Mistress Anne Herbert at home in the Tower of London

October 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

Mistress Anne Herbert confidentially addressed a party of school children: she wanted their advice. Her sister Catherine Parr was going to marry the King of England, Henry VIII. Where did his earlier wives go wrong and how could Catherine avoid their mistakes?

Here was teaching outside the classroom, a bit of history coming to life. Catherine of Aragon had been married for about six months to Arthur, Henry’s older brother. When Arthur died, his father, Henry VII, decided to hold on to Catherine (about sixteen) for marriage to Henry (eleven). Some years later, they married. It seems their marriage would have lasted, if there had been a son to succeed Henry. Mistress Anne Herbert told us they had six children—elsewhere I read eight. In any event, only one daughter, Mary, survived.

Henry decided to end the marriage, but the Pope would not agree to an annulment. All the same, Henry divorced Catherine and married Anne Boleyn. The Act of Supremacy in 1534 established Henry VIII as the head of the Church of England.

Catherine’s marriage to Henry lasted twenty four years, Anne’s only three. Henry’s impatience to be rid of her is a little hard to understand. She was found guilty of treason; the charges were believed to be trumped up.  The executioner, poised to decapitate Anne with a swing of his sword, could not bring himself to do it. He heard her commending her soul to God. A witness, understanding his reluctance, created a diversion. Anne, distracted by the noise, turned her head away from the executioner: he was able then to strike the fatal blow.

A number of the children were not interested in Henry’s misdeeds. One boy strolled a little aloof from the group, his hands in his pockets, and seemed oblivious of his surroundings. Other children (mostly boys) drifted to the perimeter of the group and looked around or chatted to each other. One boy spotted a discarded chicken bone and pointed it out to other children. They were more entertained by that remnant of lunch from a nearby fried food place than Mistress Anne Herbert’s talk.

But Mistress Anne Herbert engaged even the most inattentive child when she asked them to warn her if any courtiers were about. If she were caught gossiping about Henry VIII’s wives, things would go badly for her. The children were keen to alert her to the presence of any courtier (any person in medieval clothes) strolling among the tourists. This looking-out for courtiers became an end in itself. The inattentive boys (more boys than girls were inattentive), although keen to play this game, were not keen to listen to another word about Henry’s six wives.

Jane Seymour (Henry’s third wife) died shortly after the birth of Edward VI. She appeared, after a few faux pas, to have been happily married to him. She was outspoken but Henry VIII nipped this tendency in the bud with: ‘Remember Anne!’

We heard some not so well-known facts: Anne Boleyn did not have a sixth finger. This was a fabrication of a later time.  Henry VIII  never called Anne of Cleeves, ‘the Mare of Flanders’. We heard how things went wrong between them: Anne of Cleeves, in preparation for her marriage to Henry VIII (sight unseen), had been installed in some royal apartments. She was gazing out one of the windows when a man, unannounced, entered her room. Dressed in Lincoln green, he disported himself, presumably in the manner of Robin Hood. Anne was not alarmed; she gave him a sidelong look and then resumed looking out the window.

The eccentric man was none other than Henry VIII who—we learnt—loved to dress up. How he expected Anne of Cleeves to be familiar with the Merrie Men, we don’t know. Her indifference to his little pantomime put him into a bad mood. It was all off with Anne of Cleeves. But it couldn’t be all off: the wedding preparations were too far advanced. Ostensibly, it was less a bother to marry her, and—six months later—divorce her.

Where did Catherine Howard go wrong? Births of female children were not recorded. Catherine might have been fifteen or seventeen when she married the fifty-year-old Henry. She may have had an affair with the most handsome man in court. She was flighty; she was related to Anne Boleyn. Flighty though she was, the night before her execution she asked for a block. She practised walking blindfold to the block, bending down, and placing her head on it. Was she seventeen? Was she nineteen?

The school children’s advice to Catherine Parr: produce an heir (Catherine of Aragon’s sons had died); don’t be outspoken (as Anne Boleyn had been); enjoy what Henry VIII enjoys (as Anne of Cleeves so evidently had not); don’t have boyfriends (as Catherine Howard may have had).

And indeed Catherine Parr did see that her true love Thomas Seymour (Jane’s brother) was sent from Court.

The children were studying Henry VIII in school; they were primed for their trip to the Tower of London. Did the children benefit from this guided talk? Was education made ‘fun’ for them?  When children turn away, or put up a hood, or fool among themselves, they seem as indifferent to education as they are in the classroom. Do some children just switch off when learning is in the air?

When I was at school, I learnt that the volcano has three phases: active, dormant and moribund. It is certainly hard to know if some children’s interest in learning is dormant or moribund. One might say if the teacher were good enough, she would inspire everyone with a wish to learn. Small children love to learn. That changes when they go to school. Does our system of education stifle their love of learning?

At the end of nearly an hour’s discourse on 23rd October in the year 2012, one child asked Mistress Anne Herbert, if she really was Catherine’s sister. No child cried out to disparage such a notion. It is something for the sense of wonder of nine-year-old children to remain intact. Was this young lady in medieval clothes Mistress Anne Herbert* from 1553?

* I cannot vouch for the historical accuracy of Mistress Anne Herbert’s conversation. I found both textbook and online accounts of the Tudors to be at variance with each other.


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