The Tudor Sisters by Aileen Armitage, 1971 (Also published as Court Cadenza)
Slight in plot, this romance is, as far as I know, the first novel which places Mary Boleyn in the starring role and makes a good opener for MaBoNoMo (Mary Boleyn Novel Month). Like others in this category, it features a Mary who is pretty, sweet, loving, not acquisitive, and who at bottom wants a simple country life with her family above all.
The story opens with a twelve-year-old Mary receiving her final blessing from her mother, who is dying from puerperal fever a la Strickland, and who tells Mary that she fears for her because unlike Anne and George, she doesn’t have a strong will and could be easily taken advantage of. Mary is worried by this, and also very lonely, for after their mother’s death the Wyatt children are brought to spend time with the Boleyn children, but quartet of Anne, George, Margaret and Thomas are cleverer than Mary and prefer to play with each other, and this leads Mary to console herself with an abortive romance with a handsome young cowhand down at the village. Nothing happens (they get interrupted by Simonette) but the incident leads Thomas Boleyn both to send Mary away for a bit to cool off and also to remarry, so that the children will have a mistress of the house to keep them in line. Not that they’ll be children for much longer, and a year or so after his remarriage he’s busy placing them at suitable starting points for them to begin rising in the world: Anne, with Simonette accompanying her, will go to the court of Margaret of Austria, George will go the court of Henry VIII, and Mary is off to accompany Mary Rose Tudor to France and her marriage to Louis XII. “Have a care, therefore, that you let no blemish attach to our respected name,” says Thomas as he bids her farewell, apparently not remembering that the soon-to-be Francois I is also there, monitoring Louis XII’s health very closely and relaxing by having a go at every resident female whose age is in double digits.
As it happens, Francois’s attention is first caught by the new Queen Mary Rose, who herself is busy throwing balls and masques in an effort to see the decrepit old Louis XII into the grave as fast as possible. But the obvious pitfall there is that if she were to get pregnant, the child would be presumed to be the king’s, and Francois would have inadvertently bumped himself from the line of succession, so he opts for Mary Boleyn instead, and fortunately for her she’s more than willing. They don’t lose much time; usually in these stories Mary and Francois don’t reach that level of acquaintance for a few years, but here Francois is dragging her into unoccupied rooms before he’s even king. He’s charmed with her and lack of acquisitiveness – “Such warmth, such responsiveness – and not a word of cajolery or bribery. No trinkets had she begged for her favours, not even words of feigned love.” Mary can’t get enough of their affair, but Francois can, and after his sister Marguerite d’Alencon gives him advice for letting Mary down painlessly (introduce her to a handsome grieving widower of his acquaintance and let nature take its course) he jettisons her just in time for King Louis XII to die. Francois makes a brief play for Mary Rose (yes, he’s already married, but so what? Annulments are easily come by) thereby triggering her quick marriage to Suffolk, and she and Mary return to England to join the Henry’s court.
Mary is impressed by – and sympathetic to – Catherine, if a bit bored at the endless round of Masses and prayers for a son, but luckily for her Catherine’s husband is both more interesting and finds Mary rather fetching. Henry himself is no bad specimen – “Youth, vigour, strength and beauty – he had all that was most desirable in a man.” Unlike many other fictional Henrys (and, possibly, the real one) his performance lives up to the expectations his appearance creates, and soon he and Mary are having passionate if slightly guilty sex and he has christened her his “Mistress of Moonlight”. He too finds it impressive that she never asks for favours, but as she truly loves him she feels this would be immoral, although her father begins to get uneasy about what will happen once the gravy train inevitably leaves the station. This departure is, for once, triggered not by Henry but by Catherine; she still hopes to have a son and has become convinced that “His Grace’s marriage cannot be blessed while he lives thus in sin.” Therefore she arranges with Henry to have Mary married off and gotten out of the way. Fortunately, she has an admirer waiting in the wings; one William Carey, “Page to to the Queen’s Grace” who is socially inferior but has been hanging around casting Mary looks of “mute adoration”. He is, naturally, pleased with the prospect of marrying her, and Mary, who’s been feeling bad about the whole affair anyway and thinks William would be more restful, agrees and marries him. King, Queen and happy couple are all pleased, but not so Thomas Boleyn:
I shall renounce you utterly, Mary; henceforth you shall be no daughter of mine, do you hear? You may bring yourself to what degradation you will, but you shall climb by no effort of mine. The Boleyns were born to rise, and we shall, George and Anne and I, but you with your seeming simpleness were ever of an obdurate nature. Do as you will, wench, but you are no longer a Boleyn!
Her banishment from the family isn’t quite as severe as all that, though, since soon she and William Carey are off to France for the Field of Cloth of Gold, and they meet up with Anne and Thomas there – Anne grown haughty, beautiful, and very touch-me-not with the men – and when Thomas sees how Francois and Henry are still admiring Mary from a distance he softens a little. As it happens, the two kings do a bit more than admire; Mary gets nocturnal visits from both of them (as well as her husband) and by the time they get back to England she is once more Henry’s bit on the side. They chug along discreetly until Anne returns from France, haughty, cold and unhappy, and eventually confides to Mary that she has fallen in love with – and been discarded by – Francois I, and is now resolved never to love again. This is the first and only time so far that I’ve ever seen Anne go for Francois; usually Anne’s determination to become a woman with ambition but no love comes after her affair with Henry Percy is busted up, but this time Percy is merely her first attempt at an ambitious match and she doesn’t love him at all (again, very unusual). Before long, the day arrives when King Henry comes to visit his mistress Mary at Hever, and his attentions begin to drift away rather suddenly. As Anne tells Mary later, “It was not difficult. To find a maid alone beneath a tree, strumming a lute and singing a song of one’s own composition is flattering to any man, and King Henry is but a man, after all.” After a very un-Henrician breakup scene in which Henry apologizes to Mary but insists “I love your sister and by God’s bones I swear I must have her,” Mary learns that Anne has it all mapped out within the first week: she’ll suggest to Henry that his marriage is invalid, then refuse to sleep with him until he marries her and makes her Queen.
“I shall rule Henry and thus England and my every whim shall be law, while you, poor simpleton, will be but a country squire’s wife, hard put to it to pay your servants and replenish your linen.” For a second she paused, then shrewd black eyes peered closely at the wan face before her, and Mary’s vacant gaze as she slumped into a chair.
“And too poor to hire a wet-nurse,” she added, “for it seems to me that you are with child. Is it so, Mall?”
Mary started, staring up at the curious dark eyes in horror. “I, with child? Oh no, it cannot be!”
But it is, and fortunately the faithful William Carey is more than happy to claim the resulting boy as his, and Mary, sick of court life and backstabbing, is happy to let him. The baby could technically be either Carey’s or Henry’s, but it’s very clear who the real father is: “Harry, with his tell-tale lively eyes and Tudor-gold hair” looks so much like Henry that Mary refuses ever to come to court for fear Henry will notice the resemblance and want to take over the boy’s education and upbringing for himself. So Mary opts out of court life about a decade sooner than she did in reality, and happily for William Carey this change in events means that he survives. Our last glimpse of Mary is in January of 1533, when King Henry stops by her home just after his wedding to Anne. They have a brief, wistful conversation, and when Henry asks who that likely-looking lad down by the river is, “for the first time in her life, Mary deliberately lied” and tells him that it’s a village boy. Henry departs, and Mary goes off to tell Carey that she’s pregnant once more, this time with a baby that is indubitably his, and to reflect that she’s happier here than she ever would have been as Queen.
SEX OR POLITICS? If it stars Mary Boleyn, it’s about sex. She’s deflowered by Francois I a few months after her arrival in France with Mary Rose Tudor (well, he’s got to have something to do while waiting for the old king to die), is passed on to some friends of his, and on her return to England becomes mistress to Henry VIII, surprising her father – not because he wasn’t in favour of this occurring, but because she says right out that she’d enjoy having a go with him.
WHEN BORN? Mary is stated to be twelve years old in 1512, while Anne is ten (1502) and George is fourteen (1498).
THE EARLY LOVE: Mary has an early flirtation with a handsome village cowhand named Rafe, who pays attention to her while Anne, George and the Wyatt children ignore her; this is summarily broken up by Simonette, and when Thomas Boleyn hears of it he sends her off to Blickling for awhile. Thomas Wyatt adores Anne from childhood, vows to marry her, and writes her verses, but she dismisses all of this as “a game.” Very unusually for fiction, her affair with Henry Percy involves love only on his side; Anne has decided he’s a catch and so when Wolsey ends it, she’s angry but not because of a real disappointment in love. “He is another I hate, Mall, for his feeble weakness, the gutless sheep,” Anne tells Mary, and when Mary, shocked, protests that she thought Anne loved him, Anne scornfully tells her that she only wanted to “use him for my advantage. Did I not tell you once that henceforth men should be for my use, and not I for theirs?” Her heartlessness is not, however, entire; it was caused by a disappointment even earlier than Percy; Francois I. “I loved him, Mall, I adored him, and though every courtier in France was on his knees for me, I gave myself only to Francis. I, who swore never to love any man more than I was loved, gave my girlish heart to an unfeeling wretch who sought only to use women and then abandon them.”
THE QUEEN’S BEES: Mary is a maid of honour first to Mary Rose Tudor (who confides in her both about her fears that Francois will try to marry her and later about her clandestine marriage to the Duke of Suffolk) and afterward to Catherine of Aragon, where she hears the court gossip from another maid named Margaret; the latter briefly catches Henry’s eye before being supplanted by the much prettier Mary. Lady Rochford is briefly and unflatteringly mentioned but as the story ends before Anne’s marriage, she doesn’t have time to do much. Anne herself is a maid of honour to Queen Claude in France, but Mary has come back to England by then and so we only hear Anne’s complaints of how dull it all was. “Lady Jane Seymour” is mentioned as having been in France with Anne (and returning to England at the same time) but we never see or hear from her.
THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: None, unless you count William Carey.
THE PROPHECY: None.
IT’S A GIRL! Not applicable, as the story doesn’t get that far; it ends with Henry’s marriage to Anne.
DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Yes, “the tiny stump of a rudimentary sixth finger on her hand,” as well as a wen on her throat which she hides with a jewelled collar of her own design (and sets a fashion by doing so).
FAMILY AFFAIRS: A lot of Mary’s early waywardness is attributed to the death of her mother, who dies giving birth to a boy who also dies. Mary had hoped that this sibling would be her companion, just as Anne and George are companions to each other, but then that hope is quashed and she’s left at a loose end and free to get into trouble with handsome cowhands and, later on, royalty. We don’t see much of Elizabeth Boleyn, who dies at the start of the story, but she does have a deathbed scene with Mary in which she says that while she can see that Anne and George will have no trouble getting what they want from life, Mary will find things harder. “You are so unsubtle, so pliable and anxious to please. I fear for you, my precious, for you will be an easy prey to others’ ambitions.” Thomas Boleyn is in his usual form, though he shows good taste by remarrying, two years after his wife’s death, to Lady Beth, who is domestically inclined, unreservedly loving and eventually wins the allegiance of all the children, even the clever and far-seeing Anne. Simonette the governess is here as well, and again is a starchy, reserved Frenchwoman who takes over the children’s care in the period between their mother’s death and their father’s remarriage; she also accompanies the young Anne on her journey abroad, thus somewhat reconciling her appearance with the “Symmonet” in Margaret of Austria’s court. And once again Mary is a disappointing pupil to her: Mary’s “slow, careful French” isn’t nearly as good as Anne’s even though she’s been learning just as long. “She tries, my lord,” Simonette tells Thomas Boleyn, “But if the ability is not there …” and Mary is resentful that her skills and sewing and playing the harpsichord don’t seem to count for anything.
DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? Not applicable, since we never get that far, but since Anne is portrayed as cold, calculating, and not really interested in sleeping with anyone except Francois I, it seems unlikely unless you favour the “she committed adultery to get a son” hypothesis.
WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: The prose quality varies – it’s always readable, but it has some unhappy moments of combining both overwriting and exposition. One example, as seen in a conversation between Marguerite d’Alencon and Francois I:
“How goes it with the little English maid?” she asked him one morning as he sat writing at his desk, her fingers caressing the nape of his neck. Louise of Savoy, sitting sewing in a far window seat, noted the gesture of affection with pleasure. They were renowned, these three, for the loving bond that held mother, son and daughter undeniably close.
Francis glanced up from his papers. “La petite Marie? Oh, she is a willing, pliant little soul. She gives all and asks nothing in return. A cushioning feather-bed, all body and no brain. What man could ask for more?”
A knowing smile crossed Marguerite’s comely face. “That would seem to suit you, brother – for a time. But you are too witty to dally with a lackwit overlong. It will not be long, I think, before you seek out another Jeanne le Coq to whet your appetite – mental as well as physical.”
ERRATA: William Carey survives and is last seen still happily married to Mary on the eve of Henry’s marriage to Anne. (In fact, the only one who gets the sweat, or something like it, is Henry VIII!) I imagine the reason for this is that since the story really wraps up around 1527 and the coda takes place in early 1533, having William Carey disappear and be replaced out of nowhere by William Stafford in the interval would be pointless, not to mention inaccurate in itself since Mary and Stafford don’t seem to have married until 1534. The child Henry Carey’s birthdate moves around somewhat; in early 1533 he’s described as being five years old, which would put his birth in 1527, but the story implies that Anne and Henry got together only a year or two after her return in 1522. Henry Carey is Mary’s eldest child, and his older sister Catherine is not mentioned (unless it’s Catherine who’s due to come along inaccurately in 1533), and while William Carey may have been a page at some point, by the time he and Mary were married he was a gentleman of the privy chamber – by no means a bad catch. Though since this William Carey survives, I’m sure the author was trying to mix a few elements of William Stafford into his character, and it’s true that Stafford was not considered a suitable candidate to become Mary’s husband. Of course, the importance of Mary’s family connections did increase considerably between 1520 and 1534. And Jane Seymour was not “Lady Jane” as her father was a knight.
WORTH A READ? It’s a pleasant enough bit of fluff, but there’s nothing here that you can’t find in other Tudor-era romances (even in those centered around Mary Boleyn) and it’s greatly handicapped by ending just as the fun really starts. Mary herself is just too static to be really interesting; the perpetual nymphomaniacal innocent, she never really seems to learn anything except new sexual positions, and Henry VIII is reduced to a handsome, conflicted stud who’s entirely the victim of the conniving Anne and whose other distasteful deeds don’t rate so much as a mention. It’s impossible to imagine this Henry as ever being seriously threatening, let alone actually beheading anyone. Mary may spend much of the book longing for a simple rural life and fearing that her children may be caught up in the glamour of court, but without any outside context it’s impossible to see why, as court life looks pretty sweet from what we’re shown of it – all dancing, and no piper in sight to pay.
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.