The Cult of Celebrity in the Tudor Age

So we’ll live, and pray, and sing, and tell old tales, 
and laugh at gilded butterflies, 
and hear poor rogues talk of court news, 
and we’ll talk with them too—
Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out—
And take upon ’s the mystery of things
As if we were God’s spies. And we’ll wear out
In a walled prison packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by the moon. 

-From William Shakespeare's King Lear, Act V, Scene III

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We tend to think of things like celebrities and gossip as something modern, but the truth is that while times may change, people never do.

The nobility were the celebrities of their day, and the average Englishman was probably just as much aware of their comings and goings, intrigues and alliances, as someone living at court. Gossip was a beloved English pastime. Gathering in a tavern to drink and trade gossip was a pleasant way to pass an evening.

The nobility had no privacy. Every moment of their lives was played out in front of servants who derived part of their income from the gifts and bribes they were given to spread the news of the noble's health, quarrels, alliances, friendships, business deals, and aspirations. Even details that we would consider extremely personal information ... Women's laundresses were frequently bribed to find out if they were still menstruating.

Gossip was a vital asset in the cronyistic system. Knowing who was in favor - and who was on the outs - let those seeking favor know whom they needed to bribe. Everything from court cases to land deals was predicated on having the right noble's favor. At the court of Henry VIII, favor could literally turn overnight, and so having the most up-to-date news was vital.

There was an order to this system, a sense of what was a fair level of compensation for a service rendered. Cromwell once received a letter complaining about one of his commissioners working on the suppression of the monasteries:

The man is young and of intolerable insolence. In his visitation he refuseth many times 'his reward' [bribe], though it be competent, or that they offer him so little, and maketh them send after him such rewards as may please him.

Letters, like those of the Lisle family, helped gossip spread far and wide through the kingdom. Honor Lisle hoped to get her daughters appointed to court, so she sent gifts to the queen and her favorite courtiers, hoping one of them might petition the queen for her.

Eustace Chapuys was essentially the scandal rag of his day. He reported scandal and gossip in his dispatches back to the court of Emperor Charles V, without much effort at determining the truth, especially if it was gossip about someone he disliked. Unfortunately, a great deal of our knowledge of the court comes from his letters, so it's much like historians five hundred years from now reading the a celebrity gossip magazine to learn about the history of our day. The Spanish Chronicle codifies many of these rumors into a narrative form. It's of interest simply to know what stories were circulating in the court, but of little value as a historical document. Chapuys himself should be treated with skepticism, but some historians have taken his reports at face value.

Will Somers had his own booklet 
printed about him in the 17th century, 
a biography called A Pleasant Historie 

The forerunner of gossip mags were printed pamphlets or books with engraved images of Tudor celebrities. Nobles, executed criminals, court officials, and military heroes were frequently featured. They were sold as souvenirs at executions by strolling merchants, and stocked a stationary shops in the cities.

Ballads and popular songs were another way gossip was spread and chewed over by the people. While Anne Boleyn was still in the Tower, Henry VIII warned Jane Seymour that there was a satirical song making the rounds that mocked Henry's callous behavior and relationship with Jane:

Advertising you that there is a ballad made lately of great derision against us, which, if it go abroad and is seen by you, I pray you pay no manner of regard to it. I am not present informed who is the setter forth of this malignant writing, but if he is found out, he shall be straightly punished for it.

The song is lost to the mists of history. The king's agents likely destroyed any written copies of it (assuming there were printed copies) and none of them have survived to the current day.

Another ballad or poem about Anne Boleyn's woeful fate is O Death, Rock me Asleep. It is often attributed to Anne herself, supposedly having written it in the last few days before her execution. But this is unlikely. As historian Eric Ives noted, William Kingston - instructed to write to the council about every word Anne spoke - never mentioned her writing or composing a poem. A copy of it is found in a manuscript which is roughly contemporary, so it had to be composed very near the time of Anne Boleyn's death, but not likely by the queen herself.

While the common people might chat, sing, or read about these Tudor celebrities, actually seeing one of them was rare, just as most modern people will never glimpse a movie star in the flesh. The common people of the era rarely traveled more than a few miles away from their home village. The only time it might be possible to see the nobility was when court passed by on royal progress.

When the court went on progress, traveling around the countryside, the common people would travel from miles around to line the roads to watch the passing show of the hundreds of colorful wagons, servants, and nobles on horseback or litter.

The people would cheer for their favorite nobles, and pass them petitions and gifts. But having likely never seen an image of them, the people would need something else in order to be able to identify them. In a mostly illiterate society, nobility would be identified by their family coat of arms, painted on their wagons and worn on their servants' livery. The people would call blessings, and in return, the nobles would sometimes distribute coins to the people. It was very exciting for the populace. It might be the only time they ever saw these exalted personages they'd heard so much about.

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