Is There a Problem Looking at History with our 21st Century Eyes and Hindsight?

Posted By on February 16, 2011

If only we could travel back in time...

This is one of those questions that I wake up with in the middle of the night and then that niggle me and just won’t let go. I try so hard to be balanced and objective but I think that we all find it impossible to look at past events and historical characters without our views being coloured by the context in which we live and the knowledge we have about what happened after those events.

Here are a few examples that have got me puzzling over this question and tossing and turning at night:-

  • Anne Boleyn – As I wrote in my recent article “Anne Boleyn – The Mysterious and Maligned One”, people have a tendency to label Anne as a “homewrecker”, as a “martyr” or as a “Protestant Reformer”, the queen who changed history, BUT, if we had our tardis and travelled back in time would we really see her like that? People call her a homewrecker because they see her as the woman who caused the breakdown of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, but that’s just not an accurate description of what happened is it? Some call her a martyr or saint because of her impact on England and on the English Reformation, but it is more true to say that Anne was a catalyst, not a direct cause of the Reformation. Anne Boleyn’s faith and her views do not fit the label “Protestant” and she was more interested in reforming the Catholic Church than starting a new one. Anne did not die for her faith and it is only with hindsight that we can see that she had an impact on the history of England.
  • Henry VIII – All this fuss about a possible exhumation so that we can solve the answer as to why he was such a tyrant and whether it was he who was responsible for his wives’ “reproductive woes”, but we can label him as a tyrant, as a monster etc. because we are horrified by what he did and how he treated people BUT if we travelled back in time would it change our views. Was he really a tyrant or was he just a monarch of his time, a strong King who kept control of his people, his wives and his country? Yes, he executed a lot of people but he was living in a time when the punishment for treason was death and so he executed people who were deemed to have committed treason, people who challenged his authority and who were a threat to him and his realm.
  • The place of women – With our 21st century eyes and ideals, we see people like Thomas Boleyn, the Duke of Norfolk and the parents of Lady Jane Grey as manipulators, as people who uses their daughters and nieces for their own gain, regardless of the consequences. But, they lived in a time where women were second rate citizens, where the only use for a girl was to marry her off well so that the family did not have to provide for her and so she could actually help her family. They also lived in a time of arranged marriages, where love matches were rare and frowned upon. Girls were meant to do their duty and marry for the good of their families.

  • Sexual harassment – Karen Lindsey, author of “Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: A Feminist Reinterpretation Of The Wives Of Henry VIII”, sees Anne Boleyn as a possible victim of sexual harassment , writing that “Today, Henry’s approach to Anne would be instantly identifiable as sexual harassment. Anne however, had no social or legal recourse against a the man who ruled the country. She continued, as so many women before and since have done, to dodge her pursuer’s advances while sparing his feelings. It didn’t work.” Now, while I agree that Anne Boleyn had no choice in her relationship with Henry – who can refuse a king? – I don’t agree that Henry sexually harassed her, he simply did what a King did, a case of “I want that woman and I’m going to get her” and I think that Anne was actually unusual in saying “no” at the outset. The word “Today” in that quotation from Lindsey’s book is the key here, in today’s world we would accuse Henry of sexual harassment, but surely we need to judge him from a standpoint in his world.
  • Paedophilia – I have seen comments online and read things in books accusing various Tudor men of paedophilia because they married or slept with what we deem today as young girls. Hello! They were living in a rather different world to our own and even today, where I live in Spain, the age of consent is 13. There are arguments over the date of birth of Catherine Howard and author and historian Joanna Denny, who believes that Catherine was born c1525, writes of how Catherine was around 11 when her music teacher, Henry Manox, had some kind of relationship with her, boasting that he would “have her maidenhead”. Shocking! We immediately see Catherine as a victim of sexual abuse, BUT, and I’m in no way condoning paedophilia here, Catherine lived in an age where “the onset of puberty was regarded as an acceptable age for sexual and matrimonial consent” and where it was quite normal for girls to marry from the age of 12. Denny points out that Henry VIII’s grandmother, Margaret Beaufort married at 12, and we know that she gave birth to Henry at the age of 13, and also Catherine Howard’s mother, Jocasta Culpeper, married when she was 12.
  • Religious Persecution – We label Mary I as “Bloody Mary” because of her persecution of Protestants, we judge Thomas More harshly for his belief in executing heretics etc. but we don’t take into account the religion of the day, the beliefs that they held. Mary, as a staunch Catholic, believed she was doing the Lord’s work by stamping out heresy, by ridding her country of people who she saw as doing the Devil’s work, people who were undermining the True Faith. Mary, and people like Thomas More, would have truly believed that they were risking their souls and disobeying God if they did not do their utmost to defend the Catholic Church and faith. Here we are today, living in our rather secular world and judging them for their beliefs and actions. Am I defending fanaticism, terrorsim and intolerance? Of course I’m not, but we cannot really label these religious characters as bigots without looking at the context they were living in.
  • Henry VIII the womanizer and serial husband – We look at Henry VIII and see him as the ultimate historical womanizer, the King who had a number of mistresses and six wives, a man who moved from woman to woman and who was incredibly fickle. BUT, if we take into account the time and world he lived in, wasn’t he just a typical 16th century monarch? A King doing his duty? It was normal for kings to have mistresses, to have women who kept them happy while their queen was pregnant or in confinement, and it was a King’s duty to produce a male heir and secure the line and throne. We see Henry as being obsessed with having a son, but so he should have been. He knew that he was surrounded by people with a claim to the throne, he knew the danger of not having an heir, he was simply doing his duty in finding a fertile woman to provide his country with a Tudor prince.
  • Religion, superstition and curses – Henry VIII got his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled on the grounds that a papal dispensation should never have been given because Catherine was his brother’s widow. Henry argued that the marriage was contrary to Biblical law in that it went against the law found in Leviticus 18: 16 “If a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an impurity; He hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.” Now, many people today think that this was just a convenient excuse that Henry used to get out of the marriage, but Henry consulted many people on this matter and he seems to have been completely convinced that his marriage had not been fruitful, i.e. it had not given him a surviving son, because he had broken God’s law. We also see Tudor people as superstitious fruitcakes with the way they believed in curses and crazy cures, but can we really judge them when some of us today won’t fly on a plane on Friday 13th or walk under a ladder? Tudor people were living in uncertain times, when death was all around and who can blame them for looking for signs and relying on the advice of “wise” men and women or their faith to sustain them?
  • Execution victims – We see execution victims like Catherine Howard as tragic victims and are shocked by the brutality of their punishments, BUT, wasn’t the punishment the expected one for the crime? Wasn’t Catherine guilty of treason? Wasn’t the punishment for treason death? Please don’t think I am arguing for capital punishment or even saying that Catherine deserved such an awful fate, but she was deemed to have committed treason by her actions so she was put to death. Horrid I know, but just for those times.

I am sure that you can think of many instances where our views have been coloured by the world we live in today, by the knowledge we have and by the ideals we live by. Please let me know your thoughts on this.

Another thing that niggles me is the obsession we have for finding an explanation. For example, we feel the need to explain Henry VIII’s “tyranny” with a medical cause, we cannot accept that Henry was just like that. We cannot accept that Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn had miscarriages that were just one of those things, bad luck, and, instead, want to find a cause – perhaps Catherine had an eating disorder, perhaps Anne was Rhesus Negative… Funny isn’t it?

Apologies if I offend anyone by what I have written, I am simply playing Devil’s advocate and I am as guilty as the next person of judging history with my 21st century eyes. Sorry!

38 thoughts on “Is There a Problem Looking at History with our 21st Century Eyes and Hindsight?”

  1. Shoshana says:

    very interesting, Claire; good job! I agree with you that it is useless to judge 16th Tudor England with 21st century values and morales. There are few links between the times. If we wish to observe how women were treated in that society all we have to do is look to some of today’s countries where women are possessions and sold into salveyr at a moments notice, or murdered by a relative to uphold the families honor. Unreasonable acts of violence against women did not stop after Tudor England; in many ways it increased and our society has allowed it to continue. There is little education about it in our schools and while there is more dialog, I can not see where it has changed violence against women all that much. Women still earn less than men in the same jobs, we are subjected to unwanted advances in the work place to keep our jobs, and we are still fighting the double standard that if a woman takes a lover she is a slut while if a man takes a lover he is a MAN. I could go on but i”m sure you get the picture.
    Today we even kill people in the hundreds each year for crimes; is that so far away from what H-8 did with traitors? Mankind has not advance so far as to use todays values as our rule of judgement. I lie awake sometimes at night as well and wonder how historians will judge our time in 500 years. We have countries where women are beheaded on suspected adultry, hands are still being cut off for theft, and even in the US and UK – easily the two most free and advanced countries in the world – we hear of honor killings, violence against gays and women, and children go to bed with empty stomachs. Just because we has pass laws against such things does not stop them. It just means that those who want to do them have to plan to cover their tracks. If they are caught, our prisons are so full it is easy to get charges lowered, dismissed, or a plea bargain is negotiated (I wonder how much land H-8 received in exchange for releasing prisoners in the Tower? Or Cromwell) Are we so different? Or have we just advanced in technology enough to give ourselves the illusion of superiority to bygone ages? As H-8, Anne, Thomas Boleyn and all the other players in Tudor times, we are all the product of our times.

  2. Lara says:

    We live in such a “civilized” age, we have every comfort, thanks to technology, and socially, we all walk on eggshells around each other in our attempts to be “PC” at all times. Of course we would be shocked by the behavior of Tudor times! The times past (especially 500 years ago!) were brutal and crude and I honestly think these people acted just as they were expected to. Life wasn’t pretty back then. Kings were all-powerful and their law was final. And when you have absolute power, you can pretty much do what you want. And Henry did. Men were Men. Women were less. Scientific knowledge was limited, and the Unknown was pretty darn big. Civilization was still in it’s teens, you could say.

    What’s funny is, 500 years from now (if we’re still around) they might look at the 21st century the same way. I completely agree with you. These people acted time-appropriate.

  3. Fiz says:

    Oh yes, there is a problem. I’m reading the Carolly Erickson biography of the Empress Alexandra (not impressed, for a variety of reasons) and I am finding it so difficult. I know what’s going to happen and I really don’t want to read the end of it.

  4. DuchessofBrittany says:

    I must admit in my own anthropological research I could be accused of being too subjective at times, even if I try my hardest to remain objective. We are all human and our own experiences, ideas, and theories will affect (to some extent) the outcomes of historical or any other research.
    A couple of points I want to make:
    I would put little weight behind anything Karen Lindsey wrote. Her so-called “feminist reinterpretation” of history is altering history to fit her theories. Never a good idea. Using sexual harrassement to explain Henry’s pursuit of Anne delinates the reality of men and women’s position in Tudor society.
    KOA, Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey, Elizabeth I etc. are the exception rather than the norm for the roles females fullfilled in history.
    Sexual relations bewteen olden men and teenage girls in the past was the norm. Marriage was for procreating, not simply the pleasure of sex. Romantic marriages, like Anne and Henry, were discouraged for these reasons.
    Paedophilia probably existed throughout history, but is a modern day conception. It was not defined in the past, and should not be used to described what happened.
    Claire, I liked this article because it made me think of my own reflections of the past, and I am gulity of my own 21st century sterotypes. Thanks for making me reflect. Mind you, this is just my opinion…

  5. Michelle says:

    I suspect that by the 22nd century we will be viewed as “weird” and many other unflattering labels. Times change and so do the perspectives and views. What was acceptable “back in the day” is not always acceptable in the future.

    Yes, I’m very guilty of placing my prejudices and “PC” views on Henry VIII and his court. I do realize that for Tudor times, Henry was considered a great and marvellous king. I just wonder if maybe some of the peasants and some of the upper class didn’t see Henry as a tyrant but were too cowed to voice their opions? Afterall, disagreeing with Henry VIII could cost you, and your entire family, your lives. The poor Countess of Salisbury paid for her son’s comments regarding Henry. I don’t care what time period is being examined people of that era must have seen the injustice in what Henry was doing?!?! They may not have said anything but…

    His iron handed rule kept things relatively quiet and peaceful, but like all medieval monarchs, he ruled by terror and intimidation. I’m guessing his people kept low profiles to avoid his murderous attention.

    When Mary I come to the throne the English people were happy and celebrated her ascension to the throne. After she began persecuting “heretics” feelings changed. By the time Elizabeth I ascended the throne the people were once again optimistic and happy. It’s the nature of human beings. We want change. We get change. We are not always happy with the change. In today’s world we can criticize our governement leaders without fear of being executed for treason. In Tudor times you minded your business and kept your mouth shut. Much safer that way!

    Marrying young was indeed the norm. My own grandmother married when she was 14. I’m shocked by how very young she was. However, given the times and the expected lifespans it was quite normal to marry and start a family. It’s only recently that we’ve come to view these marriages as “unnatural”. Therefore, while I personally feel that Tudor women were way too young to marry, it was the norm for that time period.

    I think that discussing historical figures is a worthwhile endeavor. Aren’t we supposed to learn from past historical errors?? The only way we can begin to do that is to question and discuss the past, value judgements aside. If we ever stop questioning then I feel we will be in serious trouble.

    1. Claire says:

      I definitely agree with you, Michelle, “discussing historical figures is a worthwhile endeavour” and I definitely would not be running this website of I thought otherwise! I’ve always been a questioner, I probably drove my parents mad asking “why?” all the time and, as a former teacher, I believe that we learn by questioning. If we stop questioning then we stop learning. What I was trying to get across is the fact that I find it interesting that some people have to explain Henry’s tyranny away by saying that he had some kind of medical condition, they feel the need to vindicate him, and I also find it interesting the 21st century labels we put on 16th century people, labels that just aren’t relevant. Hope that makes sense!

      1. Michelle says:

        It certainly does!

        I guess my point is that we need to wrap our heads around why Henry VIII was so tyrannical. Was he just a power mad individual, or, did he lose it because of madness, or a genetic illness?

        It’s rather difficult to realize that someone, with so much power to do good, could do so much harm and evil instead. It stands to reason, therefore, that he had to have some health issues that drove him to his misdeeds right??!!

        Like you said, he was a 16th century monarch. The times called for a tough king, not a fair nor a kind king, but a ruthless and determined king. Henry was certainly all that and more!

        Thanks for a thought provoking article Claire 🙂

  6. Courtney says:

    I just want to say that I love this site…I have just come across it in the last couple of days. I am in love with Anne & Tudor history. I have loved Anne since I was in school and was being taught that she was a queen that got her head cut off and had extra fingers, but being the free thinker I have always been, I did my own research. I have always felt a connection to her, as I see many people have, when I came across this site.I loved her boldness & how firey she was…for that day. I agree with eveything you have written. While watching the Tudors, as much as I hated the things that Henry did, I didn’t find myself full of hate for him…because again, the times that they were in. But I have to say that after the execution scene of Anne, I was upset, and couldn’t fully embrace the stories of Jane, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard & Catherine Parr because I just wanted more Anne!
    Keep up the good work, I really enjoy it!

  7. Sara E. P. says:

    I know it was the norm to marry and have children by the time you reached puberty in Tudor times, but I’ve always been left still feeling kind of sorry for those girls. I know they were taught what was to be expected, but at the age if twelve don’t you still view the world through child’s eyes? No matter what times you live in or how much preparation you’ve been given there is still the development that a person goes through. At that age you are still a child. Am I wrong in thinking this?

    1. Claire says:

      I don’t think you’re wrong in thinking that but I do think that in Tudor times you were either a child or an adult, teenagers just didn’t exist and are a modern phenomenon. I think that girls were women as soon as they hit puberty and were educated to be so. Even in Victorian times, so quite recent history, children were working full-time and had adult responsibilities at what we perceive to be a very young age. Although there are pressures on kids today, I think our children are allowed to be children for much longer than in the past.

  8. Sarah Rooke says:

    I fully agree with you Claire, we shouldnt judge Tudor times by our modern standards. Life was very different back then

  9. DeAnn says:

    Claire, I certainly understand the point you are trying to make and I think it’s appropos in a number of cases. But I don’t think it is in terms of Henry VIII.

    He was NOT a typical 16th Century monarch. All you have to do is look at the marital history of Francois I, Charles V, the James of Scotland to see that. I think you also have to take into account the reaction of Europeans at the time to his actions.

    For example, Francois was flabbergasted when told that Henry had divorced Anna of Cleves six months after marrying her. Neither Charles nor Francois would have thought of divorcing a foreign princess because he found her sexually unappealing and the cousin of his second wife more appealing. They would have done their duty as a king and put their country above personal desires. The typical behavior of a king was to grit their teeth and bed Anna of Cleves and get a heir and make Catherine Howard maitresse-en-titre.

    Louis XIV was almost certainly repulsed by his wife but he did what a king was expected to do. He begot an heir and had mistresses, famously so. Charles V only had one son to reach adulthood. He didn’t discard his wife so he could get a second son.

    Perhaps we can explain the divorce of Catherine of Aragon. But there is no justification for executing Anne Boleyn rather than sending her to a nunnery or into exile. Same for Catherine Hoard. There is no justification for his treatment of Anna of Cleves. And real or not, there was talk about Henry putting Katherine Parr away.

    Again, you only have to look at the execution of Margaret, Countess of Salisbury and see how Europeans and rulers reacted to that. They were horrified. Here was an elderly woman who had been Mary’s governess and her “treason” was giving birth to Cardinal Pole. She was no threat to Henry. She had been in the Tower of London for two years in horrible conditions and yet he decided to hack her head off.

    We don’t have to look at that murder with 21st Century eyes. We only have to look at that death with the eyes of 16th Century Europeans.

    Regarding Catherine Howard and Anne Boleyn, I think that’s where 21st Century eyes are coming into play. Because we know Henry executed women, it’s not so surprising to us to say well they were guilty of treason so they were going to get executed. But from 16th Century eyes, you see why it was so surprising. Henry didn’t have to execute them.

    In fact, whether women commited treason or not, they weren’t executed. The Duke of Glouster’s wife almost certainly imagined the death of Henry VI and did some not so nice things. She wasn’t killed but that was treason. Elizabeth Woodville’s mother was accused of witchcraft. Warwick might be willing to execute her father and brother but he wasn’t going to execute the woman. Elizabeth Woodville and Margaret Beaufort undoubtedly committed treason against Richard III but neither woman faced death. Beaufort just lost money and was placed in the custody of her husband. Eleanor led an uprising against her husband Henry II. If that’s no treason what is? She wasn’t killed. Margaret of Anjou was imprisoned in the Tower of London by Edward IV for several years but again not executed even though he would have thought she was guilty of treason.

    Before Anne Boleyn, women weren’t executed whether they committed treason or not. I can give you example after example. They were punished but not by death. So I disagree with the supposition that wives number two and five were expected at the time to be put to death. I think the opposite. We in the 21st Century are more willing to accept something that wasn’t at all accepted at the times.

    Ironically, I don’t think Henry was a 16th Century womanizer. If he had been, he would have had one wife or two wives and lots of mistresses a la Francois I and his son. Henry had few mistresses compared to other famous monarchs. He was all about being married.

    I totally agree with you regarding the early age of consummation and what was expected then especially when the life expectancy was so short. Thank you again for such a thought provoking post.

    1. amy says:

      I agree. I think that he was a tyrant, even by Tudor standards. The people were shocked by the execution of the Queen , that had never happened before. i think it brought up a whole range of other questions, like how scared was the monarch for instance if even the queen can be executed?

      1. sheila mott says:

        When Henry was searching for Wife number 4 didn’t one of the prospective candidates remark that she would consider him only if she had two necks? That shows how he was viewed.

    2. epiphany says:

      I think Henry was incurably, even obsessively, romantic. He didn’t want a marriage made in a diplomat’s office – he wanted The One, and he wanted to be married to her, not keep her as a mistress. Deep down, I think Henry wanted a happy, fulfilling marriage that satisfied him on every level, with a woman who was by turns as regal as CoA, as fascinating as Anne Boleyn, as soft and matronly as Jane Seymour, as sexually alluring as Catherine Howard, and as intellectually challenging as Catherine Parr. Oh, and she had to be fertile. Of course, this Perfect Woman doesn’t exist, which is why Henry changed partners so often, and why, IMO, he remained lonely and unhappy throughout his adult life.

      1. The Hot Mess says:

        I don’t think Henry was a romantic at all. The idea of romantic love within the confines of marriage is a modern ideal, is it not? I can’t think of a close example of a monarch, particularly an English one that Henry would have looked to to think he should be looking for a settled, happy, and fulfilling marriage.

        If anything, I think Henry was driven by a fear of civil war, of instability in the kingdom, of preserving the line of succession. Houses rose, houses fell and Henry wanted a long line of Tudors unquestionably on the throne.

        From everything I’ve read, I have no doubt that had Catherine of Aragon been able to birth at least one living son, he would have been quite happy to have been married to her for the rest of his days. That’s not to say he wouldn’t have had Anne Boleyn on the side or any variety of mistresses both long term and for a spell. But Catherine was a good queen and if I recall correctly, his only complaint against her ever was the lack of children, which in his mind, was caused by God condemning the marriage. It seems to me that it was the only explanation he could come up with to explain the infant deaths and miscarriages.

        To him, they never should have married and the proof of that was their lack of children.

        1. sheila mott says:

          That brings up a whole new area of discussion along the lines of what if…? I always enjoy that. My best guess is that if the young prince Henry b. 1st January 1511 had survived Henry VIII would have still separated from Catherine when he wanted to be with AB, and may well have married AB after Catherine’s death. Very probably Henry’s treatment of Catherine hastened her death, but she died of natural causes and might well not have survived for an appreciable length of time after Jan. 1536. There would have been no point in executing AB, etc, etc, etc…I could go on, but it is nothing but conjecture.

  10. DeAnn says:

    Oh and obviously Henry VII thought his mother in law committed treason against him but he didn’t execute her. He just banished her to a nunnery until her death in 1492.

  11. Jennifer says:

    I actually had this same discussion with my husband the other day. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to correct my father when he calls Henry a fat *expletive*….haha…I have explained so many times to him that he needs to think about the times back then and maybe borrow a book of mine or two to learn the real history of everything before jumping to conclusions. I wholeheartedly agree with everything in this article. I know that in telling my husband many things I’ve learned throughout the day, the one thing he cringes at most is the age of being married off during those times at some points. Of course back then a 12 year old would marry a 30 year old, but at 12…girls were indeed more mature and since life expectancy wasn’t as high as it is now…it was normal to get as many children born to that family as possible. Of course it would be gross now for that to happen–not to mention illegal….but it was the norm and we have to remember that. We can’t compare the times to ours….it’s not fair for those during the 16th century. They have a different story than us, and we just always have to remember that. I personally think it’s fascinating learning about our differences…and also the fact that from where they were during that time….we came from that. Our worldly society grew from that. Just like societies now will grow into something different. Who knows what they will say about us in the future! 🙂

  12. Heather says:

    It may be unfair to judge customs and beliefs 500 years later such as the age of a woman when she marries but there is one aspect of Tudor times that I have a harder time forgiving and that is the treatment of people. Especially considering the growth of the humanist movement how could rational, God-fearing Christians subject people to such cruel punishments? The joy with which people watched executions and the use of such instruments as the rack, the pyre, drawing and quartering do not correlate to the mercy Jesus taught. People must have known it was wrong and that there are more humane ways to manage transgressions. Perhaps that is part of the reason Anne wanted the Bible to be more accessible to the common folk: to share Jesus’s teachings with them. However, it was not the common folk meting out these punishments; it was the ones who had the education to know better!

  13. Beth says:

    All this talk of medical explanations, I’m with you, Claire. It would be of interest if we did discover that medical conditions were involved. So maybe it was? Unlikely given the rarity of the conditions being tossed about, but possible. But most likely as you say Henry was just that way because he was. Sometimes a tyrant is just a tyrant, no excusing medical condition behind it. Honestly, I think that sometimes people default to “maybe it was a medical condition” too often, when sometimes the simplest answer is the most likely one.

  14. Sheena says:

    In some ways, things have not changed at all over the last 500 years-

    In many 3rd world countries, arranged marriages between girls of child bearing age and men old enough to be their fathers still exit…and is the norm. OH! And lest we forget the recent enagement of Hugh Hefner to his 24 y/o fiance…

    We may not go to public executions any more in the western world, but in many cultures, they do exist. It wasn’t in our too distant past that the US performed it’s last official public hanging (1936) and Madame Guillotine performed her last public execution in France (1939).

    Religious fanatisicm still exists as people continue to do things (sometimes unexplicable and weird things) all because they felt that it is right and in the name of religion.

    I think that we too often to look back and judge those who came before for their “uncivilized” behavior. As for the many things that have changed, some things have remained the same…unfortunately. In those times, some things were the norm and other things were not- just as they are for now.

  15. Kari says:

    I’ll be the first to admit that I sometimes find it difficult to set aside my 21st-century lens when discussing characters from history. I do try to be fair, but I often fail. For example, I don’t think I could ever like Jane Seymour for this very reason.

    BUT. While I’m all for taking into account the times in which people lived, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be appalled by a man in his 50s marrying a teenage girl and repeatedly groping her in front of his entire court (Henry with Catherine Howard). Nor do I think it’s wrong to be horrified by Henry VIII’s treatment of his wives in general, or by Mary I’s slaughter of people who had a different faith, or by what was done to Margaret Pole, etc, etc, etc.

    It’s one thing to recognize that someone was a product of their times. It’s quite another to excuse them everything on the grounds that “that’s just how things were back then.” Some things truly ARE reprehensible, period, regardless of the era in which they occurred.

    I’m not saying that Claire or anyone here has done that. I’m just saying that I don’t think our 21st-century lens is always such a bad thing. We should be careful to keep it in check so that we don’t lose our perspective, of course. But when all is said and done, there are simply some things that SHOULD horrify us, and I don’t think we should have to apologize for that.

    Ahem. That’s my impassioned speech for the day. Carry on, everyone. 😀

  16. lisaannejane says:

    I often wonder how people interpret and decide how to label people and events. I always think of the American revolution as an example. The cost of the French and Indian War led the British to want the colonists to help pay for the cost. This is actually not an unreasonable request. The colonists, however, had been self governing for so long that it was more the way George III imposed a tax that bothered them, But to expect to not pay for the cost of defense is unreasonable. The problem lies with how the King and the English viewed the situation versus how the colonists felt about their situation. Somewhere along the way, an American psyche was born. Many people had never even been to England and knew more about the native indians than the English aristocracy. I do not like the way the so called “Founding Fathers” of our country have become more than just people looking after their own interests. The king probably could not understand the need to negotiate the issue with his subjects. Both groups saw each other as responsible for the problems of taxation. It depends upon how you want to interpret events. History, in my opinion, needs to be studied from many viewpoints and you have to keep in mind what you have been taught and that sometimes it is not historically accurate.

  17. leogirl1975 says:

    Claire,

    Thank you SO MUCH for posting an article like this! I thought I was the only one who sits and thinks of these sorts of things!

    History can be such an “eye of the beholder” kind of thing, sometimes regardless of the facts. I always have this need to want to dig deeper, to get more definite answers about what really happened between Henry and his wives, and the people who served him. Unfortunately, these pieces of history will always have a haze of “what ifs” surrounding them.

    I really enjoy both of your sites … can’t wait to be able to buy one of the Anne Boleyn dresses! They are so beautiful!

  18. Kim Kloes says:

    How can we not judge history by what is familiar to us? We can mitigate our bias by understanding customs of the time, what other historical things were going on, maybe even learning to speak another language so we can read the primary sources in the languages they were written in. We imagine and I think that is what this is all about. We all bring a unique perspective to what we think may have happened. That’s what is so fascinating to me about history…all the different perspectives and possibilities.

    Thanks for the continuing wonderful articles.

  19. Meghan says:

    I think you are all missing the major point of this article. Meeting Anne Boleyn + time traveling with the Doctor (as portrayed by David Tennant) = TRUE HAPPINESS. Sorry, I’m in the middle of Season 4 of Doctor Who and am loving it! He mentioned going to meet Henry VIII briefly and I screamed! So, when the page opened and I saw the TARDIS my heart skipped a beat. Rude and Not Ginger!

    On a more serious note, I had a rather interesting conversation with a curator I work with yesterday. Specifically we were talking about some of my family geneaology. According to the research so far, I had an ancester who’s husband died and she turned around and married his brother. The curator said that was common practice during the 19th century. If a man dies leaving his wife and children, his brother (if he is unmarried) takes on the responsibilities of his brother’s family and marries the widow. My ancestor had several children with her first husband, then after remarrying his brother had several more. Clearly she could not argue that she was a maid to get dispensation and marry the brother as Katherine did. I mentioned Leviticus and Henry’s argument to the curator. She thought that was interesting, 300 years later and it is acceptible and common practice. Now, please keep in mind that our discussion is most likely based on American Frontier families as we are in Minnesota. But it would be interesting to investigate further. Did this practice extend around the world?

    1. Claire says:

      Definitely David Tennant rather than Matt Smith!

      Regarding a man marrying his brother’s widow, although Henry VIII used Leviticus to try and get his marriage to Catherine annulled, Deuternonomy 25: 5 says “If brothers dwell together and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead shall not be remarried outside of the family to a stranger; her husband’s brother shall go into her, and take her as his wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her.” Hmm… There’s an interesting article “Leviticus vs Deuteronomy” at http://unamsanctamcatholicam.blogspot.com/2009/06/perhaps-this-is-inspired-by-research-i.html which concludes:-
      “So, we are left with a resolution to the two apparently contradictory verses which is exegetically sound, upheld by other Scriptures, as well as historical precedent (for this principle passed into the canon law of the Church) and gives adequate literal application to both the Levitical prohibition against marriage to a brother’s wife and the Deuteronomic verse that allows for an exception if the brother has died without issue. Another nail in the coffin of those who say the Scripture contradicts itself. “

      1. Jillian says:

        Henry’s case would seem to fit Deuteronomy rather than Leviticus – Arthur died childless and he and Henry were members of the same household, even though Arthur wasn’r living in the same residence as Henry when he died.

        On the subject of other marriages to brothers in Henry’s time, there is a rather interesing case concerning Queen Katherine’s niece Anna of Aragon, Duchess of Medina Sidonia. Anna married Alonso, Duke of Medina Sidonia, in 1515 but he turned out to have learning and physical disabilities, and was unable to consummate the marriage. Anna didn’t wait for a divorce – she started an affair with his younger brother Juan, became pregnant and produced a son by him in 1519. She is said to have secretly – and bigamously – married her lover the previous year. All three lived together in the same house and people seem to have been well aware of the situation.

        Anna and Alonso’s marriage was not formally dissolved until 1532, by which time she had produced another two children by her lover and was pregnant again. She and Juan married immediately thereafter and lived happily together until Anna’s death twenty four years later. On Juan’s death in 1558, his eldest son having predeceased him, he was succeeded as Duke by his grandson, the future unwilling commander of the Spanish Armada. Preusumably, they got away with this behaviour because Anna was the cousin of the Emperor Chalres V and high in his favour!

        1. epiphany says:

          Excellent example, and don’t forget Eleanor of Aquitaine and her first husband, Louis VII of France. They had 2 healthy daughters, but Louis (of course) wanted sons. On top of that, Eleanor was a spitfire, and her energy and wit exhausted Louis – in short, they were sick of each other. Their marriage was annuled with little fuss, and 8 weeks later, Eleanor married Henry, who would soon be King of England. BTW, Eleanor had had an affair with Henry’s father Geoffrey, and Henry was well aware of it, and didn’t care. She went on to give Henry 8 children, 5 of them sons.
          My point is, the Tudor dynasty was already tenuous; Henry was right that he needed legitimate sons, and his requesting an annulment from KoA was because she could no longer have children. He would have pursued the annulment even if Anne Boleyn wasn’t in the picture. Katherine was bullheaded, and if she had given the situation objective thought, she may have seen Henry’s side of it. She could have retired to an abbey while maintaining her opulent lifestyle, and Henry would have been free to pursue his marriage. The 7 years that they fought turned Henry into a bitter tyrant, and many innocents paid the price.

  20. TudorRose says:

    Well when analysing history you have to look at things differently and view things from both perspectives. You have to look at the then aswell as the now and take things into consideration and account. Things were different a lot different centuries ago then they are now as time changes and moves forward we are supposed to adapt with them times, so far and so forth.

    Girls back in the Tudor era could marry at twelve years of age but for boys it was fourteen so in both cases it was very young but had been the norm then to do so wearas that would no longer happen today and would never come back, I would be surprised if it ever did can you imagine if that was the case, if that would be so. I mean they were just children, they should have been allowed to grow up a little more or if not much more before they were allowed to contemplate doing as such but thats it, the laws and regulations of the time were so different, one could compare it to a middle eastern country, in the middle east, they way that they are living now is the way that are country used to live many centuries ago back during the middle ages, the early and later periods, the only difference is, is that we as people and as a country have moved on from that, they have not.

    Marriages then consisted of both sexes marrying aswell as courting that of people being of their own and around the same age but could also be that being older or in some cases much older, for example Catherine Howard being just of the age of seventeen and her husband Henry being fifty and not only that but it reminds me of when many years before their marriage when the King’s younger aswell as favourite sister Mary was married off aswell as betrothed to the King of France that being King Louis XII when she had just been in her teens and he in his fifties, it just reminds me of what would be Henry and Catherine many years later, later on in life.Very simmilar not just age ways but age and that of being both brides both wanting to be with aswell to court people and not to mention married to people of thier own age instead the only difference well apart from the obvious nationallity wise was that the Kings sister’s marriage to Louis only lasted three months before he died Catherine Howard’s lasted longer but both had been and were quite short lived and last but not least Catherines ended in execution and Catherine had been promiscuous and had affairs behind her husband Henry’s back wearas Mary when married to Louis did no such thing.

    As for why girls married two years younger than that of boys of the time period, it is quite hard to contemplate but I can only gather that girls were seen to mature quicker and hit puberty quicker than boys, so they thought anyway at the time. Well I agree with the first statement in which I made as that is indeed true but as for the latter that is not true its just a theory as both girls and boys alike both develop or tend to develop around and about both the same age.

    As for peadophillia the term had not been heard of then let alone known what it meant but some of these scenarios especially where either spouse had been much younger than that of his/her partner would indeed infact by todays society and standards be actually seen as peadophillic like it or not, for example in the case of Thomas Seymour and the Princess Elizabeth being at Hatfield and she being only but a child and he being a fully grown up adult male, now obviously she was too young for him and he undoubtedly had been and was too old for her without a doubt but you could say in a case like this it would be peadophillia, thats not to say that he had touched her or maligned with her in anyway as the full story is not known, well apart from that he used to taunt and tease her playfully but his wife at the time who just happened to be the three time widowed Catherine Parr funny enough knew aswell as found out what was going on and she actually funny enough saw that there had been no harm what so ever in what her husband was doing as records quite clearly state that she joined in on this at the time back in 1548 when Elizabeth would have only been about fifteen, see at that age she the princess would have been going through puberty and been more than old enough to marry as she had been at that time over the age of what was and what had been over the age of legal consent but at the same time from a very young age she had boasted that sshe would never ever marry and she stuck to it, she kept her word. So even if Thomas had not been executed when he was he may just have tried his chances at some point with the Lady Elizabeth and may have quite possibly asked for her hand in marriage but undoubtedly Elizabeth would have refused him and his advances anyway if things had and were ever to come to that. I think that Seymour had been too close for comfort, one of the reasons for that besides physical atteaction probably was due to the fact that he wanted to get and be close to royalty and that he may have even thought that one day he may just even be able to rule jointly alongside Elizabeth when Queen as King but then again I am just thinking one step ahead and not of what we actaully know on the subject, just a possibility as we know at the time his brother Edward Seymour, the Earl of Hertford and later the Duke of Somerset had indeed infact at the time been Lord protector to who had been the current King of England at the time, Edward who was Edward VI and Thomas had not been put or placed or been in actual fact anywhere on the list of executors of the time when King Henry wrote and made his will, he had only named one of the Seymour brothers not both for some reason, maybe because not only had Edward Seymour been an uncle to the boy king but had been seen as being more influential around and about court at the time and not to mention that he shared the same name as his nephew too and it is on the basis of this that I think that it would not surprise me if King Edward had been named after his uncle rather than that of any of his predessescors before him, for example is paternal great-grand father King Edward VI. Even though it was the custom and still is the custom today in the royal familly to keep on certain particular names even today the names given cannot be any different, they the monarchy still have to follow that tradition. So going back upon something as Thomas Seymour could not benefit that way as his name had not been on the list as executor or councillor he had to try something else, he had to find another way to be close to royalty and that of a royal and this was and had been his only way of doing so well to him it had certainly been the easiest thing to do to get close to that of the Princess, being half-blodded sister of the King as if he had in any way or means tryed to speak and talk with his brother Edward Seymour about being put aswell as placed on the list as a potential executor it may have been tricky and as a result it would have made things very dominant in the royal society and awkward during the King’s reign but I am surprised that he did not try this possibility instead, perhaps it had not come to mind or if it did he Thomas chose to stay out of it, we may never know as it is not listed as all we know is that he tried using Elizabeth for securement and not only that as she had been a protestant just like her younger half-brother Edward had been it all would fit. If he would not to be seeking Elizabeth’s hand in marriage he was and had been deffinately trying to use it to his advantage and securement that is for sure, perhaps one day he may of thought that she may make him a councillor during her reign one day or if not that raise him up to be a lord or that of a man of status just like his borther Edward or if not both. Thomas had although been made Baron during his lifetime and Lord high admiral but still this in my opinion had not been enough for him and it was this that would edventually cost him his head, I really would have thought that being the bother of the one time Earl and Duke and not to mention Lord protector would have saved him from death, I mean he could of done as it was not Edward Tudor who had really been governing at the time as he had been too young but Edward Seymour his uncle who had been totally ruling for him and governing the country. I thoguht being his brother he may have sympathised and if not let him go with realease keep him in the Tower were he could be of no threat to the King or the crown but at the same time could be free from trouble and it would have kept him out of trouble as a result but then again if Edward had chosen to sympathise with his own brother rather than that over his nephew Edward he would have been seen as been disloyal and as a result a heretic and a traitor and he would not have wanted that to lose his position even if it meant to save the life aswell as the head of his brother Thomas but still he could have just kept him imprisioned so that he could no harm rather than execute him, its a bit harsh to say the least. I mean Edward probably did sympathise with his brother but chose not to worth risking his staus or livelihood as a result.

  21. Amanda-Leigh says:

    Don’t say sorry for writing this article!! I’ve been waiting for one like it for a while, because it’s always on my mind!

    Personally, I’ve never seen Henry as a tyrant. If he were around now, I would, but I try to imagine myself in his world, and I always find myself thinking that he was an amazing man – made some horrid choices, but he had strong beliefs and he did what he thought was right.

    Along those same lines, I think the same of Mary I. I did the whole “Bloody Mary” three times in the mirror when I was a little girl, and I was so scared I had to tape blankets over the mirror in case she came after me! My mom told me her story, and then I’d wish she could come through just so I could give her a hug.

    I’ve always felt that you can’t judge someone until you’ve been in their shoes… and no matter how hard we try, we can never fully imagine what life was like then, and the depth of their beliefs.

    Anyway, I’m just super glad you wrote about this, since it’s something that’s always in the back of my mind!

    1. TudorRose says:

      I agree with you there you certainly can not judge a person unless you have stepped aswell as walked in their shoes, I have often said this before and its true. I have also heard about that ryhme too but I doubt no much how often you said it, it would not make a difference or come true. Its just an old wives tale that has and was invented to scare people, especially children as they would be the only ones to beleive such a thing.

      1. Amanda-Leigh says:

        Haha yeah… it’s really too bad it doesn’t come true. If it really happened, I’d have her here all the time just so I could ask her questions!

  22. Cream Cheese Alchemist says:

    I think it’s hard to know 100% what they were thinking but results suggest intent.. I think Henry VIII wanted the church out of his way. If his first wife had bore him a son, it would have been different. The church couldn’t well maintain marriage was both divine and for creating heirs, if only for the precedent it would set. If they gave in to one king, what would stop others? And Henry VIII would tolerate no Beckets.

    Some recommendations related to this topic- Marriage, a History by Stephanie Coontz. The Ring of Fire series by Eric Flint and others (speculative fiction but intriguing in its presentation of people from 2000 dealing with the world of 1634 Europe). Tinker Belles and Evil Queens by Sean Griffin, an insightful look at the culture wars of the 20th century through the prism of Disney and its various types of fans.

  23. Leonie says:

    The life expectancy in Tudor England for the average citizen was around 30-35. Children did not really have a childhood, like being a teen that is a more modern idea. They were expected from a very early age to begin to carry out simple work & by 10 they were considered able to work as an adult. When you look at this you realise that marriage at 12 is not a shock. The level of mortality in childbirth was quite high, as was infant mortality (around 50%), so it was not uncommon for men to have more than one wife in his lifetime as he was more likely to live a little longer. It also explains much about the young wives of mature men, having a healthy child had to take priority & they hoped these young girls would survive long enough to have a sizeable family.

  24. Marie says:

    On thing I have noticed in my travels is that no matter where you go – well, there you are. People are people with the same hopes and dreams, sorrows and losses, loves and jealousies. I doubt seriously that this fact would change were we to travel back in time. There would be other circumstances – hygiene, disease, clothing, customs etc but people would still be people. There would infighting and cliques and some people hating other people.

    I have dreamed of a time machine since I can remember. I would like to hear Anne’s voice – and Elizabeth’s and Henry’s too for that matter!

  25. Baroness Von Reis says:

    Although I think what Henry did to so many innocent people was wrong,a King had to show his power,Kings did and still can’t show weaknness,if they did how could they rule. They could not show weakness no matter what the out come or the cost of the guilty or innocent.I speak of not just Henry V111,but all the King’s and Queens threw out time,even todays present royal’s.

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