Navigating The Who’s Who In A Tumultuous Time in England: The Wars of the Roses

Guest article by Sari Graham

Anyone who has an interest in Tudors history has surely heard of the Wars of the Roses, otherwise known as The Cousins’ Wars. For many, this is a very confusing period in history, as there are multiple players on the board with multiple claims to the throne, all thanks to the multiple sons of King Edward III. It sure doesn’t help that many of them all share the same given names! Due to the extensive detail of this period of history, there was a lot of back and forth and up and down as the Wheel of Fortune turned, before the penultimate checkmate at Bosworth and the union of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. However, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

First off, who were the Plantagenets?
The Plantagenets were a powerful European family originally from Anjou, a duchy in France and a prominent fief to the French crown. The word ‘Plantagenet’ comes from planta genista, which is the Latin name for the Yellow Broom Flower, which was worn as an emblem by the Counts of Anjou. In total, the Plantagenets ruled England for 331 years, which includes the Lancastrian and Yorkist kings, starting with King Henry II in 1154 and ending with King Richard III in 1485.

Here is where things will start to get a bit tricky- The Plantagenets can be subdivided into four parts:

The Angevins (3 kings; Henry II, Richard I, and John)
The Plantagenets (4 kings; Henry III, Edward I, Edward II, Edward III)
The House of Lancaster (3 kings; Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI)
The House of York (3 kings; Edward IV, Edward V de facto, and Richard III)

So what does a thirty yearlong war have to do with a king who was already dead for 78 years? Well, it has less to do with King Ned than it does his offspring.

Let’s review:

Edward III and his wife Philippa of Hainault had thirteen children- Yes, THIRTEEN (God bless her,) however we are only concerned with his four surviving sons:

-Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence
-John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster
-Edmund of Langley, Duke of York
-Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester

It was the descendants of these four men that would spark the Cousins’ Wars. Two brothers fostered the York branches, and two fostered the Lancaster branches.

Lionel of Antwerp was the third son of Edward III, but second to survive infancy after his eldest brother, Edward of Woodstock (aka The Black Prince, a nickname he was not given in his lifetime. He predeceased his father in 1376.) Lionel and his first wife, Elizabeth de Burgh, 4th Countess of Ulster had one daughter, Philippa, 5th Countess of Ulster in her own right. It’s through his daughter and her descendants that the female line of York descends. Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York gets his claim to the throne via his mother Anne Mortimer, who was a granddaughter of Philippa and great-granddaughter of Lionel.

Interestingly enough, Richard Duke of York’s claim to the throne also comes through his father’s line as a grandson to Edward III’s fourth surviving son, Edmund of Langley, Duke of York. Richard’s father, The 3rd Earl of Cambridge was the second son of Edmund of Langley and his first wife, Isabella of Castile. Richard inherited the duchy of York from his childless uncle, Edward of Norwich, 2nd Duke of York.

Confused yet? Are you keeping all of these Richards and Edwards and Dukes straight?

In summation, Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York had excellent ancestry from both of his parents’ families, which is where the York line get their claim. Through his mother, he was a great-great-great grandson of King Edward III, and through his father he was a great-grandson of Edward III. It was this heritage that his son, the future King Edward IV, would use as his claim to the throne as the first Yorkist king.

Moving over to the Lancaster side of things, we will now discuss the descendants of John of Gaunt, as his ancestors also split down two lines.
John of Gaunt is probably the most well known son of Edward III. He was the fourth son, but the third to survive infancy. An inordinately large suit of armour housed in the Tower of London is said to have been his, standing at a towering 6’9″, however this claim is disputed and very likely incorrect. It’s through his first and third wives that the claimants of the House of Lancaster descend.

John of Gaunt and his first wife, Blanche of Castile were the parents of King Henry IV, who overthrew his cousin King Richard II in September 1399. (Remember earlier when I mentioned Edward of Woodstock predeceased his father? Richard II was his son, and therefore succeeded his grandfather Edward III.) This made them the ancestors of Henry V as well as Henry VI. Whew, that was easy! Aahh, but not so fast. It’s through John’s third marriage to Katherine Swynford that things get a bit more complicated.

Katherine was first his mistress for many years, and together they had four illegitimate children, three sons and one daughter. Richard II later legitimized these children as adults, some time after John and Katherine were married, but they were barred from succeeding to the throne by their half-brother, Henry IV. However, when has a parliamentary statute ever stopped someone from pursuing the crown?

It was their eldest son, also named John, that the Lancasters derive their second branch from.

John Beaufort, 1st Marquess of Somerset and later 1st Earl of Somerset was the eldest of four children of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford. He and his siblings took the name of Beaufort, likely from their father’s lordship of Beaufort in Champagne, France. Is Beaufort sounding familiar? It should! It was John’s granddaughter, Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby who passed her claim to the throne to her son, Henry Tudor.
This lineage makes Henry Tudor a great-great grandson of John of Gaunt, and a great-great-great grandson of King Edward III. However, this line was often met with criticism as it was viewed as being illegitimate, despite the fact that the four Beaufort children had been legitimized not only by Richard II and parliament, but also by Pope Boniface IX in 1396.

Finally, we come to the fourth son, Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester. His descendants get their claim mostly through marriage of the female line, which many felt invalidated their claim entirely.
Thomas was attainted as a traitor in 1397 as the leader of the Lords Appellant, who opposed and sought to impeach some of the King’s (Richard II) favourites in order to curb what they felt was bordering on tyrannical rule. On behalf of King Richard II, Thomas de Mowbray, 1st Duke of Norfolk, murdered the undle of the King.

It was through Thomas’ daughter Anne and her marriage into the powerful Stafford family that his line gets claim. Anne’s son, Humphrey Stafford was created Duke of Buckingham in 1444, and because of his mother’s ancestry, gave him royal blood as a cousin to King Henry VI. His wife was the Lady Anne Neville (Not that Anne Neville,) who herself was a daughter of Joan Beaufort, which connects back to John of Gaunt as his granddaughter.

Still with me?

Humphrey Stafford was succeeded by his son, another Henry, in 1460 as the 2nd Duke of Buckingham. His wife was the Lady Katherine Woodville, sister to Edward IV’s queen Elizabeth.
It was this Henry who was implicated in the disappearance and possible murder of the Princes in the Tower in the summer of 1483. He was later executed by King Richard III on 2 November 1483 for his role in Buckingham’s Rebellion. He left a young son, Edward, who was allegedly hidden away during the rebellion in order to protect him from the wrath of King Richard III. After the victory of Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth, the young Edward Stafford was made a Knight of the Order of the Bath as the Duke of Buckingham in October 1485. The attainder against his father (which would have prevented him from inheriting titles,) was reversed a month later.

Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham’s claim to the throne was due to him being a {4x great-grandson – check this} of Edward III through the youngest son, Thomas of Woodstock, as well as a […. To be continued]

So it would seem that everyone had a blood claim to the throne of England. The real question is, whose claim was the strongest?

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.

So 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 particul 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 like-wise 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, leaving behind her a sifac

ngular example of christian constancy for all men to follow.

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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Early Letter from Princess Elizabeth to Lady Knollys

Catherine Carey, Lady Knollys was the daughter of Mary Boleyn and William Carey. When Catherine’s cousin Queen Mary came to the throne they fled the country for fear they would be persecuted for their Protestant beliefs. This letter was written in 1553 making Elizabeth twenty years old. Elizabeth and Catherine always had a close relationship – is it possible because Elizabeth had a feeling they were sisters instead of cousins? We’ll never know for certain.

“Relieve your sorrow for your far journey with joy of your short return, and think this pilgrimage rather a proof of your friends, than a leaving of your country. The length of time, and distance of place, separates not the love of friends, nor deprives not the show of goodwill. An old saying, when bale is lowest boot is nearest: when your need shall be most you shall find my friendship greatest. Let others promise, and I will do, in words not more, in deeds as much. My power but small, my love as great as them whose gifts may tell their friendship’s tale, let will supply all other want, and oft sending take the lieus of often sights. Your messengers shall not return empty, nor yet your desires unaccomplished. Lethe’s flood hath here no course, good memory liath greatest stream. And, to conclude, a word that hardly I can say, I am driven by need to write farewell, it is which in the sense one way I wish, the other way I grieve.”

Your loving cousin and ready friend, COR ROTTO

Catherine came back to England in 1558 and served Queen Elizabeth as Chief Lady of the Bedchamber until her death in 1569.


Types of Execution and Victims of Henry VIII

Types of execution and victims

This article started as a podcast – if you’d prefer to listen instead of read, click here:

When it comes to English monarchs, none is more revered or despised than Henry VIII. The masses are torn on whether to love him, or hate him.

Henry VIII did many great things for England during his long reign, but he also did many despicable things as well. History books and modern authors tend to only remember the negative attributes of this infamous monarch.

Positive Actions

Here are some of the good things we should remember about Henry VIII:

Henry allowed the bible to be translated into English – this, for the sixteenth century was quite controversial.

In his Act of Succession he allowed his two daughters to follow his son. His daughter Mary became the first queen regnant in English history – quite magnificent actually.

Henry VIII was one of the founders of the English Royal Navy and helped to grow the number of ships within it exponentially.

He was also quite musical – while Henry VIII has been credited for writing Greensleeves it is highly disputed that he actually did, but what he did write, at the beginning of his reign, was a song called, Pastime with Good Company – or The King’s Ballad. Henry was a very talented musician…take a listen to a part of the King’s Singers performing it via a YouTube channel I found:

Here are the lyrics to the entire song:

Past time with good company
I love, and shall until I die
Grutch who lust, but none deny
So God be pleased, thus live will I

For my pastance
Hunt, sing and dance
My heart is set;
All goodly sport

For my comfort
Who shall me let?

Youth must have some dalliance
Of good or ill some pastance
Company me thinks then best
All thoughts and fancies to digest

For idleness is chief mistress
Of vices all; then who can say
But mirth and play
Is best of all?

Past time with good company
I love, and shall until I die
Grutch who lust, but none deny
So God be pleased, thus live will I

For my pastance
Hunt, sing and dance
My heart is set;
All goodly sport
For my comfort
Who shall me let?

Company with honesty
Is virtue, vices to flee;
Company is good and ill
But every man hath his free will

The best ensue
The worst eschew;
My mind shall be
Virtue to use

Vice to refuse
Thus shall I use me…

Henry was quite the builder as well – I’m not sure of the exact number (may have been at least a dozen) but his builds compare to the most prolific monarch builder, King Edward I. The difference between the two men was that Henry’s building was done quickly – often making his men work overnight by candlelight and fires and so, because of this, many of his buildings no longer stand today.

Lastly, he gave the world Queen Elizabeth I. Need I say more?

Negative Actions

Now…when we look at the not so flattering side of King Henry we quickly go to the fact that he married six times and that he executed two of his wives. It wasn’t only his wives that he executed but he also executed friends, like Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell – both deaths he regretted deeply afterward. Oh, and if you had any claim in your bloodline to the throne of England he’d also execute you.

The number of executions during the reign of Henry VIII has been estimated to be upwards of 72,000 – that number, in my opinion, is highly over exaggerated. If you consider the population of England during the reign of King Henry was 2.5 million people, that would mean that Henry executed about 2.8 percent of the population of England. Then we’d have to take into account how many people died of the plague and the sweating sickness as well as battles – there would be like, two people left. Okay, maybe a few more but you get where I’m going with this.

There is, however, a list on Wikipedia of Protestants executed under Henry VIII…that lists totals sixty-three victims from 1530-1546. So while King Henry executed a lot of people, I definitely question the 72,000 number that has been floating around.

Types of Executions

Executions during the reign of Henry VIII weren’t always the same. There were many ways to execute a person.


There was death by Pressing – the victim would have a large plank placed over their body to which weight would steadily be added to. This would lead to broken bones and eventually suffocation. Pressing was another great way to torture a person.

Boiled Alive

Another way one could have been executed during the reign of Henry VIII was by being Boiled Alive.

A statute was passed in England in 1531 by Henry VIII that made willful murder by means of poison high treason and punishable by death by boiling.

It was the action of one Richard Roose, cook of John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester that prompted the measure. In February 1531, Roose poisoned the porridge of Rochester and his guests. But it wasn’t only those in the household at the time who received the poisoned porridge but also the poor who had gathered outside to collect alms. They were given whatever was leftover from the meal. All those that ate the food became extremely ill and two people actually died. Rochester had not eaten so he was spared. But when Roose was arrested he claimed that he had put a laxative in the porridge as a joke and meant no harm.

A joke, huh? Not really the kind of thing one should do as a joke.

The boiling of Roose was held in front of the public.

Here is a quote about the event from, The Men and Women of the English Reformation by S.H. Burke

‘He roared mighty loud,’says an old chronicle, ‘and divers women who were big with child did feel sick at the sight of what they saw, and were carried away half dead; and other men and women did not seem frightened by the boiling alive, but would prefer to see the headsman at his work.’

The victims of this punishment would have been strung up in a series of pulleys and ropes, hanging precariously above a drum of boiling liquid. The liquid could have been water, tar, oil, wine or whatever was the King’s desire. The executioner would slowly lower the person down into the liquid and then raise them back up to further the punishment and drag out the inevitable. This truly was a merciless was to die.

Hanged, drawn and quartered:

When I think about being hanged, drawn and quartered I’m often left wondering how much the victim felt and at what point did they no longer experience pain.

This punishment was typically held for those who were found guilty of high treason.

Here is the description from the website: Capital Punishment U.K.

First, the prisoner was dragged behind a cart from their jail or prison to where the execution was to take place. Once there, the prisoner was hanged in the normal way (i.e. without a drop to ensure that the neck was not broken) but cut down whilst still conscious. The penis and testicles were cut off and the stomach was slit open. The intestines and heart were removed and burned before them. The other organs were torn out and finally the head was cut off and the body divided into four quarters. The head and quarters were parboiled to prevent them rotting too quickly and then displayed upon the city gates as a grim warning to all.

At some point in this agonising process, the prison inevitable died of strangulation and/or hemorrhage and/or shock and damage to vital organs.

I’m fairly certain that when the heart was removed they were dead.

Burned to Death

Being burned at the stake was a common method of execution for centuries and not just in England. This included piling small sticks of wood around a large stake. The fire would be lit and hopefully the victim passed out from the smoke prior to their flesh burning.

One of the most notable cases of being burned at the stake was that of Anne Askew.

Anne Askew was burned at the stake for her religious beliefs – she was Protestant and the powers that be were attempting to get Anne to implicate Queen Kateryn Parr – she did not.

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’.

When it came time for her execution, Anne was brought to the stake, she was tied around her waist to the pole so that is held her limp body upright. It is believed that Anne did not suffer long because gunpowder had been placed near her body to end her suffering.


The form of execution that we hear about the most is death by beheading. This is how both Anne Boleyn and Katheryn Howard were executed, along with many others. The act was usually done by axe and in at least one special case it was done by sword. Most believe this was the most merciful way to die – quick and painless. Well, unless you were Thomas Cromwell or Margaret Pole, that is.

Death by Hanging

There were some instances when King Henry opted for a simpler execution – death by hanging. Most hangings were done at Tyburn.

When the prisoner was brought to the gallows they would have been greeted by a large crowd that sometimes grew to 100,000 people.

Among the people would have been people selling food and souvenirs. The gallows were common place for pickpockets to grow their wealth amongst the crowd.

When the prisoner or prisoners were led to the gallows the hangman would uncoil the free end of the rope from them and throw it up to one of the assistants on the beam above who then tied it to the beam leaving very little slack.

Ropes were also tied to the carts or stools from which the prisoners stood and the other end was attached to horse, and at the time of execution the horses were whipped away, pulling the prisoners off the carts and leaving them suspended. They would only have a few inches of drop at most and thus many of them would writhe in convulsive agony for some moments, their legs paddling the air – ‘dancing the Tyburn jig’as it was known, until unconsciousness overtook them. The hangman, his assistants and sometimes the prisoners’ relatives might pull on the prisoners’ legs to hasten their end.

Victims of Henry VIII

Now that we’ve covered the types of executions, let’s take a look at the most notable ones during the reign of Henry VIII.

Year One

King Henry VIII began his reign by executing two of his father’s most unpopular officials. Edmund Dudley (yes, he was kin to Robert Dudley – his grandfather) and Robert Empson in 1510. These two men didn’t stand a chance under the reign of the new young King Henry VIII. King Henry used their execution as a way to set the tone for his reign. He wanted to be liked and he knew by removing these two men that his subjects would rejoice in him.

Many people blamed both Empson and Dudley for the difficulty they had during the reign of Henry VII. That King Henry was notorious for taxing his subjects and many believed it was Empson and Dudley who were to blame.

Empson and Dudley with Henry VIII

Dudley and Empson were executed 17 August 1510, on Tower Hill, presumably by beheading and was buried at London Blackfriars and Empson at London Whitefriars.

Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley together became names associated with Henry VII’s ruthless scheme of excessive taxation. For their success during the reign of Henry VII they paid the ultimate price, their life, under the rule of the new king – Henry VIII.

Year Four

Edmund de la Pole was the son of John de la Pole and Elizabeth Plantagenet, Edmund was nephew to Edward IV and future Richard III.

After the execution of Edward Plantagenent, Earl of Warwick in 1499, Edmund de la Pole was the next York claimant to the throne.

Edmund’s brother the Earl of Lincoln was killed in the attempted Simnel rebellion which shed a bad light on his entire family. Plus, when John de la Pole died Edmund had requested he receive the dukedom of Suffolk, which Henry VIII denied.

Outwardly, de la Pole appeared loyal, however, he was upset when Henry refused him the dukedom after his father’s death

In 1501, Suffolk, along with his brother Richard, fled to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian. Supporters of the York family gathered around the Earl of Suffolk in Flanders in the knowledge that they were safe under the protection of Maximilian. Henry had no choice but to act decisively. Not only was there an obvious threat to him developing in Flanders, he had lost his eldest son, Arthur, to illness. Prince Henry was also a far from a strong boy then and his third son, Edmund, was already dead. Henry had to demonstrate that he was a strong and well-established king.

Suffolk’s relations who had remained in England were all arrested and imprisoned. In January 1504, 51 men were attained – the largest number in one single action in Henry’s reign. Sir James Tyrell, a former Constable of the Tower, was executed. He had been Governor of Guisness when Suffolk had fled there and this was enough to seal his fate.

Maximilian agreed to a treaty in 1502 to not back Edmund de la Pole should he make an attempt for the English throne. Then in 1506, when Philip of Burgundy (Philip the Handsome) was blown of course and expectantly became a guest, along with his wife Juana of Castile, of King Henry VII he was at the mercy of the desperate English king. Since Philip and his wife needed to set sail back to Castile they were at Henry VII’s mercy. Henry convinced Philip to hand over Edmund de la Pole so long as he only imprisoned him and did not harm him.

Unfortunately his son, Henry VIII did not follow through on the instructions of the two deceased rulers and executed de la Pole on the 30th of April 1513.

Read Full Article Here – Victims of Henry VIII: Edmund de la Pole

Year Twelve

Edward Stafford was the son of Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham and his wife, Katherine Woodville. Katherine was the sister of Elizabeth Woodville who was queen consort to King Edward IV (Grandfather to Henry VIII).

When Elizabeth Woodville married the King of England her kin were lucky enough to be given good marriages, titles and land. Her sister Katherine was no exception. At roughly seven years old, just before the coronation of her sister, Katherine was married to Henry Stafford – Stafford was merely 11 years old.

Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham

An Italian ambassador at the time wrote that Edward Stafford resented having to marry someone of such low birth – this was a common sentiment at the time at English court. Many resented the Woodville family and regarded them as upstarts.

Forty-four years after their marriage and five monarchs later, Edward Stafford found himself in a heap of trouble. As a descendant of Edward III, Stafford had what some believed to be a stronger claim to the throne since Tudor’s claim was through an illegitimate line. If something were to happen to the King and his daughter Mary then Stafford would be considered next in line to succeed to the throne of England.

After Henry VIII heard of these claims he ordered an investigation. It is treason to speak of, yet imagine the death of the King.

On the 8th of April 1521, the Duke was ordered to London from his castle at Thornbury. He set out for the court, seemingly unaware of any danger that may lie ahead.

He was greatly shocked when he was arrested and brought to the Tower.

At his trial, he was charged with ‘imagining and compassing the death of the king’, through seeking out prophecy from a monk named Nicholas Hopkins regarding the chances of the king having a male heir. The evidence to back this up was supposedly obtained from disgruntled former members of the Duke’s household.

Stafford denied all charges. A jury of 17 of his peers led by the Duke of Norfolk found him guilty. It was reported that Norfolk wept when the verdict was read.

The Secretary of the Venetian Ambassador in England, described the events on the day of Stafford’s execution:

This morning the late Duke of Buckingham was taken from the Tower to the scaffold, at the usual place of execution, with a guard of 500 infantry. He addressed the populace in English. Then on his bended knees he recited the penitential psalms, and with the greatest composure calling the executioner, requested that he would dispatch him quickly, and forgave him; after which he took off his gown, and having had his eyes blindfolded, he laid his neck on the block, and the executioner with a woodman’s axe (fn. 11) severed his head from his body with three strokes.

The corpse was immediately placed in a coffin and carried to the church of the Austin Friars, accompanied by six friars and all the infantry.

As with Edmund de la Pole, Edward Stafford would not be the last of those with royal blood and viable claims to the crown of England being executed

Read Full Article Here – Victims of Henry VIII: Edward Stafford

Year Sixteen

Elizabeth Barton is best known as the ‘The Nun of Kent’and then later ‘The Mad Maid of Kent’.  Her prophecies were ultimately her downfall. In 1525, at nineteen years old, she became ill and fell into trances having visions ‘of marvellous holiness in rebuke of sin and vice.

A local priest by the name of Richard Master believed in Barton’s visions and reported them to the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Warham. From there the story of the prophetic girl grew and grew.

Eventually Barton left her job as a servant and became a Benedictine nun. She continued to have visions and began to be known as ‘The Nun of Kent’.

It was when she started prophesying about the King of England that she got into some hot water.

Elizabeth Barton was not alone, also implicated in her downfall were six monks.

Barton would eventually confess that she was the cause of all this mischief, and that by her falsehood deceived ‘all these persons’ but this did not save them. At that point it was too late and there was too much evidence to prove their involvement.

On the 20th of April 1534, Barton and five of the monks were all drawn on a hurdle (fastened to a hurdle, or wooden panel, and drawn by horse to the place of execution) from the Tower of London to Tyburn. At Tyburn they were hanged and beheaded with their heads set on London Bridge or at the gates of the city, which was customary to warn off others from participating in similar antics.

One of the monks received a stay of execution and was pardoned. It is believed that he signed the oath of succession Elizabeth Barton was around 28 years old when she was executed.

Read Full Article Here – Victims of Henry VIII: Elizabeth Barton

Year Twenty-Six

In the summer of 1535, not only were Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher executed but also three monks. All five men refused to swear the oath of supremacy and acknowledge Henry VIII as supreme head of the Church of England. Their penalty was death.

The monks were all hanged, drawn and quartered while More and Fisher were beheaded.

Read Full Article Here – Victims of Henry VIII: More, Fisher and Three Monks

Year Twenty-Seven

1536 was a big year for executions in England. George Boleyn, Francis Weston, Mark Smeaton, Henry Norris, William Brereton and Anne Boleyn were all executed as part of the campaign to bring down Queen Anne.

Anne Boleyn

The men were all executed on the 17th and Anne on the 19th of May. They were all beheaded. The men by axe and Anne more mercifully by sword.

Experience More About Anne Boleyn Here – The Final Days of Anne Boleyn

Year Twenty-Eight

In 1537 the Pilgrimage of Grace warranted Henry to execute more people including Robert Aske and many of those involved in the uprising.

Also in 1537, Thomas Fitzgerald, 10th Earl of Kildare, and five FitzGerald uncles (James, Oliver, Richard, John and Walter) were executed at Tyburn for treason and rebellion. Thomas had renounced his allegiance to Henry VIII. On 3 February 1537, the remaining Fitzgerald men who had been imprisoned were executed as traitors at Tyburn. They were hanged, drawn and quartered.

Thomas Fitzgerald, 10th Earl of Kildare

After the Pilgrimage of Grace, many conservative nobles were accused of treason, including Edward Neville who was arrested on 3 November 1538, for conspiracy, along with his cousin Henry Pole (son of Margaret Pole). They were charged with high treason for conspiracy with Henry’s exiled brother, Cardinal Reginald Pole.

Read More About the Fitzgerald Clan Here – Elizabeth Fitzgerald: The Fair Geraldine

Year Twenty-Nine

Edward Neville was sent to the Tower, tried at Westminster, and beheaded on 8 December 1538 at Tower Hill.

The following day, on the 9th of December 1538, Henry Courtenay, 1st Marquess of Exeter who was also convicted of being part of the Exeter Uprising and corresponding with Reginald Pole, was beheaded on Tower Hill.

Year Thirty

On the 9th of January 1539, the last man to be charged with high treason for their involvement in the Exeter Uprising, Henry Pole, 1st Baron Montagu, was executed on Tower Hill.

Sir Nicholas Carew

Then in March of 1539, the King had another close friend of his, Sir Nicholas Carew, Knight of the Garter and Master of the King’s Horse executed by beheading for treason against the king.

Read More About Sir Nicholas Carew and His Wife Here – Elizabeth Carew: Wife of Treason

Year Thirty-One

July 1540 saw another execution of a man who Henry VIII would greatly regret…Thomas Cromwell, nearly appointed Earl of Essex. Unfortunately for Cromwell, the executioner is thought to have been either an amateur or had been out the night before drinking heavily because he did quite a number on the man. Chronicler Edward Hall wrote that, And then made he his prayer, which was long, but not so long, as both godly and learned, and after committed his soul, into the hand of God, and so patiently suffered the stroke of the axe, by a ragged and butcherly miser, which very ungoodly performed the office.

If you were every to read through Edward Hall’s Chronicles you may also believe that Henry VIII had 72,000 people executed because at moments it feels as if that was all he wrote about.

Portrait of Thomas Cromwell,
Hans Holbein the Younger, (1532-1533)

1541, 32 years into the reign of King Henry VIII, was another busy year of executions.

In 1540 several members of the Plantagenet household in Calais were arrested on suspicion of treason, on the charge of plotting to betray the town to the French. One of them was the illegitimate son of King Edward IV, Arthur Plantagenet, Lord Lisle. Lisle was eventually released only to die from a heart attack shortly after.

Additional evidence was gathered against Leonard Grey, Deputy of Ireland, and so on the 25th of July he was convicted of treason and on the 28th he too was executed.

Read More About Thomas Cromwell Here – Thomas Cromwell: Downfall and Execution


The most notable of all the executions of this time was the elderly Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury in May of 1541. I believe, she is the oldest person to be executed at the Tower of London. Salisbury’s execution was private but that doesn’t mean there were not witnesses, it just means the number of spectators were far fewer than a public execution.

Possibly Margaret Pole

Read More About Margaret Pole Here – The Last Plantagenet

In June of 1541, per Edward Hall’s chronicle, Lord Dacre was led on foot between the two Sheriffs of London, from the Tower through the city to Tyburn, where he was strangled, as common murderers usually were. He, along with other men, were charged with the murder of a simple man and an unlawful assembly in Sussex.

At the end of 1541, Ralph Egerton, servant to Thomas Audley, Lord Chancellor, was hanged, drawn and quartered for counterfeiting and using the King’s Great Seal. He died for helping illegals gain citizenship.

Also, around this time, a child named Richard Mekins, not yet 15, had been heard speaking against the sacrament of the altar contrary to the Six Articles. It is believed that the child only repeated words he heard others speak. Bishop Bonner followed the accusation and Mekins was arraigned and charged – ‘he was inevitably burned at the stake.

Possible image of Katherine Howard

At the end of 1541, we also see the arrest of another queen to King Henry VIII, Katherine Howard. Katherine was accused of dissolute living before her marriage with one Francis Dereham, and that many had known about their relationship. She was also suspected of having an affair with Thomas Culpeper. All three were arrested as was Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford.

For their confessions, Culpeper and Dereham were executed on the 10th of December.

Thomas Wriothesley writes in his chronicle that, ‘Culpeper and Dereham were drawn from the Tower of London to Tyburn, and there Culpeper, after exhortation made to the people to pray for him, he standing on the ground by the gallows, kneeled down and had his head stricken off; and then Dereham was hanged, membered, bowelled, headed and quartered’.


On the 13th of February 1542, both Katherine Howard and Jane Boleyn were beheaded on the Tower Green by axe.

Read More About Katherine Howard Here – Katherine Howard: The End of Her Story


We’ll wrap up our list of notable executions with Anne Askew by burning in 1546 and follow it by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey by beheading in 1546 – he was the last notable person executed before the death of King Henry VIII in January 1547.

Read More About Anne Askew Here – Religious Persecution: Anne Askew


Kesselring, K. J. “A Draft of the 1531 ‘Acte for Poysoning’.” The English Historical Review 116, no. 468 (2001): 894-99.

‘Venice: May 1521’, in ‘Calendar of State Papers Relating To English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, Volume 3, 1520-1526, ed. Rawdon Brown (London, 1869), pp. 119-130. British History Online’ [accessed 27 October 2017].

The Later Parliaments of Henry VIII: 1536-1547 By Lehmberg page 127

Hall, Edward; Henry VIII

Other Threats to Henry VII

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A Kingdom in Crisis (Guest Post)

A Kingdom In Crisis

Guest article by Alan Freer

It was mid-morning on Palm Sunday in the year of Our Lord 1554. A young woman of 20 sat in a barge at the Watergate of the Tower of London. Under this dark, forbidding, stone portal so many had passed to end their lives on Tower Green at the executioner’s block. Her own mother had made the self-same journey some 18 years before. At first she refused to alight on the landing-stage but was informed by the Marquess of Winchester that she had no choice in the matter. As she stepped ashore she stated, “Here landeth a subject, being a prisoner, as ever landed at these stairs, and before Thee, O God, I speak it, having none other friend but Thee alone.” She turned to the assembled Tower Wardens and said, “O Lord, I never thought to have come in here a prisoner, and I pray you all, good friends and fellows, bear me witness that I come in no traitor, but as true a woman to the Queen’s majesty as any is now living; and thereon will I take my death.” Some of the Wardens broke rank and knelt before her saying, “God preserve your Grace!”

The evening before, Princess Elizabeth had managed to delay her journey down the Thames by writing to her sister, Queen Mary. By the time she had completed the letter the tide had risen to a height that made it impossible to go under London Bridge. She was pleading for her life.

The previous year had seen the death of her Protestant half-brother, Edward VI and Mary’s accession to the throne. Being half Spanish and the first female ruler of England, Mary turned for advice and support to Charles V, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor. She had received the Emperor’s ambassador, Simon Renard, and installed him as one of her closest advisors. Charles proposed a match between Mary and his recently widowed son, Philip. This would bring England into the orbit of Spain and sink any prospect of an alliance with France. The marriage was very attractive to Mary as it provided her with a partner in the burden of rule and the hope of producing a Catholic heir to the throne. The visage of Spanish rule in England was far from popular with its people.

As a Catholic monarch, Mary re-established the Catholic Mass at Court. Conscious of her unwelcome position as a figurehead for Protestant hopes, and therefore the danger of her situation, Elizabeth complied with her sister’s wish that she attend Mass. Renard was sceptical of Elizabeth’s sudden change in religious sentiment and urged that she be confined to the Tower. Parliament was persuaded to reverse the statute that made Mary illegitimate (passed at the time of Henry VIII’s divorce from her mother). Although, by law, Elizabeth was also illegitimate, she was, by statute, next in succession to the throne should Mary die childless. Mary was tempted to have the line of succession changed to exclude Elizabeth but Sir William Paget advised her that Parliament would refuse. The House was relatively compliant, but not that compliant. The only other legitimate candidate to take Elizabeth’s place would be Mary, the child Queen of Scots. Spain was whole-heartedly against such a move as the child was betrothed to the heir of the French throne. Mary was stuck with Elizabeth, the only alternatives being the production of an heir or Elizabeth’s death.

Elizabeth was staying as Ashridge at the time. Mary ordered her to Court, presumably to keep a closer eye on her. Elizabeth replied on about the 23 January 1554 declaring ill health as excuse not to attend. Two days later Sir Thomas Wyatt, with a small force from Kent, raised rebellion against the Spanish marriage. The London militia were sent to oppose them but promptly joined the rebels, taking Southwick on the south bank of the Thames. London Bridge was closed and Wyatt’s men were forced to march to Richmond Bridge to cross the river; by which time a force, loyal to Mary, had been organised and the rebels were easily defeated. It was this action that so endangered Elizabeth’s life for Wyatt had intended to place her on the throne. The prejudice against Elizabeth made it impossible, in the eyes of Mary’s councillors, for her not to have had knowledge of the plot. Despite Wyatt’s denial that she was innocent of any involvement, Mary was determined to bring her sister to book. She sent physicians to Ashridge to ascertain Elizabeth’s state of health. She had indeed been ill, her body all swollen – a complaint she suffered throughout her life at times of extreme stress. Despite her condition, Elizabeth was brought to London by litter and lodged at Whitehall behind guarded doors. Her household and anyone connected with her were examined in an effort to incriminate her. Elizabeth, herself, was interrogated by the Council and Bishop Gardiner encouraged her to place herself at the mercy of Queen Mary and ask for pardon. She replied that to do so would be a confession of crime – let them prove her guilty, then she would seek a pardon! No direct link could be established between her and Wyatt, or none that stood up to close scrutiny. Despite a lack of firm evidence both Mary and Renard were convinced of her complicity. The Queen felt she had no alternative but to confine her sister to the Tower.

Elizabeth’s incarceration failed to alleviate Mary’s problems. London, ever the Protestant city, began to voice its protest in favour of their martyred Princess. There is the strange story of the “Spirit in the Wall.” Thousands flocked to a particular wall where they cried “God save Queen Mary,” to which it replied nothing. They then cried, “God save the Lady Elizabeth,” to which it said in reply, “So be it.” When Parliament met on 3 April, the streets were strewn with handbills and pamphlets in support of Elizabeth. Three days later Wyatt was executed, protesting Elizabeth’s innocence from the gallows. On 17 April a London jury acquitted Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, an associate of Wyatt’s, of treason and on the same day, Wyatt’s head was stolen from the gallows on which it had been staked. A few days later a paper was discovered in the Queen’s kitchen threatening both Mary and Bishop Gardiner, and stating that Philip of Spain must look to his life when he landed in England for the proposed marriage.

Mary was at her wits end. She could not keep her sister locked in the Tower indefinitely nor could she set her free. The only course of action was to place her under house arrest outside London. It was decided to keep her at the royal manor of Woodstock under the custodianship of Sir Henry Bedingfield. On Saturday, May 19, after two months imprisonment in the Tower, Elizabeth left by boat for Richmond and her journey north. As she travelled under escort, crowds gathered to cry, “God save your Grace.” Cakes and tokens of affection and support were handed to her and at Wheatley and Stanton St. John the whole village turned out to cheer her.

Woodstock was well guarded and no one had access to her without the express permission of Bedingfield. Elizabeth’s servant, Thomas Parry, was given the duties of feeding and paying the household staff, though he was not permitted to stay in the house. He established himself at the Bull Inn at Woodstock and the place became a miniature Court – adding to Bedingfield’s problems. Sir Henry, a conscientious though slow-witted man, found his duties a great burden. He eventually found it safer to refer all matters to the Council; even to the extent of what books Elizabeth should be allowed to read.

Philip of Spain landed at Southampton in July 1554 and he and Mary were married at Winchester five days later. With the new king came a vast retinue. One Londoner noted, “At this time there was so many Spaniards in London that a man should have met in the streets for one Englishman above four Spaniards, to the great discomfort of the English nation.” Tempers were short and affrays frequent and there was even a rumour that the archbishopric of Canterbury was to be given to a Spanish friar.

With the Queen and her new King established in London, the full force of a counter reformation began. Heresy laws were passed and the stake and faggots were soon in use. This holocaust of religious fervour soon brought the Queen the epithet “bloody” and even disgusted the Imperial, Venetian and French ambassadors – Catholics all.

November saw the return of Mary’s religious mentor, Cardinal Reginald Pole, and she took the opportunity to announce her pregnancy. All was going in Mary’s favour – a husband, the hoped for Catholic heir and a compliant Council to reinstate the True Faith. She felt safe enough to allow her sister to be moved to Hampton Court. The two of them met, Elizabeth protesting her innocence, Mary ever suspicious.

Months passed and the time came for Mary to give birth. At one point rumours circulated in London that the child had been born and the church bells were set ringing. April became May, and May, June and still nothing happened. The “pregnancy” became a sick joke. The Polish ambassador arrived in London, complete with a speech of congratulations on the new child. Unfortunately nobody warned him and he read the speech out at Court, adding to the comic farce. At the end of August 1555 Mary and Philip travelled down river to Greenwich, Mary’s favourite palace. In early September Philip left England for Flanders on Spanish affairs.

In the meantime, Elizabeth had also been moved to Greenwich. She was now in a much stronger position. With Mary’s phantom pregnancy and the religious persecution, Elizabeth’s enemies knew of her popularity. Her greatest danger now was being married off to serve Spanish interests. In October Mary returned to London for a meeting of Parliament and Elizabeth moved her household to her manor at Hatfield.

In the course of the winter Elizabeth had to face a new danger. A party was founded in the House of Commons to resist all Catholic legislation. The Council placed a bill before Parliament against Protestant refugees abroad.

The Protestant hot-heads, who met at an eating-house in London called Arundel’s, managed to gain the keys to the House, locked the Catholic supporters of the bill out, forced a vote and defeated the measure. A number of Elizabeth’s servants and supporters were arrested and placed in the Tower but no evidence was found to connect her to the action and no charges were brought. For three months Elizabeth was kept under house arrest in the congenial care of Sir Thomas Pope. Sir Thomas was the opposite of Bedingfield in that he was a man of intelligence and wit and the founder of Trinity College, Oxford. Elizabeth and Sir Thomas, prisoner and jailer, became friends and passed the time discussing plans for the development of the college.

Mary longed for the return of her husband for her biological clock was in overdrive and hopes of an heir were fast disappearing. Philip was in no hurry to occupy the bed of his prematurely aged wife.

By the spring of 1557 Elizabeth was released from restriction and visited her sister at Whitehall. The two women seem to have declared a truce and there was a brief period of reconciliation. Meanwhile Elizabeth’s greatest fear was being realised. Philip was actively trying to find her a husband. The prime candidate was his kinsman, Emmanuel Philibert, heir to the Duke of Savoy. Elizabeth refused. Others were suggested and all refused. There was even a proposal that she marry Philip’s 11-year-old son, Don Carlos.

In March 1557, after an absence of nineteen months, Philip returned to his wife. He stayed long enough to get England involved in a war with France that ended with the loss of Calais.

The beginning of 1558 saw Mary failing in health, probably from cancer of the ovaries. Once more she thought herself pregnant, but it was wishful thinking. By the end of the summer her time was fast running out. The country was divided over religion, the treasury was empty and England’s only overseas possession had been lost. At Hatfield Elizabeth was quietly building her own Court. Men of skill and intellect gravitated to her, among them a man of thirty-eight named Sir William Cecil. He was to prove her anchor through much of her reign – a true servant of his beloved Queen.

On November 6th Mary bowed to the inevitable and recognised Elizabeth as her successor. At seven in the morning on 17 November Queen Mary died, with few tears shed at her passing.

According to tradition, Elizabeth was at Hatfield, walking in the park. The members of the Privy Council found her sitting under an oak tree. They knelt on the grass before her and presented her with Mary’s coronation ring. She cast her eyes to heaven and spoke the words, “A domino factum est et mirabile in oculis nostris” (“God has done it and it is marvellous in our eyes.”). Thus the reign of Gloriana began.

Elizabeth became Queen of an impoverished, divided minor kingdom on the northern edge of Europe; she left it, forty-five years later, a world power and on the edge of greatness.

About the Author

CaptureI am Alan Freer and live in the small village of Byfleet, Surrey, England. Edward, the Black Prince, spent much of his final years in Byfleet. I have been an amateur “historian” since the age of seven, when I purchased my first history book in 1955. Indeed, it was anticipated that I would become a history teacher, but a brief conversation just before I was due to go to university directed me to the banking industry – more lucrative but, perhaps, not so satisfying! History lead me into genealogy and I have my own website detailing the Descendents of William the Conqueror ( ). A never-ending project! When I retired from the bank in 1999 I started to write and have had a number of articles published in US history magazines or on magazine websites. Primarily I wrote for the amusement of my colleagues in my second occupation as a civil servant. I count myself most fortunate to have been born in England and would not wish it otherwise – except, possibly, Italy!!

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Sex, Contraception, and Abortion in Medieval England (Guest Post)

Guest post by Jessica Cale

Centuries of nostalgic medievalism have given us some funny ideas about sexuality in the Middle Ages. We know religion ruled, no one married for love, and sex was for procreation only…right?

Not so much. When studying the Middle Ages, you need to consider the sources. Every author had a bias and could only write what they saw. Most of our modern ideas about sexuality come from Canon Law, but people did not obey all of the laws of the Church in the Middle Ages any more than they do today. To get a better idea of what life was really like, we have to draw on other sources as well.

Today we’re going to jump into the deep end with medieval contraception and abortion. The popular assumption is that contraception did not exist and abortion must have been a serious crime, if it happened at all. The issue with this argument is that we take for granted that they must have had a similar understanding of pregnancy and a greater sense of religious morality when it came to the issue of contraception and abortion. To get to the bottom of this, we have to throw out these assumptions and start at the beginning.


Fornication was still a sin, but it was one most were guilty of. When primogeniture became the rule in the eleventh century, it created a whole class of people were unlikely to ever marry. Noble families with multiple children could only pass on their property to the eldest. The rest of the children would remain in the household even as adults until they married other property-holding people or until circumstances changed. Many entered the Church, where marriage and concubinage among the clergy was still common until the twelfth century. Wealthy families might equip younger sons as knights. Knights could not be expected to marry until they inherited property or came by it through other means; most younger sons never married at all. As for daughters, the pool of landed noblemen to marry was pathetically small. With larger families and fewer opportunities for marriage, much of the nobility never married. To assume they all remained celibate in a culture that all but deified love and had a popular handbook for conducting romantic, sexual, and frequently extramarital relationships is naïve at best. (1)

As for the lower classes, marriage was almost a fluid concept. It was common for people to marry in secret, and these marriages were every bit as valid as any performed outside a church. According to Gratian’s Decretum, all it took to make a marriage legal was three things: love, sex, and consent. As long as the love and consent were there, sexual relationships including those with concubines could be considered informal marriages.

Because the line between fornication and legal marriage was a bit blurry, fornication was more or less accepted in practice. Who’s to say the consenting couple did not marry in secret? Many penitentials appearing during and after the twelfth century classified sex outside of marriage as only a minor sin. Members of the Synod of Angers in 1217 stated unequivocally that they personally knew many confessors who gave no penance for it at all. In practice, the Church tolerated fornication as long as there was no adultery being committed.

Prostitution was legal and common. Although the Church did not condone it, this did not stop it from regulating and profiting from it (see Prostitution and the Church in Medieval Southwark). After all, someone had to see to the needs of the scores of unmarried men and those who had entered the Church out of necessity rather than desire. The Church viewed prostitution as a necessary evil. While active sex workers could not be viewed as respectable members of society, they nevertheless performed an important public service.

Outside of the Church, many medieval writers, such as Albertus Magnus and Constantine the African, viewed sex as a crucial component to overall health on equal footing with food, sleep, and exercise. Sexual release was believed to be the best way to get rid of toxic humors and abstinence could lead to weakness, illness, madness, and death. Sexual enjoyment was necessary for men and women, and was an essential component to conception.

Sex happened. Penitentials were distributed throughout the Church to prescribe penance for every vice we can imagine today (and a fair few we can’t). Troubadours sang about it in their filthy, filthy songs. Pregnancy was inevitable and dangerous. So how did they deal with it?

Artemisia absinthum (Wormwood)

Menstrual Regulators

It sounds obvious, but people in the Middle Ages did not have the same understanding of pregnancy that we have today. As they could not pinpoint the moment of conception, there was no distinction between the prevention of pregnancy (contraception) and the ending of one (abortion). “Remedies to regulate the menstrual cycle” were common and arguably more widely accepted than they are now. Recipes were recorded in medical texts, shared between women, and they appeared in household handbooks. They could be made at home with a few ingredients most women would recognize.

This ninth century recipe appeared in the Lorsch Manuscript, a medical treatise written by Benedictine monks:

A Cure for All Kinds of Stomach Aches
For women who cannot purge themselves, it moves the menses.

8 oz. white pepper
8 oz. ginger
6 oz. parsley
2 oz. celery seeds
6 oz. caraway
6 oz. spignel seeds
2 oz. fennel
2 oz. geranium/ or, giant fennel
8 oz. cumin
6 oz. anise
6 oz. opium poppy

These recipes did not come out of the blue. There is evidence that similar abortifacients had been used as far back as ancient Egypt. Pepper had been used since the Roman period as a contraceptive, and fennel is related to silphium, the ancient plant farmed to extinction for its contraceptive properties. The other ingredients have been found to have antifertility effects, and the opium was used as a sedative. Other similar recipes were employed throughout the period and beyond; menstrual regulators using the same ingredients continued to be sold as late as the nineteenth century.


In addition to those mentioned above, artemisa and juniper were both known to inhibit fertility. Artemisia is a genus of plant in the daisy family asteraceae. There are more than two hundred types of artemisia, among them mugwort, tarragon, and wormwood, the key ingredient in absinthe centuries later. In the twelfth century, Trotula recommended artemisia as a “menstrual stimulator” and in the thirteenth century, Arnald of Villanova advised taking it with capers for maximum efficacy. Modern medicine has confirmed its use: artemisia inhibits estrogen production and can prevent ovulation much like pharmaceutical contraceptives today.

Artemisia was not without its side effects. Wormwood is a notorious toxin known to cause hallucinations and changes in consciousness. Ingested in large quantities, it can cause seizures and kidney failure. (2)

Juniper had been used as a contraceptive since the Roman period. Pliny the Elder recommended rubbing crushed juniper berries on the penis before sex to prevent conception. Its popularity continued throughout the Middle Ages; Arabic medical writers Rhazes, Serapion the Elder, and ibn Sina all list it as an abortifacient, and this knowledge was made more readily available throughout Europe when Gerard of Cremona translated their words in the twelfth century. According to ibn Sina, juniper produced an effect very similar to a natural miscarriage, and so it could be employed without detection.

Historian John Riddle argues that all women knew which plants inhibited fertility and how to use them effectively. They were under no illusions as to their purpose. Although most of what we know about medieval contraception and abortion does come from medical texts written by men, they would have come by the information from women who were using it on a regular basis.


In the ancient world and even the early Christian Church, abortion was not considered immoral. Although it is often interpreted differently today, the medieval church followed the guidelines of the Bible in believing that life began at birth (Genesis 2:7). St. Thomas Aquinas argued that souls are created by God, not by man, and that the soul did not enter the body until the infant drew its first breath.

Abortion or “menstrual regulation” was not explicitly mentioned in the Bible except to recommend it in the case of suspected unfaithful wives (Numbers 5:11-31) (3), and whether or not it was immoral in the Middle Ages depended on who was asked.

Burchard of Worms’ Decretum tackled the issue of abortion in the section titled Concerning Women’s Vices. Burchard unequivocally opposed it, but the penance recommended varied. To Burchard, the severity of the sin was not dependent on the act itself, but the status of the woman and the circumstances of conception. The worst crime was that resulting from adultery. For this he orders seven years of abstinence and a lifetime of “tears and humility.” Abortion stemming from fornication was also bad (penance for ten years on fast days), unless the woman was poor or a sex worker (statistically likely). If the woman was poor and acted because she would not be able to feed a child, it was understandable and no penance was prescribed.

Regardless of the Church’s recommendations, abortion was not actually illegal. In fact, the first law that made abortion illegal in the English-speaking world did not come until the Ellenborough Act of 1803, and even that only outlawed abortions obtained by taking “noxious and destructive substances.” It was not until 1869 that the Catholic Church decided that life began at conception.


If there is one thing we should take away from this, it is that when it came to sex, the Middle Ages were not as different from today as we often assume. People married for love, they had sex for fun, and family planning existed and was used more or less effectively. Due to centuries of literature and art portraying the Middle Ages as an idealized time of chastity and moral superiority, we have come to collectively accept a fiction that bears only a passing resemblance to a much more complicated truth.

Through this Contraception in History series, I have tried to show that although reproduction has been the primary purpose of sex throughout history, it was not the only purpose, and people have always found ways to take their reproductive destinies into their own hands.


Brundage, James. Sex and Canon Law. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696. Issue 1996: Pages 33-50.
Burchard of Worms. Decretum (c. 1008).
Burford, EJ. Bawds and Lodgings, a History of the London Bankside Brothels c. 100-1675. London, Peter Owen, 1976
Cadden, Joan. Western Medicine and Natural Philosophy. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696. Issue 1996: Pages 51-80.
Capellanus, Andreas. The Art of Courtly Love. Translated by John Jay Parry. New York, Columbia University Press, 1960
Gaddesden, John. Rosa anglica practica medicine. Venice, Bonetus Locatellus, 1516.
Gies, Frances and Joseph. Marriage and Family in the Middle Ages. New York, Harper & Row, 1987
Payer, Pierre J. Confession and the Study of Sex in the Middle Ages. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696. Issue 1996: Pages 3-32.
Riddle, John M. Contraception and Early Abortion in the Middle Ages. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696. Issue 1996: Pages 261-274.
Tannahill, Reay. Sex in History. New York, Stein and Day, 1992

1. See The Art of Courtly Love.

2. Fun fact: Nicholas Culpeper claimed that wormwood was the key to understanding his 1651 book The English Physitian. Unlike the rest of the book, the entry for wormwood is a stream-of-consciousness ramble that reads like someone who was ingesting it at the time.

3. It is very possible the bitter waters in this verse refer to wormwood, a notoriously bitter substance known to induce miscarriage.

If you would like to know more about Contraception in History, see below for the rest of the series:

Contraception in History I. Aristotle, Hippocrates, and a Whole Lotta Lead

Contraception in History II. Contraception in Ancient Egypt: Hormonal Birth Control, Pregnancy Tests, and Crocodile Dung. 

Contraception in History III. Ancient Birth Control: Silphium and the Origin of the Heart Shape

Contraception in History IV. Minos, Pasiphae, and the Most Metal Euphemism for V.D. Ever

Contraception in History V. “Love’s Pleasing Paths in Blest Security”: Seventeenth Century Condoms

About the Author – Jessica Cale

Jessica Cale is a historical romance author and journalist based in North Carolina. Originally from Minnesota, she lived in Wales for several years where she earned a BA in History and an MFA in Creative Writing while climbing castles and photographing mines for history magazines. She kidnapped (“married”) her very own British prince (close enough) and is enjoying her happily ever after with him in a place where no one understands his accent. She is a member of the Royal Historical Society and the editor of Dirty, Sexy History at

If you’re interested in more articles by Jessica Cale please check out her website:
DIRTY, SEXY HISTORY – Skipping to the good stuff with Jessica Cale


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