Monday, April 25, 2011

Question from Guy - Lowliest origins of Henry VIII's wives

I'm reading a book which states that: Jane Seymour had the 'lowliest origins of any of Henry's wives.' Is this true? I'd have thought, as a knight's daughter, she ranked alongside Anne Boleyn and Catherine Parr, and that as Anne and Jane both had connections to the Howards, that Katherine Parr was of the lowliest origins. What do you think?


Foose said...

Jane and Anne are connected through the Cheyneys, by Elizabeth Cheyney's first (Tilney) and second marriages (Saye). Jane is only peripherally related to the Howards, through her grandmother's half-sister Elizabeth Tilney (grandmother of Anne). There also appears to be a very remote connection between her Wentworth mother's family and the early Howards. It would be enough for her family to perhaps look to the Duke of Norfolk as the "big man" of their family and a valuable connexion. The Wentworth alliances, on the whole, tend to be superior to those of the Seymours.

I think Katherine Parr pulls slightly ahead of Jane in some observers' opinions because of her paternal grandmother Elizabeth Fitzhugh, a niece of Warwick the Kingmaker, and through the Nevilles descended from John of Lancaster and related to a host of 15th- and 16th-century nobility (including the Greys and the Willoughbys). The Seymours appear to have settled in to "country gentry" status and the Parrs look like they were headed the same way, except that Katherine's mother Maud seems to have been determined to try for something better by getting her son married to the Earl of Essex's heiress.

Jane Seymour's sister married Cromwell's son Gregory, which earlier writers have been inclined to sneer at as linking Henry VIII by marriage to the "grandson of a Putney blacksmith." I believe recent scholarship has exculpated Cromwell from his alleged blacksmith parentage, but no one can pretend he had any noble or even gentry blood. I think the Seymours have also taken a hit through this alliance, although the Elizabeth Seymour had two other marriages, in better quarters (although still nothing spectacular).

To me Jane and Katherine Parr look pretty comparable in status, but a specialist might have more insight into the sensitive permutations of Tudor-era notions of blood and precedence.

Gareth Russell said...

Foose is right. Katherine would have pulled slightly ahead of Jane because of the Fitzhugh and Neville connection.

Catherine Howard would have pulled ahead of both Jane and Katherine, because although her mother was a commoner (like theirs), her father had been entitled to use the courtesy title of "lord" being the son of a duke. So, Catherine was not the daughter of a knight but of a minor member of the nobility.

Anne Boleyn would, ironically, have pulled ahead of Catherine, which rather dents the romanticised modern view of her as a gutsy social climber. Although her father was technically "only" a knight at the time of her birth, like Jane Seymour's and Katherine Parr's, unlike them he was the son of an aristocrat. His mother, Margaret, was the co-heiress to the Irish earldom of Ormonde, the highest ranking title in the Anglo-Irish aristocracy at the time. And as her eldest son, Thomas was expected by more or less everyone to inherit the title when his grandfather died in 1515. An inheritance dispute with his Irish cousin, Piers, delayed the inheritance until Anne was able to use her influence to resolve it in her father's favour in 1529, but the earl's bequest of an ivory gilt horn that was part of the Butler family's treasury suggests that even he thought his title would pass to Thomas Boleyn, not to Piers Butler. In any case, aside from Thomas's position in the Ormonde inheritance line, unlike the rest of Henry's wives, Anne's mother was an aristocrat by birth, not a commoner. She was the daughter of a duke and, as such, she was "Lady Elizabeth Howard" before her marriage and "Lady Elizabeth Boleyn" after it. So, in contemporary eyes Anne was very much the highest born of the four, with Catherine in second place and I'd say Foose is right, Katherine Parr probably did outrank Jane Seymour.

In terms of who had the most "upper class" or privileged childhood, Anne Boleyn and Katherine Parr were the two who came from the wealthiest families and who enjoyed the best educations.

For more detailed discussions on the ancestry of Henry's English wives, Eric Ives's "The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn", David Starkey's "Six Wives", Lacey Baldwin Smith's "A Tudor Tragedy" and Linda Porter's "Katherine the Queen," go into quite a bit of depth.