THE SECRET CHILD OF PRINCESS ELIZABETH AND THOMAS SEYMOUR.
The circumstances surrounding the scandal of Thomas Seymour and Princess Elizabeth as subsequently recounted by conventional historians and numerous biographers was invariably conveyed to posterity through the concealing prism of euphemisms and hints with no serious intention of ever wanting to get to the heart and truth of the matter. They were naturally content to only fleetingly touch upon the scandalous subject of a possible sexual relationship between the fourteen year old princess and Thomas Seymour, a man at the time married to her stepmother and old enough to be her father regarding a secret established sexual relationship widely rumoured to have produced a child. There were however two other sources which carry the subject of sexual intimacy and rumoured pregnancy further, both going as far as to affirm not only was Elizabeth pregnant but a child was secretly stillborn or destroyed. The first of them is found in a manuscript life or memoir of Elizabeth’s contemporary Jane Dormer, afterwards Duchess of Feria (1538-1612).
Born second daughter of Sir William Dormer and his first wife Mary, eldest daughter of Sir William Sidney following the death of her mother in 1542 Jane was placed under the care of her grandmother Jane, Lady Dormer with whom she remained until she was taken into the household of Princess Mary. In her younger years Jane was the frequent companion of the young Prince Edward whose tutor and her grandfather Sir William Sidney encouraged her to read, dance and sing with his royal pupil.1 From the time she was admitted to the household of Princess Mary the two of them formed a strong bond and a lifelong friendship. Living with Mary in whose intimate trust she was taken, Jane Dormer was privy to the fact that following the death of Henry VIII Seymour had sought to marry Elizabeth and the two of them closely followed the unfolding scandal at the Parr-Seymour household. Naturally Princess Mary had a personal and political interest in any intended royal match with her sister Elizabeth. As the next in line to the throne Mary reacted with great alarm at Seymour’s intention to overthrow the government of his brother the Lord Protector, which if it succeeded, may very well have prevented her own succession. Aside from what was being done in public, Mary through official and diplomatic back channels was certainly the recipient of news and information of what was taking place in private between her sister Elizabeth and Seymour. Perhaps if anyone outside of the Parr-Seymour household would have known if Princess Elizabeth was pregnant and had secretly given birth to a child her sister Mary would have, information she would likely share with her trusted lady-in-waiting Jane Dormer. It is certainly the case, talk of Princess Elizabeth’s pregnancy and subsequent birth of a child was current in the household of Mary, and afterwards the household of Jane Dormer, then and many years thereafter.
In 1603 Jane Dormer, then Duchess of Feria, took into her household a Henry Clifford who she soon took into her confidence. Under her direction Clifford wrote a memoir of his mistress one which remains the principal authority for the known facts of her life. The surviving manuscript, as we have it, was written in 1643 however it was evidently prepared and drawn up at a much earlier date.2 For two hundred and fifty years this manuscript preserved in the possession of the Dormer family at Grove Park remained hidden from view before it was first published in 1887 under the editorship of the Rev. Joseph Stevenson, S. J., entitled The Life of Jane Dormer, Duchess of Feria. In this Life of the duchess a statement is found that the Princess Elizabeth gave birth to Seymour’s child that did not survive childbirth, and was subsequently destroyed or disposed of:
A great lady, who knew her [Elizabeth] very well, being a girl of twelve or thirteen, told me that she was proud and disdainful, and related to me some particulars of her scornful behaviour, which much blemished the handsomeness and beauty of her person. In King Edward’s time what passed between the Lord Admiral, Sir Thomas Seymour, and her Doctor Latimer preached in a sermon, and was a chief cause that the Parliament condemned the Admiral. There was a bruit of a child born and miserably destroyed, but could not be discovered whose it was; only the report of the midwife, who was brought from her house blindfold thither, and so returned, saw nothing in the house while she was there, but candle light; only she said, it was the child of a very fair young lady. There was a muttering of the Admiral and this lady, who was then between fifteen and sixteen years of age. If it were so, it was the judgment of God upon the Admiral; and upon her…The reason why I write this is to answer the voice of my countrymen in so strangely exalting the Lady Elizabeth, and so basely depressing Queen Mary.3
The statement Elizabeth gave birth to Seymour’s child is also apparently hidden in a cipher introduced by Francis Bacon in the Shakespeare plays and inserted in several of his acknowledged works and his various masks. This hidden communication in the arcane form of a word cipher was discovered by Dr Orville Owen and published in Sir Francis Bacon’s Cipher Story in 1894. According to these revelations brought forth by Owen, in a fit of anger and rage Queen Elizabeth blurted out to the fifteen year old Francis Bacon the true nature of his own concealed birth. Dismayed and distressed and still in a state of confusion Francis immediately confronted Lady Bacon telling her what the queen had screamed out and tearfully demanded she tell him whether it was true or not. Since Queen Elizabeth had breached the secret pact between them never to reveal the nature of his true birth Lady Bacon now freed from the constraint of secrecy in the course of explaining the true nature of his origins proceeded to relate the events of Elizabeth’s passionate love affair with the Lord Admiral which involved, she said, “the secret of a very terrible crime, which, led on by the great but licentious Se[y]mour, she committed when a girl.”4 Lady Bacon, then Anne Cooke, maid-in-waiting to Princess Elizabeth told Francis how she tried to prevent these encounters but when she hinted as much to the princess how unseemly it was for the lascivious and adulterous Seymour to “ascend nightly to her chamber” the princess “did strike me” scolding her “will you then, wench, lesson me? Knowest y-not his looks are my soul’s food? He is full of virtue, bounty, worth and beseeming qualities, and I would be his wife; but alas! alas! he is the husband of my stepmother.”5 In the several weeks that followed the pregnant princess confessed her condition to Anne and begged for her assistance for it “is a secret” that “must be locked within the teeth and lips. I fear death, for my conceptious womb will soon give birth to a little child. It almost turns my dangerous nature wild when I dwell upon my fear, for the law of England doth work summary vengeance on the joint partakers of this youthful offence, to have my wrist and shanks fettered and carried headlong to the magistrate a prisoner, to have sentence of death passed.”6 Her trusted maid-in-waiting Anne was reluctantly being drawn into a dangerous conspiracy but she assured the princess that she would keep the matter secret and help conceal her pregnancy.
In the winter of 1548-9 according to the word cipher the court resided at Windsor Castle and Anne on advising her mistress to feign sickness and stay in bed in order to conceal her condition applied paints to whiten her face and advised her mistress to deny access to her person. On a cold winter night the princess gave birth to a child and in the absence of a doctor with no experience Anne was forced to perform the part of a midwife and on delivery was unable to help the child to breath who with “fury sprung selfborn, and yet unborn” the “sweet soul in speechless death lie’st in bed as in a grave” lamenting “I was not skill’d enough to play the nurse” to “aid the poor child” who “passed in silence to the fountain of final causes, namely God.”7 The overwhelming urgency and stress of the situation took on a different dimension. She was now faced with the compelling necessity to conceal the body of the “young girl” and with no option for a decent burial or any time to dig a grave, in fear of being discovered by royal attendants Anne was despatched into the cold night to bury the stillborn child wherever she could. Wrapping the “poor cold dead baby” up in her arms she silently crept through the castle and into the garden beyond which lay the vineyard until she finally reached a fish pond covered in thick ice. In a panic she scrambled over the ice to the centre and with some sort of stick or knife to make an opening for the child to sink into. In the process the ice gave way plunging her into the darkness of the freezing cold water terrified and gasping for breath she struggled to the surface but the ice once again broke beneath her. Numbed and enfeebled by the cold with her will to live fading her feet found the bottom and she managed to push up and breathlessly drag herself out of what she feared was to be a watery grave. With no other option available in a terrible state and predicament she plunged the body of the infant into the pool and returned back as speedily as she was able to the apartment of the princess herself still in a terrible state of fear and confusion, who welcomed her return with sobs of joy and enormous relief.
Frantically hugging Anne in her arms she asked “Where did you conceal the body-in the earth I hope?” To which she replied “In the water, your highness.” Without any weight attached to corpse came the response. Yes your highness Anne replied. “O God” the princess exclaimed “Others will know my shame”. The weeping princess convinced the body would be chanced upon screamed “Stupid, away in haste and put in the earth.” In despair Anne returned to the pool hoping to recover the tiny corpse but nothing could be found and in vain she returned to the princess to tell her she was unable to find the body. The princess wept bitterly “O woe! O fortunes spight! King Edward will hear I am a common stale.”8 Comforting her mistress Anne removed her bloodstained garments and put a warm shirt on the princess now drained and exhausted they both fell into a fitful slumber only to be awoken at nine in the morning by King Edward standing at the foot of the bed.
With an austere look in his face, with bracing tone he asked “Mistress, what body did you bear forth from the castle and, ’twixt eleven and twelve last night throw into the spring adjoining?” The question shook her to the core and initially rendered her speechless “But my love for the princess was stronger than my fear of him.” Hesitating, “Since I knew not what he had heard or seen” Anne at first dissembled “Great Sir, said I, begging your pardon, what body talk you of? I know of no such body” The young king wryly replied “Fair lady, have you made a sinner of your memory as to credit your own lie? What is between you two? Give me up the truth.” Still trying to brazen it out Anne bravely told him “As I do live, my honoured lord ’tis true.” With his patience at an end the king put pay to the pretence “Here porter, here I say! Hast thou brought hither the little child?” yes, the porter replied, passing the tiny copse to the king. With anger and repugnance the king cried out “Thou’rt damned as black-nay nothing is so black-thou art more deep damned than Prince Lucifer. There is not so ugly a fiend in hell as thou shall be, if thou hast slain this child.” Anne mortified at even the suggestion of it “Do but hear me, sir” she roundly begins “Let hell want pains enough to torture me if I by act, consent, or sin of thought be guilty of the baby’s death.” He looked at her and said “I do suspect thee very grievously. Methinks the sentence of damnation sounds; but this deadly plot in thee I’ll pardon if thou wilt deliver the unholy man that hath my wanton sister in shameful, cunning lust enchained.” Still, heroically, trying to shield the princess a resurgent Anne raised up her head “My honoured lord, thy sister is so good a lady no tongue could ever pronounce dishonour of her. But my life she never knew harm doing.” The king was having none of it “Fie upon this compelled falsehood” his anger now returning “Thou hast both but one bare hour to live, and then thou must perpetually be damned; and her paramour, he that wooed her without respect or high regard, I will crop his head. He that hath made the court his mart and turned it into a loathly stew, he shall expound his beastly mind in hell.”9 Begging for forgiveness the princess cast herself before him “O spare me! kill me not! Make me not the laughing stock of the kingdom, I that am the daughter of a king and a queen!” Kneel not down before me he commands her “Rise, I’ll pardon thee thy life, but in perpetuity I’ll conceal thee, as best befits thee, in some reclusive and religious life, out of all tongues, eyes and minds; but by the flaming light of that celestial fire which kindleth love, I will advance the partaker of thy hateful, wicked love as high up as a scaffold.” With quite breathtaking audacity she turns to the king and scornfully asks him “With whom am I accused?” Even more astonishingly, faced as she was with the corpse of her stillborn child she now descended into blatant mendacity “If I be condemned upon surmises (all proofs sleeping else), I tell thee it is rigor and not law. This brat is none of mine; it is the issue of some rotten callet.” Incensed and outraged by her sheer bare-faced denials he violently retorted “Look, reprobate!” I “know the name of thy worthless concubine. He hath confessed, and I am resolved to have his head. Look here he comes. He did betray thee to me.”
Just as the king was thundering up his revulsion from the bottom of his bowels a cowed Seymour crept in before them. With fearful countenance “He sues to Edward to let him breath a private man in foreign land” and prays “my lord be good to me! Your grace is accounted merciful and kind, let me live in Athens.” But the king was adamant “No sir,” he said “I’ll not pardon thee. Consenting too ’t would bark mine honour and leave my trunk naked. The discoverie of the dishonour of my sister and the corrupt man saved would make all men abhor us. Hope thou not. It is impossible.” Contemptuously snarling at the disgraced Seymour “Darest thou not die?” telling him for what it was worth “Thou shall have thy trial” before summarily dismissing him from his presence. And “without farewell or sign of peace, His Highness did depart and leave us to our deep despair.”10
Following his conviction for treason Thomas Seymour was condemned to death and executed on 20 March 1549. Princess Elizabeth went on to become the Virgin Queen ruling England for forty five years in which time she gave birth to two other children known to the world as Francis Bacon and Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex.
1. A. V., Jane Dormer, Dictionary of National Biography and M. J. Rodriguez-
Salgado, Jane Dormer, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2004-22).
2. Henry Clifford, The Life of Jane Dormer, Duchess of Feria by Henry Clifford
Transcribed from the Ancient Manuscript in the possession of the Lord Dormer
By The Late Canon. E. E. Estcourt And Edited By The Rev. Joseph Stevenson Of
The Society of Jesus (London: Burns And Oates Limited, 1887), pp. xiii-xiv
3. Ibid., pp. 86-87.
4. Orville W. Owen, Sir Francis Bacon’s Cipher Story (Detroit And New York,
1894), I, p. 109.
5. Ibid., I, p. 109.
6. Ibid., I, p. 110
7. Ibid., I, p. 113.
8. Ibid., I, pp. 116-117.
9. Ibid., I, pp. 118-121.
10. Ibid., I, pp. 121-124.