Interview with Melita Thomas
I am very honoured today to be able to host Melita Thomas as part of her book tour for her new book ‘The King’s Pearl: Henry VIII and his Daughter Mary’. Melita Thomas is the co-founder and editor of Tudor Times, a repository of information about Tudors and Stewarts in the period 1485-1625.
Melita has loved history since being mesmerised by the BBC productions of ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ and ‘Elizabeth R’, when she was a little girl. After that, she read everything she could get her hands on about this most fascinating of dynasties. Captivated by the story of the Lady Mary galloping to Framingham to set up her standard and fight for her rights, Melita began her first book about the queen when she was 9. The manuscript is probably still in the attic! Whilst still pursuing a career in business, Melita took a course on writing biography, which led her and her business partner, Deborah Roil, to the idea for Tudor Times, and gave her the inspiration to begin writing about Mary again. ‘The King’s Pearl: Henry VIII and his daughter Mary’ is her first book. She has several ideas for a second project, and hopes to settle on one and begin writing by the end of the year. In her spare time, Melita enjoys long distance walking.
What inspired you to write a book about Mary Tudor and her relationship with her father?
I have always been interested in Mary, but for many years I accepted the popular narrative of Mary and Henry’s relationship as ‘happy childhood, miserable adolescence, bullied and browbeaten into submission, banished to the country and grudgingly brought back into favour by Katherine Parr’s kindness’. It was a chance piece of information that woke me to it being quite different – the knowledge that Henry commissioned a whole suite of apartments for Mary at Whitehall Palace, before he began courting Katherine Parr – hardly an action he would have taken if Mary were still in disgrace. So, I followed that up, and soon realised that Mary was actually at the heart of Henry’s court in the late 1530s and early 1540s. This was the thread that opened up a whole new interpretation of their relationship.
How did you go about researching your book?
We are so, so lucky in Britain to have the wonderful National Archive, and the British Library – fabulous institutions that bring so much of our history together. There is also the extremely useful British History Online, which, as the name suggests, brings transcripts of lots of documents together. I went to a few local archives, and was lucky enough to be shown the interior of the old palace of Tickenhill, where Mary lived during her period in the Marches.
The most exciting moment was seeing a restricted manuscript in the British Library that Mary herself wrote in.
What qualities do you believe that Mary inherited from her father?
They had characteristics and tastes in common, as individuals – both loved music and were extremely accomplished instrument players and dancers. They also shared a facility for learning and speaking languages. Other common traits were a physical restlessness, energy and pleasure in the outdoors – they enjoyed hunting, hawking, archery and gardens. Both were heavy gamblers – gambling was endemic in the Tudor court, but Mary and her father played for high stakes. They delighted in beautiful and ostentatious clothes – which also a marker of their status, of which they were extremely conscious.
At a deeper level, I think the trait they most clearly shared, although Mary could not give full expression to it until later in her life, was a certainty of their own rightness, and a willingness to go to extremes to get their own way. Once either of them was determined on a course, they were almost impossible to move.
How do you believe Mary felt toward her father during the early years of her life?
As a little girl, Mary probably worshipped Henry. He was a fond father, and played with his children, particularly his daughters – he was more nervous about handling Edward because of the risk of infection. With Mary effectively being an only child, until Henry brought Fitzroy into the picture in 1525, she would have had all his parental attention. He was proud of her, and showed her off. Mary was herself a physically active person, and probably enjoyed Henry’s robust nature.
On top of that, she would have been taught to think him next only to God in importance – matters of conscience aside, he was her king, as well as her father, and had to be obeyed instantly. For him her refusal to obey him over the annulment probably came as a huge shock.
Do you believe that Mary’s feelings for her father changed at all after the annulment of his marriage to Mary’s mother, Katherine of Aragon?
I think Mary struggled to accept that Henry was the guilty party in the annulment proceedings. Like any adolescent faced with family breakdown, she blamed everyone else – Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cranmer in particular – for the annulment. She probably tried to believe that his motivation was genuine pricking of his conscience, inflamed deliberately by Anne. She also learnt to fear him.
What was Mary’s relationship like toward her siblings?
During Henry’s life time, Mary was very close to Edward. For the prince, Mary was the closest to a mother that he had – she was his godmother, and twenty-one years older than him. She frequently visited him, gave him many gifts, and, once, when she was concerned about something (we don’t know what) asked Henry and Katheryn Howard to visit him. He wrote affectionate letters to her in Latin – less sophisticated than those he wrote to Henry or to Katherine Parr, suggesting that he composed them himself, rather than working on them with a tutor. In one he wrote that, although he did not wear his best clothes every day, he loved them best – similarly, although he did not write to Mary every day, he loved her best.
Her relationship with Elizabeth was more complex – although we must be careful not to read backwards from later events. To begin with, Mary was forced to take a subordinate position in Elizabeth’s household – hard for her to stomach after being feted as Princess of Wales. But she does not seem to have resented Elizabeth herself – making an effort to speak up for the little girl not long after the execution of Anne Boleyn. As with Edward, she gave her frequent presents – including a trinket box, a pomander and cloth. She also frequently gave her presents of money to wager with!
I think Mary and Edward were more similar in character, perhaps more like their father – unwilling to compromise (although Mary had been forced to bend over the annulment) and battering away at a problem head on – bulls in china shops, whereas Elizabeth was perhaps more like Henry VII – patient, subtle, and flexible in achieving her ends.
We have absolutely no knowledge of Mary’s relationship with Fitzroy, other than that she called him ‘brother’. They may not have met very frequently.
Do we have any insight into how Mary felt about the death of her father?
Only in a letter she wrote in relation to Katherine Parr’s remarriage, when she expressed shock that Katherine should marry so soon after the death of one who was ‘so ripe in [Mary’s] own remembrance’.
What is one thing you would like to ask Mary?
What would she have done on Henry’s death, if Edward had been Henry and Jane’s daughter, rather than son? Would she have challenged for the throne as the eldest daughter, believing herself legitimate?
What is thing about Mary that you would like people to take away after reading your book?
That her life in Henry’s reign, and her relationship with her father was much more complex and nuanced than usually portrayed. In particular, that Mary played a far greater role in the politics of the court than is usually assumed. I think one aspect that comes out of the evidence is that Mary had the gift of friendship – she was a very social woman, and seems to have friends of all shades of political and religious opinion. Of course, people would have courted her as the king’s daughter, but she seems to have been very inclusive in her friendships, and not at all inclined to bear grudges. Lady Shelton, Anne Boleyn’s aunt, who had been responsible for a good deal of mental pressure and bullying towards Mary, was the regular recipient of gifts later.
She was also more fun than she is portrayed – she laughed, she danced, she hunted, she played cards, she enjoyed gardens and beautiful clothes.
What’s next for Melita Thomas?
I have been circling round a few topics for the next book, and have now more-or-less decided on the topic, which is another Tudor-centred one. I am planning to begin the research in November.
Again I would like to say a very big THANK YOU to Melita Thomas for taking part in this interview. Her book on Mary Tudor is a fascinating read and I would strongly suggest picking up a copy. If you’d like to purchase Melita’s book please follow the link….
For more amazing articles on Melita Thomas’ book tour please see below…