Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession by Alison Weir

  “When you do, show yourself loving but remorseful. Say you acted only out of despair at the thought of losing him.”

  “I will do that,” she agreed, quailing at the thought.

  Henry did not come to upbraid or question her, but his displeasure was soon made manifest.

  She went to visit Elizabeth at Richmond, suffering a guilty conscience, as she had not seen her daughter on her first birthday. With her went Uncle Norfolk and the Duke of Suffolk and a train of lords and ladies. She spent some time playing with the child, who was quite a babbler and full of curiosity, toddling around in her velvet skirts and beribboned bonnet, and pouncing on a long-suffering Little Pourquoi as Lady Bryan and her nursemaids stood by, ready to catch her if she fell. She regarded Anne with curiosity, reaching a pudgy hand to her face and pinching it.

  “Pretty lady,” she said.

  The two dukes, having bestowed the requisite praise on the Princess, were getting fidgety.

  “I will not be long,” Anne said. “The nights are drawing in now. We will leave by four o’clock.”

  Norfolk then shocked her. “Your Grace, the King has ordered us to visit the Lady Mary while we are here, and convey his greetings,” he said, in a tone that brooked no argument.

  “You will not go!” Anne flared, unable to believe that Henry had done this.

  “It is His Grace’s command,” Suffolk told her. “We dare not disobey.” And with that they walked out, the other lords and even some of her ladies following in their wake.

  Anne stood up and shooed Elizabeth toward Lady Bryan. She was shaking, shocked by the realization that her power was waning and that everyone knew it. Could it be that Henry, even now, was contemplating restoring Mary to the succession? If so, where would that leave her and Elizabeth?

  She must do something. If only she were pregnant! But Henry had not visited her bed since she had upbraided him about Joan Ashley—and that little bitch was still at court.

  As she was rowed back to Whitehall, she sat in her cabin with the curtains drawn. She would not speak to those who had betrayed her. When she reached the sanctuary of her chamber, she lay on her bed and cried hot tears of despair.

  Feeling a little restored, she decided it would be politic to do as Henry wanted. If she too showed herself friendly to Mary, it might go a long way toward restoring her to his good graces. And so she wrote warmly to her stepdaughter, bidding her be of good cheer.

  There was no reply. But she suspected that Henry had heard about her letter, for he began visiting her again at night. He was still distant, and stayed long enough only to do what was necessary to impregnate her, but it was enough for now. Once she was with child, he would come back to her, as he used to be, and Joan Ashley could go hang herself! And when she herself had a son, none would dare touch her.


  The Admiral of France was in England on a state visit, his purpose being to promote friendly relations between the two kingdoms. Henry arranged a great banquet in his honor and invited many beautiful ladies to court to take part in the festivities. Anne was to preside, and took great care in choosing her attire. A glance in her mirror told her that she was looking strained, miserable, and every one of her thirty-three years. She pinched her cheeks and compressed her lips to redden them. It was essential that she look her best beside the other ladies. She wanted to impress the Admiral, who was a great friend of the French King and very powerful in France. She needed to convince him that there was no better bride for King François’s youngest son, Charles, Duke of Angoulême, than the Princess Elizabeth. François’s agreement to their marriage would amount to a public recognition of her as queen, and Elizabeth as Henry’s legitimate heir. And once Elizabeth was betrothed to his son, he would surely prove as powerful a friend to Anne as the Emperor had been to Katherine.

  Anne was making this approach with Henry’s blessing. He himself had suggested the match some time before. He had not said as much, but she’d guessed that he had been thinking forward to a time when Elizabeth was Queen of England. Marrying a younger son, who had no obligations to his country and could live here, would prevent England from becoming a mere dependent of France.

  A thousand candles lit the great hall, the plate on the buffets glinting in their glow. During the banquet, the Admiral, a cultivated and rather handsome aristocrat, listened courteously to Anne’s arguments. He gave nothing away. Seeing there was no more to be gained from persuasion, she asked if he had ever met Leonardo da Vinci, and he told her he had, and that the old man’s beloved portrait of Monna Lisa was now hanging in King François’s bathroom.

  She was reminiscing about her time at the French court and watching the dancing when Henry joined them.

  “My lord Admiral, I am just going to fetch your secretary and present him to the Queen,” he said. Anne watched him go, weaving between the swirling couples, and saw him suddenly stop and bow before a lady. It was Joan Ashley! Seconds later, they were dancing together. The shock made her laugh out loud.

  The Admiral looked offended. “Madam, do you laugh at me?” he asked.

  Hastily she shook her head and pointed across to where the King was standing.

  “He went to fetch your secretary,” she said, “but he ran across a lady, and she has made him completely forget what he went for!” She laughed again, but the tears were welling. The Admiral looked away, embarrassed.


  Mary had now been rusticating in the country for three months. George had learned that she and William had gone to stay with the Stafford family.

  “I’m still furious with her,” Anne told him. “She’d better not show her face here!”

  But now here was Cromwell, showing Anne a letter from Mary in which she had begged him to intercede for her. Anne read it, then thrust it back at him in disgust.

  “She does herself no favors!” she snapped. “I have never heard a petitioner use a more defiant, unrepentant tone. How come she thinks her plight is more deserving of pity than anyone else’s? Master Cromwell, she makes too many demands of you. If she is really hoping for a reconciliation with me, she is going the wrong way about it.”

  She did not say how sharply Mary’s words had stung. For well I might have had a greater man of birth, but I assure you I could never have had one that loved me so well. I had rather beg my bread with him than be the greatest queen christened. The taunt went too deep. It laid bare Mary’s jealousy and underlined the bitter irony of their respective situations.

  “Never again will I receive her at court,” she told Cromwell. “It is useless to plead for her.”

  “I had no intention of doing so, madam.” His smile was wry. “I could perceive the venom in that letter. My advice to her will be to go with her husband to Calais and stay there.”


  Christmas was approaching, and Anne and her ladies were sewing smocks for the poor, when Henry arrived looking unusually solemn.

  “You may go,” he said, and the ladies scattered.

  He took the chair opposite Anne, then stood up again and, coming over to her side of the fire, went down on his haunches before her and took her hands. She was so overcome by the gesture that when he seemed to be struggling to speak, she thought he was about to say that it was all over between them. That was what had happened with Katherine.

  “I know you set much store by Little Pourquoi,” he said at last. “Anne, I’m sorry to tell you that he fell from a window within this last hour. There was nothing anyone could do to save him.”

  “Oh, no!” she cried, desolate. Henry hesitated, then she felt his arms go around her, and, despite her grief over Little Pourquoi’s terrible end, it was so good to feel him close and being kind to her after so long. For a precious moment she felt safe.

  “No one dared tell you,” he said against her hair. “My good niece Margaret came to me and asked if I would do it. I am very sorry. It must have been instantaneous.”

  He drew back and her eyes searched his. In them she could read only

  Christmas was awful. Harry Percy was at court, and when they came face-to-face in a gallery, he threw her a look of utter contempt and walked on, not even bothering to bow. She felt as if she had been slapped.

  “Cheer up, niece!” Uncle Norfolk chided her at dinner that day. “You won’t entice the King to your bed with that whey face!”

  “Why don’t you just go and swive yourself?” she flung back, and everyone stared.

  Norfolk stood up, flung down his napkin, and stalked out. “I can see why they call you the great whore!” he spat as he reached the door of her chamber.

  At that very moment, the King arrived. Norfolk almost collided with him. Henry looked at the Duke and then at Anne. She waited for him to explode and censure her uncle for speaking so foully to her—he must have heard him—but he said nothing and, no doubt deciding that his mistress would be more congenial company, went away again. Anne was near to despair. Once he would have taken exception to such a gross insult to her, but not anymore.


  In the depths of January, Henry joined Anne for supper one evening. His mood seemed lighter, conciliatory.

  “This will please you,” he said. “I have appointed Cromwell Vicar General, with the power to arrange visitations to every religious house in my kingdom. Like you, I am concerned to root out abuses within my Church, and there have been too many reports of irregularities in the monasteries. Moreover, Cromwell tells me that some of the smaller houses lack the wherewithal to support themselves.”

  Anne’s spirits soared. “You are reforming the monasteries?”

  “I wish to evaluate their wealth and expose any shortcomings in their practices.”

  “You will close any that are poor or corrupt?”

  Henry hesitated. He poured himself some wine and drank deep. “I intend, in time, to close all of them.”

  “All?” She had not expected this.

  “It’s nothing new, Anne. Henry the Fifth was doing it a hundred years ago. Wolsey closed some minor or corrupt houses. Do you know, there were only two new foundations in England in the last century?”

  “But the monasteries succor the poor. They look after the sick—”

  “They are hotbeds of popery!” Henry interrupted. They’re subversive and disloyal. And they grow fat on wealth that should be mine, as head of the Church. It will give me the wherewithal to buy support for my reforms—the reforms you wanted, Anne. I can sell off monastic land to those who defend my stand against Rome, and the rest can go toward replenishing my treasury. It is all but empty.” She knew it. He had squandered his father’s fortune on pleasure and fruitless wars.

  In many respects she approved of his plans, and his aim to stamp out popery. But what of the consequences for all the monks and nuns who would be turned out on the streets, the sick who had no one else to care for them, the beggars who would starve, but for the bounty they received at the monastery gates, and the travelers who would find no lodgings for the night? Almost as bad would be the tragic loss of houses renowned for their excellence in learning and teaching, and as repositories of knowledge and great libraries.

  This was Cromwell’s doing, she had no doubt. Hadn’t he promised to make Henry the richest sovereign who ever reigned in England? But had he thought this scheme through? Surely there was a better way?

  “I have no doubt that your Grace will do all for the best,” she said, resolving to see what transpired and what she could do to achieve a compromise.

  Henry stayed with her that night. He took his pleasure briskly, and was just donning his night robe before returning to his own apartments when she caught at his hand.

  “Do you think François will agree to Elizabeth’s marriage?” she asked, hoping he would not see how much store she set by it.

  He sighed and loosed his hand. “I don’t know, Anne. François has become a good son of the Church, stamping out heresy and free thinking. He may balk at marrying his son to the daughter of one whose marriage has so often been called into question.”

  Icy shards pierced her heart. That Henry, who had been so zealous in ensuring that everyone acknowledged her as his true Queen, should say such a thing to her! Did he now doubt that she was? Was he thinking of divorcing her too?

  Lying there alone, she told herself that, even if he did regret marrying her, she was still safe, for Katherine’s supporters would see any sign of his abandoning her as an admission that he had been wrong all along, and urge him to take Katherine back. And that she was certain Henry would never do.


  It was not until February that Palmedes Gontier, secretary to the Admiral of France, asked for an audience with them both.

  “It must be about Elizabeth’s marriage!” Anne cried.

  “If he has asked for you to be present, it must be,” Henry smiled. “It is proper for a queen to be consulted when her daughter is to be married.”

  She sat beside him on the dais in the crowded presence chamber and smiled at the advancing Gontier. He bowed and presented her with a letter from the Admiral. She devoured it, but her spirits plummeted when she saw that it contained no word of Elizabeth’s betrothal.

  Henry took the letter and read it, then scowled at Anne as if it were her fault. “If you will excuse me, I will confer with my Council,” he said, and leaving her with Gontier, he strode over to his waiting lords.

  Anne beckoned Gontier forward. Something had to be said. Ignoring the proposal was tantamount to rudeness on the part of King François.

  She realized that the lords and courtiers in the presence chamber were watching her closely, some with ill-concealed hostility. Henry was watching her too. As the envoy drew near, she lowered her voice. “Tell your master, sir, that this long delay in sending an answer about the proposed marriage has engendered in the King my husband many strange thoughts, for which there is great need of a remedy. I hope the King my brother does not wish me to be driven mad and utterly lost, for I find myself near to that, and in more pain and trouble than I have been since my marriage.”

  Gontier flinched, obviously embarrassed by her outburst. She knew it was an unforgivable breach of diplomatic etiquette, but she did not care. She was fighting for her daughter’s future and her own. “I pray you, speak to the Admiral on my behalf,” she begged. “I cannot speak as amply to you as I would like, for fear of where I am and of the eyes that are watching me. I cannot write, I cannot see you again, and I can no longer talk with you.”

  She rose, leaving the astonished secretary staring at her, and joined Henry, who took her hand and led her out to the hall.

  “I told him how eager we are for the marriage,” she said lightly.


  For several days now, Anne, ever watchful, had seen Joan Ashley going about with a long face.

  “I think, or rather, I hope, that the King has tired of her,” she said to Madge Shelton, as they sat at a table with Mary Howard and Margaret Douglas, looking through the poems Madge and her friends had collected for their book.

  “He has,” Madge said. “She was weeping about it this morning.”

  “He was ever fickle!” Anne’s laugh was bitter. “To be plain, Madge, I’ve given up expecting him to be faithful. What I couldn’t bear was the arrogance of that little bitch.”

  “She’s not arrogant anymore.” Madge grinned.

  “You are lucky having Norris for a suitor,” Margaret said. “He’s a good man. He would never be untrue.”

  Anne froze. Norris was courting Madge? That could not be. He loved her, she knew it. But she was forbidden to him…and he was a man, with a man’s needs. She should be glad that he was seeking happiness elsewhere. Yet that did not allay the pain of the wound she had just been dealt.

  Madge was watching her curiously. Their eyes met. “He can never be true to me,” Madge whispered. “He loves another.”

  If she had guessed, others might.

  “Nonsense!” Margaret smiled at Madge. “He told me he hoped you would marry him.”
  “Well, I won’t,” Madge declared. “And if the King must take a mistress, your Grace should push in his path one who loves you and will win his sympathy for you.” Their eyes met again.

  “Are you offering?” Anne asked after a long pause.

  “I have taken lovers before,” Madge shrugged. “Between the sheets, even the King is a man like other men.”

  “You would do that for me?” Anne asked, deeply affected.

  “You are my blood. Of course I would. We all owe you so much.”

  “Are you sure you want to do this?” Anne asked. “What of the risk?”

  “There are ways to prevent pregnancy,” Madge laughed. “A woman has to experience pleasure to conceive. I’ll think of something gruesome if I find myself getting carried away!”

  It felt bizarre plotting the seduction of Henry, her own husband, like this. What had she come to? But if Madge could persuade him to treat her more kindly, it might be worth it.


  “It worked!” Madge whispered two days later, as she followed Anne to Mass.

  Anne did not know what to feel—pleased or jealous. She should be grateful to Madge, but she couldn’t help feeling wronged. Henry was probably making efforts to please her cousin. With Anne, he no longer bothered.

  Two days later, though, Madge was despondent. “He’s not interested in talking, and when I mentioned you, he told me we had better things to do.”

  After a week, it was over. “I don’t know how you stand it, Anne,” Madge said, sorting through the Queen’s jewel box as Urian tried to nuzzle her hand. “He’s the most boring lover I’ve ever had. Thank God he’s tired of me.”


  The Lady Mary was ill again. Henry found Anne in her closet, writing letters.

  “The doctors fear she might die,” he told her, looking utterly miserable and torn. “Chapuys has urged that she be sent to her mother to be nursed, but I daren’t allow it. What if she escapes abroad, as she might easily do if she were with Katherine? The Emperor might well aid her, then hold me to ransom.”

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