Most Fearless Women in Tudor England

I finished reading a couple of books about Mary Tudor, sister of King Henry VIII and Queen of France; it got me thinking about how fearless some of these women in the Tudor period really were. By today’s standards they would not be considered as brave (depending on what part of the world you live in of course), but in 16th century England the things these women did may have been considered reckless and disobedient by their male counterparts.

When I began to think about which Tudor women I considered fearless I realized that these women would also fall under the brave category. So with that in mind, let’s look at the definition of both words:

The definition of fearless is: Lack of fear

The definition of the word brave is: Ready to face and endure danger or pain; showing courage.

Here are some synonyms of the word brave: courageous, valiant, heroic, fearless and daring. Did you catch that? Fearless. Okay, so with that in mind, who are some of the Tudor women you thought deserved to be on this list?

When I look back at my own life there is one instance when I saw myself as brave, or fearless – the first time was when I was 18 years old. I’ll give you a little backstory to put in perspective: I may or may not have been a bit rebellious when I was 18. Anyway..I was hanging out with all the wrong people and ended up getting beat up. I ended up in the Emergency Room with a concussion, a fat lip, strained neck and a huge bump on my head. There is so much more to this but I don’t think you want to hear all the details about how I got beat up. When I was in the ER I had to give a statement to the police. At the time I was terrified because these girls that attacked me were local gang members (it was the 90s) and I feared them coming after me again, but the officer explained to me that they had done this to others before me and nobody was willing press charges. At that moment I decided that I was in control and I stop this from happening to anyone else. I pressed charges and had to be a witness against them in court. That was the scariest thing I had done at that point in my life. But because of my actions those girls turned their lives around. With that being said, my modern day example of when I thought I was brave does not stand up to these ladies’ situations.

Okay, so with that in mind, who are some of the Tudor women you thought deserved to be on this list?

I took a poll on social media and came up with a list of who you all thought deserved to be on it and who I thought deserve to be named. Here is the list in no particular order:

  • Katherine of Aragon
  • Margaret Pole
  • Anne Boleyn
  • Kateryn Parr
  • Anne Askew
  • Margaret Douglas
  • Katherine Willoughby
  • Anne Stanhope
  • Mary Boleyn
  • Mary Tudor
  • Mary I
  • Elizabeth I
  • Elizabeth Barton
  • Margaret Beaufort
  • Elizabeth of York
  • Jane Grey
  • Bess of Hardwick
  • Margaret Tudor
  • Mary, Queen of Scots
  • Catherine Grey
  • Mary Grey
  • Mary Howard

Now, before I give you my list of the Most Fearless Women in Tudor England I want you to understand that this is my list and I’ve chosen these women by my own opinions, so my views may not line up with yours exactly. Please don’t be mad, I tried to look at this objectively and honestly before deciding.

Many of the women you all listed were brave, but I had to choose who was the most and give reasons as to why.

So, I picked the top two/three who I believed deserved to be honored. Here are the honorable mentions of Most Fearless Women in Tudor England (in no particular order):

  • Elizabeth Tudor, future queen of England
  • Mary Tudor, Queen of France – for secretly marrying Brandon without the permission of her brother, the King. For standing against Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn.
  • Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scotland – I excluded Margaret because (for the most part she was in Scotland and not England)
  • Mary Boleyn, for marrying William Stafford while her sister was queen and not obtaining permission.
  • Anne Boleyn
  • Margaret Douglas – for wanting to marry without the king’s permission. Twice.
  • Mary Howard – not remarrying after the death of her husband and giving testimony in the downfall of her brother and father.

So, who is missing from that list? Who did I chose as the Most Fearless Women in Tudor England?

Does it come as any surprise that Katherine of Aragon should be near the top? I didn’t think so. I also included with her her daughter Mary and here are the reasons why:

Katherine of Aragon (and Mary)

When Henry VIII believed that Katherine of Aragon would no longer be able to give him a male heir he began to look for ways out of the marriage. Whether he truly believed his own statements, or if he was just looking for a way out, only he and his closest advisers would know. Henry’s biggest concern was that Katherine’s marriage to his older brother Arthur must have been consummated and that is why he had not been able to conceive a surviving son and male heir with her.

While reading Sarah Gristwood’s book, Game of Queens she discusses two different debates regarding Henry?s concern with his first marriage.

In the book of Leviticus, the Bible says, “If a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing: he has uncovered his brother’s nakedness. Thy shall be childless.

Katherine of Aragon points at Cardinal Wolsey

In Henry’s mind this meant not without child, but without male heir. Clearly he interpreted things the way that would benefit himself. However, in the book of Deuteronomy it contradicts Leviticus saying that a man has a duty to marry his deceased brother’s widow and to “raise up seed for his brother”. So, which was it? Was Henry supposed to marry his brother’s widow or was he not?

The ultimate question was whether or not Katherine of Aragon and Arthur, Prince of Wales had consummated their marriage. When the papal legates (Campeggio and Wolsey) visited Katherine and tried to convince her to join a nunnery she refused. They told the Pope, “Although she is very religious and extremely patient, she will not accede in the least.” Katherine swore on her conscience that she and Prince Arthur had never consummated their marriage, and declared that “she intended to live and die in the estate of matrimony to which God had called her”.

Cardinal Campeggio attempted to sway the queen but she would not listen. Wolsey warned her to yield to the King’s displeasure – she snapped at him saying:

Of this trouble, I thank only you, my lord of York! Of malice you have kindled this fire, especially for the great grudge you bear to my nephew the Emperor, because he would not gratify your ambition by making you Pope by force!

Wolsey then went on to excuse himself. He stated that it had been “sore against his will that ever the marriage should be in question” and he promised, as legate for the Pope to be impartial. Katherine did not believe him as she knew Wolsey to be the closest adviser to the King.

On the 26th of October 1528, by her request, Campeggio heard Katherine’s confession. She declared, upon the salvation of her soul, that she had never been carnally known by Prince Arthur. Campeggio believed she was speaking the truth but continued to push for her to go to a nunnery.

In 1531, Katherine was still declaring herself Henry’s true wife. Henry was attempting to force Katherine to sign his Act of Supremacy. She refused, stating that the Pope was the only true sovereign and vicar of God. She went on to say:

I love and have loved my lord the King as much as any woman can love a man, but I would not have borne him company as his wife for one moment against the voice of my conscience. I am his true wife.

Around 1532, when Henry VIII requested Katherine of Aragon return her jewels to the crown she fell ill soon after. To be quite honest, Katherine was already ill. She had made a request to see her good friend the Imperial Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys. Chapuys, wanting to following court rules, requested permission from the King to see Katherine of Aragon at Kimbolton. The chronicler reported Henry VIII saying, “Yes, Ambassador, you have my permission; I will send you word when you can go.” Henry did not send word. Chapuys requested leave many times and yet received no word from the King. Eventually Chapuys sent word to the King that he was leaving – he was tired of waiting. If, while on the road, he received word from the King of England he would surely obey it.

Lady Mary

After the marriage of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and a year after the birth of Princess Elizabeth, King Henry had demanded that Mary take the oath to the Act of Succession, which meant that her parents were never married and she was illegitimate. Mary had refused his request and was understandably fearful of someone trying to harm her because of it. Henry-s retribution was to not allow the person most important to her, her mother. In addition, he dismissed her household, and placed her in the care of Lady Anne Shelton, who was the aunt of her enemy, Anne Boleyn.

The mother and daughter team did not make things easy for Anne and Henry. They fought tooth and nail to keep what was rightfully theirs.

Not only did Mary stand up to her father but also her brother when he was King of England.

Mary was a staunch Catholic and voiced her distaste for the government’s religious policies. Because of her fearlessness she became a figurehead for the conservatives.

Mary and her household continued to hear mass, secretly and unapologetically. To Mary, the mass and all the traditional Catholic rites represented the true faith. She also believed that her brother, King Edward was being led astray by his council.

Because of her strong beliefs, in January 1549 she argued again the the Act of Uniformity stating that religion be left untouched until Edward reach his majority.

Here is a quote from the book Edward VI by Chris Skidmore:

On Whit Sunday, in defiance of the introduction of the Prayer Book, Mary celebrated mass in her chapel at Kenninghall with particular pomp. On the 16th of June the council delivered a restrained letter ordering her to desist and to use the new Prayer Book instead. Mary wrote back on the 22nd of June. ‘I have offended no law, unless it be a late law of your own making, for the altering of matters in religion, which, in my conscience, is not worthy to have the name of a law.’

Even Somerset saw that he could not get her to change her mind, however his greatest wish was that, if he couldn’t, that she would continue as such “quietly and without scandal”.

Mary’s fight continued on and she would not back down.

Anne Askew

In my mind, and I can assume many of yours as well, Anne Askew was by far the MOST Fearless Women in Tudor England.

On the 16th of July 1546, the Protestant martyr, Anne Askew was burned at the stake for her beliefs. Anne had been unfairly racked “till her bones and joints were almost plucked asunder, in such sort as she was carried away in a chair

‘. She had been imprisoned in the Tower by Thomas Wriothesley and Richard Rich in an attempt to force her to implicate Queen Katherine Parr and other prominent court members including: Anne Stanhope and her husband Edward Seymour. She never gave up names.

Anne Askew was strong in her beliefs – she truly believed that everyone should be able to read the bible for themselves and not only rely on the clergy to interpret it for them. Something we take for granted in the 21st century.

John Foxe, English historian and martyrologist, recorded the event in his book Actes and Monuments which was an book that emphasized the sufferings of English Protestants. Here is what he had to say:

She being born of such stock and kindred that she might have lived in great wealth and prosperity, if she would rather have followed the world than Christ, but now she was so tormented, that she could neither live long in so great distress, neither yet by the adversaries be suffered to die in secret. Wherefore the day of her execution was appointed, and she brought into Smithfield in a chair, because she could not go on her feet, by means of her great torment. When she was brought unto the stake she was tied by the middle with a chain that held up her body. When all things were thus prepared to the fire, Dr. Shaxton, who was then appointed to preach, began his sermon. Anne Askew, hearing and answering again unto him, where he said well, confirmed the same; where he said amiss, “There”, said she, “he misseth, and speaketh without the book”.

The sermon being finished, the martyrs standing there tied at three several stakes ready ready to their martyrdom, began their prayers. The multitude and concourse of people was exceeding; the place where they stood being railed about to keep out the press. Upon the bench under St. Bartholomew’s Church sat Wriothesley, chancellor of England; the old Duke of Norfolk, the old earl of Bedford, the lord mayor, with divers others. Before the fire should be set unto them, one of the bench, hearing that they had gunpowder about them, and being alarmed lest the faggots, by strength of the gunpowder about them, and being alarmed lest the faggots, by strength of the gunpowder, would come flying about their ears, began to be afraid; but the earl of Bedford, declaring unto him how the gunpowder was not laid under the faggots, but only about their bodies, to rid them out of their pain; which having vent, there was no danger to them of the faggots, so diminished that fear.

Then Wriothesley, lord chancellor, sent to Anne Askew letters offering to her the King’s pardon if she would recant; who refusing once to look upon them, made this answer again, that she came not thither to deny her Lord and Master. Then were the letters likewise offered unto the others, who, in like manner, following the constancy of the the woman, denied not only to receive them, but also to look upon them. Whereupon the lord mayor, commanding fire to be put unto them, cried with a loud voice, Fiat justicia (Let justice be done)

And thus the good Anne Askew, with these blessed martyrs, being troubled so many manner of ways, and having passed through so many torments, having now ended the long course of her agonies, being compassed in with flames of fire, as a blessed sacrifice unto God, she slept in the Lord A.D. 1546..

It is difficult to imagine what it was truly like for women to live during this time period. We hear awful stories about how women’s voices did not matter and how their lives were seen as inferior to men.

By still talking about them 500 years later we honor them and the difficult lives they lived.

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