First of all, though, what was it that made a woman in the sixteenth century admirable? Sure, we see people so often calling Anne Boleyn their "hero" - but is she, really? Or rather, should she be? Do modern women of the world really want to follow in her footsteps or act - at times - so wildly unwise? Don't get me wrong, I'm an advocate for Anne praise, but I think we need to focus on the positive aspects of historical women. Why not, for example, call Queen Elizabeth of York a role model for women? She was, after all, a very respected and beloved woman in her day. Well, in certain ways we can call her a role model - and even one of the most admirable women in Tudor history - but to put it simply, roles of women and our opinions of them have changed a lot since the 1500s. Let's keep that in mind while discussing these women today, and celebrating their lives. While none of them can be categorized as "completely good" or "absolutely admirable" (that would make them all far too one-dimensional), they each had something significant to add to history, and they've remained in our heads and hearts for a reason. So, with that being said, here are some of my favorite women from this period in history...
Surely, you knew I had to start with my absolute favorite Tudor woman, right? Anyone who has been reading my blog for any significant amount of time knows my interest in one of the Henrican court's most obscure women. Elizabeth "Bessie" Blount was one of Henry VIII's mistresses during his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. Although we don't know for sure how many other mistresses he had during this time, we consider Bessie pretty special because she seems to be the first "acknowledged" mistress - though she was never offered the title of "maitresse en titre" (official mistress) like Anne Boleyn was. Bessie was, from what we can tell, a pretty common young lady when she arrived at court to serve the Queen. Raised in the countryside, her father was a member of the royal court, though his significance is somewhat unclear. Bessie was described as beautiful, musically talented, and kind - all positive attributes even today. So it's no wonder that she caught Henry's eye and later produced a living son for him - the first of his sons to live past infancy. In this, of course, she is considered important - her son was raised to a Duke after only a few years of life, and it is thought that at least at some point he was considered for the succession (though this never came to pass). Bessie herself was sent back into the country and married twice, keeping the King's friendship for many years and dying in happy obscurity. She may seem to you an unimportant figure - there is next to nothing written about her, after all - but I see her as a regular girl who lived a pretty privileged life - gaining the love (for a time) of the most powerful man in England, proving that she was capable (and so was he) of producing a son, and engaging in two (seemingly) happy marriages - living out her days away from the scandal and dangers of court, which only worsened after Anne Boleyn's arrival. In my opinion, Bessie was the ultimate Tudor mistress - which, we must remember, was not a "taboo" title, as we may think. She played her part, made a name for herself, and happy moved on with her life to be a hands-on mother and faithful wife. A great example of a Tudor woman, in my opinion.
While I try to avoid the mindset that Henry's first wife was "completely good" or worthy of sainthood, I do think she had many admirable attributes that we should remember. Unfortunately, those positive attributes have given many Tudor fans a slightly biased look at this Queen. Too many people see her as the wronged wife of an evil tyrant, the innocent, pious Queen whose husband was viciously snatched away by a whorish usurper. These cannot, and certainly are not, entirely true. Yes, Katherine suffered greatly during her final years - largely as a result of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn - but she was not the completely innocent, abused woman we so often think of. If that were truly the case, why would we admire her? For her strength and modesty? Maybe, but that still doesn't make her a very interesting character. No, I think the reasons we should admire and respect Katherine go much deeper - she was proactive, and she was stubborn - two attributes that were not necessarily positive during those days, especially for a Queen Consort who was expected to bow her head and meekly serve her husband. No, Katherine proved that she was much more than a royal babymaker - which she struggled with. She refused to let Henry, Anne, or any other enemy at court get the best of her, even when her royal world was virtually falling apart. She actively fought for her title and her rights - sending pleading letters to her royal relatives in Spain and seeking help, but never abandoning her royal pride. She was Queen, and she would remain Queen - no matter who opposed her. This, I think, is something to admire in Katherine. She did not sweetly bow out of the royal scene when Henry asked her to. She did not skip merrily to a nunnery because it was what was expected of her. Her pride (which a Tudor woman wasn't expected to have much of) controlled her actions, and it is part of the reason we remember her so fondly today. Sure, she had negative attributes - hating virtually everyone who wasn't Catholic, for example - but she was, in certain ways, a much more modern woman than we give her credit for.
Now we jump to the flip side of the Katherine of Aragon side of things. Yes, I admire Katherine for her strength, but I also admire Anne Boleyn for her persistence and her ambition. Now, too often when we hear the word "ambition," we think of it as a bad thing. In some ways, of course, it is. Too much ambition can lead to disaster - as it did for the Boleyn faction. But at the same time, ambition was an absolute necessity at the court of Henry VIII, and Anne learned that quickly. In order to get anywhere in life, one had to look ahead - and they had to be willing to cut others down. Not exactly a friendly way of living life, but it was necessary for success in this period. Anne executed this with grace, charm, and charisma - and because of that, she's become one of the most discussed and famous women in history. For better or for worse, Anne persisted in her goal of marrying Henry VIII - whether it was for love or pure throne-lust. She got it, and in less time than it took her to gain the throne, she was cut down from it. However, during those years of influence and fame, Anne did many things to keep her name and memory ingrained in the minds of her contemporaries. She was, I think, a born leader - and that is an incredibly modern idea for a woman. In the Tudor time period, who would have suspected that one woman could have led to all the change that invariably followed? Who would have guessed that she would be so important to the new wave of Protestantism in England, or that she would largely be the reason that so many men at court would rise to power and fame? Probably no one thought this at the time, but these are the things that Anne is best known for. A fiercely religious woman, she encouraged reading of the bible and diligence in prayer. She gave generously to educational charities and advocated several intelligent Protestant men. She was, in essence, doing much more for England than she was for herself. Now, she is so commonly referred to as a sexed-up temptress, but this does not even begin to capture who she was. We need to remember her for more than her fiery, beguiling personality - she was, at her core, persistent and passionate, and she absolutely changed the world she lived in.
I mentioned her briefly at the beginning of this post, but I think she is so worthy of a spot here, and I hope you'll agree. As I said, our opinions of what makes a woman "admirable" or "great" have changed dramatically over time, but if there ever was a Tudor woman who was considered to be those things during her life, it must have been Elizabeth of York. She was, even in her son's opinion, an ideal Tudor bride. She just checked all the boxes that one would desire in a woman of her time. Not only was she beautiful and royal - two very appealing qualities - she was kind, demure, and faithful. I've mentioned before, Elizabeth had her own claim to the throne of England. As King Edward IV's daughter, she was a Princess of the blood, and no one could contest that. However, she seemed just as happy to marry the usurping King Henry Tudor (VII), and become his Queen Consort. Compared to women like Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn - two fiercely passionate and stubborn women - Elizabeth was content to be a royal bride and do as her husband wished. Perhaps she had seen a little too much of the dangers of the monarchy. Becoming Queen (or attempting to) may have seemed undesirable to her at this point in her life. After all, hadn't two of her brothers mysteriously been killed because of greed and ambition for the throne? At least this is the popular opinion. Instead, Elizabeth proved herself to be a fantastic key player in the beginning of the Tudor dynasty. She gave birth to several children - starting with a boy! - and seemed to please her husband in every way. There's no way to know if this was a romantic marriage or not, or if there were any great feelings between them, but the fact that Henry VII spent so lavishly on her funeral (and cried!) tells us that she must have meant a great deal to him. She certainly meant a lot to her son, the future King of England, as well. Henry VIII often spoke of his gentle mother, and some historians (and myself) assume that he wished for a bride like her. After all, was she not everything a Tudor man desired?
First of all, apologies. I am not nearly as educated about Anne Neville as I hope to be, so you will undoubtedly find better information about her through other sources, but as I've just begun to learn about her, I just had to include her here. She has quickly become one of my favorite historical women, and I hope that through research, my opinion of her will only increase. I think she is too often forgotten about in history, or glossed over as a wife of some king that no one can remember the name of. The name "Anne Neville" doesn't strike interest in most people's minds (unlike Anne Boleyn), and I think many people probably have to do a quick google search to figure out what she was really all about. I think this is a shame, because she is actually a very interesting woman in Plantagenet (almost Tudor) history. She was the wife of two very ambitious and powerful men - first, Edward of Lancaster, the son of Margaret of Anjou (who I also hope to do more research about), and later King Richard III - the man who would have his crown stolen by Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth. Anne came from one of the most powerful and influential families in England during the mid-to-late 1400's. Her father was known as "the Kingmaker," and he seemed to have a horrible tendency of causing his family trouble (through his treason against the Crown). Anne may have inherited some of that ambition, but it seems more likely that she was cast into an arranged marriage with "the enemy" at the time, the Lancaster Prince, Edward. This didn't last long, however, and she went on to again flip sides and become a Yorkist once again (upon her father's death in battle). By the time she married Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Anne had been through quite a lot. She had seen her family virtually torn apart by greed, ambition, and treason, heard of her father's death, married an enemy of the Crown, and somehow found herself in the Yorkist's favor regardless. Some may call this luck, and indeed it might be! In any case, I think she lived a fascinating life and deserves to be remembered for it. Though it is sad that she died in her late twenties, I think it's fortunate for her that she wasn't around to witness her husband's horrible end. The consequences for her at that point may have been tragic. So please, try to remember Anne Neville, who is too frequently glossed over and ignored in history! Especially with all the hype about Richard III, I think it's a great time to learn a little more about this fascinating Plantagenet woman.
I know, I know, usually the name "Mary Tudor" serves only to strike fear into the hearts of Protestants, but I don't want to talk about her "Bloody Mary" reputation or the many people she killed during her reign as Queen Mary I. Instead, I want to talk about the one very basic reason I admire this woman - who is so cruelly referred to by many modern history fans. I admire and respect Mary because of her unwavering faith. Yes, that same faith is what inspired the vicious burnings of many Protestants, but at her heart, Mary was not an evil woman. We know this because of contemporary reports of her generosity and kindness, and her overall pleasant demeaner. Of course, she had faults, which are too clearly defined for all to see, but she was also an incredibly strong and faithful woman, and I think that is worthy of admiration. Mary learned a lot about her religion - Roman Catholicism - from her mother, who is considered the "pious" one of Henry's wives. From an early age (like any royal child), Mary learned her prayers and was taught to be a dutiful and faithful Catholic - which she excelled at. But when the tides turned around 1530 and her father broke off contact with the Pope, Mary remained steadfast in her faith while others turned in the Protestant direction. This makes Mary a Catholic hero in some ways. She did, in fact, face death threats from her father (as well as others) because of her stubbornness in remaining loyal to the Pope and to her Catholic mother. Although she did relent in certain cases to save her neck, she never wavered in her beliefs, and as soon as the throne was in sight, she set to work returning England to Rome - which was short-lived and overall unsuccessful. While Mary's life is plagued with tragedy and pain, the one comfort for her that remained until her death was her unwavering belief in Catholicism. As a Catholic myself, I admire her greatly for this, and I know that I wouldn't have had the same courage she did to stand by my faith when faced with death - though I wish I could say otherwise. Because of this, I think Mary is not only an interesting figure - proving to be just as stubborn and unrelenting as her mother - but also a pious and incredibly faithful person. Again, I don't deny that these convictions led to tragedy for many people, but I hope we can all agree that there is something to admire and respect Mary for, despite her horrible reputation.