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Queening The Pawn: Chess Metaphors And Anne Boleyn

July 31, 2013

Since everyone except me seems to be watching The White Queen miniseries recently, I’ve been seeing a lot of jokes about the unlikely, horrified reactions of various female characters (well, the Neville sisters mostly) on learning that They Are But Pawns In The Political Game. Philippa Gregory loves her chess symbolism, of course — having books entitled The Red Queen and The White Queen makes it clear to the dullest reader that people are used like chess pieces, get it? — but she’s hardly the first or only writer to use it. So, just for fun, I decided to see how much of a workout the chessboard gets in Anne Boleyn fiction. As usual, the pawns bear by far the brunt of the symbolic labour.

The first reference I’ve found is in Anne Boleyn: A Tragedy (1850) in which the pawn in question is Mark Smeaton, currently being tortured by a cabal of nefarious nobles. “The game we are playing is to check the queen; / What care we for a pawn?” says Lord Arundel, just to make sure Smeaton knows how disposable he is and tailors his responses accordingly.

Anne herself doesn’t get into the chess game until The Favor Of Kings (1912), in which Cardinal Wolsey thwarts her marriage with Percy but won’t let the Butler marriage go ahead either. As Anne resentfully tells a sympathetic Henry VIII:

“Still the Lord Cardinal would keep me unwed so as still to hold threat or promise over the Butlers and accept their gifts.” Anne’s tears were dried by her rising anger and long smothered sense of injustice. “I have been but a pawn in his game. Surely to your Majesty I may seem a woman. Why may I not marry Percy?”

She resents Wolsey’s using her for his convenience – “this cold arrogance that treated her merely as a wooden pawn to be moved hither and yon quickened her to the fiercest resentment her fiery little heart had ever thrilled with.” The life of a pawn is a hard one, and it wasn’t any easier by the time Anne turned up in Brief Gaudy Hour (1949) when once again Anne was fuming against Wolsey: “It was intolerable to stand waiting like a pawn, knowing nothing of the next move.”

Murder Most Royal (1949) had Anne learning the terrors of pawnhood as she accompanies Mary Rose Tudor to France. Mary Rose laments that she is “but a clause in a treaty, a pawn in the game which His Grace, my brother, and the French King, my husband, play together.” Mary Rose would elaborate on the metaphor in The Last Boleyn (1983), in which this time she’s confiding her sorrows to the young Mary Boleyn. After giving Mary a little gilded pawn which she had admired, Mary Rose explains to her how life is like a chessboard:

“Of course, the king is surrounded by a few knights, men who deem themselves great, not quaint horses as these. But though few knights realize it, they are only pawns. And you and even I, Mary, we are pawns to go here and there as the king piece wills it …. Kings may make certain pawns queens, but be assured they are pawns yet, and their only power comes in realizing this – yes, and in accepting it as I do!”

Later on, Mary Boleyn herself is the hapless pawn. William Stafford asks her resentfully, “How does it feel to be a little pawn tossed between two kings?” Mary describes herself as the unhappy pawn of her father, and when she and Stafford finally get married, he declares that “I am quite through having my wife be a pawn in anyone’s chess game ever again. I will die first.” At the very end of the book, after Anne’s death, Mary buries the little pawn Mary Rose gave her twenty years earlier and with it, presumably, the recurrent chess metaphor.

Anne is the pawn again in The Lady In The Tower (1986), since she’s the heroine. After once again being told by Mary Rose Tudor of how she herself is the pawn of her brother, Anne realizes the full import seven years later when she’s recalled from France to marry James Butler: “I realized fully then – though perhaps I had always known it – that I, who tried to regard myself as an individual, was nothing more than a pawn to be set on a checkerboard at the spot where I could be most useful to those who commanded me.”

A whole lot of people are pawns in The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn (1997) — the younger Mary Tudor with her revolving betrothals, Catherine of Aragon (“just a pawn of men and war, like me”) as well as the Nun of Kent and — uniquely in my experience — Henry VIII himself. Both of the latter are pawns of the Catholic church, if you’re wondering, though Henry’s characteristic disregard for the rules means that he’s out there offing knights and bishops without any problems.

Mary Boleyn is of course the pawn piece in The Other Boleyn Girl (2001) — “the Boleyn pawn that must be played to advantage.” Once she’s pregnant with Henry’s child, she gets an uncharacteristic upgrade, describing herself as “no longer their pawn. I was at the very least a castle, a player in the game.” When Anne becomes the ascendant Boleyn sister, she’s never referred to as a pawn, despite the fact that her moves are being dictated by the “family council” as much as Mary’s were. A year later, in Dear Heart, How Like You This? (2002) a fragile and browbeaten Anne nevertheless gets a rare moment of control in which she actually plays a chess game against Catherine of Aragon, and wins:

Hearing pieces click upon the board, the Queen dropped her gaze from studying the dark-haired girl, seeing her snatch a piece from the board. Dark eyes shining in triumph, Anne held the Queen’s king in her open palm. Catherine of Aragon’s composure broke.

`You are not satisfied just with the King; you mean to have all,” she snapped.

That story is an old, if not necessarily true one, but it centered around cards, not chess. Both cards and chess make an appearance in Mademoiselle Boleyn (2007) in which Anne learns to play chess at the French court but the symbolic value is reserved for the decks of cards with which they play, and which have no queens. Alas, how powerless are women! Anne thinks this is a great injustice, and indirectly prompts Leonardo da Vinci into designing a deck of cards which contains four queens.

In the last decade or so, I haven’t spotted any appearances of Anne as a pawn or chess piece — A Lady Raised High (2006) has the innocent maid of honour Frances Pierce described as “a pawn buffeted about” while the court players decide what to do with her, but the Anne in that book is in full command at the beginning and never has a larval period of pawnhood, so to speak. In Bring Up The Bodies (2012) Edward Seymour and Thomas Cromwell have a long political conversation over a highly symbolic chess game, in which Seymour repeatedly is seen “fiddling with a pawn” but nobody is overtly described (or describes herself) as one; the reader is left to pick up on the symbolism herself.

However, Mademoiselle Boleyn may yet prove to be the start of a trend. The chess analogy may be getting a bit tired, but Tarnish (2013) has Anne learning not to play chess, but to play cards — primero, specifically. Describing herself unhappily as “a low-ranking card” waiting to be played by her father, she dares to intrude on the all-male card games at court and astonish the players:

“I may not know my place …” I say quietly. I stand and lay my cards down, face up – a chorus of kings.

The men look from the cards to me.

“But I believe I know when I’ve won.”

It wouldn’t surprise me at all if cards were now the coming thing in symbolism — for example, The King’s Damsel (2012) also uses card symbolism in another context: Anne is presented with a custom set, with queens painted to look like her. I’m sure the chess analogies will be around for awhile — Philippa Gregory will see to that, if nothing else — but I confess to being disappointed that in not one of these books has anyone pointed out the obvious; that given enough persistence, clever strategy, and luck, a pawn can eventually become whatever it wishes — and what it usually wishes is to become queen.

From → Essays

  1. Tungsten permalink

    I’m surprised the chess imagery didn’t pop up earlier–it’s very, well, obvious, and I would have thought the sheer bulk of Anne Boleyn fiction would’ve guaranteed a certain number of iffy writers latching onto the idea of the pawn and queen. Though it may have something to do with the popularity of chess itself, since as you pointed out, cards were the big thing for a long time.

    Though card symbolism itself has plenty to go on, especially once you get into Tarot and the apocryphal female Pope. So I guess it’s all a wash.

    Are there any other types of recurring imagery in Anne books? I know the one I always seem to see in my chosen genre is alpha/omega wolf language, and I’m getting pretty darn tired of it.

    • sonetka permalink

      Well, formats were different earlier as well – almost everything pre-20th century is drama, which had its own stylistic conventions. And there are many, many books which I haven’t read yet :). Chess has always been popular to varying degrees, but it’s not necessarily the sort of thing that’s a big hit with the melodrama fans who were crowded into the cheap seats.

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