Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession by Alison Weir


  She had not, of course, told Father of her coolness to the King. In his eyes, the sun rose and set with Henry Tudor.

  “I should tell you that the Cardinal is dragging out the negotiations for your marriage,” Father said now, breaking the silence. “I don’t know what game he’s playing, but it’s proving impossible to reach any agreement on the terms of the contract. If it’s not finalized by the autumn, I’m pulling out.”

  Thank God! Anne thought fervently. “As I have said before, sir, you would do better to demand the earldom of Ormond for yourself.”

  “But you are twenty-one and still unwed. Does that not worry you?”

  “Not at all,” she told him. “I have yet to meet the man I want to marry.”

  “You mean, minx, the man I want you to marry!” Father growled.

  “Let us hope that they are one and the same,” she said. She did so enjoy provoking him.

  1523

  Anne had noticed that of all the young gentlemen who frequented the Queen’s chamber, none came more often than Harry Percy.

  Katherine always made each one of the eager gallants welcome, and looked on indulgently as they talked and flirted with her maids.

  “You may entertain your visitors,” she had told Anne. “Pour wine for them, play for them, dance with them, but behave with propriety. Your parents are doubtless hoping that I will help to secure a good marriage for you.”

  Anne had smiled. The negotiations for her proposed marriage to James Butler had finally been abandoned, and she was enjoying a new sense of freedom and hope for the future.

  It was on Harry’s third visit that Anne realized he was taking a special interest in her. She had noticed him watching her before, and had not paid much attention, but now, as one of the maids struck up a tune on her lute, he was suddenly standing in front of her.

  “Mistress Anne, would you do me the honor of dancing with me?” he asked. She looked up into his green eyes, seeing a tall, lanky, but personable young man with curly chestnut hair, strong features, and a beak of a nose—not handsome in the conventional sense, but honest-faced and deferential in his manner.

  “I should be happy to,” she said, accepting his hand and allowing him to lead her into a basse dance. When it ended, he asked her for another, and then another, and presently they were sitting on a cushioned seat in one of the tall oriel windows and talking as if they had known each other for years. Anne saw the Queen watching them, and was reassured when she smiled.

  Harry told her that he was twenty-one and eldest son to the Earl of Northumberland. Until a few weeks ago he had been serving in the north as Warden of the Border Marches. Only this spring had he been released from his duties so that he could join the Cardinal’s household, where he served his master at table, showing off the carving skills acquired by every gentleman.

  “I hope thereby to gain preferment,” he told Anne. “Like Master Carey, who has done so well. He is my cousin.” She wondered if Will had told Harry that she was unattached and encouraged him to pay court to her.

  “I heard that your father was recently honored with the Order of the Garter,” Harry beamed. “It is a great accolade, and I am sure it was richly deserved.”

  “We are very proud of him,” Anne said, omitting to add, and he is very proud of himself.

  All the time they were talking, she was becoming aware of how much she liked Harry Percy. While she did not see him ever arousing her passion, she knew without doubt that she could be friends with him, and sensed that he would never let her down. He was too sincere, too genuine—and plainly smitten with her.

  At the end of the afternoon, he assured her that, when the Cardinal was next at court, he would seek her out again. Then he bowed and departed, leaving her feeling at once excited and sad to see him go. She had a good feeling about Harry Percy. Being with him felt part of the natural order of things.

  He was as good as his word. No sooner had the Cardinal taken up residence again than Harry was there at the Queen’s door. And he returned every day, growing ever more ardent. But Anne was determined not to be hurt or made a fool of, or to appear too keen on him. Occasionally she would absent herself and leave him wondering where she was. Later she realized that there had been no need to play hard to get, and that he had been hers from the first.

  Gradually, over that enchanted month of May, the carapace she had built around herself broke down, yielding before Harry’s kindness and devotion. Their first kiss was stolen in an arbor in the Queen’s privy garden, and it felt very sweet.

  She knew that she was falling in love with him, but there was more to it than that. She felt more strongly than ever that he was the right man for her. For all his humble devotion, she was well aware that he was heir to one of the greatest and most ancient earldoms in England, and that she could not look for a better match. Beside him, the forbidden allure of Henry Norris had paled.

  —

  “Do you know anything about the Percys?” she asked George one day as they watched a bowls match, contriving to sound as if it were merely a matter of general interest.

  “They are great lords,” he told her, “virtually kings in the North.”

  That rang true with what Harry had said. His ancestors had come over with the Conqueror. His family had a long and noble history and had married with royalty. She could be my lady the Countess of Northumberland, far outranking her sister! But her motives were not just mercenary. She wanted Harry himself. He had overturned her jaded perceptions of what men were like, and shown her that honor and respect and devotion were not just empty words. She could think of nothing more wonderful than becoming his wife. When Harry confided that he liked her very much, and would say more if he could, her heart had swelled.

  George grinned. He knew! “You could do a lot worse than marry Harry Percy.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “It’s all over the court—how Anne Boleyn loves him.”

  Her cheeks were flaming. “That’s my business!” she flared.

  “The Queen’s ladies do love to gossip,” George smirked. “And if you will insist on wearing French gowns and drawing attention to yourself, what do you expect?”

  “I expect you to rebuke them for their idle chatter,” she retorted.

  “Oh, I’ve better things to do with them!” he laughed.

  “No doubt!” she said tartly. George’s love affairs were notorious in the court. But then he drew her to him and squeezed her affectionately.

  “Seriously, I would be delighted if you wed Harry, and there’s no doubt that Father would. So go ahead, dear sister, and seize the blessings that life offers you.”

  —

  It was June, and the roses in the Queen’s garden were in glorious bloom, when Harry led Anne to a bench, plucked a red rose and handed it to her, then dropped on one knee before her. His eyes were afire with feeling.

  “I can hide it no longer—I love you, Anne,” he blurted out, as she sat there with her heart beating wildly. “Will you honor me by becoming my wife?” She looked down into his eager face and saw nothing but true love writ there, and her heart stilled and melted. He was a good man, a kind man, gentle and loyal. He would never hurt or abandon her, never deceive her or force her to do anything she didn’t want to do. With him, her future would be secure. How could she have thought, those first days, that she could never love him?

  “Oh yes, Harry!” she breathed, and they stole a lingering kiss, hoping that no one had seen them. It left her hungry for more.

  “Then we must be betrothed now!” Harry cried, leaping up, and beckoned to two gentlemen sitting on the grass nearby with some of the Queen’s maids.

  “Sirs! Will you witness our plighting?” he cried.

  Anne was startled at his eager haste. She should speak to the Queen first, and to Father, or rather Harry should, but she was swept along by his enthusiasm, and smiled as the two gallants bowed before her. The Queen could not object, surely, and she knew that Father certainly would not. So she
had no doubt that she was doing the right thing when she willingly repeated, after Harry, the promise that would bind her to him for life. “I, Anne Boleyn, plight thee my troth, Henry Percy, to be your wedded wife.”

  “I pray you, sirs, do not speak of this to anyone until I give the word,” Harry asked.

  The young men promised, and walked off chuckling, wishing them both happiness and good fortune.

  Harry squeezed Anne’s hand. “Let us keep this our secret for now, until I tell my father when he comes to court. Then I will speak to yours. We must do everything properly. But Anne, oh my darling Anne, you have made me the happiest man alive!” And he kissed her again, more hungrily this time. It was bliss!

  —

  They tried to keep it a secret, but it was hard, since they were almost never alone. The Queen might encourage flirtations, but she was vigilant. At least she could not hear what they said when they sat in “their” window seat and talked of their future.

  “We must have a big wedding, with many guests,” Harry said. “I want all my kinsfolk and friends to see what a beautiful bride I have won!” He was looking at Anne with such longing that her heart sang. And then his hand reached for hers under cover of her skirts. He even caressed that unsightly extra nail.

  One evening, Anne stole away after dinner and met him in the lime walk that led to the Chapel of the Observant Friars, a little way from the palace. The place was deserted, and as they melted into each other’s arms, she could hear the brothers chanting Vespers. The King would be hearing the office in the Queen’s chapel. They had an hour at most.

  He drew her under the shadow of one of the trees and kissed her with passion. She felt desire stir, lively and insistent, but reined herself in. She was the future Countess of Northumberland, soon to be Lady Percy, and must behave as such. So she made a supreme effort gently to disentangle herself, and took Harry’s hands.

  “I love you,” she told him. “Dear heart, we do nothing wrong by loving each other, but we must never give any cause to say that we have behaved improperly.”

  “I wanted only to kiss you and hold you,” Harry protested.

  “And I wanted that too. But I should go back. It cannot be long until our marriage, and then we will have all the time in the world for loving each other.”

  “Alas, I cannot wait that long,” he groaned. “Every day will seem like an eternity. But I respect your wishes, sweetheart. We will go back.”

  As she emerged from the shadow of the tree, she saw a man in black standing some way ahead, at the palace end of the lime walk, a stocky man with bullish features. He was looking in her direction, but when he saw her, he turned away. She hoped he hadn’t seen her with Harry, but even if he had, their secret betrothal would soon be a secret no more.

  —

  As Anne was watching a game of tennis, Mary appeared.

  “I need to talk to you,” she murmured, her eyes pink, as if she had been crying. Anne got up and followed her out of the spectators’ gallery, and they walked in the gardens, shivering a little in the September chill.

  “I’m pregnant,” Mary said. “It’s the King’s. There’s no way it can be Will’s. We haven’t…well, not for ages. He’s always too tired. Oh, God, what am I going to tell him?”

  Anne stiffened. “Maybe the King can advise you. He got you in this mess.”

  Mary was crying. “I told Hal—I mean, the King,” she sniffed. “He has not summoned me since. I think it is over.”

  “Of course it is not over! He has a child for which he is responsible!”

  “He will not own it. He told me there is a legal presumption that any child I bear is my husband’s, so there is no cause for scandal. But Anne, I never thought to say this—I miss him. I had grown fond of him. There is something about him…”

  “Whatever it is, it’s not honor!” Anne retorted, thinking how lucky she was to have found a man of integrity like Harry. “Mary, tell me you have asked him for financial support for your child. Don’t tell me you’ve come out of it with nothing!”

  Mary’s face told her all. “I know, I know,” she sobbed, as curious courtiers passing by stared. “But I had no warning. What am I going to say to Will?”

  Anne thought rapidly. “How far along are you?”

  “I have missed two courses.”

  “Then you had best entice Will to your bed without delay, and let him think the babe has come early. Or you can tell him the truth. After all, you had no choice in the matter. He should be sympathetic.”

  “If I was going to tell him, it should have been in the beginning,” Mary wept. “He might forgive my succumbing to the King, for I was unwilling, but he will not forgive over a year of deceit. No man would.”

  “Then you have to live with your secret,” Anne said. “I’m sorry, that sounds hard, but it’s the lesser of two evils.”

  “Please don’t tell Father about this,” Mary begged.

  “Why not? I imagine he’d be delighted to be grandfather to the King’s child! You might even outdo the Queen and bear a son. Then you’ll see His Grace’s interest revive, I’ll wager.”

  “Bessie Blount bore him a son, whom he acknowledged,” Mary recalled, brightening.

  “Yes, and from what I hear, the boy is being brought up like a prince.”

  “But if that happened, Will would have to know.”

  “Let’s meet that when we come to it,” Anne advised. “Now, if you’ll forgive me, I must go to the Queen. I’m on duty at four.” And Harry was coming to see her this afternoon.

  —

  Two days later, the Cardinal and his entourage left for York Place, Wolsey’s great palace at Westminster, and Anne began counting the hours until she could see Harry again. The time dragged endlessly, and she spent her leisure hours planning her wedding outfit. Oh, to be of noble or royal rank and wear cloth of gold or velvet! But silver tissue would do very well, and it would be lightweight in the warm weather, for assuredly this would be a summer wedding. She would wear her hair loose in token of the virginity she had so carefully preserved, but she could plait the crown and thread some jewels and ribbons into it.

  She was happily daydreaming about her wedding one morning, on her way from the maidens’ dorter to the Queen’s apartments, when a young man who looked familiar stepped out from under an archway.

  “Mistress Anne Boleyn?”

  “Yes?” She stopped, startled.

  “James Melton at your service, mistress.” Of course. Harry’s friend, another of Wolsey’s young gentlemen. She recalled that he had once accompanied Harry to the Queen’s chamber. He was a gaunt-faced fellow, well spoken and wearing riding clothes of good cloth, but glum of countenance. “I am come from Harry,” he said.

  “Oh!” Anne exclaimed, delighted, but James Melton still looked miserable.

  “What’s wrong?” she asked.

  “I would give anything not to be the bearer of this news,” James said.

  Panic seized Anne. “Tell me he is not ill!”

  “No, but he has been forbidden to see you.”

  All her joy drained away. “Why?” she faltered, already marshaling indignant protests in her mind.

  “I know very little about what has happened, but I believe he is now on his way north. He wrote to me shortly before he left, bidding me tell you that everything has changed between you two.”

  “He has forsaken me?” she whimpered.

  “On the contrary, Mistress Anne, he is frantic with worry about you, for he has no means of knowing what you have heard, and would not have you think ill of him. He sounded desperate. He begged me not to suffer you in his absence to be married to any other man.”

  “Someone has tried to part us,” Anne said, feeling angry tears well up. “Was it Cardinal Wolsey?”

  James nodded. “I suspect so.”

  “Did Harry not stand up for us? I would have done.”

  “I know not what happened,” James said, “but Harry said he was going to see the Bishop of London.
He said he feared to do so behind the Cardinal’s back for fear of losing his head, but that the Bishop might be able to help him. But if Wolsey had threatened him like that, the King must surely be involved.”

  Anne trembled. “Not necessarily,” she said, trying to reassure herself. “Everybody knows it was Wolsey who brought Buckingham down. Wolsey is all-powerful. But why did Harry ask to see the Bishop?” Had it been about their betrothal?

  “He didn’t say, only that it did him no good, because the Bishop told him he had offended grievously. That’s another reason why I think the King is involved. You can read Harry’s letter for yourself.” He reached into his doublet, brought out a creased sheet of paper and handed it to her. She took it, her hands shaking, feeling cold to her core, and read. There was no more information, but at the end Harry had written: “Commend me to Mistress Anne. Bid her remember her promise, which none can loose but God only.”

  “What can I do?” Her cry was anguished. “If the King is behind the matter, we are lost.” And she was consumed with white-hot rage against the man who had such power that he could ruin not only her sister’s life, but also her own.

  James Melton spread his hands helplessly. “In truth, I do not know. You might ask the Cardinal’s gentleman usher, Master Cavendish, what he knows. There’s little that escapes him, for he is often in attendance on His Eminence.”

  “Take me to York Place!” Anne begged him. “I am not needed until this evening. I must find out what has happened.”

  “I dare not,” James said. “I should not be seen with you. I only risked coming because Harry is my friend.” It was then that Anne understood the seriousness of her situation. It was not only Harry who had given offense.

  “I see,” she said. “Very well, I will go alone.”

  “That is madness,” James warned her.

  “I don’t care!” she cried. “I don’t give a fig for the Cardinal or the King! I want answers! I am going to make them understand that no one trifles with Anne Boleyn!” She was beside herself.

 
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