The Six Wives & Many Mistresses of Henry VIII: The Women’s Stories

Although the general public remembers Henry VIII as a tart-chasing tartar, many modern historians such as Lacey Baldwin Smith have defended the king as a rather “prudish” man with more wives than mistresses. In her new book, The Six Wives & Many Mistresses of Henry VIII: The Women’s Stories, Amy Licence disagrees. She argues that “Henry’s reputation as a prudish king is something of a misnomer, having arisen from the secrecy he employed when it came to his affairs”. According to Licence, Henry may have been prudish in public but he was profligate in private.

The author does not argue in vain. She has, as with her other biographical and historical works, dug deep into primary history sources and backs up her assertions with a wealth of data. The author’s formidable command of the mores regarding sex and sexuality in Tudor England allows her to weave a cat’s cradle of facts that supports her suppositions. Moreover, Licence manages to succeed in the most difficult tasks facing a Henrician biographer — she brings both a freshness to well-worn material and provides the reader with information that was likely hitherto unknown.  

There is, for example, the intriguing tale of a Flemish maid of honor in Margaret of Savoy’s court who may have been one of the king’s amours. His proposed affaire with the lady in question, Etiennette de la Baume, is based on “the survival of a single letter” which was written in “intimate terms”. The letter, written in 1514 and addressed to Henry from what Etiennette “describes as his house at Marnay”, refers to the fact Henry had called her pet names and said “many beautiful things” to her during his visit to the north of France in 1513. Under pressure from her father to marry, she reminded the king that “when we parted at Tourney you told me, when I married, to let you know and it should be worth to me 10,000 crowns or rather angels”. Inasmuch as the letter is markedly informal and mentions a promised dowry, the missive indicates that Etiennette, who is absent from most of Henry’s other biographies, had been the king’s lover.

One of the many other women Licence drags into the fore is Elizabeth Bryan Carew. The young and lovely Elizabeth Bryan was a one of the young women who brought good cheer to the young Henry’s court during his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. When she married Nicholas Carew the king attended her wedding and gave her a present of 500 pounds, as well as later gifting her with diamonds, pearls, and expensive fabrics which went far beyond the expected largess to one of his wife’s ladies-in-waiting. As late as 1529, when he would have been supposedly committed to Anne Boleyn, the king was still providing Elizabeth Carew with jewels. Does this guarantee that she was warming Henry’s bed? No, but “this pattern of gifts is reminiscent of similar items given by the king” to other women whom it is absolutely certain that he was involved romantically with. To give weight to the circumstantial evidence, License points out that if another lady-in-waiting named Bessie Blount had never become pregnant with the king’s son, thus conclusively proving that she was Henry’s lover, “her story would have remained just as speculative as that of” Elizabeth Carew.

Elizabeth Carew isn’t the only paramour that Licence suggests Henry was seeing during the time he was besotted with Anne Boleyn, theoretically to the exclusion of all others. Most of the women he was rumored to have bedded during this time were low-born. Whereas a lady would require courtship, a commoner did not. A laundress or cook was considered suitable for use by a nobleman for bouts of stress-relieving sex, and there is every likelihood that Henry would not have even viewed intercourse with these women as being “unfaithful” to his ladylove. License tantalizes the reader with the idea that at least three of these women may have born Henry illegitimate children.

Even readers who are not convinced of Henry’s philandering will nonetheless be impressed with the astounding amount of information compiled by Licence. She has clearly used a fine-tooth comb to detangle the snarls of fact from historical fiction, and the book smoothly guides the reader through the facts to License’s conclusions. Moreover, Licence makes the read enjoyable with her engaging prose and a satisfying blend of the informal and the academic.   

If you are looking for a book that makes the historical knowledge of Henry VIII and the women in his life juicy without sacrificing veracity to sensationalism, this is the book for you.

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