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George Cavendish: With Pen And Ink I Took This Work In Hand

January 9, 2013

George Cavendish, gentleman-usher to Cardinal Wolsey and familiar with many of the prominent court members of the 1520s, is a unique figure in the ever-expanding world of Anne Boleyn novels. This is not by virtue of his occupation; gentleman-ushers were respectable but hardly exalted, and in the ordinary course of things Cavendish’s name would survive only on official lists of people who staffed households and were present at various grand events. But once his court days were over (and after the death of Henry VIII) he did something attempted by few others — he wrote extensively about his days there, first in verse and then in prose. According to A.S.G. Edwards, who edited his Metrical Visions, he began writing them around 1552, when he was just over fifty years old, and left off around 1554, when he began his far more eloquent Life And Death Of Cardinal Wolsey, in which he attempted to vindicate Wolsey’s memory from the calumnies (as he saw them) of both sides, and which contains information findable nowhere else. All of it has been picked over exhaustively by scholars and many passages will be familiar — if only secondhand — to casual readers. Catherine of Aragon’s speech at the Blackfriars Court, Cromwell’s weeping at the window at Esher and determination to “make or mar”, Wolsey’s dying utterance “If I had served my God as I have served my King …” all of these were remembered and noted by Cavendish, and it was to Cavendish that Henry VIII observed, after Wolsey’s death, that three can keep council if two be away, and that if he thought his cap knew his council he would take it off and burn it. But one passage will be known to anyone who’s read an Anne Boleyn novel, even if they’ve never heard Cavendish’s name.

In so much that after my Lord Cardinal was departed from the court and returned home unto his place at Westminster, not forgetting the King’s request and counsel, being in his gallery, called there before him the said Lord Percy unto his presence and before us his servants of his chamber, saying thus unto him: “I marvel not a little,” quod he, “of they peevish folly, that thou wouldest tangle and insure thyself with a foolish girl yonder in the court, I mean Anne Boleyn. Dost thou not consider the estate that God hath called thee unto in this world?” …. (From Two Early Tudor Lives, ed. Richard Sylvester, p. 32)

The rest of it — Percy’s protests that he has already gone too far in this matter, the summoning of his father, the denunciation and hauling away of his son, will need no more elaboration. In his own memorial of what he saw while attending on Wolsey, Cavendish not only became the unacknowledged dialogue-writing co-author of almost every novelist to write about Anne Boleyn, but also managed to write himself into the story. Few novels feature named characters of his rank who aren’t destined either to elope with Mary Boleyn or die in some gruesome fashion, but Cavendish is the exception — he’s a named character in at least eight of them.

Most of the time, of course, he’s a glorified spear carrier, and at worst he’s simply mentioned as being present — in both The Favor of Kings (1912) and Murder Most Royal (1949) he’s described as carrying messages to the Cardinal but we never actually hear him speak. Usually, however, he at least gets a bit of character description and a line or two. In Queen Anne Boleyn (1939) it’s Cavendish who mutters “On your knees,” to Henry Percy as he enters into the Cardinal’s presence for that fateful conference about Percy’s entanglement with Anne. Later on in the book we see Cavendish again — described repeatedly as “gentle Cavendish”, who on finding Cromwell weeping is “all solicitude,” and during the scenes of Wolsey’s death and Cavendish’s conferring the king, it’s all relayed just as Cavendish himself described it. (Interestingly, the book’s dedicatee, Lady Ottoline Morrell, was born a Cavendish — though most probably not related to that one). In Sow The Tempest (1962) we only see him once, talking with Cromwell at the window, but even in that brief space we learn that he is “simple, honest Mr. Cavendish.”

In The Concubine, we get a more extended look into Cavendish’s head: before the court opens at Blackfriars, his perspective sets the scene, and for once his observations aren’t lifted word for word from his own books:

Everyone was in his prearranged place and all was ready. George Cavendish, Wolsey’s gentleman-usher, turned his eyes without shifting his head and looked about and thought that in this one measureless, static moment before the procedure began, the great hall at Blackfriars looked like a scene set for a masque. Only the music was lacking. From some hidden place the musicians should be plucking their strings, louder and louder in a crescendo which would end in a silence into which the first player would speak the words he had conned. But there was no music; merely the hushed scrape of a number of people gathered together and waiting, the shoe scraping the floor, the small, quickly smothered cough, the rustle of silk….

Cavendish loved his master; into this moment of waiting he breathed a little prayer, to Almighty God, to the Blessed Virgin, to holy St Thomas of Canterbury for whom Wolsey had been named, and to St George, his own patron saint — Let things so order themselves that my master shall suffer no damage. Then he amended it — no further damage. For he, so close to Wolsey, knew how much damage had already been done by broken sleep, by sleepless nights, by loss of appetite, by anxiety.

The real Cavendish’s account of the court is less concerned with scene-setting — he lists all of the peers who attended and then launches straight into Catherine’s speech. But in fiction, it works, especially as it rings true to the deep affection and concern for Wolsey which is evident throughout Cavendish’s book. Somewhat less justifiable, though amusing, is the moment in Anne Boleyn (1932) when Henry Percy is brought in for his dressing-down by Wolsey. “‘Look at this wilful boy!’ the Cardinal cried to Cavendish, one of the men present and a hot admirer of Anne’s.” The Cavendish writing in 1552 had little regard for Anne and made that clear, but of course the young Cavendish of 1522, who had no idea what lay in the future, might well have found her quite appealing.

Cavendish’s future occupation is made clear several times. In Blood Royal (1988), Cavendish is the spiritual ancestor of Boswell:

Among the Cardinal’s train there was a young man called George Cavendish, his Gentleman-Usher, devoted to his master, anxious to lose no word Wolsey spoke: people said that as soon as he had bowed himself out of the Presence he hurried to write down all that the Cardinal had said. He repeated it, too, unless any particular secrecy were demanded of him, and in this case there was none.

In Brief Gaudy Hour (1949), it’s turned into a truth spoken in jest. “Milord the Cardinal is dead!” Cavendish cries as he arrives at court, and Anne and George Boleyn give him a seat and something to drink while he tells them the story of Wolsey’s death and the Boleyn siblings compare him unfavorably to William Warham. Cavendish becomes defensive.

“It is not comparable. Cardinal Wolsey of York was a man who trod the paths of glory, and sounded all the depths and shoals of honour,” declaimed his usher, in his flamboyant style.

“Who should know better than you?” agreed George flippantly. “But you can write a book about him later.”

Cavendish began a quiet period in the 1970s, as omniscient narratives began to fall back and stories told from single perspectives started taking over. Since the single-viewpoint novels almost always centered around Anne or a female friend, there was very little room for Cavendish, who was not attached to Anne’s household. While she may well have known who he was (he certainly knew her) they did not cross paths at any pivotal moment of Cavendish’s story: she was not present for Wolsey’s rebuke of Percy, she was not at Blackfriars, she certainly wasn’t at Esher or Wolsey’s deathbed. Thus Cavendish disappeared, though a few snatches of his dialogue between Percy and Wolsey usually remained, often carried back to Anne or a friend by George Boleyn or some other man more important to the plot than Cavendish.

But Cavendish’s resurrection would come in Wolf Hall (2009), which, although told from a single perspective, mixes things up a bit and has the perspective be that of Thomas Cromwell, who as part of Wolsey’s household would naturally have reason to see Cavendish a lot. This Cavendish is recognizably related to the “simple” “gentle” Cavendishes of days gone by, but plays a much, much larger part — we see him fretting over the Cardinal’s health and badly-supplied residences, working with Cromwell to try and keep things in order as Wolsey’s health and career are both failing and other servants are starting to desert, making bets with Cromwell over whether Thomas More would accept the Chancellorship, teasing and being teased by a Cromwell who is a cynical Lutheran-leaning type while Cavendish is (and would remain) straight-up Catholic, and sometimes putting his foot in his mouth. At one low moment, when the Cardinal is fearing arrest, Cavendish can’t help murmuring to himself, “For it is a truth that fortune is inconstant, fickle and mutable …” only to have Cromwell gesture to him to shut up already. Of course, anyone who’s read The Life And Death Of Cardinal Wolsey will recognize those words, not to mention the many other variations on them that the real Cavendish worked into his narrative, in which no page was complete without at least one reference to Fortune’s Wheel and how it plow even the most exalted under with no warning. Since we’re seeing him from the perspective of a cynical and (to my mind) a little too twenty-first century Cromwell, this Cavendish can look overly earnest and simple-minded, but I liked him all the better for that. His best moment is, I think, a cold, comfortless evening in 1529 when he’s telling Cromwell the story of Wolsey, Percy, and the Earl of Northumberland to pass the time. Cavendish decides that it would be better if the two of them acted it out, and so an oft-told story becomes new again, because now it’s being acted by two servants, seven years later, who are telling it and simultaneously trying to figure out what went wrong afterwards.

[Cromwell] jumps to his feet and imitates penitence. It seems they had a long talk in a long gallery, the earl and the cardinal; then they had a glass of wine. Something strong, it must have been. The earl stamped the length of the gallery, then sat down, Cavendish said, on a bench where the waiting-boys used to rest between orders. He called his heir to stand before him, and took him apart in front of the servants.

“`Sir,'” says Cavendish, “`thou has always been a proud, presumptuous, disdainful and very unthrift waster.’ So that was a good start, wasn’t it?”

“I like,” he says, “the way you remember the exact words. Did you write them down at the time? Or do you use some license?”

Cavendish looks sly. “No one exceeds your own powers of memory,” he says. “My lord cardinal asks for an accounting of something or other and you have all the figures at your fingertips.”

“Perhaps I invent them.”

“Oh, I don’t think so.” Cavendish is shocked. “You couldn’t do that for long.”

… “So tell me,” Cavendish says, “What did we do wrong? I’ll tell you. All along, we were misled, the cardinal, young Harry Percy, his father, you, me — because when the king said, Mistress Anne is not to marry into Northumberland, I think, I think, the king had his eye cast on her, all that long time ago.”

“While he was close with Mary, he was thinking about sister Anne?”

“Yes, yes!”

“I wonder,” he says, “how it can be that, though all these people think they know the king’s pleasure, the king finds himself at every turn impeded.”

Cavendish is with Wolsey to the end, and afterward tells Cromwell of his death, crying and “occasionally moralizing.” He leaves the novel then, as he left court, and I was sorry to see him go. Cavendish made his name as a writer, of course, and writers will be good to their own, but his portrayal as goodnatured, loyal servant are certainly consistent with what we know of him. I hope his career in novel appearances isn’t over yet — if nothing else, it’s a nice way for authors to repay him for the mine of material which would have been lost if he had not been determined to set the record straight about Cardinal Wolsey.

From → Brief Lives

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