Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession by Alison Weir

“There are three hundred young ladies in my household,” Claude told her. “You will be in good company. I hope your time here will be happy.”

  Anne was thus dismissed. A lady-in-waiting came to take her to her new lodgings—yet another maidens’ dorter high up in the eaves, where she would share space with nineteen other girls. It was sweltering in the warm weather. She found herself missing Mary already. It was a daunting prospect, going alone into this vast royal household. But—and she kept her chin up—she would deal with it. And maybe, among those three hundred young ladies, she would find some friends.

  “You will wait upon Her Majesty when summoned,” the lady-in-waiting said. “At other times, you will confine yourself to this dorter or the Queen’s chapel, and you may walk in her private gardens with another of the maids, but never unaccompanied. You will not go anywhere else without permission. Is that understood?”

  Anne’s spirits plummeted. It sounded worse than the Hôtel de Cluny.

  “Yes, madame,” she said meekly.

  —

  In those first few days, she began, with mounting dismay, to understand the constraints of her new life. But the Queen’s strict regimen played to Anne’s advantage, for she found that most of her new companions shared her distaste for it, and it made a common bond between them. They were forever devising schemes to circumvent the rules, and soon Anne was joining in with enthusiasm. Many of the young ladies were keen to hear about her time at the court of Burgundy, and grew wistful when she told them of the freedom she had enjoyed. Having heard only rumors, they were agog to learn about the goings-on at the Hôtel de Cluny from someone who had been there. She was grateful that she had worked diligently at her French, for she was now fluent and could converse and gossip with them on equal terms—and she knew they admired her for it. She was quickly accepted into their aristocratic circle, and began to feel that she was among friends.

  Queen Claude was kind and affectionate, but that mild exterior concealed a will of steel—and, Anne came to suspect, a desperate unhappiness; and no wonder, given that she was married to that unspeakable lecher. It was no secret that the King dallied with many mistresses—indeed, it was one of the chief topics of conversation among the excitable young women in that teeming household. But Claude—she was a saint—ignored the gossip, or rather the conversations that were suddenly hushed when she appeared. When the King visited her, which was not often, she was sweetness itself to him, but when he had gone—usually all too soon—she could barely hide her sadness.

  That she was aware of his constant infidelities, and the lax example he set to his courtiers, was apparent in her imposition of a strict moral code upon her household. Her mission was to protect her maids from predatory men, but it was like living in a nunnery. Anne was told early on that she must follow the Queen’s example and conduct herself with modesty and decorum. Her days were governed by a tedious round of prayers, good works, devotional reading, and endless sewing. Within a week, she thought she might go mad or die of frustration. There was no talk here of the game of love!

  The Queen kept nearly always to her apartments. Anne learned that she did not like the court, and disapproved of what went on there.

  “She attends when she has to,” one of the maids said, “but she would far rather be at Amboise or Blois.”

  “Away from the court?” Anne asked, dismayed.

  “If the King agrees, yes. And usually he does. He has his reasons, of course.” A sly smile accompanied that statement.

  You could not blame Claude, Anne reflected. After all, what queen would want the humiliation of seeing her husband parading his mistresses in public, or of other people’s pity or derision? Look at her, poor little misshapen thing; no wonder he strays!

  It felt like being in prison, immured in the Queen’s lavishly painted and gilded rooms, which offered every luxury a woman might require but held no attractions for Anne. What good did it do to wear all her gorgeous court gowns, on which Father had outlaid so much money, if no one saw them?

  —

  In June, the King led an army into Italy, where he was to aid the state of Venice against an invading Spanish army. After he and his entourage had left, the Louvre became a peaceful place. Madame Louise was acting as regent, since Claude was pregnant, and she largely left the little Queen to her own devices, preferring the stimulating company of her daughter, Marguerite. Free to rest and indulge herself, Claude relaxed her vigilance and, since most temptations had been removed, allowed her maids more freedom. To Anne’s relief, they were at last permitted to wander the splendid apartments and galleries, to gaze at the wondrous paintings that were on display there, and to roam the delightful gardens.

  They were still expected to be regular at their devotions, and to eschew the romances that Claude believed would lead to their downfall, in favor of the pious works she prescribed, but Anne soon learned the trick of concealing one volume within another, and was able to read books that were quite scandalous by Claude’s standards, which she had purloined from the royal library.

  Give her some due, the Queen did appreciate that her maids needed to perfect the accomplishments that would enable them to shine at court when in attendance on her, and attract good marriages. She had them practice their deportment, and stressed the importance of being able to make conversation. Anne was quick to build on her natural inclinations and the training from which she had benefited at the Regent’s court. She tripped up and down with books balanced on her head, worked on perfecting her curtsey and on new dance steps, and learned how to glide gracefully along as if she had no feet.

  It was disconcertingly clear to her that the expensive gowns her father had provided, which were in the English style, looked out of place in Paris, where square necklines were wider and edged in the front with embroidered and bejeweled biliments, and hoods were shaped like halos rather than the gabled style her mother wore. She had heard clucks of disapproval from older ladies, who held that it was indecent for married women to show their hair, the sight of which must be reserved for their husbands, but even the virtuous Claude loved the French hood, so its critics were silenced.

  Anne had acquired two velvet beguine hoods in Burgundy, and now she applied her skills to converting them into French ones, which suited her so well. Her gowns she painstakingly adapted, over many hours, into the French mode, slashing the undersleeves so that she could pull puffs of her lawn chemise through them, and arranging the hanging oversleeves on top, making sure that she had made frills at the wrists long enough to cover that hated sixth fingernail. Always she added her own innovative details: interlacing ribbons and paste gems on her bodice, or repeating the biliment at the skirt hem, or wearing a bandeau of silver chain across her forehead, beneath her hood. The effects were striking. Her slender figure was maturing into the lines of womanhood, and so perfectly proportioned that the gowns looked wonderful. Others thought so too, for within a short while her small innovations were being copied, and after a time she realized that women, many even of high rank, were watching her to see what new fashions she was wearing. It was a heady feeling, setting trends in a court that led the world in style, and almost every day she devised some novel detail.

  In the summer, as Paris grew hotter and more foul-smelling, Claude began to pine for her beloved chateau of Amboise, but she was nearing her time and dared not risk any form of travel. This was her first child, and she was praying daily that it would be a son, an heir to France, since the Salic Law did not permit the succession of a female to the French throne.

  Anne saw the married women in her entourage shake their heads behind the Queen’s back, murmuring that being so delicate and crippled did not augur well for a happy confinement. But the birth—which Anne, by virtue of her maiden status, was not permitted to attend—was by all accounts uneventful. It was disappointing that Claude had borne a daughter, but God doubtless had His reasons for that.

  The baby was a tiny thing, with the King’s Valois features instantly recognizable. She was bap
tized Louise, as a compliment to his mother and Claude’s father, King Louis. The maids of honor were entranced by her, and seized every opportunity to pick her up or rock her in her cradle. Anne remained aloof. Babies held little attraction for her, although she supposed it would be different when she had some of her own. But who knew when that would be? She still had no desire to marry—and as for what marriage entailed, she could not bear to think of it. Every time she did, the image of King François forcing himself on Mary came to mind.

  A letter had come from Mary, belatedly, as she had expected, knowing her sister. Anne thanked God that Mary was not pregnant. Father had not been pleased to see her, but was mollified when he read Queen Mary’s letter, in which she had explained, quite candidly, that his daughter’s virtue had nearly been compromised by the French King, but, by the grace of God, she was unscathed. He had swallowed the blatant lie. He’d even written to Anne, warning her to give the King a wide berth. But now poor Mary was condemned to rusticate at Hever until Father bestirred himself to find a husband for her.

  —

  The leaves were turning golden when the bells of Paris rang out in joyful cacophony. King François had won a great victory at Marignano, and made himself King of Milan. In one swift swoop he had achieved what King Louis had fought and negotiated for over many years. The people were wild with joy. Everywhere they were singing the new song, “Victoire au noble roi François!” Anne could not get it out of her head. Claude was on her knees in ecstasy, thanking God for His manifold blessings and for keeping her husband safe. Madame Louise ordered public celebrations.

  “My son has vanquished those whom only Caesar vanquished!” she declared grandly, bursting with pride. “It was foretold to me that he would gain this victory.”

  Claude now gave the order for her household to move south to Amboise. It was during that hundred-mile journey that Anne began to realize how vast France actually was, and how beautiful, with its broad rivers and fields stretching as far as the eye could see. Approaching the lush green valley of the Loire, she was told that they were entering the Garden of France. It was peaceful, fertile countryside with gentle undulating hills, vineyards, orchards, and chateaux that looked as if they belonged in the pages of illuminated manuscripts; and through it all flowed the broad, tranquil river.

  The royal chateau of Amboise rose loftily and majestically on the bank of the Loire, dominating the town and surrounded by glorious gardens and terraces with parterres, lattices, and colorful pavilions. It was like no palace Anne had ever seen. The more knowledgeable among her companions informed her that it was centuries old, but had been largely rebuilt in the Italian style some years ago.

  Claude was a different person—happier, more carefree, and more animated—in this place she regarded as her home. She began planning Christmas celebrations such as had never been seen at court, in the hope that François would be with her to share them. He had been brought up at Amboise, and as children he and Claude had played here together. Anne and the other maids and ladies spent hours making wreaths and garlands of evergreens, as great fires crackled in the elegant stone fireplaces and tapestries embroidered with a thousand flowers shielded them from the drafts.

  But the King did not return for Christmas; he was still in Milan. He would soon be home, Claude said stoically, and insisted that the celebrations go ahead anyway.

  In January, Madame Louise appeared in the Queen’s chamber and informed her that François was to make a slow, triumphal progress through Provence on his way north.

  “I am going to join him,” she announced. “God knows how I long to see him.”

  “I will go too,” said Claude, happily and without rancor. It was clear that she, the King’s wife, was used to playing a supportive role to his mother.

  “We will all go, you, me, and Marguerite,” Madame Louise declared, and Claude’s face lit up. Anne too was excited at the prospect of travelling south. How far away was Provence? How long would it take to get there?

  It took them two weeks. The dead of winter was never the best time to travel, but fortunately the weather was unseasonably mild and the roads and tracks were dry. Their route took them from the rich lowlands of the Loire to Bourges, Clermont-Ferrand, Lyon, and Grenoble, skirting snow-capped mountains, traversing majestic country where frost-touched vineyards stretched to the far horizon, and finally reaching the verdant, scenic grandeur of Provence itself, with its towering, craggy hills and ancient olive groves. Anne had never dreamed that a land could show so many faces. These southern parts of France were enchanting, a world away from the familiar places she knew.

  As they passed between two high mountain ridges and drew nearer to Sisteron, where they were to meet up with the King and his host, her excitement mounted. She saw Claude’s plain face transformed with joy when she caught sight of François, the triumphant victor, bearded now and bravely seated on his horse, looking more magnificent than ever and mantled with a new assurance. Anne watched him dismount to embrace his wife, his mother, and his sister. Again she felt that overwhelming distaste.

  With the other ladies, she followed the King and Queen up to the mighty Citadelle, which guarded the town from its rocky outcrop far above. An air of rejoicing pervaded the press of people in the procession, and Anne was longing for the feasting and dancing to begin. With itching fingers she helped to unpack her mistress’s gear and make her ready to grace the court. Then she flew to the dorter at the top of the great tower, where she hurriedly cast off her traveling clothes, washed herself with rose water, and donned a gown of plum damask trimmed with black velvet. Her hair she left floating loose down her back, interlaced with tiny sparkling jewels. A glance in the mirror told her that she had never looked more alluring.

  King François noticed her. “La petite Boleyn! You are enchanting tonight,” he said, as he passed her on his way to his seat on the dais, his gentlemen following, all of them as gaudy as peacocks. He had put on weight during the campaign.

  Anne flushed. He was the last man whose attentions she craved, but she lowered her eyes, dipped a curtsey and murmured, “Thank you, sire,” praying that he would leave her alone.

  “It pleases me to see all you young ladies here,” he said, leering at her. “A court without ladies is like a year without springtime, or a spring without roses.” He moved on, his courtiers following. Her relief was so great, she could have sunk to the floor.

  —

  In slow stages the court made its cumbersome way north, the victor of Milan being feted all along the way. It was at Lyon, where François fell in love with the city and insisted on lingering for three months, that Anne attended the Queen on an expedition to the Roman forum of Trajan, high on a hill, with all of Lyon and the broad confluence of the two great rivers, the Rhône and the Saône, spread out below. She stood by the parapet to admire the view. It was a breathtaking sight.

  Someone was watching her. An old man was sitting on a ruined wall, a sketchbook in his hand, busily drawing. You could have called him a lion of a man, with his mane of white hair, his strong features, and his powerful build. He smiled at her. She had seen him before, in company with the King, and wondered who he was.

  “Good day, sir,” she said.

  The old man rose to his feet and bowed. “Madonna. You like my picture?” His voice was heavily accented, and his French appalling.

  Anne had never seen such a realistic and beautiful sketch. She drew in her breath as she saw her own likeness in profile. There she was in her gray figured gown with the black biliment and her red and gold hood. The old man had captured her features perfectly. Her nose was a trifle long, but that did not detract from the overall impression.

  “You like it?” the old man asked. “You have a—how you say—interesting face.”

  “It’s wonderfully accomplished!” Anne exclaimed. “I have seen many great works of art, in Burgundy and here in France, but this is exceptional. It’s me to the life.”

  “Then take it,” he said, resuming his seat
and beaming at her.

  Anne was staggered. “For me? Oh, you are kind, sir! I shall treasure it. Will you sign it?”

  The artist took a stick of charcoal and traced a cipher of three letters, one above the other, a large D with two downward strokes and a slanting L.

  “DVL?” she asked, puzzled.

  “Leonardo da Vinci at your service, Madonna,” the old man said.

  1516-1519

  “You are done with men? You are fifteen!” Jeanne de Lautrec exclaimed. Recently married, she had been extolling the joys of wedlock to the Queen’s other ladies, and Anne, growing weary of it, had felt moved to point out that not every woman thought it an ideal estate.

  “They call Mademoiselle Anne the ice maiden,” Madame de Langeac jested. They were sitting in the gardens of the chateau of Blois, enjoying the hot July sunshine while sipping lemon juice. Behind them the pinnacled and turreted chateau that François had restored for Claude rose majestically below an azure sky.

  “I have had enough of men,” Anne retorted, shuddering inwardly at the memory of a recent infatuation that had turned sour. What a fool she had been to think that the gentleman had had noble intentions! In fact, few of them did, at least in this court. Cloaked and masked gallants thought nothing of climbing over garden walls and waylaying the Queen’s maids as darkness fell, forcing their unwelcome attentions on them. They left notes containing indecent proposals and naughty verses. Following the King’s example, they molested any lady they fancied with impunity, and some, Anne knew, would not take no for an answer. Several times she had had to slap a gentleman’s face, and she had stamped hard on one persistent rascal’s foot.

  At a feast only last week, she had been seated next to a young chevalier who presented her with wine in a gold cup. It was only when she drained it that she saw inside the bowl the engraved relief of a couple very explicitly enjoying the act of love. She had felt herself growing hot as the young man guffawed loudly at her blushes and shared the joke with his friends, and she had spent the rest of the evening in a state of mortification. She was now beginning to understand why Claude was so strict.

 
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