The Game of Queens was played out in deadly earnest. But that’s not to say that we – like these sixteenth-century women themselves – can’t have a little fun along the way! Here’s ten facts I found in my research that particularly struck me:
1 Anne de Beaujeu, regent of France, wrote a manual of instruction for powerful women. One piece of advice was not to pay too much attention to clothes – ‘Past 40, no finery can make the wrinkles on your face disappear’.
2 King James IV of Scotland took an interest in a wide variety of subjects, including dentistry. He paid his subjects to let him take their teeth out – a practice that might endear him to many patients today!
3 When Henry VIII sent his sister Margaret Tudor, James IV’s widow, the present of some wonderful dresses, she was in such pain from sciatica she couldn’t even bear to be turned in bed. But she still made her attendants hold up the dresses so she could see them, every day.
4 While Henry VIII was looking for a new bride, after beheading Anne Boleyn, his eye lit on Marie de Guise. He said that they should get one, because they were both ‘large in person’. ‘I may be large in person’, she retorted, ‘but I have a little neck!’
5 Margaret of Austria was unlucky in her marriages. On her way to the second, with her ship in danger of foundering in the Bay of Biscay, she composed her own mocking epitaph.
Here lies Margaret
The willing bride
Twice married –
But a virgin when she died
6 When Margaret, as Regent of the Netherlands, was negotiating a peace treaty with England’s Cardinal Wolsey, she tried literally to sweeten his mood with a daily breakfast delivery of fresh rolls, wine and sugar.
7 Margaret was succeeded as Regent by her niece Mary of Hungary. Ambassadors said Mary was ‘a little mannish’, and that everyone knew she wouldn’t have children – she was far too sporty.
8 It was Mary Queen of Scots who liked actually actually to dress up in men’s clothes and go roistering around the Edinburgh streets with her ladies. There was always the joke that the best way to end the troubles between Scotland and England would be for Mary and Elizabeth I to marry.
9 When Mary sent Sir James Melville on a diplomatic mission to Elizabeth, the Tudor queen kept pressing him as to whether she or Mary were the taller, the better dance, the prettier. Mary was the fairest queen in all Scotland and Elizabeth in all England, answered Melville, diplomatically.
10 Across the Channel in France, two other rival rulers were Jeanne d’Albret and Catherine de Medici. But when they were trying to negotiate and end to the war between Protestants and Catholics they still broke off to go shopping round the Paris boutiques together, disguised as ordinary bourgeoisie.
Sarah Gristwood has written bestselling biographies of Arbella Stuart, and Elizabeth and Leicester. Blood Sisters was a dramatic portrait of the women whose dynastic ambitions and rivalries fuelled the Wars of the Roses and her latest book is Game of Queens: the Women Who Made Sixteenth-Century Europe. She will be speaking at Chalke Valley History Festival on 27 June on this subject. Tickets available here.