Reviewed by Laura Marriott
The Temptation of Elizabeth Tudor concerns itself with the potential marriage between the teenage Elizabeth Tudor and Thomas Seymour. The book focuses primarily on Seymour, his story being less well documented. This is the story of his rise and fall and of the risks that the young Elizabeth faced as a princess without the protection of her parents. The stage is set with the death of the much loved and feared Henry VIII in 1547.
Thomas Seymour was brother to Jane, Henry VIII’s third wife and the one that finally bore him a son. As Jane became Queen and royal mother her family’s status significantly improved. In time his older brother Edward went on to become Lord Protector of England during Edward VI’s minority. As uncle to the King Thomas, envious of his brother’s success, allowed his vanity and entitlement to guide him he set out to raise his own status. His schemes, political plots and spying make for the most fascinating of political intrigues.
Seymour married Henry’s sixth and final wife Catherine Parr. Already widowed three times by her early thirties she was finally in a position to marry for love and it seems Seymour returned her feelings. Shortly after Henry’s death they, rather scandalously, married. However, before this Seymour had already courted the attentions of Princesses Mary and Elizabeth, and also possible the child Jane Grey, making his hope to marry into royalty and power clear from the start. He was a power hungry and charming courtier who saw his opportunity to climb to power in the aftermath of Henry VIII’s death. In late 1547 Elizabeth was only fourteen years old and living with her step mother the Dowager Queen, and her new husband, Thomas Seymour.
One particular story is often touched upon in documentaries; the famous scene of Seymour tearing up the young princesses dress with his sword as she is held by her stepmother Catherine. There was more to it than this one scene though. The domineering Seymour would enter Elizabeth’s chamber early in the morning, trying to catch her still in bed dressed only in her nightdress, where he would proceed to ‘tickle’ her, sometimes even with the assistance of Catherine. This flirtation seems to become increasingly overt and threatening, with the result that Elizabeth, at the risk of scandal, is sent away out of Seymour’s reach. Her line in the succession makes her both powerful and vulnerable to attack. As the daughter of convicted adulteress Anne Boleyn many expected Elizabeth to behave in the same way so she was particularly vulnerable to rumour and gossip.
After Catherine’s death Seymour acts in an increasingly reckless manner until he is arrested for treason, thus endangering the very existence of the princess. Norton delves into this chapter of her life in detail and picks out the happenings and feelings that go on to form Elizabeth’s character. Without the threats she faced as a result of Seymour’s interest in her Elizabeth’s path in life might have been very different. Norton argues that is from this episode that she learned that relationships could be dangerous and scandalous. Although Elizabeth is not known to have expressed a clear desire for or interest in Seymour, in the sixteenth century a princess’s virtue and reputation could be threatened by rumour alone.
One of the main arguments of The Temptation of Elizabeth Tudor is that her early bruising experiences of her flirtation and thoughts of marriage with Seymour resulted in Elizabeth’s decision to remain unmarried; becoming the ‘Virgin Queen’. Although this is likely a contributing factor it seems unlikely to be the only cause. This is a rare portrait of the early romantic life of the princess, instead of the frequent focus on Robert Dudley and her international suitors when Queen. As this is more a biography of Thomas Seymour’s political life and death rather than of Elizabeth’s youth or early romantic relationships the title is perhaps a misnomer; catchy and intriguing but slightly misleading. The lines Norton chooses to end on do not fully fit with the narrative thrust of the rest of the book when she suggests that ‘he was her temptation’.
The sibling rivalry and consternation between the Seymour brothers is a particularly interesting counterpoint to the royal siblings who appear to have shown remarkably little jealousy or rivalry despite their much closer proximity to power. Some elements of the scandal seem remarkably relevant to today’s tabloid magazine articles; the question over virginity, pregnancy, secret pregnancies, interfamily love triangles and affairs.
Norton is an accomplished and prolific writer, having written multiple biographies of royal women. It is rare to find a history book that is so readable and enjoyable. Fortunately a family tree is included at the back, which is necessary for following the relationships between the two closely connected families. This is a well-studied period of history, but Norton has found a section that can go towards feeding the ever present Tudor mania. Her sources show a wide and thorough reading and research that went into forming this intellectual yet lively investigation.
The Temptation of Elizabeth Tudor is a vivid and entertaining read, on occasions full of suspense and intrigue. It shows how a young royal could become trapped, used as a pawn, between the competing factions looking for political dominance in the court. The extent to which Elizabeth, and her younger sibling Edward, had control of their own lives is debateable. This is certainly one of the most comprehensive and interesting accounts of Thomas Seymour. The backstabbing and political machinations make for a deeply involving account; one can easily see why this period of history still has the power to fascinate.
Laura Marriott is a historian, theatre critic, writer and poet. Find her at LauraMarriottWriting
Elizabeth Norton, The Temptation of Elizabeth Tudor (Head of Zeus, 2016). 9781784081737. 368pp., paperback.
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