Recently I read a fascinating book called “Bringing them up Royal”, about the relationships of royal children with their parents, from 1066 to the present day.
After a great deal of deliberation I decided to talk about the three royal children of one notorious king.
Henry VIII would never have won any prizes as a husband, as we know only too well. But what is also painfully clear is that this incredibly narcissistic king was an equally bad parent.
When his daughter Mary was born to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, he was delighted with the little girl, fully confident that many more children, especially boys, would follow. Sadly, when Catherine failed to produce the desired son – all her subsequent babies either miscarried or were stillborn – Henry decided it must be Catherine's fault, and that their marriage was cursed because she had been his dead brother’s fiancée. He convinced himself that what was best for him was best for the country too, so as is widely known he decided to divorce Catherine, something which was forbidden by the Roman Catholic Church, to which they both belonged at the time. The Pope refused to give his consent to the divorce, so, unprepared to be thwarted, Henry decided to break away from the Roman Catholic church and form his own, Protestant religion, the Church of England, thus setting in train many years of division and retribution among his people which in many places still resonates today.
At this time Mary was ten years old, and fond of both her parents, so she was very confused and upset by their split, though she felt her mother was the innocent party. She also believed, as she’d been brought up to believe, that the Roman Catholic Church was right, and divorce was wrong. But Henry continued to court Anne Boleyn, banished Catherine from court while showering Anne Boleyn with favours, and refused to see his daughter.
In 1533, he finally got his own way, divorcing Catherine and marrying Anne, and shortly afterwards Anne’s daughter Elizabeth was born. Then things became even worse for Mary, now aged 15. Two days after Elizabeth's birth, Henry announced that Mary was no longer a princess, but simply Lady Mary, and he also refused to let her see her mother at all. Then he sacked all her ladies-in-waiting and announced that Mary was to be merely lady-in-waiting to Princess Elizabeth. Anne didn’t help, either – she persuaded Henry to confiscate most of Mary’s jewels. Shortly after this Henry announced that Elizabeth, not Mary, was to be his heir. So effectively, Henry divorced not only his wife but his older daughter too. One can only imagine how this affected the teenage Mary, and her feelings about her baby sister.
|Elizabeth, aged 13
At first Mary denied her father, but from time to time she attempted a reconciliation with him, but to no avail. He wanted nothing more to do with her.
Of course, it wasn’t long before Anne Boleyn fell out of favour too. When she too failed to produce a male heir Henry’s eye began to wander again, and soon fell on one of Anne’s other ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour. Happy to listen to his sycophants’ tales of Anne’s supposed infidelity, he had Anne beheaded in the Tower of London when Elizabeth was only two years old, and married Jane.
Now Elizabeth was an outcast too, and Henry totally ignored her. Nobody knows whether he even told her why he’d had her mother executed. To her credit, Jane Seymour was a good stepmother and did her best to bring Henry and his daughters closer together, and when her son, the future Edward VI, was born, both Mary and Elizabeth were allowed to play important parts at his christening.
Unfortunately Jane died twelve days after Edward’s birth, but by then Mary was back in favour with her father. Henry decided she should have the honour of being chief mourner (though she had been forbidden to attend her own mother’s funeral), and granted her a household and a lady-in-waiting of her own. Meanwhile Elizabeth and her baby brother were sent to Hatfield Palace, in the care of Elizabeth’s governess, under whose care the two small children became friends.
After Henry’s fourth marriage, to Anne of Cleves, and speedy divorce, he became infatuated with the teenage Catherine Howard, who was ten years younger than Mary, which must have been very difficult for both his daughters. However, Catherine soon proved, or was reputed to be, unfaithful to him, so he had her executed too. This may have reminded him of the execution of his second wife, Anne Boleyn, because he took out his misery on the nine-year-old Elizabeth and exiled her from court. By now Elizabeth was clever enough to realise that if she was down, her half-sister was up, as once more Mary was given an honoured place at court. They both knew that not only their status but also their lives were at the irrational whim of their spiteful, petulant father.
Finally, in 1543, Henry made a sensible marriage, to Katherine Parr, who became a good stepmother and carried on Jane Seymour’s good work of trying to mend Henry’s relationship with his children. She got on particularly well with Elizabeth, and quickly persuaded Henry to allow his younger daughter back to court. Then, having no children of her own, she also persuaded him to revoke his earlier decisions and restore both Mary and Elizabeth to the line of succession, after their brother Edward VI.
All three of Henry’s children subsequently ruled the country, but thanks to Henry the reigns of both Edward, a staunch Protestant like his father who insisted on punishing Catholics, and Mary, a staunch Catholic like her mother, who insisted on punishing Protestants, were fraught with intrigue, fear and bloodshed. It was only when Elizabeth came to the throne that things began to calm down a little, though it took a while for everyone to come to terms with the new regime. Considering the difficult childhood she’d had it is perhaps surprising that she coped so well in her adult life, but she was intelligent and pragmatic enough to realise that some degree of religious tolerance would benefit her people. A useful lesson indeed.