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Direst Of All Disasters: A Princess

September 12, 2012

Birth, n. The first and direst of all disasters.
— Ambrose Bierce

On September 10, 1533, Eustace Chapuys wrote to Emperor Charles V of a momentous piece of news: that on the previous Sunday the 7th, “the king’s mistress was delivered of a daughter, to the great regret of both him and the lady, and the great reproach of the physicians, astrologers, sorcerers, and sorceresses, who affirmed that it would be a male child. But the people are doubly glad that it is a daughter rather than a son, and delight to mock those who put faith in such divinations, and to see them so full of shame.” Whether the rejoicing was quite as universal as he says may be doubted, but it’s not hard to believe that people were mocking the failed soothsayers, since the joy of watching other people fall flat on their faces will never go away entirely. (Chapuys had reported on September 3 that the King, “holding it certain by the report of his physicians and astrologers” that the baby was a boy, was already making great preparations for jousts and had given Anne an especially valuable bed for her lying-in). But even Chapuys, skilled cultivator of moles that he was, didn’t manage to get a direct transcription of Henry’s immediate reaction to the news, and even if he had there would always be the chance that it had been dressed up a bit or altered by him or his informant. Novelists therefore have to make a guess based on what we know Henry’s character: domineering, bullying, willing to shake hands one moment and knife you in the next (as Cardinal Wolsey and many others discovered) but also very concerned to stay on the right side of the Almighty and willing to do some breathtaking mental gymnastics in pursuit of this goal. Add some strong emotionalism and a determination that he and he alone should be seen as the master of everything and you have a fairly volatile mixture here. Writers seem to have reached a consensus on exactly one basic thing: He was not happy that Elizabeth was a girl. Beyond that, his reactions have a tendency to vary, depending on Anne’s portrayal and, in some cases, what decade the book was written in.

Very early works, with the notable exception of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII tend not to address the subject very much or at all; either Elizabeth appears during a chapter break and her sex is not commented on, or else the story is taken up after her birth and is mostly concerned with Anne’s downfall. Anne features as a symbol of Protestant martyrdom in many of these — Vertue Betray’d (1682) shows an Anne done in by Cardinal Wolsey explicitly because she’s a Lutheran, Anne Boleyn: A Tragedy (1850) shows the Catholic Duke of Norfolk leading the charge against her, and Anne Boleyn: A Dramatic Poem (1826) has her arrested due to the machinations of an anachronistic Jesuit. In none of these is her failure to have a boy even mentioned — it’s exclusively about Henry’s infatuation with Jane Seymour, which makes him putty in the hands of nefarious papal agents.

Twentieth and twenty-first century authors have been less circumspect about peeking into the birthing chamber. Unlike Shakespeare’s Henry, who learns the glad tidings from “A Lady” who consoles him that “‘Tis a girl / Promises boys hereafter” and shows his discontent by only giving her a small tip, the vast majority, if not all of the more recent Henrys only discover the news in the birthing chamber itself, in Anne’s presence — often it’s stated that nobody wanted to be the first to tell, and I have to say it’s the not the worst justification for a dramatic confrontation I’ve ever heard.

Most of the books I’ve read have Henry stricken and angry by the news but manfully bearing up, conscious of his dignity as a prince — not to mention well aware that he’s being observed by a lot of people, not all of them friendly. In Queen Anne Boleyn (1939) “Henry wrinkled his forehead, and winced. But his pride enabled him to mutter a word to everyone who murmured his joy.” Usually, though, he can choke out at least a few consolatory words to Anne, who’s usually weeping and apologizing. “Have good cheer sweetheart, we’ll have a fine son yet!” he barks in Anne Boleyn (1957), while struggling to keep control of himself. Jean Plaidy gives him two different lines but the same reaction in her books The Lady In The Tower (1986) and Murder Most Royal (1949). In the first he tells Anne that “God does this to test us, I know,” and in the second he’s given “I would rather beg from door to door than forsake you.” For all the latter line has a better provenance, I have to say I really thought the first one was dead-on.

In a small subset of books, Henry is still disappointed but doesn’t have to struggle nearly as hard to hide it, because this sometimes sentimental man is simply charmed by the baby. In The Concubine (1963):

The one person who had a good word for [Elizabeth] was her father, the person with most right to be disappointed. When he first saw her she was squalling; she was red in face, her eyes were screwed up and she had a frizzle of orange-coloured hair on her scalp. He touched it with a gentle finger.
“My hair,” he said, “and my voice. She is indeed my daughter and she seems a lusty wench. I pray God will send her a brother in the same good shape…”
Ambassadors might write home to their masters that the king was grievously disappointed, but anyone who ventured in his presence to imply sympathy, however tactful, was met with a glower and gruffness. Henry Tudor had had his way and there was nothing wrong with his marriage, nothing wrong with his child.

I like the balance of his sentimentality and his need to be always right in that passage. Two other books in which Henry reacts with this surprising gentleness are The Other Boleyn Girl (2001) and Brief Gaudy Hour (1949) — fifty years apart but united by portrayals of an Anne who is less sympathetic and more manipulative than most portrayals. It’s almost as if the sympathetic behavior taken from Anne has to be transferred somewhere, and it ends up with Henry. The Other Boleyn Girl has a postpartum Anne crying out “What good is a girl to us?” But Henry manages well enough:

Henry, always the king, always unpredictable, did not complain. He took the baby on his lap and praised her blue eyes and her strong sturdy little body….He told Anne that next time they should have a boy, that he was happy to have another princess, and such a perfect little princess, in his household …. I understood him: he was too proud to let anyone know that he had been disappointed.

In Brief Gaudy Hour Henry melts when the newborn Elizabeth grabs his finger and disappointment is, for the moment, assuaged.

In the last two decades Henry’s ability to control himself seems to have waned somewhat. Or rather, his ability to control himself when the big reveal is actually played out in front of the reader — lots of books describe him as being cold, angry, bearing up, disappointed after the fact, but the ones that actually bring us into the birthing chamber portray a Henry who has no problem letting his temper rip at the most inappropriate moments. In The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn (1997) Henry screams “You, Madame, will pay for this girl!” and in Doomed Queen Anne (2002) he vents his fury against the soothsayers instead of Anne, but he’s clearly angry and ready to let the world know it. In The Boleyn Wife (2007) Henry shouts at Anne for failing to deliver the promised “Tudor Sun” and makes it clear that she’ll do better next time or he won’t answer for the consequences. An enraged Henry holding the floor is nothing new in this genre, but back in the day he was throwing tantrums about his supposed cuckolding, and in relative privacy; now it’s the birth of a princess which makes him lose control. No fictional Henry has ever been particularly attractive, but I must admit I prefer the ones who at least try to remember protocol.

From → Essays

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