Friday, August 15, 2008

Question from Jen - Henry's treatment of his children

Ok, so I love reading historical fiction but I really want to know how accurate they are. I just finished Elizabeth: Red Rose of the house of Tudor. Its from a royal diaries series, kinda of like American girl. Anyways, in the book, Elizabeth's father (Henry VIII) is a really mean dad. He neglates both of his daughters (He even seems a little scared of Elizabeth becuase he believes she's a half-witch. Worse, he taunts his son (Edward) and makes fun of him becuase he's fat---even though Henry himself is huge! Was Henry that bad of a father? Was he verbally abusive to his children?


Anonymous said...

What you read is very unaccurate. The part about Elizabeth is a little true, but he never thought she was a half witch. The part about Edward is VERY unaccurate. He loved his son very much. He wanted a son so bad he cast off 2 wives for one. He never teased him that he was fat.

kb said...

First - fiction is so much fun, isn't it? My interest in history was inspired by some of the fiction I read and saw.

Second - Henry loved his children. Like most parents his sense of his children included his sense of their mothers. Before Anne Boleyn came on the scene, Henry was a very affectionate father to his daughter Mary. But as time went on his desire for a son began to cloud all his emotional relationships. So he started to associate Mary with her mother's obstinate refusal to divorce and to associate Elizabeth with his tempestuous relationship with her mother Anne. Edward was the much hoped for son and was showered with presents and care. The death of his mother shortly after his birth meant that Henry's memory of her was tinged with sadness and gratitude. (She delivered the much desired heir but died before being able to give him a spare).

The Holbein sketch of Edward as a prince portrays him as a healthy chubby baby. This baby image would have been seen as a good thing - a healthy thing. As a young teen he was quite lean actually and paintings of him portray him as a picture of health - fit to be an athletic and well-educated king in the image of his father (in his early days Henry VIII was quite the golden young man).

Third - royal parent-child relationships in the 16th century don't always look like 21st century idealized parent-child relationships. So something we might perceive as cruel or callous like sending your son to live in another house at the age of 7 was perceived as loving and wise amongst 16th century elites. This leaves lots of room for re-interpretation by fiction writers who aren't historians. Such, I suspect, is the case with the book you just read.

Keep reading. The real stories are even better than the fictional ones.

Anonymous said...

I agree with KB.

Edward was never "fat," in the sense of heavier than normal for his age.

And Henry seems to have had a very genuine parental love for all of his recognized children, including the illegimate Duke of Richmond. That love is demonstrated by his having returned Mary and Elizabeth to the succession in the last years of his own life. Even though they were still legally illegitimate, he very much wanted to guarantee them a secure future, as would any loving parent. And it seems exceedingly unlikely to me that Henry would have returned Elizabeth to the succession if he had even the most fleeting of notions that she was half witch.

And as KB note, parent-child relations, royal or othwerwise, in the 16th century should not be judged by modern American and Western European standards. Children of wealthy families were routinely raised by someone other than their biological parents, for example, often in someone else's household. Physical punishment was the norm, and the adage "spare the rod and spoil the child" was followed explicitly. Numerous books survive from the period and detail the best ways to beat a child without causing permanent damage. This has, of course, led to some misunderstanding regarding punishments meted out to specific individuals. Edward VI is sometimes supposed to have had a "whipping boy" who received Edward's punishments for him, but this is utter fiction. Likewise, Jane Grey was supposedly "abused" by her parents, but this is again a complete misunderstanding of a single piece of secondary evidence.

As KB advises, keep reading. One reason that I love history myself is that the true stories are usually much more entertaining and fantastical than the fictional ones!

Foose said...

Henry was a very controlling father. To him, children owed their father first and foremost obedience, and I think he valued obedience above other characteristics (modern parents might value independence more) in his children. In this he was like most of his contemporaries, but I think his experience with Mary made him obsessive about it.

I think he did love them when they were small. But royal children rapidly mature into political factors, and a certain distancing takes place between parent and child, particularly when the child starts expressing or acting upon independent views. Offspring are no longer just children, but political figures in their own right and potential threats, attracting supporters opposed to the old king's policies. Possibly Henry's experience with his own father may also have shaped his perspective: Henry VII apparently kept young Henry carefully secluded and very much under his control during the last months of his life. It would have been interesting to see how his attitude to Edward might have shifted as the prince grew up, especially if their views on religion differed significantly. Certainly Mary was periodically very isolated and under close surveillance.

"Verbally abusive" is difficult to answer. I haven't read of any personal scenes between him and Mary where he verbally abused her, but plenty of his appointed deputies did, without repercussions: Norfolk (in the notorious "Baked Apple" incident of 1536) even threatened her with physical violence, apparently with Henry's complaisance since he was never reprimanded for it.

Anonymous said...


What are the details of this 'Baked Apple' incident? Do tell!

Foose said...

Norfolk arrived with a deputation from Henry after Anne's fall to impress upon Mary the virtues of obedience, essentially pressuring her to acknowledge that she was a bastard (the usual). Mary of course refused, perhaps rather robustly (with Anne dead, she might have felt she was on much stronger ground), and Norfolk snarled that "if she were his daughter, he would knock her head against the wall until it was as soft as a baked apple."

Thus Chapuys describes the incident. Possibly he embellished the tale, although Norfolk did in general have a very trenchant and colorful way of speaking, as well as limited patience with obstinate females. He had apparently sat on his own wife "til she spat up blood" when she barracked him about his mistress Bess Holland. I don't know whether he would have actually used physical violence on Mary, but apparently there were no repercussions from Henry. Mary never seemed to bear Norfolk a grudge for it; she freed him from the Tower when she became Queen and restored him to much of his old position.

Mary's Anne-imposed governess, Lady Shelton, apparently had orders to "box her ears for the curst bastard she is" but even if Anne gave the order I would think Henry's consent beforehand would have been necessary to get it actually enforced. In the event, Lady Shelton apparently refused to comply.