Vertue Betray’d, or Anna Bullen by John Banks (1682)
This play premiered at the Duke of York’s theater in 1682, with the leads played by the great Mrs Barry and Mr Betterton, and according to my edition’s introduction (by Diane Dreher) it held the stage for years afterwards. On reading it, it’s easy to see why – it had a combination of doomed romance, discoveries made too late, and of course sinister Catholic scheming which made it irresistible to crowds for whom Titus Oates and the Popish Plot (so-called) were more recent events than 9/11 is for us, though what the Duke of York, who had been Catholic for ten years at this point, thought about it is not recorded.
Interestingly, the leading man played by Mr. Betterton was not Henry VIII. He was Henry Percy, doing the first of several turns as Anne’s heroic, doomed lover from whom she was cruelly forced by the machinations of the wicked king and her ambitious family, with Percy himself now being slated by his own ambitious father to marry Lady Diana Talbot. “Her father brings her this Day on purpose from the Country,” the Earl of Northumberland confides to George Boleyn. “But the Queen thinks they are already marry’d.” George Boleyn, who had been as eager as anyone for Anne’s elevation, expresses doubts after seeing some strange omens at the wedding ceremony.
For at the very time she gave her Hand
To th’eager King to fasten’t with a Pledge
The Ring fell off, and could no more be found.
George and Northumberland depart, and in comes … Cardinal Wolsey. Yes, he’s still around, unhistorically alive and in favour several years too late, and furious about Henry’s marriage. “Now, by our Holy Father’s Triple Crown,” he declares, he cannot countenance “A Lutheran Queen upon the Throne of England!” Fortunately he has an assistant equally anxious to see Anne undone: Elizabeth Blount, now dumped by Henry and not liking it. She’s also Wolsey’s mistress, but declares to him that she’ll attempt to lure in George as well and contrive to disgrace both him and his sister.
They leave, and Anne enters with her retinue. Could Wolsey and Elizabeth Blount but see her, they’d realize that she’s about as thrilled with her crown as they are.
What is Musick to the Ear that’s Deaf?
Or Crowns and Sceptres to a dying Wretch?
Despair turns all alike that comes to me.
She shrewdly intuits that the crowd now shouting joyously at her “unwelcome Coronation” would “Shout louder at the sentence of my Death,” and fears that Henry’s treatment of “wrong’d Katherine” will eventually rebound on herself. Enter Lady Diana Talbot, unwanted intended of Henry Percy, and she and Anne have a very emotional conversation in which it becomes clear that neither one had any idea of the machinations going on beforehand; Diana reveals that she and Percy are not married yet, Anne is shocked and horrified, both women bewail their miserable state. Diana isn’t quite as miserable as all that, since she’s actually in love with Percy herself, but her situation is still awkward since Percy is shortly to be monologuing feverishly about his continued love for Anne, thus.
She’s Hell! She’s worse! She’s Madness to the Brain;
I am possess’t, and carry an Host of Devils;
For he that wears a perjur’d Woman here
Has in his Breast ten thousand Fiends to scourge him.
Meanwhile, back at the privy chamber, Henry VIII has already gotten a little bored with his newly-crowned spouse and is hankering after Jane Seymour, whom we never actually see. Wolsey, of course, is all for it, and after floating various methods he could use to get rid of her (“Pretend Remorse of Conscience”) drops dark hints that the newly-returned Percy might just be more involved with the Queen than anyone would like to admit. Another cackling confab with Elizabeth Blount later, and Blount is busy seducing George Boleyn, telling him that the King is still jealous of anyone who pays attention to her, and thus he should
Let all your Amorous Letters be disguis’d
Under the borrow’d Name of Brother still
Directed to me by the Stile of Sister.
George, none too swift on the uptake, declares “In all things I’le obey my lovely Goddess!”
Percy is still having an emotional meltdown and decides that since he’s been betrayed, he might as well marry Lady Diana as anyone, “since ’tis our King’s and Cruel Parents’ Wills.” There then follows one of the more bizarre dialogues I’ve seen, well, anywhere, in which Diana and Percy attempt to outdo each other in dramatic descriptions of how horrible their life together will be. Where will they go? “To the World’s End! Far from all Fruitful Grounds,” says Percy, only for Diana to one-up him with:
Or some deep Cave, where Winds are all so still
And Beasts so far remote, that we shall hear
No Howls, nor Groans, but what we make our selves.
Percy returns that volley with “No, on some dreadful Rock we’ll chuse to lye” until they finally agree that together they shall “Strike a League with Woe, adieu to Bliss!” and, in a concluding couplet, tell the audience “What though we Wed in Hatred, we may mend / We but begin where others surely end.” It was hard to read this scene and not think that Donizetti missed an opportunity somewhere, because this would have made a fantastic and off-beat duet (off-beat stylistically, not musically). It also made me rather hope that the playwright was contriving a better ending for Percy than he got in real life, since Lady Diana comes across as fairly likeable. What a hope! Percy has no more chance of surviving this story than Manrico, Edgardo, or of course his counterpart Lord Richard Percy in Anna Bolena.
It’s only after all of this that Percy sees Anne directly – she’s been avoiding him, thinking that seeing him would only make things worse, but at last he engineers a meeting in which misunderstandings abound and are only solved when at last, too overcome for words, she slips him a note explaining that she was forced by her parents to marry the King, and furthermore that she had been falsely told that Percy was already married. She also begs Percy to leave as she senses her time is short and she doesn’t want him caught up in the inevitable maelstrom, but Percy, being one of Nature’s tenors, naturally doesn’t listen but instead hangs around to emote some more about the miserable fate which he is hastening along nicely by not escaping while he can.
Of course, Wolsey and Blount have not been idle while all of this has been going on – Blount now has a nice collection of steamy letters which George Boleyn has idiotically addressed to his “Sister”, and Wolsey makes his move by arresting both George and Percy on suspicion of adultery with the Queen. Anne appeals for the King’s judgement, and does she ever get it; he comes steaming in, shouting about Anne being the new Messalina – “I have more Horns than any Forrest yields!” and waving falsified letters from Henry Norris and “Notes of your Musician too, that Charm’d you”. (This is, incidentally, the only mention of Mark Smeaton throughout). Anne, George and Sir Henry Norris (also never mentioned until now, or even seen) are swiftly tried offstage, while Percy himself is briefly arrested and wounded in the struggle before being let loose thanks to his father’s influence. Not for long, however – after Anne has been led bravely offstage to meet her martyrdom (“My eternal Coronation-Day”), a gentleman enters with a bloodstained handkerchief to announce the Queen’s death. Percy snatches the handkerchief and collapses.
“Now, Sacred Drops, now Heavenly Nectar, first
I’ll kiss, then pledge you with a Dying Thirst –
What’s this? I feel my Soul beat at my Wound,
And bid me to remember now’s the Time.
Two pages later, he dies in the arms of the weeping Diana, and ten seconds later the entire court, headed by King Henry and Percy’s father, burst in to announce that damn it, they were wrong all along! Elizabeth Blount, having been at the execution and seen Anne’s severed head “Making a motion with her Lips to speak, / As if they meant t’upbraid her Cursed Treason” she “started into Madness” and gave away the whole plot between herself and Wolsey. Wolsey himself has fled to Esher in the meantime, and Henry has sent a consignment of soldiers to arrest him, promising to “Rack his Soul out with a Thousand Tortures.” He tells Northumberland that he hopes this will compensate him somewhat for the death of his son. Henry declares to all assembled that from now on, he’ll trust no-one’s judgment except his own – “For Heav’n ne’er made a King, but made him just.” Exeunt omnes, ironically.
SEX OR POLITICS? Sex in the form of chaste and thwarted romance, though one could argue that the real love affair here is with Protestantism. Still, Banks is too good a dramatist to kill the action by having his characters engage in actual doctrinal dispute (as the real George Boleyn apparently did, at least when he was buttonholing Chapuys at the dinner table). Instead he gives us the Doomed Love of Anne and Percy, and affairs all around for everyone else; George Boleyn with Elizabeth Blount, Cardinal Wolsey with Elizabeth Blount, and of course Henry VIII’s for the never-seen “Seymour.”
WHEN BORN? Never stated, however, she and George are said to be twins.
THE EARLY LOVE Henry Percy, first, last, and perpetually, and he’s just as obsessed with her. Much of the drama early on comes from Percy’s discovery of her marriage and his shock that she had been, apparently, voluntarily unfaithful to him.
Marry’d! My Anna Bullen false, and Marry’d!
Perswade me that the Sun has lost its Virtue,
The Earth, the teeming Earth, forgot to bear,
That Nature shall be Nature now no more …
All this must be, when Anna Bullen’s false.
To which speech his father’s dry rejoinder is “Marry’d she is without such Miracles,” and proceeds to introduce him to his intended bride, Lady Diana Talbot. Later on, after much drama in which Anne insists that she cannot see Percy, lest she break down on the spot, she hands him a letter in which she declares:
By Wicked Woolsey, Harry, and our Parents
I was betray’d, and forc’d to wed the King
Who intercepted all thy Letters, Swearing,
With Sacramental Oaths, that thou wert false.
Suffice to say that they stay in this condition until the end of the play, and Percy dies in the clear expectation of a swift reunion in the afterlife.
THE QUEEN’S BEES Very few of them; except for spear-carrying “ladies” there are only two with speaking roles. Lady Diana Talbot is the chief one, and is portrayed as a sympathetic woman who is sorry for Anne’s deception (Lady Diana doesn’t know the full machinations of the parental units until it’s too late) but is also really in love with Percy and hopes to persuade her to love him eventually. “Forgive me, Heav’n! Forgive me all my Sex / That ever lov’d, or e’re was scorn’d like me!” Elizabeth Blount is her counterpart, scheming with Wolsey to get back her place as Henry’s favourite, carrying on an affair with George Boleyn which is calculated to destroy him, and generally chewing the scenery with gusto. Jane Seymour is mentioned very early on and again at the end, but is never actually introduced on the stage. Lady Rochford, very unusually, gets a break from her usual role as the deranged, jealous, clinging bitch and doesn’t appear, or even seem to exist, at all.
THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR Lady Diana to Anne – she comforts her as much as she can, which isn’t much. Henry thinks that Wolsey is this to him, but of course he’s wrong, as the big post-execution reveal demonstrates.
THE PROPHECY: George Boleyn gets a couple within the first twenty lines: having worked along with his father to get Anne married to the King, he makes note of the mishap with the ring mentioned above, and also declares
Something of boding whispers to my Soul,
And tells me, Oh! This Marriage will be Fatal –
Methinks I see a Sword ty’d to a Thread,
Small as a Hair, hang o’re our Pageant Greatness.
And towards the end Anne, giving Elizabeth a last embrace before the march to the scaffold, prophecies that Elizabeth will be the one who throws off the Pope’s power in England. “When this shall come to pass, the World shall see / Thy Mother’s Innocence reviv’d in thee.”
IT’S A GIRL! Nonexistent. Elizabeth isn’t mentioned at all until she comes onstage in the last act as a child of about seven, ready to hit a few anti-Papal talking points with her father, who affectionately calls her “my Betty” but isn’t disposed to listen to her. Cardinal Wolsey tells her to “Go, y’are a little Heretick.”
DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Never mentioned.
FAMILY AFFAIRS: Of the Boleyn family, only George and Anne appear onstage – George is referred to only as Rochford, incidentally, so his change of first name from George to John isn’t too distracting. It’s only mentioned once.
DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? It’s called Vertue Betray’d. What do you think?
WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: The whole thing is as purple as a bunch of lilacs. I’ve already quoted a lot, but since this isn’t the most commonly available book I’ll throw in another speech just for fun. This is Elizabeth Blount villainously monologuing before setting up George Boleyn:
He softens, turns, and changes, as I’d have him;
His Waxen Soul begins to melt apace:
He is my Slave, my Chain’d and Gally Slave:
Oh that I had but Harry so to torture!
But I’le Revenge my self on this soft Fool,
On Bullen, and on all their Race at once
That were the Cursed cause of my undoing.
The whole play is pitched in this key.
ERRATA: Well, um, all right – where do I begin? Well, there’s reference to Anne’s awaiting someone “in the Drawing-Room” which sounds very non-sixteenth century, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. The whole thing is a giant bundle of anachronisms, but its intention wasn’t to be accurate, its intention was to be propaganda. As Diane Dreher points out in the introduction, Banks would have been well aware of facts like Wolsey’s death in 1530, as Cavendish’s Life of Wolsey was well known; he changed that deliberately for his drama (unlike, say, in the cases of “Diana” Talbot and “John” Boleyn – he may simply have not known their true first names, rather like how Jane Shore’s true first name of Elizabeth was for a long time obscure). Why keep Wolsey alive? Well, two good reasons; first of all, to underline the villainy of the Papacy and second, to provide some agent of Anne’s destruction who isn’t Thomas Cromwell.
Cromwell’s name does not come up once in the entire play – he was, after all, officially enshrined as a Protestant Martyr in Fox’s Book of Martyrs, and his destruction of the monasteries much praised. “Our Christian Camillus, being such a one as if the courts of princes had but a few such counsellors, the Christian commonwealths would, at this day, be in a far better estate.” The Book of Martyrs waxes lyrical about Cromwell for a good two thousand words but never says a word about his role in Anne’s downfall. (This complete excising of Cromwell is hardly unique to this play, incidentally. I don’t know about the 1680 novel the play was derived from, but well into the nineteenth century Cromwell was being either written out of the story completely or written out of the story after about 1534 or so).
The other curious excising is Jane Seymour. She’s mentioned, but she never appears – you’d think, with the talent that Banks had for real barn-burning confrontation scenes, that she could have appeared once or twice. Instead, the role of antagonist is given to Elizabeth Blount, who was long out of the picture by the time Anne became Queen and who doesn’t appear to have had an affair with anyone surnamed Boleyn or Wolsey. Now here I’m just guessing, but looking at it from a religious angle, we have to remember that Jane Seymour, whatever her personal religious preferences, was also the mother of Edward VI. In his brief career as Head of the Church of England, Edward made it clear that he was in no way a friend to the Papacy, and anyone attending the play would have known that. Depicting Jane Seymour as morally ambiguous in any way would have been contrary to the play’s purpose, so instead the long-discarded and married Elizabeth Blount got her surprise turn in the spotlight.
WORTH A READ? I wouldn’t seek it out deliberately unless you’re really dedicated to this sort of thing, but if anyone were to revive it, I’d be at the box office on opening night.
Links to Amazon are an affiliate link. You can help The Head That Launched A Thousand Books read even more novels by purchasing any item (not just the one linked to) through these links.