I have just been re-reading Philippa Jones book on Henry VIII’s wives and mistresses. She suggests that Elizabeth Denton nee Jerningham was Henry VIII’s, or Prince Henry as he was then, first bit on the side. Not only that but she was hand selected for the role by Lady Margaret Beaufort which rather knocks the idea of her saintly piety to one side; though it might give an insight into the prevailing views of the rights of kingship. Its a thought that certainly made me sit up and take notice!
The idea that Jones puts forward is that young men’s minds inevitably turn to the birds and the bees. Lady Margaret Beaufort eager to avoid scandal and a mistress likely to make demands selected the lady mistress of the royal nursery for the role of…er…lady mistress on the grounds that she would know her place and not make any trouble.
For a man whose marital history has caused scandal for the last five hundred years relatively little is actually known about his mistresses and potential children but then the evidence against Denton seemed a little, well, vague. As Licence observes the claim rests entirely on the evidence of grants given in 1509 and in 1515.
So, what have we got. Well we know for sure that Lady Elizabeth Denton died in 1519 and that she was Henry VIII’s governess. Already one of Elizabeth of York’s ladies, her wardrobe keeper, she was appointed in 1497 to the role looking after the royal children which would have been Henry, Margaret and Mary replacing Lady Elizabeth Darcy in the job. The Princess Elizabeth was born in 1492 but died in 1495. Prince Arthur had his own household. We know that Lady Margaret Beaufort wrote the rules for the ordering of the royal nursery and that Elizabeth Denton received £20 per annum. If nothing else we can always rely on the account books. Alison Weir speculates as to the role played by Elizabeth of York and the relationship she had with her younger children.
Its those same account books that give the ‘evidence’ of Elizabeth Denton’s having been the lady mistress of the nursery in more ways than one. In 1509 she was awarded an annuity of £50 a year as well as the keepership during her lifetime of Coldharbour, Lady Margaret Beaufort’s former London residence. In addition there was a tun of Gascon wine delivered each year throughout her life (Hutchinson). It is based on this very generous remembrance that Jones bases her hypothesis. She argues that royal servants might receive allowances but this was a very generous allowance indeed suggesting that Elizabeth Denton had done rather more than the known facts would account for. This is the problem with many of Henry VIII’s women. Unless they end up married to him there’s very little concrete fact to go on. It all comes down to looking at the evidence; adding up two and two to arrive at mistress or illegitimate offspring. For a very public monarch much of Henry’s life is surprisingly private.
If we apply the same rule regarding the giving of grants and annuities across the board we should also be looking askance at Anne Oxenbridge another nursery maid who received £20 a year for life in 1509. In fact Hutchinson reveals that a whole series of generous annuities and appointments that were made by Henry at this time celebrating the start of his reign and rewarding loyal service to his parents by many men and women but no one is accusing Henry’s male french tutor of being up to no good! Nor for that matter has anyone suggested that Elizabeth Saxby who was also in receipt of a grant at this time was being paid for any of ‘those kinds of service’ rendered. It is a known fact that Henry VIII wanted to appear much more generous than his legendarily parsimonious father- so perhaps its not unreasonable that he should have looked kindly upon the men and women who cared for him during his childhood.
We know that an Elizabeth Denton went with Princess Margaret to Scotland in 1503 and that she probably returned when King James ordered that the number of English women serving her was to be reduced. We also know that she lived in the precinct of Blackfriars until her death and that she raised her own monument, her husband John having predeceased her before the contentious grant was given.
Nothing is known about John Denton but Alison Weir mentions a William Denton who served as Elizabeth of York’s carver as well as the king’s in receipt of £26 per year.
Elizabeth went on to be appointed to the care of Princess Mary’s nursery in 1516 having been appointed to the same position for the short lived Prince Henry in 1511. This in itself would suggest that she was a woman thought to be of sound moral values rather than femme fatale. It is, perhaps, unlikely that Henry would have put a woman of dubious morals in charge of his children’s welfare.
In fact, as much as I would have liked to have posted a highly inflammatory article I can’t because there is no direct existing evidence, that I know of, that Henry VIII was permitted a mistress before his marriage and that both his father and grandmother kept a very close eye on him indeed. Ambassadors recorded that he was kept as closely as a maiden which might, perchance, account for his delight in the romantic chase of his various wives’ ladies in waiting once he became king. Having said that it does make an excellent story and Henry was known to like a more mature lady during his early years… and no, last time I checked just because its a good story doesn’t make it good history.
The next post, reflecting the fact that I am somewhat Tudor orientated at the moment, will be about Cardinal Wolsey – someone else known for their flamboyant dress sense. Not only was he Henry FitzRoy’s (Henry VIII’s only openly acknowledged illegitimate child) godfather but he also had a ‘nephew’ of his own. Just think what the Sunday papers would have made of it, had they existed!