Even now, 500 years after their deaths, imaginations are stirred just by hearing their names: Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and Elizabeth I. Rife with adultery, illegitimacy, divorce, religious controversy, political scheming and powerful monarchs, fascination with the Tudor period endures. While television attempts to recreate what life was like during this era, author Amy Licence is much more successful reconstructing the public and private lives of the Tudors in her book In Bed with the Tudors. Taking the reader into the private world of both royal and common women, Licence shows the precarious nature of life for these women, including the experience of marriage, sexuality, childbirth, infant mortality and death, all of which could determine a woman’s ultimate fate.
With a Master of Arts in Medieval and Tudor studies, Licence’s exhaustive research embraces both historical figures and lesser known women of the era. Especially intriguing are the individual chapters focusing on Henry VIII’s six wives, detailing Henry’s obsession for an heir, his sexual appetites and intimate relationships with his spouses and mistresses.
In Bed with the Tudors transports the reader beyond the dry facts and reveals amusing and intimate anecdotes about the lives of these people, both royal and common, who lived so long ago. Below Author Amy Licence shares her thoughts about her enlightening book and the on-going allure of the Tudors.
You have a MA in Medieval and Tudor Studies. How did you become interested in this time period and the Tudors?
It began early; even as a little girl I enjoyed going to museums and visiting historical sites, then I began to read the novels of Jean Plaidy. I loved all the details about everyday life and the characters she brought to life so powerfully, which inspired me to go and get the actual biographies out of my local library: the first figure I really got interested in was Anne Boleyn. I was also lucky enough to grow up in an area that has lots of medieval and Tudor history. Near my parents’ house was an old castle which we used to visit and we were only a short distance from London, with all its royal connections. The thought that I was walking in the footsteps of people from the past really fired my imagination. When I moved to Canterbury to do my MA, I had some lessons based in Canterbury Cathedral and one of my homeworks was to research the iconography of the stained glass windows and the shrine of Thomas Becket. It made me realise that people from the past understood the world in different ways to us and that it could be misleading to apply twenty-first century reasoning when trying to understand them.
Your book covers all of the members of the Tudor dynasty, beginning with Henry VII and his wife Elizabeth of York. While their marriage started as a political union, it eventually became an actual love match. How was this unique during this period?
Yes, it is a bit of a controversial marriage. There is still considerable debate today about how Elizabeth and Henry really felt about each other; some historians claim he disliked her because of her Yorkist family connections and recently it has been suggested that she was in love with Richard III, who Henry defeated at Bosworth Field. A few observations made by foreign ambassadors suggest they thought Elizabeth was oppressed by Henry but I really don’t think there is enough evidence to support this. On the contrary, we do have some insight into their marriage when Henry summoned Elizabeth to be with him before battle, the way they comforted each other over the loss of their son and the way Henry appears to have genuinely grieved for her after her death.
Just as with any marriage – past or present – the true nature of their union can’t be judged from the outside and emotions can change subtly over years with the shared experiences of parenting and loss. While it did start as a dynastic arrangement, they do seem to have developed a lasting affection, even if it wasn’t full blown passion. I suspect most Kings and their consorts settled into a working arrangement. However, there was a precedent with Elizabeth’s parents, who married for love, as did their son Henry VIII, so perhaps it wasn’t quite as unusual as it had been in earlier centuries.
Henry VII is notorious for his many wives and desperation for a male successor. In your opinion, why was Henry VIII so reluctant to leave his throne to his daughters? What factors drove his quest for a son and heir?
For Henry VIII, a female heir was unthinkable! Tudor perceptions of women meant that they were always subject to the control of their menfolk so to have a woman on the throne, dictating to her male subjects upset their sense of the order of the world. Also a woman ruler was likely to marry a foreign Prince, as there was no one in her own country of equal status but this made people fear that England would become controlled and manipulated to serve the needs of France or Spain. As it happened, Mary I did marry a Spaniard, Philip, although she was very careful to arrange matters so that she always took precedence. Mary’s gynaecological history also illustrates how the domestic nature of women’s lives- issues of fertility and childbearing- could come to eclipse the detachment they needed in order to run the country. Mary’s obsession with her husband and the need to have a child, along with her two phantom pregnancies played to misogynistic fears about the weaknesses of women.
In what ways did Henry VIII’s split from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534 affect the lives of the Tudors and everyday people in England?
This is a difficult one to answer and I don’t think there is one consistent theory that could be applied to all people and all places. Initially, it must have been alarming for many people to have centuries-old beliefs and ways banned overnight, such as pilgrimage and the cults of saints, the use of certain talismen, rites and charms, which provided emotional support at many stages of their lives. Such items allowed people to find meaning in situations they could not otherwise explain. The closure of the monasteries had a huge impact on landownership and the way that the infirm, poor and weak were provided for in society.
In terms of the Tudors, it had a significant effect on Mary I, whose devout Catholicism brought her into direct conflict with her father’s and brother’s reforms; more lasting changes were brought in under Edward than Henry, who died still considering himself a Catholic. When she came to the throne, Mary was keen to reverse the changes and saw her failure to conceive as God’s punishment for not having done so, which I believe spurred her campaign of burnings.
In the long term, the changes and swings back and forth between practices must have been confusing. Personal faith was strong in Tudor times and I am convinced that people would not just have abandoned centuries old beliefs in order to please the Monarch: I think it boiled down to who they were more afraid of; their ruler or their God and for the Tudors, it would always be their God. People didn’t just abandon their beliefs without question and many would have continued to practise in private but there was a slow move towards Protestantism which occurred in the 1530s and 40s so that those of Mary’s generation were more likely to be Catholic but her half siblings were educated under different influences. Another big change was the accessibility of the Bible, which was made available in English, so that more people, especially women, could read it and make up their own minds. Court records show that many hidden Catholic items re-emerged into use in the 1550s and that under Elizabeth, a good number of people were punished for refusing to attend church, so I don’t think the everyday Tudors simply accepted these momentous changes without question.
Your book examines the intimate lives of royalty and regular people during the Tudor period. How did women’s lives change from the time of Elizabeth of York to Elizabeth I in the realms of marriage, childbirth and sex? Did their lot improve during this time?
Actually, I don’t think they really did. Some things changed for women, such as increased female literacy and the advent of the first female monarchs but this would have affected a small group of upper class women. When it came to issues of health and birth, medical knowledge did not significantly advance; more manuals were published on it and probably a few more women were able to read them but women’s rights and the dangerous nature of childbirth were just as limited in 1600 as they were in 1500.
The experience of being ruled by two women may even have increased misogynistic attitudes; I would even go as far to say that women may have been less respected as the sixteenth century progressed. The proliferation of ballads and broadsheets mocking women contrasts with more chivalric respectful depictions at the advent of the Tudor dynasty. In terms of marriage and sex, women were just as much men’s possessions as they ever were and the evidence in Court records of the way they were poorly treated by men is consistent throughout this period. Women would have to wait many more years before their lot improved.
There are many theories about why Elizabeth I decided never to marry and instead remained the “Virgin Queen”. What do you think is the real reason she refused marry?
I think there is a lot of speculation over this, when actually the answer is quite straightforward. Elizabeth was very intelligent. She was also a pragmatist. Apart from the dangers of childbirth, she knew that to marry would mean a form of submission and she had seen in her childhood that only those with absolute power were safe. To marry would be to subject herself to the rule of a husband whose will and intentions may differ from hers and she was not prepared to be relegated to the position of wife.
Her court also evolved into what Edith Sitwell aptly described as the “Queen Bee and Hive” scenario; she was able to keep her Lords loyal through flirtation and emotional manipulation, which was very clever as it allowed them all to entertain hopes regarding her on a personal level. Once one of them had claimed her, that would end. She drew out the matrimonial game in order to keep them in submission to her and until she was relatively old, it worked.
Her self-invention as the Virgin Queen co-opted the previous Catholic cult of devotion to the Virgin Mary and allowed her to present herself as a semi-divine figure, a myth in her own life time. She had seen from her sister that for a Queen to adopt the traditional role of wife created a conflict of loyalties and could potentially divide the kingdom. I don’t think she was a man or had any sort of physical impediments that prevented her from marrying. I suspect these were the invention of those unable to accept her alternative definition of femininity: women were not supposed to be able to rule, yet here was a woman doing so successfully, ergo, she could not be a woman.
To illustrate what everyday life was like for women of all classes, In Bed with the Tudors contains many personal narratives from women who lived during this period. While researching the book, how did you find such intimate details about these people’s lives?
I really enjoyed researching this aspect of the book. Reading biographies and history books as I grew up, I often wondered about the everyday Tudors and wanted to know their names and experiences, so I set out to make this a priority. One problem is that far fewer records survive about those who were never in power, particularly women, but there is material out there. I found some evidence in Parish records of births, marriages and deaths. Some simply record facts but in others, the scribes add little notes and it is possible to work out things like illegitimacy, infant and maternal mortality and conception dates.
Then, there are the Court records that I spent a long time working with. There were local and County-based court sessions held every three months to address any transgressions, such as illegitimate births, arguments, accidents, property and marriage details. Sadly, most women only appeared in them when they had fallen foul of the law; it was easier to find details about poor women and servants than the well behaved middle class who conformed to social expectations.
Even now, hundreds of years later, the names of the Tudor figures can still create a sensation: Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I. Why do you think these historical figures continue to capture the public interest?
At this historical remove, such figures have a glamour that is both accessible but distant. They are the grown-up version of the fairy tales we read as children, of knights and princesses, except these people really lived and their stories are more fascinating than any make-believe. It is both escapism and an alternative realism at the same time. We know just enough about them to be able to empathise but not enough for them to shed their sense of mystery. Henry and his wives will always fascinate us because of the passion and opulence of their lives; Anne’s rise to power is a strikingly modern story and her rapid fall continues to evoke shock and sympathy. Elizabeth’s incredible strength and intelligence also makes her atypical of her times. Their lives were full of twists and turns; we can experience their danger at one remove because ultimately, hindsight makes their suffering “safe” in the same way that it is when we read about fictional characters. But I think it is ultimately about romance; people will always love to read about love affairs and the triangle of Henry-Catherine-Anne and the passion between Elizabeth and Dudley will never fade.
Who is your favorite Tudor historical figure and why?
It’s difficult to choose just one as there are so many fascinating figures around during this time. I think what interests me as a historian is the element of mystery, of unanswered questions which provides a bit of a challenge.
At various times, I’ve been interested in different people, starting with Anne Boleyn, who still interests me, although there is now a lot more material being published about her life.
As I’ve researched more, I have found Catherine of Aragon to be an impressive woman, who stuck to her principles, although I sometimes wonder if she was too stubborn and perhaps she and her daughter suffered as a result: did she prioritise her queenship over motherhood?
Most of all, I’m interested at the moment in Elizabeth of York. I’ve just finished writing a biography of her and yet she still feels like an enigmatic character to me. Her personal feelings were not recorded in the way that those of Henry’s wives were, so we are left to imagine whether or not she really was in love with her uncle, Richard III, or how she felt about the imposter Perkin Warbeck who tried to impersonate her dead brother. On paper she appears the ideal Tudor queen, yet as a person, she remains mysterious.
The title of your book In Bed with the Tudors is quite provocative. How did you come up with this title?
I needed something that would grab people’s attention and I wanted a title that wasn’t just a usual variant of the usual Tudor titles. It also needed to highlight the intimate nature of the subject I was studying, suggesting that this book would get readers up close and personal with those domestic details that normally get overlooked. This isn’t a book about politics, it gets in between the bed sheets to talk about adultery, fertility, hygiene and bed lice; all the dirty laundry of history. As I was writing, it just occurred to me.
What do you want readers to take away from your book?
I think I came round to this when I wrote the introduction, which was the last thing I did. I wanted women in particular to realise how lucky we are today, with all the medical and social advances of the twenty-first century. One thing I think is tricky about studying the past is trying to get inside the late medieval mindset and I hoped that by explaining the limits of contemporary understanding, that readers would be able to appreciate why people of the past made the decisions they did. Most of all, I wanted it to be accessible, especially for those who might not enjoy a more formal, traditional approach to the subject: I wanted my readers to enjoy it and feel they understood a little more about what it was like to live in those times.