Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession by Alison Weir


  She caught young Richmond smiling at her maliciously. Norfolk and Suffolk were there, with many nobles, and the Lord Mayor of London with the aldermen and sheriffs—but she looked in vain for her father.

  They had reached the scaffold now. Sawdust had been strewn over it, and several men were standing on it awaiting her. They wore ordinary dress, so she could not tell which one was the executioner. She could see no sign of his sword. On the ground to the far side she glimpsed a wooden chest. Sweet Jesus, it was her coffin! She forced herself to stay calm. She did not have to be brave for much longer.

  Kingston offered her his arm and assisted her up the five wooden steps, her four maids following. She stood on the scaffold, looking down on the crowd, trying hard to smile and show them that she felt no fear.

  She turned to Kingston. “May I have leave to speak to the people? I promise I will not say anything contentious. And I beg you not to hasten the signal for my death till I have spoken that which I have a mind to say.”

  He nodded. “Please speak now, and be brief.”

  She turned back to the crowd, breathless with nerves. “Good Christian people, I am come here to die, according to the law, for by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I come here only to die, and to yield myself humbly to the will of the King, my lord. And if, in my life, I did ever offend the King’s Grace, surely with my death I do now atone.” She bowed her head, her heart racing, for when she finished speaking, only death awaited her. She forced herself to continue, praying that her voice did not betray her fear.

  “I come here to accuse no man,” she declared, “nor to speak anything of that of which I am accused. I pray and beseech you all, good friends, to pray for the life of the King, my sovereign lord and yours, who is one of the best princes on the face of the earth, who has always treated me so well that better could not be found, wherefore I submit to death with a good will, humbly asking pardon of all the world. If any person will meddle with my cause, I require them to judge the best. Thus I take my leave of the world, and of you, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me.”

  At a nod from Kingston, her young ladies stepped forward, but they were in such anguish that she had to help them remove her cape, her night robe, and her hood, leaving her standing there in her red kirtle. Nan Saville drew the linen coif from her pocket and gave it to her. She pulled it over her head, making sure that all her hair was tucked in, and was dismayed to find that one plait kept sliding down. She pushed in the clips and prayed it would stay in place. Nothing must be allowed to impede the sword.

  “Pray for me!” she beseeched her maids. “I beg your pardon for any harshness I have shown toward you, for while I lived, you have always showed yourselves diligent in my service, and now you are present at my last hour and mortal agony; as in good fortune you were faithful to me, so even at this, my miserable death, you do not forsake me.” They were looking pitifully at her, tears streaming down their cheeks. Anne smiled faintly at them. “As I cannot reward you for your true service to me, I pray you take comfort for my loss,” she said. “Be not sorry to see me die. Forget me not, and always be faithful to the King’s Grace and to her whom with happier fortune you may look to have as your Queen and mistress. And always esteem your honor far beyond your life, and in your prayers to the Lord Jesus forget not to pray for my soul.”

  A big, brawny man in a sober but well-cut suit of clothes stepped forward and knelt before Anne. As he spoke, in heavily accented English, she realized it was the executioner. Her heart began pounding furiously.

  “Madam,” he said, “I crave your Majesty’s pardon, for I am ordered to do my duty.”

  “I give it willingly,” she told him.

  “Madam, I beg you to kneel and say your prayers,” he instructed.

  This was the moment. She knelt in the sawdust, taking care to remain upright, as Kingston had exhorted her.

  “Please allow me a little time for prayer,” she asked, arranging her skirts modestly about her feet, so that when her body fell, it would not be exposed.

  “O Christ, receive my spirit!” she entreated, over and over again. Below her the Lord Mayor cried, “All kneel in respect for the passing of a soul!” The crowd fell to its knees. Only Suffolk and Richmond remained standing. Anne tried to pray, but she was frightened that the blow would come when she was not ready, and kept looking fearfully around her.

  “Madam, do not fear. I will wait till you tell me,” the executioner said.

  She touched her coif, checking that her plait was still in place, as she continued her prayers. Nan Saville came forward, weeping uncontrollably, with a linen cloth to blindfold her, but her fingers were trembling so much that Anne took the cloth from her. She looked for a final time upon the world and the sea of faces gazing up at her, then covered her eyes. The last thing she saw before doing so was the sunny sky above the Tower roofs.

  “Jesu, have pity on my soul! My God, have pity on my soul!” she prayed fervently. “To Jesus Christ I commend my soul.” She heard the executioner quietly bid her maids stand out of the way, and there was a shuffling and a fresh outbreak of loud weeping. It was terrifying not being able to see what was happening around her.

  “Strike now!” she cried, her heart hammering so hard and painfully in her chest that she thought there might be no need for any headsman. “O Lord God, have pity on my soul! To Christ I commend my soul!”

  She heard the executioner say, “Bring me the sword!” There was a movement in the direction of the scaffold steps, and she blindly turned her head that way.

  She had believed Kingston when he had said there would be no pain, and prayed that the blow would be instantaneous and bring immediate oblivion, but when it came there was a choking explosion of searing agony and a dreadful warm gush of blood. She was aware of tasting it in her mouth and of its flooding her nostrils as she felt her head, horribly light now, hit the scaffold with a painful thud and the blindfold fell away. She would have cried out, yet no sound came apart from a terrible, silent gurgling, and she wanted to clamp her hands to the mortal wound that had been dealt her, yet she had no hands anymore. They were attached to the dark, bloodied, crumpled thing that lay on the scaffold next to her. She blinked and tried to look away. Through her torment she could still see the blurred shapes of people around her on the scaffold. And then her eyes dimmed and the merciful darkness descended.

  I could write another book on how this novel was constructed from the historical sources. Over the course of my years of study, I have seen perceptions of Anne Boleyn change substantially. I am aware that in some circles, particularly on the Internet, she has acquired celebrity status, and that she has become many things to many people and, in the process, controversial. During the writing of this book, an admirer of Anne Boleyn expressed the hope that I would portray her accurately, to which I answered that historians might well differ when considering what “accurately” might mean. There is so much room for conjecture.

  The problem facing any historian or novelist writing about Anne Boleyn is that, in some ways, she is unknowable. We do not have a wealth of her letters, unlike with Katherine of Aragon, whose inner thoughts were often passionately expressed. Much of the material on Anne Boleyn comes from a hostile source, the Imperial ambassador, Eustache Chapuys. Yet recent research on Chapuys shows that he was an observant, well-informed witness, close to the center of affairs, who cited his sources, so we can usually judge how accurate they are likely to have been. This presents those wishing to see Anne Boleyn in a sympathetic light with another problem: how does one get beyond the sometimes damning testimony of Chapuys?

  In writing this novel from Anne’s point of view, I have tried to reconcile conflicting views of her, and to portray her as a flawed but very human heroine, a woman of great ambition, idealism, and courage who found herself in an increasingly frightening situation.

  It has become fashionable to see Anne Boleyn as a feminist heroine, a concept that, until recently, I
would have dismissed as anachronistic, arguing that feminism was unknown in Tudor England. That much is true, but in early sixteenth-century Europe, where Anne spent her formative years, there was an intellectual movement and debate that questioned traditional concepts of women and looked forward to an era in which they would enjoy more power and autonomy. This was an age of female rulers and thinkers, and Anne had two shining examples before her: Margaret of Austria and Marguerite of Valois. (Two sources mention her serving Marguerite of Valois, but no dates are given; I have placed her in Marguerite’s household from 1520 to 1522.) I have set Anne in this European context and focused on the cultural influences to which she was exposed. So yes, it is legitimate to see her as a feminist long before her time: it is a concept she would have understood, it underpinned her ambitions and self-image, and it was this Renaissance cultural background, not just the French fashions and manners, that would have made her stand out at the English court.

  Anne spent seven years at the French court, serving Queen Claude, the wife of François I, and Marguerite, but there are no contemporary French sources that mention her. I thought it would be helpful to track, as far as possible, the movements of her mistress, Queen Claude, who imposed an almost conventual rule on her ladies and shunned the court whenever she could, preferring the palaces of Amboise and Blois on the Loire. There is no doubt that Anne would have known these palaces well. But she probably traveled more widely in France too. In 1515, during a campaign to win Milan, François I won the Battle of Marignano. Lingering in Italy, he was introduced to the great artist Leonardo da Vinci, and the following year we find Leonardo installed, at the King’s expense, in a house, Le Clos Lucé, near the chateau of Amboise. Leonardo remained in France and died in that house in 1519.

  Early in 1516, Queen Claude traveled with François’s sister, Marguerite of Valois, and his mother, Louise of Savoy, down to Provence to meet up with the returning hero and accompany his triumphal progress back through France. Anne Boleyn would almost certainly have been with them. It is likely too that she knew—at least by sight—Leonardo da Vinci, for she was often at Amboise, and he had close links to the court. The scenes in this novel are imagined, but they are not improbable.

  Legend links Anne Boleyn with the chateau of Briis-sous-Forges south of Paris. There are all sorts of theories as to how the Donjon Anne Boleyn came to be so named, and I evolved a new one for this book. It proved, however, to be too long, and will be the subject of an e-short to be published separately. Did you pick up the hints in these pages as to what that story might be about? The novel stands alone without it, but in the e-short you can read a slightly different version of that chapter in Anne’s story.

  Apart from a few fictional attendants at the courts of Burgundy and France, the characters in this book all lived. I have kept closely to the historical record, but have taken occasional minor liberties, so as not to slow the flow of the narrative. Given the sometimes awkward syntax of Tudor sources and letters, I have modernized the language in places to make the meaning clearer. Some quotes have been taken out of context or put in the mouths of others, but the sentiments are appropriate for the character or situation. The poetry is all authentic.

  One can only understand the courtships of Anne Boleyn in the context of the game of courtly love, which is explained in the book and is an ongoing theme that dominates the relationships between the male and female characters.

  Seventeen of Henry VIII’s love letters to Anne survive in the Vatican library. Given the couple’s long separations—I was struck afresh by how long they actually were—I am convinced that there must have been more letters, and I have invented or referred to others in this novel. Anne’s replies are lost. If we had them, we would have more insights into her character and her feelings for Henry VIII. In her indictment, it was alleged she had said she had never wished to choose the King in her heart, and while that was an accusation against her, along with other accusations that can be proved false, I think it might have been true. It chimes with what we know of their relationship. It made writing this book from that angle a more seamless task than portraying Anne as being in love with Henry. I think it was all about power on her side. Of course, this is only a theory, and no doubt some will disagree with it, but it was interesting to tell the story from this perspective. It makes it even more poignant.

  To add further poignancy, there is the unacknowledged—until near the end—attraction between Anne and Norris. This was suggested by the wording of her last confession. From her insistence that “she had never offended with her body” against the King, it might be inferred that she had offended in her heart or her thoughts, and that she had secretly loved another but had never gone so far as to consummate that love. The evidence suggests that, of the men accused with her, Norris was the likeliest object of her affections. Again, it’s just a theory, but a compelling one. Norris did confess to something after his arrest—we don’t know what—but later retracted it.

  Sources hostile to Anne mention her sixth fingernail, but it is also mentioned in a laudatory memoir by George Wyatt, grandson of the poet Thomas Wyatt. George Wyatt spent his life researching Anne Boleyn, drawing on his family traditions and the firsthand reminiscences of people who had known her, among them Anne Gainsford. He should be accounted a generally reliable source.

  There is evidence, discussed in my biography Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore, that Mary Boleyn was forced to become Henry VIII’s mistress. In that same book, I argued the case for Elizabeth Howard having a poor reputation. Some have inferred, from passages in The Heptameron, her collection of novellas, that Marguerite of Navarre was raped, although others have seen this as a literary conceit. The man, who is not named in the text, was Guillaume Gouffier, Sire de Bonnivet.

  The rivalry between Anne and her sister Mary is implicit in the letter Mary wrote to Thomas Cromwell in 1534. The attitudes toward sodomy expressed in the book reflect the contemporary opinion, for it was then held that sexual intercourse was intended for procreation, and that preventing conception was sinful.

  Studying Henry VIII’s love letters to Anne, it struck me that they fall into three categories: those importuning her to be his mistress in the physical sense, which belong to the initial phase of his courtship; those urging her to be his mistress in the courtly sense; and those in which he is longing to marry her and consummate their relationship, in which he is importuning her no more. It has long been asserted, by me in earlier books, and by many others, that Anne held Henry off for seven years, but this reading of the letters strongly suggests that it was Henry who made the decision not to sleep with her lest she become pregnant, which would have caused an embarrassing scandal at a time when he was trumpeting her virtue to the Pope.

  I do not think the wording of the dispensation issued in 1528, specifically allowing Henry, whenever he was free to marry again, to take to wife any woman, “in any degree [of affinity], even the first, ex illicito coito [arising from illicit intercourse],” implies that Henry had already had intercourse with Anne; rather, it refers to his illicit intercourse with Mary Boleyn. There is nothing in Henry’s letters to Anne to suggest that they had briefly become lovers in the fullest sense.

  There is no doubt that Anne Boleyn was an unpopular queen. The state papers contain many libels or slanders. All those mentioned in the novel come from contemporary authentic records.

  The identity of the mistresses Henry VIII took in 1533 and 1534 remains unknown. It’s been conjectured that Elizabeth Carew was the first, and I’ve speculated here that Joan Ashley was the second. She was unmarried, and did serve Anne Boleyn as a maid of honor.

  Much has been made of Anne leaving behind a motherless child of two years and eight months. In fact, Anne saw very little of her daughter, the future Elizabeth I. Elizabeth had her own separate household from the age of three months, and Anne visited infrequently, while Elizabeth was at court only on rare occasions. Tudor queens were not required to be hands-on mothers, although in the nove
l, we see Anne interesting herself in Elizabeth’s marriage, as was expected of her. We have a record of items of clothing she bought for Elizabeth. Her involvement in her daughter’s life doesn’t amount to much, which suggested to me that, disappointed by Elizabeth’s sex, Anne found it hard to bond with her or love her. In the novel, this only adds to her unhappiness.

  Some readers may wonder at my suggestion that Jasper Tudor built the banqueting hall range at Sudeley Castle, which has traditionally been said to have been the work of Richard III; but while Richard did own the castle, there is no evidence that he ever visited. Jasper Tudor held it from 1486 to his death in 1495, so it’s more likely that he was responsible.

  There is no historical evidence linking George Boleyn to Katherine of Aragon’s death. Readers who are interested in reading more of this tale might enjoy my e-short, The Blackened Heart, which continues a story thread only hinted at in the first novel in this series, Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen. There were rumors of poison after Katherine’s autopsy, the report of which was suppressed. There was a poison attempt on Bishop Fisher (although Richard Rouse was actually a friend of the Bishop’s cook), and the Boleyns were suspected of having been behind it. Anne Boleyn did warn the Bishop not to attend Parliament in case he should suffer a repetition of the sickness the poison had caused. Certainly Katherine’s death was timely, given the need for Anne, who was pregnant, to bear an indisputably legitimate heir. On hearing of Katherine’s death, Anne did weep in her oratory. But the sum of these parts does not amount to good evidence that the Boleyns poisoned Katherine.

  The compromising conversations of Anne Boleyn with Norris, Weston, and Smeaton, and her conversations in the Tower, are based on Sir William Kingston’s detailed reports to Cromwell. Some of these conversations seem disjointed and make little sense in parts, and I suspect that not every utterance was recorded; therefore, using the creative freedom of a novelist, I have tried to make better sense of them.

 
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