OK, I confess. I had a sort of nerdy childhood. The heroes I hungrily read about were composers, artists, writers, kings and queens. My mother was particularly fascinated by Henry VIII and his family, the Tudors. She told us stories about them from the time we were quite young. Maybe it was his red hair, or the fact that he spoke multiple languages, was well-read, and even wrote and composed some hymns. Maybe it was the passion with which he lived his life, and even the “bad boy” reputation that lives on today in historically dubious movies and TV series.
But I think mostly it was that Henry was a tragic hero with a tragic flaw.
With the zeal of Ahab, he sought to leave a male heir behind when he died. In his quest, he left wives, children, friends, mistresses, politicians, his relationship with the pope (and the Catholic church in general) in the dust. His first wife, Catherine of Aragon, delivered him multiple children of both sexes, but only one survived – Princess Mary.
When it became clear that she would never give him a son, Henry found a pretense to divorce Catherine and marry his new companion, Anne Boleyn. You see, Catherine was the widow of Henry’s brother Arthur, and it was against the rules for princes to marry their brothers’ widows (Hamlet, anyone?). However, Catherine being a Spanish princess, the pope refused the divorce or annulment petition, because it would have made Mary a bastard and Catherine, well, you know.
Henry’s well-known solution was to break with Rome and start his own church. When Anne seemed only to be able to deliver one live daughter (Princess Elizabeth), he claimed she had bewitched him, his cohorts framed her for adultery, and she met her untimely end on the green at the Tower of London under a sharp French sword.
From there, the story takes one brief happy turn. His next wife, Jane Seymour, finally gave him a living, if somewhat sickly, son (Prince Edward) – but then she promptly died. Another Anne (of Cleves – marriage by proxy annulled as soon as he saw her), and two more Catherines followed. Catherine Howard was a silly and unwise girl. She probably actually was unfaithful, and literally got the axe.
Catherine Parr was his last wife, and cared for him through his final illnesses. In a nasty hunting accident a horse had fallen on him, crushing his leg. Later, a jousting accident caused a head injury and exacerbated the leg wound. He became increasingly surly, immobile, and overweight (hence gout, and probably diabetes). Still, Catherine was an agreeable companion in his last years.
In between all this marrying and begetting, Henry became quite accomplished in just about every aspect of his life, and also indulged his love of beautiful things. Among them was Hampton Court Palace. About 10 miles from London on the Thames, it was constructed for his friend Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York. As Wolsey fell from favor, the palace conveniently “fell” to the king, who enhanced it and used it as a retreat where he held lavish parties. In fact, he loved it so much that he spent three of his honeymoons there.
As you can imagine, when we grew up Hampton Court was a place we had to visit. And even though we were there too early in the year for the Tudor roses and some other blooms, we were as taken in by the beauty of the palace and its grounds as Henry had been.
Hampton Court has wonderful gardens full of topiaries and hanging wisteria, a maze, and a million other earthly delights. It also has docks on the river, fountains, tennis courts, and lovely paths to enjoy. Perhaps it was wandering here that Catherine persuaded Henry to reconcile with all of his children, and to make sure that they were all included (as legitimate heirs) in his final Act of Succession. She is widely credited with influencing these decisions. Scandalously, Catherine married Thomas Seymour shortly after Henry died. (A separate, romantic saga…)
In the event, Edward succeeded Henry as king, but died young of tuberculosis. After an unpleasant little interlude between Mary and their Protestant cousin Lady Jane Grey (for whom things didn’t end well), “Bloody” Mary succeeded Edward. The lone Catholic in the line, she and her posse dispatched Lady Jane on grounds of treason, then executed several hundred Protestants (most by burning) in an attempt to win the country back for Rome. She died of influenza five years into her reign.
And then Elizabeth I came to the throne, and the Elizabethan Era was born. Reportedly very like her father in wit, charisma, and intelligence, she was the strong hand England needed and loved for the next 45 years. Not a son, but a worthy heir.
Here endeth my Mum’s tale of the Tudors (seriously abridged version)… Elizabeth was the last of them. Her heir was James Stuart of Scotland, and thus begins another history, for another day.
Walking these garden paths, we imagined what it was like there nearly 500 years ago, when nobles from around British Isles and the European continent were entertained by the Tudors. What trysts were begun, and what intrigues were hatched on those paths and under those trees?
Well, OK, maybe I’m part nerd, part romantic.
This post was written in response to the weekly Travel Theme challenge by Ailsa of WheresMyBackpack: Gardens. To see other bloggers’ flowery responses and get more info on these challenges, just click on the link!