This post originally appeared on the Austen Authors’ blog on July 21, 2020. Enjoy!
Aged 15 or 16, Jane Austen wrote a very amusing History of England in the style of a mock textbook. The short text, illustrated by Austen’s sister Cassandra, is most definitely worth a read.
The title page (below) sets the tone: Austen describes herself as “a partial, prejudiced & ignorant historian” and promises that “there will be very few Dates in this history”.
What is not to like?
The booklet shows that, even at a young age, Jane Austen had heaps of talent and a wicked sense of humour.
She also had strong opinions, and none more so than on the topic of the Tudor monarchs.
Here is what she thought of them…
Henry VII and Henry VIII
Austen was not much impressed by the first two Tudors. Of Henry VII, he says little other than the fact that his right to the throne was inferior to his wife’s, “tho’ he pretended to the contrary”.
With regards to Henry VIII, Henry VII’s formidable son (see Cassandra’s portrait below), she writes the following:
“It would be an affront to my Readers, were I to suppose that they were not as well acquainted with the particulars of this king’s reign as I am myself. I will therefore be saving THEM the task of reading again what they have read before, and MYSELF the trouble of writing what I do not perfectly recollect, by giving only a slight sketch of the principal Events which marked his reign.”
If you have read any of Austen’s letters, I am sure you recognise the style of writing…
According to young Jane, Henry VIII’s “crimes and cruelties (…) were too numerous to be mentioned and nothing can be said in his vindication but that his abolishing Religious Houses (…) has been of infinite use to the landscape of England”.
Isn’t this a perfect example of the famous Austen sense of humour?
She adds that Henry VIII’s “only merit was his not being quite so bad as his daughter Elizabeth.”
And that is because, as we shall see, Elizabeth I is very much the villain in this story…
Henry VIII’s Wives
Catherine of Aragon was Henry VIII’s queen for over two decades and infamously divorced by her husband, but Austen does not mention her at all in her History of England.
Instead, the young author jumps straight into a passionate (and very modern) defence of Anne Boleyn (“Anna Bullen”):
“(…) This amiable Woman was entirely innocent of the Crimes with which she was accused, and of which her Beauty, her Elegance and her Sprightliness were sufficient proofs, not to mention her solemn Protestations of Innocence, the weakness of the Charges against her, and the King’s Character…”
Jane then skips over Henry VIII’s third and fourth wives to say that Katherine Howard, Henry’s fifth wife, cannot have “led an abandoned life before her Marriage” because “she was a relation of that noble Duke of Norfolk”.
Don’t worry, it will all make sense later…
Edward VI, Jane Grey and Mary I
Poor Edward VI barely gets a remark. However, Austen spends some time talking about his cousin Jane Grey, whom she calls “an amiable young woman”, “famous for reading Greek while other people were hunting” (a skill she undoubtedly admires).
In Austen’s opinion, Grey, who was famously executed after the briefest of reigns, had “superior pretensions, merit and beauty” than his cousin and immediate successor, Mary I (looking like a late XVIII-century matron, right) – called “Bloody Mary” by her protestant enemies on account of the over 280 religious dissenters she had burnt at the stake.
But let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. In typical Austen fashion, young Jane skims over the nastiest bits of history to say that “many were the people who fell martyrs to the protestant Religion during her reign; I suppose not fewer than a dozen.”
Austen also insists that England fully deserved “the misfortunes they experienced during her Reign” because Mary’s childlessness meant that she was succeeded by “that pest of society, Elizabeth.”
(Did I mention that Austen really did not like Elizabeth at all?)
Elizabeth I, The Evil Queen
As far as teenage Jane is concerned, Elizabeth I is “a disgrace to humanity”, “the destroyer of all comfort”, “the deceitful Betrayer of trust reposed in her”. (To be fair, she also accuses her ministers, “vile and abandoned men”, of encouraging her worst instincts).
Cassandra’s portrait of Elizabeth I (see left) perfectly reflects her sister’s thoughts on the matter. Does Elizabeth I not look like the quintessential fairytale baddie? Or better still, like Lady Catherine de Bourgh, or an older Fanny Dashwood? I particularly like the feathered headpiece.
But why did Austen so despise Elizabeth I, a monarch who succeeded in turning England into a naval power? Surely, young Jane should have been impressed by a single woman who yielded so much influence at a time when females were thought inferior and had to marry to avoid destitution?
Well, in Jane’s view, Elizabeth I committed the ultimate sin: she ordered the execution of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. And, as we shall see, Austen was a bit of a Mary Stuart fangirl…
Austen’s Admiration for Mary Stuart
Austen considers Mary, Queen of Scots as “one of the first characters in the world”, an “amiable Woman” who is brought to an “untimely, unmerited, and scandalous Death.” In Cassandra’s portrait (below, wearing white and blue), Mary Stuart could be mistaken for the Virgin Mary.
Austen’s devotion for Mary is such that anyone positively associated with her gets a pass – hence the earlier mention of “that Noble Duke of Norfolk”: in his duplicitous manner, Norfolk took Mary Stuart’s side and was executed for treason.
Austen’s admiration for the Scottish queen is touching. Granted, Mary, Queen of Scots, had a magnetic personality and a tempestuous life full of romance and adventure – surely a hit with an impressionable girl of 15 or 16.
Yet, at the same time, Mary Stuart was Scottish, Catholic and brought up in France, whereas Austen was an English Protestant with an ingrained suspicion of anything French. On the surface, they do not seem to have much in common.
Perhaps Austen, even at that age, understood that Mary, Queen of Scots was destined to become an iconic monarch. In any case, little could young Jane imagine that she would join her as one of the most recognised and remarkable British women of all times.
Have you read Austen’s Juvenilia? What did you think of it? And, if you are familiar with Tudor history, what do you think of her portrayal of Tudor monarchs?
Images: Jane Austen’s “History of England”, illustrated with coloured vignettes by Jane Austen” s sister Cassandra, in “Volume the Second” of her Juvenilia. ‘The British Library, Shelfmark MS 59874]. Accessible here: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/history-of-england-austen-juvenilia