Women, Politics and Henry VIII (Commentary)

This commentary is based on the classroom activity: Women, Politics and Henry VIII

Q1: Read the introduction. Explain the statement that during the reign of Henry VIII women only had "informal power".

A1: During the reign of Henry VIII women did not exercise formal political power. That is to say they did not get elected to the House of Commons or appointed to the House of Lords. Nor did they hold political posts in government or serve in courts of law. However, women did have "informal power" and took part in political demonstrations.

Q2: Use the information in source 2 to describe the role played by Queen Catherine of Aragon in protecting people convicted during the 1517 May Day Riots.

A2: In the aftermath of the May Day Riots 279 people were brought to Westminster Hall and Henry VIII condemned them all to death. Francesco Chieregato (source 2) the representative of Pope Leo X in Henry's court, reported that Catherine of Aragon successfully appealed to her husband to show mercy and the men were pardoned.

Q3: Why did Henry VIII consider Elizabeth Barton a very dangerous woman? It will help you to read sources 3, 4, 5 and 6.

A3: Elizabeth Barton developed a large following and sometimes as many as 3,000 people attended her meetings. People were convinced that she was in direct contact with God (source 3). At a meeting held in October 1532, Elizabeth told Henry VIII (source 4) that God did not want him to marry Anne Boleyn. She also told him to burn English translations of the Bible and to remain loyal to the Pope.

Henry VIII feared that Barton's statements might result in him being "shamefully driven from his kingdom by his own subjects" (source 5). The king decided to have Barton executed on 20th April, 1534.

Q4: Why did Henry VIII have Gertrude Courtenay, the Marchioness of Exeter, arrested?

A4: Gertrude Courtenay was a supporter of Elizabeth Barton. She was also a strong opponent of the religious reforms being promoted by Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer (source 7). Gertrude also passed on information to Eustace Chapuys, the envoy of King Charles V of France and was accused of being a spy. She was therefore arrested and sent to the Tower of London.

Q5: According to source 8, why was Margaret Cheyney executed?

A5: Madeleine Dodds and Ruth Dodds, the authors of The Pilgrimage of Grace (1915) point out in source 8 that Margaret Cheyney (Lady Bulmer) was executed as "an object-lesson to husbands... to teach them to distrust their wives".

Q6: Explain what Sharon L. Jansen (source 16) means when she says "women like Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn did not have authority, but even women like Margaret Cheyney and Elizabeth Barton could have power".

Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Parr all had strong opinions on politics and religion. However, as wives of Henry VIII they did not have any authority (official power). Margaret Cheyney and Elizabeth Barton also did not have authority but as leaders of mass movements they did have some "power".