Saturday, March 12, 2016

A Royal Affair: Henry VIII’s first ‘mistress’

By Lauren Johnson
Whether justly or not, when we think of Henry VIII we think of romantic intrigues. Even schoolchildren can recite the fates of his six wives: divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. Although Henry had the rather unusual habit of marrying his mistresses, there were other women in his life who have been forgotten. It is a little verbose to remember all of these romances: ‘divorced, affair, illegitimate child, possible illegitimate child, beheaded...’ doesn’t have such a ring to it. One of these forgotten women is Lady Anne Hastings - the young king’s first extramarital dalliance.
It was spring 1510. The eighteen year old Henry VIII had been a king and a husband for less than a year. His wife, Catherine of Aragon, was sequestered with her ladies for her first ‘confinement’ - the final stages of a pregnancy that was to prove false. As the weeks passed and still no child appeared, Henry grew restless. He began to seek female attention elsewhere. His eye fell on the darkly attractive Lady Hastings.

Anne, Lady Hastings (wikimedia commons)
She was born Anne Stafford, daughter of that infamous Duke of Buckingham who had supported the usurpation of Richard III and then raised a rebellion against him. By Henry VIII’s reign the Staffords were at the heart of court politics. Anne’s brother Edward now held the title of duke, making him the senior nobleman in the country. Their sister Elizabeth, Lady Fitzwalter, was one of Catherine’s senior ladies in waiting, her experience of pregnancy proving particularly useful as she kept her mistress company in the royal chambers. And Anne herself was recently married - for the second time - to another prominent courtier, Lord George Hastings. Henry had given her a wedding gift of a few shillings last December. It was not a mark of particular attention, but by May 1510 the Spanish ambassador, Luis Caroz, was reporting that the king had become very interested in Anne indeed. She was ‘much liked by the King,’ said Caroz, so he ‘went after her’.
Henry was aided in this endeavour by his childhood friend and now Groom of the Stool - the most trusted royal body servant - William Compton. Compton carried messages between the pair, even visiting Anne’s private chambers to do so. It was not long before rumours about the relationship started to seep out. So closely was Compton embroiled in the affair, in fact, that there was some confusion as to who exactly was wooing Anne.
‘Another version’ of the story, Caroz reported, ‘is that the love intrigues were not of the king, but of [Compton], his favourite.’ However, Caroz was unconvinced of this, thinking it more likely that Compton ‘carried on the love intrigue, as it is said, for the king... That is the more credible version.’
When Anne’s family learnt that their married sister was being courted by a king they immediately stepped in to end the affair. Curiously, Anne’s husband was not the first to react. Perhaps he hoped to gain something from this royal attention. Instead, the Staffords closed ranks. Whispers of the affair had reached as far as the Queen’s cloistered chambers, coming to the ear of Anne’s sister Lady Fitzwalter. Whether eager to protect her royal mistress or to preserve the family honour, Lady Fitzwalter leapt into action, organising an ‘intervention’. She made the mistake of inviting her brother.

Edward Stafford, duke of Buckingham (wikimedia commons)
The third Duke of Buckingham was an infamously proud and choleric man. When he learnt that his sister’s name was being associated not only with the king but with his servant, he was outraged. He stormed to Anne’s chambers. By spectacular ill fortune, his visit to his sister coincided with the arrival of William Compton. Buckingham ‘intercepted [Compton], quarrelled with him, and the end of it was that he was severely reproached in many and very hard words’.
Compton did not take this treatment lying down. He reported it immediately to the king who - rather confirming Caroz’s suspicion that Henry himself was the lady’s suitor - ‘was so offended at this that he reprimanded the duke angrily.’ Buckingham fled from the king’s presence in a fierce temper. Lord Hastings, perhaps inspired by the duke’s affirmative action, had Anne spirited away ‘and placed her in a convent sixty miles’ away.
Worse was to follow for the Staffords. When Henry discovered that the source of all this trouble was his queen’s servant Lady Fitzwalter he had her and her husband turned out of court. By now the whole situation was getting out of hand. In his frustration at the loss of Lady Hastings, Henry was threatening the jobs of half the royal servants.
‘Believing that there were other women in the employment… [sneaking] about the palace insidiously spying out every unwatched moment, in order to tell the queen [stories], the king would have liked to turn all of them out, only that it has appeared to him too great a scandal.’
Inevitably, the queen learnt of the dalliance. Recently emerged from her miserable lying in with no child to show for it, and still only months into her marriage, Queen Catherine did not take news of her husband’s infidelity well. ‘Almost all the court knew that the queen had been vexed with the king,’ reported Caroz, ‘and the king with her, and thus this storm went on between them.’
In the fullness of time Catherine forgave Henry and during her next confinement we do not hear of any further adulterous intrigues around the king. The Staffords returned to court. The ‘storm’ subsided.
As far as we know, the relationship between Henry and Anne never went beyond flirtation. Indeed, after 1510 we never hear of their names being associated again. Henry would go on to have other mistresses - Bessy Blount, Mary Boleyn, those infamous wives - but his feelings for Anne seem to have been cooled by the furore his attentions had caused.
The same is not true, however, of Anne and Compton. Despite both being married - apparently contentedly - the pair continued to enjoy a close relationship for years to come. So close, in fact, that in 1527 Compton was forced to swear on the sacrament that he had not committed adultery with her. Perhaps that was true. But the will he wrote in 1523 suggests that even if their relationship was not physical, it was certainly very affectionate. This will - written shortly before he went to war on the Scottish borders - asked that, in the event of his death, prayers be said for himself, his wife and Anne. It also gave Anne a life interest in some of his estates. Such generosity to a woman outside one’s kinship group was very unusual. It suggests that while the royal affair swiftly blew over, Anne’s relationship with Compton was deeper and more abiding. The king’s first ‘mistress’ was not an easy woman to forget.

Henry’s relationship with Lady Hastings features in Lauren’s new book, So Great a Prince: England and the Accession of Henry VIII (Head of Zeus). The book explores the year 1509 from the perspective of both king and country.

She is also the author of The Arrow of Sherwood (Pen & Sword Fiction) and wrote the play Lady Unknown.

She blogs at laurenjohnson1, tweets @History_lauren and facebooks at Lauren Johnson: Author & Historian. Her website is

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  1. Sounds fascinating. Er - is this book fiction or non fiction?

  2. Anne Stafford's life is also the subject of my historical novel, At the King's Pleasure (2011) w/a Kate Emerson.

  3. I enjoyed this post. I have always found the members of the Stafford family intriguing.


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