After Jane Seymour’s death Henry consoled himself, possibly, with the attentions of his uncle’s step-niece Anne Bassett who was described as a very pretty girl. Rumour stated that Margaret Shelton was a possible contender for wife number four – or two if you were counting as Henry chose to count-It was also rumoured that a sixteen year old called Elizabeth Cobham was of some interest to the king but ultimately Henry opted for a continental match with Anne of Cleves. It was not a roaring success but it did mean that the court once again contained a household of ladies. One of the requirements, specified by King Henry, was that they be pretty.
Elizabeth Cobham married William Parr. At this stage in proceedings it’s easy to imagine that no aristocratic Tudor marriage was without its soap-opera moments. William Parr’s marriage was no exception to that. Parr had been married to the daughter of the then earl of Essex. Ann Bourchier his bride had taken matters in her own hands and gone to live “over the brush” with the man of her dreams, leaving Parr high and dry. William divorced Anne in 1547 and married Elizabeth Cobham – which seems simple enough except that someone failed to complete all the paperwork leaving Parr in a position where Parliament reversed the annulment to Anne making him bigamously married to Elizabeth. This in turn meant that an act had to be passed making the legitimacy of his children quite safe. Another act had to be passed properly completing the annulment from Ann in correct legal fashion and then he had to remarry Elizabeth…this receives a paragraph in Jones’ book about Henry’s ladies.
However, William Parr’s marital difficulties lay in the future. Henry, if you recall, was not keen on Anne of Cleves. The marriage was dissolved. As was often the case in Henry’s career of serial monogamy (turning a blind eye to mistresses) – the replacement was lined up before the current incumbent was dispatched. Enter Katherine Howard, Henry’s “rose without a thorn,” a young lady-in-waiting and so far as Henry was concerned the new and virtuous lady wife. Best to draw a veil over that one!
Historians speculate that had Catherine Parr, wife number six, fallen from grace that she would have been replaced by Katherine Willoughby the dowager duchess of Suffolk. There were also conversations about replacing Catherine with Lady Mary Howard – Henry’s own daughter-in-law, the widow of Henry FitzRoy.
In addition to the last two who were not the king’s mistresses, merely possible contenders for a very unlucky job, fourteen ladies are mentioned in various texts as possible mistresses of the king. Some of them progressed to becoming wives, others like Bessie Blunt were long term mistresses of the king. Still others are hazy echoes captured in phrases in letters sent by ambassadors reporting gossip, or a line in the account books. Women like Mary Berkeley who is supposed to have had a brief affair with the king whilst he was on a hunting trip are impossible to prove or disprove one way or the other. Her son Henry Perrot rose within the Tudor administrative system and found favour with Queen Elizabeth before becoming tangled in Irish politics. Most historians, it should be added, discount Mary Berkeley and Jane Pollard.
Another possible unacknowledged son Sir Thomas Stukeley (his mother was Jane Pollard) hailed from Devon and was, quite frankly, a bit of a rogue but was said to look like Henry VIII. Without DNA it is impossible to tell which of Henry’s potential children actually were his and the puzzle will no doubt result in the sale of many more books over the years.
Saddest of all though is the account to be found in the Privy Papers of 1537. William Webbe claimed Henry had stolen away his mistress and enjoyed her favours in “avowtry” or adultery. This is a reminder that all the women mentioned in the previous few posts were of gentle birth – the game of courtly love was to be played. The king fancied himself in love with these women. The same cannot be said to be true of common women. Put simply, they didn’t count. Henry saw something he wanted and took it. This leaves a huge potential number of encounters that no one deemed necessary to document. It is hinted at when it is suggested that Henry would be quite happy with an apple and a pretty wench to while away the hours! There was no pretence at romance in this last encounter. The only reason history knows about it is that William Webbe stood up to the king and demanded justice. It says something that the record remains in the documents.
Mrs Webbe had no say in the matter and neither did William Webbe but so far as I’m aware he kept his head unlike Sir Nicholas Carew who lost it in 1539 or Thomas Cromwell who died in 1540 when the duke of Norfolk was able to use the Cleves fiasco alongside the blandishments of Katherine Howard to topple his rival.
Charles Dickens in his Child’s History of England describes Henry VIII as a “detestable villain.” His text was on the school curriculum for a good part of the twentieth century. It is hard sometimes to disagree with his assessment of that particular monarch.