Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Truth About Katherine Howard

By Nancy Bilyeau

Katherine Howard is the dirty joke of the Tudor era.

The second of Henry VIII's wives to be executed, she is a tragic figure, but there is not the same level of outrage over her fate. Many who have studied the life of Anne Boleyn believe that the charges of adultery and incest and treasonous conspiracy were false, concocted by Thomas Cromwell to free Henry VIII of a woman he had come to hate. Queen Katherine, some 30 years younger than her ailing and obese husband, took lovers before and after her marriage, it is commonly believed. She was guilty.

Wasn't she?

A miniature portrait believed to show
Katherine Howard, perhaps 18 when she married

I believe that Katherine Howard was guilty but not of what you may think. Whether she was unchaste before marriage is not her chief crime. Her struggles to hide her premarital past from her husband and his councillors--and her mysterious meetings, perhaps adulterous, with Thomas Culpepper after her marriage--were just the excuse seized on to effect her removal.

It could be argued that her alleged misdeeds were echoes of the mistakes in judgment Anne Boleyn made, in her flirtatious banter with Henry Norris and Francis Weston. Queen Anne was the victim of a politically motivated coup, and I would argue that her cousin Katherine Howard was too.

Anne Boleyn, first cousin of Katherine Howard.

To read the books written about Katherine Howard is to plunge into a vat of scorn, contempt and disgust: "empty headed," "good time girl" and "juvenile delinquent."

There has, recently, been a shift of opinion. In his excellent book Katherine Howard: A New History, Conor Byrne makes a convincing case that Katherine, whose mother died when she was very young and whose father was the black sheep of the Howards, was the victim of sexual predators while living with her step-grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. And Thomas Culpepper's attentions may have veered into blackmail.

In this post, though, I would argue that the crime she was actually guilty of—the reason Katherine Howard died—was not her morals, or lack of. It was her effectiveness as queen. She was the wife that Henry VIII was visibly most besotted with, according to contemporary records: his "affection was so marvellously set upon her." And, most critically, she was more than a mere plaything. She was the effective center of a power base.

What? people scream. But Catherine was promiscuous, frivolous, semi-literate, immature, grasping and heedless, right? That's what the miniseries depict and the books all agree on, even those that are supposedly sympathetic.

I would like to present some facts of Catherine's life and reign as Queen.

* Within the span of not more than six months, she was able to convince Henry VIII that she should be his next queen, rather than his mistress, even though he was married to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, when he "first set eyes upon her." Jane Seymour  is credited with shrewd managing of Henry VIII in similar circumstances. But Jane displaced a wife who was most likely pregnant when she began her relationship with King Henry, and is not known to have balked at Anne Boleyn's execution to make way for her. Katherine, in contrast, replaced a queen who never consummated her arranged marriage, and Anne of Cleves received a divorce and large settlement, not the axe. Moreover, Katherine went to great lengths to treat her predecessor, Anne of Cleves, with kindness and respect in public after the divorce.

* Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, was more than 60 years old when arrested and confined in the Tower of London, charged with treason. Henry VIII considered her son, Reginald Pole, his greatest enemy, but the religious scholar lived in Italy and France, safe from the English king's grasp. So the king wiped out his family: brother, nephew and, finally, mother. Her imprisonment was not only terrifying but physically rigorous. Katherine arranged to have a set of warm clothes sent to Margaret Pole in the Tower, including a satin-lined nightgown, shoes, and slippers. It was an act of incredible bravery.

* Katherine persuaded her husband to pardon at least three people who could easily have been executed were it not for her intervention, including Thomas Wyatt. In 1541, Wyatt was arrested and sent to the Tower of London, accused of corresponding with Cardinal Pole, and referring to the prospect of Henry VIII's death. Katherine's actions led to his freedom. This success sets her apart from Jane Seymour, who when she attempted to dissuade Henry VIII from dissolving the monasteries, was told never to meddle in his affairs, and from sixth wife Catherine Parr, who was very nearly arrested after haranguing the king over religion. Although considered a 16th century "bimbo," Katherine was an effective political player.

* Katherine managed a relationship with a man in ill health, possessing volatile emotions and holding high expectations of a wife. After a "honeymoon" of several months during which Henry VIII appeared rejuvenated, his health problems returned and he was often in pain--and highly irritable. Ambassador Eustace Chapuys reports rumors that Henry VIII refused to see his wife for a long stretch of days, and even considered divorce briefly. Rumors flew throughout the marriage that Katherine was pregnant, though it is unlikely she ever was. This must have been a source of considerable stress to Katherine, since the king continued to be obsessed with begetting male heirs. Yet Katherine was able to solidify her hold on the king's affections. When they returned from their progress in late October, the king proclaimed his wife a "jewel."

Less than two weeks later, Katherine was being investigated. What happened?

It is a story often told that Anne Boleyn said of Mary Tudor, her husband's daughter, that "she is my death and I am hers." As it happened, it was not her stepdaughter who killed Queen Anne. However, that same phrase could be used for Katherine Howard and Thomas Cromwell. She was his death. Many historians believe that Cromwell stalled in obtaining the king a divorce from Anne of Cleves because he didn't want a Howard queen, but that stalling was fatal.

Yet in a chilling way, Cromwell, executed on the wedding day of Henry VIII and Katherine Howard, was the cause of her death 20 months later.


The Duke of Norfolk and his heir, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, openly gloated over the destruction of Cromwell. Their ally, Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, returned to the King's council and a leading role. But what is not often written about is how this faction tried to wipe out Cromwell's supporters. The arrest of Sir Thomas Wyatt was part of their "clean up operation," as was the arrest of Sir Ralph Sadler, Cromwell's protegee. (Sadler, too, was eventually released.)

Thomas Audley

Other Cromwell allies, like Thomas Wriothesley and Richard Rich, jumped to the winning side, no matter how they felt about the Howards, to survive. Thomas Audley, who had shared many of Cromwell's religious and political views, accommodated himself to the winners at court, but he was not fully trusted by Norfolk. Audley was lord chancellor, though--too useful to destroy. For now.

Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury

The man in the kingdom left most exposed was Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. He was the only one to publicly lament the fall of Cromwell, in a distressed letter to the King himself. Some at court expected Cranmer to follow Cromwell into disgrace. But the Archbishop survived, protected (as much as one could be) by King Henry's esteem. He retreated from the forefront of court affairs.

Bishop Gardiner, Cranmer's triumphant rival, left the court in the fall of 1540 to represent England at a German meeting of many religious and state leaders determined to resolve the question of religion, including the Emperor Charles V and John Calvin. Gardiner had instructions from Henry VIII that should a way be found for the Pope to welcome England back into the fold, he should not rule out such a possibility. One can only imagine how Cranmer felt about this summit and his relief when the Diet of Regensburg failed in the summer of 1541. But there was no doubt that Gardiner would continue to lobby for a return to Rome.

Katherine's husband, Henry VIII

In the coming year, the Howard-Gardiner faction did what they could to return the kingdom to the "True Faith" and repeatedly tried to move against former Cromwell allies. Those men they targeted must have been frightened. And frightened men make passionate enemies. It was unwise to alienate men who were capable of striking back. With the King entranced by his teenage Queen, the Howards felt invincible.

They weren't.

When Henry VIII and his Queen went on their historic progress to the North of England, three men were left behind. One was Thomas Cranmer. Another was Thomas Audley, with whom he had a friendship. The third was Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, who quietly shared their evangelical views and quite possibly worried that the Seymours were endangered, especially if Queen Katherine had children. There might have been occasions for this trio of men to meet and speculate about their future.

That is the moment when a man entered the picture who set the match leading to the horrible deaths of four people: Katherine Howard, Jane Boleyn, Thomas Culpepper, and Francis Dereham. His name was John Lascelles, and he was a fanatical evangelical, someone who would do anything for the Protestant cause. He had once served Thomas Cromwell. He hated Thomas Howard and Bishop Gardiner (he would die himself five years later, burned to death for heresy). His sister, Mary Hall, had served in the household of the dowager Duchess of Norfolk, and she saw and heard things about Katherine Howard's past. Scandalous things.

Lascelles found his way to the Cranmer-Seymour-Audley group and told them what he knew. The opponents of the Howards had found a fatal weakness. If they played this card, it could bring down the Howard faction, but it could also devastate King Henry. What should be done? Shortly after Cromwell was arrested, Katherine Howard had personally sent a note to Thomas Cranmer, reassuring him he was safe from harm. She was perhaps 20 years old when she returned with her doting husband from their northern progress; she had never done Cranmer any harm. But what if Lascelle's story were to reach the King's ears some other way?

On All Souls' Day, as King Henry left his devotionals in Hampton Court, his Archbishop of Canterbury handed him a letter and urged him to read it...



So ends Part One. In Part Two I will continue the story of Katherine Howard.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

William Harrison Ainsworth and the "Romancing" of the Tower of London

By Nancy Bilyeau



On a December night in 1840, a sizable group of writers, editors, publishers, printers and illustrators gathered at the Sussex Hotel, in the fashionable town of Royal Tunbridge Wells, for a dinner party. It is possible that Charles Dickens, the young author of Oliver Twist and The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby,  was invited to the party. Most definitely in attendance was George Cruikshank, the talented illustrator of Oliver Twist. 

The host of this lavish affair was the famed 35-year-old novelist William Harrison Ainsworth. The occasion: the successful serialization over the last year of his fifth novel, The Tower of London: A Historical Romance, which told the story of the tragic Lady Jane Grey, beginning with her arrival by barge at the Tower to launch her nine-day-reign and ending with her decapitation on Tower Green on July 10, 1553.

William Harrison Ainsworth
The novelist was sure to have cut quite the dash at his own party: He was tall, slim and dark, with a fondness for stylish clothes that earned him the description dandy. From the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: "Lady Blessington, whose salon he attended, said he and Count D'Orsay were the two handsomest men in London."

In a passage accepted as autobiographical, a character in one of Ainsworth's novels says, "Some people told me I was handsome, and my tailor (excellent authority, it must be admitted) extolled the symmetry of my figure, and urged me to go into the Life Guards."

  
Ainsworth was at perhaps the zenith of his career in 1840. He was a friendly rival to Dickens; in fact, his 1839 novel Jack Shepard outsold Oliver Twist in early editions, and Ainsworth had recently replaced Dickens as editor of Bentley's Miscellany, the predominant fiction magazine.


The rivalry with Dickens would not last; nor would the friendship. Dickens would become a colossus as Ainsworth slowly sank into oblivion. His 39 historical novels, all of them romances and adventures, were astoundingly popular with the reading public of Victorian England, but not with the critics. Although Ainsworth was himself a genial and generous man, he was often on the receiving end of literary volleys almost hysterical in their dislike. When his books no longer sold as well, he had no circle of supporters to buoy him. Quite the opposite. One writer said of him in 1870: "Let us start with an opinion fearlessly expressed as it is earnestly felt, that the existence of this writer is an event to be deplored." Ainsworth was still alive when this sentiment was published, and in reduced circumstances.

That dazzling night at Royal Tunbridge Wells,  Ainsworth, mercifully, could not know that his books would go out of print, that fellow writers such as Edgar Allan Poe would describe his prose as "turgid pretension."

Yet he is not without a legacy. The book celebrated that night, The Tower of London: A Historical Romance, triggered a new kind of interest in William the Conqueror's castle keep. It was an interest that deepened through the Victorian age, and is part of the reason visitors pour into the Tower, to the tune of  2 million a year.



Ainsworth was born on February 4, 1805, in Manchester, as the city became the center of the industrial movement. Thomas Ainsworth was a prominent lawyer and pressured his oldest son to follow him in that profession, which he did for a time, but without much enthusiasm. There was a younger son, Thomas Gilbert Ainsworth, who at university suffered a "brain fever" and was incapicitated by mental illness his entire life.

Two years after the father died, Ainsworth, newly married, published his first novel, the romance Sir John Chiverton. It brought him to the attention of Walter Scott, who befriended Ainsworth but privately referred to him as an "imitator." His next two books, the historical novels Rockwood and Jack Schepard, both featuring famous outlaws, were tremendous successes. Yet some criticized the romanticizing of criminals, a complaint Dickens was also hearing with Oliver Twist.

 It was time to try something different.

When Ainsworth, along with his illustrator, George Cruikshank, researched the Tower of London, it was far from the smoothly operating tourism operation of today. It had been two centuries since the last monarch, Charles II, resided there. Dickens wrote: "Once a fortress, a royal residence, a court of justice and a prison, {the Tower} is now a government storehouse and armory." An outbreak of disease caused by poor water supply (and blamed on the filthy moat) killed three men of the garrison.

A visitor in 1851 wrote:


"Every one must be struck with the incivility and want of accommodation therein. Upon entering the gates this afternoon I found some hundreds of persons, male and female, huddled together, striving to obtain tickets from a window under a portico where no two persons can pass abreast, and the scene there reminded me of what might be expected at the gallery entrance of a theatre on boxing night. After waiting just one hour we obtained our tickets and were ordered into what is called the ante or refreshment room. This room is about 12ft. by 18ft., with a counter containing ginger pop, buns, &c., immediately behind which are two waterclosets (I understand recently erected). I will not attempt to describe the stench one had to contend with, the place being completely crammed with persons waiting their turns or numbers to be called, but merely add that this room seems to be the resort of pickpockets, two ladies having been eased of their purses, containing some pounds, during the half hour I was present therein."


Ainsworth opened the door to a more illustrious period in the Tower's history. It's true that the novel's prose is melodramatic ("heaving bosoms," "piercing black eyes" and "sinister smiles") and the pages are crowded with Gothic characters (not one or two but three supporting characters who are giants--and a dwarf!) along with august personages of the past. But Ainsworth's diligent research brings to life the grounds, the kitchens, the passageways, the prison cells and the beautiful chapels of the Tower. He made full, imaginative use of the Tower of London, as a setting for a story of high drama.  And Cruikshank's 40 engravings and 58 woodcuts play their suggestive part.


Cruikshank's depiction of Lady Jane Grey


And in the center of it all is Lady Jane Grey, a character of undeniable pathos, surrounded by conspiracies. Ainsworth invests the Spanish ambassador, Simon Renard, with the malevolent abilities of a Blofeld straight from Bond. Northumberland is formidable indeed.There is an energy to the book, and an eerie, even frightening atmosphere. The rack, the Scavenger's Daughter and the infamous Little Ease are all present and accounted for.



The current official Historical Royal Palaces Tower of London "fact sheet" on torture emphasizes how little actual torture has taken place within its walls: "Myth-making reached its peak in the 19th century, spurred on by novelists who wished to evoke the Tower of London in its former days as an ancient fortress and stronghold e.g. Ainsworth’s The Tower of London." Ainsworth may have put the devices of torture to Gothic uses, but they were very much present in the 16th century. Ironically, government-approved torture of prisoners ebbed during the reigns of Edward VI, Jane Grey, and Mary, only to rise to highest levels during reign of Elizabeth.




After The Tower of London, Ainsworth's career went on for more than thirty years. The characters in his books were not dimensional; bosoms continued to heave and black eyes to snap. R.H. Horne, Dickens' friend and collaborator, described Ainsworth as "a reviver of old clothes" whose novels are "generally dull except when revolting." Punch satirized Ainsworth as an aging Tudoresque dandy with the caption "The Greatest Axe-and-Neck Romancer of Our Time."




By the time of the Punch jab, Ainsworth, a widower, was responsible for his mentally ill brother. He had accepted a government pension because...he needed it. A year after a dinner in his honor in Manchester, arguably the only place where he was still esteemed, William Harrison Ainsworth died at the age of 77.

But the Tower felt the lingering impact of Ainsworth. In the foreword of his book, he had called for the opening to the public of Beauchamp Tower, the place of imprisonment of the Lady Jane Grey, where she is thought to have written on the wall of her cell. The cause was taken up by powerful patrons, including Prince Albert. Beauchamp was restored by architects and made available to visitors; other buildings were opened too.



Ainsworth's influence, as explained in The Tower of London: The Official Illustrated History:


"In The Tower of London: A Historical Romance, the Tower was first and foremost the setting for an endless series of heart-rending events and foul play. The author tells of dungeons though in fact the Tower has very few basement rooms and of a time when Tower Hill boasted a scaffold and "its soil was dyed with the richest and best blood in the land.” Such fantasies, backed by the relentless march of the romantic movement, helped create and fuel an ever-increasing demand to see and experience such events.”
No matter how much the novel's violence veers into fantasy, the faintly menacing image of the Tower that draws the throngs of the curious today was created in part by William Harrison Ainsworth. He was the greatest neck-and-axe romancer of his time...and perhaps of ours too.

----------------------------------------------------------------


 





Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Truth About "Bloody Mary"

By Nancy Bilyeau


Bloody Mary is the name of a drink that always contains booze and tomato juice and sometimes contains a dash of Worcestershire sauce, cayenne pepper, lemon, salt, black pepper or a vigorous celery stalk. In 1939, the newspaper This New York reported breathlessly, “George Jessel’s newest pick-me-up that is receiving attention from the town’s paragraphers is called a Bloody Mary: half tomato juice, half vodka.”


Bloody Mary is also the name of a macabre children’s game. Find a mirror, turn out the lights, and call out her name three times. When you switch on the light, Bloody Mary herself will appear in the mirror—the ghost of a woman wrongly accused of killing her own children.


And, most significantly, Bloody Mary is the moniker for Mary Tudor, the oldest child of Henry VIII. At the age of 37, she courageously took the throne by force after her half-brother Edward altered the act of succession. Young Edward wanted his Protestant cousin, Lady Jane Grey, to follow him, not his Catholic sister. But Mary raised an army and overthrew Jane’s fragile government. Her five-year reign is not considered a success. She married a Hapsburg prince—the marriage was very unpopular—and had a phantom pregnancy (maybe two). England experienced bad harvests every year during her reign. A war with France ended in disaster: the loss of Calais.


 Those new to the 16th century sometimes have trouble keeping the “Mary”s straight. There is Mary, Queen of Scots, the beauty who married three times, lost her throne and was eventually executed by Elizabeth I. She was romantic. The Mary I write about in this post is the other one—the “Bloody” one who, in her zealousness to turn England back into a Catholic country had 284 Protestant martyrs burned at the stake. While more than 300 Catholic martyrs died during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, Mary is the one who carries the reputation of being a merciless, bigotry-filled killer.


How that reputation evolved over the centuries is very interesting.



Mary Tudor was a woman of her time. While that may seem obvious, she was followed by a half-sister who was in some ways ahead of her time. Mary took a husband to secure the succession by having children, as every monarch was expected to do. Elizabeth refused to marry. Mary upheld the Catholic religion and did not recognize the opposing point of view. Elizabeth famously said, “There is only one Christ, Jesus, one faith, all else is a dispute over trifles.” Mary and Elizabeth, while close when young, distrusted each other by the time Mary took the throne. The relationship went downhill from there. When Elizabeth succeeded, she did not honor Mary’s request to be buried with her mother, Katherine of Aragon, and rarely spoke well of her older sibling.


But it wasn’t Elizabeth who ensured that Mary would be detested for centuries. The first person to push her toward infamy—hard—was John Foxe, the Protestant author of The Book of Martyrs. Most English people did not witness the burnings of condemned heretics. But thanks to Foxe’s widespread book, first published in 1563, the horror of being burned at the stake was made starkly clear. These descriptions make for harrowing reading, then and now.


It was Foxe who wrote, “The next victim was the amiable Lady Jane Gray, who, by her acceptance of the crown at the earnest solicitations of her friends, incurred the implacable resentment of the bloody Mary.” But the nickname did not take hold then—in fact, it did not spring up until a century later.
The succession crisis over James, Duke of York, directly led to the vilification of Mary Tudor. Fear that James, who converted to Catholicism, would succeed his brother, Charles II, gripped much of England. Should a Catholic become king, one politician warned, the kingdom would see persecutions as “bloody or bloodier than the ones in Mary’s reign.” An anonymous ballad in 1674 declared that after Edward VI died “Then Bloody Mary did begin/in England for to tyrannize.” She was used as a threatening memory of tyranny and death and slavish devotion to the Pope. This was the genesis of Bloody Mary.


            The revolution of 1688 put a Protestant on the throne and the Act of Union in 1707 ensured that a Catholic could never rule England. But paranoia about Jacobite risings led to more and more denunciations of Mary I. Today historians agree that, no matter what one thinks of her later reign, Mary was an attractive young woman, well educated and exceptionally talented in music. She loved fine clothes, jewelry and gambling. She was a devoted godmother and generous friend right up until her death. But in the lowest point of Mary’s historical reputation she was depicted as not only bloodthirsty and tyrannical but also stupid and hideous.


Here is how an 18th century historian describes the Tudor queen: “Mary was not formed to please, she had nothing of the woman in either her history or her behavior; she was stiff, formal, reserved, sour, haughty and arrogant, her face plain and coarse, without any soft features to smooth its roughness or any insinuating graces to shade its defects. Everything in her looks, her air, her carriage and manner, was forbidding…scarce ever was there a person so utterly void of all the agreeable qualities.”



            A century later, no less a figure than Charles Dickens attacked Mary with ferocity. In A Child’s History of England, Dickens ranted: “As BLOODY QUEEN MARY, this woman has become famous, and as BLOODY QUEEN MARY she will ever be justly remembered with horror and detestation in Great Britain. Her memory has been held in such abhorrence that some writers have arisen in later years to take her part and show that she was, upon the whole, quite an amiable and cheerful sovereign! ‘By their fruits ye shall know them,’ said OUR SAVIOR. The stake and the fire were the fruits of this reign, and you shall judge this Queen by nothing else.”


            It is not until the 20th century that attempts were made to draw a more balanced portrait of Mary. Last year saw the publication of Mary Tudor: Old and New Perspectives, a collection of scholars’ essays co-edited by Susan Doran and Thomas S Freeman. On the first page, the editors say, the purpose of the book is to reveal an “educated, resourceful and pragmatic queen.” One of the essays (bravely) takes on the issue of the martyrs: “The burning of 284 religious dissidents is morally unjustifiable from a twenty-first-century perspective. It is important to remember, however, that the values of the 21st century are not the values of the 16th century, and that in the 16th century the execution of obstinate heretics was almost universally regarded as a necessary duty of a Christian ruler.”


            Will the real Mary Tudor finally emerge from the shadows, thanks to books like this one? I look forward to new perspectives on the oldest daughter of Henry VIII. The screams of the dying martyrs of the 1550s can never be silenced.  But the time may have come for Mary’s name to stand alone—and for  “Bloody” to be no more.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Who Was the Real Mother Shipton?


In the spring of 1881, families across England deserted their homes, too distraught to sleep in their beds. They slept in fields or prayed in churches and chapels for God to spare their lives in the apocalypse that was foretold: "The world to an end shall come; in eighteen hundred and eighty one."

The author of their terror was Mother Shipton, also known as Ursula Shipton, a woman whose prophecies had been circulating through England and beyond for centuries. The first famous man whose life she prophesied was Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the minister to Henry VIII until 1530. In often cryptic verse, the crone-like seer predicted wars, rebellions and all matter of natural disasters. After London burned in 1666, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary: "Mother Shipton's word is out." Her prophecies were published in one form or another over 20 times between 1641 and 1700. In the 1800s, her predictions grew even more terrifying: The end-of-the-world was foretold in a book published in 1862. Its other prophetic verse included: "A carriage without a horse shall go; Disaster fill the world with woe; In water iron then shall float; As easy as a wooden boat."

The world did not end in 1881. People began sleeping in their beds once more. It was not the first time that fear of a Mother Shipton prediction convulsed a nation and it would not be the last.


Today there is considerable skepticism that a voluble prophetess named Mother Shipton ever existed. Many of her written predictions are, after all, confirmed forgeries, created to sell greater numbers of chapbooks and almanacs. Her 1684 "biographer" spun spooky details of her birth and existence; the 1881 end-of-the-world prophecy was debunked when the Victorian editor Charles Hindley publicly confessed to concocting the verses himself.


Entrance to Shipton Cave
Nonetheless, belief in Mother Shipton persisted. Today a thriving tourist attraction called Mother Shipton's Cave, at Knaresborough, North Yorkshire, features the cave where she was born and the petrifying well where objects can turn to stone. There's also a shop selling mugs, tea towels, thimbles, and wishing-well water in dark pink, ruby red and kelly green.

But just because Mother Shipton has become the label on kelly- green wishing-well water does not mean that she has no basis in fact. Like Robin Hood or King Arthur, it's believed that if we were able to trace the myth-making back to the very beginning, a living, breathing person could be identified


There are no written references to Mother Shipton in the 1500s. That name does not appear in print until 1641. But a mention of a "witch of York" in a chilling letter written by King Henry VIII himself could be the elusive source of the legend.

The context of the letter is critical. It was written to Thomas Howard, duke of Norfolk, while the duke was in the middle of a clean-up operation following the Northern rebellion against the king known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. Thousands of commoners and a fair number of nobles rose up against the reforms in religion forced on the country by Henry VIII. The rebels were particularly aggrieved by the fresh taxes and the closing of the monasteries, which in the poorer regions of the North were needed sources of food, shelter, and medical care. The Duke of Norfolk had easily defeated this 1537 outbreak, which followed the main rebellion of 1536, and he was now imprisoning and then executing people without trial, imposing martial law. He wrote his king that he hanged more than 70.


A watercolor of the rebellion showing, somewhat inaccurately,  that the army was led by priests and monks
Henry VIII dictated the following letter to Norfolk in response:
“We shall not forget your services, and are glad to hear also from sundry of our servants how you advance the truth, declaring the usurpation of the bishop of Rome… We approve of your proceedings in the displaying of our banner, which being now spread, till it is closed again the course of our laws must give place to martial law; and before you close it up again, you must cause such dreadful execution upon a good number of inhabitants, hanging them on trees, quartering them, and setting their heads and quarters in every town, as shall be a fearful warning, whereby shall ensue the preservation of a great multitude... You shall send up to us the traitors Bigod, the friar of Knareborough, Leche, if he may be taken, the vicar of Penrith and Towneley, late chancellor to the bishop of Carlise, who has been a great promoter of these rebellions, the witch of York and one Dr. Pykering, a canon. You are to see to the lands and goods of such as shall now be attainted, that we may have them in safety, to be given, if we be so disposed, to those who have truly served us..."

"The witch of York"...could this be a contemporary reference to a woman who not only caused enough trouble to incite the wrath of Henry VIII but also transformed into Mother Shipton? Her legend grew and grew in the 1600s, in published almanacs: Ursula was born in a cave in 1488, the child of an orphan servant girl and an unknown father--perhaps Lucifer himself. She was singularly ugly, called "Devils Bastard" and "Hag-face." Nonetheless, Ursula married a builder named Toby Shipton and lived quietly with him, never prosecuted for witchcraft though regularly uttering prophecy. "Her stature," wrote her biographer, "was larger than common, her body crooked, her face frightful; but her understanding extraordinary." How much of this describes the same "witch of York" cited by Henry VIII is unknown.

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey
The fact that Mother Shipton's first known prediction concerned the fate of Cardinal Wolsey is significant. According to Wolsey's gentleman usher and later biographer, George Cavendish, Wolsey, near the end of his life, was disturbed by a prophecy heard. Cavendish wrote: " 'There is a saying, quoth he, 'that When this cow rideth the bull, then priest beware thy skull." According to Tudor-court interpretation, the cow was Anne Boleyn, who in her holding sway over Henry VIII and convincing him to divorce his queen to marry her, triggered the break with the Catholic Church. Mother Shipton was not attributed to this prophecy by Cavendish. But in the future, her soothsaying would intertwine with Wolsey's fate.

Belief in prophecy ran through every level of Tudor society. It reached a fever pitch during the dangerous 1530s, when queens and courtiers were beheaded, monasteries fell, and rebels were hanged from trees across the North of England. 


Many prophecies were used for political purposes. Uprisers against Henry VII said they were following the ancient sages. The rebels of the Pilgrimage of Grace cried that Henry VIII was the ancient 'Mouldwarp,' a monster ruler foretold by Merlin who would be "cast down." Anthony Babington, who conspired to assassinate Elizabeth I, carried a prediction of Merlin's sayings. One popular prophecy during Elizabeth's time was "When HEMPE is soon, England's done." HEMPE was thought to stand for Henry-Edward-Mary-Philip-Elizabeth.  Madeleine Dodds in Political Prophecies in the Reign of Henry VIII wrote:  "Political prophecies tended to be invoked at a time of crisis, usually to demonstrate that some drastic change, either desired or already accomplished, had been foreseen by the sages of the past."


In the 1700 and 1800s, Mother Shipton's prophecies broadened to cataclysmic disasters, amazing inventions, and, of course, the end of the world. Stripped of politics, they were more potent than ever. Perhaps they filled a deep craving within to feel that everything happens by some design, even if it is drawn by an ancient mystic, sage or witch. We are all of us fulfilling an obscure and coded destiny.


It's a craving that we still see around us today. It just might be part of being human.


---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Friday, July 3, 2015

An Interview With Alison Weir


By Nancy Bilyeau


 I am thrilled to share my interview with not only one of the most succes
sful historians writing today but also a personal hero: Alison Weir. My first Alison Weir book was The Princes in the Tower. It was fascinating--both provocative and convincing. Alison's books are history made compulsively readable; the research is extensive and yet it never, ever dulls the narrative.




One of my favorite aspects of Alison's writing is her shrewd, perceptive and yet deliciously stinging assessment of the major players in English history. I will treat you to her description of queen-to-be Elizabeth Wydville in The Wars of the Roses:

"Elizabeth had once been one of Queen Margaret's ladies, which firmly placed her in the wrong camp to start with. She was of medium height, with a good figure, and she was beautiful, having long gilt-blonde hair and an alluring smile. Edward was oblivious to the fact that she was also calculating, ambitious, devious, greedy, ruthless and arrogant."


Alison Weir has written extensively about Tudor and Plantagenet England, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Elizabeth I. When she published The Lady in the Tower in 2009, covering the arrest, trial and execution of Anne Boleyn, I wondered what new perspective she-- or anyone--could possibly bring to this thoroughly written about queen. I had my answer when I came to the last page of the book, moved to tears as I realized as never before how completely abandoned Anne was after her husband rejected her and how difficult it must have been to rally her strength and courage.




Beginning with the the bestseller Innocent Traitor, Alison also writes historical fiction. Her new book is A Dangerous Inheritance: A Novel of Tudor Rivals and the Secret of the Tower. It is the story of two women of history: Kate Plantagenet, illegitimate daughter of Richard III, and Katherine Grey, younger sister of Lady Jane Grey, who was herself imprisoned in the Tower after a secret marriage during the reign of her cousin, Elizabeth I. Not only does the novel bring these women to life with poignant detail but it connects them in surprising--and suspenseful-- ways.


Without further ado...Alison Weir.


Nancy Bilyeau: After I finished A Dangerous Inheritance, I felt disturbed by how lost in their dangerous times these two women were. Was that one of your goals in writing the book, to illuminate how less-well-known women of that age could come to tragedy?

Alison Weir: Yes, it was. I am always interested in retrieving women's histories, and I wanted to show how the constaints of noble birth, royal blood and gender could impact on young girls.


NB: Did you become intrigued by Katherine Grey while researching Lady Jane Grey for your novel and decide then to tell her story as well? And how different she was from her sister!



AW: I became intrigued years ago when I read Two Tudor Portraits by Hester W. Chapman. I wrote Katherine's story in Elizabeth the Queen, but not in any great depth, but I knew enough of it to know that it was a very dramatic tale--and a tragic one. She was very different from Lady Jane Grey; she was beautiful where Jane was plain, placid where Jane was feisty; she was no bluestocking or formidably learned, as Jane was, and in some ways she comes across as lacking in common sense and forethought, but one cannot but feel sympathy for her.


NB: What do you think of the current theory that Frances Brandon was not as abusive to her daughter Jane Grey as historically assumed? Frances was a complex figure in your novel.


AW: I don't buy it! We have Jane's own testimony and other evidence. A historian friend, Nicola Tallis, is writing a biography of Frances, and she believes the traditional view is the correct one--although maybe Henry Grey was even more unpleasant!


NB: Elizabeth I is known to have disliked Katherine Grey and refused to name her heir even before the scandalous marriage and pregnancy. Do you think the dislike was at all justified and would Katherine Grey have made a good queen of England in the 16th century?


AW: Katherine's own behavior--her failure to convert back to the Protestant faith and her flirtations with Spain--was not conducive to Elizabeth thinking kindly of her, but Elizabeth was pretty paranoid about anyone with a claim to the succession, so Katherine was damned from the start. She was pretty and she was younger than the Queen--red flags to a bull!--and she acted very rashly in marrying Edward Seymour. It undermined Elizabeth's policy, threatened her throne, and must have been galling to a queen who rejected marriage for political--and probably psychological--reasons. Katherine did not have what it took to be a queen, neither the brains nor the resolve. She lived in a fantasy world. I can understand why Elizabeth was harsh with her--and in many ways I think it was justified.


NB: How much is known about Richard III's daughter, Kate Plantagenet? Was it more challenging or more interesting to develop her character and plot, since there is less documentation of her life than Katherine Grey's?


AW: Yes, she is mentioned in only four documents--a gift to any novelist, as her life is a blank canvas. But I knew the context of it, as I've studied Richard III's reign over many years. I had to rely on a lot of detective work, inference and probability.


NB: Why did you decide to tell their stories in one book, and not write a book on each of them?


AW: The idea for the book evolved gradually. It was originally going to be based on the premise that Perkin Warbeck really was Richard, Duke of York, but I couldn't make that work, given the source material and the flimsy premise on which he based his claim. I liked the idea of a mystery with a supernatural theme, possibly a timeslip. I wanted to find a new way in which to explore the fate of the Princes in the Tower, and I needed a love story to replace that of Perkin Warbeck and Katherine Gordon. I also wanted to write a sequel to Innocent Traitor. It occurred to me too that writing about Richard III from the point of view of the daughter who loved him would be a novel approach. Eventually, all these ideas came together--and after many nights spent lying awake wondering how to meld them!


NB: The character and actions of Richard III loom large in this book. He fascinates, if not obsesses, people of that time. And couldn't it be argued, with the archaeological dig in Leicester, that he fascinates us today? Why is that?


AW: People love a mystery, and they also love conspiracy theories. Yes, Richard fascinates--and many become obsessed, which concerns me. As a historian, I feel I must be objective and not emotionally involved. There is a lot of compelling circumstantial evidence that Richard had the Princes murdered and he was a ruthless operator. If there was convincing evidence to counteract that, I would go with it. But nothing I have read has changed my view.


NB: Your view of Henry VII and Margaret Beaufort was not positive in the novel. Have you always thought of them in this way or did research for the book form newer evaluations?


AW: Some see Henry VII as a Machiavellian ruler; it's trendy nowadays to view Margaret Beaufort as sinister. Historically, I take a different view, but this was fiction, and they are seen from the point of view of Richard's daughter, so naturally she would find them menacing.





-------------------------------------


Thank you, Alison Weir, for agreeing to this interview, and for more information, go to http://alisonweir.org.uk/




This interview originally ran on the site A Bloody Good Read in November 2012.