The Tudors in love: our favourite Tudor love stories

    tudors in love
    King Henry VIII (1491-1547), studio of Hans Holbein the younger. Credit: National Trust Images/Derek E. Witty

    Love in the Tudor era was not for the faint-hearted, says Nancy Alsop

    Courtly love in the time of the Tudors was not a simple case of locking eyes across a banqueting hall and waiting for Cupid to take aim. Marriages were often transactional and even affairs could be political, with all the key players in an intricate game that, like chess, involved bishops, knights, queens, and kings.

    There were clear winners (usually the monarch) and even clearer losers – some of whom ended up losing their heads. It was, then, all down to how well you played this game of thrones. Here are five legendary love stories of the period, some ill-fated, some star-crossed and just a few enduring.

    Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn

    Anne Boleyn by an unknown artist. Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London

    Discarded gnawed chicken legs aside, King Henry VIII’s matrimonial record is the first thing that any budding historian thinks of when they consider the gargantuan Tudor monarch.

    Was he a hopeless romantic? His penchant for uxorial beheading suggests perhaps not. In fact, the much-married king sought out most of his six unions in the name of political or diplomatic advantage – but that is not to say he was immune to love.

    His relationship with his second wife, Anne Boleyn, was so governed by his desire – both of the flesh and for a male heir – that their romance would change England’s religious landscape forever, converting the nation from Catholicism to Protestantism so that he may lawfully divorce Catherine of Aragon to wed Anne. How many other great loves can claim such seismic consequences?

    For Anne’s part, there was no impropriety; she refused his advances until she had received an offer of marriage, her insistence on decorum leading to a seven-year courtship. He wrote to her with everincreasing ardour: “My Mistress and friend, my heart and I surrender ourselves into your hands, beseeching you to hold us commended to your favour, and that by absence your affection to us may not be lessened.” Finally, they married in 1533, when Anne became queen consort.

    Unfortunately for her, their love did not come consequence free: of Henry’s two beheaded wives, she was the first; executed after failing to produce a son and standing accused of adultery, incest, and treason.

    Henry VIII and Elizabeth Blount

    Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, was the illegitimate son of Henry VIII and Elizabeth Blount. Credit: Chronicle/Alamy

    Henry VIII’s hearty appetites were renowned. Where six wives would have been more than adequate for most, Henry also entertained a coterie of mistresses who never made it – perhaps luckily for them – to the altar. This, of course, was not unusual for kings of the period who were not held to the scrupulously monogamous rules that bind mere mortals.

    But such dalliances were, for the most part, conducted on his fleeting whims. His connection with celebrated beauty, Elizabeth Blount, however, ran deeper. Having come to court at the age of 15 in 1513 as a maid-of-honour to his wife, Catherine of Aragon, she soon became the king’s favourite dancing partner. He was enamoured – so much so that when Elizabeth (Bessie to her familiars) gave birth to their son, Henry Fitzroy, the baby was not only acknowledged – the king’s only illegitimate child to be so – but also given the dukedom of Richmond and Somerset.

    Elizabeth, meanwhile, continued to be lavished with gifts for her whole life. When it came to the romantically capricious Henry, it transpired to be a love story more enduring than any of his marriages.

    Mary Tudor and Charles Brandon

    Princess Mary Tudor and Charles Brandon, Duke ofSuffolk. Credit: Artefact / Alamy

    The sister of King Henry VIII was, naturally, a sought after bride in the Tudor world. The fact that Mary also happened to be considered the most beautiful princess in Europe only added to her appeal. And so, with some inevitability, in 1514 she was married off to King Louis XII of France when she was just 18 and he 52.

    It was not destined to be long-lived: Louis was already an unwell man by then, and he met his demise just three months after their marriage. Mary had agreed to the wedding on the sole proviso that, should he predecease her, she should be allowed to marry whoever she liked. It was not idle musing.

    She knew precisely who her next husband would be: Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk, her brother’s childhood friend and the man tasked with bringing her safely home from France, sent with the strict instruction he must not propose to her.

    Henry was not averse to the union per se, but he believed that the now-Dowager Queen of France ought to leave a seemly interval before remarrying. Fearing, however, that she might be used as a pawn in a political game, Mary convinced Charles to get married in secret in Paris in 1515, igniting the legendary fury of the king.

    It was a huge risk for Charles: the privy council suggested that he be executed for treason, a fate he was saved from only thanks to the intervention of Thomas Wolsey and the king’s affection for the couple. Instead, he fined them £24,000, a crippling debt that they had to pay in yearly instalments. The tale had, however, a happy ending: they held another, this time monarch-approved ceremony at Greenwich Palace in 1515. But if the level of risk we’re willing to take on for love is a measure of its depth, this was a love for the ages.

    Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley

    Queen Elizabeth I by Nicholas Hilliard c 1573. Credit: IanDagnall Computing / Alamy

    Queen Elizabeth I, daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, famously never married. Given her father’s marital record and her mother’s demise as a victim of it, she could hardly be blamed for her caution.

    Added to this was the fact that, as a queen rather than a king, any future husband would almost certainly exercise his authority over his wife and thus over the nation too. There was, then, a lot to be cautious about.

    That was not to say, however, that Elizabeth did not know love. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was chief among the courtiers to whom she was linked over her life. And, just as her father had once done with Bessie Blount, she lavished titles and land upon him, including Kenilworth Castle.

    Robert Dudley (1532/3-1588), 1st Earl of Leicester and favourite of Queen Elizabeth I. Credit; IanDagnall Computing / Alamy

    In turn, centuries of speculation have been visited upon the pair. Having known one another since they were children, he rushed to her side as soon as she became queen in 1558, whereupon she appointed him her Master of the Horse.

    But were they lovers or simply emotionally co-dependent? They rode daily together and certainly had a magnetic attraction. The rumours were rife, with one Old Mother Dowe of Brentwood jailed for gossiping that he had taken Elizabeth’s virginity. However, if there was truth in the gossip, theirs was a star-crossed love. For one, he was married already. And second, his wife – Amy Robsart, daughter of a Norfolk squire – was later found with a broken neck, sparking yet more speculation, this time as to whether he had murdered her, the suspicion ultimately precluding the queen from marrying him. Yet they remained devoted, with her saying, ‘‘I cannot do without my Lord Robert for he is like my little dog.’ It wasn’t quite Shakespeare, but it did show their lifelong affection.

    This is an extract, read the full feature in our February/March 2024 issue of Discover Britain, available to buy from 5 January here. 

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