Thursday, March 8, 2012

All the King's Men: William Compton - Part II

Cardinal Wolsey vs. Compton

Cardinal Wolsey was the most powerful man, under the King, in the early part of Henry VIII's reign. It makes one wonder, how well did he get along with Henry's young friends?

Cardinal Wolsey
The answer? Not too well. Compton was probably one of Henry's most influential friends. It was well known at court that close proximity to Compton meant close proximity to the King (Bernard). Surprisingly, despite the Cardinal's differences with others in the King's household, he and Compton had a decent relationship. Compton did not start any political factions, and really seemed to focus on amassing properties and wealth, not political power.

However, once Wolsey was set in his political power, court records show that crown grants to Compton fell sharply (Bernard). Despite this, the two seemed to stay out of each other's way. When Wolsey purged the King's Privy Chamber of "the King's Minions," Compton remained. (More to come on this in subsequent articles).

Despite this, there are some sources that say Compton and the Cardinal were enemies. Polydore Vergil states that Wolsey had Compton sent on a military mission to the northern borders because the Cardinal could not win his favor. The reason? Compton did not approve of the Cardinal's political ruthlessness (Bernard).

Another possible example of Wolsey's malice against Compton is the accusation of adultery. As Papal Legate, Wolsey sighted Compton for living in adultery with Lady Hastings. He was tried by the Court of Arches and made to swear an oath and take the sacrament, "proving" he had not committed adultery (Letters and Papers...Henry VIII).

Whether or not Wolsey was trying to remove Compton from the King's favor or not, it didn't work. Compton remained close to the King until his death in 1528. I am inclinded to believe that Wolsey had much greater enemies, including sevearl young me around the King, to worry about. Also, considering Compton's only son was a ward of Wolsey, I feel the blood must have not been too bad between them.


Compton, like any good courtier, had one very important job to fill; Get married and produce children. Compton was married twice. The first was to a woman named Werburga, daughter of Katherine Berkley and Edmund Brereton (Bernard).

Margaret Pole in her later years
The couple were married in 1512. Henry VIII, it is thought, had some hand in the match. He was pleased enough with it to grant the couple a new manor house with significant land holdings, as well as several new crown offices. Together, the two had two children, Peter and Katherine.

His wife must have died around 1518 or 1519. There is little historical evidence of it. However, we know of it because about this time, Compton asked the King's permission to propose marriage to the Countess of Salisbury. One may remember her as the poor elderly lady who, in 1541, suffered a botched execution by an inexperienced "youth" after her son, Reginald Pole's, outcry against Royal Supremacy.

Regardless, things were better for Margaret in 1519, when she amassed a great fortune and enjoyed the title "Countess of Salisbury" in her own right. Though Compton was in a good place to ask for her hand, she refused. No one knows why. Perhaps she knew of his affair with Anne Hastings, for a year later the two were brought to court over it. Or, perhaps she knew how lucky she was not having a husband and being able to live on her own. It was rare for a Tudor woman to have her own title and wealth. Unless she was in love (as Catherine Parr later showed), there was no benefit for her marrying.

Elizabeth Stonor
Years later, the Countess suggested that Compton has only wanted to marry her to get his hands on a few of her estates. When she refused, she claimed that he went to the King and claimed that said properties did not belong to the earldom of Salisbury, but rather the Dukedom of Somerset. Though Compton was obviously not the Duke, it seems he finagled his way into running them anyway. Sneaky, sneaky. 

It is pretty certain that Compton tried again and did in fact marry for a second time. If his first wife died around 1519, there must have been a second to account for his will, written in 1522, which names her as receiving certain lands and moneys. This time, it is thought he married Elizabeth Stonor. This marriage has been slightly debated by historians as there is only a small amount of historical evidence that it took place. However, many seem to agree that it did.

There is no evidence of any children being born to the couple.

Modern Portrayals

Compton, despite his closeness with the King, is not usually depicted in films about Henry. This is probably to do with the fact that he died before Henry's "Great Matter." However, he was featured in Season 1 of "The Tudors," played by actor Kristen Holden-Reid. The show portrays Compton as a closet homosexual, who carried on a secret relationship with the musician Thomas Tallis. However, this is highly improbably, considering Compton was known for his "adulterous" behavior with Lady Hastings. There is absolutely no historical evidence to the contrary. If he had been, and it had been known, I'm sure Wolsey would have charged him with that, rather than with adultery. Regardless, it was nice to see Compton portrayed in some way.


Clearly, William Compton was an important figure in the early reign of Henry VIII. I would be interested to see where his courtly career would have gone, had he not died suddenly of the Sweating Sickness in 1528. I feel that he would have probably kept his head. Unlike many of the men around Henry, Compton did not seem to care much for politics. Rather, he was far more interested in advancing himself financially, both with crown grants and property. By the time of his death, he was one of the richest men in Tudor England. Though he was not responsible for any huge political intrigues, or important events, he is certainly important to remember. I see him as a window into the private world or Henry VIII, constantly at the King's side, aiding in the most delicate of personal business. Compton would have seen a side of Henry few would ever see. To me, that is the most important aspect of his character.

Next week, I will  present Henry Courtenay, 1st Marquess of Exeter.

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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  1. I enjoyed your article-you artfully combined historical fact, conjecture and your own conclusions in one interesting, enjoyable read!
    While Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury has never been one of my favorite people, I applaud her choice to reject Compton's proposal of marriage, and if I were a woman of her position and power, I would have certainly made the same choice, no matter who asked for my hand!
    I am looking forward to Henry Courtenay-The Courtenay's are one of my favorite families!

    -Ashlie of "BeingBess"
    A blog dedicated to celebrating the life of Elizabeth I, with original articles, interviews, reviews and more!

    @ERITudor on Twitter

  2. Thanks so much for your lovely comment! I agree, I've never cared much for Margaret Pole either. However, she had it right. I also, before researching and writing this article, had no idea Compton had proposed to her! Fascinating stuff!

  3. I'm so glad I found your articles. I have been researching my family tree and am a descendent of William Compton (through his son, Peter). He led an interesting life, clearly a life of the times. Thanks