Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession by Alison Weir


  “What is it?” Mother stood up, the silks abandoned.

  “The King is to be divorced. He has asked me to be his next Queen, and I have accepted.”

  Mother gasped then cried out in amazement and hugged her fiercely.

  “I can’t believe it!” she said, again and again. “My daughter—the Queen of England! Does your father know?”

  “He does. The King told him, and he is overjoyed. Mother, your grandson will be a king! Think of it! And George will be thrilled!” She paused. “I’m not sure how Mary will take it.” Thankfully Mary was at court, so she would not have to confront that problem immediately. She remembered that moment of jealousy when she first confided in her sister about the King’s advances. Always they had competed with each other, and now Mary could never hope to match her great good fortune.

  “What happens now?” Mother asked excitedly, pouring them some wine to celebrate.

  Anne explained that the King was taking immediate steps to procure an annulment of his marriage.

  “Discretion is the order of the day,” she added, “so I shall stay here for a while. Hopefully a decision will be given soon.”

  “I shall pray for it,” Mother said, “although I do feel sorry for the poor Queen. She is blameless in all this. It will come hard to her.”

  “The King will provide handsomely for her, I am sure,” Anne said, feeling guilty about Katherine. But, she reminded herself, this was not her fault. No one could help it if the Queen’s marriage wasn’t valid, or that the King had a duty to assure the succession: unfair as it was, it was something that Katherine would have to accept.

  Suddenly there was a frantic knock on the parlor door and the steward burst in without waiting for a response. “My lady—the King is here! He’s just riding down the hill!”

  As her mother leapt up, screaming at the man to go and welcome him, and to bring more wine, and order the cook to bestir himself to make a good dinner—and not to forget the best silver—Anne jumped to her feet, aware that she was wearing only an old green gown, and had not even bound up her hair. Quickly, her heart pounding, she smoothed her skirts, dragged a comb through her long locks, and sped through the entrance hall into the courtyard. Through the gatehouse arch she could see the King, garbed in his riding clothes and boots, already clattering across the drawbridge, with just four mounted gentlemen and four Yeomen of the Guard in attendance. The steward was bowing low, and Mother was curtseying behind him.

  The King dismounted and raised her.

  “Greetings, Lady Boleyn! We were hunting in the neighborhood—I’m staying over at Penshurst—and I thought it would be pleasant to pay you a visit.”

  “We are truly honored, your Grace, but I fear that, not expecting you, we have little to offer in the way of hospitality.”

  “No matter!” Henry beamed. “Some light refreshment and a walk around these glorious gardens would please me mightily. It will be good to be among friends and free for a short time from the cares of state.”

  His eyes were drawn to Anne, waiting by the castle entrance, and in them, as she made her obeisance, she could read only jubilation.

  “Darling!” he cried, striding forward, raising her up and kissing her on the mouth. “It does my heart good to see you. I trust you are in health?”

  “I am very well, your Grace,” she said, aware of him eyeing the plain gown, and Mother staring at them. “Forgive our lack of ceremony.”

  “You look charming,” he murmured as they entered the castle and Anne led Henry and his companions to the parlor, where a fresh ewer of wine was already waiting.

  “You will stay to dine, sir?” Mother fluttered.

  “I will not trouble you, Lady Boleyn, but thank you.” He accepted the goblet of wine.

  “The Queen is looking forward to your return,” he said to Anne, looking at her hopefully.

  “That is most gracious of her,” she replied. “Please do me the service of telling her that my trouble is a little amended. I will return to court as soon as I am able.”

  There was a silence.

  “Your Grace, Anne must have the honor of showing you the gardens,” Mother said.

  Henry drained his goblet. “That would be most pleasant.”

  “I will summon Mrs. Orchard,” Anne said.

  They walked out into the warm May air, past the Yeomen of the Guard, who had stationed themselves outside the gatehouse. One left his post and followed them at a discreet distance, keeping step with an agog Mrs. Orchard, who definitely was putting two and two together and coming up with an enormous sum.

  As soon as they were out of earshot of anyone, Henry turned to Anne.

  “Your letter made me weep. I had not felt so joyful in all my life. Thank you, my own darling, for making me the happiest of men.” He seized her hand and kissed it, then tucked it under his arm.

  They walked along the banks of the Eden, and then Anne led Henry to her favorite spot in the meadow, where they sat on the grass.

  “It’s at times like these that I wish I wasn’t a king, but a simple country gentleman,” Henry mused, chewing on a stalk. “This, not the vanities of my court, is the real England.”

  “You would miss it, sir,” Anne teased. “It can be very boring here. Trust me, I know.”

  “Then come to court and be with me.”

  “I should not—not right now.” She paused. “Is there any news?”

  Henry grinned. “Yes, sweetheart. Things are moving. In his capacity as Papal legate, the Cardinal has secretly convened an ecclesiastical court at Westminster. Archbishop Warham is presiding, and we’ve assembled a host of bishops and canon lawyers. I was summoned last week, and asked to account for having knowingly taken to wife my brother’s widow. I admitted the charge, confessed my doubts of conscience, and asked for a decision to be given on my case. I should hear soon. And then, dearest Anne, we can be married!”

  She hoped his optimism was justified. She did not dare let her excitement run away with her. But in a few short weeks she might be queen! She could see herself seated in Westminster Abbey, feel the weight of the crown on her head. The prospect was an exhilarating one, and still not quite believable.

  “I am glad to hear that the Cardinal supports your Grace.”

  “He does now.”

  “What do you mean, sir?”

  Henry’s eyes narrowed. “When I first told him that I wanted an annulment, and asked for his wise opinion in the matter, he fell to his knees and tried every persuasion to the contrary.”

  Anne drew in her breath. Wolsey again, trying to ruin her future as he had ruined it before!

  “But I talked to him,” Henry assured her. “He is of a different opinion now.”

  She fervently hoped so. She would not let that butcher’s dog stand in the way of her advancement. But if he secured a divorce for Henry, she would forgive him all.

  “Has your Grace spoken to the Queen?”

  “Not yet,” Henry replied. “I am awaiting the outcome of this hearing.” She sensed he was reluctant to broach the matter with Katherine.

  “I will pray for a good outcome,” she said.

  “You have no idea how hard I have been praying,” Henry told her. “I long for the time when we can be together—really together.” He leaned forward, cupped her chin in his hands, and kissed her long and lovingly.

  “We should go back,” she said, breaking away and getting to her feet, then remembering to whom she was speaking. “That is, if your Grace pleases.”

  “It does not please me, Anne. Having to leave you is sheer torment. But you are right. Let us return to your mother. She will be wondering what has happened to us.”

  “I think she might have guessed!” Anne laughed.

  —

  Henry’s letters all spoke of his pain at being parted from her, and they were beautiful and moving—the kind of letters a woman would cherish, were she in love with the sender. Anne read them dispassionately, pleased that she could inspire such devotion in a m
an so powerful, but they only made her wonder how she would find ways to keep his passion alive. A man might stand only so much elusiveness before he stopped coming back for more.

  But then there arrived a letter that reassured her.

  “My mistress and my friend,” Henry had written, “I and my heart commit ourselves into your hands, beseeching you to hold us in your good favor, and that your affection may not be by absence diminished. The longer the days are, the farther off is the sun, and the hotter; so it is with our love, for we are far apart, yet it nevertheless keeps its fervency, at least on my part, hoping that it does on yours. Your absence would be intolerable to me, were it not for the firm hope that I have of your ever-enduring affection.” And to put her in mind of him, he had enclosed his picture set in a bracelet. “I am wishing myself in their place, when it should please you,” he ended, and signed himself her loyal servant and friend.

  The siege had been raised. It was the first letter in which he had not begged her to be his. It was suddenly clear that her consenting to marry him had wrought a great change in their relations. Of course! If she was going to be his Queen, she must not be tainted by any breath of scandal, nor risk an illicit pregnancy. So he was keeping his promise to respect her honor and wait until he could lawfully enjoy her. From now on, it would not be her who had the power to bring to fruition all Henry’s desires: that lay with God—and the men gathered at Westminster.

  —

  Henry’s next letter was despondent. The commissioners had said that they were not competent to judge his case. He had therefore consulted his Privy Council, who had agreed that there was good cause for scruple and advised him to approach the Pope for a decision on his marriage.

  Anne’s shoulders sagged in disappointment when she read this. Applying to Rome would surely take months, even if the Pope was willing speedily to oblige the King.

  Far worse news followed. Early in June, Henry wrote to say that Rome had been savagely sacked by mercenary troops of the Emperor, who was then campaigning elsewhere in Italy. Lacking a commander, they had surged unchecked into the city and unleashed an orgy of violence and murder that had raged for days.

  “I will not upset you with details of their atrocities,” Henry wrote, “for they were unspeakable. Those brutes even desecrated St. Peter’s itself.” The Pope had been forced to take refuge in the Castel Sant’Angelo, and was now a virtual prisoner of the Emperor Charles, Queen Katherine’s nephew, who was willing to exploit a situation that had delivered the Holy Father into his “protection.” And that, Anne realized, her spirits plummeting, meant that, for the present, a favorable decision on Henry’s case was as unlikely to be forthcoming as a man flying to the moon, especially if the Emperor learned that he wanted to marry her. She remembered him as an insufferable youth who had hated her for her presumption.

  She felt helpless, and when George, now the King’s cup-bearer, came home for a brief visit later that month, she poured out her frustration.

  “Couldn’t the Cardinal, as Papal legate, just declare the marriage invalid?” she cried.

  George shook his head. “Father says the Emperor is all-powerful. If provoked—and Wolsey dissolving the marriage on his own authority might be seen as provocation—Charles might declare war. No, dear sister, there is nothing for it but to have patience.”

  “Maybe I should return to court.”

  “I would not advise it right now. The King’s ‘Great Matter’—as they are calling it—is now as notorious as if it had been proclaimed by the town crier. His Grace had to command the Lord Mayor of London to order the people to cease spreading rumors, on pain of his high displeasure, but it won’t stop them. Father said the clamor has reached such a pitch that the Cardinal felt it prudent to inform all our ambassadors of the truth.”

  “Is my name being spoken?” Anne asked, alarmed. It was not meant to happen this way. She had anticipated a speedy, amicable divorce followed by a joyous wedding.

  “Not yet.” Brother and sister stared at each other, knowing that it soon would be.

  “Does Mary know that the King wants to marry me?”

  George grimaced. “Yes. Father told her.”

  “I can tell from your reaction that she was not best pleased.”

  George shrugged. “She doesn’t want the King. She just can’t bear the idea of your being queen!”

  “She’s the least of my worries. I can’t be dealing with her jealousy at this time.”

  Anne could not settle to anything, she was so agitated. Her mother tried to calm her, assuring her that all would be well in the end.

  “But you don’t know that!” she flared.

  “No, but I trust in the goodness of God,” Mother declared. “Now stop this fretting and help me in my still room.”

  —

  At the end of June, Henry rode down from Greenwich Palace. Anne was relieved to lay eyes on his small cavalcade approaching, delighted to see him for once. He must have news!

  “Your brother told me that you were disconsolate, darling,” he said, embracing her tenderly after her mother had left them alone together in the parlor. “You must not worry. The situation in Italy is volatile and could change at any moment. I put my trust in his Holiness. I have been a good son of the Church.”

  Anne had hoped for something more tangible, but she forced a smile. “I know. I have read your Grace’s book defending the sacraments that Martin Luther denied.”

  “Indeed?” He looked pleased. “The Pope was so grateful, he conferred on me the title Defender of the Faith. So I am hopeful that he will look favorably on my suit.”

  He sat down and accepted one of the little marmalade cakes Anne offered. “Quince is my favorite,” he told her appreciatively, pulling her to him and kissing her hungrily. “Anne, you will be mine and you will be queen, never doubt it!”

  She kissed him back, then disengaged herself. Henry let her go reluctantly. His eyes alighted on her illuminated prayer book on the table.

  “This is beautiful,” he remarked, turning the pages until he came upon a vivid picture of Christ, the Man of Sorrow, pierced with wounds and crowned with thorns.

  “Darling, I meant what I just said.” And he reached for her pen, dipped it in the ink pot, and bent to the page. “If your remembrance be according to my affection, I shall not be forgotten in your daily prayers, for I am yours, Henry R., forever,” he wrote.

  She could do no less. Taking the pen from him, she added her own inscription at the bottom of the opposite leaf: “By daily proof you shall me find to be to you both loving and kind.”

  “Anne!” Henry murmured, his voice thick with desire. “You are the sweetest, loveliest mistress, and I am blessed indeed!”

  —

  No sooner had the King departed for Greenwich than Father came home, bringing with him Uncle Norfolk. As Mother flapped off to stir the servants to preparing a fine repast, the Duke took Father’s chair at the head of the parlor table and fixed his gimlet gaze on Anne.

  “Niece, we have reason to believe that the Cardinal is not to be trusted. He does the King’s bidding in this Great Matter, but his heart is not in it. Even if the King’s suit is successful, Wolsey means to marry him to a French princess.”

  “He would not presume so far!” Anne cried.

  “He has been presuming thus far for years,” Father said, grim-faced. “He runs this kingdom.”

  “While we, the nobility, who should be the King’s natural counselors, are kept from enjoying the power that should be ours by right of birth,” Uncle Norfolk growled. “I’ve always said it—this upstart butcher’s whelp is a pernicious influence.”

  Father nodded. “When I was made Lord Rochford, I was forced to resign my post as treasurer without any financial compensation. I blame Wolsey. He hates our family. He sees us as a threat, and will do anything he can to bring us down.”

  “I have no cause to love him either,” Anne said. “I cannot forgive his breaking my precontract with Harry Percy. And he had th
e gall to call me a foolish girl in front of his household. It was doubly an insult, coming from one so lowborn.”

  “He will soon have cause to regret it,” Norfolk assured her. “We have long been searching for a means to deprive him of the King’s favor, and we are here today to ask for your help.” He leaned forward, steepling his hands on the table. “Seeing the great affection that the King bears you, and the influence you enjoy, you would be the perfect instrument to help us topple the Cardinal. What say you?”

  Anne did not hesitate. “I am ready!” she declared. “The King would be far better off ruling this realm, and securing a divorce, without the interference of Wolsey.” That long-ago insult still rankled. Revenge would be sweet.

  —

  Later, over supper, which Mother caused to be served with much ceremony in the great hall, Father revealed that he and Uncle Norfolk, with many nobles and lords of the Council, had been urging the King to send the Cardinal to France to enlist the support of King François.

  “The French King might be willing to persuade the Pope to extend Wolsey’s legatine powers, which would enable him to adjudicate on the King’s case,” he said, spearing some beef on his fork. “But our intent and purpose is to get Wolsey out of the way, so that we might have leisure to undermine him in the King’s eyes in his absence.”

  “What we want you to do is persuade the King to send the Cardinal to France,” Norfolk added. “Can you do that?”

  “I can, and I will,” she said.

  That very night, she wrote to Henry. Soon afterward he informed her that Wolsey had departed for France. It was time to go back to court.

  —

  Anne found Greenwich buzzing with gossip and speculation about the Great Matter.

  The Queen welcomed her warmly, asking after her health and saying how glad she was to see her. She was so kind, so solicitous, that Anne was again stirred by guilt, knowing what would soon befall her gracious mistress. Katherine looked more drawn, more lined, than when she had seen her last. Did she know what was going on? Anne wondered.

 
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