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The Tudor Society

Anne Seymour, Duchess of Somerset, by Conor Byrne

Tomb of Anne Seymour at Westminster Abbey

The Duchess Anne was an intolerable woman whose pride was monstrous, a termagant who exercised much influence over her weaker husband by the lash of her tongue.1

Anne Stanhope’s imperious disposition would become a byword when she had an opportunity to display it… Unfortunately Duchess Anne had one of those imperious natures… which found memories of previous inferiority intolerable.2

A proud, domineering woman, with a passion for precedence and an overwhelming interest in personal aggrandizement.3

Anne tried to push her [Katherine Parr], physically out of her place at the head of their entrances and exits at court.4

Anne Seymour, Countess of Hereford and Duchess of Somerset, is one of Tudor England’s most reviled women: in her own lifetime, continuing up until the present day, she has been labelled a ‘wicked woman’.5 The duchess has been slandered and criticised similarly to other defamed and misunderstood high-profile women such as Frances Grey, Duchess of Suffolk. Anne's name has become a byword for pride, arrogance and greed. Points of controversy centre on her alleged conflict with her sister-in-law Queen Katherine Parr and her reputed involvement in the downfall of her brother-in-law Thomas Seymour. In the Showtime television series The Tudors (2007-10), the Duchess’s reputation has further been blackened by the portrayal of her as a cunning nymphomaniac who engages in serial adultery and gives birth to numerous illegitimate children. Yet the real Anne Seymour, Duchess of Somerset and wife of Edward Seymour, was very different.

Anne was the only child of Sir Edward Stanhope and Elizabeth Bourchier, and appears to have been born around 1510.6 Her father had firstly been married to Adelina Clifton, by whom he had two sons: Richard (d. 1529) and Michael, who was executed in 1552 after having been found guilty of ‘holding rebellious assemblies’ and ‘feloniously instigating Somerset to rebellion’, alongside conspiring to kill John Dudley, duke of Northumberland, and others, although historians have doubted his guilt: ‘there is no evidence that he aimed at taking the Duke’s life’.7 Edward Stanhope died in 1511, when his daughter was only around one year of age, and his widow married Sir Richard Page, who would be arrested in 1536 – but later freed – for alleged adultery with Anne Boleyn. Little evidence survives concerning Anne Stanhope's childhood, although she appears to have served Katherine of Aragon as a maid of honour. Sometime before 9 March 1535, she married Edward Seymour, elder brother of Jane.8 His first marriage to Katherine Filliol had been annulled.

In October 1535, the Seymour couple were visited at Elvetham in Hampshire by the king and queen, and several months later, Anne and her husband acted as Jane Seymour’s chaperones at Greenwich Palace when the king sought her company.9 Anne had married into an ambitious and resourceful family. By the spring of 1536, the king was known to be favouring Anne’s sister-in-law Jane Seymour, who was two years or so older than Anne Seymour. Probably it was Anne’s stepfather Richard Page’s connections to the Seymour family that facilitated his release from the Tower of London.10 Anne Seymour, meanwhile, was occupying herself with household matters and was principally concerned with being a good and loyal spouse to her husband. Far from being a shrewish or stubborn wife, as is so often suggested, Anne appears to have enjoyed warm relations with Edward Seymour. She was loyal to his cause and dutifully provided him with ten children, a clear sign of their loving and intimate relationship: Edward (b. 1537 and died young); Anne (b. 1538); Edward (b. 1539); Henry (b. 1540); Margaret (b. 1540); Jane (b. 1541); Mary; Katherine (b. 1544); Edward (b. 1548); and Elizabeth (b. 1550).11

On 30 May 1536, Jane Seymour married the king and became Queen of England, meaning that the twenty-six year old Anne was now sister-in-law to the queen. Her husband Edward was ennobled as Viscount Beauchamp of Hache, Somerset on June 5, and was also appointed Chancellor of North Wales and Lord Chamberlain to the king.12 Anne enjoyed a prominent place at court. She appears to have been on good terms with Queen Jane, and the Seymour family reached the pinnacle of their influence in October 1537 when the queen was delivered of a son, Edward. Three days after the christening of Edward, Edward Seymour was advanced to the earldom of Hertford. Henceforth, Anne Seymour was known as the Countess of Hertford.13 The countess was involved in Anne of Cleves’s reception and went on to serve Katherine Howard as lady-in-waiting, and also served in the household of Katherine Parr.14

Anne seems to have initially enjoyed warm relations with Queen Katherine Parr, for she petitioned the queen successfully for the return of her husband while he was overseeing the Scottish borders at Newcastle in 1544. Far from being an outcast or scheming parvenu, the countess was respected and esteemed at court in the reign of Henry VIII. She does not seem to have been ‘a woman cordially loathed by most of her acquaintances’.15 Anne enjoyed an excellent relationship with Mary Tudor, perhaps made possible by her years spent in the household of Mary’s mother Katherine of Aragon. The two enjoyed playing cards together, and Mary often sent ‘Nann’ gifts on New Year’s Day.16 The countess appears to have radical religious beliefs. She ordered her servants to send presents of money to Anne Askew, who was convicted and executed for heresy in 1546.17 Her Protestantism could have facilitated a close relationship with Katherine Parr, who has been described as the first Protestant queen of England.18 Thomas Becon described the countess as ‘a lady of notable godliness and of singular pity toward the poor members of Christ’, and praised her decision to train her children ‘in good literature and in the knowledge of God’s most holy laws’.19 Negative assessments of the countess have tended to ignore evidence of both her piety and her devotion to her family.

Henry VIII died in January 1547 and was succeeded by his nine-year old son Edward, the nephew of the Earl and Countess of Hertford. Hertford as appointed Lord Protector of England, and headed the regency council appointed by the late king to rule during his son’s minority. He became Duke of Somerset in February, and his wife subsequently became his duchess. Shortly afterwards, the dowager queen Katherine decided to remarry, choosing as her husband the earl’s younger brother, Thomas, with whom she had been in love before marrying the king. ‘A full-blooded love affair’ between the two culminated in their wedding, which perhaps took place in late May.20 Upon discovering her brother-in-law’s hasty marriage to the dowager queen, the countess protested of its unseemliness. Her husband was more vocal in his disapproval. In fact, a substantial proportion of the nobility reacted with shock or horror, including Mary Tudor, stepdaughter of the dowager queen. In this context, Anne Seymour’s disapproval was perfectly normal, for ‘by remarrying so soon after the king’s death, Katherine demonstrated public disrespect for him’.21 The countess was entirely conventional in her disapproval of her new sister-in-law’s actions.

Notoriously, the Seymours and Somersets fell into conflict with one another. Modern histories repeatedly accuse the duchess of worsening relations between them, identifying her as a proud, malicious and haughty woman who desired to take precedence over the dowager queen. Some authors have even accused Anne of ‘jostling in doorways’ and refusing to carry the train of Katherine Parr.22 Although she expressed dislike of the duchess, Katherine’s anger and resentment were directed at the duke, rather than his wife. She was furious with the duke for leasing her property of Fausterne Park to Sir Henry Longe, who refused her access to it.23 The duchess did, however, briefly shelter Katherine’s infant daughter Mary following the death of the dowager queen in September 1548. Six months later, her reckless brother-in-law Thomas Seymour went to the scaffold. No contemporary statement that year accused the duchess of urging her husband to execute his own brother, although the unreliable Spanish Chronicle, written years later, blamed the duchess, believing that she had encouraged Somerset’s cruel decision.24 Other contemporary observers actually blamed the earl of Warwick and his allies. That same year, Somerset was removed from the position of Lord Protector and was imprisoned in the Tower of London. The duchess herself was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower in November 1551, and was only freed after the accession of Mary Tudor in 1553. On January 22, 1552, the duke was beheaded on Tower Hill in the brutal aftermath of Warwick’s coup, and the duchess’ brother Michael Stanhope was executed a month later. In the space of several weeks, the duchess had lost both her husband and brother. Her inner grief, turmoil and despair can only be guessed at.

During her lifetime, the duchess of Somerset was a respected literary patron. She sponsored the second volume of the translations of Erasmus’s Paraphrases, which appeared twice in 1549, and between 1548 and 1551, no fewer than nine publications were dedicated to the duchess, ‘a larger number than for any other woman in early Tudor England’.25 In January 1559, the duchess married a servant of her late husband, Francis Newdigate, who acted as a member of Parliament.26 The duchess was to suffer further tragedy, however, when her son by her first marriage Edward Seymour, earl of Hertford, recklessly married Queen Elizabeth’s cousin and maid of honour Catherine Grey in 1560. Because Catherine was viewed by many as the queen’s successor, in default of Elizabeth bearing issue, the queen reacted furiously and incarcerated Hertford and his pregnant wife in the Tower of London. The marriage was declared invalid in 1562, meaning that the couple’s two sons Edward and Thomas were declared illegitimate, both of whom were later in Anne’s care. The duchess was closely involved in her son’s plight, petitioning Elizabeth, William Cecil, and Robert Dudley for his release.27 Catherine died in 1568. The duchess’s final years were somewhat more peaceful, and she died on 16 April 1587, aged around seventy-seven, and was buried at Westminster Abbey.

Anne Seymour, Duchess of Somerset, has frequently been slandered as a shrewish, arrogant and proud woman who sought precedence over Queen Katherine Parr and who maliciously encouraged her weak husband, the Lord Protector, to put to death his own brother. However, as Caroline Armbruster succinctly noted, ‘allowing wives to take the blame for the misdeeds of their husbands was nothing new for sixteenth-century observers’, as can be observed with the similar scapegoating of Anne Boleyn and Lettice Dudley for their husbands’ misbehaviours. In the fifteenth-century, Edward IV’s wife Elizabeth was blamed for her husband’s decision to execute his brother George Duke of Clarence yet, as Edward’s biographer Charles Ross recognised, Edward ‘alone must bear responsibility for his brother’s execution’.28 The duchess was, by virtue of her husband’s position, the most powerful woman in England between 1547 and 1552. Negative assessments of her reputation ignore a wealth of evidence that suggests she was respected, esteemed and liked in her lifetime. She was a devout reformer who was noted for her piety; she was a formidable literary patron who had more books dedicated to her than any other woman in England at the time; and finally, she was a warm, supportive and loyal wife to her husband Edward Seymour, bearing him ten children.

Notes and Sources

  1. Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (London, 1991), p. 540.
  2. Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (London, 1992), pp. 289, 491.
  3. William Seymour, Ordeal by Ambition: An English Family in the Shadow of the Tudors (London, 1972), pp. xi, 221, 318-9, 371.
  4. Anthony Martienssen, Queen Katharine Parr (New York, 1973), p. 231.
  5. Retha M. Warnicke, Wicked Women of Tudor England: Queens, Aristocrats, Commoners (New York, 2012), pp. 77-105.
  6. Retha M. Warnicke, ‘Anne Seymour [nee Stanhope], duchess of Somerset (c.1510-1587), noblewoman and literary patron’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004); accessed online at http://oxforddnb.com/view/article/68053?docPos=1
  7. A. F. Pollard, ‘Michael Stanhope’ in Sidney Lee, Dictionary of National Biography (London, 1898), p. 22.
  8. Warnicke, ‘Anne Seymour’.
  9. Warnicke, Wicked Women, p. 88.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Warnicke, ‘Anne Seymour’.
  12. Weir, Six Wives, p. 347.
  13. Warnicke, Wicked Women, p. 88.
  14. Warnicke, ‘Anne Seymour’.
  15. Susan E. James, Kateryn Parr: The Making of a Queen (Aldershot, 1999), p. 358.
  16. Warnicke, Wicked Women, p. 88.
  17. Fraser, Six Wives, p. 473.
  18. James, Kateryn Parr.
  19. Warnicke, Wicked Women, p. 89.
  20. Fraser, Six Wives, pp. 486-7.
  21. Warnicke, Wicked Women, p. 90.
  22. Fraser, Six Wives, p. 491.
  23. Warnicke, Wicked Women, p. 91.
  24. Ibid, p. 93.
  25. Warnicke, ‘Anne Seymour’.
  26. Warnicke, Wicked Women, pp. 100-1.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Charles Ross, Edward IV (London, 1974), p. 244.

There are 9 comments Go To Comment

  1. M /

    The character of Anne Stanhope seems to have been combined with Edward’s first wife, Katherine Fillol, upon viewing The Tudors.

    I remember them mentioning Katherine Fillol’s character during the PBS series, The Sic Wives of Henry VIII, when Edward is reconciled with his father after his first marriage is annulled because of a scandal involving Katherine Fillol and his father, John.

    I remember Keith Michell as Henry bringing it up to John Seymour when visiting his residence, something about hearing that the old man had done some kind of “dance” with his son’s wife or something of that nature to which John Seymour replied that he was ashamed of what had happened.

    I also remember Edward telling Jane Seymour about his betrothal to Anne Stanhope and Jane mentioning that she knew Mistress Stanhope and it being a good match for them both.

    The scandal between John Seymour and Katherine Fillol seems to be similar to that of Princess Alys of France who was betrothed to Richard the Lionheart but had a scandalous relationship with his father King Henry II during the 1200’s.

    It seems as if modern history is confusing the character of Katherine Fillol with that of Anne Stanhope based on the way she was portrayed in The Tudors.

    They also combined the characters of Henry VIII’s sisters, Princess Margaret and Princess Mary into one individual. Not sure why they did this, other than either for editing purposes, to avoid confusion, or to make the story more soap opera like.

    Anne Stanhope’s character appears to be much maligned much like that of both Frances Brandon Grey and Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford when one goes back and looks at the current evidence available when they were all alive.

    I find it very interesting the connection of Sir Richard Page to that of Anne Stanhope and the Seymours (never knew that before) which is probably most likely why he was pardoned along with Francis Wyatt instead of going to the block with the five others accused with Anne Boleyn.

  2. L /

    Very interesting! I’m glad to finally get some facts about this much-maligned Tudor lady.

  3. S /

    Thanks for a most interesting article about a women I have often wondered about and questioned whether she could have been as annoying as some have portrayed her!

  4. H /

    Always wondered if Anne was really so bad, so many stories of the women of that time came from men with agendas. Glad to hear some clarification.

  5. Pingback: Anne Seymour: Wicked Woman /

  6. R /

    I feel the author’s stance on Anne Stanhope is fair for the most part. As in modern day we’re all allowed our own opinions on people – I for one still believe she was a ‘wicked woman’ at least in the years following the death of Henry VIII up until the death of Kateryn Parr.

    The only thing that I would argue is that Kateryn Parr actually did take issue with Anne and even went so far to mention her character in a letter to her husband, Thomas Seymour. I feel Parr was angry toward both Edward and Anne. I am also interested in the part about Anne taking in little Mary Seymour for a short period. I’d be interested in seeing the source for that because I have not come across that in my research on Thomas.

    1. < / Post Author

      Conor will probably be able to provide you with the primary source citation, but I know that Retha Warnicke in her Oxford DNB bio of Anne Stanhope writes “After Katherine Parr’s death in 1548 the duchess briefly sheltered the late queen’s infant”. Warnicke also writes this in her book “Wicked Women of Tudor England”, saying that Mary joined their household after Catherine’s death but her father’s dying request was for her to be cared for by Catherine Willoughby. I’d have to look up the primary source.

      1. < / Post Author

        Susan James in her biography also has little Mary being cared for in the Somerset household at Syon House before going to Katherine of Willoughby and I just checked Elizabeth Norton’s biography of Catherine and she also states that Mary spent some time in the Lord Protector’s household before being transferred, at Thomas Seymour’s request, to the Duchess of Suffolk’s home. Linda Porter also states that the Somersets cared for little Mary at Syon House while Thomas was imprisoned in the Tower.

  7. R /

    The actress in the Tudors was really such a good actress that her characterization of Anne Stanhope was really convincing. It was a typical Tudors writing of a character, especially of a woman as proud, haughty, sexually immoral, scheming and dangerous (the woman even threatened Bishop Stephen Gardiner…. “You will never serve that warrant, my Lord, because I know your secrets” and we find out he has not dissolved three monasteries but saved them, secretly cooking the books ). She has been consistently shown as a dark lady, the power behind her husband and the throne, the first Lady, someone you don’t dare cross. Contemporary and modern authors give Anne a hard time. Even when they admit she wasn’t responsible for the death of Thomas Seymour, who actually didn’t need any help to bring about his own end as he was a capable schemer and plotter. In the famous Young Elizabeth we see Tom Seymour portrayed as the dashing and handsome Admiral, soldier, man of action who captivated Princess Elizabeth and Ned Seymour and his wife are the business power couple with the serious weight of running the country on their shoulders who disapprove of the younger man’s antics. In fact Ned and Anne are sour pusses. In reality Edward Seymour was a moderate man, even if he was just as ambitious. I would recommend the new book by Margaret Scard, which is very scholarly and well researched but beautifully written and gives a more balanced view of the Protector. In Young Elizabeth the rivalry is evident and driven by Anne, who does encourage her husband to arrest his brother. They disapprove of the relationship between Tom Seymour and young fourteen year old Elizabeth, but also of his marriage to Katherine Parr. Now they did disapprove of the latter as it was in unseemly haste and without the leave of the King and Council and in secret. This doesn’t lead to his death and his relationship with Elizabeth was much more problematic.

    Although the evidence comes from two servants Ashley and Parry, through close cross examinations and possibly threats of torture, there is also the testament of Elizabeth that marriage was proposed to her by the Lord Admiral, Thomas Seymour, her stepfather. However, she said that she wouldn’t do anything without the permission of the Council. Elizabeth could not marry without this. There were accusations made of grooming behaviour, his coming into her room and kissing her and of both he and her stepmother, Katherine Parr, cutting her dress and tickling her in the gardens. Recently this evidence has been taken more seriously, but it may be nothing more than the gossip of two frightened servants, trying to save their lives and the reputation of Elizabeth. I believe, personally that the truth lies in the middle. She was a blooming young woman, of marriage age and the age of consent and he was a full blooded man. He obviously found her attractive, even if she rebuffed his advances, but they may have been exaggerated. The problem is, it is hard to verify independently and we can only go on what we see in these sources and discern the truth, which may well be a bit of both. In any event, at first Elizabeth did not turn Tom Seymour down but she didn’t accept either and now she clearly did refute his desires. It was his own doing that he became involved in a plot to marry Elizabeth and kidnap the King and the rivalry between the Seymour brothers is well recorded as pre dating the reign of Edward Vi.

    There is clearly some evidence that Anne Stanhope and Katherine Parr disliked each other, but her blackened reputation is not deserved. Anne was the wife of the Lord Protector and I am not so certain that I wouldn’t want precedence over an ex Queen. However, that place belonged to Katherine Parr and I just don’t see her being physically dragged out of her place in a procession by anyone, not without consequences. Strict rules applied and even Anne had to abide by them. Unfortunately modern writers have done little to reduce the idea of her being a rival over Katherine Parr and even Linda Porter said it was plausible. As Conor has pointed out, Katherine Parr talks about problems in her Letters. However, it is far more likely that it was the problems between the two men, Thomas and Edward Seymour and their own political activities which led to their respective downfalls. Rivalries with other members of the Council such as John Dudley, these also contributed to the execution of Thomas in 1549 and Edward in 1551. As for the reputation of Anne as an adulterous wife and power hungry wolf, I think we should take both with a pinch of salt.

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Anne Seymour, Duchess of Somerset, by Conor Byrne