Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession by Alison Weir


  “Ask me when you are divorced,” she said lightly, smiling.

  “Then I will live in hope!” Tom cried, taking her hand and kissing it fervently. “Give me a token, I pray you!”

  “You’re still married, Tom!” Anne reproved him, but before she could stop him, he reached across and snatched a black lace that was hanging out of her pocket. Attached to it was a small jewel that she wore as a pendant.

  “My token!” he cried. “A token of the love I know you bear me.”

  “No! Give it back!”

  Too late, they both became aware that a hush had fallen, and saw the King, at the center of his entourage of courtiers, staring at them, his expression inscrutable. They scrambled to their feet and made obeisance as he nodded and walked on.

  Tom thrust his trophy into his doublet.

  “Give it to me!” Anne insisted.

  “No!” he said. “It is little enough to have of you. I will cherish it.”

  She knew herself defeated. “Very well, keep it. It is of little worth.”

  “It is worth all the world to me,” Tom said.

  —

  The following evening, when the tables had been cleared and removed, there was dancing in the presence chamber. A consort of musicians in the corner began playing, and the King rose, bowed to the Queen, and led her out. The courtiers watched admiringly as the royal pair performed a stately pavane, and then, at the King’s signal, they took to the floor themselves. George was among the throng, partnering a blond girl—Heaven knew where Jane was—and Henry Norris was with his wife, Mary. Anne was asked to dance by Sir Nicholas Carew, Master of the Horse and a friend of the King.

  “I think we are related,” he told her. “About three or four generations back, through Lord Hoo.”

  “I think everyone at court must be related in some way or other,” Anne replied, as they trod the stately measure. “Sometimes the court seems like one big family. It’s just a matter of degree.”

  “I can’t say I see it like that,” Sir Nicholas laughed. “When you hear all the backbiting and see the cut and thrust of the intrigues—it’s a cesspit! Actually, that’s just like my family!”

  She giggled, and then the dance was over, and Tom was before her, craving the pleasure. She let him lead her into an almain.

  “You are wearing my jewel!” she reproved him, spying it around his neck through the open collar of his shirt.

  “I’m proud to do so,” he answered defiantly. “It keeps me in remembrance of you—as if I needed any prompting. Besides, no one knows who gave it to me.”

  “Only the King and all his gentlemen! They saw you take it.”

  Tom grinned. “I love you when you’re angry, Anne. You are looking divine tonight. That gown is superb.”

  She twirled her green skirts, pleased with the compliment, unable to feel cross with him for long.

  “I cannot stay,” she said. “After this dance I must attend the Queen. Already she is sitting down. She is unhappy because the Princess Mary is being sent away to Ludlow.”

  “Bid me go, then, and straightaway I will do so at your commandment. As long as I can look at you from afar, and feast these poor eyes on your beauty.”

  She smiled at him, and let him lead her to the Queen, whereupon he bowed to Katherine and withdrew. A row of ladies and maids waited behind the Queen’s chair, and Anne joined the end of it, a step down from the dais.

  Suddenly the King was standing before her, tall, broad, and magnificent in his suit of purple cloth of gold—a confident man in his mid-thirties, with that air of assurance that royal birth and years of ruling had conferred. He bowed in an elegant, courtly fashion that detracted not at all from his majestic dignity, and she sank into a curtsey.

  “Will you do me the honor of dancing with me, Mistress Anne?” he asked, looking down at her intensely from his great height. His eyes were blue and piercing. He smelled of fresh herbs—she remembered that from when she had danced with him before, at Lille, in another life.

  One did not refuse the King, much as she wanted to. She gave him her hand, bowing her head so that he should not see the hatred and contempt in her eyes. One dance, and that would be it.

  “You are very quiet tonight, Mistress Anne,” the King observed, as they set the pace in a basse dance. “Usually, I have noticed, you have a lot to say for yourself.”

  “I am a little tired, your Grace,” she said, her manner cool.

  He gripped her hand. “Why won’t you ever speak to me?” he growled.

  She feigned astonishment. “I? Sir, it was never my intention to offend you.”

  “Every time I speak to you, you do your best to ignore me,” he muttered, with startling fervor. “At other times you avoid me. Why? Am I not pleasing to you?”

  Anne glided around on his arm, startled. She had never dreamed that he had thought of her in any way beyond the ordinary. “Sir, the King’s condescension is pleasing to everyone, including me. I fear you have misunderstood my awe at being in your presence for rudeness, and I am heartily sorry for it.” The words were courteous, yet still she would not bend to him.

  “I am relieved to hear that,” he said, looking at her with that inscrutable gaze. “Yet it is I who am in awe of you. I have been watching you, and admiring you, for some time, fearing to approach you because of your coldness. If you could find it in your heart to be just a little kind, it would be a great happiness to me.”

  “Kind to you, sir?” What did he mean? “How could I not be kind to my sovereign?”

  “You mistake my meaning,” the King murmured, as they moved closer in the dance. “I am struck with a dart, Mistress Anne, and I do not know how to tear it out.”

  Now there was no mistaking his meaning. Her eyes met his, but she looked away quickly, frantically casting about in her mind for some way to deflect him.

  “Sir,” she said, “since you are married to the Queen, my good mistress, I know not how to answer you.”

  “You know well enough how to answer Master Wyatt!” Henry flared.

  “He is not the King of England,” she faltered, fearing the consequences of provoking this man. “And he is married too, but I am not afraid of reproving him for his pursuit of me. You see, sir, I am jealous of my good name, and I love and fear God. I cannot risk tangling with one who is forbidden to me, however well I think of him.”

  The King’s eyes narrowed. “But you are not above dancing with Wyatt.”

  “I have known him since childhood, as a friend, sire. I danced with him as a friend.”

  His face softened. “Will you dance with your King as a friend too?”

  “Sir, how could I do otherwise, when your Grace has been so generous to my father?”

  “I have been glad to show favor to your family, and he has served me well,” Henry said. “I am prepared to be more generous still.” His meaning was blatant.

  Anne stiffened. Mercifully the dance was coming to an end. “As you were to my sister?” she asked in a low voice, unable to stifle her animosity.

  He stared at her. “I was fond of your sister,” he muttered. “But these things end…It ran its course.”

  She gave him a look. “From what I heard, there was less fondness than force.”

  “Anne!” the King said, his eyes blazing with something other than anger. “Do not let Mary poison your mind against me. She came to me willingly enough.”

  “She told me that your Grace gave her no choice.” Oh God, Father would kill her for this—if the King didn’t do so first.

  Henry’s face, rosy from exertion and turmoil, flushed deeper. “Is that really what she told you? Well, as a gentleman and a knight, I will not gainsay her. But I pray you will not think ill of me for taking only what I believed was offered freely.”

  Anne could not allow that to pass. “Offered so freely that she was distraught and in tears afterward! I know—I was there.”

  The music had stopped. Hastily Anne dropped a curtsey, as the King bowed. She had gone too fa
r, she knew. Her family would be ruined, and she herself irrevocably disgraced. What had she done?

  But Henry was regarding her with that intent gaze. “I pray you, dance with me once more,” he invited. “I would make things right between us.”

  “Sir, forgive my boldness, but there can be no ‘us,’ and there is no need to make anything right.”

  “Then I will escort you back to your place,” he said in a steely voice, and when they got there, he bowed again and left her.

  —

  She waited for the blow to fall. Any moment the order might come for her banishment from court, or even her arrest. Men had been imprisoned—and worse—for lesser offenses. Or Father might descend on her like a vengeful angel, demanding to know why he had been dismissed from his offices. Again and again she regretted her renegade tongue.

  But nothing of the kind happened, and the next time the King paid the Queen a visit, he smiled at Anne and asked her to play her lute for them.

  “You play very well,” he told her, when she had finished.

  “Not as well as your Grace,” she said, seeking safety in the correct, the expected, response. And all the while Katherine was smiling at them both, poor deceived woman.

  And then it was Christmas, with the usual revelry, a time when good order was turned on its head and all ceremony was forgotten. The King roared with laughter when the Lord of Misrule tapped him with his wand of office and demanded his fee of five pounds—right now, sire! There was a game of Hoodman Blind, when the Master of the Revels, blindfolded, chased the shrieking courtiers through the royal apartments, Anne running with Tom, hand in hand, and hiding behind an arras, with Tom trying to snatch a kiss, and her neatly ducking away. And then there were the disguisings. Anne was astonished one evening when a man wearing an elaborate mask, clad entirely in green, caught her under the kissing bough suspended from a roof beam above the doorway, twisted her round to face him, and kissed her heartily on the lips. She knew, by his large presence and the smell of herbs, that it was the King, but pretended ignorance, breaking away and running off down the deserted galleries until the sounds of merriment had been left far behind and there was not a soul to be seen.

  She was just about to retrace her steps, for it was cold here, and she wanted to be back in the warm, enjoying the revelry, when she heard a footfall, and another, growing closer, and there he was, still masked, framed in the archway at the farther end of the gallery. She realized that they were entirely alone. Her heart beat furiously as he approached with an air of determination. She did not want this, did not want him as she feared he wanted her. She remembered how King François had raped her sister in a room off a deserted gallery such as this.

  “Anne!” Henry said, in that high, imperious voice. “Do not fear me. I am no rapist, as your sister alleges. For weeks now I have been unable to think of anything but you.” He was standing before her now, the big, powerful man, looking as diffident as a schoolboy. “I come to you as a supplicant, hoping you will take pity on me.”

  She did not want to go through more anxious days worrying that she had offended him, so she kept her voice sweet. “Sir, I am flattered to receive the attention of so great a king, but in truth I do not know how I can help you.”

  Henry pulled off his mask and placed his hands on her shoulders, fixing her with that magnetic gaze that had no power to move her. She could never love him. The essential alchemy that should be between male and female was decidedly absent.

  “Anne!” He sounded quite emotional. “You have cast an enchantment on me. I do not know how to explain it. It seems presumptuous to use the word ‘love,’ but I know what I feel. I do not sleep at night; I see only your face before me. I am in torment!”

  “Sir!” she cried, shocked that he might think she dabbled in witchcraft. “I have cast no enchantment! I am your good subject, nothing more.”

  For answer, his hands slid down to her waist, and he drew her to him. His hold was strong, and in that moment she understood how it must have been for Mary, and how vulnerable she herself was. “I want you, Anne,” he murmured in her hair. “I want to be your servant, and I want you for my mistress.” The passion in his voice alarmed her. “Venus, that insatiable goddess, has brought me to this pass, but I pray that you, sweetheart, will be kind to me.”

  “Sir!” Anne went rigid in his arms, and he let her go, standing back and looking at her with such longing that she almost took pity on him. To think that she, plain Anne Boleyn, had power over this man who held the lives of thousands in his hand. But she did not want him!

  What was the right, the proper, answer? Frantically she sought in her mind for a way to deflect his interest without offending him.

  “Sir, may I have time to think on this?” she asked at length. “Your Grace has so overwhelmed me that I do not know what to say to you. Please give me time.”

  “Of course,” the King agreed, his face jubilant, for now she was playing the game properly. Except that this was not a game.

  1526

  “Declare I dare not” indeed! What was the King about? She had told him, several times now, that she could not love him or be his mistress, as he was married. She had said it in sorrow, in regret, in indignation, and in anger—and still he would not take no for an answer. Instead he had bargained that, in return for his promise never to compromise her virtue, she would permit him to acknowledge her publicly as his mistress, and himself as her devoted servant. Thus no one would be offended, he pointed out, with that naive streak that she was learning was as much a part of his character as his imperiousness, his sentimentality, and his courtesy.

  Still she had said no, and now he had gone too far, wearing that enigmatic motto with the device of a man’s heart in flames emblazoned on his trappings of cloth of gold and silver as he thundered into the lists. For all the world to see! Even the Queen was looking at it, her adoring eyes narrowing in a slight frown. Henry had become so importunate lately that some must have noticed his singling Anne out, and it didn’t take much perception for someone—not Katherine, God forfend—to put two and two together and make five.

  How she held her patience during the jousts she did not know, shivering in her furs in the freezing February weather. She was beginning to feel cornered, and coming to the realization that decisive action was called for. She was torn between running away—her preferred, instinctive option—or reprimanding her sovereign, which, if she were his mistress, as he wanted, she was entitled to do!

  But why, she asked herself angrily, should I have to leave court because he can’t contain himself? No, she would stay. He would not drive her away. Yet she would not make it easy for him.

  There was a commotion in the lists. Francis Bryan had been felled, and blood was spouting from his eye. People, even the King, came running to help. Anne could not bear to look. Poor Bryan! Pleading a headache, she asked the Queen if she might go and lie down, so that she would be nowhere to be seen when the King came with his guests to have supper with his wife.

  But she could not lie down forever. Morning came, as relentless as Fate, and there were duties to be attended to. And there he was, looking like a naughty schoolboy, lying in wait for her in the antechamber to the Queen’s rooms. As she paused, startled, to curtsey, he closed the door behind her, leaving them alone. No ushers, no grooms, no maids. He must have dismissed them. She was uncomfortably aware that only yards from the inner door, the Queen was having her breakfast.

  “I trust you are recovered, Mistress Anne,” Henry said, taking her hand and kissing it, even the place where that ugly sixth nail grew.

  She drew it away. “I am recovered from my headache, thank you, sir. I have yet to recover from seeing you publicly proclaiming your feelings at the tournament. Truly that was unfair of you. I felt like running away.”

  He looked stricken. “Never do that to me, Anne,” he begged. “I cannot live without you. I have never been this powerfully attracted to any other woman. Help me, please! Give me some crumb of affection.


  “Alas, sir, you are not free, so it would not be proper. How is Francis?”

  Henry grimaced. “His eye cannot be saved, but he will otherwise recover.”

  “I am so relieved to hear it. Forgive me, sir, Her Grace is waiting, and I shall get into trouble if I am late. Fare you well!” She pushed open the inner door and almost fled from him.

  —

  Mary came up to court in March, leaving her little ones at Hever to be spoiled by their doting grandmother. Anne visited her in Will’s lodging; he was waiting on the King, so they could talk freely.

  This was the first time that Anne had seen Mary since Henry had started paying court, and she suddenly found herself wanting to confide in her. Mary was the one person who would understand her dilemma. But how would she take the news that her former lover was pursuing her sister?

  Mary was waxing lyrical about her children, and Anne listened restlessly for a while, then stood up and walked to the fire, stretching out her hands to warm them.

  “What is it?” Mary asked. “You seem agitated.”

  “I need to tell you something, Mary,” Anne said. “The King is trying the same tactics with me as he did with you.”

  Mary gaped at her.

  “He is becoming very persistent, and I know not how to deter him. He wants me to become his mistress.”

  “You mean he wants to bed with you?”

  “Of course. I am not so foolish as to think he has a purer motive. For all his fine words, this is all about lust. Believe me, I understand now how it was for you, although he insists you consented.”

  “That’s not true!” Mary cried out. “He made me! You saw me afterward.”

  “I told him so. I taxed him with it,” Anne said, sitting down again and taking Mary’s hands in hers. “He still said he believed you were willing, and of course I don’t accept that for one moment. But I am not willing, and mercifully he has not tried to force me.”

 
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