On Friday last week, a set of gold rosary beads carried by Mary Queen of Scots to her execution were stolen from Arundel Castle. Thieves smashed open a display cabinet and took the rosary plus other gold and silver items dating back to the Tudor period. This included coronation cups given by Mary to the Earl Marshal.
Mary had a tragic life. She became Queen of Scotland as a baby and spent her childhood in France while others ruled on her behalf. Once an adult, Mary returned to Scotland but her Catholic faith brought her into conflict with the rising Protestant faith and its leading Scottish firebrand, John Knox.
Her personal life was stormy to put it mildly. She married her first cousin, Lord Darnley, in what seems to have been a passionate liaison. But it turned sour and Darnley died after a very suspicious explosion at a house where he was staying and was found dead in the grounds, most likely smothered to death.
Mary had a legitimate claim to the throne of England – which naturally concerned Elizabeth the First – who just happened to be the Queen of England! These two women, who never actually met, were set on a collision course. For English Protestants, Elizabeth was the defender of their faith while Mary was a French-raised Catholic who had to be crushed.
And crushed she was. Firstly by her own Scottish aristocracy who turned on Mary. Then she was abducted and imprisoned for nearly two decades by cousin Elizabeth. Initially, Mary thought Elizabeth might help her regain the Scottish throne. But when it became clear that was not going to happen, Mary took to plotting against Elizabeth.
A course of action that led with grim inevitability to the executioner’s block. The beheading was the subject of lurid tales from those present on that tragic day. Apparently it took more than one blow of the axe to take off her head. Then the executioner held up her head by the hair only to discover it was a wig – and her head fell to the wooden stage and rolled along.
And then a claim that for up to quarter of an hour, Mary’s lips continued to move. Plus a small dog emerged from under her skirts after the execution. So – quite a scene.
Tudor treasure – the gold rosary beads of Mary Queen of Scots
Very sad that the rosary beads she clutched on the way to her death should have been stolen by some total low life. The metal value is very low according to Arundel Castle. Let’s hope then that they haven’t been melted down. I will confess this kind of crime boils my blood. The thieves are lucky we don’t inflict Tudor-style punishments today for these kind of offences.
The Catholic church has always enjoyed displaying the body of this and that saint – or parts of their body – for the reverence of pilgrims. Walking around London the other day – before the Coronavirus lockdown – I found one saint I’d not encountered before. His 17th century body is in pieces – for a grim reason!
Body of a 17th century saint on display in London
In the Catholic cathedral of Westminster in London I chanced upon the weirdest saint’s relic I’ve seen in a while. It’s the dismembered body of a 17th century saint who was executed in a very gruesome way then stitched back together again!
John Southworth (pictured above) was born in 1592 to what was described as a “recusant” Catholic family. That means a family paying fines in order to keep practising their Catholic faith, which was now no longer the religion of England.
Under the Tudor monarchs from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I, England had transformed from being a Roman Catholic country to adopting the new Protestant faith.
It had been a stormy period of change. The English monarchs had made themselves head of the church and overthrown the authority of the pope. Anybody still obeying Rome could face a traitor’s death.
Being a Catholic priest resulted in being branded or even executed. Undeterred, Southworth decided to become a priest and trained in France before returning to England.
The body of this saint ends up in four parts!
He faced spells of imprisonment over the years. Eventually, under the rule of Oliver Cromwell, Southworth was sentenced to death. This took the form of being hanged, drawn and quartered. To be more precise, his body was dragged through the streets. Then he was hanged but brought down while still alive.
Then his manhood was cut off, his intestines pulled out, his heart brought forth and finally, Southworth was chopped into four bits. The idea was that these dismembered body parts would be displayed in different places to warn others not to commit the same crime.
Spain acquires the body of this English saint
The Spanish Ambassador to London, a Catholic, bought the whole body – dismembered – for the princely sum of 40 guineas. He then had it embalmed and sewn back together. It ended up in a lead coffin at the English College in Douai, France where Southworth had trained to be a priest.
In the 1920s, as the college faced having to move because of a new housing development, it was decided to send the bones to the Catholic Cathedral at Westminster in London. This isn’t Westminster Abbey by the way.
That was originally a Catholic monastery in the Middle Ages but had become a Protestant abbey after the Tudors and the Reformation. The Catholic Cathedral was build in the 19th century and you can visit it near Victoria tube station.
If you do visit the cathedral, you’ll see the rather ghoulish spectacle of John Southworth’s dismembered body in a priest’s garment, gloves, shoes and a mask. Underneath all this is presumably a broken skeleton by now.
Women have had a tough time breaking through in history. Up against societies where men were told they ruled the roots – women had had to exercise power against all odds. Sometimes behind the scenes and other times up front.
But when women have managed to get to the top in history – they’ve been demonised or subjected to myth making and invented scandals. In short, women in history have been the subject of fake news. And the image we have of many famous female historical figures is entirely from the poison pens of male historians of the time.
WOMEN IN HISTORY: Catherine the Great
Oh, you must have heard how Catherine the Great of Russia died. The horse. The harness that broke. How it fell on top of her. What she was trying to do at the time with the horse.
I’ve heard that tale for decades going back to university. The myth that one of Russia’s most powerful historical rulers was killed when she attempted to have equine intercourse. The story, folks, is total bunkum – nonsense – 100% tripe.
But myths like this about great women persist. If anything, with social media they are reviving and spreading more than ever. This maliciously amusing lie about Catherine the Great is believed to have originated in France among catty royal courtiers who wanted to mock Russia’s ambition to be a world power. How better to do that than denigrate the late female tsar.
WOMEN IN HISTORY: The Empress Livia – wife of Augustus
Women in history have always been the subject of the most resilient myths. Ambitious, clever females have been systematically rubbished by male chroniclers. The Roman Empire is a good example. Take the wife of the first emperor Augustus. Livia was the mother of the people and brainy consort of her husband the emperor. But she was also cast as a serial poisoner.
The historian Tacitus accused her of framing and being complicit in the murder of some of her rivals. The very bitchy Roman writer Suetonius echoed these claims.
And then Cassius Dio, a very respected Roman source, went as far as to claim that she ended up murdering Augustus by smearing poison on figs she knew he would eat. These accusations were all repeated in the 20th century novel I, Claudiusby Robert Graves, later made into an excellent BBC TV drama in the 1970s.
Why would Livia have poisoned as many people as these historians claimed? Because it’s alleged she was clearing a path for her son Tiberius to become the second emperor. There is no evidence whatsoever to support an association between Livia and about twenty deaths attributed to her. Yet, the crimes have stuck like glue damaging her reputation down the centuries.
WOMEN IN HISTORY: Roman female politicians
Roman women clearly exercised very real power and got trashed for doing so. The mother of Nero, Agrippina the Younger, was accused of poisoning her husband the emperor Claudius (who was also her uncle).
And then there’s the wife of Mark Antony – not Cleopatra, but a lesser known woman called Fulvia. She was hated by the great Roman orator Cicero who spoke out against her on several occasions. One unsubstantiated account has her receiving his head after he was executed for treason and piercing his tongue with her gold hairpins.
WOMEN IN HISTORY: Lucrezia Borgia
Fast forward to Italy during the Renaissance and we have the scandalous history of Lucrezia Borgia. The first shocking fact – true as it happens – is that she was the daughter of Pope Alexander VI. Yes, you read that correctly. The pope had a daughter. And other children. Pope Alexander indeed freely admitted to having fathered several kids from his mistresses.
His reputation has been undermined as a result with his family, the Borgias, painted as corrupt and libertine. But at the time, Pope Alexander was deemed to have been one of the most cultured and successful popes in history.
One of his children, Cesare Borgia, was an ambitious statesman who was the inspiration for Machiavelli’s book The Prince. While Lucrezia was also a very talented political operator but she was cast as …. yet another serial poisoner.
Women who murdered were normally expected to use poison. The idea being that they were too physically weak to resort to something more physical. And drugging also revealed underhand feminine guile and cunning. So, the gossip went, Lucrezia concealed poison in her ring that she slipped into her victims’ drinks.
The stories about the Borgias holding orgies and having incest spread from two very hostile sources. One was the growing Protestant faith, which viewed the early 16th century Vatican as a corrupt Babylon of vice and depravity. The other source was the radical preacher Girolamo Savonarola who accused Pope Alexander of being in league with the devil. His repeated denunciations of the papacy led to him being burned to death in 1498.
WOMEN IN HISTORY: Anne Boleyn
I’ll finish with Anne Boleyn – the second wife of Henry VIII – beheaded when she was unable to bear her king a son. Anne was ambitious but no more so than any other woman of her rank.
She was just better and brighter when it came to getting what she wanted. In the end, she paid with her head with charges trumped up against her that were clearly over the top. Incest with her brother being one calumny thrown at her.
And in addition, Catholic propagandists – who disliked the Protestant Anne – spread the entirely false rumour that she had a sixth finger on her right hand. Obviously a sign of being a witch! Anne’s remains were exhumed in the 19th century and there was no sign of an extra digit!
As you can see, being a woman in history has been tough – let’s hope it’s getting easier from here on in!
Divorced, beheaded, died. And repeat. That’s how we were taught to remember how the six wives of Henry VIII died. Anne of Cleves was the fourth wife that Henry VIII hated from the moment he clapped eyes on her.
But….figure it out…she was divorced. So – how did she survive?
Henry divorced Catherine of Aragon and ended the power of the Pope in England in order to do so. Then he fell out with Anne Boleyn, his highly intelligent second wife incapable of giving him a son. Wife three was Jane Seymour who had a son but then died shortly after childbirth.
And along came Anne of Cleves.
Dowdy Anne of Cleves. It’s always said that Henry saw a portrait of her by the artist Holbein and decided to marry her – convinced she was stunningly gorgeous. Unfortunately, she wasn’t quite so pretty in real life. In fact, Henry described his new Germanic wife-to-be a “Flanders mare”.
They later divorced.
But Anne is more fascinating than people give her credit. She complied with the request for a divorce and bent over backwards to give the king an easy exit out of the marriage. In contrast – Thomas Cromwell, the leading adviser at court who had recommended this union, lost his head.
And Henry seems to have been rather nice to Anne afterwards. He showered her with castles and a state pension, gave her access to his children and referred to her as his “sister”. When you consider that the next wife – Catherine Howard – would be executed, Anne must have played the situation very well.
And there is the possibility that Anne of Cleves was not as ugly as depicted by Henry’s propaganda. In fact, the real problem might have been his inability to consummate any marriage by this stage in his life.
I explain further in this episode on Henry VIII from Private Lives of the Monarchs on UKTV – Yesterday TV.
At the end of his life, the bloated and vindictive Henry VIII found himself without any friends. But you can hardly be surprised when he’d executed so many of them!
Even showering admiration and homage on this volatile monarch was no guarantee that your head would remain attached to your shoulders. Let’s look at friends that Henry VIII had judicially murdered:
HENRY VIII FRIENDS: Cardinal Wolsey
Wolsey was an adviser inherited by the young Henry VIII from his father. He was a top diplomat and by that, I mean his ability to scheme and spin had no equal. Henry had in Wolsey a Chancellor respected all over Europe and elevated to cardinal by Pope Leo X.
The high point for Wolsey was organising the opulent meeting between the King of France and Henry VIII at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520. But in the years that followed, he struggled with the king’s strong desire to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled by the pope.
She had not borne him a son. And the Tudor dynasty had come to power as a result of a very bloody war between factions of the English aristocracy called the War of the Roses. Henry needed to cement the legitimacy of the dynasty and have a male heir. Catherine was clearly not able to do that.
But Wolsey wasn’t able to get the annulment – despite his diplomatic brilliance. He died aged 57 already under arrest and more than likely facing an appointment with the ax and block. With his death, Henry lost a very loyal ally and a great mind. But divorcing Catherine came first.
HENRY VIII FRIENDS: Thomas More
After Wolsey failed to convince the pope, Henry declared himself head of the Church of England. He effectively nationalised the Catholic church and ended over a thousand years of papal authority in his realm. But not everybody was happy with this development.
Thomas More was a highly effective lawyer and humanist thinker. But also an ardent opponent of the Protestant Reformation and the teachings of Martin Luther. He had worked with Wolsey to try and halt the spread of Protestantism into England. Succeeding Wolsey as Chancellor, he pursued his pro-Catholic agenda.
But here was a King effectively embracing this new variant of Christianity to further his desire to divorce Catherine. Thomas More found it impossible to accept the end of papal authority, let alone agreeing to the idea of Henry leading the church in his stead.
When refusing to acknowledge Henry as supreme leader of the church became a crime, More found himself cast as a traitor. He tried to remain on friendly terms with the king but the final nail in his proverbial coffin was not turning up to the wedding between Henry and his second wife, Anne Boleyn.
More was tried for treason and beheaded on 6 July 1535.
Thomas Cromwell was an enthusiastic supporter of the Protestant Reformation – diametrically opposed to the position of Thomas More. He organised the dissolution of the monasteries across England taking the enormous wealth of the Catholic church into the state coffers.
But he tripped up by organising the fourth marriage of Henry to Anne of Cleves – a German princess that the king didn’t like at all. However, the knives were already out for Thomas when he went to the executioner’s block.
After Thomas, Henry never really had an adviser of the same calibre as Cromwell, More or Wolsey. Not just advisers but friends and confidantes. They had served the monarch wisely and loyally. But this was a mercurial and authoritarian character who doesn’t seem to have been much good at keeping either friends of wives.
Here I am on Yesterday TV’s Private Lives of the Monarchs explaining what a wretched figure Henry VIII cut at the end.
In the summer of 1483, two princes of the English royal family disappeared off the face of the earth. The boys had been put in the Tower of London for their safekeeping. But it turned into a jail and their unmarked grave for centuries.
That was until 1674 when workers dug up a wooden box with two smaller than average skeletons. Academics have requested DNA testing to be done on the bones but the Church of England has refused. Its curious argument is that if one set of bones are tested then this will lead to multiple royal exhumations where there are surrounding historical mysteries!
If the Princes in the Tower were murdered – why?
If indeed they were murdered, of course. Though the evidence seems pretty damning. And the culprit is assumed by most people to be Richard III.
As any lawyer will tell you – getting somebody convicted or alternatively off the hook is as much about the power of story telling as it is about the facts. Portray the accused as a monster and you’re on the way to getting them banged up.
In the court of public opinion, Richard III has always been suspected of killing the Princes in the Tower – who were his own young nephews. Richard’s brother – King Edward IV – had died in 1483. The crown should have gone to his 12-year-old son – also called Edward.
But England had just been ripped apart in the preceding years by a civil war. The House of York (emblem a white rose) and the House of Lancaster (emblem a red rose) had struggled to take the throne of England. The bloody civil war that wiped out a good part of the English aristocracy was termed The War of the Roses.
The Lancastrians had been overthrown by the Yorkists. The last Lancastrian king, Henry VI, had died in rather mysterious circumstances. Official the cause of ‘melancholy’. Unofficially, he was murdered. Henry had come to the throne as a child and never really grown into the role. So the idea of another child monarch wasn’t attractive.
But uncle Richard also wanted the throne for himself – pure and simple. In the way was 12-year-old Edward and his 9-year-old brother, also called Richard. And one also has to note their resourceful and ambitious mother, Elizabeth Woodville.
Now she was an interesting character. Not royal or even very aristocratic. The late king had married her in secret and his choice of wife had gone down like a lead balloon with the court. It didn’t help that her family were all Lancastrians. But she was also bereft of titles – not even a Countess or a Duchess. Just plain Elizabeth Woodville. That would never do!
However, she enjoyed a long marriage to King Edward and gave him many children including the two Princes. When Edward IV died, most like of typhus, aged 41 – the 12-year-old son Edward journeyed to London expecting to be crowned king.
But the future Richard III, his uncle, rushed down from the north of England and intercepted the boy’s royal procession towards London. He imprisoned a couple of key protectors of the prince and escorted the 12-year-old to the Tower of London…..for his ‘protection’.
Elizabeth Woodville knew what Richard’s game was – and rushed to Westminster Abbey with all her servants, treasury and the younger son, 9-year-old Richard. His uncle couldn’t let that state of affairs continue for long and now he made a beeline for the abbey. Elizabeth was forced to surrender her son to join Edward in the Tower of London also….for his ‘protection’.
And the uncle Richard delivered his coup-de-grace. He went to parliament and had the Princes in the Tower declared illegitimate. That argument was that the secret marriage to Elizabeth Woodville had never been legal in the eyes of the state or church. So now, the path was clear for uncle Richard to become King – and he was duly crowned.
As for the Princes in the Tower – they were seen playing in the precincts of the castle for a while before very suddenly vanishing. A contemporary account from an Italian diplomat is pretty damning, pointing the finger at king Richard III.
But Elizabeth Woodville would have the last laugh. One of her daughters married the future Henry VII – first of the Tudor dynasty. And it was Henry’s forces that defeated Richard III in battle at Bosworth and killed him.
Under the Tudors, Richard III was completely vilified for his role as a child killer. Sir Thomas More, the famous chancellor to King Henry VIII, characterised Richard III as an evil character, both physically and morally deformed. This caricature was then taken up by William Shakespeare in his famous play.
It suited the Tudors – who had usurped the English throne – to portray Richard as a degenerate and murderer. And he does have supporters today – termed ‘Ricardians’ – who argue that he didn’t murder the Princes in the Tower. They feel this is Tudor propaganda designed solely to destroy his reputation.
Interesting, I have a history book from the 1920s that doesn’t mention the Princes in the Tower at all. And it portrays Richard III as a reforming king who passed many ‘beneficial laws’. But in all honesty – I find the case against him overwhelming.
Here I am perusing the book and an image of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 – where he died and his naked body was displayed slung across a mule.