VIRGIN TO VICTORIA
DAWN OF THE
When we wander through art galleries, pictures of a 16th century English countryside are full of flowers and golden sunshine. We see cows grazing lazily on grassy hilltops with dappled light drifting softly through the trees and we see colourful butterflies floating languidly among the flowers. It all looks wonderfully peaceful and idyllic. But don’t be misled. For most, it was anything but peaceful.
In those same pictures, if you look a little closer, you will see quaint thatched cottages dotted here and there and you will notice they are basic dwellings that would have housed poor families. Times were hard, jobs were few and their worldly possessions were a few pots, a ladle, some plates and if they were lucky, some mats to sleep on at night. Few people could afford candles and the only sounds at night would have been the soft raindrops on the thatched rooves, children tossing fitfully in front of a meagre fire and the rustle of vermin in the dark corners. And they would have known that with vermin came disease. The threat of catching typhoid, dysentery or the plague was an everyday terror that would have affected their whole way of life. It was an unbelievably harsh time for some but not everyone was at the bottom of the ladder.
In those same art galleries, we also see men and women in extravagant clothes wearing magnificent jewellery. Unlike the other paintings, these people look well fed, clean and privileged. But again, if you look closer still, you will also see a little doubt and uncertainty lurking in their watchful eyes. Don’t forget, the more you had, the more you could lose and you had to be very particular who you spoke to over a glass or two of wine and you knew you had to choose your words very carefully.
These people lived in houses that looked more like palaces than the squalid homes of the poor. They had silverware, carpets, servants and maybe even a mirror. The appetite for luxuries was endless for those who could afford them. It was a time when Tudor architecture blossomed and companies began setting up shops full of crystal, tapestries, oak furniture and curtains and it was a time when lace was all the craze for both sexes.
But whether you were rich or poor, it was a time when you knew to abide by the law. In any society, laws are meant to give people security and with that security, farmers can farm, artists can paint and writers can write. This was Queen Mary’s era and security was only available if people accepted basic laws…her basic laws…stating Catholicism was the one and only true religion. If you didn’t agree with her, you would have been one of the hundreds of people burned at the stake, hung or beheaded because of your religious belief. But if Queen Mary thought that heretics would eventually convert to Catholicism, she was being very optimistic.
Between 1553 and 1558, England had suffered under the iron rule of Bloody Mary. Before Mary, her father Henry VIII had ruled and before him, his father Henry VII. None of them could be called shrinking violets when it came to chopping off people’s heads and dishing out punishments. Before them even, England had survived the unrelenting Lancasters and Yorks and the War of the Roses. They had survived during the brutal reign of the Plantagenets and the invasion by the Normans. Before all of them, stood the Vikings. For 1500 years, they had endured wars, battles, rebellions, plagues and famines. They had been taxed so harshly that survival was a daily problem and their mortality rate was one of the worst in Europe. But as difficult as it all was, they had endured. Better than that, they had survived. As a race of people, the English are not ones to just throw their hands in the air and give up. That they will never do.
Two months before Mary died, a comet blazed across the London skies. It was half the size of the moon and fire streaked behind it in the glorious Tudor colours of red, white and gold for seven days and nights. In a time when superstition was rife, it was a sure sign to the English people that a change was about to happen and hope resurfaced. And heaven knows, they needed every scrap of hope they could find.
The comet was what England had been waiting for – a sign of better times. A new beginning even. They had suffered so much persecution during Mary’s reign that they believed things could not get any worse. This comet, this sign, meant it was all coming to an end at last. Surely, that’s what it meant, they prayed.
And they waited. And waited. Then in November of 1558, after a lengthy sickness, Queen Mary died and a new queen came to the throne with promises of reformation and a brighter fresh England. Their new queen, Elizabeth, had a swarthy complexion like her mother and despite her slightly hooked nose and long face, her bright, expressive eyes softened her sharp features and made her look almost attractive.
Ironically, Queen Elizabeth’s birthdate was 7th September, the feast day of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary.
Born 1533 - Died 1603
Elizabeth’s life was troubled from the moment she was born. Despite the challenge of being Henry VIII’s daughter, or perhaps because of it, she was a quiet and studious girl who could write English, speak Latin and Italian before progressing further on to French and Greek. By the time her formal education ended, she was the best-educated woman of her generation quietly living in the shadow of her father. When he died, everything suddenly and irrevocably changed.
This is when we have to let our imagination take over for a little while. Imagine being a quiet 13-year-old who hears that her father is dead and she is to be packed up from her home and sent to live with her stepmother, her father’s 6th and last wife. Don’t let your imagination go too far though because Kateryn Parr was nothing like Queen Grimhilde from the Snow White story. Kateryn was always kind and gentle, but Elizabeth was just a little girl who had been protected and secluded for most of her life and she was understandably nervous at this latest big change in her life. She’d lost her mother Anne Boleyn years before and now her father was dead and her 9-year-old half-brother Edward was about to be crowned king. To top it off, she had an elder half-sister who was cold, sometimes erratic, and who scared the life out of her most of the time.
As Elizabeth settled in with Kateryn, her younger brother was settling onto his throne. Being 9 years old and the King of England was not what he had expected either. Like his sister, when their father died everything changed for him as well. Before he knew it, his uncle, Edward Seymour Duke of Somerset, had stepped in with the backing of thirteen of the sixteen council members and had declared that he would act as the Regent until the young king came of age. Being king would have been very daunting for the young boy and he was probably very grateful to have a familiar figure by his side.
For Elizabeth, living with Kateryn was a strange new world and there was a lot to take in. She was more than a little confused with the changes and the suddenness of everything, despite her father’s lengthy ill-health. What was perhaps even more confusing to Elizabeth was that there seemed to be a lot of comings and goings in her stepmother’s house by the Duke of Somerset’s younger brother, Thomas Seymour, at all hours of the day and night. This is where our story gets juicy. But to tell it, you need a little background first.
From a very young age, both Seymour brothers were gifted with lands and titles. Then to add to those titles, the elder brother Edward was given the title of Viscount Beauchamp of Hache in Somerset after their younger sister Jane married Henry VIII. A year later, Thomas was also granted the castle of Holt in Cheshire prior to the christening of his nephew Prince Edward while Edward was elevated to the earldom of Hertford. Although Thomas continued to be the recipient of lands and manors, no further titles came his way. The titles were all reserved for his elder brother Edward.
To say the least, Thomas felt ‘hard done by’ which goes a long way to explaining the tenseness between the two brothers. It didn’t improve at all when Henry VIII died and his elder brother took over the regency as Lord Protector for young Edward. Wanting a piece of the action as well, Thomas demanded to be named as governor to the young king; after all, Edward was his nephew as well.
Edward Seymour, now Duke of Somerset, tried to buy his brother off with the title of Baron of Sudeley and the appointment of Lord Admiral, as well as granting him several pieces of land and a seat on the Privy Council. But Thomas wasn’t having anything to do with it. As uncle to the King, he felt he should receive more, at the very least an earldom. It was even hinted that Edward was the one behind the lack of titles coming his way.
When looking back in history, Thomas’ demands seem understandable. When kings were in their ‘minority’, it was common that any remaining uncles were given much greater titles than what Thomas received. And with his brother as Lord Protector of the Realm, Somerset had the power to recommend that his brother be granted a greater title than just baron. But for some reason, it seems he didn’t. If you were a suspicious sort of person you may think that Somerset had the notion that his brother would attempt to over-throw him at some time in the future if he had too much power in his hands. It wasn’t such and outrageous thought when you think about it, considering the antics of past generations.
So Thomas never received what he felt he truly deserved and he never believed he’d been given his fair share. Wanting a far greater portion of power than the two titles gave him, his plotting began in earnest.
And that was his greatest weakness. Although seen as a greedy villain in history books, it’s easy to see that he was also a victim of his elder brother’s ambitions. Imagine seeing his younger sister married to Henry VIII, getting everything her heart desired, then seeing his elder brother as the King’s Protector, gathering titles, land and power, and then there he was, stuck in the middle, feeling left out and forgotten.
Thomas was nearly 40 years old when Henry VIII died and there’s no doubt he could have married any noble woman he wished. But his ambitions were always greater and higher than most. What Thomas wanted was a marriage that would give him money, property and political standing that would rival his brother. And this is where Kateryn Parr enters the scene.
Before Kateryn and Henry had married, she and Seymour had hoped to marry after the death of her third husband, Lord Latimer. But there was a necessary mourning period involved for grieving widows and this delayed their marriage request to Henry and their subsequent and hopeful wedding announcement. And so they waited. Then, only a couple of months after Latimer’s death and while still in mourning, Henry asked Kateryn to marry him and of course, who would have been brave enough to turn down Henry VIII?