The great social movement known as the Reformation that began under Henry VIII, that was codified under Edward VI and made permanent under Queen Elizabeth I, carried a strong anti-sex message that had nothing to do with purifying the Church Service or reducing the Church calendar. With the evangelicals, sins like pride and greed, previously among the worst because they blocked the sinners’ access to God, were now overtopped by lust. Anything that might lead to sex, such as masqueing; too much time spent playing and listening to music; indulging in seasonal “may games,” a term often applied to ancient mating rituals like dancing around the maypole; these were banned as slippery slopes leading to sexual activity and eternal damnation.
As the government strove to eradicate such “merry-making,” plays too were condemned by the puritans and their bishops as “filthy” and “ungodly,” catchwords for sexual behavior. While plays have always made the authorities nervous because they are so liable to contain anti-authoritarian messages, the notion that sex leads to damnation allowed the puritans to make hell, quite literally, for the Elizabethans who enjoyed them. As testified by the almost 300 pages of “Documents of criticism and control” in Volume IV of Chambers’s The Elizabethan Stage, the creation of the London Stage, with its bawdy humor and portrayal of sexy activities, was met with such passionate resistance by the evangelical establishment that reasons must be sought for this irrational panic over this most basic of human drives.
In 1989, a professor of Comparative Sociology at the Polish University in London, Stanislav Andreski, provided what would seem to be the best explanation. In his book, Syphilis, Puritanism and Witch Hunts, he explains: “I want to put forward the view that the importation of syphilis into Europe had . . . profound effects on European civilization: affecting most directly religion and sexual morality . . . .” (4). While there have always been “preachers of asceticism”––cries for a return to the innocence of Eden lest God unleash another Flood on Sodom––what “demands explanation” according to Andreski, is why the Elizabethans were so ready to support this grim, unhappy religion:
Causation of great historical processes is always bafflingly complex, and clearly many other factors were involved. But this seems to me less uncertain than any other explanation: puritanism would not have had the appeal which helped it to find adherents so quickly . . . without the spread of syphilis. (5)
As Andreski uses the term puritan, he refers more specifically to the evangelical view that sexual intercourse is inherently sinful, which suggests that human life, which relies on sex if the species is to continue, was regarded by the God of the evangelicals as wicked and disgusting and therefore that humans are all born sinners––“In Adam’s fall we sinned all.” The Catholic Church dealt with this by providing these sinners with priests who had the power to redeem them through confession. Protestants on the other hand, resentful of the power of the priesthood, were left to bear the weight of their “heaps of heavy sin” with little relief (apart from a very great deal of very dull poetry). Some hoped to escape damnation through “profitable” work; others by claiming membership in an “Elect,” who for some reason felt that this guaranteed them salvation without having to work for it.
While Andreski doesn’t discuss the health of Henry VIII or the fate of his children, when he comments on how the disease was ravaging the royal houses of Europe at that time, he notes Henry VIII (and Ivan the Terrible) as prime examples (77). Is Andreski right? The grossness of Henry’s physical decline; the unhappy fate of his wives and their children; the paranoia that caused him to execute his most dedicated ministers; his reckless wars and senseless vendettas––can these be due to the physical and moral deterioration common to the later stages of syphilis?
Andreski’s message falls on deaf ears
By the 1980s, the English, battered by two world wars, had come to accept historian Geoffrey Elton’s reversal of the comforting image of “Great Harry” as provided by earlier historians, but neither Elton nor his audience––forgetting perhaps what syphilis was like before the discovery of penicillin (in 1928)––were prepared to ascribe his insanity to a disease, particularly if it suggested a deeper look into the medical history of the last three Tudors. If syphilis is ever mentioned by historians or other commentators as a factor in the King’s behavior it’s invariably dismissed, as in this typical blurb: “If Henry VIII did have the disease, then his comprehensive medical records would have mentioned either the obvious symptoms or the extensive treatment, but there is no mention of either.”
This is blarney. Henry’s symptoms are far too obvious, and if his doctors ever did use the treatments used at the time, they would certainly not have allowed that to be entered into any record. Furthermore, neither would they have informed the King, for, as all of his biographers make plain, Henry was so terrified of disease that at the slightest hint that there was illness anywhere in his vicinity he would instantly move to another palace, forcing the Court to follow (Elton Reform 104). Even more to the point, as his brain deteriorated and the chronic paranoia that is a symptom of the final stage of the disease possessed him, it was known that anyone who dared to present him with unpleasant news risked destruction.
By the time Henry’s doctors would have been certain that all the ailments assignable to the second stage of the disease were actually caused by “the pox” (known as “the great imitator” due to the wide variety of the symptoms it shares with other diseases) the only certain cure, mercury, would have been too late, and even had they tried it––perhaps explaining it as a cure for something less fearsome––it’s absurd to suggest that they would have left a record of it or discussed it with anyone outside the King’s immediate circle of care-givers. These were the so-called Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber, whose task it was to minister to to the King’s body, bathing him, assisting him to the toilet, changing the bandages on the stinking sores that covered his legs and genitals, and dealing with his fearsome outbursts of rage.
Many at Court must have guessed the truth, but while most courtiers were kept as far from him as possible, these unhappy men were privy to things that, however denied from openly discussing, they would never have been able to erase from memory, horrors brought about by the sexual license the King was allowed in his teens and twenties, behaviors that at that time were considered signs of a vigorous male constitution.
Forced by their office to be physically close to the King during the final decade of his life, forced to watch as his once fine body became a rotting mass of putrid flesh, his mind tormented by the paranoid fears and mood swings that accompany the final ”tertiary” stage of the disease, the Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber were constrained both by fear and by their oaths of office to keep these horrors to themselves. Thus it is no surprise to find that it was largely these men, and their families, who were most active in driving the English version of the Reformation, with its potent anti-sex campaign, to the extremes that they did.
A “physically lavish” adolescent
When Henry came to the throne at age seventeen he seemed every inch the image of the ideal Renaissance prince. His athletic build and energy, his love of music and literature, his scholarly efforts to raise the level of studies at the universities to levels already accepted in Italy and Spain, brought him a reputation that shone through all the Courts of Europe, promising a glorious career.
Almost immediately he was forced to deal with the international impasse into which death had cast his older brother Arthur’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Eager to stay on good terms with her father, Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II, Henry solved the problem by marrying his brother’s widow. But marriage placed no constraints on the royal libido. As historian Geoffrey Elton so delicately puts it, his councillors felt that “so physically lavish an adolescent” would be better off married (Reform 18). Nor did he restrict himself to one-nighters with pretty milkmaids, for, one after another, he took his poor wife’s royal handmaidens to bed, and when they got pregnant, married them off to one of his male courtiers.
Nine months from the day they married, Catherine of Aragon bore the first of a series of stillborn sons and daughters. In 1519, six months after she miscarried for the sixth and final time, having produced only one living child, the Princess Mary, a son was born to her husband’s current mistress, Elizabeth (Bessie) Blount. Still without a male heir, Henry dubbed him Duke of Richmond and gave him a princely education.
Most know the rest of the ugly story: his brutal divorce from Catherine so he could marry Anne Boleyn; how Anne, after providing yet another daughter, made the fatal mistake of miscarrying a male fetus two months before the seventeen-year-old Duke of Richmond died; how on the very day after Anne was executed, Henry married her handmaiden, Jane Seymour, who, the following year, gave birth to the all important male heir a week before she herself died, supposedly of child bed fever. By the time Henry attempted marriage to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, he was fifty years old, sick, obese, and probably no longer actually capable of fathering another child.
Although history continues to dismiss it, the truth should be obvious: at some point during his reckless youth Henry had contracted “the great pox”––so named for the sores that left scars (pock marks) when they healed. (The “small pox” was “small” because it was somewhat less deadly; many survived it, and those who did were permanently immunized against a further outbreak.) The silence that surrounds this disease in the records of the time is due to the intense shame it engendered, the fact that its symptoms were often hidden from view, the disgusting nature of its symptoms, and its deadly etiology. Among its horrors was the way it could infect the victim’s partners, and through them, their children.
Most of us today know nothing of this nightmare, protected as we are by antibiotics, but the disease having struck some time before it was first recorded (in Naples in 1495, in England in 1497) its symptoms were certainly understood by the time Henry began having problems in his forties. (Among the many cruelties of his administration, not the least should be the way his officials stood by as he continued to infect one wife after another.)
Known as “the great imitator,” syphilis can exhibit a wide variety of symptoms. The officially diagnosed causes of the deaths of several of Henry’s wives and children––consumption (aka tuberculosis)––lends strong testimony to Andreski’s thesis, consumption having long been a general term for a range of pulmonary diseases, syphilis among them. From Catherine and Anne’s failed attempts to produce a viable male heir, to the early deaths of his sons, the Duke of Richmond at seventeen (of consumption) and Edward VI at fifteen (also of consumption), to Mary and Elizabeth’s poor health, Mary’s inability to conceive, and certain of Elizabeth’s symptoms––what other explanation can there be?
Consider the case of Edward VI, whose death from “consumption” does not fit the description of his symptoms as provided by Frederick Chamberlin, who published his research into Queen Elizabeth’s medical history in The Private Character of Queen Elizabeth (1921). Of her brother’s death, Chamberlin quotes the British Medical Journal of 1910: “in addition to the symptoms of pulmonary disease [consumption], eruptions on his skin came out, his hair fell off, and then his nails, and afterwards the joints of his toes and fingers” (38). Chris Skidmore (Edward VI: The Lost King of England ) quotes an Ambassador sent by Charles V: “He does not sleep except when he be stuffed with . . . opiates. The sputum which he brings up is livid, black, fetid and full of carbon; it smells beyond measure; if it is put in a basin full of water is sinks to the bottom” (250).
As for Edward’s sister Mary Tudor, who strove without success to get pregnant by her husband Philip of Spain, Chamberlin wrote: “many years she was never free from headache and palpitation of the heart; she was habitually afflicted with the most abject melancholy; she was anaemic to a notable degree . . . . her periods were irregular, scanty, painful, and in the main suppressed” (37)––all symptoms of inherited syphilis.
Why Elizabeth never married
As for Henry’s third living child, Queen Elizabeth, who never married, never got pregnant, and never gave birth, the records of her various illnesses, again examined by Chamberlin, suggest the same thing. While reasons commonly given for her resistance to marriage cannot be discounted––as a female, marriage would certainly have weakened her ability to maintain her authority––but if she was aware of the cause that had laid waste to the rest of Henry’s progeny, she would also have been aware that it could infect his offspring “unto the third and fourth generation.” Clearly marriage, or rather, the sexual intercourse that would inevitably follow, resulting in the pregnancy so fervently desired by her people, would, as she would surely have been aware, be a far greater threat both to herself and to the nation she was sworn to protect.
This was the kind of Catch-22 that would have been impossible for her to explain. When we read her statements to the members of Parliament who were tormenting her with demands that she marry, we can’t help but feel some compassion. According to the historian John Neale who gives close accounts of her relations with Parliament, she was very clear from the start that she did not intend to marry. Forced by their demands that she marry and produce an heir, thereby avoiding a showdown over the succession that could lead to civil war, to show a willingness to marry, should the right suitor appear, there is simply no other way for us to compare what she said then to her total failure to follow up on any of the many marriage proposals that she pretended to consider during her fertile years.
Those who knew without being told why she would never marry were those who had been close to Henry VIII during his descent into madness. These included William Cecil, son of Richard Cecil, the King’s valet, who had known the King from birth to death; Secretary of State Francis Walsingham, protégé of Sir Anthony Denny, Henry’s leading Groom of the Stool; and Sir Thomas Heneage, another Gentleman of the Privy Chamber, later Elizabeth’s chancellor of her personal exchequer. Most important perhaps, considering his fatherly influence over his powerful son-in-law, was the authoritarian Evangelical Sir Anthony Cooke, whose function as one of Henry’s Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber over the final weeks of his life had rendered him vulnerable to the sex-as-sin message in the Calvinism he encountered while living in exile in Strasbourg during Mary’s reign. Back in England, Cooke spread his brand of Calvinism to his fellow believers in Parliament even as he indoctrinated his children with his beliefs, among them the future wives of several of Elizabeth’s leading ministers of State.
The shadow that followed the King’s attempts to get an heir, that damaged his wives and their children, leaves little doubt that as early as 1513 he had become infected with syphilis, and that it was this that, along with other factors, was the primary reason why Elizabeth never married. Yes, marriage could have meant a loss in terms of her power over her all-male Privy Council, but what would have been even more frightening for her as a woman was the awareness of what having sex, and the pregnancy that would follow, might mean, not only to her own health and well-being, but also to her partner and ultimately to the nation she was born to serve. She could not have been blind to her sister’s symptoms or to the agonizing death of her little brother. That she herself suffered for a full decade from a suppurating fistula on her leg and another on her shoulder (Chamberlain 57-59, 67) would have been a warning that, despite the charade of her many official romances, she must never be tempted, not just to marry, not just to become pregnant, but primarily never to have the kind of sex that might threaten her partner.
As for Burghley, who was surely aware, through his father and his father-in-law, of the King’s condition and therefore of its implications for his royal Mistress, that despite his apparent interest in a marriage that would protect England from its Catholic enemies, through it all he remained secure from any fear of what such a marriage with a foreign prince might mean for himself. This must cast his position on her highly publicized attempts to find an appropriate husband as another example of how his private views remained separate from his public stand on a variety of issues. When we see these highly advertised marriage negotiations with the princes of Europe, all fondly imagining that they could conquer England simply by marrying its Queen, and how this helped to keep England’s enemies at bay for the the first twenty years of Elizabeth’s reign, we can see her highly publicized romances as political maneuvers that gave her and her ministers time to build the nation’s military strength to where by 1588 it could survive the eventual attack by the great and supposedly invincible Spanish Armada.
There was only one other political reason why Elizabeth never married, namely the fact, and fact it certainly was, that she would have lost a good deal of her power to whomever she married, for no matter how restrictive might have been the limitations set on a potential cohort’s status, men are always more inclined to deal with other men if they can. As for other issues related to sex, there were a great many besides her father’s disease to discourage her. If her own mother’s fate and that of her father’s other wives weren’t terrible enough, there were the equally grim fates of Mary Queen of Scots, tossed aside by her ministers as soon as she produced the necessary heir, or Elizabeth of Valois, dead from childbirth at age twenty-three after producing one baby after another every year since her marriage to Philip II. Even greater than these would have been her own first experience with desire in her teens, when the man who wooed her in hopes of marrying a future queen was tried for treason, condemned and beheaded, partly for having dared to make love to her, while she herself lived for a year under the threat of a similar fate had her persecutors been able to prove that she had encouraged him.
Still, nothing could approach the fear inspired in her by her father’s insanity, the illnesses and early deaths of his wives and her sister, the gruesome death of her beloved brother, and her own repeated symptoms. She must at least have had the satisfaction of knowing that the Tudor line, with its doomed etiology, would be ending with herself.