Anne, The Rose Of Hever by Maureen Peters (1969)
“Today’s idea may be nonsense tomorrow, but a clavicle is a clavicle for all time,” says a character in Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes, justifying her choice to study anatomy instead of psychology. This otherwise routine Anne Boleyn romance is a depressing example of what can happen when an author hitches her book to the wrong theory, which according to her postscript she based “upon the conclusions reached by the late Dr. Margaret Murray after her researches into European fertility cults.” Well, as others have said, it makes a change.
We open with the wedding of Catherine of Aragon and Prince Arthur, which introduces us to a number of important characters, among them Thomas Boleyn, Thomas More, and the handsome young Duke of York, and a few distinctly minor ones (including one Jane Shore, who remembers her salad days fondly while she scratches out a living as a lacemaker). Thence to Anne’s country childhood, which is standard fare – George as the protective elder brother, Mary as the slow-witted but kindly older sister, Simonette the Gallic governess, the kindly stepmother, friendship with the Wyatts – until one cold New Year’s Eve when the children are cracking nuts around the fire and hearing some exposition about the new King and Queen, we run slap into this startling piece of information:
“In the old days,” Molly Wyatt said, “if a king didn’t have heirs the people used to kill him and get another ruler. Sometimes they used to kill him if the crops failed too.”
Lady Wyatt regarded her ten-year-old daughter with horror.
“Mercy on us, child, but I cannot imagine where you pick up such dreadful notions!” she exclaimed.
“It’s all these stories they read,” Lady Bullen said. “Sometimes, I wonder if this education is a good thing.”
“I didn’t read it,” Molly said. “Old Mother Baudon told our lace-girl about how it used to be. She said they used to have a new king every year. If he was a strong king and everything went well, they let him go on living. But every seven years they had a big feast, and all the ladies took off their clothes, and danced round a big bonfire, and then all the gentlemen –”
“Molly!! That will do!” Lady Wyatt rose hastily, scattering shells. “I forbid you to repeat any more of such nonsense! Wait until I get you home, young lady!”
Later on, Anne will ask Molly what people used to do if the harvest was bad but people liked the king. “They killed someone else, instead,” Molly replies, underlining the theme that will be woven throughout the rest of the book. Meanwhile, Thomas Boleyn has decided that his children’s stepmother is being too lax on them, and makes arrangements for Anne and Mary to go off to France, whence Anne returns with virtue intact (no thanks to Francois I or his sister, the latter of whom, instead of taking on her usual mantle of pioneering feminist, attempts to set him up with Anne). At the Field of Cloth of Gold, Anne learns that Mary has become mistress to the King (Thomas scorns her for failing to capitalize properly on it, as usual) and also meets Mary’s betrothed, William Carey, who assures Anne that he adores Mary, can’t wait to marry her, and that her affair with the king has nothing to do with him personally: “Kings have divinity in them, it is not fair to judge them as other men.” William’s nonjudgemental stance is about to be even more severely tested when it transpires later that day that Henry has given Francois the loan of Mary, “one of his prettiest possessions” for the evening, and while Mary seems to enjoy the whole experience thoroughly, any shreds of reputation she still had are now gone, and Anne is shocked into becoming more cautious than ever in her treatment of men.
Back in England, Anne meets and falls in love with the kindhearted but weak-kneed Henry Percy, who after about a year is ready to brave his father and the Wolsey and try to marry her, despite his standing betrothal to Mary Talbot, but before he can break the news to them, he’s summoned by the Cardinal for a dressing-down and cancellation of any obligations he may have had towards Anne. It turns out that the Cardinal, suspecting something was up, had dispatched his faithful servant Thomas Cromwell to smoke out the identity of the woman Percy was running after, and Cromwell discovered that it was one of the “upstart” Boleyn family. As neither Wolsey nor Northumberland care for her family – “Sly and shrewd, crawling into favour,” says Northumberland – Anne is sent home to Hever and Percy is confined to his room until he can be married to Mary Talbot, who is just as unhappy about this new development as he is. But before Anne leaves, she has a last conversation with the urbane and charming Cromwell, who is very interested in that extra digit on her hand. “They call it a devil’s mark,” Anne tells him, “But I am no child of the devil.”
“Devil is the name that Christians give to the god they cannot understand,” Cromwell tells her. “You must not think the old gods are dead, lady. The greatest of them is born again and again in the body of the king, and when that king is strong and the divinity within him is shining, then the country will prosper.” Anne informs him scornfully that these are “old stories, that we whispered when we were children,” but nonetheless the memory of the conversation lingers as she goes back to Hever, swearing revenge on the Cardinal: “She concentrated upon her hatred, forcing it to swell and grow because she was forbidden to love.”
Back at Hever she distracts herself by having an almost-but-not-quite affair with the unhappily married Thomas Wyatt, only to be suddenly and aggressively noticed by the King when he stops by Hever one afternoon while hunting. She rejects him pridefully, not wanting to be like Mary, but then when he keeps returning, now insisting that she wouldn’t really be sleeping with a married man because he’s had serious doubts about the validity of his marriage to Catherine, Anne sees a chance to do the hated Wolsey some damage. “Have you really any choice in the matter?” she says of the annulment. “The Cardinal … wishes you to marry Renee of France.” Henry, walking right into the trap, insists that he’s not doing anything he doesn’t want to, and that the Cardinal has no control over him at all. “Kings must marry to beget heirs,” he tells Anne, who snaps back “Why may they not beget heirs on the women they love?” Within five minutes Henry is shouting “Damn Wolsey!” and telling Anne that he’ll make her his queen if he has to move heaven and earth to do it. Anne, shocked at the overeffectiveness of her tactics, backs off temporarily but then decides that as little as she likes Henry, becoming queen would be the ultimate revenge on Wolsey. Before the visit is over, Henry has played bowls with and snatched back Anne’s tablet from Wyatt, who then proceeds to send Anne a letter containing “Whoso list to hunt …” and hastily depart from the story.
Meanwhile, all Anne’s father can see is that while her chances of becoming queen are marginal at best, she’s refusing to sleep with Henry and thereby acquire gifts from a grateful monarch. “Jilt! Jade! Idle cuckoospit!” he calls her, in what I can only imagine is a euphemism of some mysterious sort, and rebukes her for her pride: “Nan was too good, she said, to be married to the Earl of Ormond’s son! She was too good to be leman to the King of France! By Our Lady, at this rate, if the Archangel Gabriel flew down from Heaven with a wedding ring in his teeth, she would reject him too!” So back to court she goes, where Henry greets her, full of both lust and apprehension that she really is only interested in his crown, not him, and she decides that this is the moment to give in at last.
After this, there seems to be a severe truncating of the timeline, since not long after the court at Blackfriars Wolsey dies, and Anne and Henry are off to Calais and return just in time for Anne to announce to Thomas Wyatt that “for three whole days I have had the most incredibly fierce desire for apples!” Obviously she and Henry must be married posthaste, but there’s something of a roadblock in that technically he’s not divorced from Catherine. No matter, says Cromwell, Cranmer has been working on it and has pointed out that if Henry was never legally married to Catherine, there’s no need to wait for an annulment. But wait, there’s more! “If the expected child is not a son, or if your new wife proves displeasing, it might be easier to act if there were no definite proof of the marriage.”
“Your Grace will, of course, be aware,” he said cautiously, “of the Dianic Cult. Many of its customs and beliefs are embedded in our own Christian faith. The divinity of the king is a fact accepted by all, Sire. Yet that was one of the chief tenets of the Dianic Cult. A marriage solemnized according to the rites of what we now call the Old Religion would be valid in so far as your existence links the two faiths, but a Catholic theologian might be induced to quarrel with such a theory – if it were necessary.”
Intrigued by the idea of a marriage with a built-in escape clause, Henry asks if Cromwell can find “a minister of this Old Religion,” and the next day, he and Anne are married, although at least one of the witnesses finds the whole affair somewhat confusing:
It was the first wedding Nan Saville had ever attended, and so there was nothing to which she could compare it; but it seemed to her as the service progressed that this was a strange marriage. The little room was bare of flowers or religious symbols, and parts of the ritual puzzled the girl. She had never heard that it was necessary for bride and bridegroom to cut their arms and mingle the blood, and the low chanting of the priest had a strange, uneven quality that made her feel uncomfortable.
Anne herself has noticed the non-Catholic nature of the ceremony and concludes sadly that King’s passion for her is gone; no matter, she’s still pregnant and once her son is born she’ll be secure forever. Of course, we know how that turns out, and after Elizabeth’s birth Anne, already worried about Henry, starts to melt down into pure shrewishness in a startlingly short amount of time; shrieking, fighting, berating poor former-Princess Mary and forcing her to change Elizabeth’s diapers while simultaneously warning others that the girl will try and hurt her half-sister (she doesn’t). Despite this charmless behavior, Henry gets her pregnant again very soon, but she miscarries a boy, at which point Henry angrily informs her that he has consulted Cranmer about a divorce, but was told that if he divorces Anne he’ll have to go back to Catherine. Anne protests that she still loves him, but Henry angrily retorts that he must have a son – “For all men, it is a disappointment if they have no sons. For a king it is a tragedy.” Anne’s unspoken response is that this is because “A king who cannot sire healthy children loses some of his divinity.” And remembering Molly Wyatt’s long-ago statement about scapegoat victims who would be sacrificed in place of the king, she makes it up with Henry and becomes pregnant one more time.
Meanwhile, Cromwell has decided that in order to smooth out the political situation, it’s necessary that Catherine of Aragon depart this life, so he blackmails Henry Norris (also a follower of the Old Religion who can’t afford for the fact to become public) into poisoning her with arsenic, and the King, sentimental hypocrite that he is, orders the court into mourning, but Anne proudly puts on yellow, telling herself that she has no need to lie and pretend that she’s sorry. She’s sorry soon enough afterwards, when Norfolk brings her news that the king is dead and she takes to her bed for a week, only to receive a second shock once she’s up and about – finding the King on the knee of Jane Seymour. That does it for her pregnancy, and she miscarries a boy of six months’ gestation. Cromwell, seeing Henry raging about this misfortune and how Anne victimized him with her witchery, chooses this moment to suggest a solution:
“The people are saying that their king is under a spell. They complain that it has not stopped raining since Sir Thomas More was beheaded, that the harvest failed and the trade agreements with Flanders broke down because the land lies under a curse. It is not a divorce that will satisfy them.”
“Blood sacrifice? No, not that!”
“We knew it might have to come,” Cromwell argued. “When you gave Queen Anne her own personal triumph at the time of her Coronation, you knew then that one day she might be called upon to die in your stead.”
“A substitute for the Divine Victim. An evil superstition, Cromwell!”
However, Cromwell manages to persuade him after a few more lines, telling him that of course nothing will be done unless Anne is genuinely guilty of … something … and off he trots to come up with evidence. Mark Smeaton, a “gypsy lad” with a crush on Anne, is selected as a weak link the chain, being suitable for torture, and Henry Norris is scooped up as well to ensure that the real story of Catherine of Aragon’s death never comes out. The trials and executions of the men proceed as per usual, although Henry Norris does not protest his innocence but dies silently, and when Anne herself is executed she is unhappy, but resigned, reflecting that she knew this was a possibility all along, and that the king would try and renew his fertility through spilling her blood. In fact, she finds the whole thing so bizarrely apt that she begins hallucinating and laughing on the scaffold, and the swordsman chooses that moment to end it all. So Anne ends the story laughing in disbelief, rather like the reader.
SEX OR POLITICS? Sex, more implied than described, and lots and lots of invocations of “fertility rites” “fertility rituals” and people semi-openly chatting about the dictates of the Old Religion, though they occasionally remember that they should avoid being branded as heretics. (Though technically, since the “Old Religion” is supposed to be a lot older than Catholicism, it wouldn’t be heresy but apostasy. But I digress). Luther and Protestantism get a few mentions but they’re obviously a lot less important than the Dianic cult, which as a result means that European politics gets only the most cursory of attention later on, which leads to characterization difficulties, particularly in Anne’s case.
WHEN BORN? Either in late October or early November of 1501 – at Arthur and Catherine’s wedding, Thomas Boleyn informs the young Duke of York that his newest daughter Anne is “just three weeks old”, and since the wedding took place on November 14, that would presumably mean a birth date somewhere around October 24th. However, as an adult, Anne reflects on how she dislikes having her birthday in November, so perhaps Thomas miscounted by a week. Mary is said to be two years old at that time, and George four, so they must have been born in 1499 and 1497 respectively.
THE EARLY LOVE: Sir Piers Butler is mentioned as Anne’s betrothed, but never seen; naturally Anne reviles the idea of marrying where bidden almost as much as she hates the idea of living in Ireland. She learns about this project at the Field of Cloth of Gold, and appeals to Henry VIII to break off the arrangement, which he casually and unthinkingly does, just to make the pretty girl happy. Henry Percy, sweet and utterly unable to stand up the combined forces of the Cardinal and his father, sends Anne a rather weird parting gift after they’re separated; a ring with a large green gemstone which opens up to reveal a hollow space beneath – a poison ring, as Anne recognizes. No poison is concealed, however. Later on, the ring reappears; in a nice touch, it becomes the ring that Anne sent to Wolsey as a goodwill gesture, but Wolsey knows where it came from originally and recognizes the silent message it conveys, that Anne has not forgotten his part in the Percy business and is only pretending to be friendly. I did like that.
THE QUEEN’S BEES: Molly Wyatt attends her to the end and receives her prayer book, and Anne Saville is also the other prominent named maid of honour. Jane Seymour is there as well, depicted as first waiting on (and remaining loyal to) Catherine of Aragon, but it isn’t until Anne’s coronation that Henry notices Jane and is smitten with her gilt-blonde braids and blue eyes. As in many other books, she seldom speaks – she gets a few lines indicating general disapproval of Anne and admiration of Catherine, but nothing beyond that. Madge Shelton is in the background, mostly to flirt excessively with Weston and Norris and become engaged to the latter.
THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Kat Ashley appears a generation early (and already with her married name), as a poor relation of the Boleyns who serves as Anne’s maid and confidante.
THE PROPHECY Anne’s dog Urian, so called “because of his savage nature” and implied to have more than his name in common with the Prince of Darkness, brings her a tattered old charm book which contains the pictures of a dark-haired queen about to be beheaded; as in Wyatt’s rendition, Anne Saville sees it as well and declares that she wouldn’t marry anyone if she knew that would be her fate, but Anne falls into a trancelike state, wherein she seems to be “not a creature of earth, but some odd, insubstantial being woven out of cobwebs and moonbeams,” and speaks “as if she were looking through the veil of the future” to tell Anne Saville that even if she knew this would be her fate, she would still take the crown with no regrets.
IT’S A GIRL! Henry has already been informed before coming to visit Anne, and barks “Well, madam?” as a greeting, but Anne manages to defuse his temper by informing him that she has borne a virgin in the Chamber of Virgins on the even of the nativity of the Virgin. “Is that not a good omen?” Henry agrees that it is and “his eyes moist with sentimental tears,” admires Elizabeth and chooses her name. Anne then proceeds to blow her newly-gained advantage by shrieking that Princess Mary “the bastard” shouldn’t be allowed to hold the baby and will have to be her servant instead, to which Henry agrees rather sourly.
DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Yes — she has “an extra finger on her hand and a strawberry stain on her neck,” and hates them. When Francois I takes a shine to her, he inveigles her into the household of his sister Marguerite (who will be more sympathetic to his pursuing Anne than would Claude), and Marguerite gives Anne a number of fashion tips to help her make the best of what she has. “My brother tells me that your hands are not your best feature,” Marguerite tells her, “I have a clever dressmaker who will make you a gown with long hanging sleeves.” Much later on, Cromwell will tell Henry that the sixth finger is a devil’s mark, so that jettisoning Anne becomes less of a burden to his conscience.
FAMILY AFFAIRS: Thomas Boleyn is the usual coldhearted climber, though oddly described by a servant as a “time-server” which would seem to imply that he wasn’t putting in any especial effort towards getting promoted, which clearly isn’t the case. Anne’s mother dies young, and her father marries again when Anne is eight. Her stepmother is the usual article, a round-faced, pleasant Norfolk woman of humble origins, but very unusually she’s not Thomas Boleyn’s independent choice – Anne overhears gossiping servants talking about how the new bride caught the eye of the young king not long back, and the king’s promise to get her a better marriage than she would have ordinarily. Exactly how far this flirtation with the young king went we never learn, but she’s a kind stepmother (overly kind to beggars and mendicants, Thomas thinks) and has four baby boys, none of whom survive.
George Boleyn is a curiously muted version of his usual self; merry, intelligent and much fonder of his sisters than his wife, he doesn’t make as much of an impression here as he usually does, but mostly seems to exist in order to have a few fight scenes with his wife towards the end so she can set him up for revenge. Lady Rochford is first glimpsed on the voyage to France as a fellow maid of honour to Mary Rose; she’s a freckled redheaded who looks down on the Boleyn girls as being country girls and continues to look down on them for the duration of their relationship. She taunts George with being more interested in his sister than in her, likes to spy at keyholes and is the one who discovers Mary Boleyn’s inconvenient pregnancy, and testifies the incest charge – nothing remarkable or different about this Jane Boleyn.
Mary Boleyn’s characterization is also fairly familiar. “The lovesick idiot! She writes like a green girl!” shouts Anne on seeing the famous letter to Cromwell. “She is two years older than me, and married and widowed, and bedded by more men than she can remember, and she prates of love as if she were a virgin.” This about sums her up – we don’t see a lot of her except at the beginning of the book, where she’s described as the less intelligent of the Boleyn siblings, resembling Anne in features and colouring but round and plump where Anne is angular.
Simonette the governess appears at the beginning, mostly to gossip with other servants and scold the children and, in a first in my experience, she’s in the audience (now “old Simonette”) at Anne’s execution, faithful to the end. Between this book and last week’s, the entry on Simonette is really due for a revision.
DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No.
WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: “Goddammit, Nan!” shouts Henry, in one of the book’s less happily phrased moments. Then there are the expository bits about the fertility cult and worship of Diana, which I’ve already quoted – even for exposition, they’re awkward, especially considering what risky exposition would have been. But I will say, though, that when it wasn’t awkwardly recapping Margaret Murray, the dialogue was good – a bit overdone but not ridiculously, and it certainly didn’t serve as a violent contrast to the written material from the time which was referenced. It’s very readable.
ERRATA: Aside from the obvious problem of weaving in the fertility cult material where it couldn’t have existed, there are a lot of issues with timeline truncation – not bad in itself, but the events of 1526-1532 go by so fast that in addition to Anne going to Calais about a page after Wolsey’s death, and she is in fact made Marchioness of Pembroke before Wolsey dies. Mark Smeaton is hanged instead of being beheaded, and “Protestantism” is referred to as such, although the word didn’t exist yet, and Madge Shelton turns up at court about fifteen years too early. Some other smaller things as well, but I admit I kept getting distracted by the characters’ musings on how the fertility of the king and the land might only be restored by bloodletting. It was distracting.
WORTH A READ? It’s well-done of its kind but suffers from two serious flaws, namely the fertility cult business and (harder to dismiss as a product of its time) the characterization of Anne is broken-backed. She transforms from an intelligent, lively girl victimized by circumstance into a howling harridan far too quickly and far too thoroughly – I loved the touch with her sending the Cardinal Percy’s ring as a “token” but since the book chose to concentrate on the Old Religion rather than any of the political implications of Anne’s rise, her treatment of Catherine of Aragon and Princess Mary were depicted totally without context and also made even worse than they were. Anne was not kind to Mary, to put it mildly, but even she wasn’t summoning Mary for personal dressings-down or accusing her of trying to hurt or kill her half-sister. Towards the end we learn that Henry is thinking about re-allying himself with Spain and is being extra courteous to Chapuys, but it’s never really made clear why this is such a bad prospect for Anne, except for personal reasons in that she didn’t like Catherine of Aragon or her daughter.
I do want to commend one really nicely done character, and that’s Cromwell, who is terrifying but in a genial, almost endearing way. He’s neither the leering villain of some books nor the nice misunderstood modernist of others, just a hardworking, intelligent man who likes children (he plays a game with the young Princess Mary where she tries to guess which pocket holds a bit of marzipan), treats his servants kindly, and will lop off your head without a second thought if it makes his position or the King’s more secure. (All right, so he’s also a secret proponent of the Dianic Cult, but I’m talking about his characterization apart from that). “You always were a lucky devil, Tom!” he tells himself cheerfully after hearing a bit of news that will help in getting Anne Boleyn out of the way, and towards the end he wonders if he even believes in his own “Old Religion,” or anything at all except safety and advancement. He’s strangely likeable, but unlike certain other sympathetic Cromwells, this one seems fully cognizant that one may smile, and smile, and be a villain. I wish he were in a better book, but he’s one of the good parts in this one.
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