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A Tudor Story: The Return Of Anne Boleyn by Canon W.S. Pakenham-Walsh (1920s-1930s, published 1963)

March 16, 2013

“My interest in Queen Anne Boleyn was first aroused in 1917 when I was a missionary in China,” writes Canon Pakenham-Walsh, explaining that he began with some of the history books in the expatriate library in Foochow. He returned to the United Kingdom in 1920 and, like many subsequent devotees of Anne’s, then visited the Tower of London and Hever Castle, trying to pick up some feeling of her which had been left behind. In 1921 his sister introduced him to one Mrs Clegg, a woman who claimed to be a medium (she was inspired to start using her gift after a vision she received during the 1914-18 war: “I want you to use your great gift to comfort those who are in sorrow,” God told her, and the Canon assures us that she, as an earnest Christian, would not lie about this). During the next fifteen years, Pakenham-Walsh would consult with one medium after another, trying to make contact with Anne Boleyn and the people in her circle. The methods used were various – visions, crystal-gazing, automatic writing, channeling voices – but the mediums in question (one of whom, the famous Hester Dowden, would later affirm two different people as the “real” Shakespeare) were invariably described as honest Christian women who knew nothing of his search – the crystal gazer, for example, was “a clergyman’s daughter but in the great distress of the times was obliged to seek a livelihood [as a housekeeper].” The mediums’ total ignorance may, perhaps, be doubted. However, the resulting write-up, with its mixture of artless narrative, opaque notes from séances, grim “original” poetry composed by Anne, and unintentionally humourous glimpses of the Canon’s family, is surprisingly revelatory – not of the true Anne Boleyn, but of what one man at least wanted and wished her to be during the decade of the 1920s. For that reason, I wanted to include it, although the Canon would have protested against its being categorized with works of fiction.

Not surprisingly, since the seances are conducted over the course of a number of years and are conducted by different people, there’s no plot to speak of, more a series of wandering conversations with a tendency to take sudden and mysterious turns (not helped by the fact that the “controls”, who have names like Narda, White Hawk, and of course Mrs Dowden’s Johannes, tend to have a poor command of English). At first, Pakenham-Walsh wants to speak only with Anne, but as time goes on he receives visits from Henry, Catherine of Aragon (described, oddly for an Anglican clergyman, as Henry’s “true wife” and still very anxious for his spiritual welfare), Elizabeth, Lady Jane Grey, and George and Jane Boleyn. Later on, Anne gives him a hint that the word “Send” is somehow connected with part of her life; after much searching, he eventually unearths a small village called Send at which she might have stayed at one point while travelling; while visiting the manor there, the clairvoyante he has with him sees Mary Boleyn, making signs that Anne was imprisoned there after her last miscarriage.

I won’t give a full inventory of the “revelations” since it would be dull and repetitive; most of the shades of the departed are very coy about giving information, and the transcripts can be depressing reading. A sample from the first session with Mrs Clegg runs thus:

P.W. “Could she tell me anything about her brother; could she give me his name?”

C. “I catch the name William.”

P.W. “No.”

C. “Robert.”

P.W. “No.”

C. “Henry.”

P.W. “No, I don’t think so.” I though this was just guessing. Then in a very strong voice “George.”

P.W. “Yes, it was George.” George was the only brother I had ever heard of. “Can she tell me anything about her daughter?”

C. “I get the ideas of art and literature.”

P.W. “Yes, perhaps so, she had to do with art and literature.”

C. “I am travelling now over the sea; there are deep jungles; dense forests and jungles; I should imagine I must be in India.”

P.W. No, her daughter never went over the sea, but she was connected with those who did go over the sea and went into jungles.”

C. “Perhaps that is it. Now she is looking down from a great height on a vast expanse of water; I don’t seem to catch it very well.”

Later sessions produce slightly more satisfactory results. We learn that Anne is a guardian angel for those wrongfully condemned, for children (including Pakenham-Walsh’s own daughter, who died as a baby and whom Anne brings to visit), and, as it turns out, Pakenham-Walsh himself – they have an “affinity of spirit” which prompts her to appoint him her “champion,” someone who can combat the lies told about her. Henry VIII, we learn, has been in a dark place, tormented by horrible dreams, separated from his son, but Catherine of Aragon’s spirit is trying to persuade him to acknowledge his crimes and reconcile with the other spirits. Henry VIII’s first appearance is, incidentally, by far the most interesting of the sessions – probably because it took place under the auspices of Mrs Dowden. Henry comes out swinging and starts insulting the assembled company – “I shall not listen to you. You are a fool. I would have had you executed in my time … A look from me would have withered you up; if I had only eyes I could make you feel.” Their questions dry up and they become defensive; on being implored to look for Anne, Henry answers “I laid my head on her lap when it ached and I sought her in my vexations …. But she whined. How could a King bear with a puling, whey-faced creature who wept and wept?” At the end he storms out, after being asked to pray: “I will make my orisons away from here. I will not pray here. A King prays alone.”

Good dramatic stuff, and of course an impatient King is not going to want to provide answers to a lot of questions about trivia. Later on, through the auspices of Catherine and Anne, Henry moves to a “sphere” of meditation and prayer, and finally meets up with shade of his son Edward and reconciles with Jane Seymour, against whom he held a vague and unexplained grudge. Several years later, he’s loosened up to the extent that he can commend Pakenham-Walsh on his taste in films: “I am thankful that thou didst not see me in that wretched picture,” he says of The Private Life Of Henry VIII, adding that “Foul we may have been in my day … but how much better are those now who gloat over the excesses, the sensualities and drunken orgies of a bygone day. Methinks thy boasted civilisation hath no cause to vaunt itself, who didst still send forth thy sons to the slaughter, to a greater bloodshed than ever stained the annals of my reign.” The First World War cast a long shadow.

We learn some interesting new facts about other people as well: Lady Rochford appears, full of remorse, gives her account of her betrayal of George: when she had a child, George had claimed that it was not his, when in fact it was. Her anger at his suspicions prompted her to betray him. “Yes, yes, it was his child, oh, oh, oh!” says her spirit, and later, encouraged by Pakenham-Walsh, she seeks out George’s spirit and reconciles with him. (Of the child, other than being told “it lived” no more is heard). She’s less forthcoming when asked what her Christian name was: “I have soiled and polluted my name. I have dragged it in the dust,” she says, but doesn’t want to say more than that. Later, another medium will give her name as Frances Vere – Pakenham-Walsh, oddly, sees nothing contradictory about this. (I was puzzled, however, since one book he mentions reading – Francis Hackett’s Queen Anne Boleyn gives Lady Rochford’s name clearly as Jane Parker. Of course, if he didn’t manage to read that far, I could hardly blame him). We learn eventually that Lady Rochford has been spiritually purified and is now helping the spirits of dead children.

Anne herself is revealed as a poet, in the form of two poems dictated to two different women via automatic writing. They are long and painfully unskilled.

Ah! Woe is me – pent up within this sullen Tower;
Bereft of love, of hope, and soon bereft of life itself;
Though that were scarcely hardship – to escape from this!
This death in life, this hourly drawn out agony of terror
Still to come. Yet ’tis not many hours since I did hear
The rusty bars withdrawn, and saw the heavy door
Of my imprisonment flung wide, but not, alas, for me!
But to admit the entry of some dour faced men,
Governor, Janitor, of courtiers of His Majesty’s.
Within they filed, so many men, so many swords,
So many frowning looks, to face one poor weak woman child,
And once their Queen.

We see little of Mary Boleyn, except to hear that she had a falling-out with Anne in life but they have been reconciled in death, however we do learn that she is firmly resident in the afterlife and not on earth. Before attending another séance, Pakenham-Walsh informs us:

A book had just been published which stated that Mary Boleyn, the sister of the Lady Anne, was at the present time reincarnated in the lady who wrote the book. It seemed strange that I should not have heard such a remarkable fact if it was true, and I knew that if I could speak to the Lady Anne she would know one way or the other.

Anne’s response is in the negative: “How can Mary be incarnate in a body of flesh, when she is now with me in spirit?” It’s nice to see that logic isn’t entirely absent from the next world. For myself, what I really want to know is, what was the title of that book? Looking online all I can find is this Tumblr site from a more modern reincarnation of Mary Boleyn.

Intertwined throughout the book are descriptions of Pakenham-Walsh’s own family and their good-natured reactions to the revelations of his seances. At one point, when Queen Elizabeth has bidden him tell his wife Maud that “Had I been as good a woman as she, I had been a better queen” his son Herbert replies, “Dad, I should have told Queen Elizabeth it was stale news.” Earlier on, Pakenham-Walsh and Maud ended up rejecting the offer of Lady Jane Grey and Anne Boleyn to be guardian angels to their (living) daughter. “My wife and I talked this over very carefully, and we both felt that it was too serious a responsibility to take. The whole question of Guardian Angelship is one about which we know so little.”

More poignantly, people whom he knew in life also turn up; I admit that in these sections I became somewhat angry at the mediums. Speaking for the long-dead Anne Boleyn was one thing, but speaking for his “little daughter Helen, who died in China aged only 3 months” was another thing entirely. In a strange, recursive series of events, his eldest son Willy accompanies him to one séance, listening to Anne for a while and then chatting with the spirit of his former headmaster – “Jolly good I call it Sir.” We learn later that Willy “entered the Colonial Service in Fiji and was doing brilliantly when he was stung in the neck by a hornet and died within a few days of March 26th, 1932, aged 28.” A few years later, Willy reappears as a spirit, albeit he has little to say except to comment on the splendid clothing worn by his fellow shades. By the time the seances wind down, Pakenham-Walsh is convinced that he has the true story of Anne at last, and has been commanded by Henry VIII himself to write a play based on the true events of their lives. He did write a play – you don’t lightly ignore an order from Henry VIII – but I have not been able to find if it was ever published, or if it still exists.

SEX OR POLITICS? Not much of either since it’s all being related posthumously. The people are either wandering in post-mortem darkness or trying to assist others.

WHEN BORN? Not stated.

THE EARLY LOVE: Pakenham-Walsh at one point reminds Henry (speaking through the medium Mrs. Clegg) of how he had forced Percy to give Anne up “thereby ruining two lives … Is there not anything to be ashamed of or sorry for in all that?” Henry’s response is that “Part of me seems to be sorry and part of me seems not to care.” However, after much prayer on Pakenham Walsh’s end and intercession by the spirits of Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Grey, and Elizabeth I, Henry is brought to confess that he “had wronged Percy.” Percy himself does not make an appearance, and Anne mentions him only in passing.

THE QUEEN’S BEES: Lady Rochford is only one who gets much attention, and she tells her story of falsely accusing George because he had falsely accused her of cheating on him. (Jealousy of Anne is not mentioned as a factor). Mary Wyatt appears a few times, most notably offering to bless the organ which Pakenham-Walsh’s church had just ordered: “I will make sweet music.” Jane Seymour appears once or twice “shrouded in grey,” but never speaks.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Danahan, a maid who had been with Anne at Hever since childhood, and who, knowing how untrue the accusations were, was killed by Thomas Boleyn — he had her tossed into a rock pit and battered to death. (Thomas was afraid that she would speak out and endanger his own safety). Anne describes her as “done to death for my sake” and desires that world remember her. Simonette the governess is very briefly referenced but not during a séance – during Pakenham-Walsh’s visit to Hever he imagines hearing her voice on the lawn.

THE PROPHECY No contemporary one is mentioned. There is the agonizingly vague message about “Send” which Pakenham-Walsh decides to his own satisfaction, if not the reader’s, must refer to a manor in which Anne was imprisoned off the record.

IT’S A GIRL! We don’t get any description of Elizabeth’s birth, but during the first contact with Henry VIII’s spirit, Henry says of Elizabeth that “She was nothing to me,” and on being told that she became a great queen, says “I did not expect it from her mother’s child,” so we can assume that he wasn’t thrilled.

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? When first asked this question, Anne declines to answer, but many years later, in a séance being held by a friend of Pakenham-Walsh’s, “the Lady Anne” makes an appearance to tell the friend “She wishes to add a piece of evidence – about one of her hands. Six fingers she says.” Anne’s overall appearance is mentioned several times by the different mediums – they agree that she has either brown or hazel eyes, brown hair, and a “rose-leaf” complexion; much fairer than the typical Anne portrayal, though similar to the pink, fair Anne of Anne Boleyn (1912).

FAMILY AFFAIRS: Thomas Boleyn is mentioned as appearing but we don’t get any transcribed dialogue, just his observation that his ambitions contributed to Anne’s death. In the coda, we learn that he had her maid stoned to death, so it doesn’t sound like we were missing too much. George Boleyn appears several times, speaking words of generic comfort (“Perfect love casteth out fear”) and showing some endearingly down-to-earth interests: as Lady Rochford says later “I am told that you have spoken to my husband and that he takes an interest in the young men’s clubs of the parish … that seems very strange to me.” Mary Boleyn appears once, when Pakenham-Walsh is touring an old house with a clairvoyante in the hopes of discovering whether it’s the key to the puzzle left by Anne. Mary is described as having been distant from her sister during life (after her elopement with Stafford) but now reconciled.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No, good lord, no.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: I think the quotations above will suffice.


WORTH A READ? If you like Golden Age detective fiction, with its impossibly highminded yet sweetly monomaniacal Anglican vicars, well … imagine reading a book written by one of them, only this one is obsessed with Anne Boleyn instead of change-ringing or cacti. The transcripts of the seances themselves are fairly tepid reading – they show all too clearly what John Pearce-Higgins concedes in his introduction, that Pakenham-Walsh gave too much leading information, seized on the vaguest statements as infallible confirmations, and may have been overconfident in his assertions that none of the mediums had any idea what he was looking for. Anyone who could admire “The Lament Of Anne Boleyn” was deeply in thrall to his illusion. However, the Canon’s own narrative voice is surprisingly endearing, and the glimpses of his family show us a set of people who were commendable in their good humour and patience (“Oh, I dare say that will wait,” says his wife at the Canon’s inquiry as to whether Anne should be consulted about one of their children’s future career).

It would be cruel to mock Pakenham-Walsh’s longing to speak with his dead children, and impossible not to sympathize with his desire to speak with the dead of past centuries. Everyone who has paged through the letters and privy purse accounts of long-gone nobility is trying, in their own way, to hear what they have to say. He intended to write the real story of Anne Boleyn, and in that he did not succeed; but he did, inadvertently, produce a fascinating if somewhat sad period piece.

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From → Book Overviews

  1. A strange but enjoyable book. It has strange elements of believability sometimes. The fact that Anne uses the word “champion” in its old-fashioned sense. The fact that Henry suffered from headaches. The Send proposition is interesting – can’t you just imagine Anne fleeing to the home of the Westons, in early 1536 after her miscarriage? And the “tests” that Anne sets Pakenham Walsh are fascinating too.

    It has to be set in context that there was an enormous interest in mediums and seances due to the devastating loss of life in the First World War. Poor old Pakenham Walsh certainly had his fair share of personal tragedy in his own life.

    However, one of the other elements that I found fascinating was that he cycled all over the place and thought absolutely nothing of cycling 20 miles, to meet someone! And I seemed to remember he liked to camp out in people’s gardens! What a guy!

    I hope you manage to find his manuscript, have you tried to trace his family? They may be able to help you.

    • sonetka permalink

      I had originally written a digression about the First World War but stopped because it went too far off topic. Even though Pakenham Walsh didn’t have any losses in the war it’s really like you can feel its ghost hanging over the book — the single women newly obliged to work for a living, and crystal-gazing on the side, and the sheer number of people who know someone who knows someone who holds seances or has had a communication. I don’t think he was very unusual in trying to get in touch with the dead, but he may well have surprised some mediums who were expecting him to be looking for the spirit of a soldier. I hadn’t thought of looking for his family, but it’s a good idea, though I wouldn’t want to put them on the spot. I don’t think the play was ever published, at least not under the title he had for it of “The Rose of Kent”, and who knows if it’s still surviving somewhere.

      And yes, I was very impressed by his cycling! No wonder he lived to his nineties; he must have been in great shape from the constant workout.

  2. Peach permalink

    Wow it is so surreal to read all of this. So much information about that time, I’ve been reading a lot of articles about Anne Boleyn and this one was hard to find I never knew so much about the conversation with the writer Walsh. I read somewhere that the spirit of Anne promised Walsh that she would protect him against evil forces if he helped in clearing her name. May I know where did you find all of this information from.

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