Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession by Alison Weir


  “Bishop, I could prove to you, by the authority of Scripture, that when God departed this world, He left no successor or vicar,” he asserted.

  “Who then said to His disciple, ‘Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church; and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it’?” the old man countered.

  “Let us have no dissent today,” the King said, intervening. “As you will see, my Lord Bishop, most of the nobility have come to rejoice with me—and not a few of your fellow clergy. Come, my lord of Wiltshire, and drink with me.” He and Anne left Fisher to ponder on that and joined Cromwell.

  “My chancellor is not here,” Henry said, looking around in vain. “I had hoped to see him.”

  “Thomas More will not countenance this,” Cromwell said. “It has probably upset his stomach.” But there More was, hurrying into the presence chamber with a great stack of papers under one arm. Joy and relief shone in Henry’s face.

  “Thomas!” he cried, and embraced More before he could bow.

  “I crave your Grace’s pardon. I was detained in Chancery, and then I had to wait at Westminster for a barge.” His smile was pleasant, but his eyes were wary.

  Norfolk joined them. “By the Mass, Master More, I did not look to see you here!” he exclaimed, clapping More on the shoulder. They had long been friends.

  “I am the King’s good servant,” More said. “My place is here.”

  “What does your lordship think of the King’s new title?” Cromwell challenged Norfolk. As Henry fixed his gaze on her uncle, Anne drew in her breath. Everyone knew that Norfolk, a devout Catholic like all the Howards, was against reform.

  “Don’t ask me!” the Duke snorted. “I leave all that business to those with brains in their heads, like His Grace here.”

  Henry laughed. “Spoken like a true Englishman! I hope that all my subjects will prove as wise as you, my lord. Unlike that fool Fisher.” He turned to Anne, her father, and Cromwell, leaving Norfolk and More conversing together. “He has to be stopped,” he said in a lower voice.

  “I will have a quiet word with him,” Cromwell said.

  “That wretched Bishop was bloody rude to me,” Father chimed in.

  “He could be a dangerous opponent,” Anne warned. “People respect him as a great theologian. He defended the Queen without fear or favor, remember.”

  “He’s still writing books defending her,” Henry fumed. “Her supporters see him as saintly. My grandmother did too—he was her chaplain. But there’s steel beneath that air of sanctity. See he keeps his mouth shut, Cromwell.”

  —

  Fisher was just one dissident. “There could be legions of them,” Anne burst out to George the next morning, as they braved the February winds to walk in the gardens.

  “Last night, even after the King tried to silence him, the Bishop was airing his views to whoever was listening,” George told her. “Spreading sedition, no less. And some did listen, especially those who favor the Queen.”

  “He must be silenced!” Anne cried. “No one can be allowed to challenge the King’s supremacy. I will speak to His Grace.”

  “He can now have him defrocked,” George reminded her. Yes, she would speak to Henry.

  —

  Henry’s face was grave.

  “There has been an attempt to poison Bishop Fisher,” he told Anne one afternoon after he had been in Council. “We’ve arrested the culprit, a knave called Richard Rouse, the Bishop’s cook. He added some powders he says he was given to the gruel that was to be served to my lord and his guests and servants. Two of them have died, and seventeen are seriously ill. It beggars belief that anyone could do such a thing. Poisoning is a horrible crime, and worthy of severe punishment.” His lips were pursed primly in outrage.

  “And Bishop Fisher? Was he poisoned?” Anne asked, thinking—God forgive her—that it would be convenient to have the saintly prelate confined to his bed, mute, for a space.

  “No, I thank God. He had decided to fast. But there’s no doubt that the poison was meant for him. Rouse said at first that he thought the powders were laxatives, and that he’d done it for a joke, but then he changed his story and said he had been given to understand that they would do no more than make people sick and would not cause any real harm. What he won’t say is who told him that. Someone gave those powders to him.”

  Anne had a chilling thought. They will point the finger at me! The Bishop is known to be against the divorce. People will say I tried to have him murdered.

  “Have you pressed this Rouse to name who sent him?” she asked aloud.

  “Yes, he has been interrogated. He is to be examined again today, a little more rigorously.” Henry’s eyes narrowed. “I think he will talk.”

  —

  After Henry had left for the Council chamber, Anne hastened to confide her anxieties to George. He listened with increasing anger.

  “Rouse is being questioned again as we speak,” she told him. “So far he has taken all the blame upon himself.”

  “Maybe he’s telling the truth. He could have bought those powders and been told about their effects by the apothecary, or used too much.”

  “Or maybe he was warned that, if he talked, it would go worse for his family. George, this was a deliberate attempt on the Bishop’s life—it must have been, for it is so timely. And I can’t help but think that one of our friends was behind it—someone powerful enough to frighten this Rouse into silence.”

  George slid an arm around her. “Sister, I think you are letting your imagination run away with you.”

  “But what motive did Rouse have to do such a thing?”

  “A grudge against someone?”

  Anne stood up. “I wish I believed that.” A bell sounded in the courtyard outside. “I must go. Henry will be out of Council soon.”

  “Let me know if Rouse talks,” George said.

  A horrible germ of a suspicion crept into Anne’s mind. Father had waxed hot against Fisher. He had exploded later, after the reception, calling the Bishop all manner of nasty names. And she had confided to George her fears that Fisher was dangerous. Henry himself had said he should be stopped. But not like this! And really, she could not credit that Father would have stooped so low as to commit murder—and by poison, too, a woman’s weapon, given that no brute force was needed. Of course he would not!

  Surely George had not done this dreadful thing. Did he love her so much that he would commit murder for her? Was he so stupid not to think of the consequences?

  George was a mercurial character, a law unto himself. By his own admission, he had committed rape. And, of all her family, he was the one whom fame and advancement had touched the most. He had grown more ambitious even than she and Father were. Had he done this in the mistaken belief that it would smooth her path? No, she could not believe it.

  Rouse did not talk. He still would not name the person who had given him the powders.

  —

  Henry came to Anne a few days later. He spoke reluctantly, as if dragging the words out. “Lord Chancellor More has told me that there are seditious rumors that you, sweetheart, your father, and your brother were involved in that poisoning attempt.” His tone was contemptuous.

  “It’s all wicked lies!” Anne cried, alarmed. “I would never—”

  “Darling, I know that,” Henry comforted her. “By God, I’ll still their tongues if I have to cut them out! None shall slander you. I told More—I said you were being blamed unfairly for everything, even the weather.”

  Someone, Anne was sure, was trying to frame her. The very use of poison had been intended to put her, a woman, in the picture. For which other woman had a motive to want Fisher silenced?

  —

  “There will be no trial,” Henry told Anne, after Rouse had been interrogated for the fourth time.

  “But you said—”

  “Anne, I must divert suspicion from you and yours.”

  “I would see Rouse questioned in open court, to have my name
cleared,” Anne demanded. “He must admit his guilt.”

  Henry sat there, immovable. He would not look at her.

  “What did he say today?” she demanded to know.

  “He said little more, despite being pressed. He is adamant that he was acting alone.” Still Henry would not meet her gaze, but sat there toying with the bases of his doublet. “Darling, the rumors proliferate. Parliament, the supreme court in this realm, will pass an Act of Attainder against this wretch, demonstrating how seriously I regard his crime. And because I utterly abhor such an abominable offense, I am having Parliament pass a new law, making willful murder by poison high treason, for to me it is equal to it, and should attract similar odium. Those who offend will be boiled to death—a dreadful punishment for a dreadful crime.”

  Anne’s hand flew to her mouth. It was barbarous. The agony was unimaginable. And that Henry could sanction it! But she could see why he was being so ruthless. The punishment must be a deterrent to others. She hoped, how she hoped, that Rouse was not to suffer it as a scapegoat for someone else.

  Sir Francis Bryan went to Smithfield to witness Rouse’s execution, and came back sickened. “They hung him up in chains from a pulley and dipped him in and out of a cauldron,” he related. “He roared mighty loud, and some women who were big with child fainted. It took him a long time to die.”

  Anne shuddered. Her eyes met George’s. He was as horrified as she was.

  —

  At last the universities of Europe had all spoken. The final determination arrived as Henry and Anne were playing cards in her chamber.

  “That makes twelve for me, and four for the Queen,” Henry said, jubilant. “It’s cost me a fortune, but it was worth it.”

  Anne hoped they had not all been susceptible to bribes, and that their determinations were honest, but really it did not matter. The outcome was what they had both desired.

  “Darling, think on it,” Henry was saying. “The finest and most learned minds in Europe have pronounced my marriage to be incestuous and against the law of God—and so it must be null and void. Pope Julius had no business in the first place to dispense with it.”

  “So our marriage can go ahead?” she asked.

  “In a little space,” Henry said. “I’m hoping that Clement will pay heed to these verdicts and grant my annulment, so that this breach can be healed.”

  Anne wondered if she had understood him correctly. Was he, even now, ready to be reconciled to Rome? He had made himself head of the English Church! Did he really think that the Pope would welcome him back into the fold with open arms now? She despaired of him, she truly did. At heart, he was still a good son of the Roman Church.

  —

  Henry had the verdicts of the universities read out in Parliament and published. Inevitably there was an outcry.

  “The most vocal in opposition seem to be women, who are more willful than wise or learned,” Cromwell reported. “They accuse your Grace of having corrupted the learned doctors. It would be wise to let the clamor settle down before proceeding further.”

  “My book should still their tongues,” Henry declared. A Glass of the Truth was about to be published. “Or we might have to find better ways of doing it.”

  The book was greeted largely with derision, and Anne had never been so unpopular. The rumors surrounding the Rouse affair had not been forgotten. People hissed “Murderess!” when she went out in public.

  Anne’s misery deepened. She had thought that once the universities had spoken, Henry would instruct the Archbishop of Canterbury to declare his marriage invalid, and they would be wed. But Henry was still, even now, casting about for a more conventional means of bringing that to pass. At present, he was doing his best to provoke Katherine into giving him grounds for a divorce by deserting him. When the Princess Mary fell ill and Katherine was desperate to see her, he told her she might go to her if she wanted, and also stop there. But Katherine, no fool, decided to stay at court. She told him she would not leave him for her daughter or anyone else in the world. Oh, she was clever!

  Henry tried a different strategy. When a letter from the Vatican informed him that his case could be tried only in Rome and nowhere else, he shouted that he would never consent. “And I care not a fig for Clement’s excommunications!” he stormed, stumping off to confront Katherine, determined to force her to withdraw her appeal to the Pope.

  “I told you she would refuse,” Anne said wearily, when he returned in a foul temper.

  “She will rue it,” Henry replied. “I am sending a deputation from the Privy Council to tell her to be sensible.”

  But Katherine refused to be sensible. She insisted that she would abide by no decision save that of Rome. Anne wanted to shake the infuriating woman.

  “This cannot go on!” she flared. “Always she defies you.”

  “I agree,” Henry said. “But the Emperor is powerful. Chapuys watches all that I do. I must not provoke war.”

  “The Emperor is busy with fighting the Turks in the east,” Anne pointed out. “He has little leisure to make war on England.”

  “I know that, but be sure he takes a close interest in what happens here. And I do wonder what he would do if Katherine asked him to intervene. Remember, his domains are vast. Think of the armies he could raise. But you are right, darling—this situation cannot continue.”

  —

  That summer, they divided their time between Windsor and Hampton Court, riding out to the chase every day, fishing in the Thames, and enjoying the good weather. Katherine and Mary came with them to Windsor, but they kept to the Queen’s apartments, to Anne’s relief. After Katherine had called her a shameless creature in front of the whole court before they left Greenwich, she did not trust herself to be civil.

  At the end of June, Henry turned forty. Something of the vigor of youth still clung to him, even if he was broader in person these days and his hair was receding under his bonnet. Maturity suited him. Tall, elegant, muscular, and graceful, he yet drew all eyes. Some considered him a perfect model of masculine beauty, but not Anne. She was not dazzled by his majesty—she had long been familiar with the man beneath.

  Turning forty made Henry conscious of time flying by. At his age, a man should have a son old enough to wield a sword in battle. He often spoke of his desire to go on a new Crusade against the Turks, but dared not commit himself until the succession was assured. His desire for a male heir was a constant theme—so much depended on it that Anne began to fear it might be too late for her to bear children. She was thirty now, old to be contemplating motherhood for the first time. Another thing to fret about!

  “I’ve had enough,” Henry murmured one evening in July, as he led Anne into the presence chamber at Windsor and saw Katherine already seated there. “I’m separating from her for good.”

  As she went through the farce of curtseying to the Queen and moved to her place farther down the high table, Anne dismissed Henry’s words as more bluster, thinking there was no point in rejoicing. But he proved her wrong.

  “Her obduracy is making a mockery of my scruples, and thanks to her my Great Matter is now talked about through all Christendom,” he grumbled later. “She has brought shame and dishonor on me. By God, I will not endure her defiance any longer. When we move to Woodstock two days hence, I’m leaving her behind.”

  “You really are leaving her for good?” Anne could not quite believe it.

  “Yes, darling. I should have done it long ago.”

  At last! At last!

  “You will tell her beforehand?”

  Henry shook his head. “I can’t face another confrontation. When we’ve gone, I’ll send a messenger to say it is my pleasure that she vacate the castle within a month and go to a house of her own choosing. She will understand.”

  Yes, she would—but Anne could not help thinking that this was a rather cowardly way of handling the matter. If she had been Henry, she’d have had a few choice words to say! But then he always had been frightened of Katherine and
her mighty relations.

  —

  Early morning, on a beautiful summer’s day, and they were riding away from Windsor, leaving Katherine behind and unaware of the momentous step that Henry had taken.

  Two days later, Henry’s messenger stood nervously before him and recounted how, informed that the King had left her, the Queen had bidden him to convey a message of farewell. The man cleared his throat. “Your Grace, she said, ‘Go where I may, I remain his wife, and for him I will pray.’ ”

  Henry was furious. “Go back. Tell the Queen I do not want any of her good-byes! She has caused me no end of trouble by her obstinacy. She depends, I know, upon the Emperor, but she will find God Almighty more powerful still. Let her stop it and mind her own business. I want no more of her messages.” The messenger departed, visibly quaking.

  But the thing had been done, and in Anne optimism burgeoned. With Katherine out of the way—and a blessed relief that was—it was time to establish a queenly household. She asked Edward Foxe to be her almoner, and appointed other officers. Henry was still lavishing gifts on her—often the genial Sir William Brereton, a gentleman of his Privy Chamber, still handsome in his fifties, would be at her door with some new offering—and now visiting ambassadors always brought presents too. The world was aware that in three or four months she could be queen.

  —

  “You had best watch your step, niece,” Uncle Norfolk grumbled, sitting down next to Anne as she watched a game of tennis. “You grow too arrogant.”

  “I think you had best watch yours!” she retorted.

  “I’m doing just that,” he told her. “I see the way you treat His Grace; I hear how you speak to him. You think you can rule him, but you forget that he is the King. It’s folly to see him as just a man like any other. Go on like this and you’ll be the ruin of all your family.”

  “Don’t be ridiculous, uncle,” Anne retorted. “His Grace loves me. He has no complaints.”

  “He’s complained to me of the words you use to him.”

 
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