Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession by Alison Weir


  “At least we’re allowed to kiss them,” a pert girl on Anne’s left murmured.

  The Regent had heard her. “No, Etiennette de la Baume, it is up to you when—or if—you allow them to kiss you. A gentlewoman must at all times take care not to forget who she is, or the honor of her family, or their hopes for her future. And it is up to us ladies to rein in and civilize the lusts of men.” She hid a smile at their smothered giggles. “You may flirt, you may encourage, you may even bestow favors—to a point—but the ultimate prize is your virtue, which is the greatest gift you will bring to your husband.”

  Anne had read much of love in the poems and romances she had devoured, but she had never received such salutary and sensible advice. She had thought that men were omnipotent in matters of love and marriage—certainly Father thought he was—but now it seemed that women could be in control, even of men’s lusts—a subject of which she knew little. The prospect of enjoying mastery over the opposite sex excited her. All of a sudden she realized that she had unsuspected power within her grasp.

  The next time a court gallant bowed and paid her a compliment, she smiled sweetly and turned away, as if it did not matter—although it did, for the young man was handsome. When, later, he engaged her in conversation and then led her out to the dance floor, she looked up from under her dark eyelashes and regarded him as if pearls of wisdom were tumbling from his lips—and then made sure that she danced the next time with someone else. Her evasions seemed to work. The Regent was right—always the gentlemen came back, more ardent than before.

  She did not look for more than flirtations. She was not yet thirteen, after all. It was just a highly enjoyable and novel game, far removed from the strictures of her father and the dull round of life at Hever. The world was opening out to her, abundant with new ideas and unexpected delights.

  Above all, she desired to emulate the mistress she had come to love and revere. She made the Regent’s tastes and pleasures her own, in the surety that all the knowledge and talents she was so pleasantly acquiring would befit her to grace any court, as Father had wished. Whenever the Regent praised Anne’s dancing skills, the songs she composed, or her skill with a lute, her cup ran over. Above all, she was learning to think independently. Whereas at home she had been expected to accept unquestioningly the wisdom and decrees of her elders, in Mechlin she found that it was permissible, even encouraged, to have ideas of her own, and to think for herself.

  She also became aware of the power of display. What you wore sent out important messages to people who mattered, be they princes or suitors. The watchword was magnificence. And so she discovered the joys of further enhancing her limited wardrobe, for new court gowns were dreadfully expensive, which was why Father had provided only six. But with a length of ribbon here and a well-placed jewel there, plus a few strategic stitches to transform the high square neckline into the wider and more revealing French style, which was the height of fashion at the Regent’s court, they could be made to look different and eye-catching. It was the way you wore your clothes that mattered. If you stepped out as if you felt beautiful and elegant, others might just believe it.

  It was the same with your looks. Anne was fascinated by people’s faces. She knew that her own long, narrow face with its pointed chin did not conform to the current ideal of beauty, but she was learning that a charming smile and a ready wit, with that sideways gaze under the eyelashes, had in itself the power to attract.

  —

  Anne shared some of her lessons with the Regent’s nephews and nieces, the orphaned children of Philip the Handsome and Juana the Mad. She had come to know the eldest, the Archduke Charles, a little—but only a little, because he was a reserved, self-contained boy, young for his thirteen years, forever ailing of one complaint or another, but always standing on his dignity.

  He was the strangest-looking person Anne had ever seen, for in him the pointed Habsburg jaw was so pronounced that he could not close his mouth properly or eat without difficulty. But no one ever mentioned it. The Regent doted on the boy, and fussed over his education. He had the best tutors, who were turning him, Anne thought, into a pious little despot, but it had to be admitted that he was clever, and brilliant at learning foreign tongues. And he was a very important young man indeed, for he was Archduke of Austria by birth and the heir to the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon. He was also too grand to take much notice of an insignificant English fille d’honneur, until the day came when Monsieur Semmonet instructed him to practice the pavane with her.

  Clearly reluctant, but remembering his manners, the awkward youth bowed before Anne and stretched out his hand. As the musicians began playing, she placed hers in his loose, unwilling grip, and they moved forward at the required stately pace, one step to every two beats, and then sideways.

  “There is no need to lift your train, Mademoiselle Anne,” the tutor reproved. “This is a dance performed at high court ceremonies and even in nunneries on clothing days. It is slow and dignified.”

  The Archduke Charles kept sniffing. Anne was sure that he was conveying his disdain for her. She turned to him, furious.

  “Does your Highness have a cold? If so, here is my handkerchief.” And she thrust the delicate square of fine linen at him.

  The sagging jaw dropped at her presumption. “I thank you, mademoiselle,” Charles said, in icy tones, taking the handkerchief as if it were a dead rat.

  “I pray that your Highness recovers soon,” she replied sweetly. The dance was resumed.

  She wondered if he would complain to the Regent of her boldness, yet Margaret of Austria continued to show her as much kindness as was ever her wont. But the Archduke Charles made it clear that he now held Anne in high disfavor, and she saw no point, for her part, in trying to win his friendship—ugly, priggish boy that he was.

  —

  That summer and autumn Anne heard of the victories that King Henry and his allies, the Emperor Maximilian and King Ferdinand of Aragon, had won over the French. The names of Tournai and Thérouanne, the towns he had taken, were on all lips, and much mirth was had at the expense of King Louis’s troops, who, seeing an English army bearing down on them, had spurred their horses and fled.

  “It is aptly called the Battle of the Spurs,” the Regent laughed. “La petite Boleyn, you have every reason to be proud of your King and countrymen.”

  “Madame, the glory also belongs to the Emperor, your Highness’s illustrious father,” Anne said.

  Margaret of Austria patted her hand. “How very kind. Now, ladies, I have a surprise for you. We are to journey to Lille, to meet the victors.”

  Anne joined the others in a chorus of eager approval.

  —

  Pennants and standards fluttered colorfully in the light October breeze as the Regent’s great cavalcade made its stately way westward from Mechlin to Lille, which could not be far off now. Word had been passed back through the ranks that the Emperor Maximilian and the King of England were waiting to greet Margaret of Austria at Tournai, and would then accompany her to Lille.

  The filles d’honneur were seated in two gilded chariots, chattering gaily as they rode in the wake of their mistress and the Archduke Charles. Anne was as excited as the rest at the prospect of setting eyes on King Henry, who by all accounts was an extraordinarily handsome and valiant young man. In the opinion of all the young ladies he was a hero too, for trouncing the hated French. The campaigning season was over now, but everyone was sure that next year would see King Louis finally beaten.

  The Regent had generously given all her filles d’honneur bolts of rich fabrics to make gowns for the occasion. Anne’s was a wine-red damask with a raised black velvet pile. She had never owned such a sumptuous gown. Having it made had taken most of her quarter’s wages, but it had been worth the outlay.

  The gates of Tournai were in sight, and Anne craned her neck to see a great concourse of people and soldiers awaiting them. As they drew nearer, two imposing figures in front caught the eye: both were tall, both
had a kingly carriage, and both were magnificently attired in velvet and cloth of gold. The Emperor was immediately recognizable from the portraits the Regent kept of her father—there was the large, high-bridged nose, the firm chin, the haughty mien, the sparse gray locks. Maximilian had an arresting presence, but he looked decrepit beside the man standing next to him. If an artist had wanted to paint a picture of Youth and Age, he could not have found better subjects. For Henry of England was blooming with vitality.

  And that, Anne thought, disappointed, was all that could be said for him. He too had a high-bridged nose and firm chin, but his fresh face had little otherwise to recommend it. His eyes were narrow, his mouth prim and ungenerous. He had a mass of reddish hair, broad shoulders, and a manly bearing, but had he not been a king, she would not have given him a second glance. Those who had praised him were mere flatterers. Even Father—never given to flights of fancy—had said he was handsome in the sight of ladies, and had spoken nothing but good of him. He would—he had done very well at this King’s hands, and was accounted his friend.

  As the Regent dismounted to be greeted by her father and King Henry, and her ladies and filles d’honneur clambered out of their chariots and formed a train behind her, Anne’s eyes lighted on the man who stood behind the English monarch. They could have been brothers, for the likeness between them was striking, yet in this face the firm nose, pursed lips, and narrow eyes were striking. By his rich dress, this gentleman was a nobleman; where the King was clean-shaven, he had a luxuriant chestnut beard.

  “Your Highness, may I present my good friend Charles Brandon, Viscount Lisle?” Anne heard King Henry say, in a surprisingly high-pitched voice. The handsome man stepped forward and bowed low over the Regent’s outstretched hand, which she seemed to withdraw with some difficulty. As Lord Lisle rose, his bold eyes met hers and Anne saw her cheeks flush.

  The city fathers now came forward to welcome Margaret of Austria. Her delight was unfeigned when they presented her with a set of tapestries depicting scenes from Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies. They could not have chosen a better gift. Anne was eager to see the tapestries when they were unrolled.

  Escorted by the Emperor and the King, the Regent rode at the head of her vast company into Tournai as church bells rang out triumphantly and crowds swarmed in the streets. That night there was a lavish feast in the Bishop’s Palace. The Regent was seated between the King and Viscount Lisle, and Anne, from her place well below the high table, watched as the handsome lord flirted and laughed with her mistress.

  Later, as they were preparing her for bed, Margaret was much animated, singing the praises of the English Viscount.

  “Never since my dear Duke died have I ever met a man to whom I felt attracted,” she confided, as her hair was being brushed. “I feel I am no longer a lady of mourning but a lady with possibilities.”

  Anne and her fellow filles d’honneur stared at each other, amazed. Their mistress had sworn a vow never to remarry!

  The Regent smiled at them. “I know what you are thinking. But am I not allowed a little pleasure? Think you I do not know the rules of this game of love?”

  There was more to it than that, Anne learned. Within two days gossip was rife that Lord Lisle had proposed marriage. The Regent said nothing; she just kept on smiling her secret smile and making out that the whole business was an elaborate play. It was what happened in courts, she said. But seeing her together with Lord Lisle, you would have thought they were lovers in every sense. When he jousted against the King, both of them resplendent in purple velvet trappings, Margaret of Austria gave him her scarf as a favor, rising from her seat on the high stand to bind it to his lance. Then she watched, hand to her mouth, her breathing tense, as the courses were run and the spears broken. In the end a tie was declared; the King and his companions rode around the tiltyard in triumph, doing great reverence to the ladies.

  That night Anne was present at the sumptuous banquet hosted by King Henry in honor of the Regent and the Archduke Charles, who—miserable boy—looked as if he would rather be anywhere else. After his aunt frowned at him, he made an effort to be sociable, but it was obvious that King Henry was having to work hard with him.

  Course after course was served—there must have been a hundred dishes, Anne reckoned—and the food was wonderful. After the banquet, at a sign from their mistress, Anne and the other young ladies rose with her and danced for the company, stepping out to the sound of vielles, shawms, and sackbuts in a stately basse dance and then proceeding to a livelier almain, which got the audience tapping their feet and clapping. It was obvious that the Regent was showing off her skills for the benefit of Lord Lisle, but suddenly King Henry was casting off his doublet and shoes and whirling her around in his stockinged feet, leaping like a stag, much to the amusement of his friend and the whole company.

  After that, he and Viscount Lisle and several other lords and gentlemen disappeared for a time, and when they returned, wearing gowns and bonnets of cloth of gold, they performed a masquerade, in which they danced and sang. Afterward, they cast off their outer costumes and distributed them among the ladies. It was King Henry himself who handed his cap to a giggling Anne, who had drunk rather too much of the good Rhenish wine.

  “And who are you, fair maiden?” the King asked. He was drunk too. She could smell it on his breath. Close up, he looked younger than his twenty-two years, and his fair skin was rosy and sheened with sweat. His blue eyes glittered in the candlelight. Still she could not perceive what it was that women saw in him.

  “Your Grace, I am Anne Boleyn,” she said, executing the elegant curtsey she had now perfected. “My father, Sir Thomas, serves you as ambassador.” She placed the golden bonnet at a jaunty angle on her head above her pearl-netted caul.

  “It becomes you,” the King complimented her. “Will you do me the pleasure of dancing with me, Mistress Anne?”

  Anne curtseyed again, and he led her in a lively branle, both of them leaping and kicking as the courtiers formed a circle around them and clapped.

  “Bravo!” cried the Regent, who was standing close to Viscount Lisle.

  “Bravo, Harry!” echoed the Viscount.

  As the music drew to a close, the King bowed, thanked Anne, and turned away. Later she saw him dancing with Etiennette de la Baume. She watched as his eyes held Etiennette’s, and saw him bend and kiss her on the lips. Anne frowned. Surely this was forbidden? Henry had a wife and queen, and no business to be playing the game of courtly love in this manner.

  She thought no more of it, for she herself was swept away into another dance by one of the young officers of the Regent’s court, and then by many other gallants, until it was near dawn, when spiced wine and wafers were served to the company, the King bade farewell to his guests, and Anne went unwillingly to bed.

  The next morning, after the Regent had risen late and was breakfasting on beef and manchet bread, she fell to discussing with her ladies the events of the previous evening. Lord Lisle featured prominently in her praise of the festivities, and well he might, Anne thought, for she had never left his side. The bells of St. Rumbold’s might soon be pealing in celebration of a wedding!

  “You partnered the King well, Mademoiselle Anne,” the Regent said.

  “Thank you, madame.”

  The Regent turned to Etiennette. “You, young lady, overstepped the bounds of propriety. King Henry is a married man.”

  Etiennette’s pretty face was flaming.

  “Some hold that love has nothing to do with marriage,” Margaret of Austria said. “Since marriages are often arranged, people do look elsewhere for love. It is proper for a married lady to accept the addresses of a knight or suitor, even someone far below her in rank, and some allow that it is permissible for a married man to acknowledge a lady as his mistress. But neither should go further than compliments, dancing, conversation, and perhaps holding hands. I trust that is understood,” she said, looking at Etiennette.

  “Yes, madame,” the gir
l whispered.

  Later, when they were alone in the dorter, she exhaled in relief.

  “I could have lost my position!” she told Anne.

  “You should have thought of that before,” Anne said. “Letting the King kiss you in public was madness. It’s your reputation that’s at stake, not his.”

  “Who do you think you are, Mistress High-and-Mighty?” Etiennette hissed. “I love him, and he loves me, and what we do is none of your business.”

  “He loves you? Tomorrow he will be gone from here, back to England, and you will never see him again.”

  “I know.” Etiennette crumpled, her eyes brimming with tears. “He told me last night that he would always care for me, and that when I marry I should let him know, and he will send me ten thousand crowns for my dowry.”

  “How will you explain that to your husband?” Anne retorted.

  Etiennette ignored the question. “I don’t care. I love him.”

  There was no reasoning with her. She was a silly, deluded girl.

  —

  That night, unable to sleep after another day packed with entertainments and a magnificent farewell dinner, Anne became aware of a figure moving stealthily in the gloom of the dorter. Heavens, it looked like a young lad wearing the English King’s livery of green and white, although the room was so dark that it was hard to tell what color it was. Anne concluded that the youth had been smuggled in by one of the filles d’honneur, but then the door clicked open, admitting a shaft of moonlight, and in its beam she could see plainly the face of Etiennette de la Baume, dressed up as a page, and determinedly sneaking away—no doubt to meet her royal lover.

 
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