Friday, January 25, 2013

Question from Michelle - Refusing Henry VIII's advances

What - if any - were the likely consequences if a woman (particularly an unmarried lady in waiting) refused sexual or romantic advances from King Henry VIII? He certainly seemed to be a man who had trouble accepting "no"! Obviously Anne Boleyn refused him pre-divorce, but on the other hand, she did not outright reject the king but rather implied that her only resistance was due to her reputation and that she would happily romp around with him if he married her. In her case, the refusals seemed to only intensify his pursuit rather than leading to definitive rejection. I'm interested in learning more about what would happen if someone said a firm and obvious NO.

What were the sexual politics and expectations of a noblewoman propositioned by the king? Was she "allowed" to refuse (i.e. without intimidation or consequences), or did she have to "lie back and think of England" for fear of angering or offending Henry? If she could refuse him completely, under what grounds? I imagine refusing based on chastity, reputation or loyalty to the queen might bruise the royal ego less than, "I'm just not that into you, sire." ;-) If there were problems with refusing him, what kind might they be? Exile from court? Family members being refused promotions? Being married off to some guy with a giant wart on his nose? Or just a subtle but menacing undertone of the king's displeasure?

I'll be very interested to hear what people think about this, particularly about the apparent tension between the importance of female chastity vs. the relative lack of power women had next to the king or male nobles. (I'd also love to hear how the same dynamic played out between the unmarried ladies and the various nobles of court, eg Charles Brandon). Is there any truth to the stereotype of an overly powerful king using his power to basically blackmail or force women into bed with him ("I'm king, do as I say") or could women politely tell him to knock it off, they weren't interested?


J. F. Hawthorne said...

Don't know about a firm and obvious no, but Karen Lindsey's 'Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: A Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII' goes into great detail about Henry VIII's pursuit of Anne Boleyn and is worth reading. A passage from it is quoted in this article:

Anonymous said...

Women may have been encouraged to submit to the kings advances as the kings pleasure or displeasure with her was often reflected upon her family. Many young ladies were put forward as candidates for the kings affections by their families. I remember reading somewhere (sorry, can't remember where) that Henry never forced himself upon a woman, he was a romantic fond of wooing and a great proponent of courtly/knightly love which was often nonsexual in nature he had relatively few mistresses compaired to other monarches of the period ie Francis of France. All that said it doesn't mean the ladies in question were truely attracted to him, although in the early days he was reportedly quite gallant, manly and handsome a true renassiance man so it's believable however as he aged, with his weight, festering ulcers on his legs, baldness etc..not so much. But I suppose the addage "It's good to be the king" had merit

Michelle said...

JF: Thank you for the link! It gave me quite a bit of food for thought on Anne Boleyn. It can be very hard to parse her refusal; was she being coy, or did she truly try and reject him and just had to give in when he kept coming and called her "bluff"? And of course, it could also be something in the middle, such as initially fobbing him off but then becoming intrigued by the possibilities.

Anon: I also remember reading the same thing about Henry and courtly love... I think at this blog! While I agree that he probably wasn't the type to force himself on a woman in a physical way, I was wondering if there was an undercurrent of displeasure that could affect the woman or her family which she might want to avoid. I definitely agree that the woman's family would probably play a great part in encouraging her to accept him regardless of her personal feelings!

As context for my question, I'm planning to make an interactive text story (like an advanced Choose Your Own Adventure) where the "player" is a lady in waiting to Catherine of Aragon. Depending on the player's choices and behaviour, Henry may end up propositioning "her". Judging by his mistresses, there could be several outcomes for accepting him (e.g. Mary Boleyn, Bessie Blount, Jane Seymour) or even "coy" refusal (Anne Boleyn), but I'm trying to imagine the possible outcomes for more definitive rejections. I can certainly imagine all sorts of potential plotlines (with variants for how polite the player is, what excuse they give, etc), but I'd love to get some more academic opinions on how this sort of sexual negotiation would play out. These comments so far have been really helpful, though I also welcome more!

kb said...

Remember that Jane Seymour refused Henry's first advances. Whether she was coached by her family who saw Anne's 6-7 year refusal as a successful ploy, or she did this on her own out of a moral conviction is unclear.