Monday, July 27, 2009

Question from Marie - When did adultery of a Queen become treason

In most Anne Boleyn biographies, it seems that historians suggest adultery was a treasonous offense for a queen and that the irony in Anne Boleyn's case was that she signed away that her marriage was never valid, thereby making it a non-treasonous offense.

I just noticed in Allison Weir's "Six Wives" she claims that even adultry by a queen was not yet at that time consider treason and that's why Cromwell added in the additional charges of conspiracy to murder.

Which is accurate?


Laura said...

I believe that it wasn't until after Catherine Howard was executed that the Queen's infidelity became treason. In the aftermath of her execution, a law was passed that made infidelity treason. It also made knowledge of inappropriate behavior by the queen without disclosure to Henry treason. It's one of the reasons that Henry's next bride was a widow. Obviously, Catherine Parr having been married twice before, there could be no issue with her not being a virgin.

PhD Historian said...

This is a little outside of my area of expertise, but it is my understanding that there is not and never has been a Parliamentary statute law explicitly declaring adultery committed by a female royal consort to be treason in the modern sense of the word (i.e., the offense of attempting by overt acts to overthrow the government of the state to which the offender owes allegiance or to kill or personally injure the sovereign or the sovereign's family).

The legal term "treason" had a very different meaning in the sixteenth century. In the Tudor-era legal context, "treason" meant any act of disloyalty to one's lord, whether that lord was of low or high rank. "Treason" also meant breaking an oath of allegiance ... to anyone. And the legal category "treason" was so wide in scope that it was divided into "petty" or "low" treason and "high" or "great treason."

"Low treason" could and did include such things as highway robbery, counterfeiting coins, adultery with the wife of one's lord (even if that "lord" was only a non-noble local landowner), or even adultery with the nurse of the children of one's lord (!). In other words, it could include all kinds of offenses that did not actually involve an act directed against the physical person of the monarch.

"High treason" could include anything from escaping from prison to forging documents using old royal seals to actually waging war against the monarch.

In Anne's case, it might plausibly be argued that she committed treason to the extent that she committed adultery against her lord, the king, and thus broke her oath of allegiance taken during the marriage ceremony.

However, married women were almost never charged in adultery cases. The offense was almost always charged only against the male participant (the reasons for this are rather complex, but stem primarily from the pre-modern view of women as naturally more inclined to sin and sexual misconduct than men ... in essence, "women couldn't stop themselves" was the prevailing belief). On the rare occasions when women were charged with adultery, it was more often tried in a church court rather than a civil court.

Additionally, adultery was not a capital offense in the sixteenth century. It would therefore have been very difficult for Cromwell to obtain a sentence of death against Anne Boleyn based solely on a charge of adultery. Additional charges were necessary in order to bring about the desired execution. Thus the imputations of bewitching the king and of "countenancing the death of the king," the latter of which was itself an offense of high treason and punishable by death.

kb said...

I would just add this other perspective. If someone tried to substitute a child for a legitimate heir of the monarch's body, that would be treasonous because this would be an overthrowing of the throne.

So if a queen had a child that was not fathered by the king but instead was fathered by some other man, this would be treason because the child would not be a legitimate descendant of the anointed king. So in a completely hypothetical scenario where the queen-consort sleeps with a duke and a baby is born, this could be interpreted as the queen and the duke conspiring to commit treason by usurping the king's throne with a child of the duke's.

Again, also, I am not an expert on the legal history of England but because the 'constitution' is really an acceptance of common law for the benefit of the common weal the need to specify royal infidelity as treasonous by codification in law may not have come up till later/Catherine Howard as Lara suggests. The general understanding that royal adultery could lead to treason through the birth of a false heir would have normally sufficed.

Marie said...

Thanks! Such informative and helpful information!

Unknown said...

PhD, I was always under the impression that adultery could absolutely be regarded as a capital offense in Henry's reign, even if sentence was rarely actually carried out. For example, Kateryn Parr's brother tried to have his wife, Baroness Bourchier, executed for adultery after she had an illegitimate child by another man. The sentence was never carried out (supposedly because the Queen pleaded to Henry on the Baroness' behalf) but the fact that it was assumed he had the right to demand it seems to imply it was a capital offense, at least in theory?

As for the whole Catherine Howard thing...erch, it was a mess from start to finish. It was believed she has been "married" or precontracted to Dereham, so that, by extension of that theory,she committed adultery against Dereham by being "bigamously" married to the King, and therefore he wasn't so much a cuckold as an unconcious participant himself...but then who wants to tell Henry that delightful news? ;) In essence, as with most of these things, it came down to whatever the king wants, the kings gets and Heaven help anyone who raises an objection.

PhD Historian said...

Joanna, I am curious where you read the story that William Parr had his wife convicted of adultery, that she was sentenced to be executed, and that Katherine Parr interceded with Henry VIII to prevent the execution. I note that the Wikipedia entry for Lady Anne Bourchier contains the story, but as is so often the case with Wikipedia, the story simply is not true.

Lady Anne Bourchier abandoned her husband William Parr in 1541 and took up residence with a man now identified as John Lyngfield, the prior of St James's Church, Tanbridge, in Surrey. Any wife acting in that manner was cause for public scandal, but the scandal was worsened when Anne became pregnant by Lyngfield. William Parr then acted to protect his interests and secured a legal separation from Anne (but not a divorce or annullment).

Katherine Parr enters the picture in March 1543 when William relied on her influence to get a private bill through Parliament denouncing his wife's behavior and declaring her child by Lyngfield a bastard. That bill did not include a sentence of execution for Anne Bourchier. All the bill actually did was publicly register William's disapproval of his wife's actions and prevent her son by Lyngfield from ever taking the Parr name. William and Anne remained legally married until 1552.

In the meantime, William had by 1544 become involved with Elizabeth Brooke, and the two lived together openly. This too was cause for public scandal, and Parr was several times admonished by the king (both Henry VIII and Edward VI), the Lord Protector Somerset, the Privy Council, and the Archibishop of Canterbury to put away his mistress. But after the fall of Somerset in 1551, Parr was finally able to obtain a second private bill in Parliament annulling his marriage to Anne Bourchier, allowing him at last to marry Elizabeth Brooke in 1552. This second bill, like the first, did not contain any criminal "conviction" against Anne Bourchier nor any sentence of death. All the bill did was to dissolve the marriage as though it had never happened.

For details of the actual account and reference to the primary sources that document it, see Susan James's Catherine Parr, Henry VIII's Last Love, pages 50-52 and 82.

Adultery was never a capital offense in England.

kb said...

I'm with PhD Historian on this one. Adultery by non-royals did not carry an assumption of being a capitol offense. There are several instances in the Elizabethan period where elites lived openly with lovers while married to someone quite other. Some of these adulterers continued to be received at court without fear of becoming 1 head shorter.

Kristian said...

Expanding on KB's post - an excellent example during Henry VIII's reign would be Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk and his "estranged" wife Elizabeth Stafford.

From what I understand, Norfolk was in a relationship for 15 years and even openly lived with his mistress, Bess Holland.

Unknown said...

That's very interesteing PhD, thankyou.

I didn't actually say that she was convicted, nor that she was sentenced. I merely said he supposedly *tried* to have it passed and failed.
I'm not an expert of this lady so I'm probably guilt of quoting something unfounded about her.However, I'm looking into it and if I find anything more substantial than a wiki notice, I'll let you know.

Out of curiosity and for clarity's sake, where does the information about John Lyngfield come from? The name usually associated with her (including the Oxford DNB entry for Parr, which is compiled and written by Susan James) is Hunt or Huntley, so that's new and possibly very interesting information, if true.

Unknown said...

Just wanted to add a quote from Alison Weir's King and Court...and yes, I know that referencing Ms Weir is probably going to unleash a whole tirade of comments, but I'm still going to ;) Simply because it explains one of the references to the Anne Bourchier affair. However, it advance I will also point out this same quote refers to the Baroness as Elizabeth Bourcier (someone got the names mixed up lol),so large helpings of salt needed.

On page 463 of the 2002 Pimlico print, "Incensed, (Parr) urged the king to have (Anne) executed, which was the prescribed penalty for the adulterous wives of peers.Thanks to Katherine Parr's intercession with the king, Lady Parr escaped death but Parliamet granted a divorce on 17th April..."

Now, I'm not saying it's right or wrong, or we should absolutely trust it but you asked where I came across this,so voila.Interestingly, she doesn't cite references for this which could mean oh, so many things...

PhD Historian said...

Thanks for the reference from Weir's book, Joanna, even if Weir did not provide her source in turn (or her editor/publisher cut it from the final print run). Without knowing where Weir got her version of the story, all I can say is that Dr Susan James provides a fully footnoted and sourced alternative version.

John Lyngfield (or Lingfeld) and John Hunt (or Huntley) are the same person. Dr James's footnoted sources are the Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of Henry VIII, Volume 18, Part 1, item 66, part III, cap. xliii, dated 22 January 1543, "Whereas lady Anne, wife of Sir Wm. Parre lord Parre, continued in adultery notwithstanding admonition, and, finally, two years past, left his company and has since had a child begotten in adultery, that the said child and all future children she may have shall be held bastards;"


L&P, Volume 7, item 761, number 19, dated 10 May 1534, "John Lyngfeld, alias Huntley, prior of St. James, Tanryge [modern spelling Tandridge], Surrey, Winchester dioc[-ese is granted] Licence to accept the parish church of Oxsted, to which he has been presented by Katherine Burgh, widow, and to hold the same or any other benefice along with his said priory, the resources of the priory not being adequate to meet the necessary expenses and hospitality."

and lastly

History and Antiquities of the County of Northamptonshire, Volume II, page 60 ... but unfortunately I do not have access to this volume and it is not available on Google Books, but I assume it makes the connection between the father of Lady Anne's bastard children and the former prior of the Monastery of St James in the "hundred" (very rough modern equivalent is "neighborhood") of Tandridge in the county of Surrey and the diocese of Winchester. One of the parishes within the hundred of Tandridge was called Lingfeld (also spelled Lingfield, Lyngfield, and Lynkefeld). Thus the monastery of St James was probably in the parish of Lyngfield in the hundred of Tandridge in the county of Surrey, and its former prior John Huntley became known as John Lyngfield (or "of Lyngfield") when he became the parish priest at Oxsted, another parish in the same hundred of Tandridge.