Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession by Alison Weir


  The King bent to kiss the Queen and spoke to her most lovingly. Then Anne was presented to him. While he still held little attraction for her, when he fixed that piercing blue gaze on her she had to acknowledge that there was a certain magnetism about him. It came, she knew, from the authority he wielded, and his considerable talents. There was no doubting that he was highly accomplished. When he tested the Princess on her Latin and French, addressing her in those tongues, he was fluent, and when, later, he played the lute for the Queen and her ladies, and sang one of his own songs, he had everyone rapt.

  It was clear that he loved his wife. Anne had not forgotten the incident with Etiennette de la Baume, and no doubt there had been others—kings would be kings, and she had long had the example of the promiscuous, rapacious François before her—but this was a good marriage. Anyone could see that. Even so, there were some ladies present who could not take their eyes off the King, and even some who went out of their way to attract his attention. Anne was certain that this man had only to beckon with his little finger, and half a dozen of them would fall willingly into his arms—and, no doubt, his bed. But he took no notice of them. He was deep in conversation with his womenfolk.

  —

  In the ornate stand at the side of the tiltyard, Anne watched the Queen’s face as the King, in gleaming armor, on a lavishly trapped white steed, led the contestants into the tournament ground. Katherine was gazing at him as if adoring a saint, and when he wheeled his mount, bowed in the saddle before her, and dipped his lance for her favor, she leaned forward eagerly and tied on a scarf bearing the colors of Spain. The Imperial ambassadors, seated between her and Cardinal Wolsey, beamed approvingly. Then, as the King turned away, Anne saw Katherine’s expression change. She was staring at the horse’s silver trappings, on which the legend “She has wounded my heart” had been embroidered.

  It was probably no more than a device of the game of love that Anne knew so well how to play, but the Queen looked stricken. Then she seemed to recover herself, as the other knights approached the stand and the ladies jostled to bestow their own favors. A gentleman was saluting Anne. She recognized James Butler, smiling at her beneath his visor.

  “My chosen lady!” he called.

  She did not want his attention, did not want publicly to acknowledge herself his future wife, but she knew it would be churlish to refuse, so with as much grace as she could muster, she attached her handkerchief to his lance, and he rode off happily enough.

  The jousts began, and Henry Norris entered the lists. Anne’s heart gave a jolt. He was even more beautiful than she remembered—but he was wearing the Fiennes colors as his favor. Her eyes were drawn further along to the stand where many ladies were sitting, and she saw Mary Fiennes among them, cheering her husband on. She had to look away.

  James Butler acquitted himself nobly and won a prize, at which he bowed in Anne’s direction, showing the world that it was in her honor; but the King excelled all, and emerged victorious to thunderous applause.

  When she left the royal stand in the Queen’s wake, Anne took care to stay close to Katherine, hoping that James Butler would not come seeking her out. Fortunately, she was able to avoid him in the throng of people crowding into the pavilion where refreshments were being served. The King was there, enlarging expansively and loudly on his exploits, surrounded by the Queen and an admiring crowd of ladies and courtiers. Anne wondered who was supposed to have wounded his heart. He did not look at all wounded. And who would have dared refuse him? Whoever she was, Anne silently applauded her.

  That evening, while the King and Queen were dining in private with the ambassadors, Anne was free, so she hastened to Mary’s lodging to put the final touches to the costume she was to wear two days hence in the pageant. True to her word, Mary had secured for Anne one of the coveted parts, doubtless through Will Carey’s influence.

  She was surprised to find Mary downcast and preoccupied. Her sister was making an obvious effort to be cheerful, but in vain.

  “I know something’s the matter,” Anne said, picking up the heavy white silk gown to finish embroidering it with gold thread.

  “I dare not tell you,” Mary muttered.

  “Come now, you must,” Anne insisted. “I will just worry otherwise.”

  Mary’s dark eyes brimmed with tears. She always could cry beautifully. “You must promise not to say this to a soul, especially Will,” she blurted out. “The King is trying to seduce me—and I do not want him!” Now she was sobbing uncontrollably.

  “But that’s appalling!” Anne cried, as the motto on Henry’s trappings suddenly made abhorrent sense. “You must say no!”

  “I have! And he was angry.” Mary dabbed at her eyes. “It started at Christmas. He paid me compliments, gave me gifts—and I thought he was just flattering me. But then he started to drop hints that he was prepared to be very generous indeed, and last month he gave Will a grant of land. Will was delighted, but I knew it for what it was—an inducement to let me know that I would be well rewarded.”

  “I’m glad you said no,” Anne told her. “But I expect he isn’t used to that. Most women are probably flattered by his attentions. He is the King, after all.”

  “I think he expected me to submit without a qualm, but I told him that I was a married woman and feared to offend my husband. He said my husband need never know, and that he had had mistresses before without anyone finding out. I said I would know, and that I could not betray Will. No one would believe it, Anne—first King François, and now King Henry! Why me?”

  “Some might envy you,” Anne observed. “I wouldn’t.”

  Mary was scrunching up the fine silk in her agitation. “I barely avoided ruining my reputation at the French court. I dare not risk it again here. And I don’t want the King.”

  “I can understand that,” Anne agreed. “Remove the crown and the fine clothes, and you’re left with a fairly ordinary man. You should stick to your resolve and keep your distance. Never give him an opportunity to pursue you.”

  Mary looked doubtful. “He is the King—and he is persistent.”

  —

  The great double doors swung open, and the wheels squeaked as the pageant car began its cumbersome progress into the hall, pulled by strong men concealed beneath the foliage that adorned it. Its centerpiece, the flimsy wooden green castle into which Anne and seven other ladies had squeezed themselves, began to judder alarmingly, and they were thankful when it came to a stop.

  She could hear the voice of a herald announcing: “Le Chateau Vert!” Beside her, Mary was still sniffing, her eyes having filled with tears when confronted with the three banners that hung from the castle. They depicted three broken hearts, a lady’s hand holding a man’s heart, and a lady’s hand turning a man’s heart.

  “He has ordered this!” she whispered to Anne. “He thinks to turn my heart.”

  “Come!” the Duchess of Suffolk had commanded, unaware of Mary’s distress, and there had been no time for Anne to comfort her sister, or exhort her to stay strong. She knew Mary was weakhearted, and feared she would not have the courage to stand up to the King. She would have liked to box his ears—and worse—for doing this to Mary, who had suffered enough at the hands of royalty.

  They were silent now, awaiting the blare of trumpets that would signal the start of the pageant. They could hear the applause of the diners, the muffled exclamations of surprise and delight—well deserved too, for Master Cornish, the deviser of the pageant, had created a beautiful setting for it. The castle was surrounded by realistic gardens and bushes, and he must have had an army of seamstresses up for nights making the silk flowers that adorned them.

  The trumpets sounded, and Anne and the other ladies adjusted their masks, gathered their skirts, and burst forth from the castle. They were wearing identical white satin gowns embroidered with Milan-point lace and gold thread, silk cauls, and Milanese bonnets of gold encrusted with jewels. Each had embroidered a name on her bonnet. Anne was Perseverance, Mary was Ki
ndness—a name she now regretted choosing, in case it gave the King some encouragement—Jane Parker was Constancy, and the Duchess of Suffolk, out in front, was leading the dancers in the guise of Beauty.

  At the high table before them, the Queen sat with the ambassadors, watching the pageant with evident enjoyment. When the ladies had danced, eight masked lords appeared, clad in cloth-of-gold hats and cloaks of blue satin. They too had names: Love, Nobleness, Youth, Devotion, Loyalty, Pleasure, Gentleness, and Liberty. The man who led them wore crimson satin sewn with burning flames of gold, on which the name Ardent Desire was emblazoned. It was Master Cornish, not the King, but Anne knew that Henry was among the eight masked dancers, in the guise of Love. The names, the whole theme of the pageant, seemed to symbolize the King’s pursuit of her sister.

  At the appearance of the lords, the ladies retreated hurriedly into the castle, whereupon the gallant gentlemen rushed the fortress to an explosion of gunfire, which had some of the audience shrieking. Anne and her fellows defended their stronghold with gusto, throwing comfits at the besiegers, or sprinkling them with rose water. They in turn were assaulted with dates, oranges, and other fruits, and of course the outcome was inevitable. The men had to win and force the defenders to surrender. Triumphantly they took the ladies by the hand, escorted them down to the floor as prisoners, and led them in a lively circle dance. Anne saw that the King was partnering Mary. She could sense Mary’s fear, dancing with her would-be seducer in front of the Queen and the whole court, with people perhaps drawing conclusions as they watched them together. But when the dance came to an end and everyone unmasked themselves, to much merriment and applause, Mary was nowhere to be seen.

  For a moment Anne saw the King standing alone frowning, but he was quickly in command of himself, and headed off to host a banquet for his guests in the Queen’s apartments.

  Anne was one of those who had been excused attendance. Still in her costume, she hurried off to search for Mary, but could not find her. Concerned, she returned to the hall and sought out George to ask if he had seen her. She found him lounging on a bench, and nearly turned back when she saw that he was with Henry Norris and another man. They were all guffawing at some jest, plainly flushed with wine.

  “I’ve lost Mary,” Anne said, trying not to look at Henry Norris. “She left before the pageant ended. I hope she’s all right.”

  “Mary can take care of herself,” George said. “No need to worry.”

  Norris was smiling at her. Her eyes met his, which were warm and admiring, and she looked down.

  “No matter,” she said, and walked away, her heart pounding.

  —

  She fretted about Mary all that night, unable to sleep. In the morning, before the cold cuts, bread, and ale were brought to the Queen’s dining room for breakfast, she skipped prayers in the chapel and ran to Mary’s lodging. There she bumped into Will Carey, who was leaving for the King’s apartments.

  “I can’t stop, Anne, I’m late,” he cried, and sped off.

  Anne raced up the stairs.

  “Mary!” she called. “Mary, are you all right?”

  The door opened and Mary stood there, looking tragic.

  “Thank God you’ve come,” she said. “I thought Will would never go.” Then she dissolved into great gulping tears.

  “What is it?” Anne cried. “Is it the King?”

  Mary was retching now, bending double and bringing up clear bile, which dripped to the floor. Anne suppressed the urge to recoil. “Tell me,” she urged.

  “He forced me,” Mary moaned. “While we were dancing in the pageant, he commanded me to wait for him in the little banqueting house by the tennis courts. He said he had to speak to me. I did not want to go, but I was frightened to offend him. I waited ages, and I was frozen when he did come, and then…Oh, Anne, it was awful…And now I have betrayed Will, even though I didn’t want to.”

  It beggared belief that two kings had raped Mary. No one, finding out, would ever believe that she had been unwilling. So no one must ever find out.

  “Did he hurt you?” Anne asked, putting her arms around her sister.

  “No, but he would not take no for an answer, and I dared not fend him off. I felt dirty, soiled—I could not look Will in the face when I got back. But he too wanted his pleasure of me, so I said I was feeling sick, which was true, for I was terrified that he would guess. Oh, Anne, what shall I do? The King wants to see me again tonight!”

  “Don’t go,” Anne warned her.

  “But I dare not refuse. If he can be generous to our family, he can also withdraw his favor, or worse. I have to go. Oh, God, why me? Of all the ladies he could pick on.” And she wept again.

  “You could tell Father.”

  “Are you mad? He thinks little enough of me as it is.”

  Anne sat Mary down on the settle. “I will tell him how distressed you are.”

  “No!”

  “Then plead illness. Go home to Hever. Will would understand.”

  “I’d have to be ill indeed to do that. He would hate me being away.”

  Anne lost patience. “Then there is nothing for it, unless of course you complain to the Queen.”

  Mary looked horrified. “That’s unthinkable. She is a kind lady and I would not hurt her.”

  “Well, I can think of nothing else you can do. I don’t know what else to say.” Anne felt utterly helpless and angry. “It’s disgraceful that a king who claims to be virtuous, and sets himself up as the living example of chivalry, can so basely abuse his power and get away with it,” she fumed.

  —

  Having made Mary take some bread and ale, Anne left her to her maid and went in search of their father. She found him in the office of the Board of the Green Cloth, seated at a large green baize table looking over lists of household accounts.

  He looked up. “Anne! This is a pleasant surprise.”

  “Not so pleasant when you hear what I have to say, Father,” she answered in a low voice. “And it is for your ears only.” She glanced at the two clerks seated at their high desks. Sir Thomas dismissed them.

  “Now,” he said, when they were alone, “what is wrong?”

  “The King has forced Mary to become his strumpet,” Anne told him.

  “What?” Father was going a nasty puce color.

  “He gave her no choice in the matter. He raped her, to be plain! I thought you should know.”

  “How did she allow herself to get into this situation?” Father barked.

  “Allow herself? I told you, he gave her no choice!” Anne’s temper was rising. “When the King commands, who dares deny him? And of course, he seems prepared to be very generous. Already he has granted land to Will.”

  Sir Thomas sank back in his chair, grim-faced. “It’s deplorable—but it can do her no harm,” he said at length, “or any of us, for that matter. Bessie Blount was his mistress for five years, believe it or not, and bore him a son. She did very well out of it, and made a good marriage.”

  “But Mary is already married, and painfully aware that she is cuckolding Will. What will she get out of it except misery and shame?”

  “Money, honors, preferment for her family,” Father said, a calculating gleam in his eye.

  Anne gaped at him. He would sell his daughter for money?

  “We must all make the best of a bad situation,” he told her.

  “I thought you would do something to prevent it.” Anne was furious with him.

  “Alas, I am as powerless as Mary is. As you say, no one denies the King.”

  “I would!” cried Anne defiantly, and left him sitting there, pushing past with an angry swish of her skirts.

  —

  Father was looking very pleased with himself. “I am appointed Treasurer of the Royal Household and Steward of Tonbridge,” he crowed.

  He was walking with Anne along the river front at Greenwich, both of them enjoying the first warm afternoon of spring. It had been days before she could bring herself to speak
to him after their altercation over Mary, but there was no avoiding him, and gradually she had allowed herself to thaw a little.

  “The wages of sin?” she asked. It had been two months now since Mary had succumbed to the King. Will still did not know, and Mary, while resigned to having to endure Henry’s attentions, which she conceded were not so bad, was suffering agonies of guilt.

  “I hardly think so!” Father snapped, jolted out of his good mood. “These appointments are rewards for my long service, and my assistance in indicting the Duke of Buckingham. They are no more than anyone would expect a man of my standing to receive. I resent your implication that I got them only because my daughter is bedding with the King!”

  “How can you be so complacent?” Anne threw back.

  “I can because I must!”

  They walked on in silence, aware of the stares of others. Anne fixed her eyes on the river, where myriad boats were bobbing up and down or making their way toward London or Deptford and the sea. There was a stiff breeze and she had to hold on to her hood.

  The King had visited the Queen’s apartments this morning and singled Anne out. In the weeks since his seduction of Mary, she had barely been able to bring herself to look at him, she hated him so much. Whenever he appeared, she saw not the monarch in his fine robes, but a selfish, lustful man overpowering her sister, without thought for her feelings or the consequences. He was despicable. So when he had noticed her today and asked her how she was settling in, she had responded with the barest of courtesies.

  “Well, your Grace.” She’d kept her eyes downcast. If she had looked at him, he would have seen the loathing in them. It was exactly how she had felt seven years before about King François.

  There had been a pause.

  “I am pleased to hear it,” King Henry had said, and moved away. But later Anne noticed that he kept looking at her. Was it speculation that she read in his eyes? Shame? Good! She hoped he realized that someone knew him for what he was.

 
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