Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession by Alison Weir


  Mary smiled weakly. She was eager to change the subject. “We shall have to find you a husband too, Anne, now that I am wed.” There it was again, that eternal rivalry. She had to remind Anne that she had first place as the elder sister.

  “I am in no hurry,” Anne said lightly. “I am too busy enjoying life.”

  “Were you hoping to snare some rich French lord and desert us for good?” Mary asked.

  “That’s what Father wants, and I’ve had several suitors, but I am determined to marry for love.”

  “Then you’re a fool! Father will never allow it. But tell me—is there someone?”

  Anne laughed. “No one, I assure you. I await my knight on a charger.”

  Mary was silent for a moment. “Actually, Father has someone in mind.”

  Anne swung round and looked sharply at her sister’s face. She knew that gleeful, malicious expression of old. Mary knew something Anne did not. She was enjoying this.

  “Our great-grandfather’s earldom of Ormond has gone to our distant cousin Piers Butler,” she told Anne, “but Grandmother, as Great-Grandfather’s heiress, has contested that—or rather, her lawyers have—and since he came home from France for my wedding, Father, of course, has backed her claim vigorously.”

  “Then she is certain to succeed.” Father was an important man now, a Privy councillor and Comptroller of the King’s Household. Anne was impatient, wishing that Mary would get to the point. “But how does this affect me?”

  Mary smiled slyly. “Father wants to settle the dispute by marrying you to Piers Butler’s son, James. That way, you will become Countess of Ormond, and his blood will inherit the title. But the condition is that James gets the earldom, not Piers. You’ll have to go and live in Ireland,” she added cheerfully.

  No! Never! She would refuse. Let them try to force her, and they would see they had a she-cat to contend with! Father should have consulted her, the person most concerned.

  “Have you met this James Butler?” she asked, consumed with anger.

  “I’ve seen him at court. He’s one of the young nobles in the household of Cardinal Wolsey. He’s quite attractive. He may even be here in the Cardinal’s train. Father says the Cardinal thinks highly of him, and I have heard the King praise him. I see the King quite a lot now that I’m married to one of his gentlemen—”

  “You can point him out to me,” Anne said, interrupting Mary’s boasting. “But I must see Father now.”

  She flew off, half running through crowded pavilions hung with tapestries, along Turkey carpets spread over the ground, until she saw Father and Grandfather Norfolk talking with a portly, fleshy-faced man in red silk robes and cap, with a huge pectoral cross of diamonds and rubies. The great Cardinal Wolsey himself!

  Father noticed her at once. “Come forward, Anne. My Lord Cardinal, may I present my daughter, the one whose future we have been discussing.”

  Anne curtseyed, barely containing her fury.

  “Delightful, delightful,” the Cardinal said, but it was clear that his mind was on their conversation. She was too lowly for his notice.

  “We were speaking of you—and here you are,” Norfolk said. “Come and kiss your old grandsire, child.” He had always been fond of her.

  “I gather that you were discussing my marriage with James Butler,” Anne told him. “Mary informed me of it.” She glared at Father.

  “You have cause to rejoice, Mistress Anne,” Wolsey said. “If the King agrees, this will be a good match for you and for your family.”

  “And will the King consent, my lord?” she asked.

  “I shall advise him on the matter. He is, shall we say, well disposed.”

  Father and Grandfather beamed. Anne knew herself bested. There was no more to be said. Her heart sank. If the King decreed it, she must marry James Butler.

  —

  “There he is,” said Will Carey, now divested of his jousting armor and flushed with victory. Anne was growing to like this brother-in-law of hers. He was warm and witty, and had a kind heart, for all his ambition, and he clearly delighted in Mary. “That’s James Butler, over there.”

  Anne looked across the tournament ground to the stand where the Cardinal was seated, surrounded by his household. To his left stood a stocky young man of about her own age, dark-haired with a fringe, and personable—at least from this distance.

  “You could do a lot worse,” Mary said.

  “Yes, but I don’t love him and I don’t want to go and live in Ireland,” Anne retorted. It was galling that Mary’s marriage had brought her a place at court, when she herself was facing exile to a land of bogs and savages, by all accounts—and with a total stranger. Besides, she wanted to stay at the French court.

  “I must attend Queen Claude,” she said, and hurried away, not wanting Mary and Will to see how upset she was.

  —

  The next day, there was another tournament, graced by the presence of the three queens, each seated on a stage hung with tapestries and furnished with a costly canopy of estate made of pearls. In a heavy gown of cream satin, Anne sat in the row behind Claude, with the other filles d’honneur, whose animated chatter went over her head as she faced the bleak prospect of leaving France for a marriage she did not want.

  The two kings were riding into the lists now, leading a long procession of knights. James Butler was not among them, but Will Carey was, riding beside a strikingly attractive man with close-cropped golden-brown hair, sensual features, and large light-blue eyes. Anne stared at him, captivated. She did not even know his name, but she could not draw her gaze away. Never had a man’s appearance moved her so powerfully.

  Will and the handsome knight acquitted themselves well, and Anne could see that the latter was high in royal favor, for King Henry, victorious himself in the jousts, was clapping him on the back as they rode out of the lists.

  There was a feast that evening, in honor of the winners, and Anne seized the opportunity to ask her sister who the noble knight was. She was determined to make him notice her.

  “The one who rode out with Will? That’s Sir Henry Norris. He’s another of the King’s gentlemen, one His Grace favors greatly. He’s just married Mary Fiennes—remember, she was with us in the Hôtel de Cluny?”

  Lucky, lucky Mary Fiennes. “I do remember,” Anne managed to say. “I…I thought he seemed familiar, but I was mistaken.”

  —

  There was no feast the next evening, so Claude dined in private with King François in the chateau of Ardres. Anne, in turmoil at the thought of Sir Henry Norris together with Mary Fiennes, could not face food, and in her downcast mood she was averse to joining the Queen’s ladies in their eternal gambling, so she escaped to Claude’s private chapel. There, on her knees, she raged at God for dangling before her a future she could never enjoy, and for consigning her to an unwanted marriage and exile from all that she held dear. Was it for this that He had sent her into this world? If so, why had He allowed her to be fitted for a far more glorious destiny than that to which she was doomed? Why had He afforded her a glimpse of what love could be, and then deprived her of all possibility of experiencing it?

  As she knelt there weeping, a hand rested on her shoulder, and she looked up, startled, into the concerned face and violet eyes of Madame Marguerite, Duchesse d’Alençon, King François’s sister and the living image of him.

  “What is wrong, Mademoiselle Anne?” Marguerite asked. There was about this woman who was so famed for her learning an innate kindliness and warmth.

  Anne struggled to her feet and dropped a curtsey.

  “Madame, I weep because my father is doing his best to marry me to a man I cannot love, who will carry me off to Ireland to keep company with the snakes.”

  Marguerite regarded her with sympathy. “Alas, it is the fate of women to be disposed of in marriage where men choose. I too was married to a man I could never love, a man whom others sneer at for his illiteracy. They call him oaf, buffoon, and worse. It was all for King Louis’s a
dvantage. And yet my lord is kindly. I have not done so badly after all.”

  “But, madame, do you not want more?” Anne burst out, before she remembered that she was speaking to the King’s sister.

  Marguerite’s face clouded. “No, I do not,” she said sharply, and Anne was astonished to see tears in her eyes. She remembered hearing talk that the Duchesse was unnaturally close to her brother the King, but had never believed it. Now she wondered.

  “Be true to yourself, mademoiselle,” Marguerite said. “You can refuse this marriage.”

  “I intend to,” Anne told her. “But I fear my father would just ignore me.”

  “Stand your ground, ma chère. Never let any man, even your father, take advantage of you. That’s advice that was given not so long ago by a French princess to her daughter. She even wrote a book about it. You see, women can be strong when they have a will to it. Remember Queen Isabella of Castile? She ruled alongside her husband and rode into battle at the head of her army. Together they drove the Moors from Spain. Isabella’s example proves that women can be as capable as men when they set their minds to it. It’s just that we are not taught to think for ourselves or question our subjection.”

  Marguerite’s forthrightness startled Anne out of her self-pity. Here was a woman with a mind like her own. “I am intrigued by your Highness’s opinions,” she told Marguerite. “They remind me of the writings of Christine de Pizan, whose works I read at the court of Burgundy. I had long discussions with the Regent Margaret about the status of women in the world. As a sex, we should be stronger, and make the most of our capabilities.”

  “Indeed!” Marguerite replied, her face lighting up in surprise. “Mademoiselle, I am impressed. The Regent is known for her enlightened views. It is refreshing to find one who shares them. Ma chère, you must take courage from Christine de Pizan and persist in your refusal. Marriage is founded on mutual consent, and to be forced…” To Anne’s utter astonishment, the Duchesse burst into tears, sinking to her knees and burying her face in her hands.

  “Madame! What is wrong?” Anne cried. “Here I am, complaining about my lot, when you are so unhappy.” She knelt by Marguerite and stayed there until the older woman’s shoulders stopped heaving and her breathing slowed.

  “Forgive me,” the Duchesse sniffed. “I should not be burdening you with my troubles—and you have enough of your own. But I shall go mad if I do not talk to someone. Can I trust you?”

  “Of course, madame—I swear it on my life.”

  Marguerite paused. It was clear that she was struggling to find words. “A friend of the King my brother, and a man I admired and trusted…No, I cannot say it.” The tears were streaming again, and for a while she could not speak.

  “Madame?” Anne whispered.

  Marguerite turned a ravaged face to her. “He has raped me!” she cried out.

  Anne drew in her breath and shivered. The word rape touched her too nearly. Here was more proof, if she needed it, that men could be beasts. What kind of man would presume to take advantage of his sovereign’s own sister, a woman of famed virtue?

  “Who is this man?” she asked, outraged.

  “I could never tell you—or anyone. I cannot risk being accused of slander.”

  “But have you not complained to the King?”

  “I doubt he would believe me. He loves me truly, but he would never credit it. You see, when we were young, this man attempted to rape me before. I complained to my brother, but the man denied it vehemently. My brother believed him.” She almost spat the words out. “He is a man, of course, and all men see women as the descendants of Eve, who led Adam into temptation. Of course, I must have led this man on, even unwittingly!” Her tone was tart. “And François will think the same if I complain a second time.”

  Anne’s anger burned fiercely again. How could any woman ever obtain justice for this most foul of crimes if the King of France not only committed it with impunity, but refused to believe that his own sister had been a victim of it? How dare he hold women so cheaply!

  “Madame, in England, I believe, raping the King’s sister is treason, and punishable by death.”

  Marguerite stood up. “That is as may be, but it avails me little. In France, the honor of men is paramount—even of men who have no honor! Mademoiselle, speak of this to no one. You did not hear it. I am sorry to have cast my burden on you. And tell your father that you do not consent to the marriage he is planning. Be strong!”

  And she was gone, leaving a faint smell of rose water behind her.

  —

  The next day a page dressed in Marguerite’s livery approached Anne as the Queen’s ladies were watching knights running at the ring, practicing for yet another tournament.

  “Madame the Duchesse requests that you attend upon her, mademoiselle,” the page said, and led Anne back to the chateau of Ardres, where Marguerite had her apartments. The Duchesse, wearing a low-necked gown of brown velvet with wide slashed sleeves, and her dark hair in a snood beneath a jaunty bonnet, was waiting for her in a room flooded with sunshine and crowded with ladies. At Anne’s entrance, she laid down her book.

  “Mademoiselle Anne!” she cried, stretching out her hands in greeting. Anne regarded her shrewdly, noticing how composed she was. There was no trace of yesterday’s distress. Clearly the matter was to be forgotten.

  “Ma chère!” Marguerite smiled, raising Anne from her curtsey. “I have a proposition to put to you. The Queen has agreed that, if you wish, you may leave her household and serve me, for I think we agree very well together.”

  For a moment, unable to credit her good fortune, Anne could not reply. She was being offered a release from the stultifying routine and rules of Claude’s household. It would afford her endless opportunities for intellectual stimulation, and a powerful champion should Father try to force her into marriage with James Butler. And she could remain at court, where Marguerite was firmly established. The oaf of a husband had evidently never asserted himself sufficiently to drag her away to his estates.

  She took a breath, controlling her delight and excitement. “Madame, I will be honored to serve you,” she said, and curtseyed again.

  “Then that is settled. Have your maid prepare your things.”

  —

  It was almost like being back at the court of the Regent. Anne reveled in the erudite atmosphere of Marguerite’s household, which was accommodated in silken pavilions blazoned with the fleurs-de-lis and red borders of Alençon on a vivid blue ground. She loved the long, intellectual conversations in which the Duchesse liked to engage. It was wonderful to be encouraged once more to write poetry and debate on religion. Above all, it was stimulating to discuss the role of women in society.

  “The question is,” Marguerite said one evening, as she and her ladies sat up late after yet another lavish banquet, “are we women essentially virtuous, or are we—as the moralists see us—oversexed disciples of Satan, whose chief function is to tempt men into sin?”

  “We are naturally virtuous,” one young woman spoke up, “but men cannot see us that way.”

  “They fear us, that is why,” Anne smiled, laying aside her embroidery so that she could concentrate properly on the conversation.

  “Very percipient! That is why they want to control us,” Marguerite said. “But we can confound them with our prudence. It is what made Queen Isabella great, what enables the Regent Margaret to govern so wisely. Prudence is the fount of all virtues. Aristotle said it long ago. What we are enjoying now is the reign of the virtuous woman. We are conquering men with our intellect, our gentler virtues being our strength.”

  Anne thrilled to hear her speak so.

  “This new learning,” Marguerite went on, “which we have from the ancient scholars of Greece and Rome, has opened our eyes to the power women wielded in antiquity. Look at Cleopatra. She was the seventh queen of her name. This teaches us that we are not born just to be subordinate to men. Our flesh might be weak—although those who have borne children might
deny that—but our hearts and our intellects are strong. I say we can be a match for any man.”

  “Bravo!” Anne cried, and several young women clapped.

  “It has been argued,” Marguerite continued, “that men do not oppress women because of some natural law, but because they want to retain their own power and status.”

  “My father holds that women are inferior to men because man was created by God first, and is stronger and therefore more important,” a maiden chimed in.

  Marguerite smiled. “Ah, but maybe it was Eve, not Adam, who was deceived. And if you think about it, women were greater than men from the first. Adam means Earth, but the name Eve stands for life. Man was created from dust, yet woman was made from something far purer. God’s Creation was perfected when He made woman. Therefore we must celebrate the nobility of women.”

  “Do you think these ideas can become widely accepted?” Anne asked.

  “They are being debated all over Christendom, particularly in Italy,” Marguerite told her. “And what happens in Italy often influences the rest of the world. Change will come, have no doubt of it, and we women who have power and rank are the ones who will bring it about. So we must continue the fight.”

  —

  Armored with a new awareness of her own power, Anne confronted her father.

  “I do not want to marry James Butler,” she said. “I feel that a better match could surely be found. And this marriage will be of little advantage to you, sir. Yes, I would be a countess, but what good would that do me, hidden away in the wilds of Ireland? Surely you had me educated for better things?”

  Father frowned. “It will keep the earldom of Ormond in the family.”

  “In the Butler family. But it will not restore it to the Boleyns, where it rightfully belongs.”

  Father frowned, eyeing Anne as if she had suddenly turned into a dangerous beast that needed caging. “This is a fine to-do,” he said at length. “Do you want me to look a fool in the eyes of the King and the Cardinal? Your grandsire and I have asked for His Grace’s consent to the match—are we now to say we have changed our minds?”

 
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