Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession by Alison Weir


  James looked distraught himself. “All right, Mistress Anne, I will escort you. But do not expect anything good to come out of this foolhardiness.”

  —

  They sat silently in the barge as London rolled past them. Anne had brought her maid, for propriety’s sake, as the Cardinal naturally presided over a household of men (although Anne had heard it rumored that he kept his old mistress hidden away in his private chambers, aye, and had children by her).

  At Westminster Stairs they alighted and gave their names at the gatehouse of York Place. James was evidently known and liked, and they were waved through.

  “I will take you to Master Cavendish,” he said, “but then I must leave you. My father would kill me if he knew I was doing this.”

  “So would mine,” Anne said, tight-lipped, “but it matters not.”

  York Place was massive, a disparate collection of buildings ancient and new, sprawling around gardens and courtyards, and negotiating it was like finding your way through a labyrinth. But James knew it well, and soon he was leading Anne up a privy stair, which led to apartments of such sumptuous splendor that, for all her misery, she gasped. Every available inch of wall and ceiling had been painted or gilded. No wonder so many people envied Wolsey!

  They threaded their way through the throng of gentlemen, officials, petitioners, and servants who were waiting to see the Cardinal.

  “Master Cavendish should be in his office,” James said, knocking at a fine paneled door. But when it opened, it was Wolsey himself who stood framed in the arched doorway. James hurriedly knelt to kiss his ring, which was extended absentmindedly, for Wolsey was staring at Anne.

  “Master Melton,” he said, “you are a gentleman of great prescience, for you have brought me the young lady I was about to summon. I wonder how that could be.”

  James stood up, visibly trembling. Before he could answer, Anne spoke. “My Lord Cardinal, I insisted on coming to see you, and this gentleman reluctantly agreed to escort me.” Everyone was staring at her, but the Cardinal seemed unaware of them.

  “Indeed? How very fortunate that he was at hand. James, I will speak with you later.”

  James flushed and bowed himself away. Anne felt awful. He had done her a kindness and she had got him into trouble. But she would get him out of it.

  “Your Eminence,” she said, “I do hope you will not think amiss of Master Melton for his goodness to me. He but brought me a letter from Lord Percy. He was puzzled as to what it was about. It was I who, having read the letter, insisted on coming here.”

  Wolsey regarded her wearily. She was repelled by his fleshy jowls and red-veined cheeks. She wished that he would take her somewhere they could discuss this matter in private. It was embarrassing having all these people avidly looking on.

  “We shall see,” the Cardinal said. “No doubt you have guessed that I am aware of your pretended precontract to Harry Percy.”

  “There was nothing pretended about it, my lord!” Anne bridled.

  “Then you are clearly unaware that Lord Percy was betrothed seven years ago to Lady Mary Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury’s daughter.” He was watching like a great bird of prey to see her reaction.

  “I do not believe it,” she said, striving not to betray how shocked she was.

  “Then I am sorry for you. The King and I approved the betrothal at the time. It was a most satisfactory arrangement, the parties being of equal rank.”

  This was insupportable! How dare this butcher’s son imply, in others’ hearing, that she, the granddaughter of a duke, if you please, was not fit to mate with the heir to an earldom!

  “In the circumstances,” the Cardinal went on, “it was rash of Lord Percy to promise himself to you. He must have known that his father would not approve.”

  “Harry is an honest man!” Anne cried. “I do not believe he would have gone so far if he was betrothed to another.” But she was remembering his haste to plight his troth to her. Had he naively thought that it could cancel out his earlier precontract?

  “You should know, Mistress Anne, that I have discussed the matter with the King, and he is very angry at your presumption. It is his prerogative to consent to the marriages of his nobility.”

  Anne said nothing. What could she say? If the King had spoken against them, then all was lost. Her world was falling apart around her, and all that was left was a bleak future in which Harry had no part.

  “I spoke to Lord Percy,” the Cardinal said. “I conveyed the King’s displeasure.”

  She could imagine it. She only hoped that Harry had given a good account of himself.

  Wolsey shifted heavily on his feet and fixed his bleary gaze on her. “It is coming to something, Mistress Anne, when the heir to a great earldom thinks he can with impunity betroth himself to some foolish girl yonder in the court, and so I told the young half-wit.”

  Anne seethed to hear herself described as foolish, and in public. How dare he! But Wolsey remained oblivious to her anger.

  “I told him I marveled at his folly in so offending His Grace, and I sent for his father, the Earl, who naturally was scandalized and warned the willful boy that if he did not break this unadvised contract, he would disinherit him forever.”

  That might explain why Harry had gone to see the Bishop of London—or, given that he had not wanted Wolsey to find out, possibly Harry had hoped that the Bishop would find their betrothal good and valid. But of course he had not, he had not…

  “Are you listening to me, girl?” Wolsey barked. “I said that the King’s Majesty will complain to your father of you, and require him to ensure that you behave yourself in future.”

  That would be rich, she thought, coming from a man who had committed rape.

  “How have I misbehaved myself?” she asked. “I have conducted myself with propriety. I knew of no prior betrothal. I had no doubt that my father would approve such a match.”

  “Oh, indeed he would!” Wolsey sneered. “But His Highness intends to marry you to another person, with whom he is already in negotiations. I understand that the matter is almost concluded.”

  “Who?” Anne cried. “Not James Butler?”

  “I am not at liberty to say, Mistress Anne. But I do not doubt, if you know what is good for you, that you will be glad of it, and agreeable to what the King arranges.”

  “But I gave my promise to Harry!”

  Wolsey’s eyes narrowed. “Think you that the King and I know not what we have to do in as weighty a matter as this? Rest assured, you will not see Lord Percy again. He has been commanded in the King’s name not to resort to your company, on pain of His Grace’s high indignation, and he is to be married to Lady Mary Talbot as soon as it can be arranged. Now be a sensible girl and accept it.”

  “But the Queen approved it! She encouraged us!” Anne was frantic.

  “The Queen has no power in such matters.” The Cardinal sighed. “Mistress Anne, you are proving tiresome, and I have pressing business to attend to. It is the King’s command that you leave the court, and go home for a season.”

  “No!” Anne protested. “That is grossly unfair!”

  “Are you criticizing His Grace’s judgment?” Wolsey’s eyes were like steel. “Now go.”

  “You have not heard the last of me, my Lord Cardinal!” Anne cried, caution abandoned in her fury, as a hundred faces turned and gaped.

  —

  Anne could not have said how she got back to Greenwich. She was too consumed with hatred for the Cardinal and the King for breaking her betrothal and ruining her life. They had not even allowed Harry a chance to say farewell to her. What rankled almost as much was the malicious, contemptuous way Wolsey had spoken to her. It was his revenge, no doubt, for her family having always looked on him with contempt for the upstart he was. How dare he call her a foolish girl! How dare he imply that she was unfit to mate with a Percy! This was not the King’s doing so much as Wolsey’s. As for the marriage that His Grace was supposed to be planning for her, she did not beli
eve there was one. It was just a ploy to keep her quiet.

  Of losing her beloved Harry she dared not think, for that way lay madness. To have had all within her grasp and to have lost it in an instant was more than cruel. Never again to see that beloved face, feel those warm lips on hers, those loving arms around her…He had been the one man she could love, the essence of all that was good in his sex. She would never find another like him. No one would love her like he did. When she thought of all their plans, the bright future that would never happen…It was more than she could take. A great waterfall of tears was welling.

  She had not been missed. It was easy to slip upstairs to the dorter, throw herself on her bed and give way to her grief, weeping her heart out and emitting pitiful cries.

  She did not realize anyone had entered the room until a gentle hand touched her shoulder. The Queen herself was standing there with a look of such compassion that Anne’s tears fell even faster. Remembering herself, she started to rise, but Katherine bade her stay where she was.

  “Tell me what has happened,” she said, sitting on the stool by the bed and taking Anne’s hand.

  “I am ordered home to Hever, your Grace,” Anne whispered.

  “But why?”

  “Your Grace will be angry with me if I tell you.” Anne sniffed, choking back tears.

  “Your welfare is my concern. You are my maid and I am responsible for you. If aught goes amiss with you, it reflects on me too.”

  Anne knew she must tell the Queen the truth, however hard it was. She sat up, composed herself, and said, “Well then, madam, I see I have been very foolish. I entered into a precontract with Harry Percy.”

  Katherine looked startled. “Did your parents know?”

  “No, madam. We are in love. We did not think they would disapprove.”

  The Queen frowned. “That was indeed foolish, Mistress Anne. You should know that a precontract is as binding as a marriage, and that you should both have had your parents’ permission—and the King’s.”

  “I know, I know all that.” Anne could not hold back another sob. “Madam, we did not mean to offend the King, and maybe they would all have been happy with the match, but the Cardinal said no. He called me a foolish girl! And then it turns out that Harry has been betrothed for years to the Earl of Shrewsbury’s daughter. They have packed him off up north to marry her. And I am commanded to leave court!” She wrung the Queen’s hand. “Your Grace, I cannot lose Harry—I love him more than life itself—and I do not want to leave your service. Oh what am I to do?” She buried her head in her hands, her shoulders heaving.

  “I will speak to the King,” Katherine said. “But I cannot promise that it will do any good.”

  —

  In a fever of hope and suspense, Anne sought out George and told him what had happened. Seeing her tears, he drew her into his arms. He was shaking with anger.

  “How dare he!” he raged against Wolsey. “Wait till Father hears!”

  His support was a comfort to Anne. But there was no comfort to be had of the Queen. Katherine did not tell her what the King had said, only that she must go home to Hever.

  “When the time is ripe, Mistress Anne, you may be assured of being welcomed back into my household,” she told her.

  Anne was barely holding herself together. “I thank your Grace. You have been very kind. But madam, I have been treated most unjustly, and I have been insulted.” Wolsey would pay for that. “If ever it lies in my power, I will work the Cardinal as much displeasure as he has done me!”

  The Queen stared at her and swallowed. “I hope that in time you will find it in your heart to forgive him,” she said. “Now God speed you.”

  I will never forgive him! Anne resolved. Head held high, she went on her way. The carapace was firmly back in place.

  1523-1524

  Hever was inestimably dull, but Anne was so unhappy that she did not care where she was. The days were all gray, one much the same as another, and she could take no interest in anything. She had been robbed of her future, and her present was unutterably bleak. As for her past, she dared not think of it.

  Mrs. Orchard offered a shoulder to cry on. Mother encouraged, then begged Anne to have a care for herself, growing increasingly concerned.

  “You must pull yourself together,” she urged. “There’s plenty more eels in the pond!”

  Father, of course, was at court. She had not seen him since her disgrace, but she knew he was as furious as he had been when Mary confessed that the King had gotten her with child and abandoned her. He was not angry with Anne, but with that butcher’s whelp who had scuppered the brilliant marriage she had planned, and which would have brought Father so much glory. He was on her side, although he could not openly say so at court. The last thing he would do was offend the King.

  There had been no more word of the marriage that was supposedly being planned for her. All lies! she seethed. She kept going over and over that interview with Wolsey, whose name she could not now bear to utter. She wished, how she wished, that she had given a better account of herself, put the Cardinal in his place, exposed him for what he was. But her moment would come. She did not know when or how, but she and her family would see him brought down. She had vowed it. He would suffer, as he had made her suffer.

  It was a sad summer, made sadder still by news of the death of Queen Claude from a malady caught in childbed. “Or from her husband!” Mother observed tartly. “The world knows that satyr has the great pox.” It was news to Anne, but in England people were prone to believing any gossip about King François and the hated French.

  —

  All through that dismal winter, Anne could not lift herself out of her depression.

  Father arrived home for a week in February, and showed himself unusually sympathetic.

  “Don’t look so wan, Anne,” he counseled. “Time heals. We’ll find you a good husband yet.”

  She smiled weakly, reflecting on how unlucky she had been. She doubted she would ever give her heart again, even if she did wed.

  Father went upstairs to slough off the mud from his journey and change his clothes. When he reappeared, he summoned Anne to the parlor, which was gloomy due to the descending dusk outside. He lit two candles, then sat in his great chair by the fire.

  “Sit down,” he said, indicating the settle opposite. “I have something to tell you. Harry Percy is married. The wedding took place last month.”

  She bit her lip. She would not cry. But the news that Harry was lost to her irrevocably was the bitterest of blows. She did not know how she would bear it.

  “Thank you for telling me,” she said. “I’d rather have heard it from you than from anyone else.”

  Father nodded. “Mary is coming home to have her child,” he said. “Will has agreed. The court is no place for a woman in her condition. Your mother will take care of her.” His voice was brusque. They had all colluded in keeping the truth from Will, who was plainly looking forward to the arrival of his child. Anne wondered what he would say if he discovered it was not his, for he loved his wife. Poor Mary. Her deception was a terrible burden to bear.

  Anne knew that the King had taken no interest in Mary since learning of her pregnancy, and for a few weeks, when Will was not around, Mary had been tearful and resentful; but as her pregnancy advanced, she had grown absorbed in the coming child, and Anne began to hope that the King had become a distant memory, and that he would not trouble Mary again. Let the world think this child was Will Carey’s—and why should it not?

  —

  Anne was sent out of the room. It was not fit for an unmarried woman to witness a birth, Mother said, unwittingly twisting the knife by reminding her that she was not married, and probably never would be. She was twenty-three now, and soon she might be too old to snare a husband. Not that it mattered to her anymore.

  She went downstairs and sat in her mother’s office, reading a book. But the words danced before her eyes—she could not concentrate, not when the great miracle of
birth was taking place somewhere above her.

  She stood up and went to the window. It was a fine April morning, with blossom on the trees and fluffy clouds in the sky. The gardens looked glorious. It was desperately sad not to be sharing their beauty with the man she loved. She realized to her horror that Harry’s image was fading and that she could not quite remember what he looked like, or the sound of his voice. It was eight months since she had seen him, and the worst storm of her grief was over. What was left was this pall of sadness, and soon, no doubt, that would pass too, and she would begin to live again, rather than just exist.

  A cry echoed through the castle—the unmistakable wail of a newborn. Picking up her skirts, Anne raced upstairs.

  “Is all well?” she called through the door.

  Her mother opened it, a tiny infant swathed in a blanket nestling in the crook of her arm. “A girl, safely delivered,” she said, “and Mary had an easy time, thanks be to God. But Anne, look.” She pulled aside the edge of the blanket and the little face was revealed—the very image of the King. The eyes of mother and daughter met.

  “There’s no point in making a fuss,” Mother said briskly. “We must all act as if the babe is Will’s. Let us pray he does not notice anything amiss.”

  —

  A messenger was sent to summon Will from court, and he arrived at Hever within a few hours. Anne and her mother were present when he came into Mary’s bedchamber to find his wife propped up on her pillows, the swaddled infant in her arms.

  “My darling,” he cried, “I am so proud of you!” Mary smiled nervously up at him, and eagerly he took the child, gazing at it in awe.

  “My little girl!” he cried. “And she has the Carey looks!” He was unaware of the collective exhalation of relief around him. Of course, Anne thought, the King is his cousin, which would account for the likeness. Mercifully no one had commented on how large for a seven-months child the baby was. Probably Will had no idea how newborns looked.

 
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