Tudor women

Tudor women were raised to believe that they were vastly inferior to men. Centuries of Christian teaching had rigidly enforced the concept that a woman was an ‘instrument of the devil … who would lure man away from the path to salvation’ and as a result there was a great stigma attached to the prospect of female power and political influence. As depicted by the Scots reformer John Knox in 1558, ‘[w]oman in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man’, and therefore prominent Tudor women were confronted with a paradoxical situation in which women were perceived to be fragile and weak, hence unfit to rule, and women who attempted to assert their authority and coordinate political affairs were characterised as ‘wicked [and] ungodly’ creatures, in the words of Thomas Becon, a Protestant preacher and homilist in 1554. Despite this, it would be simplistic to assume that Tudor women failed to exert any authority over political affairs, as some enjoyed considerable power and influence, however, it could certainly be argued that ultimately, women only influenced English politics between 1450 and 1603 to a certain extent, due to the overriding factor of male supremacy.
A significant way in which Tudor women demonstrated their influence over English politics was through their ability to direct dynastic disputes in their favour. Arguably, Margaret Beaufort was the archetypal powerful woman of the fifteenth century, owing to her commendable manipulation of political affairs in her fight to protect her son’s heirdom. For instance, in 1468 Margaret made considerable attempts to ingratiate herself with Edward IV, by entertaining the King at her husband Stafford’s hunting lodge near Guildford. The fact that Margaret was ‘dressed in a … gown of velvet [and] … was sitting [beside] the King … a symbol of authority’ signifies her growing political influence over the King’s affairs, which eventually enabled her to secure her son’s rightful inheritance and restore the House of Lancaster. Furthermore, in August 1483 amidst heightened tensions between the Lancastrians and the Yorkists in the War of the Roses, Margaret negotiated with Elizabeth Woodville for Henry Tudor’s marriage to Woodville’s eldest daughter Elizabeth of York. Margaret was aware that ‘[s]uch a marriage would gain Henry Yorkist loyalties … and greatly strengthen his position’ , whilst support amongst Edwardian Yorkists was also generated by Margaret’s coercion of Woodville to invite her husband’s acquaintances and former servants to endorse Henry’s cause. Margaret’s unrelenting persistence in realising her mission was directly linked to Henry Tudor’s victory in the Battle of Bosworth on 22nd June 1485 and consequent coronation on 30th October 1485, demonstrating her success in influencing English politics.
Similarly, in response to King Henry VI’s deterioration from the summer of 1453 and the resulting appointment of Richard of York, Third Duke of York as the protector of the realm in the King’s absence, Margaret of Anjou engineered the political situation to benefit her family. After the Battle of St. Albans on 22nd May 1455, when it became clear that her son’s future was at stake, Margaret made it her responsibility to defend her husband’s honour and her son’s birth right with aggressive intensity of purpose. Even as early as February 1456, the magnitude of Margaret’s role in leading the opposition against the Duke of York was apparent and according to Prospero di Camulio in 1641, the Battle of Wakefield in 1460, resulting in the death of the Duke of York and a decisive Lancastrian victory, was simply ‘“the battle which the queen of England fought against the late duke of York”’ , which is a remarkably direct description, considering that, as a woman, Margaret could not set foot on the battlefield. The final demonstration of Margaret’s political influence was on 22nd July 1470, when she met with King Edward IV’s cousin Richard Neville, First Earl of Warwick, in the chateau of Angers beside the Loire river. The pair agreed that Margaret’s son would marry Anne Neville, the younger of Warwick’s two daughters and in return Warwick would sail to England in order to restore King Henry to the throne on 13th October 1470, after which the young Edward would rule as regent on his father’s behalf. This resounding victory signifies the lengths to which Margaret went to secure her family’s future, as well as her influence over the political situation in England during this period.
Furthermore, the extent to which women controlled the question of marriage is a clear indication of female influence over English politics between 1450 and 1603. Margaret Beaufort, for example, used her relationships to attract King Edward IV’s favour in order to elevate her son’s political status. Margaret’s first marriage to Sir Henry Stafford, which occurred on 3rd January 1458, certainly ‘had a political dimension’ as Margaret was a naturally opportunistic woman, however, it was potentially her third marriage which proved the most effective partnership. After Stafford’s death on 4th October 1471, Margaret decided that in order to regain King Edward IV’s trust and obtain a pardon for her son’s safety, it was necessary for her to marry a close acquaintance of the King, such as the new Steward of the King’s household and a regular member of the King’s council, Lord Thomas Stanley. As the leading nobleman of the north-west and ‘a man of considerable cunning’ with substantial independent wealth, Stanley was a valuable asset with whom Margaret worked effectively from June 1472, only eight months after Stafford’s death. At court, Margaret assisted her husband in the management of the household, while in return, Stanley guaranteed that Margaret attended ceremonial occasions, including the christening of the King’s children, which greatly ameliorated her position.
In addition, unlike Margaret Beaufort who married to elevate the status of her son, Elizabeth I, as queen regnant rather than simply a woman of the court, used the prospect of marriage to safeguard her personal and political status as a powerful female ruler. An example of Elizabeth’s obstinacy with regard to marriage occurred after a parliamentary delegation in the palace of Westminster presented the queen with a petition on 6th February 1559, demanding that she should marry and give the kingdom an heir. Elizabeth’s reply was a ‘masterpiece of oratory’ which declared that she would remain wary of marriage, and would only choose a husband who was as respectful of her realm as she was herself, adding that if she did not marry and provide England with an heir, “this shall be for me sufficient, that a marble stone shall declare that a Queen, having reigned such a time, lived and died a virgin” . Elizabeth’s declaration therefore suggests that she saw the benefits of remaining a ‘Virgin Queen’ in an essentially masculine society, as she became the sole source of security for her kingdom, giving her tremendous political power.
Another way in which Tudor women influenced English politics between 1450 and 1603 was through the use of their femininity to manipulate the political situation. The most notorious example of this was undoubtedly Anne Boleyn’s seduction of Henry VIII and, despite leading critics including the ‘Spanish ambassador [to refer] to her … as “the English Messalina”’ or “a Jezebel and a sorceress” as argued by Reginald Pole, Anne displayed indisputable courage and audacity in realising her objective of becoming queen consort. Aside from her renowned influence over judicial and religious developments during the well-documented period of ‘The Great Matter’, a particular instance in which Anne found herself in a position of ‘unparalleled influence’ over King Henry was during her withdrawal to Hever Castle in the early months of 1527. Anne, using the distance between herself and the King to her advantage, ‘stayed tantalisingly out of reach’ , while the King continued to send sensual love letters assuring her of his undying devotion and expressing his overwhelming despair that “it is a long time since [they] kissed.” Anne’s success in enhancing her political position was particularly evident when she returned to court, as the King not only began showering her with fine gifts, but also proclaimed that henceforth Anne was to play a prominent role in political affairs, and the intelligent temptress was soon revelling in her newfound influence and growing power.
Likewise, Mary I also used her womanly charm to manipulate the court prior to her coronation on 30th September 1553, when she became the first Queen of England to be crowned in her own right. Three days before the coronation, Mary made a remarkable appeal to the members of her council, in which she sank submissively to her knees and spoke at length about her responsibility to God and to her subjects. According to the imperial ambassador, her councillors ‘were moved to tears, “amazed … by this humble and lowly discourse, so unlike anything heard before in England” , which may demonstrate considerable cunning on the part of Mary, whose display of female frailty may not have been entirely heart-felt, but instead used as an effective way of uniting a fractious and divided council. Therefore, both Anne Boleyn and Mary I utilised their femininity effectively in order to satisfy their own political desires, suggesting that they held substantial influence over English politics.
Additionally, the fact that a select number of prominent Tudor women directed rather than merely influenced the machinery of government supports the view that women influenced English political affairs between 1450 and 1603 to a great extent. For instance, in order to express his gratitude towards his mother for her efforts in the arduous struggle to restore her son’s status as the rightful heir to the throne, King Henry VIII ensured that Margaret Beaufort was granted the rights of a ‘femme sole’. For Margaret to bear this title was a grand symbol of political rank, as unlike a traditional married woman, Margaret could own her property and transact business as a widow could, ‘so that she was subject to no one but the King.’ Moreover, symbolism was used to communicate Margaret’s position in the political hierarchy. Although Margaret was known officially as ‘My Lady the King’s Mother’ , she came to sign herself in the regal style, Margaret R or Margaret Regina, to denote that she was a queen in all but name and continued to maintain enormous political influence over King Henry VII and his government. In addition, despite her age, Margaret continued to coordinate political affairs as her son’s health deteriorated and after his death. From 1508, in the East Midlands, Margaret presided over a regional court, an occurrence which would not be repeated by another woman for a further hundred years, while after the King’s death on 21st April 1509, Margaret was declared a member of the Order, a phenomenal accomplishment which failed to be replicated by another woman for a further four centuries.
Furthermore, Catherine of Aragon’s role as queen regent in the absence of King Henry VIII demonstrates her political influence. The queen consort’s competency during the regency may be attributed to her prior experience with administerial duties, when her father King Ferdinand II of Aragon took the unprecedented step of appointing her the ambassador for the Spanish court in England on 19th May 1507 , the first female ambassador in European history. From June 1513 onwards, when King Henry departed for the Continent on his French campaign, Catherine was thrust into preparations for war. Most notably, Catherine led the English troops to a decisive victory against the invading Scots at the Battle of Flodden on 9th September 1513, a momentous occasion and major military event in which King James IV of Scotland was killed and the Scottish threat was removed for a generation by the slaughter of its leaders. Subsequently, the Queen sent the King of Scots’ blood-stained tunic as a trophy of war to King Henry in France. This demonstrates Catherine’s fierce resilience and military influence during the period in which she ruled as Regent.
On the other hand, despite the fact that Tudor women did exert a certain level of influence over English politics between 1450 and 1603, there were certainly substantial obstacles which prevented these women from dominating political affairs unreservedly. Arguably, the most significant limitation to female influence during this period was the stereotypical perception that the power of a monarch ‘was implicitly and inherently male’ . Therefore, stronger female characters faced criticism as they represented a perversion of ‘good’ womanhood and the inversion of the natural order which classified woman as ‘weaker vessels in need of management’ . For Margaret of Anjou, personal identity had been a serious hindrance throughout her campaign to restore her husband to prominence and protect her son’s heirdom, as she was hampered not only by her sex, but also by her French descent. As a woman and wife, Margaret was incapable of inhabiting the role that King Henry VI had left vacant, and therefore the more she asserted herself in her husband’s stead, the more frequently the queen consort became the subject of whispered caricature and contempt. The Battle of Blore Heath in Staffordshire on 23rd September 1459 was a particular event in which Margaret experienced the frustrations of being a woman in the sixteenth century, because in spite of her ability to communicate a sense of purpose to her troops prior to the attack, she could provide neither strategy nor encouragement out on the battlefield, which would certainly have been an infuriating restriction for such a strong-willed personality. Furthermore, when Edward IV was crowned King of England on 28th June 1461, the new regime acted quickly to capitalise on Margaret’s inadequacies. Yorkist propagandists, for example, published ‘It is a great abusion’, a poem in circulation in 1462, which labelled Margaret as ‘a [malicious] woman … that ever hath meant … to destroy the right line … [and] to destroy this region;/For with [her] is but death and destruction’ , which in turn ignited rumours that she was at the heart of a French invasion. This truly demonstrates the extent of hostility towards self-assured women during this period who attempted to fulfil a traditionally masculine role.
Mary I was also made aware of the constraints her sex would impose on her rule when her cousin, the Emperor Charles V informed his ambassadors in July 1553, just three days into her reign, to deliver a piece of advice to the new Queen. The Emperor recommended that as Queen of England, Mary should “be in all things what she ought to be, a good English woman, and avoid giving the impression that she desires to act on her own authority” . Interestingly, no King would have tolerated such an insulting suggestion that he should not act on his own authority, and yet Mary, as a woman, was being informed that if she did, she would not be considered a respectable and virtuous representation of her sex. Therefore, both Margaret of Anjou and Mary I, as resilient young women, were condemned throughout the period in which they attempted to exert their influence for their perceived incompetency and inability to conduct political affairs correctly, owing to their inferior gender.
The diminished influence experienced by those women who failed to provide the kingdom with an heir to the throne also indicates that women were limited in their influence over English politics between 1450 and 1603. For instance, when Anne Boleyn gave birth to Princess Elizabeth on 7th September 1553, Henry VIII ‘treated [both] mother and child coldly’ as he was undoubtedly dissatisfied with the outcome of Anne’s pregnancy, considering the efforts to which the King went in order to please his mistress, with the annulment of his marriage to the devoted Catherine of Aragon. Moreover, when the shock of King Henry’s life-threatening riding accident of January 1536 prompted Anne to miscarry a male child, the King was reportedly so angered that he began plotting for her removal. Anne’s helplessness in managing the political situation is conveyed when Henry began claiming that he had been “seduced by witchcraft” and had been manipulated into marrying a woman with a defective constitution. The King’s reaction may therefore reiterate the desirability of fertile women during the medieval period, just as Mary I’s false pregnancy of May 1555 undermined her own capacity to rule, and perhaps highlights that fertility was a contributing factor to female influence between 1450 and 1603. However, Anne’s unfortunate demise may also demonstrate the potentially fatal consequences of failing to fulfil the dynastic responsibility of providing the kingdom with a healthy male heir.
Instances in which women were forced to submit to the unavoidable will of the King also support the view that women had limited influence over English politics between 1450 and 1603. For example, when fifteen-year-old Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales succumbed to a virus on 2nd April 1502, his young bride Catherine of Aragon was left widowed after a mere six months of marriage. During the resulting four gruelling years of tortuous negotiations over Catherine’s dowry, ‘she was very much the pawn of ambitious men’ , living in relative poverty at the hands of King Henry VII, who neglected to provide the young princess with financial support. According to Weir, Catherine, who was trained from the cradle to be submissive to men, did not venture to criticise King Henry for her mistreatment and instead attempted to appeal to the King for assistance. In April 1506, for instance, Catherine pleaded tearfully with King Henry for a financial allowance to pay for basic necessities, without success and by April 1507, Catherine’s servants were walking about the residence in rags. Therefore, this level of female subservience portrayed by Catherine’s vulnerability and dependency on King Henry VII during this period suggests that there were cases in which women were entirely unable to alter the political situation in which they found themselves.
Likewise, Catherine of Aragon’s powerlessness during the period of ‘The Great Matter’ also demonstrates her lack of control over political affairs. When court proceedings began in the great hall of the monastery of the Black Friars in London on 18th June 1529, Catherine’s heartfelt plea for justice is another example of a woman yielding to the overriding will of a male monarch. The defeated Queen fell on her knees before King Henry VIII and according to George Cavendish, Wolsey’s secretary who gave an account of the speech, declared “Sir, I beseech you …I have been your true wife … spare me the extremity of this court” , which may convey Catherine’s admirable resoluteness, but also a sense of her helplessness and lack of political influence during the period of embarrassment in which her virginity in relation to her first marriage with Prince Arthur was a question of public discussion. Therefore, ‘The Great Matter’ was a pivotal historical event which led to one prominent Tudor woman gaining elevated political status, while it also resulted in the political ruin of another.
Besides female subservience, male dominance is also a factor which demonstrates that women had limited influence over English politics between 1450 and 1603. Despite being perhaps the most remarkably influential female character in English political history, it could be argued that Elizabeth I was in fact manipulated by the men with whom she surrounded herself. For example, the ease with which men attracted Elizabeth’s favour may demonstrate their ability to exploit her wealth and political position. Fraser illustrates this argument with her description of Elizabeth’s generous treatment of her favourite subjects; the fact that ‘Christopher Hatton … became one of the corps of Gentlemen Pensioners … [while he] wrote her passionate love letters: “[t]o serve you is heaven, but to lack you is more than hell’s torment”’ may suggest that Elizabeth’s courtiers exploited her fondness in order to gain heightened political status, which might imply that the Queen’s companions had greater influence over political affairs than she did. On the other hand, Elizabeth’s generosity towards her treasured members of the court may be interpreted as her method of flirtatiously manipulating her council to her advantage, which is supported by the fact that the Queen was never persuaded to marry a suitor, and therefore did not allow these men to distract her from her political mission.
Lastly, the tragic downfall of Lady Jane Grey also provides evidence of the significant limitations to the political influence of Tudor women between 1450 and 1603. The ‘Nine Day Queen’ was notoriously manipulated by her ambitious father-in-law, the Duke of Northumberland, who sought to strengthen his own as well as his son’s political position, whilst retaining Protestantism as the national religion. Northumberland’s strategy was put into practice following the death of Edward VI on 6th July 1553, when Jane Grey was summoned to meet members of the Privy council three days later on 9th July 1553. It became clear to Jane Grey on 10th July 1553 when she was taken to the royal apartments in the Tower of London to prepare for her coronation, that Northumberland expected his son, Lord Guildford Dudley, to become King of England alongside Jane , and as a young girl of only fifteen, it was impossible for her to exert her authority against her devious father-in-law. Therefore, Jane Grey’s eventual and untimely death, orchestrated by Mary I though effectively provoked by Northumberland’s shameless scheming, symbolises the limitations to female power between 1450 and 1603.
It could certainly be argued that women during the period between 1450 and 1603 exerted only limited influence over English politics, predominantly due to the contemporary characterisation of female power as grotesque and immoral, which prevented these women from gaining the requisite support in order to dominate the political sphere. According to John Knox in his renowned and highly controversial work of 1558, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, ‘[t]o promote a woman to beare rule, superioritie, dominion or empire above any realme … is repugnant to nature … [and] the subversion of good order’ , which illustrates the Tudor perception of female rule as unnatural and abominable, thus supporting the view that women were unable to exercise any meaningful political influence during this period. Certainly, a sharp-witted and calculating woman of the royal court may have enjoyed a restricted degree of authority, as demonstrated by both Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, yet such status emanated entirely from her husband, without whom she was insignificant. Departing from their sole duty to produce healthy male heirs for the succession could spell disaster for these women and therefore women only influenced English politics between 1450 and 1603 to a certain extent.

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