Imaginary Friends: Men
The imaginary male population of Henry VIII’s court has a rather different set of activities from the imaginary female population. The latter are there to serve — either they serve the main characters, or they serve the reader as a set of eyes through which to observe court life; often they do both. Often they fall in love, but that’s not the main reason for their existence, rather, it’s a byproduct of court life. While they’re allowed to be unpleasant and manipulative on rare occasions, they never rise to outright villainy — any villainous activity which needs to be assigned will inevitably be given to Lady Rochford, sometimes receiving an assist from Jane Seymour. Such is not the case with imaginary men, who can generally be slotted into two categories — those of Born Conspirator and Born Romantic. Born Conspirators live to slink around behind the scenes, pulling the strings that will eventually lead to Anne’s destruction. Born Romantics, an altogether more charismatic crowd, live to woo and, usually, marry the leading lady — an especially fascinating feat when, as sometimes happens, the leading lady is a person who actually existed.
First, the sinister fixers. There aren’t a ton of these, and they’re mostly random, disreputable servants who carry the occasional message for Thomas Cromwell. A few manage to rise above spear carrier status, however, generally by owing Cromwell their lives — Matt Condon, AKA “Doctor Strabolgius” of The Uncommon Marriage (1960) for one; pursued by a mob one night after some of his artistry with poisons was discovered, he hammered on the front door of a random house in a last-ditch attempt at escape, and who should open the door but Thomas Cromwell? Once he saves Strabolgius’s life, Cromwell establishes a nice working relationship with him in which Strabolgius supplies poisons and love philtres to order (under cover of working at a crappy tavern called The Up-Anchor) and Cromwell keep Strabolgius under his protection — until he uses Strabolgius’s love philtre on Mark Smeaton, thus bringing about Smeaton’s assault on Anne and the King’s condemnation of both. Before Strabolgius can start putting two and two together, his body is most inconviently “found, floating in the Thames.” Cromwell giveth, and Cromwell taketh away. Cromwell also saves the life of Dr. Salmon, who inhabits the pages of Queen Anne Boleyn (1939). Salmon is unprepossessing, his face “waxen white, almost silver white against his pitch black hair, with his large eyes dull as dark velvet.” Cromwell once saved him from a Roman mob, which was also displeased with Salmon’s aptitude with poisons. Salmon enters the novel to examine Catherine of Aragon, pronounce her incapable of bearing fruit, and blame it on the King’s “disease”, unspecified. He also supplies poisons when needed.
In Cromwell’s place stands Angelo Caraffa, the anachronistic Jesuit of Anne Boleyn: A Dramatic Poem. By standing in Cromwell’s place I don’t mean that he holds Cromwell’s views: quite the opposite. However, he does fulfill Cromwell’s function (Cromwell himself being totally absent from this version of the story) of being the man who seals Anne’s doom. In a characteristic moment, Caraffa exhorts the minions of Hell to await her:
The throne of fire, the crown of eating flames!
She comes — the Queen, the fatal Queen, whose beauty
Hath been to England worse, more full of peril
Than Helen’s was to Troy, hath seal’d for death,
For death eternal, irremediable,
Whole generations of her godless sons,
And made her stately church a heap of ruin!
Caraffa gulls Mark Smeaton into confessing to adultery in the twisted hope of saving Anne’s life. He’s not the only one to get a premature confession out of Smeaton — another one to do so is Ralph Loney from Anne Boleyn: A Tragedy (1850) — in the cast list he’s described as “a creature of Suffolk’s” (once again, Cromwell does not exist and Suffolk serves as the heavy in his stead). Loney is an old buddy of Mark Smeaton’s who’s now running a sideline in selling secrets for cash. In the presence of several “informers” he gets the boastful Smeaton thoroughly sloshed, after which Smeaton starts drunkenly fantasizing about getting revenge on all the courtiers who sneer at him; who knows, one day “a goodly son of mine / May mount the throne, and chop off all their heads.” “Mark that again,” says Loney to the informers, as if they needed encouragement, and soon they all depart to leave Mark to his liquor and inevitable doom.
Now, let’s move on to the pleasanter company of the Born Romantics. The first and most negligible of the group are Mary Boleyn’s first boyfriends (pace Nicolas Sander, none of them are the family steward). In Feather Light, Diamond Bright(1974) the lucky man is Francois I’s page, Robert, who’s sent to bring Mary to the King (she plays sick) and ends up falling for her himself. The attraction is mutual, and after a tepid attempt to save Mary from her own inclinations (“If you say I must not lose my virtue until after I’m married, of course I’ll do my best. Only I can see only too clearly how difficult it’s going to be,” says Mary) he gives in, and they enjoy a happy summer of sneaking off into the woods until busted by Francois himself, who sends Robert home and makes Mary his own mistress. Later on, Mary names her first child by William Stafford after Robert. Robert has somewhat less gallant compatriots in Blood Royal (1988). Her first lover there is a page named Guillaume, who thinks she’s gorgeous but can get enough of her vapid company. “He adored her. But he also adored roast quail and sucking pig dressed with apricots, yet had no wish to live on those delicacies. Mary’s very innocence began, ever so slightly, to bore him.” He fobs her off on a gentleman of the bedchamber named Gaston, recently widowed, who after a few suspicious inquiries (“You’re not by any chance trying to father a bastard on me?”) takes her for a bit until turning her over to Francois I. In The Tudor Sisters (1971) even the pages were anticipated by Rafe, a village boy whom Mary meets while wandering disconsolately, mourning her mother’s death. They don’t quite manage to pull it off, but that’s only because they’re interrupted by Simonette. “Like a bitch in heat — c’est incroyable — but it is in the blood,” says the enraged governess, and Mary is temporarily banished to Blickling and only returns once Thomas Boleyn has acquired a second wife to keep his daughters on a shorter leash.
Another Rafe lives in the pages of The King’s Damsel (2012) — this Rafe is a silkwoman’s son who falls for the equally imaginary Tamsin Lodge when she’s a spy in Anne Boleyn’s household. Unusually for an imaginary man, he has a skill set that doesn’t involve sex, swordfighting, or poetry; he knows his fabrics. After lecturing the heroine about the origins and qualities of every variety of ribbon in the Great Wardrobe (he “made derogatory remarks about every sample of imported silk goods we encountered,” largely from national pride) they set up a system whereby Tamsin can send Princess Mary’s household messages via coded silk orders. Tom Freeman of Anne Boleyn And Me (2004), suitor of the imaginary Elinor Freeman, also has a skill set — he’s a blacksmith — but as we never see him actually blacksmithing the effect is diluted somewhat.
Moving on up in the social order, Sir Harry Latimar of The Black Pearl (1991) has a skill set consisting of gambling away money and seducing maids of honour. He competes for the hand of Bess de Cheyne against Richard Woodville, who is intelligent, handsome, and wealthy, but who just doesn’t light Bess’s fire for some reason. (It’s a Harlequin Historical, so I’ll leave it to you to figure out who wins that contest). Sir Harry’s only real redeeming moment comes when he tries to defend Anne to Henry. When Henry angrily asks if he’s her lover as well, Harry replies that he should “Add Harry Latimar’s name to the list of those who love her. It will bring no shame to me, for upon that list are the names of men who would lay down their lives for you as easily and without thought as they breathe.” Unaccountably, he manages to walk away from this confrontation without so much as an accusation of sacramentarianism.
His prudent opposite can be found in Jack Carlisle, who marries the imaginary Frances Pierce in A Lady Raised High (2006). When his indignant, rather annoyingly innocent wife says that Anne “has no more committed adultery than I have!” his response is to tell her that she’d better not phrase her defense like that. “Any word, any slip of the tongue, can be taken as an admission of guilt.” He also wants to send her out of town until it’s all over — she doesn’t go, of course, but that’s on her, not him.
The first imaginary suitor to aspire to Anne Boleyn herself is Dickon Linacre of My Friend Anne (1900) — he’s the son of (real) Thomas Linacre and has had a crush on Anne since childhood. After his proposal at the first Christmas following the King’s Great Matter, Anne turns him down. Not, as she later tells his sister Patience, because she didn’t love him, but for another reason:
“Thou knowest it can never come to anything; but I will not now withhold the truth from thee, albeit thou mayst think the worse of me, though I prythee, do not! Little friend, my truest, my purest, my best love hath been ever for thy brother. I love him right well! so well, that I would not wrong him by marrying him. He doth deserve a better mate than I should ever have made him.”
As she’s already been compromised by the King’s attentions (the extent of these attentions is left extremely vague) noble renunciation is her only option. Later on, Dickon gets into a duel with a man who slurs Anne’s honour, and is severely wounded. He recovers eventually, but with a more serene outlook on life. “Somehow since I so nearly died for Anne’s sake, the smart hath gone from my heart …. My love is deeper than it ever was — but different. I can wait now; this life is not all — nor the best!”
Equally celibate is the relationship between the elderly Baron Blackston and his wife, Meg Wyatt — their marriage is never consummated due both to the groom’s failing health and his evil nephew’s habit of slipping him a mickey finn on the days his wife is home, lest he be momentarily inspired to try for an heir. When the old baron dies, Meg is sorrowful if not prostrate; she didn’t love him, but he was always polite. The same cannot be said of his nephew, who addresses her as “Dowager Baroness” and tries to pressure her into marrying him. When not doing so, he diverts himself by bullying servants, getting a housemaid pregnant and then banishing her, and ferreting out Meg’s old letters Will Ogilvy, a childhood friend who’s now studying for the priesthood. Will Ogilvy himself, however, has begun to have second thoughts about that particular career, and by the end of the book Meg has married him. Two fictional grooms would seem to be enough for anyone, but Meg also has a fictional groom from earlier times: the “romantic country gentleman” Squire Gadsden, who appears in Anne Boleyn: A Tragedy (1826). Long her adorer from afar, Gadsden could never hope to marry one so high, but then as luck (or something like that) would have it, she was seduced and abandoned by Sir Francis Weston. After this “mishap”, so named, she realizes that the love of Gadsden is worth more than the vanities of the court, so she returns home and tells him everything, finally confessing that she loves him. Gadsden’s response is encouraging:
“Most gratefully I take regard so pure;
And in this friendship will raise up a flame,
So Heav’n consenting, shall illume the land
With the pure light of love; to be a beacon
For faithful hearts to go by. Come, Margaret,
I must bear off my prize: take you my arm.”
Meg Wyatt doesn’t get all the fictional men to herself; Madge Shelton gets one as well in Arthur Brandon, who introduces himself in At The Mercy Of The Queen (2012) as “merely the bastard son of the king’s brother-in-law. Sir Charles Brandon is my father, and I am called Arthur, after the King’s dear, dead brother.” Madge, annoyed at his presumptuousness, calls him “Sir Churlish,” but warms up to him after he rescues her six or seven times from the groping attentions of Sir Henry Norris (whose villainy is so cartoonishly depicted that he makes Simon Blackston look like something out of Henry James). “Your skill with the sword is well-known, Master Brandon,” says Norris on one occasion before fleeing him, and in case the reader doesn’t get it, Arthur and Madge drag each other into the long grass a few pages later — this is at Madge’s behest, as she knows she’ll have to sleep with the king soon and doesn’t want him to be the first. Arthur and Madge exchange marriage vows, apparently for fun, as they appear to have no idea what “I marry you” followed by consummation actually meant then. At least Arthur has come prepared with “a finely woven linen cloth dipped in lard and dried in the sun,” which they use for birth control purposes. When, inevitably, they jettison the thing, Madge gets pregnant and is hastily married by her mother to one Thomas Wodehouse. Fortunately, Arthur manages to return to her (his father was preventing him) and they agree that they’ll pretend they were precontracted, not realizing that they were already married, and live happily ever after, presumably in the same alternative universe with Meg Wyatt and one or two of her husbands. And there let us leave them.
The fictional men in Anne’s world often seem curiously extraneous — even the sinister conspiratorial ones seem to take up far too much space considering their limited importance. Dr. Salmon and Strabolgius, as poison suppliers to Cromwell, often seem to be going in interesting directions, but these plotlines either peter out or just hang in the air, unresolved. Dr. Strabolgius is supposed to have a grudge against Lady Rochford for (semi-accidentally) killing his mother, which is an interesting connection, but in the end nothing comes of it, nor does he attempt to make anything come of it. Dr. Salmon and Cromwell have a shared history in which both are interested in unorthodox forms of religion, but this never develops, and Salmon eventually fades away. The men who are there for romance are too obviously imported for the purpose — none of them, entertaining though many of them are, rise to the level of Emma Arnett of The Concubine (1963), although Rafe Pinckney of The King’s Damsel fully justifies his own existence with his silk expertise and the way he uses it to help Tamsin spy in Anne’s household (and let’s face it, they were all spying on each other, so that part is hardly outlandish). Rafe is too lighthearted and frothy to match Emma as a character though. As for the men who marry real women, I hardly know what to say about them — that seems to be a case in which a historical romance has allowed the romance to completely eclipse the historical. I cannot understand what justifies their overtures to women who were clearly recorded as having married other, real, people.
I think the reason that no Emma Arnett equivalent has arisen from the ranks of the men is twofold: first, we’re seldom allowed a long look from a man’s perspective in Anne Boleyn fiction, and those instances are so rare that the man chosen is always a real one. Second, the men whom Anne would have encountered are ones we simply know too much about. She would have had no male equivalent to a maid or serving-woman whose name was unrecorded but whose presence could have been deeply influential; no unrelated man could have been that close to her and an invented one would have no place to go. Even Mark Smeaton, so often portrayed as Anne’s faithful, not to say obsessive, dogsbody, was not a member of her household but of the King’s, and he would not have spent long, solitary interludes with her. A good novel about Mark Smeaton, or any of the peripheral men about Anne, could certainly be written, but it would have to have a strong overarching plot as well as the secondary plot revolving around Anne. Additionally, the overarching plot would have to justify its belonging to a fictional man instead of one of the numerous real ones who were all over the place. Perhaps it could be done, but I haven’t seen it yet.