quarter style of execution…. Richard the Lion Heart, his Crusades slaughtered millions of people, because he thought he had the divine right to impose his beliefs on those from different cultures across the world, yet is seen as some Super Hero! In that context why is Henry seen as ‘the’ worse offender of Absolute Rule, he dissolved the Monasteries which caused a terrible chain of consequences, he went through wives like a dose of salts, and executed two on what we know to be trumped up charges and blatant lies. If we are comparing like with like..who is the worst offender? I couldn’t chose between them, and that’s just three of many.

    So going back to those who deplored Henry’s actions in his own time who had to remain silent to stay alive, it is right to be in agreement with them… but we can’t ignore the more knowledgeable insights we now have. So we must take everything into consideration when judging a person’s behaviour, like welfare reports compiled for criminals now… childhood, social lifestyle and wellbeing.
    Henry was brought up in an environment that revolved around him. He was indulged and ‘precious’ from birth, more so when he became heir to the throne. His advisors compliant, and presented no noticeable boundaries.
    There are many who would disagree that the serious Bash on the head he suffered is not substantial enough to bring about any changes to him mentally. Medics have seen significant behaviour changes in those who have suffered head trauma. So it does need to be considered. That along with his health on a downhill spiral, agonising pain, a body full of infection and poison. Migraines, mobility problems the list is long. Consider the possibility of other mental health issues brought on by stressors, depression, melancholia, not something that was known of then, but we are fully aware that these issues come with irrational behaviour.
    These aren’t excuses, but contributing factors to a person’s personality, add these to the sycophants that surrounded him, it must make some reasonable understanding of why any person, let alone an Absolute Monarch would act out as he did. There are a lot of grey areas surrounding Henry that we don’t know off, no straight forward black or white.. and if we are to condemn him as a complete failure as a man, husband, father and King, he won’t be standing alone.

  25. Thank you so much for your article, Claire.
    As a post graduate student, the concept of context is both extremely important, but unfortunately frequently overlooked notion.
    Your comments regarding the cradle-death of Henry, Duke of Cornwall, and all of Anne’ stillbirths as somehow being a punishment meted out by an obviously displeased (petulant even?) God, really resonated with me.
    As we now know, human fertility, the ability to carry, and safely deliver a live and healthy baby is precarious at best. Recent figures release here in Aust suggests that one in four (ie 1/4) of all naturally conceived pregnancies will fail within the first trimester. The figure is still higher for IVF those babies conceived via IVF.
    Unfortunately many, many members of modern society still believe in the context of the divinely defined notion of what constitutes ‘a marriage’. Australia is currently in the throws of the context of marriage; with reference to our forthcoming plebiscite on the legalisation of same-sex marriage.
    We can only hope that modern Australian society has come to understand that the concept of marriage is not a static thing, but one that moves with the times.

    1. Why do ideas of marriage have to move with the times? I am sorry, but I have to disagree. For many people marriage is between two people of the opposite sex and was set down in much earlier times, over 3000 years ago. I am not saying people should not love and enter into partnerships with the same sex but I find it inappropriate to knock the traditional view of marriage as unfortunate, when many people, myself included keep this as sacred. I respect you may believe in same sex marriage and good luck if you do, but to me the belief that marriage is sacred and between man and wife is timeless and our modern society has no right to force people to move with the times as we have no right to say modern belief in nothing is better than the religious life of the past. Many millions of people still hold a belief based on faith and while I respect those who choose a different way or same sex partnerships, our belief in marriage as sacred should not be undermined by anyone any more than your belief should.

      1. “Many millions of people still hold a belief based on faith” – what does that have to do with same sex marriage though? How can you be ok with people having same sex partnerships but not be ok with them getting married? Isn’t it better for them to commit to each other in marriage?

        Society has moved on with respect to religious laws today. Yes, homosexuality is called an abomination in the Old Testament, but the Old Testament also lists other things that it judges in the same way and which are sinful: wearing mixed fabrics, eating pork, trimming your beard, eating shellfish, lots of other laws that we see as bizarre today and wouldn’t enforce in modern society, although some Christians do stick to those laws.
        We also live in a society where divorce is legal, yet Jesus was against divorce.

        I can’t speak for God or Jesus, I can’t say what’s right or wrong, but I personally don’t see that allowing people who love each other to make the commitment of marriage is a bad thing or that it is making marriage any less sacred or undermining it in any way. I look at friends who are in same-sex marriages or relationships and at how committed and in love they are and I just can’t see Jesus thinking that an abomination.

        Even if we don’t believe in something ourselves because it doesn’t fit with our religious view, we can still tolerate it within our society for people who don’t hold that view. We tolerate people with different religious views, rather than killing them as heretics, we tolerate divorce…

        For me, I think divorce attacks the sanctity of marriage more than anything else, yet society allows that. Also, for me, the sanctity of marriage is affected more by people going into it with no intention of being faithful or having a true, loving partnership. Two people entering into marriage with the best of intentions, aiming to live up to the vows and love each other and commit to each other for their rest of their lives is more important in my eyes than whether they’re marrying someone of the opposite sex or the same sex.

        There are always going to be arguments over this and about Christianity and religion. We all interpret the Bible, the teachings of the Church etc. differently and put emphasis on different things. I have a Christian faith, but I don’t know whether my beliefs are right or how I should feel about various issues in the world today, I just know that the main message of the New Testament is love and I do try to be loving, although I fail miserably at times! I haven’t got the answer to a lot of religious/ethical dilemmas though and however much we delve into the Bible I don’t think we ever will.

        As I said, I don’t know whether I’m right, but I’ll hold up my hands and say I’m a liberal. I don’t have a theological problem with same-sex marriage or things like women preaching in churches or becoming priests, bishops etc. I’m liberal!

        1. I think also that in the case Rhi is talking about, it’s Australian society making a decision for Australia. It’s a diverse multi-cultural/multi-faith society making a decision for the whole of its society. It’s not a Christian body making a decision. By voting for same-sex marriage, it is not imposing it on people that don’t believe in it, it is allowing it for those who do. It’s freedom of choice.

        2. Claire I think i speak for many when I say what a wonderful lady you are, so hardworking and open minded. The AB Fikes has been a lovely resource for so many of us and we are so privileged to have such an open minded and kind hearted lady in charge of it. Thank you for all you do for so many people.

        3. That’s so lovely of you to say. I do struggle with my faith as there are so many points of view, but for me the overwhelming message of Christianity is love.
          I’m far from perfect but do try. I’m so very grateful for the fact that people support me in what I do, as there are so many times that I’ve felt like giving up, and that people are so kind and gracious in their feedback, even when they completely disagree with me or think I’m on another planet!

        4. Claire we respect you because you make your points in a respectful but informative way, you don’t attack other people or make things personal. And the articles on the website are well researched and enjoyable to read, I think many people enjoy visiting the website on a regular basis to read the latest posts.

        5. I love the interaction we have on here. This site has become a real joint effort with such knowledgeable people sharing their knowledge and views.

        6. I am just saying calling traditional values on marriage as unfortunate is not something everyone will agree with. I respect personal choice, but I don’t have to believe the same thing and it is sacred to me and I am not judging anyone. It’s their choice, but marriage for me is man and wife. Calling my belief unfortunate is saying so called modern ideas are superior. There are many Christian beliefs from 500 years ago which we still believe now and why should people not believe them? We still have the Mass and it has changed, but most elements are the same, we still have religious ritual, we still have processions and feast days, but we dont have every hour marked out as back then. We fortunately can agree to disagree and you are quite right the heart of the Christian message is love and mercy which is why it is possible to accept personal choices without necessarily agreeing. The AB files has a wide range of people and views representative of many countries and cultural backgrounds which is part of it’s appeal. We don’t apply our culture or beliefs the way they did centuries ago, but I still believe the core of their faith still has a valid place today. We also forget that beyond the official nonsense of lack of tolerance, they were actually more cross cultural than we realise with a very cosmopolitan capital in London and other European courts. The antagonism towards foreign trades could and did explode for baffling reasons and there was the case of Evil May Day 1517, plus the attack on Flemish during the Fire of London partly because they were getting out and we were in a state of war with the Netherlands. However, most of the time people got on and lived along side, not always in harmony, but not fighting either. The bones of the population of London which have been dug up, mainly due to the Crossrail, now in the Museum of London, appear to show individuals right across Europe and from a wide range of Eastern and Asian countries. A good mix of belief must also have been represented despite the Government’s stance on none Catholic ideas. This was even more evident elsewhere. In Spain in the fifteenth and sixteenth century there were the terrible persecutions of Jews and Muslims and expulsion but before that there were larger periods were they all contributed to Iberian society. It is the harder to swallow elements of cultural religious intolerance of those times which are not acceptable and which we have put aside thankfully. However, there are also things which in England at least are missing. Churches and Cathedrals were an array of colours, not just painting, but every part, the walls and columns the light in those windows was full of colour and illuminating power and the smells lifted the senses. I have seen the odd full on celebrations of religious festivals in Spain and Italy and other Catholic countries and love your videos or pictures from Easter or other Holy Days near your village and I have been in two Muslim countries when they had festivities. It was just like stepping back in time. We have made a big cultural jump forwards and we understand more from a medical point of view, we have technology, but we have also lost something of the spiritual and sacred side of life which, personally I find very sad.

        7. I think it’s when some people’s views of what constitutes “sacred” or a “marriage” stop others with different beliefs getting married that there’s a problem, when one person’s views or interpretation infringe on another person’s “freedom”. We can all have our views but today’s society is not a religious one, it’s a secular one and the law is driven by that and not by faith.

          I completely agree with you on how some things that were good have been lost but I think that’s always the way when time moves on. It’s why I like living in rural Spain. Here, I feel more in touch with nature, the agricultural calendar and the religious one. Here, it’s like the UK was decades ago with regards to children playing safely in the street, everyone knowing each other and saying “good morning”, people leaving their front doors unlocked, eating produce from their land or a neighbour’s land, knowing where the meat they eat came from, celebrating feast days… I love it, but I also appreciate how society has moved on from Tudor times in many ways. As a woman I have opportunities now that I wouldn’t have had then or even a few decades ago. My daughter can go to school and go on to study at university and then work. I appreciate our legal system too, and lots of other things.

          I think it’s up to the individual to find what is spiritual and sacred. Society has changed, but faith hasn’t, it’s in our hearts and not out there. It may not impact on our lives in the same way as it did with the Tudors, but God hasn’t changed.

      2. Hi Claire, very well said re being a woman today and faith (I am posting up here as my Kindle has done something odd, but I am sure it will pop up in the right spot) because the opportunities then and now are a world apart and yes, faith and love are in our hearts. I totally agree. It is wonderful to find a place to live that is secure and natural and peaceful. That’s one beauty of some of the English and Welsh places we seek out for a rest, they provide a refuge, local food and a sense of community. If we have relatives come we have to warn them to lock their cars, even if it’s not actually the locals who would take them, because they come from the odd place you can still leave them unlocked. We may have even gone the opposite way now and become paranoid, which is a great shame. In the end the people of the past were not so unlike us, our outlook was just a bit different.

  26. Very well said everyone. One thing that I always find ironic is this obsessing with having sons. The civil war that ended with the accession of the Tudors was largely caused by the fact that Edward III had so many sons, who fell out amongst themselves, whose progeny also fell out amongst themselves…result, carnage and instability. Even given the context of the times, I am surprised the penny never dropped.

    Or maybe it did, given that Henry VII and Henry VIII made haste to eliminate as many Plantagenet scions as they could.

      1. I know what you mean Claire about the difference between the England of today and years before, life here has changed, people could leave door open and there was a real sense of community spirit, people helped one another and kids could play happily and safely in the street, there was little traffic and people grew their own veg and kept chickens, even in the towns, in the country life is more laid back still and my cousin moved to the country years ago, she said the quietness was quite unexpected as she was used to hearing so much traffic, now she has a beautiful large garden, keeps ducks and the eggs are lovely, the air is cleaner and you get family run butchers and bakery and so on, so I can easily see why you like rural Spain where life is more rustic and easy, I saw once a programme on rural Spain but cannot remember where it was, but it showed the unspoilt regions of the mountainous area, the scenery and wildlife was spectacular, I saw once a wedding in Spain and it looked great fun because the bride and groom and guests all spilled out into the street from the cathedral and everyone seemed to join in the celebrations, I love the cathedrals in Spain and when I visit I love going in one, the Spain you live in is a world away from the tourist area and much more beautiful, a Spanish woman once said to a friend of mine after discussing the popular resorts of the tourists, Benidorm Magaluf etc, ‘ that’s not Spain’ she said, those resorts have been ruined by the tourist industry and I imagine fifty years ago they were quiet and pretty little places, the world does change sometimes not for the better, years ago me and my friends could play in the streets, there was little cars then, but now you never see that, I have a street photo from 1911, there was hardly any traffic, the road looked unspoilt, there was one coach and horses and the milkman with his little milk wagon, he was pushing it along and it consisted of one vat, it looked quaint and like a country lane, there were some little girls in pinafores and bonnets, it looked enchanting, Jane mentions the sons of Edward 111, it’s true he had plenty and sons were born ambitious unlike female offspring who knew their duty was to marry and bear children, the rival houses of York and Lancaster had its roots in the sons of Edward 111 which caused civil unrest in the land for decades after, the first born son of Henry 11 was a problem for him as he was crowned whilst his father was alive and because of that, believed he should have more power, Henry 11 was following the French and this act was designed to keep the succession in no doubt, thus preserving the peace, yet young Henry was hot headed like most teenage boys and resented his father for not giving him more power, his remaining sons also continued to give him grief and sided with the French King his rival, the result was tragedy, the more sons a King had it appeared for Henry 11 and his descendants resulted in power struggles, for the Tudors the problem was a lack of sons which rather worryingly left the throne for two women to inherit, until the birth of Edward V1, when he died unexpectedly there was the Catholic Mary who I believe would have inherited peacefully if England had not been torn apart by reform, the result was a plot to put the Protestant Jane on the throne, the Plantagenets had not had that problem, England was for centuries Catholic with the Pope the head of the holy Roman Church, and she was quite content to be so, when Henry V111 died he left a country unsettled with those of the old religion, and those who believed in the new one, had Mary been a boy she would have inherited with no problem I am sure, but then Elizabeth would never have existed either, and the country would have remained Roman Catholic.

        1. Jane and Christine are right, all those sons caused as much trouble as the lack of them. Daughters were good if you could find a political and wealthy husband and alliance but expensive if you had a load of them as you had to provide a dowry. Sons could challenge you and your authority and each other, causing trouble and fights or could be an asset for the succession and to defend the realm but you needed wives for them or lands and if not they could be given to the Church. Some of them were satisfied but as with a number of Edward iii sons and their lines, it all ended up in the battling families of York and Lancaster and their cousins of Neville, Mortimer and of course the illegitimate Beaufort line. Numerous claims existed from the Staffords, De la Pole, Warwick and Tudors, and so many more it could have gone on for generations had one or two families not more or less defeated the rest. Henry was only the second Tudor, so his dynasty wasn’t secure, but he had been the first son to inherit from his father and not have someone else take or try to take over in almost 90 years. That was an achievement. His belief that a woman could not rule securely partly comes from this, but his almost obsessive behaviour has to be more personal. A female ruler we know could do just as well, but Henry didn’t have our hindsight and he just couldn’t accept a woman could rule. The reasons he didn’t or may not want to accept his daughter as his heir, whether his desire and love for Anne Boleyn played a part will be hotly debated for centuries. I completely agree, everything would have been so much better and many of the terrors of the following century would have been avoided, we can assume, but never really sure about. We are used to female rulers and the monarch today has nothing like the powers Henry Viii eventually ended up with so a male or female is acceptable. We see women in charge of Government and law enforcement, not only here but in many countries, they are an accepted and visible presence everywhere and so we should be, but in the sixteenth century, although women stood in for male rulers as a regent, a female king was something new. Henry may have just hoped for one or two problem sons rather than none whereas his ancestors had too many of them, as you say.

  27. Personally think that the whole meaning of marriage has completely changed. In the majority cases religion has nothing to do with it.
    You don’t need to go to church or have a faith to have the ‘Big White Wedding’ any more and be married in the eyes of god. You can get married anywhere from the beach to a stately home with the bridal gown, bridesmaids etc, the only difference is you have a Registrar perform the service which is as legal and binding, whether it’s a heterosexuals marriage or same sex. And this is vastly becoming the preferred choice.
    In the past the Register Office (civil wedding) was a very low key affair, usually for divorcees, different denominations marrying or worse case scenario someone in the ‘family way’, as the church was very strict on above.
    And to be honest most weddings now are more about show, costing a small fortune…the Hollywood – Footballer’s Wife look, many are in the divorce courts before the ink is dry on the wedding certificate and planning an even bigger trip down the ‘blinged up’ aisle for next time…yep! I am a tad cynical, ha!

  28. I’m so glad you wrote this! It’s a discussion I’ve had so often in the past few years, but I usually only mention the historical and cultural differences between Tudor times and ours. I grew up in a very conservative religious environment, so I tend to take those influences for granted and don’t realize how foreign they are to some, but as you’ve said, religion dominated life at this time. Many people today seem to view any kind of faith as unsophisticated and hypocritical, and they fail to remember that in the Tudor era, the greatest minds of the day would have taken a completely opposite view. I’ve bookmarked this page so that in the future I can refer other to it when we get into these “sixteenth century through twenty-first century lens” discussions.

  29. I agree. Thank you Claire. It certainly helps knowing a lot more of the context from that time. When Mary Boleyn was betrothed to William Carey was it because the Boleyn family wanted to extended their wealth exchange for Mary giving Carey children? If it had not been Mary that was betrothed would it have made a difference with Henry. Would he have still chosen Mary to be his mistress? As Catherine would have died anyway in 1536, Henry could have married Mary if she had not been married. That would have changed history but it could have legitimised the long for male heir. It is all speculation. But think maybe they didn’t realise that the relationship had to be because they wanted it rather than arranged. But then that is looking at it form the viewpoint of today’s context.

  30. I just finished reading The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Gordo for the third time before reading your article and a thought popped into my head : if we could some go back in time and warn Anne Boleyn that marrying Henry would lead to her death would she simply say that if it was God’s will who was she to question it? Would she see it as part of some preordained plan that she could not change? Or would she see it as worth it because of Elizabeth? Lb

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