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The Queen’s Promise by Lyn Andrews (2012)

May 11, 2013

Henry Percy once again displaces Thomas Wyatt as Anne Boleyn’s true love, but at last he has his own full novel in this dual-narrative romance. As we switch between Anne and Percy’s parallel lives (and their one major intersection) we encounter border reivers, imaginary girls in boy’s clothing, and a Cardinal Wolsey who’s been spoiling for a chance to be the villain en titre ever since Vertue Betray’d (1682).

We open in May of 1507 with the five-year-old Henry Percy trying and failing to demonstrate his swordsmanship; he’s been practicing for ages but just can’t seem to get the knack somehow. His father is concerned — just how exactly is he going to keep the Scottish Marches under control twenty years from now if this turns out to be an omen of future incompetence? Meanwhile, far off in Kent, Elizabeth Boleyn is occupied in delivering her second child. Disappointingly, it doesn’t turn out to be a second boy – “Girls are of little use to an ambitious father,” she says, unaware of her husband’s talent for manipulation. Nonetheless, she’s pleased, and names the baby Anne.

Percy grows up, unhappy with his lot as he’s interested in poetry and the arts and hates violence, which is an unfortunate situation for someone destined to be policing the Scottish border in the sixteenth century. It doesn’t help that his younger brothers, Thomas and Ingram, have shown a lot more fighting spirit than he has and have both made it clear that they would make far better successors to the title than Percy, and his father is seriously worried that Percy will never be able to stand up to Wolsey, who’s made it his business (and the king’s) to see to it that the old noble families are kept firmly in their place. Percy’s major consolation is the companionship of Will Chatton, a commoner boy whom his father picked up after his (Chatton’s) father was killed by a band of tithe-demanding thugs who were exacting payments from villagers in exchange for “protection” from Scottish reivers. Chatton tried to attack the thugs and the fifth earl was so impressed that he enlisted him to be Percy’s servant, hoping that some of his bravado would rub off on his son. It does, somewhat, but unfortunately all the bravado in the world isn’t going to save Percy from the arrival of his twelve-year-old future betrothed, Mary Talbot, daughter of the blue-blooded and stingy Earl of Shrewsbury. Mary is at the awkwardest of ages, and it shows:

Mary Talbot seemed without humour or any spark of vitality…. He watched as she cut her meat with her knife. Her small hands were the colour of putty and her fingers were short and pudgy. They were not the fingers of a girl who would play well upon the virginals, he thought miserably.

Mary lives there for a few years but doesn’t improves on acquaintance: she’s sulky, bitchy, and has no interest in the arts. Finally the betrothal is broken and Percy is sent, along with Will Chatton, to spend some time in Wolsey’s service, both so Wolsey can pacified by getting the heir of Northumberland under his purview and Percy can get a little experience of courts. Once there, he attends the Masque of the Chateau Vert and meets … Margaret Fairfax, another maid of honour. Anne Boleyn is there as well, but he won’t realize that until later on, when George Boleyn brings her along on a visit to the Cardinal’s household and Percy goes swiftly and irremediably wobbly at the knees at the sight of her (“like a butterfly”) and most importantly, the sound of her: she has a French accent which he can’t get enough of, and stories of life in surroundings a lot more appealing than his father’s various castles. We’ve been seeing intercut scenes of Anne’s upbringing until this point, although not as many as there are of Percy: her being sent from one court to another, meeting the future Duke of Suffolk’s daughter Anne Brandon, her education and so forth. And now she’s back, having worked very hard at her French, dancing and reading, and determined to become, at the very least, a countess so as not to put all that preparation to waste. Aspiration meets natural inclination when she runs into Percy; she’s met so many men like “silly peacocks with their fine clothes and loud cries” that she’s delighted with someone who says what he thinks and doesn’t mind using soap once in a while; her standards have become rather higher than the average Englishwoman’s on that subject.

Romance is swift – they play music together and talk about literature – but fleeting. Will Chatton is having his own romance (with Spanish girl who fled the Inquisition disguised as a boy and fetched as a stowaway on a ship in one of London’s harbours – the mention of the Inquisition gave me happy memories of my own abortive attempt at a Tudor romance) and soon enough they marry. Anne and Percy attend and, inspired, later sneak off to the chapel with Will and Margaret Wyatt and exchange vows de futuro . Before anything else can happen, they’re busted (by Lady Rochford, who else?) and soon enough Wolsey’s “cold, reptilian” gaze is fixed on Percy as he marvels not a little that Percy would have dared to form an attachment with someone as low-ranking as Anne Boleyn. After making his defense, Percy collapses with illness – genuine, not emotional – and is carted off by Chatton, and a forlorn Anne is sent back to Hever. Wolsey, suspecting that Percy might not really be sick and anyway wanting him out of the way, appoints him Warden of the Scottish Marches and sends him back north to have a go at the Sisyphean rock of sorting out clan and cross-border alliances.

Anne returns from London to Hever a few years later, having held the king off successfully but also quite taken with him – why not? He’s the center of the English universe, “veritably God-like”, and being chased by him is a heady experience. Also, her old ambition is rising; why not, she’s decided, hold out for “the ultimate prize?” She thinks fondly of Percy, and is sure that she was in love with him, but she’s not terribly sorry with how she’s ended up, either, especially since news has come that Percy’s father has died and the new Sixth Earl of Northumberland inherited such a massive load of debts that Wolsey has him and his unwanted, shrewish new wife Mary Talbot on strict allowances. This doesn’t mean that Anne doesn’t still resent Wolsey for the old injury, though (and it doesn’t help that George has just been dismissed from the privy chamber, along with several others, during Wolsey’s faction-breaking reorganization).

Percy is having a much less dazzling time, as he’s dealing with the inevitable procession of raiders, a recurring illness which lays him low with fever, and his wife, who hates him and is thoroughly jealous of the far-off Anne. She’s also miserable living in underfurnished, freezing castles with a minuscule clothing allowance, and after a particularly nasty quarrel in which she calls Anne a whore and Percy calls her a serpent, she decides to leave him. As she’s eight months pregnant at the time, it’s a hard journey for her, and she gives birth to a stillborn son once she arrives at her parents’ home. Percy is horrified and thinks that she travelled in the hopes of a stillbirth, but the real problem comes afterwards, when a furious and possibly delusional Mary tries to petition for an annulment on the grounds of Percy’s precontract. Nobody believes it, but Percy swears on the sacrament that it’s not true anyway, thus making sure that he and Mary are tied together for good. He is, needless to say, full of mixed feelings when he’s sent to arrest Wolsey, who’s as proud and serpent-like as ever but to whom Percy is nonetheless courteous. What’s the point in being angry when both of them are doomed in their own way?

Vicious and (unfortunately for history) quite real border raids then start to pick up, leaving Percy with his hands full trying to keep the non-criminal element safe, as well as with some unfortunately overwritten dialogue (“I will have the goodwife of Whittle avenged!”). As you can see from that, a major episode is centered around Mark Kerr of Clan Kerr and his botched raid on a small village. They had planned to set it on fire, and only on arrival did they realize that nobody had brought a tinderbox. Since the locals understandably refused to supply them with one, they decided to retaliate by killing a pregnant woman and a few other people. Percy, whose own child is dead and whose only love is currently pregnant by someone else, finds this especially appalling and orders Kerr’s and his companions’ heads to be stuck on poles.

Will Chatton is having an altogether easier time of it, having left Percy’s service for the merchant life a few years ago, but still ready to be on call if needed. He’s needed a startlingly short number of pages later, when Percy is summoned to be a judge in the trial of Queen Anne, whose delivery of Elizabeth did not, as it turned out, herald a boy to come afterwards but rather a miscarriage and the complete loss of Henry’s interest. Percy is extremely ill by this time but isn’t sure that that excuse would be accepted, so Chatton helps him make the journey down to London, where Percy, upon seeing Anne and hearing the accusations, realizes what a farce it all is and that he can’t vote for her conviction. Of course, he can’t vote for her acquittal, either, so as a final gesture he gets up and walks out of the room, despite Norfolk’s orders that he stay. Anne, seeing it, realizes what it means – he refuses to condemn her and this is as close as he can reasonably get to saying that she’s innocent.

When he had risen and, defying her Uncle Norfolk, had walked out of the chamber, she had murmured `Esperance’ and hope had again surged through her. He at least did not believe the vile calumnies and by his refusal to remain in that room had proclaimed his steadfast loyalty. He had not betrayed or deserted her and for that she blessed him, requesting that somehow her treasured prayerbook could be given to him as a token of her affection and esteem.

We see, at the last, Percy lying ill in bed and hearing the cannon shot announcing Anne’s death. His own, it’s clear, won’t be long in following.

SEX OR POLITICS? Sex, not that either one of them is having it much. Will Chatton presumably is, and Percy gets his wife pregnant once, but the atmosphere is more one of possibilities than actualities. The political situation gets some sketchy coverage, the power struggle between Wolsey and the powerful families of old is made clear, and the ever-shifting situation in the north gets enough attention that I at least had some idea of what was going on (namely: Scottish and English northerners near the border were in a real race to the bottom as to who could behave more atrociously on a daily basis). Religion gets pretty short shrift, although Will Chatton expresses some disapproval of Henry’s monastic land-grabs.

WHEN BORN? May of 1507. George is a few years older, and Mary one year younger.

THE EARLY LOVE: Percy, naturally – Wyatt gets a few brief look-ins but Anne makes it clear that she thinks of him as a brother and is furthermore uninterested in getting tangled up with someone who’s already married; that’s no way to a title. When, towards the beginning, her father informs her of the proposed match with James Butler – described as handsome and personable, although we never encounter him – she has no objections, since she wants family advancement as much as the rest of them do. What she does object to, very strongly, is the idea of living in Ireland. The match is eventually scuttled without much fuss.

THE QUEEN’S BEES: During his early days at court, Percy dances and socializes with a Margaret Fairfax, who’s jealous of the attention the stylish, French-speaking Anne is getting. Otherwise we see comparatively little of them, which isn’t surprising considering the focus. Lady Rochford is referenced a few times and is in her usual villainous form, Margaret Wyatt is Anne’s sensible friend and Madge Shelton gets a few mentions as a flirt who trades notes with Wyatt in the Devonshire MS – not that it’s called that, obviously, but if you’ve heard of it you know what they’re referring to. Margery Horsman also makes an appearance, hooray! Granted, it’s for one paragraph, and she doesn’t speak, but she’s described as the Mistress of Robes, which is quite plausible. Jane Seymour is “whey-faced and conniving”; true to her usual form, she says almost nothing.

For Percy’s part, we run into a frustrating situation where he’s placed in a household ruled by Cardinal Wolsey and surrounded by men like James Butler, Francis Bryan, and George Cavendish (although the latter is incorrectly described as Wolsey’s secretary), but we get to see virtually nothing of his life there or find out much about the other men. Cavendish turns up now and then to convey bad news of some sort, but the others are just names. Will Chatton becomes friends with Robert Aske, which I liked, but unfortunately the story ends too soon for it to become anything other than a pleasant but pointless subplot in which we hear about Aske’s anger at the religious changes but which doesn’t reach any sort of culmination.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Will Chatton for Henry Percy, of course. For Anne it’s Simonette (here Semmonet, as she is in a few other books). I had honestly never expected to see her again, but here she is in all her glory. However, a notable change from the Strickland incarnation is that this Anne, true to history, meets Semmonet in France when the latter becomes her French teacher. Probably less true to history, Semmonet ends up staying on as Anne’s servant/advisor and accompanying her back to England, where she fades out before the end.

THE PROPHECY: None, just a few portentous remarks about how Percy will be the ruin of the earldom and Anne may suffer when Henry loses interest, none of which are out of range of reality.

IT’S A GIRL! We don’t see Henry’s reaction directly (although we do see Anne’s – she’s horrified at first, then melts as soon as she holds the baby) but Reginald Carnaby reports to Percy that the king was silent at first, but “although disappointed he is sure a son will soon follow.”

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? No, although she still has the “hanging sleeves” that cover half her hands.

FAMILY AFFAIRS: Thomas Boleyn is “devious and unscrupulous in pursuit of his ambitions” but although he gains a lot because of the actions of his daughters, his political and linguistic talents are at least mentioned. He is also, it’s subtly noted, extremely cheap; it’s never explicitly stated but Anne never has much jewelry to pack when moving from one place to another and is always being told that she can aspire to such things when she’s older. His wife is the highborn lady, sympathetic but firm, who tells Anne about how the young Henry VIII made a pass at her once. Mary is pretty, blonde, and a shortsighted airhead; Anne warns her that giving in easily to the king means he’ll get tired of her posthaste. She does, and so does he. Of course, this Mary is only about fifteen at the time, as in The Other Boleyn Girl so it’s more forgivable. This Mary also doesn’t have any children by the king. After she’s widowed, Anne takes her back to court and never reminds her of her dependence – she’s even fairly gracious when Mary runs off with Stafford. George is cynical and licentious, but friendly to Percy, although when Anne tells him how much she loved Percy, George tells her that on the balance, he thinks she loved the title of “countess” more – and he sympathizes, as he’s exactly the same way. George’s cynicism is well founded, as he’s married to the frighteningly possessive and, as it turns out “actually insane” Jane Parker, who not only damns him for incest but betrays Anne and Percy to Wolsey (she denies it, but the rest are pretty sure it’s her).

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: The writing is light and easy to get through (it’s 450 pages and I read it in about two hours), but it can be very clunky – characters tend to supply too much exposition in the dialogue. “I have told you that …” “As you are aware …” or, in one instance “Clan Kerr! I believe they are known as `the brigands of Teviotdale’?” They were, but nobody would ask the question like that. Bad characters – namely, the various brigands who appear, and Mary Talbot – are annoyingly, overtly unattractive (for some reason they all seem to have thick fingers. Some overlooked mark of villainy?)

On the plus side, I did like that Anne’s use of French phrases, which was very heavy in the early-1520s scenes, began fading a few years later and by the end of her life was gone altogether. Not that she would have forgotten her French, and that’s not implied, but after a decade in England it would very likely have been less to the forefront of her mind.

ERRATA: Considering the amount of background reading that must have gone into this, I was really startled at the end when the Sword of Calais beheaded Anne on a block. I mean, that’s just elementary. The episode where Mark Kerr raids Whittle and kills a pregnant woman is moved forward from 1522 to 1532, but I’m guessing that was done for artistic reasons, as Percy’s father was in charge in 1522 and Percy himself was off getting dressed down by Wolsey. The mock castle at the Siege of the Chateau Vert is described as being covered in “green sateen”, but while satin certainly existed then, sateen wouldn’t come along until about 380 years later. And Mary Boleyn, as in The Other Boleyn Girl, is born in 1508 and married at fourteen. I realize this isn’t technically false as nobody knows her birthdate, but in her class, a fourteen-year-old bride was a very unusual thing.

WORTH A READ? I liked this book probably more than it deserved, although it’s certainly not the best I’ve read. Part of it was the subject matter, because although Percy himself is rather monotonous – mostly alternating between getting ill and pining for things – the setting in which he lived was not and I liked seeing first-hand the sort of events that usually get banished to a line or two of conversation spoken by someone living at court. I’d certainly never heard of Mark Kerr and his forgotten tinderbox before, but apparently it really happened. I did get the impression that Percy’s vengefulness against Kerr was supposed to show some sort of hardening of the soul, when personally I couldn’t see much problem with it at all, but I loved seeing Percy out doing his job, even if he sometimes did it in over-dramatic prose. (Incidentally, Percy ends up leaving his property, what there was of it, to the Crown because he suspects his younger brothers have been allying with some of the Scots and taking a cut of their spoils. I have no idea whether this is factually based or not, but it is an interesting background idea at least). I also liked the characterization of his father – in most books, he just about has time to storm onstage, bellow at Percy about misguided alliances, and then storm off again dragging his hapless son by the ear. Here we see him as a sometimes-violent but well-intentioned man who’s having to balance Wolsey’s demands and attempts to hem him in with his own sense of the rights and obligations of a Percy – his son’s alliance with Anne isn’t just offensive to his noble sensibilities or pocketbook (in fact, Mary Talbot comes with no more money than Anne) but could upset the precarious understanding which he and Wolsey have finally established. Will Chatton is, I think, a less successful character – he’s meant to show how the common people saw things, which is fair enough, except that since most common people didn’t become squires to future earls and marry Inquisition escapees whom they fished out of a harbour, he quickly goes from common man to an unusually lucky man and stays that way throughout. Even his friendship with Robert Aske isn’t put to the test, in the course of the story anyway, because the book ends before Percy’s death and the Pilgrimage of Grace.

As for Anne, she was pleasant enough to read about but a bit misty. She’s ambitious and aims for a title, but falls for Percy for his own sake, is angry at Wolsey and Henry for separating them but is also practical enough to realize that she wouldn’t have had too fantastic a time living on nothing a year in a castle five hundred miles to the north. If anything she comes across as too even-tempered. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of Mary Talbot, who’s so thoroughly, melodramatically nasty that it was hard to believe in her for a moment. Dramatizing a bad marriage can be tricky (and unlike the Rochford marriage, it’s clear that Mary and Percy’s marriage genuinely was a disaster) but Mary was just too over-the-top, and it makes that part of the story depressing and dull. And I did wish that it had carried on after Anne’s execution – Percy only lived for a year after her, and surely a few scenes extending into 1537, his death, and the beginnings of the Pilgrimage of Grace (in which his brothers were also caught up) wouldn’t have come amiss.

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