The stories of Henry VIII's wives have proved endlessly fascinating, inspiring an apparently endless stream of novels and films. This is probably because the sheer barbarity of their treatment at the hands of a despotic husband horrifies us but also resembles the kind of dark fairy tales we were raised on. However there were few happy endings if you were inconvenient to Henry. We all know of Anne Boleyn, committed to death on trumped up charges of adultery and incest, waiting interminable days for the arrival of the French executioner who would dispatch her with a sword rather than the more traditional axe. This was considered a merciful concession from her husband as a sword was meant to be a painless way to go.
It is the stuff of horror stories and we feel that kind of barbarity is far, far removed from our lives now but it is deeply shocking to remember that there are still parts of the world in which adultery is punishable by execution, or more specifically, death by stoning. When we remember a woman like Margaret Pole, one of the last true Plantagenets and deemed a threat to Tudor supremacy, it forces us to confront the reality of past practices to which we must never return, the like of which still persist in in some cultures. Margaret Pole was condemned aged sixty eight, by Henry VIII, and dispatched on Tower Green in a botch job of monstrous proportions. A horrified eye witness described her execution as being performed by ‘a wretched and blundering youth who literally hacked her head and shoulders to pieces in the most pitiful manner.’
Jane was not alone in discovering that Tudor blood could be more curse than blessing. She had two younger sisters, who lived in the dark shadow of her fate. The older, Katherine Grey, was to also experience incarceration in the Tower. Katherine had committed the crime of marrying without Queen Elizabeth's permission – with royal blood this was treason. She was twenty-one years old and heavily pregnant with the child that came out of that secret marriage, when she was thrown in the Tower. Elizabeth, whose position was by no means stable at that point, moved quickly to have the marriage deemed illegal, making the son who was born soon after, illegitimate. Elizabeth was right to be paranoid as that boy would have had a strong claim to the throne, and being male, might well have proved to be an insurmountable threat to her position.
Elizabeth Fremantle's novels The Girl in the Glass Tower, about Arbella Stuart, and Sisters of Treason, about Jane Grey and her sisters, are published by Penguin.