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Anne Boleyn: An Original Historical Play In Five Acts by Tom Taylor (1875)

April 13, 2013

Although he wrote dozens of plays during his life, Tom Taylor’s place in dramatic history was established by one work which you’ve never seen: Our American Cousin (1858). Ten years after its most famous performance, Taylor was still cranking out the comedies, melodramas and histories, and among them was this somewhat patchy work, which is notable for its surprising amount of research coupled with an atmosphere that I can only describe as Gothic Drawing-Room; no scene is complete without at least one character hiding out in a bush or an arras to spy on the others’ conversation, and that conversation is almost always pitched in a partially if not wholly lighthearted tone. The effect is somewhat like wandering into a performance of The Mikado in which the leading characters are actually executed at the end.

We open, so the stage directions inform us, “Towards the end of 1523” with various ladies-in-waiting sitting around sewing pious tapestries for Catherine of Aragon and complaining about how the war with France has taken all the men away, not to mention cutting them off from the couture. “I say, beshrew these wars / That thrust between the court and the French fashions,” says Meg Wyatt, but it’s pointed out that at least Anne Boleyn has come back, and she has enough French fashion to spare. She’s also a little too fascinating to the men who remain, or so says Jane Parker, soon to be Lady Rochford: Anne is “a cunning gipsy, with her velvet eyes / And nut-brown cheeks that pale or flush at will.” The “cunning gipsy” herself turns up on cue, accompanied by Wyatt, Weston, et al and bearing news of the masque that will be remembered as the Chateau Vert.

A little later, Anne is meeting up in secret with Henry Percy, who has some bad news to report – the Cardinal has “rated him like a page” and forbidden him to marry. Anne and Percy are still optimistic and swear that they’ll hold true to each other as long as life lasts. Percy is summoned outside by someone, which is the cue for Anne’s father and her uncle, the Earl of Surrey (not yet the Duke of Norfolk) to turn up with the news that they’ve arranged for her marriage to James Butler, which Anne predictably rejects on the grounds that Butler is “an unmannered lout” and she didn’t spend seven years in France to end up in some peat-covered hellhole. But Surrey and Boleyn aren’t having it – they’ve heard rumours of an attachment to Percy, and they’re just as concerned as his father about making sure it doesn’t throw a spanner in their political plans. Off they go, and Anne, for no discernible reason, hides behind an arras – luckily for her, Percy and his father enter the room the next moment and she overhears their conversation, which largely consists of Northumberland berating Percy to “take with thanks the wife that I have chosen / Or it will be the worse for thee.” Poor Percy hesitates for a moment – “Let me have time to think – to speak with her,” he says, which Anne apparently takes as total capitulation, as she then leaps out from behind the arras and furiously released Percy from their engagement.

‘Tis I cast off Lord Percy!
I’ll no half-hearted love; nor have I fallen
So low to cry, and crave your nobleness
To let me keep the man who more repents
Of having won me than of having lost!

Poor Percy slinks off, slated for Mary Talbot, never to be heard from again. But Anne hasn’t yet left the room before she hears yet more people coming and so once more unto the arras! This time it’s Henry VIII with various gentlemen, all engaging in tediously long comic banter about how the day’s hawking session. “Beshrew the false ash-pole / That snapped like a court-promise!” says Henry, before sussing Anne out from her hiding place, at which point she asks him if she can leave his court service to return to Marguerite d’Alencon, as she desperately wants to escape the Butler marriage. “But why ask this, knowing I must deny you?” asks Henry, and after teasing her a bit makes it clear that he wants her at his court for ornamental purposes and the Butler match doesn’t have to go through if she doesn’t like it. He requests to “take my thanks upon your lip” and departs. Immediately afterwards, Anne summons Thomas Wyatt and asks him to get a message to Marguerite so that her escape can be arranged.

The next scene we see, it’s four years later and Anne is recovering from the sweat while the other Boleyn family members engage in a little exposition about how Anne’s “white shield of maiden modesty” has been keeping the King at bay for four years, and how essentially the entire English church thinks that his old marriage was really invalid after all. Lady Rochford, however, is playing both sides, as we see when she meets up with Chapuys, who’s soliciting her to steal Anne’s letters from Henry so that he can smuggle them to Emperor, who will do … something significant with them, I’m not sure what, since after the evil Lady Rochford (“He trusts me, my sweet George!”) hands the letters to Chapuys, we never hear anything of them again. Chapuys is great in this play, by the way – he’s the Angelo Caraffa of this universe, except he enjoys himself a lot more and has a beautifully dry way of speaking. “You hate Lady Anne Boleyn, I hate no one / But can I love my master’s aunt’s worst foe?” he asks Lady Rochford. Chapuys is also cultivating the Duke of Norfolk, promising him a return to full Howard glory if he helps Chapuys get the Boleyns elbowed out. These particular scenes – Chapuys using Lady Rochford as a spy and cultivating the Duke of Norfolk – recur throughout the play; even though Chapuys is by far the most entertaining character, they get a bit tired.

Once the obligatory conspiring is over, Anne appears, still recovering from her illness, and finally fills the audience in on why she’s in England and not with Marguerite d’Alencon like she had planned. It turns out that she actually did go there, and Henry followed her. “He came, and came – I learned to like his coming / Look for it, live for it,” she tells a sympathetic audience consisting of the Wyatt siblings (Thomas grabs one of her tablets) and Mark Smeaton, towards whom she is unwontedly democratic, telling the kneeling musician “Our friendship is too old for ceremony.” There’s no time for music, though, as Thomas Cranmer trots onto the stage for what turns out to be his main purpose in the play – reassuring Anne that the case has been thoroughly examined and Henry’s marriage is “Void from the first.” He then trots off to leave Anne to the just-arrived Henry; she has a few moments of doubt – maybe she should leave off while the going is good – but after he reassures her that the Papacy has no bearing on English politics, she flings herself into his arms. “Do with me as you will,” she says, “But love me, love me, even as I do now!”

Next we skip forward to the summer of 1533, opening with some badinage between Madge Shelton and Jane Seymour, the latter of whom is newly arrived at court and asking all sorts of gauche questions like “Think you Queen Anne is queen indeed?” Lady Rochford is skulking around, looking for anything to Anne’s detriment, and finds it in Mark Smeaton, who turns up for Anne’s music lesson an hour early because he can’t keep away from her. “One root of scandal there, and of rare promise / I recommend it to your gentle nursing,” says Chapuys, who’s having troubles of his own as Henry and Anne have somehow caught on to the fact that he may not be entirely friendly to them. Henry threatens to hang both him and his various allies, to show what happens “When Envoys turn to traitors!” and Chapuys announces his intention to take his “poor self from a court where honesty / Is misread knavery!” (Oddly, he doesn’t mention that as he’s not English, he couldn’t legally be a traitor to Henry). Next up on the revolving door of characters is Wyatt, whose tablet (formerly Anne’s) is discovered by Henry, and who’s promptly sent off to the Tower. Lady Rochford, skulking as usual, is pleased enough to hang around for the next scene, in which Madge Shelton is being aggressively flirted with by Francis Weston: “The loves of friends are interchangeable,” says that gentleman when Madge reminds him that Norris likes her too. Off Lady Rochford goes to Anne to spill the beans and Anne, virtuously shocked, storms in only to have Weston attempt to charm his way out of the situation by saying both Madge and his fiancee are small beer compared to her. Anne isn’t buying. “Men’s heads have fallen for less,” she tells him. “Hence!” At this awkward moment, Henry enters, ready to tax Anne about Wyatt having her tablets, but Anne laughs it off as a joke on Wyatt’s part and Henry departs, concluding, reasonably for once in his life, “I am a jealous fool.” Before the end of the act, she’s told Norris to propose to Madge in order to make the situation regularized, and we get a brief scene shoehorned in which involves George Constantine being pursued by gendarmes for smuggling English Bibles, and Anne’s protection of him, along with the Bibles.

So help me Heaven! If I live long enough
No house, wide England through, from hall to hovel
But shall have God’s Word in our English tongue.

Cranmer appears again for a nanosecond to remind her that she’s unpopular but she should cleave to the Word nonetheless, and disappears again. Still, it’s a nice, quick look at Anne doing her queenly job of being a patron and giving out favours to people. Sadly, it’s the only look we’ll get, because in the next act it’s already May Day of 1536 and Jane Seymour has got Henry thoroughly entoiled – “that sly piece of mock-maidenhood” Chapuys calls her, as he hides behind some bushes to watch the fun. Unfortunately for Jane, Anne – who has been bitterly telling her friends that Henry needs “a fresh face” – finds her first. “Out, thou harlotry!” she shrieks, ripping a gold chain off Jane’s neck, and for the first time, Jane shows an answering spirit:

My mother was a Wentworth, and the Wentworths
Draw line from Hotspur. I’ve a touch of him
In me – best not awake it!

“She defies me! Come, this is better,” says Anne, and on hearing that Henry is approaching, orders Jane to talk with him and she’ll watch while hidden behind the bushes. She promptly leaps out to surprise Henry, who decides that best defense is a good offense:

Thinkest thou thy light words and lighter acts
Have no eyes to witness, tongues to carry?
I know a load of guilt to bear thee down
Wert thou three times my wife – ten times my Queen!

After announcing that her trial will be held shortly, he takes Jane away, while Anne sobs to Meg Wyatt that:

‘Twas too much love, and some ambition
Drew me on to the doom that, gathering long
Has fallen at last. Oh, if my sin was great
Great is my punishment!

Mark Smeaton reappears, having witnessed the scene from behind the bushes where he’d hidden earlier (those must be some substantial bushes at Greenwich; half the caste is hiding in them at some points, all apparently without seeing each other). He starts babbling out his devotion to Anne, a development noted with interest by Lady Rochford (who promptly slips out) and alarm by Meg Wyatt, who asks him if he’s gone mad. Yes, says Mark, he’s mad all right.

Mad that the reverent love I dared to cherish
When she was high in state and happiness
Should now find voice, but to lay idle offers
Of duty and devotion at her feet.

Back comes Lady Rochford, bear-leading King Henry so that he can witness this interesting scene, and Mark is immediately arrested – the ultimate victim of poor timing.

When the curtain next rises, the trials are over and the five men and Anne are awaiting execution. Thomas Boleyn has come for a farewell visit, which is probably not made any more entertaining by Sir William Kingston’s yokel assistant, a sort of sub-Wilfred Shadbolt who doesn’t get to talk in blank verse like the quality – mere prose is enough for him. When he hears that the swordsman of Calais has arrived:

Ah, the old mounseer, whose new-fangled sword is to give our honest old axe a lesson. Will your worship hear me? I’ve had forty years of Tower, man and boy, and I’ve never seen any harm of the axe. A man may miss his cut sometimes, but it comes right in the end. I see no need to fetch any over-sea jackanapes to teach honest Ned Grimes…. methinks English heads are best cut off English fashion; and so they’d tell you, if they could speak after proof on’t.

Norfolk and Chapuys are also hanging out in the Tower, Norfolk somewhat regretful when he recalls how dignified Anne was at her trial and during her whole imprisonment. “The first day she was brought into the Tower / She said she only prayed she would have justice.” “And she knew the King too!” marvels Chapuys. The reminiscing is cut off when four of the condemned men enter (all except Smeaton, who gets dropped from this scene for no discernible reason). George gives a farewell speech declaring his innocence, and the other three receive two-sentence codas which are similar. “Farewell, summer sun! Our next sun will be brighter,” says George, and they troop offstage to their execution – an event which Anne watches from her window.

Anne spends her last moments asking Meg Wyatt to tell Elizabeth “What her poor mother was,” and requesting that she ask pardon from the Lady Mary for how Anne treated her. Finally, she takes out a letter – “Let the King / Have what I writ here – if Master Cromwell / Perchance should keep it from his hand.” The letter contains the famous witticism that Henry had changed her from a commoner to a marchioness, then from a marchioness to a queen, and that now he could find no greater gift to give her than the crown of martyrdom. “A higher crown awaits,” cries Anne, and the curtain falls.

SEX OR POLITICS? Sex, though politics at least get enough attention for Cromwell’s name to be mentioned (once!) which isn’t common for the time.

WHEN BORN? Not specified, nor is George’s birthdate. In common with most early works, Mary Boleyn is not mentioned at all and does not appear to exist. “Poor stricken, solitary, childless father!” says Thomas Wyatt of Thomas Boleyn in the last act, after Anne and George have both been condemned.

THE EARLY LOVE: Henry Percy, although Anne leaps out from behind an arras and rejects him when she overhears him hesitating over her with his father. James Butler is mentioned, but dismissed by Anne as “an unmannered lout.” Thomas Wyatt is described as a childhood friend and beloved, but Anne specifically rejects the role of muse early on when she asks Wyatt if he loves her – “I mean no Beatrice or Laura fancies / But as a sister?” Wyatt is still hanging around her a lot and comes to help nurse her when she catches the sweat, but keeps the talking to a minimum. He was surprisingly likeable in this version, but it’s made clear that after Percy, Anne’s next love – after he forced the issue – was Henry.

THE QUEEN’S BEES: Meg Wyatt (the sensible, hardheaded one) Elizabeth Carew, Madge Shelton (the silly, flirtatious, devoted one) Mary Cheyney, Anne Gainsford (who appears serving Anne in the Tower and nowhere else) and Jane Seymour are all named, as is of course Jane Parker, who becomes Lady Rochford, and whose name inexplicably changes to Joan from Act II onward.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Mark Smeaton and Madge Shelton both qualify handily.

THE PROPHECY: Not in the proper sense, but during one of Chapuys’ and Norfolk’s earlier meetings, when Chapuys is spinning Norfolk a vision of an idealized, Boleyn-free future, Norfolk asks where he saw Anne retiring to in this version of reality. Chapuys’ response is:

I did not see her
But I saw something covered with a pall –
It might have been a body, or a block.

“Blocks are ill things to dream of,” says Norfolk, understandably enough. Of course, Chapuys is trying to bring this outcome about, but considering that he’s saying this in 1528, that’s pretty prescient all the same.

IT’S A GIRL! Since the play skips straight from the summer of Anne’s coronation to May Day of 1536, we never see Henry’s reaction directly, however, Anne later expresses a wish that Henry had loved Elizabeth, and her father tells George that

Since Anne bore her babe,
Her letters that should brim with mother’s joy
Have a sad note in them that soundeth rather
Of coffin than of cradle.

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Lady Rochford mentions Anne’s “ill-shapen hands” and the pearl necklace which “masks a mole at need” but then Meg Wyatt says “Out, slanderer! / Tell me of marks and moles; me, that have known her / From baby days at Allington and Hever!” So presumably it’s just a rumour. She does have the hanging sleeve, though – Madge says that Anne has come back from France “To show how hanging sleeves ought to be worn.”

FAMILY AFFAIRS: Thomas Boleyn, while ambitious and impatient of such childish ideas as marrying for love, is actually somewhat human in this incarnation. While he really wants Anne to marry James Butler, he does take the trouble to give her some background:

Sir Richard Pole,
The French King’s puppet, would plant the white rose
I’ the Irish bogs. False Desmond is his friend.
To check the Desmonds the King needs the Butlers –
The Butlers’ following obey Red Piers.
Now, if his toward son and my fair daughter
Made English right and Irish might shake hands,
Our feud might sleep, the daughter’s son succeeding
In peace to what his grandfathers must fight for.

Later on he shows some concern but has little control over how Henry takes over, and in the last act he comes to the Tower to say farewell both to Anne and George. “Poor father! A sore parting,” one of Anne’s maids says of him. George Boleyn is well-pleased to be ennobled by the king in consequence of his sister’s fortune, but he’s also genuinely concerned for her well-being and is also completely blind to his wife’s evilness until the very end – though maybe it shouldn’t be surprising, since they’re only in the same scene once and exchange maybe two lines of dialogue.


WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: Chapuys owns this category, although he doesn’t get tedious like Angelo Caraffa, his spiritual ancestor. He has a nice, dry sense of humour which makes it clear that he’s in this for the fun the of the thing just as much as for any profit it might bring to the Emperor. When Lady Rochford asks how stealing Anne’s letters will help anyone, he tells her:

For your fair sister-in-law – it may, let’s hope,
Help to save her from the dark destinies
That dog all earthly crowns. And for King Henry –
Do you think Hercules loved Omphale
The better after he was caught a-spinning,
At her feet, in her gown, she lording it over him
His club for sceptre, lion-skin for robe?

ERRATA: While Wyatt did a few stints in the Tower (what court habitue didn’t in those days?) none of them came as early as 1533. Chapuys was highly unlikely to have been involved in Henry’s love letters being stolen, if indeed they were stolen at all – it’s impossible to imagine that he would have arranged that and yet not mentioned this coup in one of his many, many dispatches to the Emperor. Nor for that matter does he seem to have had much contact with Lady Rochford. Francis Weston was not engaged but actually married when he died (although Norris was indeed a widower, as he describes himself – not a lot of plays or novels remember that fact). Anne seems unlikely to have gone abroad again after the Percy affair, much less had Henry chasing her around the Low Countries. Mark Smeaton was not Anne’s musician but Henry’s – he was attached to the King’s household – and Smeaton is also said to have confessed to “naughtiness” with Anne after a week of torture. He may well have been tortured, but he confessed after about a day, not a week, though that day must have felt long enough for him. And as nice as it would be to think, Thomas Boleyn does not seem to have paid any farewell visits to his offspring – like many others who wanted to keep their hides in one piece, he got out of town and stayed out until everything was over.

WORTH A READ? It was a light and entertaining read, and I enjoyed seeing Jane Seymour and Madge Shelton given more fleshed-out personalities than usual, and I have to say that Eustace Chapuys, Master of Puppets was very entertaining; none of the lugubriousness or gratuitous groping tendencies of the other men who have occupied the position of Chief Destroyer Of Anne. However, on the whole, the play was very frustrating, and not just because people were always hiding behind shrubbery and the occasional arras. It was because several key scenes seemed to be missing. Lady Rochford was always being sent hither and yon to ferret out anything to Anne’s detriment and pass on the gossip to the King – except that we never actually see her telling the King any of these things, or what his reaction is, except at the very end when he’s already decided Anne is guilty anyway! Lady Rochford, and Chapuys by association, are implied to be directly responsible for Anne’s downfall (Cromwell being reduced a one-time mention as someone who might hold correspondence back from the King) but we never actually see Henry become persuaded; he goes straight from thinking himself a fool to be suspicious (1533) to having already made arrangements for Anne’s arrest and execution (May Day 1536). That’s the kind of transformation the audience would really like to see first hand. Additionally, a lot of threads are picked up and then dropped; these are often things that refer to the real historical record, so it seems like Taylor tried to work them in but then couldn’t figure out what to do with them afterwards. Anne gives an elaborate description of the plans for the Chateau Vert masque, for example, complete with the costume plans and the fact that each woman would have her character’s name embroidered on her dress – but then we never see or hear of the masque again. Anne apologizes for her conduct to Lady Mary at the end – but Mary was only mentioned once before in the play, and not even by Anne. Similar loose ends abound, and Cranmer’s tendency to appear just long enough to reel off some religious justification for what was going on and then disappear also becomes annoying.

Anne herself was fairly typical of the nineteenth century Annes in her religious dedication and attack of doubt despite her real conviction that Henry’s first marriage was invalid. What really marked her out was both the acknowledgement and rejection of the sixth finger story – usually it was either ignored altogether, or treated as true – and the fact that she comes to genuinely love Henry, albeit under pressure. She is not haunted by the ghosts of Percy and Wyatt, in fact considers her ambition incidental to her love. Her trouble stems from the fact that Chapuys thinks it’s the other way around.

From → Book Overviews

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