When Elizabeth Tudor, the young princess who would later become the revered Elizabeth I of England, received word of Thomas Seymour’s execution, she reportedly stated, “This day died a man of much wit and very little judgment.”
Though likely apocryphal, Elizabeth’s comment aptly summarizes Thomas’ allure. Rash, charismatic and deeply ambitious, Thomas had married Elizabeth’s stepmother, Catherine Parr, following the death of the princess’ father, Henry VIII. (His sister, Jane Seymour, was Henry’s third wife, while his new wife, Catherine, was the king’s sixth and final wife.) In 1549, Thomas was charged by the crown with 33 counts of treason—including conspiring to marry Elizabeth, who was then second in line to the English throne. He met a brutal end at the Tower of London on March 20, 1549, with the executioner taking two blows of an ax to fully sever his head.
For Elizabeth, the 15-year-old daughter of a queen (Anne Boleyn) who’d similarly lost her head after being accused of adultery, Thomas’ execution represented yet another life lesson on the dangers of marriage. “She clearly equates marriage with a lack of safety,” says Elizabeth Norton, author of The Temptation of Elizabeth Tudor. “It’s understandable. Her mother is executed by her father, who then goes through [a] series of wives,” another of whom he also beheads for adultery. “There aren’t really any happy examples of marriage in her family,” Norton adds.
Elizabeth’s relationship with Thomas—a scandalous, much-debated dynamic that first took shape years before his execution—is a central focus of the new Starz series “Becoming Elizabeth.” Premiering on June 12, the show explores the monarch’s teenage years, when her half-brother, Edward VI, ruled over a country riven by religious differences and economic instability. Against this backdrop of widespread unrest, Elizabeth (played by Alicia von Rittberg), Edward (Oliver Zetterström) and their half-sister Mary (Romola Garai) navigated courtly intrigue and the power players who sought to pit the half-siblings against each other.
“We all think we know who Elizabeth I is. ... But actually, we really don’t,” said executive producer George Ormond during a recent panel discussion. “This story is … about a young, teenage girl who thinks she’s an adult, who thinks she’s equipped to deal with adult things and is thrust into this world that’s dangerous and finds herself drawn into this relationship [with Thomas], which raises all sorts of questions about consent and power.”
The series begins with the death of Henry VIII in 1547. As Henry’s only surviving son, Edward Tudor was first in the line of succession, before his older half-sisters. Though no one knew it at the time, all three Tudor siblings would eventually take the throne, with Mary ascending in 1553 and Elizabeth in 1558.
Because Edward—the son of Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, who died in childbirth—was just 9 years old at the time of his accession, a regency council headed by his uncle, Jane’s brother Edward (John Heffernan), the Lord Protector, ruled the kingdom on his behalf. The division of power sparked dissent: Henry’s widow, the dowager queen Catherine Parr (Jessica Raine), had expected to serve as regent but found herself excluded from the business of government. Similarly dissatisfied with the arrangement was Edward and Jane Seymour’s brother Thomas (Tom Cullen).
First linked romantically in 1543, after the death of her then-husband Lord Latimer, Catherine and Thomas had hoped to wed, only for her to catch the eye of Henry, leaving her little choice but to become the king’s sixth wife—a position she made the most of by promoting religious reform and encouraging him to restore his daughters to the line of succession. Mary was close to her newest stepmother in age and enjoyed a strong relationship with her; Elizabeth was also close to Catherine, who was appointed the princess’ guardian after Henry’s death in 1547.
As Edward VI’s uncle, Thomas Seymour was, at the time, “the most eligible bachelor in England,” apart from the young king himself, who was not yet of marriageable age, says Norton. Capitalizing on his rise in stature, Thomas set out to find himself a bride—perhaps even a royal one.
Letters cited by Gregorio Leti, a 17th-century Italian historian of dubious reliability, suggest that Thomas initially proposed to the 13-year-old Elizabeth, who was 25 years his junior. The pair’s age gap and Elizabeth’s relative youth may seem appalling to modern observers, but during the Tudor period, 13 or 14 was considered a marriageable age for aristocratic women, many of whom married far older men; Margaret Beaufort, Elizabeth’s great-grandmother, gave birth to the first Tudor king, Henry VII, when she was just 13.
In her purported reply to Thomas, Elizabeth wrote that his letter had “very much surprised me; for, besides that neither my age nor my inclination allows me to think of marriage,” she was still in mourning for her late father.
Scholars are divided on the veracity of Leti’s letters. Norton and Tracy Borman, joint chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces and the author of such books as Elizabeth’s Women and Crown & Sceptre, think there is some truth to them, while Rebecca Larson, founder of the Tudors Dynasty blog and podcast, and Sylvia Barbara Soberton, author of multiple books on Tudor women, dispute their authenticity. “The language doesn’t quite seem right,” says Larson. “... The biggest clincher for me is the fact that there is no way Thomas and Elizabeth would have written letters to each other about marrying without permission from the [council].”
Regardless of whether Thomas proposed to Elizabeth, he soon found himself reunited with Catherine, his former flame. The couple wed within months of Henry’s death, sparking a scandal that especially damaged Catherine’s reputation, with observers positing that the 34-year-old rushed down the altar purely out of sexual desire. In all likelihood, Catherine, who had endured three arranged marriages, wanted to finally marry for love. Thomas, meanwhile, appeared to love Catherine, but Norton says his feelings were “coupled with self-interest in that he probably wouldn’t have married her at this stage if she wasn’t the queen dowager.”
Larson, who is currently writing a biography of Thomas, describes the couple as a “fantastic team.”
“They both had their own insights into court, [and] Catherine helped to stabilize Thomas. When he tried to go a little bit off the deep end, she was the one who would pull him back. And he was just always willing to fight for her,” especially during clashes for precedence and power with his brother, the Lord Protector, and his ambitious sister-in-law, Anne.
As Catherine’s ward, Elizabeth lived with the newlyweds at their estate in Chelsea. Soon after Thomas moved in in June 1547, he began visiting Elizabeth’s bedchamber in the early morning. According to testimony later provided by Elizabeth’s governess, Kat Ashley, Thomas first showed up while Elizabeth, clad only in a loose nightgown, was still in bed. After saying good morning, the admiral “ma[d]e as though he would come at her,” prompting Elizabeth to shrink back but not forcefully push him away. The next day, Elizabeth took care to wake up earlier than usual, so she was out of bed when her stepfather arrived, “barelegged in his slippers” and short nightgown. As Kat recounted, he then struck “her on the back or the buttocks familiarly.”
Thomas’ visits continued over the following months, raising eyebrows among members of the household, particularly as the supposedly playful behavior escalated. “Elizabeth was like forbidden fruit for him,” says Borman. “He was very much drawn to power. Knowing that she’s Henry VIII’s daughter and she’s under his roof [is] pretty irresistible for [Thomas]. ... For him, it was a game.”
Elizabeth’s response to Thomas’ attention is the subject of much controversy. To modern eyes, a stepfather making sexual advances toward his teenage stepdaughter is a clear example of sexual harassment, perhaps even predatory grooming. But the Tudors lived in an entirely unfamiliar world—one that Larson says can’t be judged by today’s standards because “their way of life was so different than what we experience now.” Life expectancy was much shorter, and as historian Linda Porter points out in her biography of Catherine Parr, “[t]he concept of adolescence did not exist in Tudor England.”
“It was a shocking episode, but perhaps not quite for the reasons that we would see it as today,” says Borman. “Contemporaries would have seen it as, at worst, a very ambitious courtier preying upon a relatively vulnerable young lady.”
Witty, fashionable and—by the standards of the day—highly attractive, Thomas had a captivating presence that made him popular with women. He convinced Catherine to marry him well before her mourning period had ended and often flirted with Kat, perhaps to smooth the way for his romancing of her royal charge. The governess later said that Elizabeth “did bear some affection” toward Thomas, blushing whenever his name was mentioned.
When Thomas started visiting Elizabeth, she was a sheltered teenager who’d rarely been exposed to men, let alone dashing figures like her new stepfather. “There was an element of attraction on Elizabeth’s part,” says Borman. “She loved the danger as much as [Thomas]. It was exciting, and she’d never [experienced] anything like this before. But I think it probably got out of control from her perspective.” Overall, Elizabeth likely had conflicted feelings toward Thomas: “It’s a mixture of both sexual attraction and [being] frightened, unnerved, by what is going on,” Norton says.
Thomas told his wife and Kat, who eventually began objecting to his intrusions, that he was simply teasing his stepdaughter and meant her no harm. Far from discouraging her husband, Catherine actually participated in some of his jests, joining him on several morning visits and reportedly holding Elizabeth (exactly how is unclear) while Thomas cut her black gown “into a hundred pieces.”
A possible explanation for Catherine’s behavior is that she realized Thomas’ true intentions but feared losing his love by speaking out. Like other women at the time, the queen had vowed to obey her husband, who enjoyed complete control over both his wife’s affairs and her household. “There are hints that marriage to Thomas isn’t what Catherine was expecting, and that she actually is very much under this thumb,” says Norton. “... She quickly comes to understand that it’s not a partnership or a marriage of equals.”
In June 1548, Catherine found Thomas and Elizabeth “all alone, he having her in his arms,” according to Elizabeth’s cofferer, Thomas Parry. Unable to ignore the situation any longer, a furious, heavily pregnant Catherine sent her stepdaughter to another estate, both to protect the princess’ reputation and end the extramarital liaison. Though rumors circulated that Elizabeth, who soon took to her bed with an unspecified illness, gave birth to Thomas’ child, most modern historians dismiss these whispers as unfounded speculation.
Though Catherine and Elizabeth never again met in person, they managed to repair their relationship via heartfelt letters. Catherine and Thomas also reconciled, united in anticipation of their child’s impending birth. It came as a devastating shock, then, when the 36-year-old died of purpureal fever just days after giving birth to a daughter in September 1548. In her fevered state, Catherine reportedly told a friend, “I am not well handled, for those that be about me care not for me, but stand laughing at my grief, and more good I will to them the less good they will to me.” When Thomas objected to this accusation, his wife rebuffed him. The couple did, however, make amends before Catherine’s death.
Initially, a heartbroken Thomas appeared poised to abandon the plans he and Catherine had for gaining the upper hand in their power struggle with his brother, the Lord Protector. But Thomas soon recovered from his grief, fighting “even harder for the things he thought were rightfully his,” as he no longer had his wife to rein in his wilder instincts, says Larson.
Thomas’ goals were multifold. Beyond actively revolting against his brother’s protectorate, he hoped to see the king, by then an 11-year-old, come into his own as a ruler. With Edward VI no longer beholden to the Lord Protector and his advisers, Thomas would presumably receive a prominent government position. He also intuited that marrying Elizabeth, the king’s favorite sister, could earn him further goodwill, so he resumed his pursuit of Elizabeth, on one occasion asking Thomas Parry “whether her great buttocks were grown any less or no.”
With her stepmother’s death, Elizabeth lost a significant maternal figure. Kat, her impulsive governess, became the princess’ dominant influence; infatuated with Thomas herself and perhaps hoping to live vicariously through her young charge, Kat convinced Elizabeth that he’d loved her, not Catherine, all along. “Gradually, with nobody else to advise her, Elizabeth began to succumb to the alluring fantasy that her governess was concocting,” writes Borman in Elizabeth’s Women.
In 1548, Elizabeth had an “almost vanishingly small chance” of becoming queen, says Norton. Her brother, the king, was young, healthy and likely to have children of his own. Even if Edward failed to produce heirs, their sister Mary remained ahead of Elizabeth in the line of succession. Norton adds, “[Elizabeth] knows that her future is either being a spinster, … marriage to a foreign prince for diplomatic reasons or more likely marriage to a great landowner in England because of the problems over her legitimacy.”
Soberton suggests that Elizabeth “was receptive to the idea” of marriage to Thomas. Borman, however, speculates that she “never seriously contemplated” the match, having already declared at age 8 that she would “never marry.” Either way, the princess prevaricated on the issue, taking care to avoid agreeing to anything without the approval of the Privy Council. Then, says Soberton, the situation “spiraled out of control.”
On the night of January 16, 1549, Thomas, whose feud with his brother had intensified in recent months, showed up at the king’s apartments with a weapon (either a dagger or pistol.) Interpretations of his intentions vary, with some claiming that Thomas planned to murder the king and others theorizing that he hoped to kidnap Edward. In truth, writes Norton in The Temptation of Elizabeth Tudor, he probably hoped to “acquire the person of the king, marry Elizabeth—and bring down his brother.”
Whatever Thomas’ goal, the mission went awry, with the admiral stabbing or shooting the king’s pet spaniel after it started barking. Though Edward, who had always been fond of his uncle, may have been in on the clandestine kidnapping attempt (Thomas was later accused of attempting to persuade his nephew to “take upon himself the government and managing of his own affairs”), the loss of his beloved dog irreparably damaged the pair’s relationship. The very next day, Thomas was arrested and taken to the Tower of London.
As part of the investigation into Thomas’ alleged treason, the Lord Protector and the Privy Council turned their attention to his courtship of Elizabeth. Authorities arrested Kat and Thomas Parry, imprisoned them in the Tower, and questioned them relentlessly. The council similarly interrogated the 15-year-old Elizabeth, “who held her ground skillfully, refusing to admit anything” until Parry finally relented in mid-February, according to historian Alison Weir. From there, details of the affair tumbled out, with Kat and Parry revealing scandalous, previously undisclosed incidents from Elizabeth’s time at Chelsea.
Larson, who views Thomas more sympathetically than most scholars, deems Kat’s testimony “suspect because she was trying to protect [Elizabeth’s] reputation,” and the best way to do so was to paint Thomas as an unwelcome aggressor. She also argues that Kat, who was housed in a dank, uncomfortable cell at the Tower, may have fabricated or exaggerated her testimony out of fear of being tortured.
Elizabeth held her own against her interrogators, displaying the quick thinking and wit she’d later become known for as queen. She admitted to discussing the prospect of marriage to Thomas with her governess but maintained that she had refused to agree to anything without obtaining the council’s permission. The defense worked, and Elizabeth emerged from the scandal with her head, albeit not her reputation, intact. To restore her good name, she spent the rest of Edward’s reign presenting herself as a pious, respectable Protestant, dressing in plain clothing and always carrying a prayer book at her side.
“The Thomas Seymour scandal was really disastrous for Elizabeth, because contemporaries saw it as being her fault [and] not at all surprising” given her mother’s reputation as an adulteress, says Borman. “Nobody expected good to come of her. She was the daughter of the most scandalous woman in Christendom. The Tudors really believed in the concept of a bad seed, [that] if your parents were sinful, you would be, too.”
The Lord Protector released Kat and Parry after receiving a humble plea from Elizabeth, but Thomas remained a prisoner, too dangerous for his brother to forgive. He was beheaded on March 20, 1549, at the age of 40 or 41. The Lord Protector’s victory was short-lived; he followed Thomas to the scaffold in January 1552, after a coup by another grasping nobleman.
Following Edward’s death in 1553 at age 15, possibly due to tuberculosis, Mary took the throne as the first woman to rule England in her own right. Like her brother, Mary died without having children, paving the way for Elizabeth’s “vanishingly small chance” of becoming queen to come to fruition.
Ultimately, Thomas “brings himself down,” says Norton. “He tries too hard to take power … from his brother.” Still, Norton and Larson maintain that Thomas wasn’t actually guilty of treason, and certainly not of conspiring to kill the king. His legacy, says Larson, is that of a “loyal servant to his sovereigns.” She continues, “He had a really great career at the court of Henry VIII that’s often overlooked. He was in the navy; he was in the army. He was the master of ordnance, became a diplomat and traveled [widely].” Though his push for Edward to end his minority and take full control of the kingdom was undoubtedly motivated by self-interest, he truly believed that the young king was capable of ruling on his own.
“[Thomas] was a turbulent, troublesome individual, but also a likeable one, and—at the start of 1549—the man who would come closest to marrying the future Queen Elizabeth,” writes Norton in The Temptation of Elizabeth Tudor. Known today as the “virgin queen,” Elizabeth famously never married, despite considering an array of suitors—many of them rogue rakes who had much in common with Thomas—over her 45-year reign.
“She was well aware from the marriages around her that marriage isn’t necessarily positive for women in the period,” says Norton. “The fact that women lose power and status [upon marrying]”—and the example set by Thomas, who died, in part, for trying to marry her—“remain in her mind for the rest of her life.”