History is full of powerful and influential women—that, we know for a fact. Time and again we see them rise to the occasion whether it’s about fighting for one’s rights, being in service to others, or leaving their marks in whatever field they find themselves in. Tudor women are definitely no exception.
Tudor history is fascinating, to say the least. And while there are women in history that are truly known widely and are undeniably famous, we also have the lesser-known ones that also deserve recognition for their contribution to badassery.
For starters, let’s get to know these five Tudor women who surely deserve their spot when it comes to courageously living and owning life. They may be the lesser-known ones but surely were incredibly cool just the same.
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5 Badass Tudor Women
Anne Askew was an educated, intelligent, and passionate woman whose unquestionable religious conviction eventually cost her, her life.
Anne Askew, born in 1521, was forced to marry Thomas Kyme at the age of fifteen. A marriage which she strongly rebelled against. She went further than just refusing to adopt her husband’s surname – she went to meet with King Henry VIII to request a divorce.
Now, the request for divorce was denied. But the move, it would seem, gathered unwanted attention from influential people. A spy was then assigned to her to watch for her ‘behavior’ and in 1545 she was eventually arrested on suspicion of heresy. She was released after 12 days in prison after she was persuaded to sign a confession – not of heresy but of the slightly qualified statement of orthodox belief.
That could have been the end of it, but her supposed association with Henry VIII’s wife, Catherine Parr, resulted in her arrest once again. And this time she went through long periods of torture. She was offered multiple times to recant and to name those who shared her religious beliefs. But in spite of the torture, she refused and was sentenced to execution.
On the day of her execution, she was so badly hurt because of the torture she endured that they had to carry her on a chair toward the stake because she can barely walk. But still, this badass woman held her ground and faced death bravely. When she said that she would rather die than break her faith – she truly meant it.
Maria Thynne, born Maria Tuchet, was an English gentlewoman whose love story with Tomas Thynne is nothing short of a movie in the making – in fact, it is said that it’s possible that theirs actually influenced Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Maria or Mall, born in 1578, was the daughter of Lucy and Lord Audley and the granddaughter of Sir James Marvin.
Her whirlwind romance started in 1594 when while serving at the court of Queen Elizabeth, she met and married Thomas Thynne – quite literally. They met and then got married, on the same day.
Talk about love at first sight, right? Well, it turned out that during the 1500s, it was legal and binding to marry someone by simply saying “I xxx take thee xxx to my wedded wife/husband and there unto I plight my troth,” to each other in the presence of witnesses.
Would have been the end of a lovely story but the complications lie in the family ties. You see Thomas was the son and heir of Sir John Thynne of Longleat. Apparently, Maria and Thomas’ fathers were embroiled in a long-running family feud that started from the previous generation. And although they tried to keep the marriage secret for a while, it did get out eventually, and as expected Thynne’s parents tried to annul it. Very unsuccessful though.
Suffice to say, Thomas’ mother was not very fond of Maria, and in fact, have never forgiven his son for marrying the latter. So, when Sir John Thynne died in 1604 and Longleat was rightfully inherited by Thomas, Joan on behalf of her daughters, took his son to the chancery court. Which again, is quite unsuccessful. Maria even ends up managing the estate herself. So, happy ending all in all. Well, sort of – Maria did die in childbirth in 1611.
Bess of Hardwick
Bess of Hardwick or Elizabeth was born in 1527 to a moderately prosperous Derbyshire gentry family. She became one of the richest women in Tudor history whose rise to wealth and power is symbolized primarily by one of the most significant houses of the Elizabethan period, the Hardwick Hall.
During those times, Bess knew that women didn’t have many opportunities to improve life except through marriage – which she fully embraced and strategically accepted. Her first marriage when she was 16 was to Robert Barlow, a Derbyshire man about her age. Unfortunately, it was short-lived, because Robert died a year later. She did receive a modest inheritance though.
Bess’ second marriage was to Sir William Cavendish who is an appointed treasurer to Henry VIII’s chamber. This surely leveled up Bess’ social advancement among the aristocrats and royals. Unfortunately though, at age 30, Bess is once again widowed. The third husband was William St. Loe who was no other than the captain of Queen Elizabeth I’s guard. Now, this one really amped her game, although as you already know, she got widowed yet again – inheriting most of the latter’s estate of course. And alas, for the fourth time, she did get remarried. This time to one of the richest and most powerful in the country – George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury.
By now, it was undeniable that she’s amassed wealth and built valuable connections (which may not be all in her favor but still, right?). So even after George died in 1590, and Bess, widowed for the fourth time, has already made her mark as one of the richest and most powerful women in England.
As a builder, her achievements are unsurpassed even by her male contemporaries – I know, Tudor women, right? Innovative features of her buildings are all evident from the Hardwick Old Hall to the New Hardwick Hall – they bear big windows resulting in the saying ‘Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall.’
To say Penelope Devereux was a complex character seems to be an understatement. She was indeed beautiful, educated, and ambitious, but also reckless, rebellious, and well, let’s just say she was quite a troublemaker. Nonetheless, this woman is said to be the ‘Stella’ in Sir Philip Sidney’s love poems, Astrophel and Stella.
She has a pretty impressive lineage being a descendant of England’s medieval kings. Her great-grandmother was Mary Boleyn. After the death of her father, Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex, her then-guardian arranged a wedding to Robert Rich, 3rd Baron Rick instead of Sidney (whom she expected to wed even from an early age).
Anyway, to cut the story a little shorter, her marriage with Robert Rich was an unhappy one (though they did have 7 children together). And Sidney apparently maintained an emotional attachment to Penelope until his death in 1586. It was about 1590 when Penelope had an adulterous relationship with Charles Blunt, 8th Lord Mountjoy, with whom she had five children. Now, during those times, such acts would be considered the norm for men – but definitely taboo for women. So, to say that it was a pretty scandalous move is quite right.
Penelope’s brother, Robert (who inherited the title Earl of Essex when their father died), is beginning to be the aging Queen Elizabeth’s favorite at the time. And this seemed to be the reason why Robert Rich still accepted Penelope along with her children with Charles. Apparently, that’s quite a sensible move if you’re trying to avoid crossing the Earl of Essex’s wrath.
Unfortunately, though, the good standing of the Earl of Essex with the Queen didn’t last for long (that’s another story for another time), he was eventually convicted of treason and was sentenced to death. He even ratted out his own sister, Penelope, and goes as far as saying that she encouraged him to raise an army against the aging Queen in favor of King James VI of Scotland.
Good thing that Penelope was able to talk her way out and argued that she was not the instigator but rather she only acted out of love for her brother. Anyway, after Penelope’s brother’s execution, Robert Rich disowned her and her children with Charles Blunt. Well, no worries on Penelope’s part, because then she just openly and shamelessly lived a life with her lover.
When Queen Elizabeth died in 1603 and James did become the king, Charles became Earl of Devonshire and Penelope became a Lady of the Bedchamber – one of Queen Anne’s ladies-in-waiting.
Gertrude Courtenay, Marchioness of Exeter
Gertrude, born in about 1502, was the daughter of William Blount, 4th Baron Mountjoy who is the chamberlain for Katherine of Aragon. Gertrude became a Courtenay when she married Henry Courtenay, Earl of Devon, who is the first cousin of Henry VIII. Henry Courtenay was created the Marquess of Exeter in 1525 which makes Gertrude a marchioness. She ended up becoming one of the Tudor women key political players in Henry VIII’s court during the latter’s annulment.
Both Gertrude and Henry were supportive of the King’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon but they did sympathize with Katherine and opposed Cromwell and Cranmer’s new evangelical ideas. Gertrude’s association with Elizabeth Barton, the Holy Maid of Kent, known for making speeches in public and making predictions (one of which is the death of the King should he marry Anne Boyle), almost cost her, her life when Elizabeth got arrested for treason.
Good thing that Gertrude was able to assure Henry VIII of her loyalty and feign ignorance of Elizabeth Barton’s treason. Gertrude maintained close relationships with Katherine Aragon and Princess Mary and was even hopeful that Mary would be reinstated at court as a princess following Anne Boleyn’s execution in 1536.
Following Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell’s concern about the Courtenay family (given that the latter do have royal blood, have dominance of the privy chamber, and have been secret supporters of Katherine of Aragon), they had the family arrested and sent to the Tower of London for treason.
Gertrude was imprisoned for 18 months and was questioned about her association with Elizabeth Barton and her traitorous behaviors. She wrote Henry VIII yet again, professing her innocence and sighting that her opinions were easily swayed because she was the weaker sex. The letter did save her life but not that of Henry, who was beheaded days after the letter was sent. Her son, Edward, was not released until 15 years later.
Following Queen Mary’s succession to the throne in 1553, Gertrude was summoned not just to attend the coronation but to be rewarded for her service – in fact, she was described as the Queen’s bedfellows.
Want to know more about amazing Tudor women? Check out this list of the best Tudor History books.