Few would argue with the fact that Mary Tudor endured a traumatic upbringing. For the first few years of her life she was her father’s ‘pearl’, the perfect princess but Henry VIII’s struggle to be free of Catherine of Aragon saw Mary stripped of her royal title, separated from her mother, exiled from court, and forced to serve in the household of her younger sister, Elizabeth, whom she viewed as a bastard.
|Mary Tudor, Follower of Antonis Mor|
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The years while Anne Boleyn was queen were tough for Mary, and 1536 was an eventful one for Henry. Catherine of Aragon died in January 1536, an event the king and Anne Boleyn are said to have celebrated, but his first wife’s death was quickly followed by the fall of his second. During a joust, the king suffered a tumble from his horse and lay unconscious for several hours, the shock of his close brush with death is believed to have caused Anne to miscarry Henry’s longed for son. Following a breach with Cromwell, Anne, accused of treason and adultery, was executed in the following May, and Henry’s third marriage to Jane Seymour took place very shortly afterwards.
We seldom take time to consider the psychological impact this year may have had on both Henry and Mary – three queens dead in less than two years, and the death warrants of a handful of his closest friends signed by his own hand. Despite outward appearances, Henry cannot have gone unmarked by the events of 1536 and there was still plenty of misery to come for both the king and his daughters. But Christmas 1536 provided the king, Queen Jane, and Mary with a brief respite.
|Frost Fair, Thomas Wyke|
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The winter of 1536-7 was exceptionally cold, the country was ice-locked and the roads impassable, but Queen Jane entreated the king to invite Princess Mary to join them for the Christmas celebration. Even had she dared, it would have been unwise for Mary to refuse but by this time she was yearning for a reconciliation with her father whom she’d not seen for about five years.
Mary’s return to favour was not freely given and the king insisted that she first publicly accept the illegality of her parent’s marriage, her own illegitimacy, and Henry’s position as the Head of the church in England. Faced with little option, Mary at last gave in to the king’s demands but she wrote secretly to the Pope requesting absolution.
By December England was ice-locked, the Thames was frozen solid but undeterred, and presumable snug in the furs, the king and the royal party travelled on horseback from Westminster to Greenwich along the frozen river. With Anne gone, a new and doting stepmother, and her father once more looking kindly upon her, Christmas of 1536 would provide pleasant memories for Mary, but for Queen Jane, had she lived, it would always have marked a time of sadness.
Her festivities were marred by news of her father’s death on the twenty-first of December. Since he had never been a member of the court, there was no official mourning and Jane dutifully gave every impression of enjoying the antics of the fools, the mummer’s plays, the lords of misrule, and the festive feast and concealed her grief from the king and court.
|Lord of Misrule, Spencer Baird Nichols|
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
As for Henry, it is just as well that he made the most of the festivities for by the following October, after providing him with his longed-for son, Queen Jane was dead. Despite the survival of his heir, Edward, Henry was a broken man and immersed in grief, cancelled court festivities for Christmas of 1537 and spent it quietly at Greenwich.
The excerpts below from two of my novels contrast the king’s Christmas in 1536 and that of the deposed and homeless monks and nuns on the Pilgrimage of Grace in the same year.
An excerpt from The Heretic Wind: the story of Mary Tudor
The lengthy service at St Paul’s marks the beginnings of the festivities and Father dispenses with solemnity as soon as we leave the church. With the crowd’s appreciative roar in our ears, we travel toward the Thames that has become a wide, white serpent of ice that is so thick we are able to ride across to the opposite shore. Clinging to the saddle, I laugh aloud as my horse’s hooves slip and slide. We struggle up the sloping bank, and my cheeks are stung by the biting wind as I follow father’s broad back to Greenwich Palace.
Darkness is falling as we arrive, the lighted windows blaze warming the winter gloom, promising gaiety and mulled wine. Grooms come running as we climb stiffly from the saddle in the frozen yard.
“Brrrr!” Father claps his hands together and stamps his feet, his misting breath floating like a dragon’s around his head.
“Come ladies,” he cries, holding out his elbows. Jane takes his right and I his left arm, and together we mount the steps to the great hall.
A blast of welcoming trumpets, a blaze of torches that makes me squint after the dark outside. The warmth of the hall is smothering after the bitter chill outside. An excited company greets us. Someone removes my cloak and I turn to thank them but as I do I notice the queen accepting a letter from a messenger. She frowns and excusing herself from the company, slips from the hall. After a few moments, in which I noticed that father has not seen the exchange, I follow after her. I find her in an ante-chamber; she is seated at a table, weeping quietly. When she hears my footstep, she jumps and is visibly relieved to discover it is only me. She tucks the letter into her pocket and dabs at her eyes with her kerchief. Surely she does not have a sweetheart.
I frown, turn my head questioningly, and raise my eyebrows.
“What ails you, dear Jane?”
“Oh Mary.” She dries her eyes but they quickly well with tears again. Her attempt at a brave smile fails.
“You can confide in me, Jane. Anything … I can keep a secret.”
“It isn’t a secret. It is a letter from home; my father …” She clears her throat and forces her voice not to quaver. “It seems he was taken from us … yesterday. I – I hadn’t even been informed he was ill.”
As difficult as he can be, I cannot imagine losing my father. With a smothered mew of sympathy, I slide to the floor at her knee and take her hands in mine. Her knuckles are red, chafed by the winter cold.
“Oh Jane! Shall I fetch the king? The celebrations must be cancelled. I will go and find him now…”
I attempt to rise but she detains me.
“No. Please, Mary. Let there be no fuss. My father was not a figure of the court and I would hate to spoil the King’s enjoyment. He has been looking forward to the festivities and has had such trouble of late. I will inform him this evening, when we are alone. His pleasure in the season must not be marred.”
She wipes her eyes, tucks her kerchief back inside her sleeve and smiles determinedly. “There, how do I look?” It is only when I look carefully that I can detect she is concealing something.
So, I think, Jane does know how to dissemble.
The King and Queen hosted a ‘special’ guest at the Christmas court of 1536. In response to the dissolution of the monasteries, the north of the country was in rebellion and Henry and Cromwell were rattled by the unrest. The rebels from Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and beyond far outnumbered the king’s army so Henry, whilst pretending to consider their demands, invited their leader, Robert Aske, to join the court celebration.
Aske was a lawyer, a radical, and a man with strong Catholic roots who bitterly opposed the changes implemented by the reformation of the monasteries. He was unused to royal hospitality and Henry treated him splendidly during his first and last visit to the court, even going so far as to bestow on him a velvet coat. Aske was plied with food and drink, enjoyed the extravagant entertainment and was both gratified and mollified by the promises of the king. But all the while he feasted in the royal hall, Cromwell and the king were watching and wondering.
A few months later, when protest broke out afresh in the north, Aske had no involvement, but he soon found himself in trouble again. Although Aske offered to intervene with the rebels and assist in quelling the rising, Cromwell (who was the prime target of the rebels) went out of his way to implicate him in the rebellion.
In July 1537, after a short and biased trial, Aske was condemned to die a traitor’s death and hung alive in chains over the walls of Clifford’s Tower in York.
Excerpt from Sisters of Arden – the nuns Margery and Grace, together with Grace’s infant son and a ‘simple-minded’ sister, have been ejected from the priory and joined other ‘pilgrims’ on the road. After several months of deprivation, they are weary and distressed at the punishment of their leader.
December 1536 – York
The road to York holds no joy for me. I am weary of trudging about the countryside and long for the unchanging days of Arden. To think I once found the thought of the outside world fascinating. I would give anything to live those dull, predictable days again. Yet it is well that we have returned to the small comfort of York, for the country roads have grown treacherous in the increasing cold. Even when crossing the market square my ankles turn on the frozen mud, so I am forced to take small steps, hobbling like a crone.
I have taken to leaving Andrew at the hearthside with Frances while I venture out to find a few scraps of food. She is heavy with a head cold and I know Andrew will soon be likewise, yet I struggle to find the nourishment they need.
I never imagined the world could be as cold or as hard as this.
In the Minster, Archbishop Lee preaches of the virtues of obedience and we shiver as we listen stone-hearted in the bone-chilling nave. It is too late for obedience. We cannot change what we have done, we can only wait and hope, and pray for the king’s mercy.
Nobody imagined we’d have to wait so long for the pardon; most of us thought we’d be safe home by Christmas, but winter has settled on us hard and still there is no news. The hills beyond the city are white, the skies black and heavy with further snow to come. While the rich folk feast at their warm firesides, the dispossessed perish in the deserted streets. Each day, the Minster fills with people seeking the pity of the church, and the paltry heat of the braziers.
When darkness falls, the cold increases, and our thin blankets do nothing to warm us. We huddle together with Andrew between me and Frances, while Grace clings to my back; but still we shiver.
“Where John?” Frances asks at every fifth heartbeat, and soon I am so weary of the question that I block out her voice. During the darkest, most miserable part of the night, I fear for our survival. I would not be surprised to wake to find Andrew stiff in my arms, or Frances covered in a blanket of frost. I have lost the power to pray.
When John seeks us out in the morning, Frances is still sleeping, and we are able to question him without interruption. I see straight away that something has changed. Keeping my eyes turned from him, I nudge Grace to alert her to his presence.
“You have news,” she says, moving toward him. “Has the king made up his mind?”
John shakes his head.
“Nay, but he has invited Aske to court for Christmas.”
Grace exchanges glances with me. I shrug my shoulders, at a loss to understand what this might mean. What are we to do while our leader enjoys the high life? How shall we survive while he grows fat at the king’s expense?
I sigh and frown, wishing – not for the first time – that I’d never come. I should have left the fate of the country in the hands of other, stronger folk. Why did I not wait for the king’s men to leave Arden and find a way to creep back inside?
I long for the old ways – the old days.
“What will Aske going to court serve? Why – what – do you think he has a chance of changing the king’s mind?” Grace kneels at the hearth, poking the small flame with a burnt stick.
“I don’t know. I expect they will discuss terms … conversation is often more productive than letters passed back and forth.”
Discussing terms while dining on roast swan and honeyed wafers! It makes me uneasy and I am grateful when Grace asks the question I long to voice.
“Can we trust the king? Can we be sure there is not some … other plan?”
While my belly rolls at the thought of the king’s dinner, Grace scowls at John, who holds out his palms toward the fire.
“You can’t be sure of anything when it comes to the king. We can only hope that Aske has the skill to help him see the error of his ways.”
And then what? I ask myself. What will become of us all? I want to go home. I want things to be as they were before. I want to hear the rough tongue of Sister Dorothea, feel the lash of the prioress’ girdle on my palm, the damp dark comfort of the dormitory, the stench of the barnyard, the freedom of the fragrant springtime hills.
Frustration builds in my head and bursts from my lips in a cry. I bury my face in my hands, forcing back the urge to scream. There is nothing to be done but wait; shouting into the wind won’t help at all.
Trapped in winter’s frozen fingers, we wait a few weeks longer until, eventually, word filters to us that not just Yorkshire but the whole of England is covered in ice. In London, King Henry and Queen Jane travel on horseback from Whitehall to Greenwich, beside the frozen River Thames. I have no way of knowing how far that is but those around me exclaim over it, so I imagine it must be some distance.
We also learn that the king has made Aske the gift of a crimson coat, and I expect everyone at court is clad in furs and velvets. Here, on the pilgrimage, we are clothed in sores and wear the same threadbare habits we’ve been wearing for months. No doubt the king’s daughters are well nourished and warm, not like my Andrew, who has become a skeletal starveling.
We should never have left Arden … we should have stayed at home.
|Pilgrimage of Grace, Shaw, Fred Kirk|
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
"Far from the concourse of men..."
Arden Priory has remained unchanged for almost four hundred years when a nameless child is abandoned at the gatehouse door.
As Henry VIII’s second queen dies on the scaffold, the embittered King strikes out, and unprecedented change sweeps across the country.
The bells of the great abbeys fall silent, the church and the very foundation of the realm begins to crack.
Determined to preserve their way of life, novitiate nuns Margery and Grace join a pilgrimage thirty thousand strong to lead the king back to grace.
Sisters of Arden is a story of valour, virtue and veritas.
Warning: Set in Tudor England when times and people were tough.
A lifelong history enthusiast and avid reader, Judith holds a BA in English/Creative writing and an MA in Medieval Studies. She lives on the coast of West Wales where she writes both fiction and non-fiction.
She is best known for her novels set in the Medieval and Tudor period, focussing on the perspective of historical women but recently she has been writing from the perspective of Henry VIII himself.
Judith is also a founder member of a re-enactment group called The Fyne Companye of Cambria which is when she began to experiment with sewing historical garments. She now makes clothes and accessories both for the group and others. She is not a professionally trained sewer but through trial, error and determination has learned how to make authentic looking, if not strictly historically accurate clothing.
She is currently working on a non-fiction book about Tudor clothing which will be titled, How to Dress like a Tudor, and published by Pen and Sword in 2023.
A Song of Sixpence: the story of Elizabeth of York
The Beaufort Chronicle: the life of Lady Margaret Beaufort (three book series)
A Matter of Conscience: the Aragon Years (Book one of The Henrician Chronicle)
A Matter of Faith: the Days of the Phoenix (Book two of The Henrician Chronicle) Coming soon.
The Kiss of the Concubine: a story of Anne Boleyn
The Winchester Goose: at the court of Henry VIII
Intractable Heart: the story of Katheryn Parr
Sisters of Arden: on the Pilgrimage of Grace
The Heretic Wind: the life of Mary Tudor, Queen of England
The Forest Dwellers
The Song of Heledd