The Last Boleyn by Karen Harper, 1983 (Also published as Passion’s Reign)
A young girl is shipped off to the French court by her ambitious father who hopes to make connections and groom her for a great marriage at the same time. Along the way she discovers that the loves of the great are fickle, befriends Leonardo da Vinci, picks her way through the secret tunnels running between Francois I’s different palaces, and returns to England where she becomes entangled with no less a person than Henry VIII, and it’s all liberally sprinkled with sex scenes. It sounds a bit like Mademoiselle Boleyn (2007), but this time the Mademoiselle Boleyn in question is Mary.
After a brief glimpse at Mary’s childhood as the middle of three Bullen children (notice the spelling – Anne will, later on) off she goes to the French court to wait first on Mary Rose Tudor and later on Queen Claude. Along the way she has her usual amorous adventures; first falling for Francois I and then later on being loaned to a few of his friends. Before all of this begins, however, she’s saved from the unwanted advances of a courtier by Leonardo, who befriends her – platonically – and uses her as a model for some of his drawings:
“I shall sketch you someday,” he was saying. “You could be a Florentine beauty, you know, fair and blonde and azure-eyed. You show your most inner thoughts in your eyes when it is an unfashionable thing to do, but how touching and how feminine. Like la Gioconda.”
Leonardo isn’t the only man showing a slightly more elevated interest in Mary than most of the French court. A certain young attache of her father’s, described as taller and broad than the rest, as well as displaying “easy stance and masculine charm” teases Mary a little and introduces himself as “William Stafford, at your service.” His nickname is Staff, which serves as both a good way to differentiate him from William Carey later on and as a sign of … other endowments. As the next few years pass and Mary becomes infatuated with Francois I, sleeps with Francois I, becomes disenchanted with him once realizing belatedly that she’s one of a very large stable, and actively begins to hate Francois after he hands her over to a villainous courtier named Lautrec as payment for losing at card games, Stafford (or Staff, as he’s nicknamed) keeps bobbing to the surface periodically to annoy her in a flirtatious way, hint that she’s better than her family, and glower silently at the dishonour to which she’s been subjected. Thomas Boleyn turns up periodically, mostly to give Mary her marching orders and express delight that she’s become mistress to the king, and Anne is there as well but mostly as the sharp-tongued and sharp-witted annoying little sister. Early in 1520, Mary is given notice by her father that she’s coming back to England to marry one William Carey, who with his sister has been working hard to restore the depleted family fortunes and sees marrying the ambassador’s daughter as a good move in this direction, but before the wedding takes place Mary has a last encounter with Stafford at the Field of Cloth of Gold, where the villainous Lautrec (the one who won Mary’s services in a card game) makes a slur upon her honour and Stafford wrestles him to the ground. The altercation is observed with amusement by the two kings, and prompts the famous wrestling match in which Francois managed to throw Henry, who was not amused. Previously to this Stafford had warned Mary that he feared her father would try and put her in Henry’s way as well, and of course she became angry at him even though considering the past he had more than reasonable grounds for saying this (albeit not to her face).
All occurs as Stafford predicts, naturally, and as Mary proceeds to give birth to first Henry and then Catherine Carey (both of ambiguous paternity, but strongly hinted to be the King’s, although Mary denies it because she doesn’t want them taken from her for him to raise) resentment of Staff has become mixed with the fiery, hopeless love familiar to many a romance reader. William Carey treats her with a combination of placation and disdain – he’s using her to try and get back the lands and titles his family lost, and they both know it, but at the same time her family doesn’t have nearly the background his does. The first woman in William’s life is not Mary but his sister Eleanor, a nun who has ambitions in that sphere, and William is always confiding to her and deferring to her opinions. “Eleanor, Eleanor,” thinks Mary. “If only there were no such thing as incest between a brother and sister, Will could marry his beloved Eleanor. Perhaps, when the Careys earned their way back, they could ask for a royal or papal dispensation and marry each other. Then she would be free to go off with Staff. How desperately she wished for it!” I really liked the characterizations of the Careys, their relationship is more complex than usual and I found them both annoying and understandable at the same time; I also liked the parallel to Anne and George Boleyn’s relationship later in the book – the brother and sister who can only trust each other and so confide more than siblings usually do.
I write “Boleyn” because Anne, having returned from France and been involved in a passionate and abortive love affair with Henry Percy (so abortive we never actually hear of it until it’s over), has decided that since they’re coming up in the world their surname needs to be more sophisticated. Her father likes the idea, Mary finds it insulting, their mother gently protests but goes along, and the Boleyn family they soon are, although Mary needs a lot of reminding about the new pronunciation. After the Percy affair is over, Anne, nursing a strong grudge against Wolsey, begins to flirt with the King while he’s visiting Mary at Hever. Her original intention is to get revenge on Wolsey by ingratiating herself with the King, but it soon turns out that she’s ingratiated herself more than she intended and Henry is sending her love tokens and freshly-killed deer and strong hints that any time she’d like to come to bed would be fine with him. Anne shies away at that – she hasn’t been interested in anyone since Percy and is something of a cold fish sexually, as well as not being particularly interested in having children – and instead of getting angry, Henry is enthralled, Mary is dumped, and the great chase begins.
William Carey’s death from the sweating sickness while the pursuit is taking place leaves Mary in a bad way financially, and Anne’s taking over the guardianship of her son – in which she was very likely doing her sister a favour – leaves Mary unhappy because she wants to be with her children close by and raising them herself. However, she has to take what she can get, and so when she’s summoned back to court to wait on Anne she parks her daughter with relatives and goes. Anne, from the fashionable and well-controlled person she was in youth, has become both more reckless and more nervous as queenship approaches; her celebration of Wolsey’s death (yes, the masque turns up) is almost hysterical, and her fear of following through on the bargain with Henry – she’s simply afraid to sleep with him – is very apparent. However, history will have its way with her whether she wants it or not, and when they take their trip to Calais in late 1532 Mary comes along, discovering to her displeasure that Francois I still fancies a roll in the hay with her for old times’ sake (she kicks him out of the room, but he tells everyone a different story the next day) and that Thomas Cromwell, described as small, intelligent-looking and just a little frightening, also likes to flirt with her in an understated way. (This may be the only plot point which this book and Wolf Hall, 2009, have in common). Luckily her non-encounter with Francois isn’t totally unproductive, since when Stafford checks up on her later that evening she tells him what happened, and Stafford, stating that “he faced a real woman tonight and she saw him for what he is” finally proposes, and a discreet curtain is brought down over what ensues.
Stafford being far below Mary in rank, there’s obviously no way their wedding will be sanctioned, so they sneak off to an obscure village and have the rites done by a local priest, but after a while the inevitable ensues and Mary is pregnant; at a particularly bad time, as Anne’s second pregnancy has turned out to be a false one, brought on by her anxiety to have a son. Henry is duly enraged and spits out his line about “enduring as your betters have done before you,” and not long afterwards Mary and Stafford have to break their own happy news; Anne’s reaction – a screaming tantrum and banishment from court, is, if not admirable, still easy to understand. Off goes Mary to Stafford’s one-star manor at the ends of the earth, where she has a boy named Andrew and is generally contented until the day eighteen months later when Cromwell stops by for a chat. He tells her the unfortunate news of Anne’s latest miscarriage and also that Anne, not trusting anyone else, has asked him to bring Mary the message that she would like to see her once more. “My duty is to serve my master the king, and therefore, what the king wishes, I must enact,” Cromwell tells her. “But I owe the Boleyns much …” and hence this last service before he gets down to the task of eliminating Anne, not that he puts it quite that directly. Mary, by now extremely fearful, travels to court where she meets with a much-chastened and soberer Anne – “I feel very, very old, Mary,” – who quietly sketches out her wishes for Elizabeth’s education and gives Mary some of her jewels to smuggle away, to be kept for Elizabeth and Mary’s own children, just in case something should happen to her in the near future. As she’s leaving, Mary encounters Henry, who is obviously having a bad day (“Why were you not the Boleyn who held out, Mary, instead of that sour and bitter sister of yours?”), and who inquires after her eldest son. Mary gives him the report, stressing the boy’s (non-existent) resemblance the Careys, and succeeds in convincing Henry that there’s no way he could be his son. As a parting goodwill gesture, Henry tells her to “Go from this room now or I shall take my first sweet revenge on the Boleyns in a way I had never dreamed. Sweet, sweet revenge.” She takes his advice, and once home receives the news that Anne has been arrested. The book ends with Mary and her parents, Mary listening to her father reflecting bitterly on how it all went wrong.
SEX OR POLITICS? Sex. Every Mary Boleyn book is about sex. Politics enter on the most basic level, as they must, but it’s more about the personalities involved than the policies they espouse: Thomas More is mentioned several times, but we learn more about his relationship with his daughter (Mary wonders what it must be like to have a father whom you love to the point where you would steal his head) than about his arguments against the Act of Supremacy.
WHEN BORN? Mary is described as being eight years old in July of 1512, George is a year older and Anne is five. So around 1503 for George, 1504 for Mary, and 1507 for Anne.
THE EARLY LOVE: William Stafford is Mary’s, of course, and also her later love. Anne has Henry Percy, whom we see for about five seconds, but “whom she loved desperately,” and she’s trying to plant the knife in Wolsey’s back as early as 1526. George Boleyn is also crossed in love, as he is in several other books: “George needs consolation and diversion,” Anne tells Mary at one point. “He always did favour Margot Wyatt and now he has had to wed with that chatterbox Rochford.”
THE QUEEN’S BEES: Mary herself waits on Mary Rose Tudor, Claude, and Catherine of Aragon, and Anne waits on the latter two as well. In France, Mary is friendly with another maid named Jeanne and has a few run-ins with Francoise de Foix, senior mistress to Francois I; Francoise has eyes described as “jade” and “catty”, low-cut gowns, and diverts herself with one M. Bonnivet when Francois is otherwise engaged, but they always get back together in the end. She and Mary spar frequently. Once back in England, they meet an anachronistically placed Anne Basset, who’s avid for gossip and keeps trying to pump Mary. Jane Seymour, described as sly and simpering, is mentioned but we never see her, and Madge Shelton, “winsome and lovely with a perfect oval face and curly blonde hair” arrives as Anne’s childbearing problems increase, “brought to court by Thomas Boleyn to hold the king’s attentions for his petulant and increasingly nasty Queen Anne.” Anne treats her horribly but eases up after she becomes pregnant again and Madge is shuffled into the heap of discarded mistresses.
THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: At Hever, Mary has Nancy, who talks in dialect and passes on gossip heard from other servants. At court, she’s also waited on by Peg, who is indistinguishable from Nancy.
THE PROPHECY: A very veiled one, when Leonardo is speaking with Mary after telling her that he has sketched her as “chaste Diana and once as la Madonna.” Mary expresses surprise, and he tells her “Do not be surprised or deem it only an honor. You see, that Mary showed pain in her eyes too and even at His birth and adoration, she never could hide the pain to come.”
IT’S A GIRL! Not shown directly, but six months after Elizabeth’s birth Mary remembers her as a newborn, “a white-faced, red-haired child whose christening at Greenwich the king refused to attend,” the implication being that he took the news badly. (While it’s true that he didn’t attend, it was traditional that royal parents were not at their children’s christenings, so it’s hard to read much from this).
DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Yes, mentioned as possible evidence of witchcraft when he drops by to give Mary a strong hint that she might want to consider staying away from court in the near future. “It is well known, despite the fact the queen tries to hide it, lady, that she does have a tiny sixth finger on one hand – the devil’s mark, folk would have claimed years ago.”
FAMILY AFFAIRS: Thomas Boleyn is the usual ambitious, cold courtier – leaving Mary in tears after his brief, businesslike visits to her at the French court, and whose chilly relationship with his wife is due to the fact that years ago she refused Henry VIII’s advances and Thomas, instead of being pleased, became angry at her because she could have gotten some valuable concessions out of Henry if she had become his mistress. Thomas also has the rather endearing verbal quirk of referring to his family members as “good soldiers” when they show aptitude for court politics; he alone of the family approves of George’s wife Jane, referring to her impressive talent for domestic spying as making her “rather a good soldier.” Elizabeth Boleyn loves her husband but is, on the whole, rather sad and washed out; she’s never been able to feel the same about him since he turned on her for refusing Henry. George had a childhood love for Margaret Wyatt, but since she didn’t come with any property worth mentioning, Thomas has married him off to Jane, who is, for a change, very attractive, but otherwise in her usual form: sly and sneaking. When not listening at doors she uses her talent for intrigue to carry on an affair with one Mark Gostwick; when she makes her accusation against George it’s not from jealousy and thwarted love but simply because she wants to get him out of the way. Simonette the governess also appears (as Semmonet) but doesn’t take much part in the main plot.
DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No. “The only thing Anne and George were ever guilty of was love of power, and that they learned at their sire’s knee.”
WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE The language isn’t bad – peppered with the occasional “‘Sblood” but not to an annoying extent – but a lot of it just feels really contemporary, for want of a better description. Henry VIII is described as playing tennis with “verve”, a Frenchman treats a friend of his to a “replay” of the wrestling match, and Stafford “[gets] on with the servants so democratically that it amazed her.” When Mary and Stafford sneak away to a small town to be married, they lodge with a family who have a three-year-old daughter named Jennifer. Not impossible, but it still gives the atmosphere that very 1980s feeling, as does Anne’s nickname being Annie instead of Nan. Sometimes, though, the descriptions are lovely and evocative. Here’s a masque at the French court, masterminded by Leonardo:
The double doors to the central courtyard stood ajar, and Mary sucked in her breath as they entered. It was magic. In the broad daylight of chill December he had made the gardens at Hever or Amboise. Above them stretched a clear starlit night with the golden stars and planets trembling overhead in a velvet blue heaven. Tears flooded her eyes at the wonder of it.
….”It is only waxed canvas painted with stars and hung with golden balls and set off with hundreds of candles and torches. But somehow it seems more, eh?” He smiled and his thick mustache lifted. “I did a much vaster one for Ludovico Sforza in Milan years ago, you know.”
ERRATA: Louis XII dies on December 22 1514 instead of January 1 1515, and Henry Percy is referred to, when arresting Cardinal Wolsey, as the eighth Earl of Northumberland: he was the sixth. Mary Rose Tudor has daughter named Margaret, with whom Mary’s daughter Catherine is educated: Mary Rose had several daughters (and a few sons who didn’t survive) but none of them were named Margaret. Mary Rose is also described as “raven-haired” when she wasn’t, she was a redhead. Cardinal Wolsey dies a year later than in reality (October 1531 instead of November of 1530) and Thomas More a year earlier (1534 instead of 1535). Anne Basset, daughter of Honor Lisle, appears at court about fifteen years too early, and Lady Rochford is given Jane Rochford for her maiden name, when in fact it was George Boleyn who held the title of Viscount Rochford by courtesy; Jane’s maiden name was Parker. The titles here are a bit messed up in general – Thomas Boleyn is referred to as both “Lord Thomas Boleyn” and “Lord Boleyn” neither of which he was; he would have been termed Lord Rochford or Lord Wiltshire during different phases of his career, but unless he was Earl of Boleyn he would not be called Lord Boleyn. William Stafford is also called Lord Stafford, which he was not. And not an error exactly but a weird omission; while Eleanor Carey plays a much larger part in the story than she usually does, nowhere is her past or her “two children by two sundry priests” mentioned. I thought the character was interesting enough as portrayed and she certainly helped to give William Carey more depth than is usual, but it seemed like a strange thing to leave out. Mary’s wedding to Carey is postdated, though likely for dramatic reasons, taking place in the late summer after the Field of Cloth of Gold instead of the February before. William Carey’s death also takes place a few months later than it actually did, in August instead of June 1528. The timeline for Anne’s arrest, trial and execution is drawn out considerably – in terms of the time it took from arrest to execution it’s closer to Katherine Howard’s three and a half months instead of the seventeen days it really took. Anne is arrested in February and dies in May.
WORTH A READ? Despite the messed-up timeline it’s and some of the over-the-top dialogue (“sweet, sweet revenge”? Oh dear), I enjoyed it a lot – Mary herself didn’t stand out especially, being her usual sweet, unambitious, striver-after-better-things self, but I very much liked the characterization of Anne. She changes from the bright, annoying little sister to the charming, ambitious, bossy little sister to the embittered schemer to someone who suddenly realizes that she’s jumped on a train she doesn’t know how to jump off of. It’s a nice change from the one-note harpy version of Anne who tends to predominate in books which center around Mary. I also liked the characterizations of William Carey and his sister (though again, why her rather colourful background was left out I can’t imagine). Carey’s quest to regain his lost family property and his alliance with his sister was a much more in-depth treatment of these characters than they usually receive, and it was well done.
The really annoying thing in the novel was, ironically, William Stafford. I didn’t hate the character, though he was definitely cast in the older romance-novel “he pulled her to him” mold of a Masterful Man. The problem was that he wouldn’t go away. He pops up in France, numerous times, at the field of Cloth of Gold, at Mary’s wedding, after her first child is born (yes, he visits the house on some message-bearing pretext or other) after her first husband dies, at Calais – he is, in short, the personification of that old song title of “How Can I Miss You If You Won’t Go Away?” Apart from the fact that no matter how old the real Stafford was (he isn’t likely to have been older than Mary and may well have been a good ten years younger) he couldn’t possibly have been trailing around after her that long in any plausible universe, it just gets monotonous. He shows up, teases her a little, grinds his teeth at the idea of Mary being used as a pawn in others’ schemes, tells her she’s better than that, departs, and then shows up a few scenes later to do it again. This is a romance novel so I suppose there had to the element of Lawful Husband Vs. Illicit Beloved, but it would have been nice if Stafford’s character could have developed as much over time as Anne Boleyn’s.
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.