The King Waits by Clemence Dane (Winifred Ashton), 1918
This short story first appeared in The Sphere in November 1918, and was reprinted as a (very) slim volume in 1929. The opening sentence gives us the setting — “The morning was a Friday, the month was May; it was the twenty-eighth year of the Eighth Henry’s reign over England, and it needed five minutes to be noon.” Anne Boleyn thus has five minutes of life left, and this is the story of those five minutes.
We open with Henry, however, not Anne — standing on Richmond Hill with horses and attendants, none speaking (“Who will disobey Harry the King, calling in that furious voice for silence?”), and waiting. The wind picks up, and flies across the land to the Tower of London, where Anne is processing out to the scaffold, where she says “that which was in her mind to say” — we don’t hear any of her speech — refuses a blindfold, kneels, and decides that she needs one more minute.
She was not used to deny herself any wish; so, lifting her head, she let the spell [blushing] work for the last time: and her executioner, meeting that full glance, hesitated and turned aside, as if his part were not yet ready to be played. Again he advanced: again she looked at him, and had the last triumph of her beauty as she won her respite. He would wait her pleasure for a minute, no more than a minute; but she knew now that the tales they had told of drowning men were true. The dying see their lives again in a minute: she, dying, would see her life.
What she sees is fairly familiar to anyone with an interest in Anne: her childhood at Hever and youth at the French court whip by in a couple of sentences (it’s of interest, considering the date, that Anne is described as fifteen years old when she attends Princess Mary Rose to France, giving her a birthdate of c. 1500), and she duly falls in love with Henry Percy, although this Percy is heir to the dukedom of Northumberland, not the earldom. Henry VIII heaves into sight and tells Wolsey to break things off — Anne doesn’t realize that Henry was the one responsible for this until he comes to visit her at Hever, “very sure of his welcome.” Anne is now resolved not only to be revenged on Wolsey, but on Henry — “Let the King learn what it means to part lovers! Let him wait and chafe and learn!” She holds out on Henry for four years, enjoying every second of it, but finally relents, not because she likes Henry any better but because if she doesn’t come back to court, it will be difficult to be revenged on Wolsey as well. And after a flirtation with Thomas Wyatt (whose attraction is that he reminds her of Percy) she defeats Wolsey, who is arrested by Percy and dies shortly thereafter. Anne finds herself enjoying the memory:
A smile lit up her face as she remembered … and the watchers saw it and wondered, and weeping Mary Wyatt called her in her heart “saint” and “innocent”; and young Richmond thought of his father, waiting on Richmond Hill for the boom of the cannon, and wondered if he should report that inexplicable, triumphant smile. How slowly the man from Calais goes about his business! Does the kneeling creature know that the French executioner is swinging his sword?
She doesn’t, but she has time for a few more reflections before the end. “She could say, when her sins rose up and looked at her, that she had never, in life or death, been made afraid. She had been fit mother for kings and queens: and — who knows? Wheels turn! — her Elizabeth might yet rule England, like her mother, unafraid!” She remembers the book of prophecies which showed her beheaded, and repeats to herself the words she said then about her resolve to have Henry no matter what.
She murmured the words again half aloud, and heard Mary’s gasp from the scaffold foot — “She prays!” and saw the sudden upward flash of faces, watching a movement that she heard behind her but could not see …. Let them know that the Queen dies at her own minute, not at theirs! Not thus had they hurried her two years ago from Greenwich landing to the Tower … And Henry, her King and husband, had met her in the gateway and welcomed her most joyfully. She felt again upon her lips his loving kiss, and his great arm flung about her neck.
It fell upon her neck again like an all-ending blow; and there was a booming in her ears …
The booming comes from the cannon which has just been fired to show that she’s dead, and back across the land we travel to see Henry VIII, still standing at attention. “The deed is done! Uncouple the hounds and away!” he shouts, and off he rides towards the house of Jane Seymour, his waiting finished.
ANALYSIS: At a casual glance this story doesn’t seem to bring much new to the table — the incidents it rehearses are pretty much the staple scenes of every story, although the persistent references to Henry Percy, with Wyatt as a pale substitute, were interesting. However, the characterization of Anne is a real departure from earlier fictions. She is not the evangelizing, religious martyr Anne, nor is she the Anne who becomes proud and heedless, but repents and sees the light after her fall. This Anne is proud, heedless, and just a little frightening even as she’s about to have her head struck off. Even at her end, she’s glorying in the memories of how she exacted revenge on Wolsey and made Henry miserable for years (well, it was no more than they deserved, wasn’t it?) She sees her whole life as her triumph — no matter what happens to her now, she managed to upend England and change Henry’s life forever.
I thought the juxtaposition of Mary Wyatt’s thoughts and Anne’s was rather sly. Anne smiles at the memory of Wolsey’s miserable last journey and his death, and Mary Wyatt piously interprets it as a beatific smile in hope of heaven; Anne murmurs her old affirmation — “I am resolved to have him, that my issue may be royal, whatever may become of me,” — and Mary is sure that she is praying. Eyewitnesses will no doubt tell and write accounts of how the Queen died praying, but we, looking into her head, can see that she was reflecting on quite different subjects. It’s almost as if we’re watching Anne cracking and then shedding the pious, tormented, regretful skin that she had been wearing for several centuries, and emerging as a different, more ambitious creature, someone who takes charge of her own fate after early disappointment. Although she begins her quest for revenge as the result of emotional torment, she doesn’t let her emotions rule her afterwards, and guilt for her is nonexistent. She is the ancestor of quite a few twentieth-century Annes — not necessarily the most attractive ones, but still good and interesting.
The emphasis on her ambition is one that is very interesting, considering the time this story was written. The Anne of The Favor of Kings (1912) is ambitious, but she’s been very badly treated and her ambition begins almost as self-defense. The Anne of My Friend Anne (1900) is not ambitious herself, but is driven by her ambitious and evil godmother. The Anne of Annie Boleyn’s New Year (c. 1880) is vain and ambitious, but mostly because she’s shallow — we are assured at the end that had she known where this would lead, “with what horror would she have shrank[sic] from the honors heaped upon her, preferring to remain a private gentlewoman and to die quietly in her bed.”
But the Anne of 1918 has no desire trade places with a private gentlewoman, even as she’s about to die. Her ambition, and her pride at having made her mark, are an anticipation of books to come.