Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession by Alison Weir


  The headache was becoming more oppressive, and there was a niggling pain near her heart. And then, suddenly, she was pouring with sweat, and knew what ailed her.

  She cried out, again and again, and there was Mother, fearlessly wrapping her in blankets.

  “You have to sweat it out, Anne,” she exhorted. Out in the gallery, Mary was wailing about her children. But all Anne could think of was that she was going to die, very soon, and die a virgin, without ever knowing the joy of love’s consummation.

  Half an hour later, she could not have cared.

  —

  Through her delirium, she heard voices.

  “The King must be informed!”

  “Should we call the chaplain?”

  “Oh, my poor, poor child!”

  They came to her through a feverish haze, in which she convulsed in violent sweats. Her whole body seemed to be in pain, and the worst of it was an intense feeling of agitation. Consciousness came and went, and when she did wake, her thoughts were in turmoil. She was aware that she had the sweat, and could remember hearing someone say that a sufferer could be merry at dinner and dead at supper, and that only those who survived the first twenty-four hours could hope to live. Terrified, she tried to prepare for death.

  But God was not ready for her. In the night, her fever subsided and the sweating eased. At dawn, she awoke to find Mother sitting beside her, telling her rosary beads.

  “Praise be to God, you are better!” she cried, as Anne stretched out a hand to her. Mother’s cheeks were smeared with tears and there were dark circles under her eyes.

  “I have been up all night watching,” she told Anne. “Your father also has the sweat, but not so badly. He will recover.” She sagged, exhausted, in her chair.

  “That’s a relief,” Anne murmured, too weak to say much. “The King…”

  “We sent to inform him that you were ill. Before I go and lie down, I must send another letter to say you are restored to us.” Elizabeth Howard caressed Anne’s cheek. “I am so very thankful to see you looking yourself again. I was in terror, fearing we would lose you.”

  Anne laid her hand over her mother’s. “God, I think, has spared me for a reason.”

  —

  Having sent the maids scurrying to change Anne’s sheets, sponge her down, and put on a clean night rail, Mother was fast asleep when the King’s own physician, Dr. Butts, arrived an hour later. It was Mary who sanctioned his admittance to the castle, the drawbridge having been raised to stop the sweat from spreading, and showed him up to Anne’s room.

  “Mistress Anne, I rejoice to find you so much better,” Butts greeted her. She had met him before and admired his urbane, reassuring manner and his great learning. He asked her several questions about her illness, then smiled. “You need no medicine, Mistress Anne, but I have brought you a tonic.” And he handed her a letter bearing the royal seal.

  “I will examine my lord your father,” he said, and discreetly withdrew.

  Weakly, Anne tore open the letter. Henry had written in a frenzy. The sudden news had been the worst he could have received. It had shocked him to hear that the sweat had visited the person he esteemed more than all the world, whose health he desired as much as his own. He would willingly have borne half of her malady to have her healed. She had to smile at that. Half! It was typical of Henry to shy away even figuratively from illness.

  Frantic, he had wanted to send Dr. Chambers, his chief physician, but Chambers had been away, tending to the sick. Fortunately Dr. Butts had been at hand. If he restored Anne to health, Henry would hold him even more closely in his affection. She must be governed by Butts’s advice in all things, and then he could trust to see her again, which would be to him a more sovereign remedy than all the precious stones in the world. He had once more drawn a heart around her initials, writing them between his own at the end.

  —

  Father and Anne were out of bed and resting in the parlor when the news came that Will Carey had died of the sweat. The end had come with deadly swiftness; he had ailed only three hours before.

  Mary was inconsolable. “He was only thirty-two!” she wailed. “What will I do now? Where will I go?”

  Anne suspected that Mary’s grief was more for herself and the lost prospect of a brilliant future than for the man she had married. She wondered if her sister had truly loved Will. They had got on well—it was as much as could be said for many marriages. She felt deeply saddened herself, for she had liked her brother-in-law.

  A friend of Will’s wrote to Mary. He had been with her husband at the end, and recounted how, at the last, Will had begged Cardinal Wolsey to look with favor on his sister, Dame Eleanor. Never mind Wolsey! Anne thought. I will see that his wish is honored.

  The weeks of her convalescence passed, and soon she was her old self again. Yet still she lingered at Hever, for it was high summer, the sweat was still raging, and the King was always on the move—and no doubt Katherine was doing her best to make him forget about a divorce. But Anne knew from his loving letters that that would never happen.

  It was soon clear that Will’s death had left Mary destitute and in debt. The lands granted to him by the King had passed to Will’s son, Henry, a stolid, defiant three-year-old, who was forever rampaging around the castle on his hobby horse, wielding a wooden sword, much to his grandfather’s annoyance. William’s offices, with their income, had reverted to the King.

  “I have nowhere to live!” Mary wept. “Will’s lodging at court has been assigned to someone else. Maybe,” she looked hopefully at Father, sniffing loudly, “I could remain here.”

  “No,” he said. “Your place is with your husband’s family. I gave Will a handsome enough dowry.”

  “But I have nothing left from my marriage settlement, and Will died intestate. You know that, Father!”

  But he was implacable, and all the more testy because of his recent illness. “My responsibility toward you, daughter, ended when I gave you to William Carey! You can’t stay here. His parents should support you, and I suggest that you write to them without delay and make arrangements to travel down to—where is it?—Wiltshire.”

  Mary rocked in misery. “But I don’t want to live in Wiltshire—and I hardly know them!”

  Anne put an arm around her. “Father, you are being rather harsh,” she reproved. “Don’t you think so, Mother?”

  Mother looked up from her sewing. “Your father is right,” she muttered. “Mary cannot stay here.” Anne was surprised at her reaction. It seemed that she was as unsympathetic as Father.

  “Do as you’re told, Mary, and write that letter,” Father barked.

  Mary stumbled off, sobbing, to her chamber. It struck Anne that Father’s affection for his children lasted only as long as they were useful to him. Mary was poor and nearing thirty. She would find it hard to secure a worthy husband, and could end up being at Father’s charge for good. But however annoying and pathetic Mary could be, she was his daughter. And with that thought, Anne rose and hurried up to her chamber to write to Henry.

  —

  Two days later there arrived at Hever a royal messenger with a great haunch of venison, a gift from the King. There was a letter too.

  “The cause of my writing at this time, good sweetheart,” Anne read, “is to ask after your good health and prosperity, praying God, if it be His pleasure, to bring us together soon, for I promise you I long for it. And seeing my darling is absent, I am sending you some flesh, representing my name—hart’s flesh for Henry—anticipating that soon, God willing, you will enjoy some of mine, which I would were now.” Anne shook her head, smiling at his boldness. And then she was filled with gratitude toward him, because he had instructed his secretary to write to Father informing him of his opinion of his treatment of Mary. “For surely,” Henry had written, “it cannot stand with his honor, but that he must take in his natural daughter in her extreme necessity. No more to you at this time, my own darling, although I wish we were together of an evening. With
the hand of yours, H.R.”

  When he read the secretary’s letter, Father’s face turned a dangerous shade of red, and he glared at Anne, it being obvious who was behind this. But he knew himself bested. With very poor grace, he told Mary that he had reconsidered and, out of pity, would let her stay at Hever. Mary flung her arms around him and thanked him profusely, but he was cold, pushing her away, and Anne began to realize that Mary might have done better with the Careys, for it would be like a penance living in a house where she was not welcome.

  Again Anne wrote to Henry, explaining Mary’s unhappy situation. By return, he agreed to pay Mary the substantial annuity of £100 that had formerly been paid to Will Carey.

  Mary’s face, when she heard, was transformed. No longer was she the grieving widow: she was a woman of means.

  She rounded on her parents, and even on Anne. “You all said I came out of it with nothing! That I let the King use me and asked for nothing in return! But he has not forgotten me! He had no obligation to assign that allowance to me. But he remembers that he has a daughter. This is for her—and for me, and little Harry. It will afford us a comfortable income, and will spare us from living here in bondage!”

  “It’s thanks to me that you have that allowance,” Anne pointed out, hurt.

  “You live here only because the King commands it!” Father snarled. “Being at charge for you was not my chief objection to your staying. Do you not realize that you are a living reminder of something this family would prefer to forget? That there are many out to destroy your sister, looking for ways to do so, and if they got one hint that you had bedded with the King, or one glimpse of the child that is him to the life, they would use it against her. Having you out of sight in Wiltshire would have been the best solution.” He turned to Anne. “And you, my fine lady, would have done better not to have meddled.”

  “I did what I thought was right,” Anne countered. “And so did His Grace! Will you question his wisdom?”

  Father threw her a look that told her exactly what he thought of His Grace’s wisdom, but he said no more, and presently life at Hever returned to a semblance of normality. That was disrupted when the King informed Anne that he had granted her the wardship of young Henry Carey.

  “But he is my son!” Mary shouted. “Isn’t the King enough for you?”

  “I did not ask for this!” Anne cried.

  “Quiet, both of you!” Father growled. “Mary, you ought to know that when the heir to landed estates is left fatherless, he becomes a ward of the King, and the King can grant that wardship to anyone he pleases. In this case His Grace has made a wise choice, for Anne is high in favor and can secure great advantages for the boy.”

  “But he’s my child!” Mary protested. “She shall not have him!”

  “I won’t take him away,” Anne hastened to assure her. “He can stay with you and all will be as it was before. When he is older, I will find him good tutors, so that he will be well educated. You cannot object to that. Look upon me as a kind of godmother, who will always have a care for his interests.”

  Mary subsided. “You will consult me in everything?”

  “I will,” Anne promised.

  —

  She did not really want the responsibility of her nephew. She was more preoccupied with the election at Wilton Abbey, and ready to take up the cudgels on behalf of Eleanor Carey. At the very least, it showed Mary that she had the Carey family interests at heart, and indeed Mary softened toward her when she saw how determined Anne was to honor Will’s dying wish.

  But Wolsey, damn him, had got there before her. Henry wrote to say that the Cardinal had sent a commissioner to Wilton to examine the candidates to assess their suitability for the office of abbess. Dame Eleanor had confessed to having had two children by different priests; she even admitted she had recently left her convent for a time to live in sin with a servant of Lord Willoughby. Anne was horrified, for these revelations would surely reflect on her own reputation. How her enemies would love pointing the finger, jeering that she had pressed for the election of a whore. Wolsey must be laughing.

  Henry, thank God, was being reasonable. To do Anne pleasure—for he knew very well that she would not brook Wolsey’s candidate winning the election—he had commanded that neither Eleanor Carey nor Isabel Jordan should be abbess. “I would not, for all the gold in the world, clog your conscience or mine to make Dame Eleanor ruler of that house.” Instead, he had decreed that the office should go to someone of good character. She would not argue with that. She wondered if Will had known that his sister had led such an immoral life.

  The sweating sickness was slowly abating. Henry told Anne she should judge whether the air at Hever was best for her, but he hoped it would not be long before he saw her again.

  Anne thought she should leave it a little longer before returning to court. She still tired easily in the wake of her illness, and did not feel up to battling off Henry’s advances.

  She was furious to hear from him that the Cardinal had taken it upon himself to force the election of Dame Isabel Jordan. Henry had spoken severely to Wolsey about his presumption, and Anne could well imagine how scorching that reprimand had been. The Cardinal had made a groveling apology, and the very next day there arrived at Hever a letter begging forgiveness and a rich gift of jewels for Anne. The election was declared null, and the matter left in abeyance. She had won!

  1528

  The King had returned to Greenwich, for the sweat had died down. George, now back at court, appeared at Hever, bursting with news.

  “I am appointed a gentleman of the Privy Chamber!” he announced. Anne and Mother hugged him, and Father clapped him on the back. “You have done well to rise so high at only twenty-five, my son,” he said.

  “The King has asked me to give you this, Anne”—George handed her a letter—“and to warn you that there is much gossip about you.”

  Anne broke the seal. “Darling,” she read, “I am not a little perplexed with such things as your brother shall tell you, and I pray you give him full credence. That I trusted shortly to see you is better known in London than it is here at court, whereof I marvel. Someone has been indiscreet, but I trust that in future our meetings shall not depend upon other men’s light handling. Written with the hand of him that longs to be yours, H.R.”

  She shrugged. “I suppose such gossip is only to be expected. With the legate coming from Rome, there is bound to be talk.”

  That night, after an enormous celebratory dinner, Anne and George sat up in the parlor catching up on their news.

  “How is Jane?” Anne asked.

  “She is enjoying being back at court,” George said. She could sense his evasion.

  “How are you and Jane?” she persisted. She had long known that theirs was not a happy marriage.

  “We see as little of each other as possible,” George admitted, his expression darkening. “If you want the truth, we cordially hate each other—and sometimes not even cordially.”

  “But why? She’s comely enough.”

  “Her beauty is only skin deep. Anne, she was brought up without any bridle. Her father seems to have been so immersed in his books that he neglected to instill in her the importance of virtue. She has betrayed me with several men, following her lust and filthy pleasure, without any wifely loyalty.”

  Anne was shocked. “She has actually committed adultery?”

  George snorted, his handsome features twisted in contempt. “Yes, if you want it plain! She dreads neither God nor falling from grace. Her behavior is vicious.” He downed the dregs of his wine and helped himself to more. “But I am as much to blame, I and my great appetite for women. Believe me, Anne, I have not been chaste.”

  “The whole court knows that,” she said gently.

  “They don’t know it all,” he muttered.

  “What are you trying to tell me?”

  George looked stricken. Long moments passed before he spoke. “Anne, I am consumed with guilt. I must talk to someone, and yo
u’re the only person I can trust—and yet if I tell you what torments me, you will hate me.”

  “I could never hate you,” Anne declared. “Tell me!”

  He hesitated, not looking her in the eye. “It’s as if I want to devour women; it’s all I think about, day and night. I’m out of control, and powerless to change. I’ve—I’ve even forced widows and deflowered maidens. They are all one to me.” His voice was strangled.

  Anne was shaken to the core. Her own brother, whom she loved like a second self, was confessing to rape, the crime she most abhorred—it was beyond comprehension. No wonder Jane had looked elsewhere!

  “You should have more control!” she hissed at him, leaping up and slapping his face hard. “Have you no respect for women?”

  “I can’t help it.” George looked utterly wretched. His cheek was red from the slap. “It’s my nature, and sometimes I hate myself for it. But I can’t love Jane anyway. There’s a rottenness in her. She…she wanted to watch me with one of my paramours.”

  “By all the saints!” Anne cried. “What’s the matter with you both? George, these excesses won’t do you any good. Do you want to get the pox? You should look to your wife, and put an end to her misconduct. Stop forcing yourself on other women! I can think of few worse things a man can do. Have you any idea of the hurt and damage it does? Look at Mary, our sister!”

  George hung his head. “I will try, Anne. Honestly I will.”

  He held out his hand, but she would not take it.

 
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