Tuesday, March 6, 2012

All the King's Men: Sir William Compton - Part I

Stained glass depiction of William Compton
Sir William Compton, today a little known name, was one of Henry VIII's closest and most trusted friends. His early death in 1528 probably accounts for him rarely gracing the pages of Tudor history...as well as the fact that he kept his head and died from "natural" causes.


Compton was born about 1482 to Edmund Compton and Joan (née Alyworth) of Warwickshire. He became a ward to King Henry VII when he was 11 due to his father's death. He was placed in the household of Prince Henry. William initially served as a page to the young prince. Growing up together, the two formed a close friendship which continued the rest of Compton's life. Before Henry VII died, Compton is only mentioned as a servant and ward. However, by the time of Henry VII's funeral, he was Groom of the Stole to Henry VIII, one of the highest court positions (Bernard).

Life at Court

King's Jewels as depicted on "The Tudors"
It is said that Compton was closer to the King than was Cardinal Wolsey, as he was daily with him in his inner most chambers. As Groom of the Stole, he was responsible for many important items belonging to the King, such as his linen and jewels. For example, in 1519, an inventory of the King's jewels was made, listing them " in the keeping of Wm. Compton" and included two crowns, numerous chains of estate, and religious relics (Letters and Papers...Henry VIII). Immense trust was required of the position.

According to one contemporary courtier, writing of Compton after his death, he "had no lernyng in the law other than alitill experiens of the same," meaning he had no real formal education, simply his experiences living in the Royal Household. Compton certainly knew how to write, as letters indicate, however he was no academic. Despite this, he mastered his position, efficiently running Henry's household and progresses. He remained Groom of the Stole until 1526, and was then promoted to User of the Receipts of the Exchequer. In 1511, the French Ambassador stated that Compton had more influence with the King than any other man. It must have been true, for in 1514 he received an annual pension of 700 livres from the French. Another example of Compton's influence comes from a letter he wrote Lord Darcy, in which he thanks him "in especiall for your kyndely fauor and goodness shewed..." Darcy was clearly ingratiating himself with Compton, and in return, with the King (Bernard). Despite his immense influence, Comtpon did not create his own political faction, but simply enjoyed his wealth, position, and made sure to serve his King diligently, from whom all his bounty flowed. 

Henry VIII jousting
Like Henry, Compton was an avid jouster. On Jan. 12, 1510, the King and Compton appeared in a jousting match in disguise at Richmond. When Compton took on Edward Neville, he was "sore hurt and like to die." Luckily, Compton recovered and lived to fight another day. He, along with Neville, Buckingham, and Brandon were the King's close companions, especially when it came to sports.

War was another occupation of King and Men. On Sept. 21, 1513, Henry, along with Compton, took the town of Tournai. Afterwards, he knighted Compton, along with two hundred other men. He was now a Knight, and officially part of the gentry.

As befitting his rise, Compton played host to Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII in 1516. She arrived on May 3rd from Scotland, and waited at Compton's estate until Henry arrived to escort her to London. Clearly, he was considered one of the most important men in the country to play host to the the King's sister, and Dowager Queen of Scotland.

Throughout his service to the King, Compton amassed over 40 estates. One of his homes still remains, Compton Wynyates in Warwickshire. It is still inhabited by his Compton descendents. He also amassed a huge number of crown posts. Upon Compton's death, Henry himself wasn't sure how many crown posts Compton had, and commanded Wolsey to send men about England to find out (Bernard).

Sir William, the Pimp?

Despite Compton's great advances at court, he is most remembered for his alleged assistance in organizing trysts between women of the court and the King. One accusation for this is from the Lady Elizabeth Amadas. According to her, the King had sent Compton to arrange a tryst at his London home between herself and the King. However, what she says must be taken with a grain of salt. The lady said these things when being accused of treason for speaking against Anne Boleyn. To read more about this situation, please refer to my article on Elizabeth Amadas.

The Duke of Buckingham
The best known example of Compton and Henry being tangled up with a lady is supported by only one contemporary source; Luis Caroz. However, even he is hazy on the details, having them second hand. He explained, "What lately has happened is that two sisters of the Duke of Buckingham, both married, lived in the palace. Once of them is the favourite of the Queen, and the other, it is said, is much liked by the King, who went after her."

He then goes on to point out that this is all gossip, for, "another version is that the love intrigues were not of the King, but of a young man, his favourite, by the name of Compton, who carried on the love intrigue, as it is said, for the King, and that is the more credible version, as the King has shown great displeasure at what I am going to tell..."

Clearly, something was going on with either the Duke of Buckingham's sister, the King, and/or Compton.

Caroz continued with detail on the events transpired, saying, "the favourite of the Queen has been very anxious in the matter of her sister, and has joined herself with the Duke her brother, with her husband, and her sister's husband...The consequences [were] that, whilst the Duke was in the private apartments of his sister, who was suspected with the King, Compton cam there to talk with her, saw the Duke, who intercepted him, quarreled with him, and the end of it was that he was severely reproached in many very hard words."

Young Henry VIII
Despite Compton being of the lower nobility and the Duke of Buckingham the premier Duke in the land, Henry took Compton's side. According to Caroz, "the King was so offended at this that he reprimanded the Duke angrily. The same night, the Duke left the palace, and did not return for some days. At the same time, the husband of that lady went away, carried her off, and placed her in a convent sixty miles from here, that no one may see her."

Afterwards, Henry's anger turned to Buckingham's sister, Elizabeth, the Queen's favorite, as well as the instigator in this whole situation. He dismissed her and her husband from court, which vexed the Queen immensely. She, in turn, made her ill-will towards Compton well known, which made the King very upset.

Relationship with Anne Hastings

The entire situation, explained above, leaves several questions:

1) Who was the lady?
2) Why was Compton meeting with her in secret?
3) Why did Buckingham and the King have such a falling out over it?

To answer the first question, the lady was almost undoubtedly Lady Anne Hastings (née Stafford). She was the sister of the Duke of Buckingham, and wife of Sir George Hastings.

Secondly, why was Compton meeting with her in secret? There are two possibilities:
A) The King sent him to arrange a meeting for himself with the lady.
B) Compton was arranging a meeting for himself.

Anne Stafford, around 1535
Caroz seems to think Compton was acting as a go-between for the King and Lady Hastings. It would make sense, as the King always wished to keep his affairs private. He would have undoubtedly trusted Compton with such a task. Another small piece of evidence of the affair is from Henry's 1513 New Years Gift List. A very expensive gift was sent to Anne Hastings from the King. It was his third most expensive gift given that year. It would have been uncommon for a simple lady-in-waiting to receive such a gift from the King, unless she was his mistress (Hart). It certainly raises eyebrows.

Another possibility (which I personally believe) is that it is a combination of both theories. It is possible that Anne first had an affair with the King, then with Compton. It is impossible to know, as Henry kept his affairs very private. However, the evidence suggests that the lady at least had an extensive affair with Compton. There is strong evidence from several sources, including Compton's own will, that there developed some type of relationship between them. Compton's will settled two things on Lady Hastings:

1) "Two chantries to be founded in his name at Compton, to do daily service for the souls of the King, the Queen, my lady Anne Hastings, himself, his wife and ancestors. The priests to be appointed by the abbot of Winchecombe, or, failing him, the abbot of Evesham."

2) "100 pounds a year to be paid to his wife during her life, for her jointure, besides her inheritance in Barkeley's lands...and to lady Anne Hastings."

Clearly, he was very fond of her to leave so much to her. It is obvious that her role in his life must have been an intimate one, either as a very close friend or, more likely, as a mistress. Compton's will was written in 1522 and executed after his death in 1528. Their relationship lasted at least 6 years, but probably began before that.

Compton Wynyates
In 1527, Wolsey attempted to prosecute Lady Hastings and Compton for adultery through the ecclesiastical courts (I will go into more detail on this in Part II). Wolsey's ploy failed, but the evidence shows that there was good reason for him to suspect an affair.

Such an affair, especially with a man the Duke of Buckingham would have considered completely unacceptable, would account for his and Lord Hastings' hot reaction to the entire situation with the King. I feel that if the King were the real culprit, the two might have behaved better. I feel their strong reaction was a result of Compton's involvement.

Regardless, Buckingham's days were numbered. In 1521, Buckingham was arrested for treason. Compton held the warrant and led the guards to arrest him. He was found guilty and beheaded on May 17th. Others close to Buckingham also fell, however Lady Anne Hastings and her husband remained untouched (Hart). This could have been a result of either Compton's influence on the King to spare his mistress, or the King's own affection for the lady. It is not recorded how Anne felt about her brother's downfall, nor about her feelings on Compton receiving some of her brother's repossessed lands. I'm sure it upset her, but it did not stop her from continuing in her affair.

This ends Part One of my article on William Compton. Wednesday I will investigate Compton's relationship with Cardinal Wolsey, his marriages, modern portrayals (such as "The Tudors), his questionable conduct with the acquisition of lands, and finally, his untimely death.

Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII.
Bernard, G.W. "The Rise Of William Compton, Early Tudor Courtier." The English Historical Review. Vol. 96, No. 381 (Oct. 1981), pp. 754-777.
Hart, Kelly. The Mistresses of Henry VIII. The History Press (Malta: 2009).
Weir, Alison. Henry VIII: King and Court. Ballantine Books (New York: 2001).
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  2. Great article - he was my 6th great grand uncle!!