Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession by Alison Weir


  “I was never yours!” Anne declared, furious. “You have made it impossible for our friendship to continue.”

  “Not so!” Tom argued. “Hear me out. I said that if he would give me leave to measure it, I hoped it would be mine, and I took your jewel from my bosom and measured the distance with the lace. I know he recognized it, for he got very angry, and said I might be right, but he had been deceived. And then he stalked off.”

  “You both acted like two cocks fighting over a hen!” Anne reproved him. “And now this farce must end. I pray you, give me my jewel back.”

  “No!” Tom protested. “I love you, Anne—I cannot bear to lose you.”

  “You never won me,” she said sadly. “It could not be.” She held out her hand and reluctantly he laid the trinket in it.

  “So you love the King now?” he asked.

  “He likes to think so,” she said.

  There was sympathy as well as sadness in Tom’s eyes. “You do not have to do this, Anne. It’s not worth it.”

  “I have no choice. He will not let me go.”

  “You know I will always be here for you,” Tom said.

  “I know that,” she said, and walked away.

  —

  That night, returning to Father’s lodging, she found a note waiting for her. Breaking the seal, she saw that it contained just a few lines of verse.

  Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,

  As well as I may spend his time in vain.

  And graven with diamonds in letters plain,

  There is written her fair neck round about:

  Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,

  And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.

  Suddenly she was seeing it through a blur of tears.

  1527

  “Wyatt has been sent to Italy,” Francis Bryan said, his single eye full of mischief. “The King has apparently just discovered that he has good diplomatic skills, and a mission has been found for him.” He winked at Anne. They were in the Queen’s chamber, where Anne and the other maids were putting the finishing touches to their masque costumes. No fool, Francis, who was close to Henry, had guessed that his master was pursuing her. It was as well that Tom was out of the way. Life would be less complicated.

  The King had fallen out with the Emperor, after five years of amity, and was again looking to France for friendship. Anne was delighted, for most of her happiest memories were of her years at the French court, and she was hoping that this new alliance might afford her an opportunity to visit there again. Of course, life had moved on. Poor Claude was dead these three years, and Marguerite had married the King of Navarre, but it would be good to be back, if only for a short while.

  Lavish preparations had been made in honor of the French ambassadors who had come to negotiate the marriage of the Princess Mary to the French King’s son, which was to seal the new entente. Anne was present, in attendance on the Queen, at all the feasts and jousts that were laid on in honor of the visitors. She watched as the King showed off his eleven-year-old daughter, the pretty red-haired child, but small for her age, and skinny, and heard the ambassadors praising her lavishly. Anne knew that the Queen was bitterly unhappy at the prospect of her daughter marrying a French prince, for France and Spain were old enemies and her prejudice was deeply engrained. But she presented a smiling face to the embassy, and played her part faultlessly.

  Anne had seen Henry hardly at all, for he had been busy playing host and engrossed in long private talks with the ambassadors. But after a few days she received a note, delivered by an usher in the royal green and white livery. “Come to the chapel at midnight. I would speak with you. H.R.”

  Intrigued, she made her way there after the evening’s entertainments ended, thankful that she was not on duty tonight. The challenge would be getting into the maidens’ dorter without waking anyone or being quizzed on why she was so late.

  The chapel was in darkness, save for the single lamp in the chancel symbolizing the presence of God. Anne curtseyed to the crucifix on the altar, then looked around for Henry. He was leaning forward, a dim form in the royal pew above.

  “Up here!” he said, and when she had ascended the stairs he embraced her. “Thank God you came! Come and sit beside me.” He indicated the Queen’s chair. “It’s all right. We’re alone.”

  “What has happened?” she asked, fearing something ominous.

  “Anne, I have to talk to you. I am in turmoil, and I do not know whether to rejoice or weep. Monsieur de Grammont, the Bishop of Tarbes, has raised the question of the Princess Mary’s legitimacy.”

  She was shocked. “But how can that be, sir? You have been married to the Queen for—”

  “Eighteen years,” Henry finished. “And never did man have such a faithful, virtuous, and loving wife. In nearly every respect, Katherine is what a queen should be. But she has failed to bear me a son, and Anne, she is now past the ways of women.” He buried his head in his hands, resting his elbows on the front of the pew. “What I am about to say to you is in strict confidence, darling, because it touches the Queen too nearly. You must be aware—who is not?—of how much I have agonized over not having a son, and how to resolve the problem of the succession.”

  “But sir, your daughter, the Princess, is forward in learning for her years and graced with all the virtues. Why should she not rule after you?”

  Henry sighed. “Don’t think I haven’t considered it. That’s why I sent Mary to Ludlow, to learn how to be a queen. But it galls me, Anne, it eats at me. A woman rule England? It is against Nature for women to wield dominion over men. No man would heed her. And who would lead our armies into battle?”

  “The Queen’s own mother, Isabella, did in Spain,” Anne pointed out, wondering how the Regent Margaret and Marguerite of Valois would have answered him.

  “So Katherine keeps telling me,” he huffed, his hawklike profile set in stern lines against the flickering torchlight. “But Anne, this is England, not Spain, and our people would never tolerate it. There was a queen called Matilda, centuries ago, who attempted to rule and became a byword for infamy. Memories are long. I have a bastard son, as you know, but I’m not sure that my subjects would tolerate his succeeding me either, although I had come to see it as the only option. But it has just been put to me that my sole legitimate child may well be a bastard too. And if she marries into France, then I might well be the last king of England, for the French will rule here in her name after I am gone. So,” he ended, turning a perplexed face to her, “you can see why I am in turmoil.”

  “I understand very well,” Anne said, feeling—for the first time—some sympathy for him, even if he was wrong about the ability of a woman to rule. “But why did the Bishop question the Princess’s legitimacy?”

  Henry sighed. “On the grounds that, all those years ago, the Pope had no business issuing a dispensation allowing me to marry my brother’s widow. The Queen was married to Prince Arthur before, as you know.”

  She nodded.

  “There were those who expressed doubts at the time, but my Council overruled them, and I was determined to have Katherine for my wife. It was a brilliant marriage alliance, and I loved her. Besides, I was assured, by her and by her father, that she was still a virgin. Arthur was ill when he married her; he died six months later. But, Anne, the good Bishop has directed me to the Book of Leviticus in the Bible, and I have been reading it over and over again, for it warns of the penalty for those who incur God’s displeasure by taking their brother’s widow to wife. ‘They shall be childless’! And having only a daughter, I am as good as childless. All my sons with Katherine died.”

  There were tears in Henry’s eyes; he was a bereaved father as well as a sovereign without an heir.

  “If the Bishop has these doubts about my marriage, others may too,” he went on. “God knows I’ve studied the matter this past week. I’ve read books till my head ached. I’ve talked to my confessor. He says I may well be in error, and living in sin, and that to a
void God’s displeasure I should ask for the advice of the Archbishop of Canterbury and my Council.” He paused, his face that of a tortured soul. “And so, Anne, I mind to do so, with a view to having my union with the Queen declared incestuous and invalid.”

  Anne stifled a gasp. “Your Grace would go so far? You would divorce such a devout and beloved queen?”

  “I must think of my kingdom, Anne, and what will surely ensue if I die leaving no son. There would be civil war, make no bones about it. God knows, I have enough relations of the old Plantagenet royal blood ready to stake their claim, and some of them may not do me the courtesy of waiting till I die.” There was genuine fear in his voice, and anger too. “I must have a son, Anne, and to do that I need to take another wife.”

  Anne was still digesting it all. “But the Queen? What of her? She will be devastated. She loves you so much.”

  “She will understand that these doubts must be resolved, and that I need an heir. But, God help me, I don’t know how I am going to face breaking this to her, and for now, Anne, you must say nothing of it to anyone. Katherine has known for some time that all is not well. I have…refrained from her bed, not just on account of this new scruple of conscience, although I have been advised by my confessor that I must do so until the matter is settled. She has a disease…Well, I will not go into it.”

  Suddenly Henry’s need for her, his passion, was making more sense to Anne. He had been looking to her for what his wife could no longer give him.

  He put his arm around her shoulders and drew her to him. She realized that he was weeping silently.

  “Anne, I did not ask you here just to talk about my marriage,” he said at length, and surprised her by sliding down on one knee before her. “You have said that you will not give yourself to me, and I respect that. But when I am free, will you marry me?”

  This was the last thing she had expected, and it threw her utterly. When Henry had spoken of remarrying, she had assumed that he meant some foreign princess who could bring him political advantages and a large dowry. Kings did not marry the likes of her, who had neither.

  He was looking up at her yearningly, tears in his eyes. “Maybe I should not have spoken at this time, since I am not yet free, but Anne, I love you truly, I am mad for you, and I can think of no woman I would rather marry.” He seized her hands and kissed them. “Tell me I may hope!”

  “I am not worthy,” she said, unable to grasp the enormity of what they were discussing. “I am a commoner.”

  “You have the soul of an angel and a spirit worthy of a crown,” Henry enthused, rising back into his seat and taking her hands. “None could deny it. My own grandmother was a commoner. My grandfather, King Edward, married her for love. There was a lot of fuss, of course. The nobility resented her, and said she was not worthy, but she proved a good queen—as you will, my darling, I have no doubt of it. You are not of ordinary clay.”

  Anne’s heart was pounding furiously as the realization dawned that Henry really did want to make her queen, and that it was not such an outrageous proposition as she imagined.

  “Besides,” he said, grinning, “it seems that the only way I can win you is by marrying you.”

  A thought struck her. “Sir, these doubts you have—they are not on account of me, I trust?”

  “No, Anne. I have asked myself that. But had I never met or loved you, I would still have them, and still be wanting an annulment. I have to provide for the succession. It is my duty as king.”

  She still could not think clearly. Was she dreaming this? But no, here was Henry, big and ardent, his hands warm on hers.

  They were becoming clearer now, the implications of marrying the King. Every material thing she wanted would be hers. The advantages to her family would be immeasurable. The Boleyns would be the highest family in the land. Seeing Father’s reaction alone would be worth accepting Henry’s proposal! Her children and descendants would rule England…

  But she would have to take the man with the king. She had never wished in her heart to choose him, and still did not want him in that way. She was not in love with him, and she knew there would be less freedom in marriage to him than with a lesser man who was more agreeable to her. Marrying the King would set them both on a controversial course, and there were sure to be obstacles to be overcome. But her pride was welling up—pride in herself and in her family. A Percy had considered her worthy, and Plantagenet blood ran in her veins. Why should she not aspire to a crown?

  A distant bell struck, and she heard the watchman’s cry: “One o’clock and all’s well!”

  “It’s late, sir,” she said. “I must go to bed. I beg you, do not think me insensible of the high honor you do me in asking me to be your wife and Queen. In truth, my mind cannot quite compass it. I pray you, grant me time in which to consider, for this is not a matter to be undertaken lightly.”

  “Take all the time you need, sweetheart,” Henry murmured, and drew her into his arms, pressing his lips on hers. This time she did not resist.

  —

  Anne realized that she would have no peace from Henry if she remained at court, so she asked the Queen for permission to absent herself, pleading illness again, and rode home with her mother to Hever. In her hand she clutched a folded piece of paper that an anguished Henry had pressed into her palm before she left. On it, he had written:

  O my heart, and O my heart,

  My heart it is so sore,

  Since I must needs from my love depart,

  And know no cause wherefore.

  Hot on her heels came a letter begging her to return. It plunged her into perplexity. All she had to say was yes, and the riches of the kingdom would be hers, and the power. But could she take the man as well as the crown? More importantly, could she betray the good mistress who had never shown her anything but kindness? Katherine was greatly loved, and of royal birth; Anne would be widely condemned for supplanting her. And in the face of opposition, would Henry hold true to her, or would he bend like a reed in the storm?

  She did not have to say yes. She had said no so often that it had become a habit, and she no longer feared Henry’s reaction. But he was going to seek an annulment anyway, and if he took another wife, why should it not be her?

  She thought about the strong women who had influenced her. The Regent had used her power wisely, and it came to Anne that, if she became queen, she might be able to use hers for the good of others, as well as for herself and her family. She might be able to introduce more enlightened religious beliefs into England, and show by example that women could wield power for the common good.

  It was too great a decision to make under pressure, yet she did not want Henry to be offended by her failure to leap at the glorious future he had offered her. She must impress on him that she really did need time to think.

  An idea came to her. Taking Mrs. Orchard and a groom, she rode into Tonbridge, the nearest town, and paid a visit to a goldsmith who had made various pieces for her parents.

  “I want a jewel, in solid gold, fashioned as a solitary damsel in a ship tossed by a tempest. Could you do that?” she asked, as Mrs. Orchard eyed her suspiciously. The nurse knew of old when Anne was hiding something, and had fished continuously to find out what it was.

  “It is for an admirer,” Anne teased her.

  “That’s a fine sum to be paying out, when he should be the one giving presents!” Mrs. Orchard sniffed.

  The goldsmith, however, was delighted with the commission, and a week later an exquisite brooch, exactly as Anne had envisaged, was delivered to Hever. She sent it to Henry with an affectionate note, hoping he would understand the allusion to her predicament: how she was tossed in turmoil on troubled waters, fearing that she might be overcome by the tempest and praying that her boat would take a safe course.

  The jewel provoked a passionate reaction from Henry, reassuring her that henceforth his heart would be dedicated to her alone, and desiring fervently that his body could be as well. “God can bring it to pass if it
pleases Him,” he declared, adding that he was entreating the Almighty every day to bring that about. “I wish the time short until we shall see each other again,” he ended, signing himself “the secretary who in heart, body, and will is your loyal and most assured servant. H. autre ne cherche R.”

  Henry the King seeks no other. And around Anne’s initials the King had drawn a heart.

  It was that little symbol that made her mind up. It struck a chord in her own heart, and made her believe that, yes, in time she might come to love him, even if it was not the kind of passionate love that she had tasted so briefly. In the meantime, she would settle for power instead. It was as great an aphrodisiac as Norris’s dazzling smile. She knew now that she very much wanted to be queen.

  She wrote to Henry in humble and loving vein: she would be honored to accept his proposal of marriage.

  —

  The first response she had was a letter from Father. “I have received the most joyful and unexpected news, from the King himself!” he wrote. “Nothing could have been more welcome to me!” Anne knew what this would mean to Father. He was an ambitious man, but even he had never dreamed of such advancement. The prospect of being father of the next Queen of England and, God willing, grandsire to a future monarch would bring him and his family more wealth, power, fame, and honor than he had ever craved.

  Anne knocked at her mother’s door, took a deep breath, and opened it. This would be the first time she spoke her news out loud, and doing that would make it feel more real.

  “Mother,” she ventured. Elizabeth Howard was sitting on the bed, sorting her embroidery silks. She looked up.

  “Yes?”

  Anne grasped her hands. “Mother, I have wonderful news, but before I say anything, you must swear to keep it a secret for now.”

 
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