Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession by Alison Weir

  When they had skirted the walls and ridden through the massive gateway of the Winketpoort, Anne saw that Mechlin was much like the other Netherlandish cities she had passed through, with its wide market square, tall houses, and magnificent churches. Presently they were clattering along the Korte Maagdenstraat and drawing to a halt before an imposing archway.

  “This is the Hof van Savoye, the palace of the Regent,” Sir John said, as the guards waved them through. Anne gasped. They were in a vast rectangular courtyard surrounded by splendid facades on all sides, mostly built in the ubiquitous red brick of the Netherlands; there were graceful open arcades at ground level, tall mullioned windows, and a steep pitched roof with dormer rooms.

  “The Regent is a great builder.” Sir John pointed to a wing covered in scaffolding and crawling with workmen. “It will be years before this place is finished.”

  “I love it!” Anne breathed. “I have never seen anything like it.”

  “You certainly wouldn’t in England,” Sir John agreed, as they dismounted.

  An officer wearing black and yellow livery was approaching. Sir John made the introductions and Anne was invited to follow the man, who would take her to her lodgings. It was time to bid farewell to Sir John and Mrs. Orchard. Anne was sorry that the moment of parting had come, for she had grown used to Sir John’s merry company and come to appreciate his care for her and his wide knowledge of the world. And while she found her nurse’s fussing irritating, she was fond of her.

  Sir John bowed and kissed her hand. “May God keep you, Mistress Anne, and send you joy.”

  Mrs. Orchard hugged her; there were tears in her eyes. “Take care, my little mistress,” she enjoined. Then they both mounted their horses, Sir John doffed his hat, and they disappeared through the gatehouse.

  “Come!” the man in livery said, in his heavily accented English. He led Anne into the palace, taking her through chambers of breathtaking magnificence. She gaped. Beside such splendor, Hever was a barn. She understood now why her father was so often away at court. She had never imagined great staircases like these, or galleries filled with such paintings, so lifelike and colorful. Gifted artists had brought Madonnas, saints, and angels to life so skillfully that it seemed they might step out of their frames and breathe.

  The filles d’honneur were accommodated in a dorter on the second floor, within the steep dormer roof. Save for Gerda, a little Dutch maid who had been assigned to attend her, it was empty when Anne arrived and she thankfully threw off her traveling cloak, sinking down on the bed with red woolen hangings that had been assigned her, one of eighteen that lined the long room end-to-end, like a series of wooden boxes. She had been told that she might rest awhile and unpack her clothes before someone came to present her to the Regent. But she was too excited to rest. As soon as her baggage had been delivered, she opened her chest and pulled out the yellow gown bordered with black silk, which had been made in the Regent’s colors, as a compliment. She had been longing for this moment.

  She bade Gerda unlace her traveling gown and help her strip down to her smock. Then she held up her arms so that the square-necked gown could be lifted over her head and laced up at the back. The feel of the silk was sensuous, and she loved the hanging sleeves, and the long court train that from now on would be obligatory. Her hair she left loose, falling to her hips. Now she was ready! She sat there fidgeting, waiting for the summons to her new mistress.


  The Archduchess Margaret of Austria, Dowager Duchess of Savoy and Regent of the Netherlands, was entirely unlike the beautiful princess gowned in cloth of gold and laden with jewels Anne had envisaged. As she rose from her curtsey, she was astonished to see that the chair of estate beneath the rich velvet canopy was occupied by a little woman in black swathed in a white widow’s wimple and chin barbe—and that this daughter of the mighty Emperor Maximilian had a face that could only be called homely, with unusually full lips and a heavy, pointed jaw.

  Those lips were smiling, however, and the next thing that struck Anne was the warmth the Regent exuded.

  “Welcome to my court, Mademoiselle Boleyn,” she said, speaking in French, and Anne did her best to reply in the same language, tripping over her tongue as she answered polite questions about her journey and whether she was comfortable in her lodging.

  “Admirable!” twinkled the Regent. “And I am honored by the colors of your pretty gown. But I think that Monsieur Semmonet will have his work cut out. It is he who will be teaching you how to speak French properly.” Anne blushed as Margaret indicated a middle-aged bearded gentleman in scholar’s robes, who bowed when he heard his name.

  “Consider my court your home, child,” the Regent went on, still smiling. “I hope I will treat you in such a way that you shall be quite satisfied with me. Now you may join your fellow filles d’honneur.”

  Touched and reassured by the warm welcome, Anne went to sit on the floor with the seventeen other fortunate young ladies—many from the greatest families in the land—who had been singled out for the high honor of serving at the court of Burgundy. They were all in their early teens, and all expensively dressed. Some smiled at her, some stared at her gown; a few—she felt—looked haughtily down their noses.

  In the dorter that night, they clustered around, gabbling excitedly and indicating that she open her chest and pull out her clothes for their inspection. Some, she was gratified to see, were impressed—others, to her dismay, dismissive.

  “C’est provinciale!” sneered a tall girl, fingering the crimson tissue, which had been cut in the English fashion.

  “Non, Marie, c’est jolie!” a blond maiden with rosy cheeks retorted, smiling at Anne. Marie shrugged.

  Soon they lost interest and began chattering in rapid French of things about which Anne knew nothing. She realized that, as the only English girl among them, she would always be a little set apart.

  Not that it bothered her too greatly, even in her first few days at Mechlin. There were other young ladies ready to be her friend besides the blond girl, whose name was Isabeau, and as she worked hard at her French under the vigilant tutelage of Monsieur Semmonet, and grew more fluent, communicating with her peers was easier and she became more accepted.

  The tutor—who seemed to have unlimited talents—also schooled Anne and the other filles d’honneur in deportment and dancing, and instructed them in manners and the art of conversation, a talent much encouraged by the Regent, who deemed it essential for anyone who wanted to succeed at her court. Every day Monsieur Semmonet would choose a different situation they might encounter, and they would act out their responses in the most courteous way. Anne found herself addressing imaginary princes and discoursing with them on music and painting and poetry. She could hardly imagine it happening.

  It was instructive to wait with the other filles d’honneur upon the Regent as she sat in council, kneeling unobtrusively in a group on the floor and trying to understand the commands and directives Margaret issued from her seat at the head of the table, or deciphering the advice given her by the worthy, solid men who deferred to her. Clearly they respected her wisdom and judgments. Anne was so keen to learn more about how a woman ruled that she redoubled her efforts to be proficient at French.

  After just a week, the Regent sent for her. “I have written to your father to tell him that I am delighted with you,” she said, “and to thank him for sending you to me. He could not have given me a present more welcome. I have told him that I find in you so fine a spirit, and such perfect courtesy for a young lady of your years, that I am more beholden to him for sending you than he can be to me for receiving you.”

  Anne exhaled in relief and happiness. She had feared she might be admonished for the many small mistakes she had made in trying to do and learn all that was expected of her. To see the Regent smiling so broadly and to be enfolded in her wholesome embrace was more than she could ever have hoped for. She sank to her knees, full of gratitude.

  “My pleasure is only to serve your Hig
hness,” she declared with fervor.

  How very fortunate she was, not only to be serving a kind and affectionate mistress, but also to have come to a court that led the rest of northern Christendom in manners, art, and learning.

  “This is a princely school and a place of high culture and advanced civilization,” Monsieur Semmonet told her and her fellow pupils. “All scholars are welcome here.” Anne soon discovered that the Regent, who was rarely without a book in her hand, was especially devoted to something called “the New Learning,” which meant the recently rediscovered texts of ancient Greece and Rome. There were ripples of excitement when the famous humanist scholar Erasmus visited Mechlin. Anne was privileged to be in attendance on the Regent that day, and she listened enthralled as this learned man with his ready wit and wise, sensitive face talked about his plan to make pure Latin and Greek translations of the Scriptures. She was stunned to realize that the Bible used in churches was not in its original form. How exciting it would be to read Erasmus’s translations and know the truth.

  More shocking was his attack on the extent of corruption within the Church, for at home Holy Mother Church was always spoken of with the greatest reverence. Yet to hear Erasmus talk was revelatory. As Anne listened to his passionate exposure of the degeneration of Rome, the avarice of priests, and the worldliness of the clergy, she began to see a great deal of truth in the great man’s criticisms.

  In the little leisure time she had, her newborn thirst for knowledge drew her to the Regent’s wondrous library, where she and her companions had been permitted the free run of the numerous manuscripts, missals, music books, and printed volumes. There were racy tales by Boccaccio, the delightful fables of Aesop, the blushingly erotic poems of Ovid, and heavy works of philosophy by Boethius and Aristotle, among many others. Anne’s favorites were the collections of verse expressing devotion and love. She read them avidly. It helped her to write better poems of her own.

  She was leafing through a brightly illuminated bestiary one day when her eye caught a pile of books at the other end of the table. The arms of the Regent were stamped on the tooled leather binding. Curious, she got up to see what they were, and discovered, to her astonishment, that they had been written by a woman. She had thought that only men wrote books. But this Christine de Pizan, who had lived over a hundred years ago, had been no milksop maid, and had had some pithy things to say about the way men treated women. Anne’s eyes widened when she read: “Not all men share the opinion that it is bad for women to be educated. But it is very true that many foolish men have claimed this because it displeased them that women knew more than they did.” She had never heard anyone voice such an opinion.

  She had been devouring the book for an hour when the Regent walked into the library. She smiled when she saw Anne, who had risen and sketched a hasty curtsey, and took the book from her.

  “Ah, Mademoiselle Boleyn. I see that you have discovered my favorite writer.”

  “Your Highness, what she writes is extraordinary.”

  “You think so?”

  “Madame, this Christine de Pizan would have laughed at my father’s insistence that men, by the natural law of things, are cleverer than women.” Anne took back the book and opened it at a passage she had marked with a ribbon. “ ‘Just as women’s bodies are softer than men’s, so their understanding is sharper,’ ” she read aloud. “ ‘If it were customary to send little girls to school and teach them the same subjects as are taught to boys, they would learn just as fully and would understand the subtleties of all arts and sciences. As for those who state that it is thanks to a woman, the Lady Eve, that man was expelled from paradise, my answer to them would be that man has gained far more through Mary than he ever lost through Eve.’ ”

  Margaret nodded sagely, opening another volume. “I like the passage where she asks, ‘How many women are there who, because of their husbands’ harshness, spend their weary lives in the bond of marriage in greater suffering than if they were slaves among the Saracens?’ Not that my poor late husband was cut of that cloth. But most astonishing of all are her views on female rulers. ‘The wives of powerful noblemen must be highly knowledgeable about government, and wise—in fact, far wiser than most other such women in power. The knowledge of a noblewoman must be so comprehensive that she can understand everything. Moreover, she must have the courage of a man.’ ”

  No wonder the Regent favored Christine de Pizan’s works. They were something that every woman of rank should read—and heed. Was it possible that women really could be the equals of men?


  Anne was at her happiest when she was in the company of the Regent, who was so approachable that she found herself asking Margaret for her views on women, the Bible, and a hundred other things she had learned about in this exciting new world. Margaret always answered her with humor and wisdom.

  “Ah, la petite Boleyn, you are right to ask if women should be the equals of men. But it is not often given to women to shape their destiny, or to rule as I do. My late mother-in-law, Queen Isabella of Castile, was a queen in her own right, but hers too was a rare example. It is up to us women to show men that we are just as capable as they are.”

  “We could not lead armies into battle, madame,” Isabeau piped up, and the others giggled, but the Regent silenced them by raising her hand. “Isabella did,” she said. “She did not fight, of course, but she was an inspiration. And that, ladies, is what we must all aspire to be. We want men to admire us for our courage, our characters, and our intellect, not just our beauty.” It thrilled Anne to hear her say this.

  She soon discovered why the Regent always wore black.

  “Many call her the Dame de Deuil,” Gerda said one morning as she was brushing Anne’s hair.

  “The Lady of Mourning? How sad. But why?”

  “It is in perpetual memory of her husband, the Duke of Savoy. He died nine years ago.”

  Anne had seen a portrait of him hanging in the palace, a romantic young man with the face of an angel framed with long fair hair. It must have been terrible to lose so beautiful a husband so early. The Regent was only thirty-three.

  In the weeks after her arrival, Anne had been surprised to hear Margaret of Austria speak freely to her women of her past. “Do you know, I was given in marriage three times?” she said to Anne just two days after the conversation with Gerda. They were sewing in her tapestry-hung chamber, the other filles d’honneur ranged about, heads bent over their needles. “I was married in childhood to the Dauphin, and was brought up at the court of France, but when I was eleven they found a better match for him, and so I was annulled and sent home. I was more angry than sad.” She smiled at the memory. “Then I was married, to Juan, Prince of Asturias, the heir to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. He was young and handsome, and I was happy, but he died just months after we were wed, leaving me with child.” A shadow clouded her normally cheerful countenance. “My little girl died at birth. I had to leave her in Spain when I returned to the Netherlands.”

  “I am sorry, madame,” Anne commiserated.

  “She is with God,” the Regent said, her voice suddenly brisk. “He has her safe in His keeping. And I found love again, with my Philibert. He adored me. I helped him rule his duchy of Savoy. I made myself respected throughout Christendom. Alas, we had but two years together—such a short time to be happy. And then he went hunting boar in the sweltering sunshine, got overheated and drank cup after cup of iced water. He died in agony.” She laid down her needlework and gazed into the distance, as if seeing the man who had been lost to her. “And that, la petite Boleyn, is why I have vowed never to remarry. Wherever one loves, one risks loss. Never forget it.”


  Erasmus was just one of many guests who enjoyed the Regent’s famed hospitality. Often she was joined at table by the artists, men of letters, philosophers, and musicians whom she patronized. The evenings were enlivened by concerts of the polyphonic music she loved, or her guests would be treated to a p
ersonal tour of her prized collection of paintings by the great master Jan van Eyck—paintings of exceptional richness, color, and beauty. Anne was often present on these occasions, captivated by the sparkling conversation, the exchanges of ideas, the soaring harmonies, and the glorious works of art. It was a world she could never have conjured up in her wildest dreams, and it was entrancing to be a part of it. She did not miss her home and family at all—apart, of course, from Mother and George, who wrote to her frequently, lamenting her absence.

  Her life was not all ceremony and study. The Regent threw feasts and banquets; she hosted soirées and dances; she loved hunting; she presided over tournaments; and she positively encouraged the play of what she called courtly love.

  “It is an essential aspect of chivalry,” she told her filles d’honneur. “You are all of an age to start finding men attractive. One of the reasons your parents placed you at my court is that they hope I will find you good husbands.” Anne could sense a frisson rippling through her companions, and her own excitement building. At twelve years old—old enough now to be wed—she was becoming aware of her budding figure and the admiring glances of the young men of the Regent’s court. Already she was learning how to flash her dark eyes, swish her skirt or sway her hips to effect, and beginning to understand the infinite possibilities of dalliance.

  She listened avidly as the Regent explained about courtly love.

  “It is quite permissible for gentlemen, even married ones, to pay their addresses to you,” she said. “They may express their devotion and even their passion. It is for you to have mastery over them, and in that sense the title of mistress is an honorable one. But it is never permissible for you to allow any man to go beyond the bounds of propriety. And you must keep your suitor guessing, and at arm’s length, for men do not value what is easily obtained. Even the lightest kiss is a great favor, you understand. The greatest jewel you possess is your honor, and no husband wants a wife whose reputation has been besmirched in any way, however fair a face or rich a dowry she has. Never forget it, young ladies!”

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