A Woman's Place? Learning and the Wives of Henry VIII
Maria Dowling considers the contribution of Henry VIII's queens in promoting new learning and religion at the Tudor court.
The wives of Henry VIII have rarely been considered as Renaissance princesses or as active participants (on either side) in the Reformation debate. Yet two of them were prominent as patrons of education, scholarship and religion, while a third, though not so eminent, is significant in terms of feminine culture and the Reformation.
Catherine of Aragon, Henry's first queen, was a patron of the humanist movement – which was challenging the traditional and scholastic outlook, not just in intellectual, but in court circles around 1500 – and of women's learning in particular. She was herself learned, having received a Renaissance education under the aegis of her mother, Isabel the Catholic. With her sisters she was taught by the Italian poet, Antonio Geraldini, and his brother, Alessandro. While acquiring courtly and housewifely accomplishments the infantas also studied Roman orators and poets, the Latin Church fathers, and Christian poets. Besides being literate in her native tongue, Catherine learned Latin, French, and later English.
When she became queen, Catherine had as her chamberlain, William, Lord Mountjoy, Erasmus' friend and patron. She was an enthusiastic supporter of the great scholar, and even hoped at one stage that he would become her tutor. In 1524 she commissioned from him a book on Christian matrimony. Erasmus for his part praised Catherine on numerous occasions: 'The queen is astonishingly well read, far beyond what would be surprising in a woman, and as admirable for her piety as she is for her learning'; 'The queen loves good literature, which she has studied with success since childhood'; 'We have in the queen of England a woman distinguished by her learning.' Indeed, Erasmus addressed more letters to Catherine than to any other female correspondent.
During the royal divorce both the king and the queen tried to win Erasmus' support for their respective cases, but he refused to become engaged on either side. Henry took offence and thenceforward ignored him; Catherine continued to send him gifts of money and to read his hooks. It is characteristic that at the outset of the divorce she strengthened herself by ordering a translation of Petrarch's work on the remedy of ill fortune from Sir Thomas Wyatt (though the poet actually presented her with Plutarch's tract on quiet of mind'). On her deathbed she was consoled by Erasmus' work on preparation for death, ironically composed at the command of Anne Boleyn's father.
Catherine was a friend to humanist studies at both universities, helping individual scholars as well as institutions. In particular she favoured St John's College, Cambridge, the humanist academy founded by Bishop John Fisher on behalf of Lady Margaret Beaufort. Corpus Christi, Oxford, a parallel foundation to St John's, established by Bishop Richard Fox, owns a standing cup decorated with her device of the pomegranate. She visited both universities several times; most importantly, her presence in Oxford with Wolsey in 1518 helped seal the victory of those scholars who favoured Greek studies over the more reactionary 'Trojans'.
Catherine's most outstanding contribution to scholarship was as a pioneer of women's education. Her heir (and Henry's) was a daughter, Mary, and the queen determined that she should be equipped for rule by humanist instruction. Thus Catherine commissioned the first handbooks produced in Europe which were concerned specifically with women's learning. Their author was the Spanish humanist, Juan Luis Vives, who received much patronage from the queen. In 1523 he produced The Instruction of a Christian Woman, published in Latin at Antwerp. This was a general treatise which broke new ground in recommending study, as well as piety and morality, for women. As Vives declared to Catherine in the preface, this was an innovation:
For Xenophon and Aristotle, giving rules of housekeeping, and Plato making precepts of ordering the common weal, spake many things appertaining to the woman's office and duty; and St Cyprian, St Hierome, St Ambrose and St Augustine have entreated of maids and widows, but in such wise, that they appear rather to exhort and counsel them unto some kind of living, than to instruct and teach them.
In 1524 Vives published a plan of studies specifically designed for Princess Mary. She was to learn Latin and Greek, and to study the New Testament, some works of the Latin fathers, selected pagan classics, Christian poets, and modern authors like Erasmus and Thomas More. Vives also produced for Mary a collection of mottoes and devices in the Renaissance style which would enrich her knowledge and teach her virtue.
Catherine played an active part in her daughter's education, correcting her Latin exercises until a tutor took over and sending her books to console her during the divorce:
one shall be De Vita Christi, with the declaration of the gospels; and the other the epistles of Hierome, that he did write always to St Paula and Eustochium; and in them I trust you shall see good things.
Mary emerged from her studies as a Renaissance princess, versed in literature and fluent in several languages, besides having musical and other accomplishments. She won applause from Erasmus, who praised her fine Latin epistles, and from the Vicomte de Turenne, who admired her uncommon mental endowments. Her education formed the model for that of her sister, Elizabeth, and also influenced the instruction of her brother, Edward. Thus Catherine of Aragon, praised by More for 'the gracious zeal that ye bear to the virtuous education of the womankind of this realm', is a highly important figure in the history of English education, while the books she commissioned were influential in Europe as a whole.
Catherine's rival and supplanter, Anne Boleyn, provides a contrast to her in education, and consequently in intellectual tastes. Anne was largely brought up abroad, certainly at the French court and possibly, too, in the household of Margaret of Austria. As a result she was fluent in French. However she did not learn Latin, and this is one reason why her cultural interests differed from those of the Latinate Catherine.
While Catherine patronised humanists like Erasmus and Vives, Anne was drawn to the more evangelical variety of French humanism, to scholars like Jacques Lefevre d'Etaples and Clement Marot. Her chaplain, William Latymer, described her as 'very expert in the French tongue, exercising herself continually in reading the French Bible and other French books of like effect, and conceived great pleasure in the same'. She obtained such hooks through her chaplains (Latymer himself was away on a buying errand when Anne was arrested), through merchants such as the mercer, William Locke, and as gifts.
Catherine of Aragon was an avid supporter of Erasmus' edition of the New Testament in Greek with its new Latin translation. Anne Boleyn, by contrast, owned a copy of Lefevre's French translation of the Bible. Lefevre's French text also appears in a manuscript presented to Anne by an unknown kinsman, 'The Epistles and Gospels for the Fifty-Two Sundays in the Year, with an Exhortation to Each in English'. Anne also owned an illuminated manuscript of The Book of Ecclesiastes, the text once more in French with a commentary in English, and a manuscript French psalter. These books were not mere ornaments: Loys de Brun, presenting Anne with a treatise in French on letter-writing praised her reading of scripture and other good works in French. He himself had 'seen you, this last Lent, when I was in this magnificent, excellent and triumphant court, reading the salutary epistles of St Paul, in which are contained the whole manner and rule of a good life'.
A nonscriptural but salutary work which links Anne with French evangelical reformers is a fine manuscript of Marot's poem Sermon of the Good Pastor and the Bad. This differs from the printed edition in that it has additional, complimentary references to the French and English royal houses. Henry VIII is described as a second Ezekiel sent by God to reform abuses. Anne receives pious good wishes:
O lady Anne, O Queen incomparable, may this good shepherd with whom you find favour give you a son, the image of his father the King, and may he live and flourish so that you may both see him come to manhood.
Anne Boleyn's only connection with Erasmus was the fact that her father commissioned three works from him in the early 1530s. Erasmus himself was under no illusion about this; as he had already written a book on marriage for Queen Catherine, work for the Boleyns would show that he was neutral in the matter of the divorce. One treatise was translated into English and given an addition to the dedication which had Erasmus addressing Thomas Boleyn as father to 'Queen' Anne, an overt acknowledgment of the divorce which the scholar would have avoided at all costs.
If it was partly linguistic reasons that turned Anne towards French, rather than Latin scholarship, it was also religious inclination. Until recently it has been assumed that Anne regarded religion largely as a political instrument, and was thus insincere in seeming to espouse Lutheranism. It is plain from her devotional life that this is not the case. Catherine of Aragon had played an active part in the literary campaign against Luther of the 1520s, commissioning polemical works from her chaplain, Alfonso de Villa Sancta, and encouraging Erasmus to write against Luther. Anne Boleyn, by contrast, supported the cause of vernacular scripture (English as well as French) which had become identified with Lutheranism. Though humanists had earlier expressed approval and even enthusiasm for vernacular scripture, the appearance of doctrinally suspect translations had caused the English authorities to prohibit unauthorised versions and to delay providing an official English bible until less troubled times. Yet Anne owned a number of illicit books and also assisted those who were involved in the trade.
William Latymer records that Anne kept an English Bible on a desk in her chamber so that her household people could read it, and she herself did not disdain to consult it. Undoubtedly this was her copy of Tyndale's forbidden New Testament of 1534, now in the British Library. She also encouraged discussion of scripture at her table, particularly when the king was present. She is said to have given her ladies prayer books to hang from their girdles, and a tiny manuscript of English metrical psalms translated by John Croke may be one of these volumes.
Anne's interest in vernacular scripture led some evangelical translators to hope for her patronage. The exile, George Joye, in 1535 'printed two leaves of Genesis in a great form, and sent one copy to the king, and another to the new queen, with a letter to N. to deliver them; and to purchase licence that he may so go through all the Bible'. Henry was not in the mood for English scripture, and so Joye was unlucky in his attempt.
Equally, Tristram Revell dedicated to Anne his printed translation of a radical work by Francois Lambert of Avignon. The book was too extreme for Anne to accept, particularly as this was in the dangerous early months of 1536; Catherine was lately dead, Anne herself had miscarried of a son, and Henry was showing favour to Jane Seymour.
However, Anne was prepared to help those who had suffered through involvement in the forbidden book trade. She ordered Cromwell to effect the reinstatement of Richard Herman, expelled from the English merchants' house at Antwerp 'for nothing else', as Anne told Cromwell, 'but only for that, that he did both with his goods and policy, to his great hurt and hindrance in this world, help to the setting forth of the New Testament in English'.
Thomas Alwaye, prosecuted for buying English New Testaments and other works, petitioned Anne and praised her goodness 'as well to strangers and aliens as to many of this land'. Certainly Anne procured the release from a French prison of the poet and evangelical, Nicolas Bourbon de Vandoeuvre, and gave him generous support and employment when he came to England. She sheltered a French evangelical gentlewoman named Marye, and may have invited Sturmius to England. She also interceded for English evangelicals such as Thomas Patmore, imprisoned for heresy by the Bishop of London.
Anne Boleyn tried to influence Henry's religious policy by bringing books to his attention and by promoting her clients in the English church. She may have drawn Henry's notice to Simon Fish's Supplication for the Beggars; she certainly introduced him to Tyndale's Obedience of a Christian Man, a book which so delighted him that he declared it was 'for me and all kings to read'. Anne's chaplains were all evangelicals, and she helped them to ecclesiastical promotion. She made Matthew Parker dean of the rich college of Stoke-by-Clare. Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Shaxton became bishops respectively of Worcester and Salisbury in 15W5, and their elevation may have been partly due to her influence. It seems not too far-fetched to see her promotions as part of a plan to reform the English church hy stocking it with evangelical clergy. As her clients survived her fall, Anne's religious influence extended beyond her lifetime.
In two points Anne was like her predecessor, and may indeed have imitated her. Like Catherine, she was a generous benefactor to the universities and their scholars; and she planned an extensive education for her daughter. William Latymer says that, while 'wonderfully lamenting her ignorance in the Latin tongue, for want whereof she acknowledged herself marvellously embased', she planned that Elizabeth should learn Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish and French. Though she was executed before any plan could be put into effect, Anne did entrust her child to the care of the learned Matthew Parker. Anne's remarks about her lack of Latin show her consciousness that though vernacular scripture was of paramount importance, women should be more widely educated than she had been.
Little can be said in relation to Renaissance or Reformation about Henry's next three queens, since they displayed no intellectual interest whatsoever. Jane Seymour's religious views can be gauged from the fact that Luther had heard she was an enemy to the gospel, while Cardinal Pole had heard good things of her. Apart from a story that she pleaded with Henry to spare the monasteries, nothing more is known. She received no dedications to books, nor is there any hint that she ever read one. She does not appear as a patron of scholars. Anne of Cleves spoke no language but her own, nor uttered any religious opinions, and showed no evidence of Renaissance culture; her brief, disastrous marriage to Henry is symbolic of the king's short-lived desire for an alliance with the Lutheran powers. Similarly, her successor, Catherine Howard, was the candidate of the conservative religious faction at court, but she herself expressed little beyond what was conventional in religion. She is popularly thought to have been illiterate, though there exists one letter partly written by her which is tortuous in grammar and eccentric in spelling even by Tudor standards.
Henry's sixth wife tried to revive something of the pious and cultured atmosphere that had formerly characterised the queen's household. Catherine Parr's religious and political importance should not be exaggerated. She was neither the director of a 'royal nursery' where the king's three children embarked on a novel course of humanist study; nor was she the head of the reform faction at court, only one of its more vulnerable members and as such open to attack. Yet within her limitations Catherine made an important contribution to court culture.
Contrary to legend, Catherine Parr did not receive a thorough education in her youth. It was only after her marriage to Henry that she began to learn Latin and to write the Italian hand which was valued by humanists. As late as 1546, Prince Edward (who wrote to her in Latin as to all his correspondents) praised her progress in Latin grammar and literature as well as her handwriting. Catherine did correspond with Edward in Latin, but the only reply of hers extant is a corrected draft not in her hand.
Despite these learned pursuits, Catherine sometimes displayed a suspicion of scholarship and even a somewhat anti-intellectual streak. 'I have certainly no curious learning', she wrote, 'but a simple love and earnest zeal to the truth inspired of God'. Equally, she warned the learned of Cambridge not to let arrogance blind them to Christian truth:
forasmuch as I do well understand all kind of learning doth flourish amongst you in this age as it did among the Greeks at Athens long ago, I require and desire you all, not so to hunger for the exquisite knowledge of profane learning that it may be thought the Greeks' university was but transposed or now again in England revived, forgetting our Christianity.
In fairness to Catherine it may be said that rejection of the pagan classics and rigid concentration on Christian literature was also characteristic of John Colet, the humanist dean of St Paul's, London and founder of the school there.
If she was not learned in the academic sense, Catherine Parr was one of only a handful of female authors published in Tudor England. She produced two books: Prayers or Meditations, wherein the mind is stirred patiently to suffer all afflictions; and The Lamentation of a Sinner. The former is an innocuous, noncontroversial collection largely derived from Thomas a Kempis and Erasmus, and it enjoyed many editions after its initial publication in 1545. The latter, however, is explicitly Lutheran, and so it remained unpublished until after Henry VIII's death.
This is a pointer to Catherine's lack of religious influence with the king, but nonetheless she tried to persuade him to more evangelical opinions. It was she who planned and supervised the translation of Erasmus' paraphrases of the New Testament into English. Nicholas Udall, dedicating Luke's gospel to Catherine, hoped that the king:
will not suffer it to lie buried in silence, but will one day, when his godly wisdom shall so think expedient, cause the same paraphrase to be published and set abroad in print, to the same use that your highness hath meant it, that is to say, to the public commodity and benefit of good English people now a long time sore thirsting and hungering the sincere and plain knowledge of God's word.
Henry was unmoved, and this was another project which had to wait for publication until the following reign when, by contrast, law required that copies should be placed in all parish churches.
Catherine's attempts to make Henry more evangelical nearly proved to be her downfall. Possibly with the example of Anne Boleyn in mind, Catherine tried to argue theology with the king. Since she was somewhat tactlessly persistent, and he was both dogmatic and ill-tempered, Henry became exasperated enough to listen to accusations of heresy from her conservative enemies. Only warnings from 'godly persons' at court and a timely capitulation to Henry's judgement saved the queen.
If Catherine's influence on policy was small, her household was certainly a centre of piety and culture. Her chaplain, Francis Goldsmith, said that she made every day like a Sunday. The reformers, John Parkhurst and Anthony Cope, entered her service. Her ladies were noted for learning and religious devotion; many of them, such as Lady Jane Denny, were married to members of the evangelical faction in the king's privy chamber. Roger Ascham praised the queen's sister Anne, Lady Herbert. Parkhurst's early poems lauded Catherine herself, her maid, Anne Carew, Catherine, Duchess of Suffolk and Lady Jane Grey. This last entered the queen's household at the age of nine and remained with Catherine until her death in 1518. It is probable that Catherine's was one of the influences which encouraged Jane's enthusiasm for study.
This survey of their intellectual and religious activities shows the fallacy of treating Henry VIII's six wives as women of equal importance. By their cultural links with scholars Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn were figures of European significance, and by their patronage in England they contributed to religious and cultural life. Catherine Parr, though a lesser light, shows that by the end of Henry's reign learning was considered desirable for ladies. The educational experience and cultural activity of these three women made possible the appearance in the future of learned phenomena like Lady Jane Grey and Queen Elizabeth, and each had an effect, one way or the other, on the religious history of Tudor Rngland.
Maria Dowling is Associate Lecturer at South London College.
- Garrett Mattingly, Catherine of Aragon (Jonathan Cape, London, 1944)
- E.W. Ives, Anne Boleyn (Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1986)
- Maria Dowling, Humanism in the Age of Henry VIll (Croom Helm, London, 1986)
- 'Anne Boleyn and Reform', Journal of Ecclesiastical History, vol. 35, no. 1 Qanuary 1984)
- Maria Dowling (ed.), 'William Latymer's Chronickille of Anne Bulleyne', Camden Miscellany XXX (Royal Historical Society, London, 1990)
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