In September 1537 a rumour circulating through the Westminster sanctuary touching the king’s honour came to Thomas Cromwell’s ears. It was a scurrilous and maybe even treasonous piece of gossip that spread around the sanctuary men at Westminster, about the keeper of the sanctuary, the keeper’s “wench,” and the king.
Cromwell established an informal enquiry to uncover the origin of these rumours, led by his own servant Anthony Denny and the abbot of Westminster. The tale being told was hot stuff: according to witnesses the enquirers interviewed, they’d been told (at 3rd or 4th hand) that the sanctuary’s keeper William Webbe was complaining that in the fall of 1536 the king had stolen his girl.
The story being spread went like this: Webbe had been riding a fair gelding, near Eltham or Greenwich palace, with “a pretty wench” (never named) behind him. The king met up with them on the road and he said to Webbe, “Webbe, thou hast a pretty wench behind thee.”
Webbe answered that she was a “pretty piece for a poor man to pass the time with.” In some versions, the king “plucked down her muffler,” kissed her, and commanded her to alight from the horse. The king then took the wench and “had his pleasure of her.” (The wench’s response—whether this was at her “pleasure”—remained unstated, irrelevant to the men who told and heard this story). The king thus took the woman away from Webbe, who had “kept” her for two years before this.
In some versions witnesses told, Webbe swore “a vengeance on him for taking away of my wench.” Most of those testifying to the enquiry ended the story with the conclusion, “and thus the king lived in adultery.”
Many modern readers would assume (and indeed some modern historians have assumed) that this was not especially shocking but simply a ribald story told about an oversexed & entitled king. But in the context of the autumn of 1537 Cromwell saw it as a dangerous rumour.
It’s important to note, first, the conclusion the tellers of the tale reached: “and thus the king lived in adultery.” Those who related the story – and they were mostly sanctuary men, confessed felons, not exactly unworldly innocents – seemed to find this a bit shocking. It was shocking for several reasons: first, the king was not nearly as promiscuous as most of the modern pop culture versions of him; though historians vary on that issue, the sanctuary residents’ evident surprise at the lesson of the tale supports #teamrelativelychasteHenry.
Second, the king had just executed, the year before, a queen & five men for committing adultery. Clearly the point being made in the story was that the king was no better, committing adultery himself in the fall of 1536, early in his marriage to wife #3, Jane Seymour.
Third, the king had only recently established himself as Supreme Head of the new Church of England: as sex outside of marriage was a sin, the telling of such a tale would produce even more headshaking about hypocrisy.
Fourth, the queen was heavily pregnant at the time of the enquiry (due to give birth weeks later); of course that famous need for a male heir meant that he had to present himself as potently virile as well as chaste. The king’s body was both politically fundamental and yet unmentionable.
As it turned out, the enquirers established that the rumours were untrue on several levels. Perhaps unsurprisingly they found that the king had not taken Webbe’s wench (obviously they were never going to conclude that this part was true). But a foreordained conclusion can sometimes be accurate: the enquirers also found that William Webbe himself had not in fact been going around complaining about the king’s wench-theft. No witness testified to hearing it from Webbe himself, but always at several removes.
The enquirers concluded, after poking a bit into the circumstances, that the whole thing had been concocted by a rival of Webbe who wanted Webbe’s job. The rival evidently thought that his invented story was explosive enough to get Webbe fired or even charged with treason.
The best evidence that the story was indeed invented is that Webbe emerged from the enquiry unscathed and continued in his position of keeper of the sanctuary for years to come, into at least the mid-1540s. If there’d been any truth to the tale, minimally he would have been gone.
What else do the records of this enquiry tell us, if not about the king’s sex life?
1. Local politics and everyday life in the sanctuary (eg. supper parties with sanctuary men, Westminster locals, and palace functionaries);
2. subterranean antagonism to Henry’s policies and fear of rumour;
3. Henry’s particular sensitivities to talk about his sex life & the complicated relationship of the king’s body to the body politic;
4. the purely instrumental role women labeled “wenches” were seen to have in sexual transactions by men in and around the Westminster court: in the story, the wench is never named and has no agency whatsoever. There’s a version of this story that shows up in series The Tudors (of course, #sexscenesRUs) – wrenched out of time and more or less just another illustration of Henry’s promiscuity. But there at least the wench is given a name (Bess) and she’s a willing participant. She’s still instrumental and the sex transactional but at least she has some agency. Maybe a slight step up from the 16th century version.
TNA, SP 1/118, fol. 115r; SP 1/124, fol. 204r; SP 1/125, fols. 40r-43v; SP 1/127, fol. 201r.