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The Two Queen Annes by Lozania Prole (Ursula Bloom) 1971

January 26, 2013

Devoted to telling the stories of both Anne Boleyn and Anne of Cleves, I strongly suspect that this book was patched together from the shredded remains of one or two previous novels. Its problems are not helped by the fact that it totals just about two hundred pages, perhaps fifty of which are devoted to highlighting the grotesque behavior of Anne of Cleves.

After a short, odd prologue in which we’re given the basic rundown of Anne Boleyn’s life (concluding with an inaccurate death date) we’re introduced to her at the age of fifteen, freshly returned from France and, in usual Anne fashion, refusing to marry James Butler and be shipped off to freeze in Kilkenny Castle. A few paragraphs later she meets Henry Percy and her “one real love affair” follows (unconsummated), but Thomas Boleyn, still steamed over her refusal to marry Butler, gets Wolsey to cancel the clandestine engagement and ship Anne back to Hever, whence she journeys not to Ireland but back to the court of Margaret of Austria to nurse her emotional wounds. On returning, beautiful as ever but with an icy heart and flirtatious manner, she ensnares first Thomas Wyatt and then, of course, Henry VIII.

Henry, meanwhile, has problems of his own, many of them caused by the unpleasant “disease” which he inherited from his father and has now passed on to Catherine and most of their children. Yes, you are reading that correctly: Henry VII apparently gave syphilis to both Henry VIII and Arthur. Henry VIII, not surprisingly, is anxious to place the blame for their dead children entirely on Catherine and see if he can’t get a fresh start, when lo, in the summer of 1526, he encounters Anne. Pursuing her to Hever, he expects to have her duly seduced within a few days and is surprised when she turns him down. Soon he’s hastening off to Wolsey and Archbishop Warham to see if they can cook up some grounds for an annulment, and they put their heads together and come up with Leviticus. Henry confronts Catherine, Campeggio arrives for the court at Blackfriars, Cranmer appears (described as tough and ambitious, and taking over a lot of Cromwell’s functions, although Cromwell is still there), and Anne makes it clear to her father that she’s done listening to any of his advice – “I am not afraid for MY head.” Before you know it, we’ve arrived at Christmas of 1532, and Henry is closeted with Anne after the festivities. “At Christmas, Anne, the world stands still,” he tells her. “I am sick with hunger for you, for a taste of that sweet body you will not give to me. Deprive me too long, and maybe I shall wander.” For the first and only time, “a passionate love for him drove her hard” and Anne consents, with dramatic implications for the future:

One hour later, a great log screeched as the flames caught it, tearing like a sword into its innermost depths, as one day not so many years ahead, death would come to her with cruelly sharp fingers.

This is, of course, the night Elizabeth is conceived. A few months later Anne is certain, and they marry early in February, with Anne’s coronation taking place the following June – there are few cheers and several strange lapses into the conditional.

In the city, the rich merchants anxious to excite the King’s favour had hung their homes with banners and flags, but coming near to the Abbey church she knew that she felt an air of anger about her. Many of the common men refused to bare their heads, and every now and then the unpleasant word “Concubine” ran like an evil tide on either side of her.

On the steps of the Abbey church, the King himself met her, and must have been thankful to see him, for the experience could not have been a happy one for her. It took ten long hours, during which the child beat a tattoo with his feet within her, and she felt that the seams of her gown would burst ….

She was exhausted when she returned home. “I thank God that a Queen cannot be twice crowned,” she told her father.

Elizabeth is born, to general disappointment, and shortly thereafter Catherine of Aragon dies, with Henry rejoicing in yellow. Anne joins him in so doing, but is nonetheless disturbed – “she realized that her husband was more animal than a man.” Mary Boleyn becomes pregnant and is packed off, Thomas More is executed, and shortly thereafter Anne is pregnant again, when she gets the bad news that Henry has fallen at jousting and “miscarries” of what sounds like a full-term, stillborn boy. Henry is enraged and while Anne is filled with what turn out to be entirely justified fears about her ultimate fate, the prime mover of her downfall turns out not to be Henry but Cromwell and Cranmer working in tandem; political winds are shifting, Anne is becoming a liability who might get in the way of their intended religious reforms – while she’s known as a reformer herself, she still has more old-fashioned views than the two men and might try to interfere with their aims. Cromwell and Cranmer are sure that things will come to a head soon (so to speak), and if Anne has her way it could mean imprisonment or death for either or both of them. They decide to strike at her first, using Mark Smeaton as their first, unwitting weapon.

Cromwell believed that by using fear as the means to produce evidence, he could bring a case which would shatter the King and bring him to heel in an entirely new way. He would change the history books of England, and he aimed a spear at Anne Boleyn.

This is a rather unusual take on the situation for this period, and isn’t so far away from the currently view popularized by Eric Ives – that Cromwell staged what he terms a “coup” which was done without Henry’s even partial knowledge, against a woman whose miscarriage had left her vulnerable but not automatically doomed. There are a lot of books which have Henry taking the “Will no one rid me of this turbulent spouse?” approach but comparatively few have him being blindsided, and even fewer mention what this would imply for Cromwell’s position after Anne’s death. Unfortunately this isn’t the book to address such questions, as the actual issues which leave Anne and Cromwell at odds are rather vague.

Anne dies, Henry marries Jane Seymour – who, very unusually among Janes, really did not want his gifts or his attention and marries him because, well, how are you going to turn that proposal down? She departs in her turn, leaving a baby boy who has inherited the dreaded syphilis, and Cranmer begins pushing for a real Protestant princess to marry Henry in order to keep him firmly on track towards the New Religion. The princess whom he and Cromwell hit on is not, in fact, very important, or very attractive, or very intelligent, or very … anything, really. Anne of Cleves is, for lack of a better word, simple. She talks in a comic-book German accent (“But did he not chop off ze head of one of his most pewtiful Queens?”), pretends to be twenty-four although she is in fact thirty-four, believes that wearing a wedding ring is sufficient for pregnancy, and eats like Charles Laughton’s Henry VIII – “spilling wine down her velvet frontal, dropping half a capon into her lap, but full of delight. She ate badly, and made a shocking noise when drinking, but was so enchanted by everything that her amiability became infectious and people liked her.”

This amiability is, unfortunately, an informed attribute – through the seventy-five or so pages remaining, Anne’s charm, which is the saving grace to her simplicity, is impossible for the reader to discern. We see only a character so desperately exaggerated that it’s like she crashed into Tudor England after missing the stop for the Katzenjammer Kids. Her divorce is farcical – she doesn’t know anything about sex, just blunders about being ignorant, and soon she’s off enjoying her palaces and pensions while Katherine Howard, her much more knowing maid of honour who has left her real love Thomas Culpepper for a crown, is anxious because she hasn’t gotten pregnant and is fearing Henry’s wrath if she continues not to. She decides on her own to have an affair with Culpepper to produce a secretly illegitimate Duke of York, Cranmer discovers her past (it’s never specified how), and despite Anne’s pleadings for the girl she quite likes, Katherine is executed and Anne the simpleton is the only one left to enjoy the life that cleverer women forfeited. Or, as the final paragraph puts it:

Anne of Cleves was the lucky one. “I believe in magic,” was something she once said. I think she got magic in a very big way.

SEX OR POLITICS? Sex, no question – political and religious matters barely get a look in, with the remarkable exception of the short passage in which Cromwell and Cranmer team up to take Anne out of the picture before she has a chance to do damage to either of them. While it’s hardly an accurate portrayal of Cranmer (as far as I know) it’s a very interesting early take on an argument that wouldn’t be fully fleshed out for the general public for another fifteen years (in Eric Ives’s first version of his Anne Boleyn biography, published in 1986). It was startling to see this in what was otherwise a shamelessly pulpy and forgettable work.

WHEN BORN? 1507 – she’s stated as being fifteen when she returns to England in 1522. Mary’s and George’s ages are vaguer, but they’re both older than she is. Anne of Cleves is bizarrely described as being actually thirty-four years old although only admitting to thirty, giving her a birth year of 1505. Why this was done when Anne of Cleves is one of the minority of Henry’s wives who actually has a firm birthdate I can’t decide.

THE EARLY LOVE: For Anne Boleyn, the fair, blue-eyed and romantic Percy, who loves her because she’s the polar opposite of himself. Wolsey and Thomas Boleyn together contrive to stop the love affair, and Henry VIII is as yet unaware of Anne’s existence. For Anne of Cleves, food is the only real answer to this question. She loves it immoderately and, unlike men, it never fails her.

THE QUEEN’S BEES: The book is barely two hundred pages and manages to get in at least one scene with each queen, so there isn’t space for too many secondary characters, except for the ones who are going to become queen in their turn. Jane Seymour’s characterization is notable in that she’s a sweet, motherly girl who misses her younger brothers and sisters and is, for once, entirely sincere in her rejection of Henry’s overtures. “Jane had never had any wish to intrude, none could have been more alarmed than she at the way life was going for her,” and she sends back the purse of gold without any subtext in her message. Katherine Howard is described as light, charming, and able to get out of any scrape – quite experienced by the time she gets to court, she can’t quite believe that Anne of Cleves has so little sexual knowledge and teases her about the prospect of a “Duke of York” but this Anne is so stone-cold oblivious to everything except food that it’s hard to see Katherine’s teasing as malicious. Madge Shelton is briefly mentioned as Anne’s favourite maid, and Lady Rochford is mentioned a few times but – such are the side-effects of brevity – her usual role is gone. The incest accusation against George Boleyn is Cromwell’s sole responsibility, and Katherine Howard involves no maids in her intrigues is the only woman executed after her own downfall. The only book I’ve read so far in which Lady Rochford both exists and ultimately survives!

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: None noted, unless you count the various maids of honour who were promoted to queen.

THE PROPHECY: Several – a woman reads Henry VIII’s palm one May Day while he’s still married to Catherine, and prophecies that he will eventually have a son, but he will also have a daughter who becomes “the Queen, so great that for generations to come others will remember her” and that it won’t be Mary, whom he already has. Another soothsayer is brought in to pronounce on whether Katherine Howard will have a son and although he sees the shadow of a sword hanging over her head, he says that she will, and leaves fully expecting to see the axe himself when it turns out his prophecy was wrong. We get a few more looks at his panicking over the future, but never find out whether he does get the axe or not.

IT’S A GIRL! “His second daughter was a big disappointment,” we’re told, but as Henry likes babies he warms to her quickly nonetheless.

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Yes, and one better – she’s got an extra finger on both hands! “She hated her hands, white as lilies as they were, for she had the start of a second thumb on each.”

FAMILY AFFAIRS: Thomas Boleyn is the usual unsympathetic, social-climbing father, though not so much of the latter that he allows the Percy engagement to go ahead – instead he gets Wolsey to break it, as he (Thomas) still wants the Butler marriage to take place. When Anne is too miserable to contemplate this, he angrily decries her failure to listen and is happy to send her back to France for a while. Anne’s mother does little beyond say a few lines, although she’s mentioned as once having had an “interlude” with the king, and Mary’s characterization is the usual one-note depiction – unselfish, unworldly, mother of the king’s illegitimate son (her daughter is not mentioned). George also barely appears but when he does, it’s as the usual supportive brother.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No, albeit this is attributed largely to her haughtiness: “She would never have stooped to know ordinary men when she was a Queen herself.”

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: The descriptions are a weird mixture of storytelling and speculation – we’re sometimes told that a character “must have felt” or “probably felt.” Shouldn’t an all-seeing third-person narrator know what they’re feeling? People’s faces and voices are often “as cold as charity.” It’s not a bad phrase, but it’s an awkward one to reuse too much. Anne has “a touch of the pox” when she’s mildly ill, and tells Thomas Wyatt so – he must know she’s gotten the term wrong, since he doesn’t flee instantly. Before sleeping with Henry, Anne makes it clear that he must marry her, and says “I ask bell, book and candle.” Bell, book and candle symbolize excommunication, not marriage. (In either case, Henry got both). Then there’s this:

[Henry’s] first child, a boy, was born within the year, and he would never forget his pride when the naked child was held out to him, shrieking. MY OWN! He had murmured, his eyes startlingly blue, and wet with emotional tears, as he stared down at the babe squirming on the velvet cushion embroidered with three white feathers. He was, of course, a Prince of Wales.

Far too much of the book reads like this – all capitals for emphasis, too many pronouns duking it out, and the air of being a first draft which was never revised. Also, Henry really shouldn’t be murmuring in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS! Reading something like that is like looking at a sign with green letters stating “These letters are red.”

ERRATA: There are some which may just be typos – the proofreading is a little lacking (Anne’s execution date is given as May 18 in one place and May 19 in another, example). Thomas More is arrested before Anne is even crowned, Jane Seymour is described as Anne’s cousin, which she wasn’t, and Princess Mary is repeatedly described as dark-haired, unattractive, dull child – quite at odds with all early descriptions of her, not to mention her own father’s famous declaration that she was his “pearl of all the world” – strangely, Catherine of Aragon is accurately described as fair here, and Henry is a redhead. Where did Mary’s dark looks come from? And while it’s not provable that Henry VIII didn’t have syphilis, it seems even more vanishingly unlikely that he got it from Henry VII and passed it on to Catherine and most of their children – even Prince Arthur is mentioned as having died from “that germ of the disease”, it’s implied to be the cause of the early deaths of many of Henry’s other siblings, and it will also be the ultimate cause of Edward VI’s death. Of all the accusations that have been leveled at Henry VII over the years, he seems to have been notably free of extramarital lady loves, and there’s not a ghost of a suggestion anywhere that he ever had syphilis. Obviously it’s being called on here to explain the high infant mortality rate in the Tudor family but it really doesn’t need much of an explanation other than a simple run of bad luck. (I was reminded of this the other when I somehow wandered into reading the ten-year update for the Harvard Class of 1895. They had a section for marriages, births and deaths, just as we do now, and a horrifying number of the births were followed by asterisks leading to footnotes giving the child’s date of death. The Harvard men of 1895 were not, generally speaking, a disadvantaged group of people, but they didn’t have any more antibiotics than the Tudors did, and very few vaccines). And while we’re on the subject, Anne’s last miscarriage becomes a full-term stillbirth of a red-headed boy, with the midwife telling Henry that the baby was “too big for her Grace”.

Thomas Culpepper’s less savoury side goes unmentioned – he’s strictly the romantic hero whom Katherine Howard loved before she came into Henry’s sights. About the worst thing he does is not object to the idea of becoming the secret biological father to an heir to the throne. Katherine Howard is executed with a sword, not an axe. As for Anne of Cleves, it’s hard to know where to begin. Henry does not seem to have actually called her a Flanders Mare, and there’s no dispute about her birthdate that I’m aware of; she’s the only wife besides Catherine of Aragon to have her age firmly established.

WORTH A READ? It’s a jumbled mess which keeps your attention while you’re reading but no, I wouldn’t seek it out on its own merits.

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From → Book Overviews

6 Comments
  1. I have this one but haven’t read it yet and sounds like I don’t need to be in a hurry to! I’ve read one of Prole’s other books (on Katherine Parr) and was less than impressed – it was rather bizarre.

    • sonetka permalink

      Yes, the narrative style was really strange — it kept jumping around from a vaguely-historian like “she may have thought this” to weird revelations about Henry VII being syphilitic. It really had the air of a couple of different drafts slapped together and unknowingly shipped off to the printer together. That being said, it’s not even among the bottom three of the Boleyn books I’ve read, which says quite a bit :).

  2. Tungsten permalink

    Ugh, what a mess. I’d love to read a really good book about Anne of Cleves–of all the wives of Henry VIII, she’s arguably the only one to come out ahead, and the disparity between the portrait and the person has some interesting story possibilities. It sounds like this isn’t it, though. *sigh* Off to reread the Dogsbody Papers again . . .

    • sonetka permalink

      Margaret Campbell Barnes wrote a novel about her in the mid 1940s, called My Lady Of Cleves. I haven’t read it yet, but considering the quality of Brief Gaudy Hour, I’m willing to bet it’s good.

    • As for a good book on Anne of Cleves, I’m partial to Philippa Gregory’s The Boleyn Inheritance–told in three voices: Anne of Cleves’, Katherine Howard’s, and Jane Boleyn’s.

      For non-fiction, I like Karen Lindsay’s Divorced, Beheaded, Survived. That offers some reinterpretations of the lives of Henry’s wives. Lindsay puts forth that Anne of Cleves really wasn’t at all unattractive (before her meeting with Henry, all contemporary accounts were that she was rather pretty–and Henry never punished Holbein for misleading him). Rather, she theorizes, plausibly, that after that little game he tried to play of disguising herself, Anne must have looked horrified to see this fat old man reveal himself as her bridegroom, and, unable to cope with that image of himself, Henry projected it back onto her. That’s something The Boleyn Inheritance takes and runs with.

      Lindsay also argues convincingly that the whole “he kisses me good morning and good night, isn’t that enough to conceive a child?” conversation must have been a ploy on Anne’s part. Young ladies of the time were sheltered, but a princess whose main job was to bear children would have had at least a rudimentary idea of the facts of life. Lindsay theorizes that Anne knew that Henry was considering an annulment–and made sure her ladies-in-waiting KNEW the marriage hadn’t been consummated.

      • sonetka permalink

        I’ve read “The Boleyn Inheritance” and liked it; unfortunately its portrayal of Lady Rochford has been overtaken by events (Julia Fox’s biography, specifically) but it’s still enjoyable. Antonia Fraser also argued that Anne of Cleves didn’t have any real problems in the looks department, and I’m inclined to believe it — her portrait looks well enough, and as you said, nobody ever got penalized for misrepresenting her. As for Anne and the facts of life, I’m not sure. First of all, there’s the issue where all of her words are secondhand — and the ladies reporting them must have known by that point what sort of testimony was wanted. Secondly, she presumably wasn’t speaking in German to them, and her English must at that point have been pretty rudimentary — she had only been there for a few months. Even if those were the precise words she used, they may not have been the words she *intended* — when you’re in the initial stages of wading into a new language in a new country, you’ll often end up using words or phrases which are the second or third cousins of the ones you want, just because those are the words you happen to know (and of course, you’ll end up doing a lot of semaphoring as well). She certainly would have had to be unusually sheltered not to know exactly how things worked, but there were some aristocratic women who managed to be brought up in a cocoon (Mary Tudor, if not sheltered to quite that degree, apparently was ignorant of some very common obscene terms until she hit her thirties).

        The thing that makes me doubt that Anne planned her own divorce to quite that degree is the fact that after Katherine Howard’s fall, she seems to have had some hopes of reinstatement, and was unhappy when Henry chose Catherine Parr instead. While she certainly handled her own annulment and buying off quite gracefully, her hoping to be reinstated later on makes me think that she was making the best of a confusing and frightening situation rather than actively trying to manipulate it.

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