Madge Shelton: Idle Poesies
“A shallow little piece, all giggles and airs,” is the verdict on Madge Shelton in The Favor of Kings (1912), one of the earliest fictional works to mention her, and this assessment has held strong during the ensuing century. If she appears in the story at all — and she usually gets at least a walk-on appearance — it’s a safe bet that she’ll be pretty, flirtatious, sweet, and dumber than a box of rocks. She might be ticked off by Anne for scribbling secular poetry in her prayer book, a rebuke which may or may not be related to the King’s interest in Madge’s charms. This interest will extend to either heavy flirtation or a full-blown affair, which is sometimes endured and sometimes reviled by Anne. Madge’s engagement to Henry Norris will be noted just long enough for the fatal conversation in which Anne rebukes Norris for not marrying already and drops the remark about “looking to dead men’s shoes.” Madge will then disappear, her feelings on Norris’s sudden death unrecorded.
This more or less describes the Madge who debuts in Anne Boleyn: A Tragedy (1875), a lively flirt who likes Norris but makes out with Weston along until discovered by Anne, who is virtuously shocked:
This is too warm for cousinhood! Fie, Madge!
With a good man’s heart — a man to be proud of,
Like Harry Norris, waiting on thy word!
Kissing in corners like a light o’love!
Anne decides that Madge shall be made respectable by marrying Norris forthwith. Madge, who has previously advised Jane Seymour that “discretion is a virtue always”, is happy to go along with this. Similar behavior is seen in the Madges of Anne Boleyn (1932), Anne, The Rose Of Hever (1969) in which Madge also has something in the background with Weston, Feather Light, Diamond Bright (1974), The Last Boleyn (1983), The Other Boleyn Girl (2001) although she’s marginally intelligent in this one, A Lady Raised High (2006) and The King’s Damsel (2012). And of course there’s her fictional apotheosis, At The Mercy Of The Queen (2012) in which poor Madge is every bit as naive and idiotic as in her most fleeting, two-dimensional appearances in other books. In this rendition of her life, Madge is solicited by the desperate Queen Anne to become Henry’s mistress in order to talk Anne up and distract him from the stupid, malicious, inexplicably appealing Jane Seymour. Madge duly does so, and demonstrates her total unfitness for the job in a scene so anti-erotic that it could make Casanova flee to a desert hermitage:
“But isn’t a wife supposed to urge her husband to be the best man he is capable of being? Surely, if Your Majesty thought highly enough of the queen to make her your consort, you must have believed she has wisdom and discretion as well as intelligence and beauty. So great a man as you, Henry, would need a woman who could use her brain as well as her body,” said Madge, gaining courage as she allowed him to touch her here, then there, then here again.
“Aye, she is not lacking in that way — and she has debated me most satisfactorily, especially when she speaks of the new religion and my role as head of church. Ahh, how like you this, lady?” said Henry, thrusting his fingers into her slowly, back and forth, back and forth.
She could not stop the sigh that came from her. She found her thoughts more and more difficult to maintain. Suddenly, her desire rose in her body and she wanted nothing more than to yield to the king, to those fat fingers that prodded her so expertly. But she had to maintain focus on her mission — build up the queen.
“Dear Henry, if the queen is such a good woman, why do you wish to be with women like me? Would it not hurt the queen to think of you, her lawful husband, doing such?” said Madge.
“Good God, woman! Are you trying to unman me? Let there be no more talk of the queen!” shouted the king.
Madge snapped to her senses and all the ardor that had been building cooled.
Madge’s engagement to Henry Norris is, in this version, entirely unwilling on her part and she’s relieved to see the “slimy”, groping Norris go to the scaffold. Hooray for executions carried out on the flimsiest of pretexts!
Madge does occasionally break the usual pattern. In Anne Boleyn (1957), she’s called Meg Shelton and presented as a friendly but sensible type (Meg Wyatt is the giddy, flirtatious one here — a very unusual switch). Anne’s scolding of Madge is the catalyst for her discovery that the man who marries his mistress opens up a job vacancy:
“Madame, listen to me, listen to me,” [Meg] cried desperately. “I’ve never looked near the King. I swear that by Our Saviour. I’ve never raised my eyes in his direction! You know it’s the truth while you accuse me; you know no woman’s safe from his maulings now and that none of us dare do anything!”
“Why didn’t you come to me?” Anne demanded, gripping the girl’s shoulders, almost shaking her. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Shelton shook her head.
“Tell you that, when you’re so near the birth … No, Nan, you know that’s not possible. No one who loved you would have let you know such a thing!”
Anne said nothing; she sat, still holding Meg’s shoulders, staring at her. Shelton was telling the truth, and in her heart she knew it. It wasn’t the girl’s fault, but the fault of that lecherous dog, whose hands were always promising what his body fulfilled badly, if at all … She knew it was his fault.
Considerably less innocent is the Madge of To Die For (2011), who, alone among the crew, is overtly villainous. Promiscuous (Meg Wyatt scorns her as having “a loose shift”), glorying in her conquest of the king, she has no “plan for her life” after he dumps her and is jealous of the engagements and marriages taking place between the other characters. The engagement to Henry Norris does not feature in this version — in fact, Madge is the one who twits him about not marrying again, instead of Anne, and Madge is happy to join Lady Rochford in denouncing Anne to Cromwell at the end. Equally unchaste but less malicious is the “blonde, well-upholstered” Madge of The Uncommon Marriage, whose room Anne shares when she (Anne) first arrives at court. This Madge has a great enthusiasm for men of all descriptions, and promptly kicks Anne out of the room so she can have sex with Sir Francis Bryan, in the course of which they break the bedstead. Poor Anne, stuck outside, unfamiliar with her surroundings, and just wanting to get back to sleep, will be empathized with by anyone who was ever sexiled from their dorm room at 12 AM and ended up on a desiccated common room couch watching public television reruns and thinking “Isn’t college supposed to be more fun than this?”
Sometimes, significantly, Madge’s name isn’t Madge, or Margaret — it’s Mary. In Queen Anne Boleyn (1939) Anne summons “her charming cousin, Mary Shelton” to divert Henry from his earlier mistress, and in Wolf Hall (2009), the “bold pink-and-white Boleyn cousin” is named Mary Shelton. Mary Shelton is also mentioned as having a book of poems, which Mary Boleyn briefly asks after before remembering that she returned it to her cousin.
There’s a good reason for this, which is that a brief probing into the historical record shows that Madge may not, in fact, have been Madge at all. In the best, infuriating Tudor fashion, the picture labeled as “Marg. Shelton” may, thanks to the stylistic eccentricities of 16th century handwriting, be intended as “Mary Shelton”. That there was at least one Shelton daughter of Anne’s aunt at court is certainly true, and it’s possible that there were two, Mary and Margaret. One Mistress Shelton was, as William Latymer later recalled, rebuked by Anne for writing “idle poesies” in her prayer book — Anne perhaps forgetting that she herself had written similarly idle lines to Henry in her Book of Hours. In February 1525, Eustace Chapuys would report Henry’s mistress of 1534 as having been replaced by “a first cousin of the Concubine, daughter of the Princess’s present governess.” (Philip Sergeant, The Life of Anne Boleyn, 284). This would certainly be a Shelton girl, but again, her first name is not given. How Anne felt about this development can only be guessed, and guesses have ranged all over the map from the blistering fury of the previously-quoted scene in Anne Boleyn to the world-weary, slightly amused acceptance of The Queen of Subtleties (2004). But Mistress Shelton’s subsequent career, virtually unmentioned by any work of fiction, was by most standards by far the most interesting.
The “idle poesies,” as it turned out, were not a one-time aberration. Mary Shelton was a steady participant in the circulation and annotation of the the Devonshire Manuscript, a collection of poems — both original and copied from other sources — annotations, epigrams, and other fragments; other contributors included Thomas Wyatt, the Earl of Surrey, Lady Margaret Douglas, and Lady Mary Howard. The manuscript itself is described by Paul Remley as “a paper composition-book, bound in quarto …. At least a dozen and according to some estimates more than twenty contributors have added entries in a variety of hands …. The Devonshire manuscript was almost certainly maintained as an informal volume but beyond this nothing is known for certain of its origins and use. It may have served an entire household as a sort of commonplace book that was shown to friends and visitors, or it may have circulated quietly among a small circle of friends as a private collection.” (Rethinking the Henrician Era, 47-48) One of the poems, possibly by Wyatt, was a lovelorn acrostic on the name “SHELTUN” (it’s the fourth poem on this page). Mary Shelton may have been the annotator who wrote “fforget thys” next to this poem; she certain wrote (and signed) a sharp retort beneath it rejecting the poet, whether out of courtly convention or real feeling is impossible to know. According to Remley, Mary Shelton can be identified as the author of three original poems (described by herself as “dogrel”) and the copyist of a few more, although just how many of the copies — and the marginalia — were hers is hard to disentangle in the thicket of different hands contained in the book. This is the “book of poems” so casually mentioned in Wolf Hall.
As best I can tell, Margaret Shelton did actually exist as a separate person from Mary Shelton — if she didn’t, quite a few genealogies are going to have to be rewritten. What is not clear, though, is whether Margaret was ever actually at court, or whether her name became accidentally superimposed on a story that was actually entirely Mary’s — idle poesies, illicit affair, involvement with Norris and all. It’s impossible to tell. However, a novel about the life of Mary Shelton — lover and composer of secular poetry, associate of Wyatt and Surrey — could be extremely interesting if one did take that view. Gone would be the frivolous, airheaded flirt — in would be the intelligent woman writer who was one of the first readers of the best poetry of her day and whose involvement with the King and Henry Norris would be seen in that light. Come on, novelists, let’s do it — it’s time Madge Shelton grew up.