Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession by Alison Weir


  There were three grave-faced men seated at the Council board: Uncle Norfolk, looking implacable; Sir William Fitzwilliam, whom she had never liked, the feeling being mutual; and Sir William Paulet, the King’s comptroller, who alone greeted her with gentle courtesy as they all rose to their feet.

  Norfolk came to the point without preamble. “Madam, by the powers granted by the King’s Grace to us as royal commissioners, we are formally charging you with having committed adultery with Sir Henry Norris, Mark Smeaton, and one other.”

  Anne was overcome with faintness. This was her worst nightmare coming true. How could they believe such things of her? And with Smeaton? How could they even think she would stoop so low? And Norris—they had been overheard! But she had done nothing wrong. Trembling, she opened her mouth to protest, but Norfolk raised his hand and stilled her.

  “Before you say anything, you should know that Norris and Smeaton have admitted their guilt.”

  “Then they are lying, since there is nothing to admit! I am the King’s true wife, and no other man has ever touched me.”

  “Tut, tut, tut! We have the depositions of witnesses, madam. Are they all lying?”

  “Someone is making an occasion to get rid of me!” she countered, in great fear.

  “You have given them the occasion by your evil behavior,” Norfolk sneered.

  “Oh, you are cruel, uncle, to believe such calumnies of an innocent woman—and your own blood at that!”

  His face was like granite. “I serve the King, madam. My first loyalty is to him, and he has ordered your arrest. These crimes laid against you are grave and, if proved, will merit just punishment.”

  Henry had sanctioned this travesty of justice! Did he really believe the worst of her? It terrified her that he had preferred to heed the accusations of others, rather than give her a chance to refute them. What hurt most was that an investigation must have been going on all these past days, yet he had said not a word of it. Oh, her enemies had been busy!

  “What is to happen to me?” she asked. “I must see the King. He will listen to me.”

  “He won’t see you,” Fitzwilliam snarled. “He is the Lord’s anointed: he won’t be tainted by associating with a traitor.”

  “A traitor?” She feared her knees would buckle. “I am no traitor.”

  “Compromising the royal succession is treason, madam,” he barked, as Norfolk tutted sorrowfully.

  “We will escort your Grace back to your apartments,” Paulet said. “Dinner will be served to you, and you will remain there until further notice. Your chamberlain has informed your household that you have been charged with treason.”

  It was a nightmare walk back from the Council chamber to her lodging, with the lords walking stone-faced either side of her and the King’s guards keeping pace in front and behind. News of her disgrace must have spread quickly beyond her household, for everywhere there were people staring at her, most of them hostile or disapproving. They were ready to believe anything of her, it seemed.

  It was no great relief to get back to her chamber, for she was greeted by the ominous silence of her ladies, and servants struggling to conceal tears, which further unnerved her, as did the presence of guards outside her door, their halberds crossed to prevent any unauthorized person from entering. They raised them to allow in her servitors, who brought her the usual choice of delicious dishes, but she was so upset when the King’s waiter failed to appear with his customary greeting—a poignant reminder of the awfulness of her situation—that she could not touch the food. She could only sit there, making stilted conversation with her ladies about children and dogs and tennis. She thought of sending for Elizabeth, but feared that, seeing and holding her child, she might break down, which would distress the little one. And probably they wouldn’t let her see Elizabeth anyway; there would be more nonsense about the taint of treason.

  At two o’clock, she was still at table, seated under her canopy of estate, when Norfolk returned with Cromwell, Lord Chancellor Audley, and several other Privy councillors. Norfolk had in his hand a scroll of parchment.

  She rose to her feet in alarm. “Why have your lordships come?”

  “This, madam”—Norfolk waved the paper—“is the warrant for your arrest. By the King’s command we are to conduct you to the Tower of London, where you will abide during His Highness’s pleasure.”

  The Tower! Her flesh shrank from the prospect of being incarcerated in that grim fortress. She had only ever visited at the time of her coronation, when the Queen’s apartments had been refurbished at huge expense for her, but she knew the rest of the Tower was grim by comparison. Thomas More had been in prison there for a year. They said he had emerged an old man…And about fifty years ago, two little princes had disappeared in the Tower, done to death, it was bruited, by their wicked uncle. Would she disappear too?

  She made a huge effort to muster her courage. “If it be His Majesty’s pleasure, I am ready to obey,” she said. “What may I take with me?”

  “You must come as you are,” Norfolk said.

  “In this?” She looked down at her gorgeous royal gown.

  “There is no need to change.”

  “All necessities will be provided,” Paulet told her. It sounded ominous, until she remembered hearing that prisoners in the Tower had to pay for their own keep and any comforts they wanted.

  “What of my household?”

  “They must remain here. New attendants await you in the Tower.”

  “You will wait here until the tide changes,” Norfolk told her. “We expect to leave at half past four.”

  They left her then, and she spent the afternoon trying to hold herself together, going over and over in her head what she could possibly have said or done to lead people to think she had given an ounce of encouragement to Smeaton. Norris she could understand, although they were guilty only of indiscreet banter and that brief acknowledgment that there was more between them than could ever be fully said. But Smeaton—the very thought turned her stomach! How could Henry have believed it of her? And how could he have done this to her, whom he had passionately loved, and who had borne his children?

  If she had not known that Cromwell was ill at Stepney, she would have sworn that his hand was in this. His enmity had been made clear, and she had threatened him. Maybe he was not ill at all: maybe it was a front for plotting her ruin. The more she thought about this, the more she believed it. Anything was better than believing it of Henry.

  Her ladies offered some words of comfort to her in her distress, but they were keeping a wary distance. That taint of treason again! Anne picked up her embroidery, but her hands were not steady enough to wield a needle and thread. She wondered if she would ever finish it.

  Toward four o’clock, by which time her heart was thumping in anticipation of what lay ahead, the Countess of Worcester suddenly emitted a moan. She had had her hands on her pregnant belly for some time.

  “The child does not stir,” she said, her face tragic.

  “How long have you noticed this?” Anne asked, as the ladies clustered around.

  “Since they came for you,” the Countess whispered. “It was the shock.”

  “You should lie down,” Mary Howard urged her, and helped her away to her bed.

  Again Anne felt faint.

  The lords came for her soon afterward, accompanied by a larger detachment of the King’s guard and Sir William Kingston, the Constable of the Tower, a tall, distinguished knight in middle age who had long served Henry well and was high in his favor.

  “Madam,” he said, bowing, “I am to have charge of you during your stay at the Tower. You must come with me now.” His gray eyes were not unkind or devoid of humanity, and his grizzled head was respectfully bowed. Although Anne knew he had been a friend of Cardinal Wolsey, and had been rumored to be an admirer of the late Princess Dowager, she sensed that he had some sympathy for her.

  She bade a brief farewell to her attendants, gave Urian a last pat—poor boy, he was
looking at her so soulfully, perhaps sensing her distress—then walked with her custodians through the palace to where her barge was waiting. Passing between the ranked stone statues of heraldic beasts, she descended the privy stairs and stepped on board, as the lords climbed into the vessel behind her. Norfolk indicated that she should enter the cabin, then sat down heavily beside her on the cushioned bench and himself drew the curtains so that she should not be seen from the shore. It was one small mercy.

  As the barge began its journey, she tried to ignore his sanctimonious tut-tutting.

  “You should remember that your paramours have confessed their guilt,” he said.

  She flared. “I am innocent! I have had no paramours! I beg of you, take me to see His Grace.”

  “Tut, tut!” Norfolk repeated, shaking his head, until she thought she would scream.

  “We’re nearing the Tower now,” he said presently, and she started as a deafening burst of cannon fire almost rocked the barge. “They’re announcing your arrival. It’s done when a person of high rank is brought here under arrest.” There was the sound of shouting and loud voices from outside, and the Duke peered through a chink in the curtains. “People are running to see what’s happening.”

  Anne looked out too, and at the sight of the great fortress looming up in front of her, her courage almost failed her. She remembered that More and Fisher and the Nun of Kent had left this place for the scaffold.

  She waited as the oarsmen steered the vessel toward the Queen’s Stairs, which led up to the Court Gate, the postern entrance where she had entered at her coronation. The difference between that day and this was too monumental to bear thinking about. Back then, Henry had been waiting here to welcome her; he had kissed her in front of everyone. Now she was alone—and terrified of what he might do to her.

  Sir William Kingston appeared at the door of the cabin. “Please come with me, madam.” She rose and clambered along the footway behind him, between the rows of staring oarsmen, Norfolk and the other lords bringing up the rear. She could hear the roar of the crowd on Tower Hill as she ascended the Queen’s Stairs. Waiting at the top was Kingston’s deputy, Sir Edmund Walsingham, the Lieutenant of the Tower, flanked by a detachment of guards.

  When she reached the dark passage below the ancient Byward Tower, Anne faced the stark reality of her situation. It was rare, she realized, for anyone accused of treason to escape death. She felt so ill with fear that she thought she might collapse. As her stoutly maintained composure disintegrated, she sank to her knees. “Oh, my God, my God, help me, as I am not guilty of those crimes of which I am accused!” she wailed. The councillors stood there looking down on her pitilessly.

  “Sir William, we commit the Queen, here prisoner, to your custody,” Norfolk said to Kingston, then he turned to his colleagues, nodded, and made to depart.

  Anne struggled to her feet, despairing. “My lords, I pray you, beseech the King’s Grace to be good to me!” Her voice rose on a sob, but still they ignored her and headed back through the postern—to freedom. They knew not how blessed they were!

  “Sir William, may I write to the King?” she begged.

  “You may not write to anyone, madam,” he told her.

  “Please! He is my lord and husband.”

  “Orders is orders,” grunted Sir Edmund Walsingham.

  “Come this way,” Kingston said. The guards surrounded Anne and she followed the constable along the outer ward of the Tower that led toward the royal lodgings.

  “I was received with greater ceremony the last time I entered here,” she recalled. “Master Kingston, do I go into a dungeon?”

  He looked at her in surprise. “No, madam, you shall go into the lodging that you stayed in at your coronation.”

  The relief was indescribable. Henry, for reasons she could not fathom, was doing this to teach her some sort of lesson. They did not house traitors in palaces. But then no queen had ever been accused of treason in England…

  She thought of Norris, of how nearly she had sinned with him, had indeed sinned in her heart. He did not deserve to be caught up in this.

  “Where are those accused with me being held?” she asked.

  “I am not allowed to discuss them with you, madam,” the constable said.

  “They are in dungeons—you don’t need to tell me.”

  “We cannot say,” Sir Edmund barked. “Orders is orders.”

  “Then this lodging is too good for me!” she cried, imagining Norris in chains, and veering back from optimism to terror. What did they intend to do with her? “Jesu, have mercy on me!” she cried out, and fell helplessly to her knees on the cobbles, great sobs racking her body. Kingston and Sir Edmund stared down at her in dismay, but neither ventured to help her up. It was not done for a lesser mortal to lay hands on the Queen of England. At the thought, she burst out laughing hysterically. They might be preparing to put her to death, but they dared not lift her up!

  With an effort, she rose, and they continued past the Lieutenant’s House to the entrance to the palace, where Kingston preceded her up the stairs to her lodgings. It was as if three years had melted away. The rooms smelled musty, but they were just as she had left them to go in triumph through the City. It seemed like yesterday that she had admired the spacious chambers, the great mantel, and the mischievous putti gambolling along the antique frieze.

  Those who had been chosen to attend her were waiting for her. She was dismayed to see that chief among them were four ladies she disliked. There was her Aunt Boleyn, the wife of her Uncle James, who had recently incurred Anne’s enmity by switching his allegiance to the Lady Mary. There too was Lady Shelton, who greeted Anne with undisguised venom.

  Lady Kingston came forward and curtseyed. She too was a friend of the Lady Mary, and had once served the Princess Dowager. Anne did not expect her to be sympathetic. Lastly, there was Mrs. Coffyn, the wife of her Master of Horse.

  Was this some added refinement of cruelty on Henry’s part, forcing upon her the company of four women who hated her? How could he! But he had sent her old nurse, Mrs. Orchard, who was shaking her head in sorrow, and the amiable Mrs. Stonor, her Mother of the Maids. These two ladies, Kingston explained, would serve as her chamberers and sleep on pallet beds in her bedchamber at night.

  “Madam, it is customary for prisoners of rank to take their meals at my table,” he said. “Supper is ready, and I should be pleased if you would join me and my wife.”

  Anne was surprised by this unlooked-for courtesy, and allowed herself to be escorted to the Lieutenant’s House, a crumbling old building facing Tower Green and the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula. A table was set with linen and silver, and good fare was placed before her. Heartened, she managed to eat a little, under the watchful eyes of her host and hostess, but the conversation was awkward, punctuated by tense silences. There was so much she wanted—nay, needed—to know, but dared not ask, for fear of what she might hear.

  Above all, she had a burning need to proclaim her innocence, and that of Norris and Smeaton. She also craved spiritual comfort. “Master Kingston, will you please move the King’s Highness to agree to my having the Blessed Sacrament in my closet, so that I might pray for God’s mercy?” she asked.

  “I can arrange for that, madam,” he told her, dabbing his mouth with his napkin. “Would you like me to ask one of the Tower chaplains to give you Holy Communion after supper?”

  “I should like that very much,” she faltered, trying not to cry. “God will bear witness that there is no truth in these charges, for I am as clear from the company of man as from sin, and I am the King’s true wedded wife. Master Kingston, do you know why I am here?”

  Kingston looked troubled. “If I did, I would not be allowed to discuss it with you.”

  “When did you last see the King?” she persisted.

  “I saw him in the tiltyard on May Day.”

  “I pray you tell me where my lord my father is,” she begged. Father had influence. Surely he could intercede for her
.

  “I saw him before dinner at court,” Kingston replied. Had Father been aware of what was happening? He was a member of the King’s Council—and he had been appointed to that Grand Jury. She remembered how distracted he had been when she saw him last. Had he known about this and not warned her? And George? If George knew, he would move Heaven and earth to save her. He would speak to the King on her behalf and fearlessly defend her. She could not bear to imagine his distress when he heard of her arrest.

  “Where is my sweet brother?” she cried desperately.

  “I left him at York Place,” Kingston said.

  Lady Kingston reached across and touched her arm. “Madam, there’s no use working yourself up into a frenzy,” she said. But Anne was lost in terror, deeply agitated, and remembering that someone unnamed had also been charged with committing treason with her. Who could it be?

  “I hear that I am accused with three men,” she said, “and I can say no more but nay, I have done nothing wrong, unless I should open my body to prove it!” So saying, she pretended to hold wide her bodice, and then found herself laughing hysterically again at the absurdity of what she had just said, until Kingston reminded her that Norris and Smeaton had testified against her. She could believe it of Smeaton, for he was no gentleman, but not of Norris. Surely he would not betray her?

  “Oh, Norris, have you accused me?” she burst out, laughter turning to weeping. “You are in the Tower with me, and you and I shall die together. And Mark, you are here too,” she lamented, remembering that he too was innocent. Then she thought of her mother, still lying sick at Hever, and how badly the news of her arrest, with all its shocking implications, would affect her. “Oh my mother, you will die for sorrow!” she cried. The thought of her mother was too much to bear, so she quickly changed the subject and spoke of her fears for Lady Worcester, whose child might have died inside her.

 
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