1. Henry VIII’s first adulterous affair
In 1510, when Katherine of Aragon, was expecting their second child, Henry VIII strayed for the first time. He kept his affair with Anne, Lady Hastings, a secret until her sister, Lady FitzWalter, wishing to spare her family a scandal, told her brother, the Duke of Buckingham, what was going on. Buckingham berated Anne, and her irate husband carried her off to a nunnery. The King ‘showed great displeasure’ and banished Lady FitzWalter from court, convinced that she had set women to spy on him in order to tell the Queen of his adultery; but Katherine already knew, and there was a very public row. Yet it was a wife’s duty to maintain a dignified silence in the face of infidelity, and in the end, Katherine had to concede defeat. Never again would she take Henry to task for being unfaithful.
2. Mary Boleyn’s secret pregnancy
By 1534, after having failed to bear Henry VIII a son, Anne Boleyn’s influence was declining, so she had good reason to be humiliated when her widowed sister Mary appeared at court noticeably pregnant. Mary confessed that she had secretly, and of necessity, married – for love – plain Mr William Stafford, a younger son of knightly birth with no fortune. Anne was furious, for Stafford was no match for the Queen’s sister. She had no compunction in persuading the King to banish the disgraced couple from court. The sisters never met again.
3. Anne Boleyn’s fall
The fall of Anne Boleyn, in 1536, was probably the greatest scandal of the Tudor age. That a queen should be accused of adultery, with five men, one her own brother, and of plotting the King’s assassination, was sensational. It was all too believable: the state papers contain many cases of people damning Anne as a whore, and she clearly enjoyed flirting with the men in her circle. Suddenly, several of these men were arrested, then Anne herself was imprisoned in the Tower of London, where she was watched, and her every word reported. Her indiscreet babbling about her compromising banter with her alleged lovers only reinforced the case against her. The five men were condemned to death, and she was subjected to a show trial in the great hall of the Tower, and found guilty of treason. Four days later, she faced death on the scaffold with great courage.
4. Margaret Douglas’s illicit liaison
That same summer, Henry VIII’s own niece, Margaret Douglas, was imprisoned in the Tower under sentence of death. Her ‘crime’ had been to enter into a binding precontract of marriage with Lord Thomas Howard, which was treason in the eyes of the King, who was convinced that Thomas had been ‘aspiring to the crown’. Fortunately, Henry was fond of Margaret. He spared the lovers the death penalty and commuted it to imprisonment in the Tower. Their love poems still survive as a poignant reminder of a doomed romance, for Thomas died there, of a fever, in 1537. Margaret, ironically, had just been pardoned. She was still mourning her lost lover a year later.
5. Katherine Howard’s fall
Henry VIII was besotted with his fifth wife, Katherine Howard, whom he married in 1540, when he was 49 and she was probably 20. But, the following year, evidence of her adultery and past promiscuity was uncovered. The King broke down in tears, then called for a sword with which to slay her whom he had worshipped.
Katherine was held under house arrest at Syon Abbey while Parliament debated her fate. There was no trial. Early in 1542, an Act of Attainder depriving her of her life and possessions was passed, and in February, barely able to stand, she went to the block on Tower Green.
6. Katherine Grey’s secret pregnancy
In 1562, Elizabeth I’s cousin, Lady Katherine Grey was arrested and taken to the Tower. She had dared secretly to marry her lover, Edward Seymour, and become pregnant with a child who might live to challenge Elizabeth’s title. Having kept her condition secret for as long as possible, she was lucky that the Queen did not demand the full penalty for treason. Instead, she and her husband were both imprisoned, never to meet again. She died in 1568, aged 28, still under house arrest.
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