Sir Nicholas Carew of Beddington near London was a childhood friend of Henry VIII – not that it stopped the Tudor tyrant from lopping off his friend’s head in 1539 of course. He was a champion jouster, diplomat and a bit of a naughty lad. He was one of the gentlemen of the bedchamber who was purged from court in 1518 for being a bad influence on Henry. Hart reports that he arranged private tete a tetes for Henry and his lady friends at his home.
He wasn’t away from court for long. He and Henry probably had too much history. Sir Nicholas was with Henry for the Siege of Tournai and he was at the Field of Cloth of Gold. In 1537 he turns up as one of the nobles in charge of the font in which the infant Prince Edward was baptised.
There was also the small matter of his wife – Elizabeth Bryan. Elizabeth and Anne Boleyn were cousins. Their mothers were half-sisters. So, yes, Henry was related to Elizabeth to some degree. She was of an age with Bessie Blount who we know to have been the king’s mistress because of the arrival of Henry Fitzroy, the king’s illegitimate son in 1519. Kelly Hart draws on a letter written by the duke of Suffolk referencing both Bessie and Lady Carew. It could have been a courtly love kind of letter which meant absolutely nothing but Hart points out that Henry gave the Elizabeth Carew very expensive New Year gifts and a very nice present when her son was born. For those of you who are noble minded readers this was no doubt because Sir Nicholas was such a good friend. For the more tabloid amongst you, handing over diamonds and pearls which rightfully belonged to Catherine of Aragon not to mention a nice new mink coat might sound suspiciously like gifts for a mistress. The problem is that no one knows for sure. There is only circumstantial evidence.
What we do know is that Bessie Blount and Elizabeth Bryan were ladies-in-waiting at the same time. Harris records their appearance in court masques and dances. She also notes that Henry often let them keep the costumes and jewels that they wore during their performances (2002:236). We also know that Elizabeth was very young at this time. She wasn’t yet thirteen when she gave birth to her first child. The pair were married by December 1514. Henry gave the happy couple 6s 8d according to his accounts of the period. This was a standard gift. The gift of £500 to Elizabeth’s mother is harder to explain. It also ought to be pointed out that Lady Bryan was appointed to be Princess Mary’s governess two years later -so once again we are back to making of the evidence what we will. It was either a generous gesture or something more sordid.
Sir Nicholas’s wife might have been rather too friendly with Henry and Sir Nicholas might have offered his home as a Tudor love nest but he drew the line at royal mistresses becoming queen. He wasn’t keen on Anne Boleyn at all. In part this was because he was a staunch Catholic. It was also because he was loyal to Catherine of Aragon. He wasn’t fool enough to cross Henry about Anne but he did tell the imperial ambassador Chapuys about his sympathy for both Catherine and Princess Mary. It led him to join forces with Cromwell, not known for his Catholic sympathies (it’s more the enemy of my enemy is my friend school of thought), in order to topple Anne Boleyn. Sir Nicholas was said to be behind some of the rather dodgy rumours about Anne’s love life.
Unfortunately for Sir Nicholas having sent Anne off to the block he and Cromwell parted company. Carew continued to champion Princess Mary and it looks like Cromwell took the opportunity to stitch Carew into the Exeter Plot of 1538 which sought to get rid of Henry and replace him with Cardinal Reginald Pole.
Valentine’s Day 1539 Sir Nicholas was found guilty of treason and executed on March 3 1539. Chapuys wrote of the event in a letter to Charles V dated 31 December 1539 :
The grand Escuyer Master Carew was taken prisoner to the Tower, and the moment his arrest was ordered, Commissioners went to seize all his goods and his houses. It is presumed that the King will not have forgotten to charge them to take the most beautiful diamonds and pearls and innumerable jewels which he formerly gave to the said Escuyer’s wife, the greater part he had taken from the late good Queen.
It would also have to be said that Chapuys didn’t have a good word to say about Henry by this point in proceedings. What we do know for certain is that Sir Nicholas’s land was confiscated by Act of Attainder. Henry’s papers for 1546 reveal that some of his lands were given to Anne of Cleves for her life time. Sir Francis Carew was ultimately able to retrieve much of his father’s estates including Beddington
Elizabeth died in 1546 but Sir Nicholas lives on in his portrait by Hans Holbein. He’s wearing full jousting armour. Depending on your viewpoint you could argue that Sir Nicholas was framed by Thomas Cromwell and that Lady Elizabeth Carew had once been the king’s mistress. Of course, you could also argue, equally effectively, that the virtuous Lady Carew was at court in her youth and that Sir Nicholas, increasingly, dissatisfied with his master’s religious viewpoint turned to treachery. No wonder there’s so much historical fiction out there!
Harris, Barbara J. (2002) English Aristocratic Women, 1450-1550: Marriage and Family, Property and Careers Oxford: Oxford University Press
Hart, Kelly. (2009) The Mistress of Henry VIII. Stroud: The History Press
Pemberton- Child (1013) Elizabeth Blount and Henry the Eighth, with some account of her surroundings. https://archive.org/details/elizabethblounth00chiluoft accessed 20/April/2016 at 17:03