The Private Lives of the Tudors

Chapter 2 : The Real Tudors

But if the architecture of their palaces enhanced and protected the privacy of the Tudor monarchs, we can still find out what they got up to when they were in their ‘secret chambers’ thanks to the rich and often extraordinarily detailed accounts left by their personal attendants there. These make it clear just how great a divergence there was between the ‘public and private self’ of the monarch.

Take Henry VII, for example. He has long suffered from the reputation of a dour, miserly and ‘infinitely suspicious’ king. But the Henry behind closed doors was rather different. Certainly he was careful with money, but he also knew how to spend it when the occasion demanded. One of his first acts upon becoming king after defeating Richard III at Bosworth in 1485 was to order a lavish new suite of clothes. During the two years that followed, he spent a staggering £5,386 (£3 million) on his wardrobe.

Henry was also much more light-hearted in the privacy of his apartments than the image that he portrayed to his courtiers. His household accounts reveal that he was fond of playing cards, even though he regularly suffered heavy losses – most notably in June 1492 when he was obliged to raid the royal coffers for £40 (equivalent to almost £20,000 today) in order to pay off his creditor. The King also employed a fool called Patch, a troop of minstrels, lute players, pipers, dancers and a group of singing children.

Although it is his son, Henry VIII, who has gone down in history as a womaniser, the first Tudor king could have given him a run for his money. There is evidence to suggest that he bedded his beautiful wife, Elizabeth of York, before they were married. Although it had begun as a political marriage, Henry grew to love his wife deeply and they sought comfort in each other’s arms upon the untimely death of their firstborn in 1502. When Elizabeth herself died less than a year later, Henry was plunged into such profound grief that he retreated into his private apartments for several weeks and his courtiers began to fear that they would never see him again.

Henry himself died six years later, and his death was kept so secret that even his son and heir did not hear of it for two full days. When Henry VIII at last claimed his inheritance, he seemed to present a dazzling contrast to his introspective old father. At six feet two inches tall, he was an imposing, athletic figure – at least for the early part of his reign. But behind this impressive façade lay a hypochondriac who was regularly thrown into a panic at any sign of illness at court. One courtier described him as ‘The most timid person in such matters you can meet.’

The king willingly subjected himself to the examination of his physicians every morning, and also concocted remedies of his own from the cabinet of medicines that he kept hidden in his private apartments. The Tudors set great store by the planets as an indicator of one’s physical wellbeing, so Henry had several horoscopes cast during the course of his reign.The earliest recorded one seems startlingly accurate: it stated that Henry would have a high sex drive, a large appetite, and be prone to headaches, wet dreams and constipation.

The latter is attested by the private correspondence of Henry’s most personal body servant, Thomas Heneage, Groom of the Stool. The King’s love of red meat and lack of exercise led to severe constipation, which necessitated prolonged and often painful visits to his close stool – each of which were witnessed and carefully recorded by Heneage.

In old age, Henry had grown so obese and incapacitated that he had to be winched onto his horse, and he could only move around his palaces with the aid of a special ‘engine’ to pull him up and down stairs. The household accounts also reveal that the royal tailors were obliged to sew fur lining into many of the king’s underclothes in order to keep out the chill in the draughty palaces.

Henry died on 28th January 1547 with only a handful of his personal servants in attendance. He was succeeded by his son Edward, who is often portrayed as a weak and sickly child but was in fact physically robust for most of his short life. He was also a chip off the old block. In the privacy of his apartments, this pampered and rather spoilt young boy was forever throwing tantrums. On one occasion, he tore a living falcon to pieces in front of his horrified tutor.

Ironically, although Edward was the only Tudor monarch to keep a diary, this reveals little about his private life. It is instead a very staid account of the events of his reign. The execution of one of his closest favourites was afforded only the following cursory mention: ‘The Duke of Somerset had his head cut off upon Tower Hill between eight and nine o’clock in the morning.’

The few details that do survive about Edward’s life behind closed doors provide a tantalising glimpse of the luxury that he enjoyed. His school books had covers of gold embossed with rubies and other precious stones. He was surrounded by everything possible for his amusement, including (most intriguingly) some ‘small tools of sorcery’. Like his father, Edward was fascinated by astronomy. In October 1552, a celebrated Italian astronomer, Cardano, paid the young king a visit and predicted that he would be long lived. Edward was dead nine months later.

He was succeeded by his half-sister, Mary. Like her grandfather, Henry VII, Mary has gone down in history as a serious, sober-minded monarch. Although she was unquestionably devout and lacked the charisma of her father and half sister Elizabeth, she was a different woman in the closeted world of her privy chamber.

One of Mary’s favourite companions there was her female jester, ‘Jane Fool’. She was joined by another jester known as ‘Lucretia the Tumbler’, who had impressive acrobatic skills. The Queen was also an avid gambler and loved to play cards and board games. She loved to provide entertainments and feasts for her court. One Spanish visitor claimed that she spent more than 300,000 ducats a year on her table and that she and her court ‘drank more than would fill the Valladolid river.’

Nowhere was Mary’s lust for life more obvious than in her relationship with her husband, Philip of Spain. She fell head over heels with him after seeing only his portrait – the Tudor equivalent of internet dating. Philip himself was rather less enamoured and confided to a private attendant that his wife was ‘no good from the point of view of fleshly sensuality.’

Philip evidently did his duty, though, because not long after the wedding Mary believed herself to be pregnant. She had all the symptoms – including sickness in the mornings and a swollen belly. But she had had some of those symptoms throughout her life – notably irregular menstruation, thanks at least in part to her strict fasting regime.

As she neared her term, Mary retreated to the seclusion of her ‘confinement’. Her midwives were close at hand, ready to spring into action with the usual array of bizarre birthing rituals to ensure a safe and easy labour. These included forbidding those present in the birthing chamber from crossing their legs, tying the skin of a wild ox around a woman’s thigh, and administering various potions to the expectant mother, such as powdered eel liver, ants’ eggs, virgin’s hair and red cow milk (whatever that was).

The nation waited with baited breath, but nothing happened. Weeks turned into months, and Mary was eventually forced to admit that there would be no child. The whole sorry episode was repeated two years later. It then became obvious that the swelling of Mary’s belly was caused not by a growing foetus but by a tympany’ as Tudors called it – in other words, a tumour.

Mary died on 17 November 1558. Her husband Philip had already left the country. When told of her death he said that he felt ‘reasonable regret’. Among the personal effects that Mary left was a book of prayers, with a page devoted to intercessions for expectant mothers. It was stained with tears.

Mary’s glamorous half-sister Elizabeth ascended the throne on a wave of popularity. From the start, there was intense interest in her private life because she was an unmarried woman – which made her nothing less than a freak of nature in Tudor times. Little wonder given her turbulent upbringing, Elizabeth cherished a private fear of sex and childbirth, and once confessed that marriage terrified her ‘for reasons that she would not divulge to a twin soul.’

But was Elizabeth really the Virgin Queen? This question not only fascinates modern audiences; it was a matter of intense debate at the time – so much so that ambassadors bribed Elizabeth’s laundresses to report on the state of her majesty’s sheets. There is compelling (but little known) evidence that supports her claim to be chaste. In October 1562, Elizabeth was in residence at Hampton Court when she fell dangerously ill with smallpox. Her council was so convinced that she would die that they held an emergency meeting to decide upon her successor.

The Queen herself believed she was dying and felt the urge to confess her sins. She insisted that nothing improper had ever passed between her and her closest favourite, Robert Dudley. In this God-fearing age, when people spent their lives striving to secure their place in heaven, Elizabeth is unlikely to have risked her eternal salvation by uttering a lie.

Elizabeth was possibly the vainest of the Tudor monarchs, and her ladies were obliged to spend an inordinate amount of time dressing her, fixing her hair and applying her makeup in the privacy of the Queen’s apartments. The process took an average of two hours in the morning and two hours at night, but this grew longer as she aged and even more effort was required to maintain the ‘mask of youth’.

The Queen’s thinning, grey hair was covered up with wigs that matched the famed auburn locks of her youth. Meanwhile, her entire face, neck and hands were painted with ceruse (a mixture of white lead and vinegar) in order to achieve the palest possible complexion. This may also have been used to conceal the pockmarks from the bout of smallpox that Elizabeth contracted at Hampton Court early in her reign – and that almost killed her. Although they helped to conceal the ravages of time, some of these concoctions were so toxic that they did more damage to the skin than ageing ever could.

Only the Queen’s private attendants knew what lay beneath this carefully constructed visage, but on one notorious occasion her impetuous favourite, the Earl of Essex, burst into her bedchamber before she was dressed. Aghast to see his royal mistress ‘unadorned’, he secretly laughed at her ‘crooked carcass’ with his friends. Not long afterwards, Essex was executed. Although this was for staging a rebellion against Elizabeth’s regime, his card had already been well and truly marked.

The End of Private Life

When Elizabeth died on 24 March 1603, the Tudor era came to an end and the throne passed to James VI of Scotland, the son of her despised rival Mary Stuart. The Scots did things very differently to the English. They had little respect for the elaborate ceremonies and pageantry of the Tudor court, and did not go to the same lengths to separate out their public and private lives. As a result, everyone soon knew of James’s sexual exploits with his male favourites, and his drunken revels were played out for all the court to see. So lacking was he in manners that he was seen to be ‘forever fiddling about his codpiece’. His character and habits, with all their flaws, were as visible to visiting ambassadors as they were to his most intimate servants.

The fact that James lived so much of his increasingly self-indulgent life on a public stage took away the mystique of monarchy that had been the hallmark of the Tudors. This would prove disastrous for the Stuart regime – which, by the time of James’s death, already looked dangerously unstable. It now became obvious that the private life of the Tudors, just as much as their public displays of majesty, had been the secret of their success.

The Private Lives of the Tudors: Uncovering the Secrets of Britain's Greatest Dynasty by Tracy Borman is available now (Hodder & Stoughton, £25)

The accompanying three-part TV documentary Private Lives of the Tudors, begins Tuesday 7 June 2016, 7pm on Yesterday