Skip to content

Murder Most Royal by Jean Plaidy (Eleanor Hibbert) 1949

October 20, 2012

Really encompassing four wives (four and half if you count the latter half of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon) this extremely enjoyable book concentrates heavily on the two who had the most dramatic ends. Anne Boleyn is painted in one of her customary guises as the born romantic who loses her true love and decides to trade in romance for ambition, although this one finds religion fairly late, after she’s soured on ambition and what it brings her. Intertwined with her story are scenes from the early life of Katherine Howard, a few brief points where she and Anne intersect, and then finally Anne’s decease and Katherine’s rise, for which the reader is now well aware she is not at all prepared.

Unlike its successor, The Lady In The Tower (1986) it’s written in the more old-fashioned way, from multiple points of view, and is much richer for it. It’s good to get outside of Anne’s (or her maid’s) head and see what’s going on from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, Catherine of Aragon, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, Francis Derham, and Margaret Roper (not to mention quite a few others) but where this one really shines is during its excursions into Henry’s head. His near-constant mental conversations with God, arguing, justifying, whining and raging, are things of comic beauty. Having convinced himself that his lack of legitimate sons is because of Catherine of Aragon’s sin (he has an illegitimate son, after all, so it can’t himself) it’s easy for him to decide upon meeting Anne that instead of the French princess Wolsey had hinted at, Anne should be the one. He had previously ordered Wolsey to separate her from Percy, with the intent of making her his mistress, but after a visit to Hever in which Anne holds out on him and tells him that she’ll not be like her sister, he tells her that in fact he was thinking of making her his queen – though oddly, Anne later does become his mistress, four years before their wedding. I think that’s Anne’s earliest surrender to Henry I’ve seen in fiction. Henry’s persistence in trying to get the divorce and elevate Anne is explained not as a byproduct of his wanting to sleep with her, but as a byproduct of his desire to get the better of the Pope – he wouldn’t give him what he wanted, so Henry is going to get it regardless. After Anne becomes pregnant and marriage is performed, Henry’s interest in her begins to wane.

The scenes of Anne’s rise are intercut with those depicting Katherine Howard’s birth and upbringing – a brief meeting between the toddler Katherine and an Anne who has newly returned from France (Anne is embarrassed at the poor conditions in which she finds her uncle, and gives little Katherine a golden tablet by way of indirect charity) the death of her mother, Katherine’s despatch to her uncle’s house where she meets her boisterous young cousin Thomas Culpepper, and to Lambeth to live with her step-grandmother the Duchess of Norfolk. There she meets Henry Manox the music instructor and also Mary Lascelles, who likes Manox herself and is humiliated to discover that Manox is after “that child” Katherine (who’s about eleven or twelve). The Duchess brings her household of girls to watch Anne’s coronation, and there Katherine meets one Francis Dereham, with whom she absconds to run around in the crowd as the coronation procession is passing. Francis is so taken with her that he manages to get an appointment at the Duchess’s home so he can see Katherine more frequently, and they exchange vows and sleep together, calling each other husband and wife.

After the birth of Elizabeth, Anne mistakenly thinks herself pregnant, then realizes that she isn’t – however, she’s already informed Henry, so she has to keep on pretending and hoping that in the meanwhile it will become true. Anyone who’s seen Raise the Red Lantern will know how well this works out. Relations between them become frosty, even while More and Fisher are tossed into prison and Katherine is busted by the Duchess while entertaining Derham in her chamber of an evening – Derham is kicked out and goes off to spend a few years being a pirate near Ireland (oh, for the days when piracy was a real career option!) and Katherine is made to understand this was in no way a marriage and will never be spoken of again. At just about the same time Anne is coming, rather late, to the consolations of religion; her religious interests are portrayed as always having been there, but they only really displace her interests in fashion and dancing during the last year, when she’s out of favour, being blamed for More’s and Fisher’s deaths (though she persuades Henry not to seek out and punish Margaret Roper for stealing her father’s head) and trying to get pregnant again. Meanwhile, one Jane Seymour is being insinuated into Henry’s affections, and he finds her so comforting and restful that after Anne’s last miscarriage he decides that Jane would make an ideal Queen – but that this time he’s taking no chances and he wants to know she can get pregnant before he commits himself. She does, and it’s because of this that Henry is such a hurry to marry after Anne’s death. Alas, Jane miscarries, and her short reign is spent first in fear of not becoming pregnant again, and then in fear of what will result from the delivery. She dies in due course, and Anne of Cleves is brought over thanks to the machinations of Cromwell; Henry finds her dull, ugly, pockmarked, and can’t bear the sight of her. Meanwhile, Katherine has at last had her chance and has been brought to court to be lady-in-waiting to the new Queen Anne, and whom should she meet but Thomas Culpepper, her childhood flirt? Their romance is just getting underway when Henry, now entranced by the deceptively innocent-seeming Katherine, gets Cranmer to root out Anne of Cleves’s old precontract with Francis of Lorraine, and sends a couple of deputies to her to announce his intention to buy her off if she’ll admit their marriage is invalid. Anne, who was terrified of Henry from the start and has been growing more so, is thrilled and accepts at once. (In a moment I liked, the deputies give each other the side eye, thinking that if Henry had known how anxious she was to be free of him he would have done a better job lowballing her).

After this it’s downhill all the way; Katherine is in love with Culpepper and though in fact they never sleep together, they arrange a number of secret meetings to talk (really, just to talk), but of course it’s only a matter of time until Mary Lascelles, jealous, vengeful, and Protestant, turns up to blow the whistle by telling stories of Katherine’s past antics with Manox and Derham. Cranmer, thrilled at this development, has everybody rounded up and interrogated, Katherine having to be hauled away just as she’s running shrieking down a gallery, trying to reach the King to plead her cause – an old legend, and used in a lot of books, except that here she’s trying to plead not for herself but for Culpepper, as he’s done nothing wrong. Off to prison go Katherine and Lady Rochford; the latter has now gone entirely around the bend and is talking to visions of George and Anne whom only she can see, and Cranmer ties everyone up nicely during his interrogations. Executions are in order all around, and as the book ends, Henry, wondering at his ill-fortune with wives, has begun to consider marrying once again.

SEX OR POLITICS? Both. The sex is heavily restrained but also heavily implied, and there’s enough politics to have a good idea of what’s happening beyond “Henry wanted a boy because he stupidly thought girls were no good” and “Henry wanted Anne dead and told Cromwell to make it happen.” It’s made clear that Henry is terrified of another round of succession wars if he should die without a son, and let’s face it, he wasn’t crazy for thinking this. There are a few extended section from Cromwell’s point of view where he’s juggling the fact of Henry’s discontent, analyzing the new political alignments he’s trying to align, and holding his breath as he prepares to bring about Anne’s fall both for Henry’s reasons and his own. This book was written far too early to pick up on the Ives hypothesis (that Anne and Cromwell’s struggle was primarily over the monasteries) but still places heavy emphasis on Cromwell’s fears that Anne would eventually get him ousted just as Wolsey had been. “Such thoughts were fraught with great terror for Thomas Cromwell. For the first time in his career with the King, he must act alone ….” Of course, our sympathy evaporates once he starts giving Mark Smeaton a private tour of the various torture chambers in the Tower, but at least we have some idea of his position. It’s not of textbook depth by any means, but it’s deep enough. Similarly with Cranmer, described unsympathetically as “chicken-hearted Cranmer,” willing to do anything to (1) further the Protestant cause, as long as by doing so he can still (2) save his own skin. He secures Anne’s last-minute “confession” of a precontract with Henry Percy by falsely promising that she would be spared and sent to a convent in France, and he’s happy to twist Katherine Howard’s words to make her sound worse than she was, since the result is that she’ll be condemned and the Protestant faction will get the upper hand once more. Cranmer has had varying portrayals over the years, but this one definitely leans more towards the “hypocritical, lily-livered serial recanter” end of the spectrum.

WHEN BORN? 1507 for Anne – she accompanies Mary Rose Tudor’s wedding train to France in autumn of 1514 at the age of seven. Mary Boleyn is eleven at the time, so 1503 for her, and George is placed between the two sisters and given a birth year of 1505. Katherine Howard’s birth is placed around 1521.

THE EARLY LOVE James Butler is mentioned but only briefly and never seen; the match fades away without much explanation except that the King decided against it. Henry Percy gets much more attention, meeting up with Anne at various points during Cardinal Wolsey’s visits and finally declaring his love for her during a masked ball (at which Anne is wearing her famous hanging sleeves). The King, who already has his eye on Anne, orders Wolsey to quash their betrothal and Percy retreats back to the north to enter into his miserable marriage and become ill. As with many other Annes, this is the turning point where her course diverts from passion to ambition. Later on, just before her marriage to the King, she sees Percy again from a distance, no longer a beautiful young man, and her reaction is bitter laughter, thinking that because of his weakness he spoiled both of their futures. “She was not the same girl who had loved Percy so deeply and defiantly; she was less ready with sympathy, finding hatreds springing up in her, and with them a new, surprising quality which had not been there before – vindictiveness.” Percy appears briefly at her trial but faints before the proceedings get underway and is carried out. Thomas Wyatt is depressively in love with Anne but she doesn’t have a lot of time for him. Katherine Howard of course has Thomas Culpepper, who sneaks into her window at night (when they’re children) to tell her about his adventures and try to scare her with ghost stories.

THE QUEEN’S BEES: Mary Wyatt, sister to Thomas Wyatt (Margaret Wyatt appears as Meg Lee) Mary Boleyn, Anne Gainsford and Anne Savile all appear, the last starring in the episode where Anne finds a drawing of a beheaded queen in a book and declares to the other Anne that even if she knew the prophecy to be true, she would still marry. Katherine Howard, of course, has Lady Rochford, who by this time is already half-crazy thanks to her betrayal of George and helps facilitate the meetings with Culpepper, though since Katherine and Culpepper are innocent in this book it’s not clear that she’s doing anything so dreadful. Once arrested she has a full-on breakdown and begins seeing visions of George and Anne and talking to them; not the most uplifting company.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: The maids of honour double as this – Mary Wyatt is especially devoted to her, waits on her in the Tower, and receives Anne’s prayer book as a gift at the scaffold. Mark Smeaton, the “soft-eyed boy” also has a tremendous crush on Anne and holds out for a long, vividly-described torture session before “confessing” to committing adultery with her.

THE PROPHECY: As in real life (not to mention the author’s other Anne novel, The Lady In The Tower (1986) Anne Gainsford finds the book of prophecies depicting Anne Boleyn with her head cut off, and the latter says that even that wouldn’t dissuade her from grasping for the prize of a crown. Henry promises that the printer of the book will be duly punished, but it’s never followed up on.

IT’S A GIRL! Henry doesn’t take it well, but recovers, albeit a little too late.

His face was purple; his eyes blazing. He roared in his anguish.
“A daughter!” His voice was almost a sob; he was defeated; he was humiliated.
He stood, his hands clenched, words pouring from his mouth, abuse and rage, and his eyes were on Anne, lying still on the bed. This to happen to him! What had he done to deserve it? Had he not always sought to do right? Had he not spent hours of labor, studying theology; had he not written
A Glasse Of The Truthe? …. And for whom had he worked and suffered? Not for himself, but for his people, to save them from the rigors of civil war which during the last century had distressed and ravaged the land.

After all this he sees the exhausted Anne crying and belated realizes that “she was disappointed as he was” and tries to comfort her by telling her he’d rather beg from door to door than forsake her, but all she’s left with is the strong impression that he had for at least a moment considered forsaking her.

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Yes, and the wen as well. Again Anne designs a sleeve to hide the finger: “Her surcoat of watered silk was lined with miniver and the sleeves of the surcoat hung below her hands, hiding them, for she was more sensitive about her hands now than she had been at Hever …. even now the ladies of the court were striving to copy those long hanging sleeves, so that what had been a ruse to hide a deformity was becoming a fashion.”

FAMILY AFFAIRS: Simonette the governess appears, and in her usual form; affectionate French spinster who teaches Anne to speak fluently and loves her like a mother. Surprisingly, Anne’s real mother is also alive – Simonette and a stepmother usually go together, but not this time. Elizabeth Boleyn doesn’t get much attention – the young Anne thinks that “Mother was a darling; but it is possible for people to be darlings and at the same time to be very, very dull.” Thomas Boleyn is described as “ambitious” over and over, and while he’s not in a particularly villainous incarnation here he doesn’t really stand out much either. Mary Boleyn is goodnatured, if vain (she covers her bosom with a handkerchief to keep herself from tanning), happily jumps into bed with Francois I, King Henry, and a few other assorted courtiers and enjoys herself thoroughly. Her marriage to William Carey is less than she might have had, but “none would guess that their union was not everything that might be desired,” although their son Henry is rumoured to be the King’s. (Catherine Carey doesn’t appear). Mary’s second marriage is introduced in a fairly low-key way; instead of a dramatic confrontation and unwilling confession of pregnancy as in many other books, here Mary volunteers the information, in language right out of her letter to Cromwell, and takes her rejection as placidly as she takes everything else, and disappears from the story. George is his usual self; good-looking, writer of poetry, devoted to his sister and on bad terms with his wife not because either of them is a player but because she’s nowhere near his intellectual equal and they both know it. The conversations between George and Jane, in which she’s trying to gain his approval and he’s trying not to show his exasperation at her complete inability to get what he’s driving at and simultaneous wish for more patience are really well-done (George about to depart on a diplomatic trip: “He contemplated her; he always felt more kindly towards her when he was going to leave her”). Jane’s dislike of Anne is rooted not just in jealousy in this instance, but also in fear – if Henry could put aside a disliked first wife, why would George not think of doing the same thing?

Katherine Howard’s most noticeable family member is her step-grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, and she is outstanding. I don’t mean that she’s some sort of pearl of nobility, but that she’s wonderfully well-written; she’s the garrulous old woman who’s always boasting of her (step)granddaughter Anne’s accomplishments to anybody who will listen, and is too busy talking about her own importance and court connections to pay attention to what’s going on under her own roof – it takes a long time for her to admit that the girls in her care are getting up to God knows what with the young men, not because she doesn’t have some idea of what’s happening but because she’s too lazy to do anything about it. She’d rather lie in bed and weep over Anne’s execution: “The Duchess’s dreams were haunted by her granddaughter, and she would awaken out of them sweating and trembling …. She began to weep into her bedclothes, seeing again Anne at court, Anne at Lambeth; she remembered promised favors which would never be hers.” At the end, when her years of ignoring Katherine rebound with Katherine’s arrest and the stories of her old life, the Duchess takes to her bed again as a sympathy ploy, though it doesn’t work this time and she gets arrested.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? Anne – no. Katherine – yes, before her marriage, but her love for Thomas Culpepper after her marriage is platonic, not that that does either of them much good.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: All right, so it’s not Nabokov or anything, but it’s solid, readable prose and keeps you engaged from page one. Henry’s prayers alone are worth the price of admission:

So he prayed a good deal; he heard mass many times a day. He prayed aloud and in his thoughts. “Thou knowest it was not for my carnal desires that I would make Anne my wife. There is none I would have for wife but Katharine, were I sure that she was my wife, that I was not sinning in continuing to let her share my bed. Thou knowest that!” he pleaded. “Thou hast taken William Carey, O Lord. Ah! He was a complaisant husband to Mary, and mayhap this is his punishment. For myself, I have sinned in this matter and in others, as Thou knowest, but always I have confessed. I have repented…And if I took William’s wife, I gave him a place at court beyond his deserts, for, as Thou knowest, he was a man of small ability.”

Another thing that stood out about this book that stood out was the comparatively large number of torture and death scenes (some though not all by execution). These rather tricky scenes were done really well; vivid, but not so grotesque as to be pornographic or overwhelming, but they definitely left an impression. Poor Mark Smeaton, after several rounds of being tortured and then revived with vinegar, almost welcomes death because he can no longer conceive of a life without agony and the eternal smell of vinegar, and we also follow Derham right to the gory end. Jane Seymour’s end, though less dramatic, is well done:

Jane was too ill to feel her triumph. She was hardly aware of what was going on in her chamber. Shapes rose up and faded. There was a huge red-faced man, whose laughter was very loud, drawing her away from the peaceful sleep she sought …. Courtiers moved about the sick room. They must kiss Jane’s hand; they must congratulate her. She was too tired? Nonsense! She must rejoice. Had she not done that which her predecessors had failed to do, give the King a son!

…The ceremony of christening began in her chamber. They lifted her from her bed to the state pallet which was decorated with crowns and the arms of England in gold thread. She lay, propped on cushions of crimson damask, wrapped in a mantle of crimson velvet furred with ermine; but Jane’s face looked transparent against the rich redness of her robes. She was exhausted before they lifted her from the bed; her head throbbed and her hands were hot with fever. She longed to sleep, but she reminded herself over and over again that she must do her duty by attending the christening of her son. What would the King say, if he found the mother of his Prince sleeping when she should be smiling with pleasure?

ERRATA: “Protestant” is used when it wouldn’t have been, and Anne lays her head “upon the block” before being beheaded, her lips still moving in prayer for a few seconds afterward. Of course, there was no block – the “sword of Calais” beheaded her while she knelt. (That must have been a real specialty skill). Simonette the governess is there, of course, and Mark Smeaton is hanged instead of being beheaded. There are some oddities about the arrests towards the end of Anne’s life; Brereton “goes missing” before Smeaton is ever invited to Cromwell’s house, but later on Smeaton calls out his name unprompted during a torture session. Smeaton does this because Brereton, Norris and Weston and all part of the “magic circle” (as Lady Rochford, excluded, bitterly calls it), the group of the especially witty and talented whom Anne keeps about her. I think this may have been an editing slip, unless the author was somehow in the know about the Cromwell/Brereton antagonism twenty-five years before Ives’s book. Lady Rochford testifies against Anne and George, though she did no such thing. Katherine Howard is referred to as “Queen of Britain” at one point, but Great Britain was not an official entity until James I, and her execution speech is the “I die a Queen, but I would rather die the wife of Culpepper” – an old story, and dramatically appropriate, but highly unlikely to have happened. Thomas Culpepper himself is depicted as wild and adventurous, but the rape and murder attributed to him and pardoned by the King (boys will be boys, after all) is not mentioned at all; obviously it would have taken a bit of the gloss off of his wooing of Katherine.

WORTH A READ? Absolutely. It’s by no means the most factually accurate account but it’s a joy to read, moves along fast, and there’s always something happening; telling the story of Katherine Howard simultaneously works beautifully as it helps to fill up that dragging seven-year waiting period which has challenged many novelists. I did have some bones to pick; Katherine Howard is just so innocent, so naïve, so unchanging to the very end that while I was sorry for her, I also didn’t find her very interesting; Anne changes throughout, from young and naïve to angry and ambitious to pulling back from that for reading and religion, but Katherine at five is just about as worldly-wise as Katherine at fifteen. I actually wished there was a bit more time spent on Jane Seymour; she’s also depicted as not being especially intelligent, but there was a bit more complexity to her character. Mary Tudor as well seems a little too over-the-top; at the age of twelve or so she’s declaring with a joyful, fanatic gleam in her eye that if it were up to her she would have Cranmer burned. While I have no doubt she hated him from early on, in this book it’s pretty much her only setting. However, the good of this one so outweighs these nitpicks that I’d recommend it to anyone.

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.

From → Book Overviews

One Comment

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Top Ten |

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: