Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession by Alison Weir


  —

  Anne stood with the other maids of honor and Suffolk’s two gentlemen under the magnificent vaulting of the chapel of the Hôtel de Cluny and watched as Queen Mary and her Duke were joined in matrimony. Mary was still wearing her white mourning, but this afternoon she would cast it off for a gorgeous gown of black velvet trimmed with gold. The chaplain had been sent by King François, who knew very well that this marriage was being made without King Henry’s knowledge or approval, and was no doubt gleefully relishing the prospect of his brother monarch erupting in impotent fury.

  A pale beam of March sunlight pierced the jeweled colors of the stained glass and bathed the couple in light. Mary’s face was suffused with rapture, and Suffolk was looking at her as if she was the only woman in the world.

  Anne dared not think of the Regent’s reaction when she heard of this marriage. Margaret of Austria had been abashed enough by the rumors speculating that she might marry Suffolk; how much worse she would feel when the whole of Christendom was gossiping about her being jilted. How could Suffolk look so happy and satisfied with himself when he had treated her so despicably?

  “It just goes to prove that a woman can have what she wants if she is clever enough,” Mary Boleyn said, as they left the chapel to help the Queen change.

  “Yes, but at what cost?” Florence put in.

  “Aye!” Anne said vehemently, thinking of the poor Regent.

  “The way they look, it will be worth it,” Mary Fiennes sighed. “I wish I could get a husband who loves me so well.”

  “We will see if King Henry approves,” Anne said, remembering how he had urged the Regent to marry the Duke.

  —

  Letters came thundering across the Channel from England. The Queen’s face, flushed with love for several days, now registered alarm.

  “The King is outraged to hear of my marriage,” she told her ladies. “He accuses my lord of breaking his promise. He says he will have his head for his presumption.” Her voice broke. She was trembling.

  Anne was horrified. Suffolk might be lacking in honor, but he was the King’s friend. She had seen them together; they had been like brothers. Surely Henry would never carry out his terrible threat. Mary was his favorite sister, and he loved her. He could not do that to her!

  The couple were beset on both sides. King François—the hypocrite, for he had abetted the secret marriage—expressed disapproval at the Queen remarrying so indecently soon after King Louis’s death. The French court was apparently reeling from the scandal. All across Europe, the gossips were regaling each other.

  Then Cardinal Wolsey, King Henry’s chief minister and friend—and by all reports the most powerful man in England after him—used his considerable powers of diplomacy to still the troubled waters. King Henry graciously allowed himself to be mollified: he would forgive the errant pair in return for a punishing fine, paid in installments over several years. The Queen gaped when she saw the sum mentioned.

  “We will be in penury for life!” she cried.

  Anne watched as the Duke took her hand and kissed it. “It will be money well spent,” he said gallantly, “and it means I get to keep my head.” But he sounded as if he had just eaten something bitter. He should have married the Regent and avoided all this, Anne thought. “We should be thankful,” he added. “His Grace promises us a second wedding, with proper celebrations, at Greenwich. And we are going home, my love!”

  The maids of honor were wondering what was to happen to them, for it was clear that Queen Mary could not now afford to retain them all. Over the next few days, some were summoned home by their families. Anne did not want to be rusticated in England with the Queen, for Mary had said that she and Suffolk would have to live quietly in the country; nor did she and her sister want to go home to Hever, so Anne wrote to Father explaining their dilemma and asking for his help. He was quick to act. Not two weeks had passed before Queen Mary informed them that Queen Claude had honored them by offering them places in her household.

  Anne clapped her hands, enjoying the undisguised envy of her fellow maids of honor. Although still pining for the court of Burgundy, she was fired up with excitement. The French court! At last! After weeks of living in the secluded gloom of the Hôtel de Cluny, she could not wait to be back in the world. Joyfully she and Mary packed their chests, as Mary recalled the glories of the Hôtel des Tournelles with its twenty chapels, twelve galleries, and beautiful gardens, and the wondrous chateau of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, just outside Paris. And there were other sumptuous palaces too, further south on the River Loire, of which Mary had only heard—Blois, Amboise, and Langeais. They would be able to wear their new gowns, which had been laid away while they wore mourning, and dance, and meet noble gentlemen…King François, for all his faults, was a young man with a great zest for living, and life at his court would be one long round of pleasure.

  —

  King François remembered the courtesy expected of a monarch, and hosted a farewell dinner for Queen Mary at the Hôtel de Cluny. He was at his most charming, and it was as if he had never behaved otherwise toward her. Afterward there was dancing, and Anne watched as François, dazzling in cloth of silver, led out his royal guest. Queen Claude was not present, being with child, so the Duke of Suffolk danced with the King’s sister, Marguerite, Duchesse d’Alençon, a lively, witty lady with the long Valois nose and a wealth of frizzy dark hair.

  When Anne saw her own sister in the throng, it was always with a different man. They smiled at each other as they whirled past, skirts billowing. It was strange how well they had got on these past weeks, instead of eternally squabbling in an exhausting game of rivalry. Perhaps the long months of absence had something to do with it, or being thrown together in a difficult situation. Anne was in such a happy mood this evening that she was ready to love even her normally infuriating sister.

  Around midnight, she saw Mary dancing with King François. It disconcerted her. Not that she was jealous—he was the last man she wanted to dance with—but she had heard about his lascivious life and his womanizing, and witnessed his assault on Queen Mary’s virtue. Her sister, she hoped, would be mindful of that.

  Anne herself was asked for dance after dance. The young gallants flocked around her, and the evening passed in a whirl of music and laughter. It was not until later that she looked around for Mary and realized there was no sign of her, or the King. Most people were drunk, engrossed in their partners or deep in conversation. The air was rank with the scent of sweat, leftover food, and spilled wine. She did not care, for the musicians were striking up again, and yet another young man was bowing before her.

  It was not until two o’clock in the morning that she saw King François, urbane as ever, and very drunk. He was sitting on his great chair, toying with a buxom woman on his lap. It was not Mary. Anne looked for her sister in vain, beginning to feel anxiety creeping up on her. It was not like Mary to go to bed and miss an occasion like this.

  Damn Mary, giving unnecessary cause for concern when she herself was enjoying this wonderful night! She supposed she ought to go and look for her—but probably she was worrying unnecessarily. Mary was older than she, and could surely look after herself.

  —

  Toward dawn, she ascended the stairs to the dorter, tired but exhilarated, surrounded by the excited chatter of the other maids of honor. Many had gained admirers, it seemed.

  Her bubble of happiness burst when she saw Mary sitting on her bed in the moonlit darkness, weeping uncontrollably. Anne hastened to her, the others clustering around. Some lit candles, some offered handkerchiefs.

  “What is wrong?” Anne demanded, feeling guilty for not having sought out her sister earlier.

  Mary shook her head, and went on sobbing. She looked utterly distraught. Anne shook her. “Tell me!”

  “He…he…” she gasped.

  “Who?” Anne cried. “What did he do?”

  “The King…” Mary burst out in fresh floods of tears.

  There was a
shocked silence.

  “He takes what he wishes,” Florence said in a tone of disgust. “It is well known.”

  Anne put her arm around Mary. She was trembling herself. “Is this true?”

  Mary nodded. “He…forced me,” she whispered through her sobs. “He was taking me to see a painting. He said it was a work of art such as no one had ever surpassed. But…there was no painting. When we got into the gallery where it was supposed to be, he put his arms around me and started kissing me. I did not know what to do. He is the King. I dared not gainsay him!” She gulped. “Then he said we’d be more private and comfortable elsewhere, and pulled me through a door. It was a…bedchamber. I tried to protest, to say that I was a maid and was saving myself for my husband, but he just laughed and said that everyone says that but it means nothing. And then he…he pushed me on the bed and…Don’t ask me to say more.” She hung her head. “He did things to me I had never heard of.”

  “It was rape!” hissed Elizabeth Gray, her eyes blazing, and the others murmured shocked agreement. “Shame on him!”

  Shame on me, Anne thought, distraught, unable to grasp the enormity of what had happened. If I had gone to look for her, I might have prevented it.

  “I cannot face going to court,” Mary wept. “Waiting on Queen Claude, I will see him every day, and I could not bear the shame. She will guess!” Her cries rose to a piteous wail. “She will dismiss me!”

  Anne could imagine the scandal, and shrank from the prospect. She held Mary tightly, waiting until the storm had subsided. The others stood round, shaking their heads in concern.

  Eventually Mary straightened, her face red and blotched with tears, her hair tousled. She took a deep breath. “I will see Queen Mary in the morning and ask if I can go home with her.”

  That seemed to Anne to be even more fraught with difficulties. “But what will Father say?” she asked. “How will you explain it to him? He secures for you one of the most coveted posts to which a girl can aspire, and you turn your back on it!”

  “Do you think I wanted this?” Mary flung back. “It was not my fault!”

  Anne knew that, if she had been Mary, she would have stamped on the King’s foot, or screamed, or slapped his face, but she refrained from saying it. She would not upset Mary further. Outraged on her sister’s behalf, she reflected bitterly that whatever anyone—even the enlightened Christine de Pizan—said, men were still stronger than women and able to take what they wanted. With them it was either brute force or cruel deception. Look at how Suffolk had treated the Regent. And kings did not have to answer to anybody.

  “I understand that you cannot face serving Queen Claude,” Anne said, feeling like crying herself, “but you must think about what you are going to say to Father.”

  Mary gave a shuddering sob. “I don’t know. I can’t think just now. I’ll think in the morning.”

  “We have to be up early to ride to Saint-Denis,” Anne reminded her. “Queen Mary has a long journey ahead.”

  “Just leave me alone!” Mary wailed, and lay down, still in her clothes.

  Looking at her, defiled and broken, Anne was again swamped with guilt. Why did she not feel sorrier for her? The truth was that Mary could be so exasperating—and stupid. Why go off alone with the King in the first place? But—she pulled herself up—that did not excuse his appalling behavior. Mary’s silliness was as nothing compared with what he had done.

  She bent down, contrite, and began unlacing her sister’s gown, then fetched her night rail and helped her into bed.

  “Perhaps, Mistress Anne, you understand now why a woman should not be by herself with a man,” Florence said nastily.

  —

  When they were roused at six, Anne was feeling ragged. She had not slept for racking her brains over what to do about Mary. After the horrifying thought that Mary might be pregnant occurred to her, she’d lain awake torturing herself for being responsible, and worrying about what would happen to her sister, and how a pregnancy could be concealed. She did not dare think what their father would say.

  King François arrived promptly at eight o’clock to escort Queen Mary to the great abbey of Saint-Denis, where they would say farewell and she and Suffolk would begin their journey back to England. Anne could hardly look at François, she was so filled with loathing. She was seized with the urge to slap him—it was the least he deserved—but what good would that do? She felt so impotent.

  It had been arranged that Anne and Mary were to return to court in the King’s train and be presented to their new mistress, Queen Claude. Elegant in black velvet and a jaunty cap that showed off her red hair to advantage, Queen Mary embraced them and bade them farewell.

  “I am most appreciative of your good service—and your discretion,” she told them. Flushed with her good fortune, she did not notice that both were subdued and red-eyed.

  But now Mary spoke up.

  “Your Highness, let me come home with you,” she pleaded. Anne was appalled. This should be kept within the family. Already too many people knew of it.

  The Queen frowned. “What is this? You are going to court to serve Queen Claude.”

  “Madame, I cannot,” Mary said, beginning to weep again.

  “Why, for Heaven’s sake? Do you not realize how fortunate you are?”

  Mary swallowed and lowered her voice. “Madame, you know, better than most, how persistent a certain gentleman can be.” Her voice faltered. “I dare not stay here at court. My reputation will be compromised.”

  The Queen’s eyes narrowed. Understanding dawned. “Has he seduced you?”

  “No!” Anne said. But Mary hung her head.

  “Take me home, your Highness,” she begged. “I cannot bear to see him again after last night. Please do not ask me to elaborate. Believe me, I had no choice in the matter.”

  “What of Father?” Anne asked. “He will be furious.”

  “You may leave it to me to explain to him,” the Queen said, her tone unusually strident. “I will vouch for you, Mary. If he is furious with anyone, it should be with that villain. My dear, I am so sorry—and appalled. I can never forgive myself, for you are in my service and have been dishonored. I should have been more aware.”

  “Your Highness understandably has had weighty matters on your mind,” Anne said.

  “It was my duty! But we cannot waste time on regrets. I am late already. Mary, have a servant load your baggage.”

  “Oh thank you, your Highness!” Mary cried, before hastily embracing Anne and hurrying away.

  “I must go,” the Queen said. “Mistress Anne, I wish you well at the French court. After what has happened, I don’t need to warn you to guard your virtue—it is the most precious jewel you will ever possess.” She smiled sadly, watching Mary’s retreating back. “I think you are wise, and do not need my advice. You would not let any man take advantage of you.”

  Anne curtseyed. No, she would never let that happen. No man would have the chance. In fact, she was resolved never to have anything to do with the perfidious, dangerous, bestial creatures. There were so many other things in life to enjoy.

  She looked after the departing figure of her sister. Pray God the Queen spoke to Father before he set eyes on Mary.

  —

  As the royal retinues prepared to leave Saint-Denis, Anne bade Mary a hurried farewell.

  “If you want me to write to Father in your defense, I will do so,” she said, then lowered her voice. “Your secret is safe with me. I pray there will be no unpleasant consequences.”

  “Oh, there could not be,” Mary said, sounding happier now that she was leaving Paris. “Mary Fiennes told me that the woman has to experience pleasure to conceive, and most certainly I did not.”

  Anne was not sure that was true, but she held her peace. “God keep you,” she said, and kissed Mary. She watched as the great cavalcade rode away northward, before climbing into the horse litter that was to take her to the Louvre. The world was opening up again, and she was aware of excitement w
elling up within her, but it was tempered by what had happened to her sister in the very court for which she was now bound.

  1515-1516

  Claude of Valois was little more than a child, a delicate-looking girl with a pleasing face and curly chestnut-brown hair. Her eyes squinted disconcertingly in different directions, and she had a pronounced limp, having been crippled from birth. But as the daughter of the late King Louis, and heiress to the duchy of Brittany, she had been a great prize in the royal marriage market, which was why the future King François had made her his bride, the poor girl.

  She arrived late for the audience, walking to her chair of estate in as stately fashion as her condition and her uneven gait permitted. The midnight-blue velvet gown embroidered with the lilies of France, its stomacher unlaced over her belly, seemed to weigh her down, but she was all smiles, and the first impression Anne gained was of an innate sweetness of character.

  “Welcome, mademoiselle,” the Queen said, looking both at and past her as Anne sank into a deep curtsey. “You may rise. Is your sister not with you?”

  Anne was prepared. “Your Majesty, she is unwell and has had to return home to England.” She hoped Claude would swallow the lie.

  “I am sorry to hear it,” the Queen said. “I hope it is nothing serious.”

  “Madame, I am assured that time and a good rest in the country will effect a cure.”

  Claude smiled. “Well, Mademoiselle Anne, I rejoice to see you, for I have heard excellent reports of you. There is always a great clamor when a place becomes vacant in my household, but I liked what I heard of you, as did my mother-in-law, Madame Louise, who noticed you on her visits to Queen Mary. She told me how accomplished you are.”

  “It is kind of your Highness to say so,” Anne said. She was aware that the domineering Madame Louise ruled the court, overshadowing Claude, but she could detect no bitterness in the young Queen’s demeanor.

 
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