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Francis Weston: Twenty Or Thirty Years In Abomination

September 26, 2012

Before Sir Francis Weston died alongside four others on May 17 1536, he gave the customary parting speech, traditionally intended for the admission that he deserved death and for the edification of the assembled audience. He did not disappoint. In addition to the usual observations, he warned his listeners not to be sure of their tomorrows: “I had thought to have lived in abomination yet this twenty or thirty years and then to have made amends.” Weston was about twenty-five years old when he died, so by today’s standards he wasn’t counting on living terribly long regardless. There’s also a strange, ghostly sort of humour to his statement, which essentially seems to be a reworking (or anticipation) of the joke that while it’s excellent to die in a state of grace, it’s rather boring to live in it. Obviously at this point, and without the benefit of knowing how precisely he said it, there’s no way to know; he likely was entirely in earnest when he said it. But it’s a rare fictional Weston who can’t be pictured uttering that sentence with, at the very least, an ironic expression or a wink. It’s probably fortunate that the real Weston was unaware of what towers of fantasy would eventually be built on that one word “abomination.”

Claire Ridgway has two excellent articles on her site summarizing Weston’s career, which seems to have been short and, until the end, merry. A former page, he rose in favour quickly thanks to his athletic and social gifts, and like many people who have made their way largely on charm, he was not an especially talented administrator nor provident with money — not for him the career of a William Brereton, for example. He seems to have been given money by both Henry and Anne, and when he died he left debts of nearly a thousand pounds. These debts he enumerated in a last-minute letter to his parents, which began “I humbly desire you, for the salvation of my soul, to discharge me of this bill …” and ended by signing himself “a great offender to God.” Presumably his parents were able to pay the bill, as they had previously offered 100,000 crowns in exchange for Weston’s life; nobody knows whether Henry ever saw this offer himself or not (Cromwell may have rejected it on his behalf), but in the event it was unsuccessful. Weston left behind a wife and one-year-old son.

One of the strangest, and (for him) most tragic features of Weston’s death is that it may have been almost accidental. He was not arrested until a day or two after Anne, and the first indication that he was in any way involved in this was in a letter from Sir William Kingston to Cromwell, giving the details of Anne’s terrified talk after her arrested. (You can read the whole letter and several others here. After Anne rehearses the story of Norris and the unfortunate remark about looking to dead men’s shoes, Kingston writes:

Bot, she said, she more feared Weston; for on Wysson Monday [Twysday] last Weston told her that Nores cam more unto her chawmbre for her than Ma[d]ge, and further ….

She feared Weston might be a hostile witness to her, but by saying his name she may have doomed him. Ives points out that Weston was not part of Anne’s faction and hypothesizes that Cromwell didn’t mind sacrificing him since it would show that the arrests had been, to use a highly anachronistic word, bipartisan. Whatever the case, Weston lost his twenty or thirty abominable years on the most frail of justifications. Wyatt’s elegy for Weston describes a figure that most novel readers would recognize:

Ah! Weston, Weston, that pleasant was and young,
In active things who might with thee compare?
All words accept that thou diddest speak with tongue,
So well esteemed with each where thou diddest fare.
And we that now in court doth lead our life
Most part in mind doth thee lament and moan;
But that thy faults we daily hear so rife,
All we should weep that thou art dead and gone.

Weston’s afterlife in fiction has been been one of the most remarkably consistent that I’ve seen. He is young, witty, bold, a bit of a player (though nothing like the wholesale fornication which Cavendish attributes to him) and loyal to Anne to the end, disregarding the fact that historically he wasn’t technically on her side anyway. He seldom has much to do beyond swelling a progress and starting a scene or two, but he still has it over William Brereton in that he does have a describable personality, unchanging though it might be over the course of the story. In Blood Royal (1988) Weston is “part of the company that surrounded her, as stars the moon; poets, wits, song-makers, musicians, young courtiers….” Sometimes he’s a bit showy in addition: “Francis Weston, with his boastful bawdy stories and his scented shirts” says the Anne of Brief Gaudy Hour (1949). “It seems we have a budding Hypatia in our midst! We must look to our laurels, friends,” says the Weston of Anne Boleyn (1967) when the female narrator astonishes him with a bit of scientific knowledge, only to be humourously embarrassed when he’s unable to fully remember the story of Hypatia (George Boleyn and Henry Norris finish the story and tell Weston that he should have gotten a better tutor). In Anne Boleyn (1967) Weston, whom Anne describes as “too much her partisan” snarks at Nicholas Carew and Edward Seymour at one point about the King’s interest in the latter’s sister. There are quite a few other books in which Weston is very similar; a partisan of Anne, young, with a sense of humour, a flamboyant sense of style, and an implied way with the ladies.

Weston’s stylishness and snark reach a head in The Boleyn Wife (2007) where he’s by far one of the best and most memorable minor characters. One-eyed, and with a different story for everyone who asks what happened to the other eye, this Weston loves his clothes and jewels (rubies, especially) and manages to cut a good figure on the scaffold, telling his mother not to cry, “You’ll steal my scene!” and reassuring the executioner that even though his cloak is bloodstained, said executioner will still get the full value out of Weston’s clothes. “Look at all these rubies! A sensible fellow like you can live for years on these, unlike me.” It’s a nicely-done callback in this case, for Weston is also depicted as having worn rubies when, years earlier, he played Cardinal Wolsey in the masque of “Cardinal Wolsey Goes to Hell.”

That particular masque turns up again in Bring Up The Bodies (2012) in which Cromwell’s choice of male victims is derived from his (well-hidden) resentment of it; all the men who played parts in it are eventually arrested and beheaded, among them Weston, described as a “chattering coxcomb” whose main occupation is to be gossipy and unpleasant — the sort the King likes to have around because “he thinks they keep him young.” (Sadly for fiction, it’s highly unlikely that any of these men participated in the masque, which was privately commissioned by Thomas Boleyn anyway).

Lastly, we have the Francis Weston of The Other Boleyn Girl (2001) who springs directly from Retha Warnicke’s hypotheses, based largely on the use of such words as “abomination” in all of the men’s final statements. She concluded, in brief, that this indicated that these men were homosexuals and were targeted at least in part for this fact. (There’s no contemporary evidence cited for this). This Francis Weston is blandly good-looking and charming, appearing mostly when George Boleyn is present, touching his arm, whispering to him occasionally. When George breaks down and confesses to his sisters that “I’m in love with a man,” they’re horrified but keep his secret because exposing him would be a disaster for the family. But as the entire story is told from Mary Boleyn’s perspective, we never really get to hear much from this Weston, although it is one of the very few books to mention the existence of his son. His wife usually gets a mention (she never appears, except once in a while at his execution) but his son is usually unmentioned. Not here: Anne, who has the guardianship of Mary’s young son, proposes to send him to school with the sons of William Brereton and Francis Weston. Mary is horrified at the idea of her son’s being with the children of “those sodomites” but as Anne is in charge, she can’t do anything about it.” Alas, Weston’s son wasn’t born until several years after this scene took place.

There’s a curious agelessness to the fictional Weston; the need to plant him in scenes that come well before the end is so strong that he seems to remain twenty-five years old over the space of about eleven years. In The Boleyn Wife we first meet Weston during a masque in 1522 — this dashing Weston is obviously well over eleven years old. In The Concubine (1963) Weston is established as one of Anne’s arts and drama friends in the late 1520s, when he was in his late teens — not absolutely crazy, considering that the Anne and George of the book are only a bit older, but while they age after that, Weston is still young and charming to the end. In The Other Boleyn Girl, George confesses his love for Weston in the winter of 1527, when the real Weston was, um, sixteen. No worries about George’s taste for the barely legal, though, as this Weston is, once again, a handsome young man in his early twenties. There are worse ways to be remembered, but the real Weston would probably have preferred those extra twenty or thirty years.

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From → Brief Lives

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