The Trials and Tantrums of the Tudor Court

By Charity Bishop

Whenever anyone has the gall to tell me history is boring, I just laugh and tell them to read up on the Tudor Court. Hilarious, scandalous, and outrageous? Yes. Boring? Never! I am obsessed with all things Tudor, and with many of the historical figures of the day, because there is a wealth of comedic riches about them. It is not all sexual harassment and traitors. There are plenty of tantrums, too. You think modern-day scandals are fun? Try a court of intrigue, forbidden marriages, secret elopements, divorce, and nasty letters, full of colorful characters and unforgettable incidents.

What I find most interesting about this time and family is not only how history repeats itself, but in their continual acts of sheer defiance. It shows a dramatic contrast in personalities. Their gaunt patriarch, Henry VII, was a stern and shrewd man whose incredible business sense and miserly ways made him a powerful “moneybag” in Europe. He left his son, Henry VIII, one of the richest men in the world. But Daddy Tudor’s financial smarts did not pass down to “Good King Hal,” who squandered it all on foreign wars, excessive parties, divorce cases, and his mistresses.

He’s not the only Tudor who didn’t get their father’s stoic prudence. Princess Margaret, as the Dowager Queen of Scotland, refused to hand over her son, the heir to Scotland, fell in love with and married an imprudent rake—and wound up firing a cannon at him to get him to leave her alone! Talk about fierce! Her younger sister, Mary, meanwhile shipped off to marry the old King of France. Once he went to the great beyond a while later (not soon enough, for her taste), she hopped happily into the marital bed of Charles Brandon, a court rake and schemer. Her big brother was so furious, he considered lopping off his best friend’s head—and instead, banished them from court for a good long while.

Everyone knew “Hal” had a bad temper. The first time he tried to sneak a mistress, Katharine of Aragon found out and had a tantrum over it. (To make matters worse, he chose the younger sister of her best friend!) He retaliated by kicking her favorite lady-in-waiting out of court! (A favorite pastime of his, when he considered how to hurt his wife.) His daughter with Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth, inherited her ferocious temper from both her parents. (Hilariously, Anne Boleyn once told Henry he ought not to argue anymore with Katharine of Aragon, because “she will always have the upper hand” aka, she’s smarter than you, dumb-ass!). Elizabeth flew into such ‘passionate rages’ as the queen that, constricted in such tight corsets, she sometimes actually fainted.

That’s saying nothing of the characters at the court, among them Sir Thomas More and his friend, Erasmus. A known satirist and philosopher of the time, Erasmus spent his free time ticking people off and discussing theology, with a sense of irony and very little respect. Round about the time one of the Popes died, Erasmus wrote an offensive satire about him trying to buy his way into heaven and threatening to storm his way in, with all his guards, when St. Peter refuses him admittance. Since he knew it would cause a public outcry, Erasmus didn’t put his name on it, but his old friend Thomas More sent him a letter that surmounted to, “I know it was you. I have a copy in your handwriting! Don’t you dare deny it! AHAHAHAHA!”

Wait. It gets even better. About a decade before a different sanctimonious Pope excommunicated Henry VIII (“Hal”) for being a disobedient lout, the Vatican honored him as “Defender of the Faith,” for a literary defense of the Church against Martin Luther’s attack on Catholicism. Not to be outdone, the ever-so-patient, docile Martin Luther shot back a letter saying (in basic terms) that the English king didn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground. He added that reading the argument was like seeing “a strumpet raging in a tantrum,” and to shut up on important matters “of which you know not.”

“Hal” promptly threw a hissy fit that some trumped up German heretic would dare insult him like that. He told Sir Thomas More to put Martin Luther in his place, as he was far too busy and important to do it himself. More, however, had trouble answering in the earthy language Luther used (perhaps he didn’t feel classy using “shit” and “ass”), and finally gave up after a few rounds in which Luther outdid him in the crass department.

It’s a shame that so many books, movies, and television shows start with Anne Boleyn and Henry, or focus on their eldest daughter, and ignore the rest of the colorful family and their courtiers, because there is no shortage of hilarious anecdotes about these people. If you never read about them, you’ll never know that Henry VII’s go-to coping mechanism whenever an enemy invaded was to purchase a new wardrobe (oh, how vain!), or that Katharine of Aragon got told off by her husband for throwing extravagant parties during the annulment proceedings (he felt she was ‘not taking this seriously enough!’ I rather think she was celebrating her ongoing succession of victories against him!). And don’t get me started on the tantrum Elizabeth had when she found out one of her ladies married without her permission…

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop devotes her free time to eating chocolate, debating theology with her friends, researching the Tudors and writing novels about them, caring for her beloved cats, running a MBTI typing blog, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life.

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