Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession by Alison Weir

  “There is more to life than men!” she declared.

  The ladies laughed. “What can a woman do outside of marriage?” one asked.

  “She can learn, she can be creative in many ways, and she can be herself,” Anne told her.

  “I could be very creative with a husband with sixty manors and a title!” another scoffed. “Really, child, you need a man to be anything in this world. Only marriage opens doors to women.”

  “I think it closes more doors than it opens,” Anne observed.

  She knew she had a name for scorning matters of the heart, but time had not lessened her antipathy to men—in fact, it had only confirmed her poor opinion of them. And now she was angry with herself at falling head over heels for the handsome deceiver who had led her on and then dropped her when it became clear that she would not give herself to him outside wedlock. She, who prided herself on being independent, had behaved so foolishly that she could not now bear to think of it. Instead she had surrounded herself with a protective carapace. Her fellow maids sometimes seemed wary of her strong opinions and barbed wit. Even she did not like the brittle person she had become.

  Queen Claude, preoccupied with her little daughter, her philandering husband, and her many charitable interests, did not seem to be aware of the jaded views of her maid of honor. After all, Anne was just one among three hundred, so why should Claude notice her especially?

  Of late, Anne had almost convinced herself that she should be done with the world and enter a convent.

  “I am seriously thinking of taking the veil,” she told her companions, even though she knew deep within herself that she was not the stuff of which nuns were made.

  “You, a nun?” Madame de Langeac cried. The others laughed.

  Someone must have repeated it, because at a court reception later that week, the King himself sought Anne out. She took care to keep her eyes modestly downcast as she rose from her curtsey.

  “Mademoiselle Anne,” François said, his own eyes alive with humor, “it is hinted among the court ladies that you desire above all things to be a nun. This I should regret.”

  “Sire, it is something I am thinking about seriously,” she told him. “I hope I will have your blessing.” Let that ward him off, she thought.

  “I pray that you will think hard about what you would be giving up,” the King said, and passed on. And, of course, she did think about it, and gradually it dawned on her that she was enjoying life too much to immure herself in a nunnery, and that really it was her desire not to be taken advantage of by men that had driven her to consider such a drastic step. The world had too many pleasures to offer.


  From time to time she received letters containing news from home. It was good to hear that George was making himself noticed at King Henry’s court; he would shine there, of that Anne was confident.

  Their great-grandfather, the old Earl of Ormond, had died. It was hard to feel sorrow, for he had been very ancient, and she had rarely seen him, since he lived in London and had long served at court. Father’s tone was almost gleeful as he informed Anne that her grandmother, the Lady Margaret, had come into a rich inheritance as the late Earl’s heir. The old lady’s wits had at last deserted her, so he himself was to be in control of it. That will please him mightily, Anne thought.

  Father’s letters were always full of his achievements and the honors that were being showered on him. He was cock-a-hoop when, early in 1516, he was chosen as one of the four persons who were to bear a canopy over King Henry’s baby daughter, the Princess Mary, at her christening at Greenwich Palace. “It is a high honor indeed,” he wrote, puffed up with pride.

  But the following year saw England visited by a terrifying plague called the sweating sickness, which killed within hours. Every time a letter arrived from England, Anne opened it with trembling hands. Not Mother, nor dearest George, the people she loved best in the world, she prayed. But it was not them who died. It was her eldest brother, Thomas, struck down and buried at Penshurst, because the Duke of Buckingham had not thought it safe to transport his body to Hever. And then came the news that Hal had succumbed too, in plague-ravaged Oxford.

  Sorrowing herself, Anne could only imagine what blows these had been for Father, losing his two elder sons. In his letters he was stoical, dwelling more on Mother’s grief than his own, but he was a man who would never show his emotions. Anne mourned her brothers, but she had not been close to them, and a part of her could not help rejoicing that George was now the heir. Mercifully God spared him, and Mary.


  A year later, Father came to the French court as England’s resident ambassador. It had been three years since Anne had seen him, and she knew she had changed immeasurably in that time. What would he think of her now? Would he approve of the woman she had become? She waited in trepidation to find out.

  When they met in the Hôtel des Tournelles, in the galerie des courges, with its tiled heraldic ceiling and walls painted with green pumpkins, she was struck by how sadly he had aged. His face was as pugnacious as ever, but etched with lines of grief, and his brown hair had turned gray. He greeted her with unusual warmth and looked her up and down with approval.

  “You have grown sophisticated in France, Anne,” he said, which was praise indeed.

  He had brought her a book, Caxton’s edition of the Morte d’Arthur, as well as news of her family. The King had noticed George and praised his learning. Mother and Mary were still at Hever, which was no surprise.

  “Have you found Mary a husband?” Anne asked.

  “Not yet,” Father said, as they strolled along the gallery.

  Fortunately, Mary, as the elder daughter, must be married first. She was relieved to know that she had some respite, having wondered what plans Father might have for her once he had seen how she had become the accomplished, virtuous, and eminently marriageable daughter he had wanted her to be.

  “How does His Grace the King?” she asked, quickly changing the subject.

  “Never better,” Father replied, “and in hopes of a son, for Queen Katherine is again with child. It’s her sixth. All lost save for the Princess Mary.” He sighed.

  “I will pray for her,” Anne said.

  She saw him several times after that, when her duties permitted, and found herself growing easier in his company. It seemed that they were seeing each other with new eyes after their long separation; it was almost as if Father was now treating her as an equal.


  Sir Thomas had spoken truth when he said that Anne had grown sophisticated. No longer was she overwhelmed by the splendor of the French court, the extravagant, beautiful palaces that François was building, or the open dalliance and debauchery that had once shocked her. These days, if presented with that erotically chased gold cup, she would merely have smiled. She had grown used to seeing lewd books portraying men and women pleasuring each other in different positions—they were common currency at court. And when one lascivious young man informed her that the King’s own almoner had felt obliged to apologize to his mistress for having satisfied her only twelve times in one night, she had merely shrugged and endeavored to look bored. No man would be permitted a prurient thrill at the sight of her shocked reaction to such things. She knew it was said that rarely did any maid or wife leave this court chaste, but no one was going to say it of her!

  She was never short of suitors these days. They all told her that she was the fairest and most bewitching of all the lovely women at court, or that she sang like a second Orpheus. She prided herself that there was some truth in it. When she played on the harp, the lute, or the rebec, people stopped to listen. She danced, too—how she danced with the hopeful gallants who flocked around her—leaping and gliding with infinite grace and agility, and inventing many new figures and steps. It thrilled her to see them copied, like her clothes, or to hear them named after her.

  At eighteen she was a different person from the naïve girl who had come to the French court. Her mirror show
ed her the same dark-haired woman with the same high cheekbones and pointed chin as the girl in Master Leonardo’s portrait, which she had proudly hung above her bed, and yet there was a knowing quality to her gaze these days, for she had learned that the way a woman used her eyes, to invite conversation or convey a promise of hidden passion, had the power to command the allegiance of many a man.

  These days she played the game of love well, taking care to be a vivacious and witty companion, and exercising her charm to the full—but keeping her suitors at arm’s length. The protective carapace was still in place. Never would she allow a man to make a fool of her. When she gave her heart, it would be to the man she married, but that was hopefully far in the future. In the meantime, she would enjoy flirting, making jests, sparring with repartee over a glass of wine, and playing cards and dice with her admirers for high stakes. Or she might compete with them at bowls or in the chase. Father could reproach her for nothing.

  She was not always at court. Claude still preferred the peace and tranquillity of Amboise and Blois, and retreated there whenever she could. She had a son now, the long-awaited Dauphin François, and a daughter, Charlotte, but her eldest, little Madame Louise, had died aged only two, much mourned by all the ladies.

  Anne would have preferred to be at court more, but Amboise had its pleasures. The King had given his beloved Master Leonardo a house and workshop, Le Clos Lucé, near the chateau, and when the great man was in residence, which was increasingly often, for he was growing old and infirm, he welcomed visits from the Queen’s entourage, and took delight in demonstrating his many curiosities to them. There was nothing that did not interest him: he was not just an artist, but a man of science, an anatomist, and an engineer, and he was endlessly inventive. Anne was amazed to hear him describe a machine that could fly men through the air.

  “It is not possible!” she exclaimed.

  Leonardo smiled at her. There was an ageless wisdom in the blue eyes under the beetled brows. “Time will prove you wrong, Madonna,” he twinkled.

  He was painting a masterpiece for the King. It was of an Italian woman with a mysterious sideways glance and a half smile. He had been working on it for months, and was always retouching it or changing details.

  “She is beautiful,” Anne told him.

  “What is her name?” Isabeau asked.

  “She is Monna Lisa Gherardini, a beautiful lady I knew in Italy,” Leonardo said. “But she is not yet finished.”

  On a warm May day in 1519, Anne and three other ladies walked from the chateau of Amboise to Le Clos Lucé, hoping that Leonardo would show them some more of his inventions. But at the door they were met by his servant, who looked at them mournfully.

  “Alas, mesdemoiselles, Master Leonardo died yesterday, in the King’s own arms,” he told them, a tear trickling down his gnarled cheek.

  “No!” Anne cried, stunned. She had known that the old man was failing, but had convinced herself that, with his genius, he would go on forever. She had grown fond of him, and—she thought—he of her. He had been someone apart from the usual run of mortals, and the world would not see his like again. At that realization, she wept.


  Anne stood with the other maids and ladies behind the Queen in a vast field in the Vale of Ardres. She was sumptuously dressed in the French fashion, in a low-cut black velvet gown with great slashed sleeves and strings of pearls draped from shoulder to shoulder and looped across her bodice. On her head was a gold-braided French hood, from which hung a black veil. Her pose was demure, but as she stood there in the breeze, tucking a stray tress back under her hood, her avid eyes darted everywhere, taking in the massed crowds of courtiers and the ranks of men-at-arms, all waiting expectantly against a backdrop of colorful silken pavilions.

  They had already been waiting for an hour, and still there had come no word that the English King was approaching. King François was in his tent. He would not ride out until his brother monarch was in sight. Anne’s eyes were fixed firmly on the horizon.

  King Henry was coming now. She could see the banners and hear the trumpets, the tramp of marching men and the hoofbeats, as what seemed like a great army began its advance. And now King François, with his magnificent train, was emerging from the other direction, across ground that had been leveled so that neither monarch should appear to be higher than the other. Cloth of gold dazzled, great jewels sparkled in the sunlight, and proudly caparisoned horses snorted as the two kings doffed their bonnets and saluted each other from their saddles, then dismounted and embraced.

  Anne saw that Henry of England had broadened into solid manhood. She watched as he laughed and exchanged courtesies with François, wondering—as she had wondered seven years before—why people praised his beauty, when really, bar a noble profile, he was just a rather ordinary-looking sandy-haired man with a ruddy complexion.

  The greetings over, the two sovereigns passed into François’s sumptuous cloth-of-gold pavilion, and Anne followed Queen Claude in their wake. She was surprised when she saw Henry’s Spanish wife, Queen Katherine, who looked so much older than her husband, and not by any stretch of the imagination the golden beauty whose praises had long been echoing around the courts of Europe. Of course, the loss of many children would account for her sagging figure and sad face. And, being Spanish, she would hardly look happy being obliged to consort with the French, her country’s enemies. But there was King François, kissing her hand and doing her all honor—and there, in Queen Katherine’s train, was Mary, Anne’s sister!

  Mary caught Anne’s eye and smiled. She looked happy, and Anne guessed that marriage must suit her. Mary had wed in February; her new husband, William Carey, was an important, rising man in King Henry’s court—the King’s own cousin, no less! Father had hastened home for the wedding, as well he might, for it had taken place in the Chapel Royal at Greenwich Palace, in the presence of the King and Queen themselves. Anne had stayed in France, not wishing to attend the wedding in case Father remembered that he had another marriageable daughter.

  There would be time to catch up with Mary’s news and gossip later, but now the great glittering throng was moving toward the banqueting tent. Anne caught sight of her former mistress, Queen Mary, walking hand in hand with her husband, Suffolk, and looking radiant. Then she herself was swept along in the crowd.


  They were calling this summit meeting the Field of Cloth of Gold, for the field in which it was set was ringed with rich pavilions of silk like fine burnished gold, all hung with marvelous cloths of Arras, and everyone, it seemed, was decked out in yards of the glittering fabric. Few were more gorgeously attired than the ladies attending the three queens, Claude, Katherine, and Mary. Anne thought that the English gowns, however gorgeous, looked less becoming than the French ones, and as the days went on she was amused to see her countrywomen hastily adopting the elegant fashions of France. No doubt many a maid had been kept up late, stitching frantically.

  The kings had signed an everlasting treaty of friendship, and now it was time for everyone to enjoy seventeen days of indulgent revelry, banqueting, jousting, and disports. But no one could have mistaken the undercurrents of rivalry between the two courts.

  Father was here, having been in charge of some of the arrangements for the meeting of the kings. Mother was with him. She held Anne closely when they were reunited.

  “I cannot believe how you have grown up!” she said. “You are quite the lady now!”

  It pained Anne to see Mother looking older and sadder, still mourning her lost sons, but full of praise for George, and how he was rising in favor at court.

  In the short time Anne spent with him, Father said that he had something he wanted to discuss when there was time. God forfend it was not her marriage!

  She sought out her sister, and found her at one of the booths set up in the camp by opportunistic traders. This one was selling an array of pastries, and Mary was buying some in company with a girl with slanting eyes and full lips upturned disda
infully above a jutting, determined chin.

  Mary grinned when she saw Anne, and they embraced.

  “Congratulations on your marriage.” Anne smiled. “I hear the King himself attended.”

  “Yes, we were greatly honored,” Mary said, a trifle smugly. “Anne, may I present Jane Parker, Lord Morley’s daughter.” She turned to her companion, whose face was transformed by an attractive smile.

  “You are also in Queen Katherine’s entourage?” Anne asked.

  “Yes, as maid of honor,” Jane Parker told her. They exchanged a few pleasantries, and then the conversation dwindled. “You sisters must have much to talk about,” Jane said. “I will see you later, Mary.” And she took herself off.

  Anne and Mary sat in the sun enjoying the pastries and beakers of the free wine that ran from a great gilded fountain outside the English palace, which was a dazzling, temporary affair of canvas, wood, and lashings of gold leaf.

  “How is married life suiting you?” Anne asked. They were to watch William Carey in the jousts later that afternoon.

  “I am content,” Mary said. She had grown sleek and complacent, and it was clear from the way she smiled that her husband adored her. And yet there was a wary look about her today.

  “I did not look to find myself back in France,” she said, “especially with Will.”

  Of course Mary feared to encounter her seducer, King François, or risk Will hearing gossip about them. Anne took her sister’s hand in a rare gesture of affection. “You are hardly likely to come face-to-face with the King amidst all these thousands of people,” she assured her, “and anyway, that matter is long forgotten. I have never heard anyone mention it at court.”

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