Henry VIII and Love in the Middle Ages
Those of you who have read one or more books about the tumultuous love life of England’s
corpulent king, or watched the television series ‘The Tudors’, are aware that the rich and
powerful among the late medieval courts of England and Europe seem to have been consumed
by flirting and extramarital affairs. While TV and books tend to exaggerate wildly for dramatic
effect, the libidinous goings-on among the idle rich of this bygone era are pretty shocking even
by today’s relaxed standard. Why? Beyond the fact that they had few diversions to occupy their
hours the sometimes disastrous romantic entanglements we read about were a holdover from the
days of chivalry, the chivalric code and something referred to as ‘courtly love’.
In the distant past– just like today – the rich and powerful had their own way of doing things –
including how they viewed love and courtship and it was all bound up in the strange rituals and
traditions that we have come to know as chivalry. While most of us today think of chivalric
behavior toward ladies as being something stiff, formal and showy – like Sir Walter Raleigh
spreading his cloak across a puddle so Queen Elizabeth I could keep her slippers dry when she
crossed the street – it was, in its most basic sense, pretty lascivious.
According to medieval tradition, to be truly chivalric a knight or nobleman must swear to protect
the church, their overlords to whom they owed service, those who were unable to defend
themselves, and always honor and serve titled ladies. Even a cursory reading of history tells us
that most members of the medieval warrior class fell far short of these lofty goals, but like so
many virtuous standards throughout history the code of chivalry was always given lip service.
Integral to the concept of chivalry was the idea of courtly love. This was supposedly the chaste
love which a knight felt for a lady of higher social station than his own. Because of her elevated
position the lady could not return these feelings (at least not publicly) but she should always
encourage the young man to ever greater feats of courage and valor – usually by doing
something dangerously stupid. The origins of this rather peculiar and cruel tradition originated
around the time of the First Crusade (1095-1099) in the noble courts of Aquitaine, Provence,
Champagne and Burgundy areas of France. Originating in the songs and lyric poems of
minstrels and troubadours, the concept of courtly love extolled the idea of ‘love for love’s sake’
and the spiritual qualities of unrequited love for a lady who would always remain unattainable.
The troubadours who wrote and performed these songs sometimes described the un-named
woman in question as a lady in a far-away land, possibly one the smitten man had never even
seen but only heard described by others who were equally stunned by her grace and beauty.
Courtly love has been described as ‘a love at once illicit and morally elevating, passionate yet
disciplined, humiliating yet exalting, human and transcendent’. Not surprisingly, this completely
contradictory view of love was designed as the first form of entertainment intended to appeal to
bored women of the privileged class who often had nothing to occupy their time except gossip.
If these poems and songs had any appeal to young men it was because they held out the promise
– no matter how vague and futile – that they might be able to advance their careers if a lady of
high rank convinced her husband to elevate the young man’s social status or, just as desirable
and just as unlikely, she might actually pay attention to him.
The possible dangers inherent in the concept of courtly love were obvious in some of the earliest
stories of King Arthur, which also originated in France during this same period. While good,
hard-working King Arthur was off fighting his enemies, his queen, Guinevere, wound up having
a torrid affair with his most trusted knight, Lancelot. The outcome of this liaison was the
destruction of Arthur, Guinevere and Camelot itself. Still, the romantic possibilities inherent in
courtly love appealed deeply to noble women whose lives were often crushingly dull and whose
marriages had been arranged for their family’s political advancement rather than on any mutual
Because all of medieval noble society was based on complicated rules of behavior, so was the
course of courtly love as described in the lyric poems. The progress of courtly love went
something like this:
The young lover is smitten by a beautiful lady (who may will be married or engaged)
He worships her from afar
He declares his devotion to her in some private, stolen moment
The lady rejects his advances
Undaunted, he swears his devotion and insists he will die without her love
He goes off to war, or on a quest, to prove his love
When he returns (if he returns) the lady gives-in and they make love like rabbits in heat
They spend the rest of their lives trying to keep their illicit affair secret
One of the earliest proponents of courtly love was Christine de Pisan (1365-1434) an Italian
noblewoman who spent most of her life in France. At first, de Pisan popularized courtly love
through the writings of her personal chaplain, Andreas Capellanus, but later she took up the pen
herself and became the first woman in Western history to earn a living as an author.
Like many before and since, de Pisan considered love to be a sort of a cruel game and, like any
game, love must have its rules. Some of these rules are amazingly sensible and ring true after
seven centuries; others seem cruel, stupid, sexist and politically incorrect in the extreme,
particularly when you consider that the rules were written by a woman. Do bear in mind that the
Middle Ages were a violent time; blind jealousy taken to its violent conclusion was an accepted
part of life, and women were as much to blame for this as men. If men loved to pull swords on
each other to show how macho they were, women loved to taunt and tease them into doing so.
1. The state of marriage does not properly excuse anyone from loving.
2. He who does not feel jealousy is not capable of loving.
3. No one can love two people at the same time.
4. It is well known that love is always either growing or declining.
5. Whatever a lover takes against his lover’s will has no savor.
6. A male does not fall in love until he has reached full manhood.
7. A mourning period of two years for a deceased lover is required by the surviving
8. No one should be prevented from loving except by reason of his own death.
9. No one can love unless compelled by the eloquence of love.
10. Love is an exile from the house of avarice.
11. It is unseemly to love anyone whom you would be ashamed to marry.
12. A true lover does not desire the passionate embraces of anyone but his beloved.
13. Love that is made public rarely lasts.
14. Love easily obtained is of little value; difficulty in obtaining it makes it precious.
15. Every lover regularly turns pale in the presence of his beloved.
16. On suddenly catching sight of his beloved, the heart of the lover begins to palpitate.
17. A new love drives out the old.
18. A good character alone makes someone worthy of love.
19. If love lessens, it soon fails and rarely recovers.
20. A man in love is always fearful.
21. The feeling of love is always increased by true jealousy.
22. When a lover feels suspicious of his beloved, jealousy, and with it, the sensation of
love, are increased.
23. A man tormented by the thought of love eats and sleeps very little.
24. Everything a lover does ends in the thought of his beloved.
25. A true lover considers nothing good but what he thinks will please his beloved.
26. Love can deny nothing to love.
27. A lover cannot have too much of his lover's consolations.
28. A small supposition compels a lover to suspect his beloved of doing wrong.
29. A man who is troubled by excess lust does not usually love.
30. A true lover is continually and without interruption obsessed by the image of his
31. Nothing forbids one woman being loved by two men, or one man by two women.
Among those topics Christine de Pisan addressed in her writings was the curious Court of Love,
and this became one of the favorite pastimes of the medieval nobility.
While cynical older men – mostly the ladies’ husbands – were off hunting, making war and
drinking themselves senseless, the senior ladies would hold a court of love for young male
courtiers. During the court, the men would state their case and explain why the object of their
desire (who was never publicly named) should succumb to their advances. To prove how
chivalric and worthy they were, the young men might be told to engage in mock combat, a joust,
other physical contests or compose love songs or poems on the spot and recite them in front of
the assembled court. (A number or appropriate competitive sports are described in the chapter
on Games and Pastimes).
If one of the sought-after young ladies chose to make herself known, she might demand that her
young man declare his undying love in such a forceful way that he would convince the judges to
bestow their blessings on the couple’s love. If the young man wins his love’s approval and
acknowledgement, but the judges still demand that he engage in physical competition to prove
himself, his lady-fair might give him a ‘favor’ - a token such as her handkerchief or scarf - which
he will wear during the assigned activity.
Throughout these proceedings, the young men, the available young ladies who watched the
proceedings with bated breath, and the older, wiser women who sat in judgment, would all
engage in flirtatious word games filled with double entendres and hidden, but discernable, sexual
references. Proceedings of the court of love might be lighthearted or serious, but they must
never descend into nastiness or crude language.
The entire concept of courtly love, with its inherent temptation for engaging in adulterous affairs,
was as widely condemned by the church elders but these condemnations were generally ignored
by both high and low born.
To find out more about medieval celebrations of all sorts, and how to host medieval revels of
your own, pick up a copy of ‘Medieval Celebrations’ by Daniel Diehl and Mark Donelly
(Stackpole Books, 2011) available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and at all good book stores.
Available on Amazon.com at: http://www.amazon.com/Medieval-Celebrations-Planning-
Or Amazon.co.uk at: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Medieval-Celebrations-2nd-Spectacular-
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