The Mistresses of Henry VIII By Kelly Hart
Seventeen-year-old Henry VIII was "a youngling, he cares for nothing but girls and hunting" and over the years, this didn’t change much. Henry was considered a demi-god by his subjects, so each woman he chose was someone who had managed to stand out in a crowd of stunning ladies. Looking good was not enough (indeed, many of Henry’s lovers were considered unattractive); she had to have something extra special to keep the king’s interest, and Henry’s women were every bit as intriguing as the man himself. In this book, Henry’s mistresses are rescued from obscurity. The 16th century was a time of profound changes in religion and society across Europe—and some of Henry’s lovers were at the forefront of influencing these events. Kelly Hart gives an excellent insight into the love life of our most popular king, and the twelve women who knew the man behind the mask.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book as Kelly Hart gives the reader a slightly different look into the personal life of Henry VIII. Readers have the opportunity to read a vast selection of books about Henry VIII’s wives, either as compilation books or as single books dedicated to each wife. This book looks at the other women in Henry’s life, the women whose stories have not always been told in such depth and detail as Henry’s wives.
It would appear that shortly after his marriage to Katherine of Aragon Henry VIII started to stray. What I find interesting is that in the Tudor court it was an accepted thing for a man to find comfort in the arms of another woman, especially when his wife was pregnant. Katherine of Aragon was known to be pregnant many times and since it was thought to be dangerous to engage in sexual intercourse later in the pregnancy, Henry, like all men, needed to find his gratification somewhere else. Funny how adultery was considered a sin and a crime, and yet men at court went about such acts every day. But then, nothing was ever Henry VIII’s fault was it?!
Kelly Hart puts forward strong cases for many of the affairs in which Henry VIII conducted. It appears that he was at different stages intimate with Lady Anne Stafford, sister to Edward Stafford Duke of Buckingham, the second most influential man in England. Bessie Blount whom famously bore Henry a son, Henry Fitzroy of which Henry not only openly acknowledged as his son but also appears to have been grooming him for a future on the thrown. He took Mary Boleyn as his mistress before casting her aside for her sister Anne. He also had a short affair with Mary Shelton, Anne Boleyn’s cousin. There appears to be some debate that perhaps Anne Boleyn, knowing that Henry would be unfaithful to her while pregnant pushed Mary Shelton in front of the King in an attempt to have some influence in who shared a bed with her husband. I am not sure about the truth behind this as I cannot see Anne Boleyn trying to get anyone but herself into her husband’s bed.
As well as these known affairs Hart proposes that Henry also had other mistresses including Etiennette de la Baume, Elizabeth Amada, Jane Popincourt, Elizabeth Carew and Margaret Skipwith. The evidence for these affairs, unlike those above, is not as solid and there are only tales and rumours that would suggest these women may have been intimate with the King. While I am not completely disagreeing with Hart about the relationships these women had with Henry VIII, I do not see the small amount of evidence she supplies as strong enough proof to say that they were also mistresses to the King.
The one thing about Henry VIII that Hart does point out, and that I completely agree with is that most of the time Henry was very discreet about his mistresses. Henry VIII was a man of courtly chivalry. He was a passionate man whom when he loved he loved with his heart and soul. But he also knew how his image appeared to others and the strength of his marriages. He was very careful to keep most of his mistresses’ secret and his rendezvous with these women discreet. For example, when courting Jane Seymour, Henry would travel up and down the Thames at night in a barge so that he could not be seen by the town’s people. He also tried to keep the information about his mistresses away from his wife at the time – although with people living in each other’s pockets at the court I doubt any Queen would be oblivious to know what her husband was up to.
The fact that Henry VIII tried to be as discreet as possible with most of his mistresses (Anne Boleyn being the famous exception) is the strong reason that we, now almost five hundred years later, know so little about his private life. Although such a public figure Henry tried to keep his private life private. We have only the recorded actions, gifts and comments made by Henry and those about him, to go on in relation to the women he courted and was intimate with. Keeping in mind that much of the talk around the court was gossip it is hard for us so many centuries later to be sure exactly who was fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to become a mistress to the King.
Kelly Hart writes as though she is telling the story of these women, all of whom caught Henry VIII’s eye. Her writing style is very fluid and extremely easy to read and I found that once I picked the book up I did not want to put it down again until I had read everything about a particular woman. Hart paints detailed pictures of these women, many of whom have such small memories in today’s modern time. Many of these women, unlike Henry’s wives, have been forgotten through time and once more Hart gives them a voice.
I was very excited to read that Kelly Hart is currently working on a book about Catherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk. When it came to religious views and outspokenness I would dare say that Catherine would have challenged Anne Boleyn herself! Thanks to a dear friend of mine I have become more interested in Catherine Willoughby – especially during her marriage to Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. (I am constantly amazed by Charles Brandon, how he defied the King so many times and yet still reminded one of his closest friends – but that is a story for another time!) Kelly Hart’s next book is one that I am greatly anticipating.
The Mistresses of Henry VIII was a fascinating read which gave a wonderful insight into the other women in Henry’s life – women whom never attained the crown. If you are at all curious about the sometimes forgotten women of Henry’s life then I would most strongly recommend this book. Fantastic, enthralling read.