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Anne Boleyn: A Tragedy In Five Acts by D. Nutt (1881)

October 5, 2013

I haven’t been able to discover anything about D. Nutt, save that he or she was advertised as the author of several other works, including Palace And Prison, The Duke Of Guise, Ginevra, and Sappho: A Dream. Between the poem about Sappho and the ambiguous first initial, I’m guessing that Nutt was a woman. Whether any of his or her plays were ever actually produced, I don’t know — there’s a whiff of closet drama about this one.

The play opens with a meeting between Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey, who as it turns out are going to be the exposition-masters of the play – they open several of the acts by giving each other a convenient summary of recent events In Act 1, the recent event on everyone’s lips is King Henry’s sudden passion for a lovely young lady he danced with during Cardinal Wolsey’s revels at York House. Although Wyatt mentions that she’s “troth-plighted to Lord Percy,” and furthermore is “most virtuous,” Surrey still thinks that the situation has the potential to become fraught.

Since Eve plucked the fruit
Of knowledge, the sex longs for things forbidden.
Kings are not common suitors, woo like gods
In golden showers …. Such tempting baits
The devil oft employs to lure faint heart
From true allegiance.

Since Anne has (in his opinion) “a fair spice of vanity” to go along with her undoubted charms, he’s not feeling too optimistic about Lord Percy’s future marriage plans. It’s an awkward moment for George Boleyn to walk in on the conversation, asking sardonically whether the entire country knows yet about the previous night’s revels at the Cardinal’s. Boleyn himself is dubious about all of this socializing “between a wedded king / And a ‘trothed damsel,” especially as “‘Tis noised abroad the King talks of his conscience, / And of divorcement from his royal consort.” Cardinal Wolsey now makes his first appearance (accompanied by Cromwell, hooray! Cromwell exists here! Sadly, his role is so small as to be completely pointless, but it’s still something). He doesn’t do much except send Cromwell on an unspecified errand and snarl at Surrey for making fun of his extreme wealth, and soon he’s being shoved off the stage to make way for Lord Percy, who’s extremely nervous about Anne and wants to consult with George. “A royal suitor hath more potent charms / At his command than youth and love,” says Percy, as George tries to cheer him up by proposing alternative reasons why Anne hasn’t been answering his letters. They exeunt, looking for her.

They won’t find her in the next scene, which features a lovesick Henry alternating between carping about the horrors of a possible female inheritance – “the sceptre turn[ed] to distaff” and babbling about Anne’s beauty. “Anne Boleyn, sweet Anne Boleyn! I could prattle / Her name forever, as babes lisp their mothers'”. His companion in all of this is not Anne, but Mark Smeaton, whom Anne “did much commend” to Henry. Smeaton plays a few love songs to pass the time before Wolsey comes in, whereupon Henry switches instantly from picking love songs to moaning about the torments of his conscience. Wolsey, however, has business to conduct, and rapidly ticks off some boxes by telling Henry that Cardinal Campeggio will be arriving for an inquiry, that Lord Percy has been disposed of and married off, and that if he really can’t stick staying married to Catherine, he should at least consider a French princess instead of the “wanton” Anne. Henry takes a dim view of this idea, opining that if he married a kitchenmaid, she would be therefore worthy of queenship, and Anne is a lot higher on the social scale than a kitchenmaid. Wolsey is left to ponder the growing rift between the king and himself and vow that Anne will eventually be cast aside and Henry will marry Marguerite D’Alencon.

Anne herself, knowing nothing of any of this, has just gone home to visit her parents – who can hardly wait to break the glad news that Percy has jilted her for Mary Talbot, but not to worry, because “when love proves false / There is revenge.” The king has expressed a strong interest in ditching his current queen and making Anne his new one, and wouldn’t that be a great way to get back at the young and callow Percy? When Anne demurs, citing her love for Catherine of Aragon, “Katharine of Arragon is fitter / To be a cloistered nun than an enthroned queen,” says Elizabeth Boleyn – who, very unusually, turns out to be leading the charge here. Thomas Boleyn’s contributions to the conversation consist largely of admonitions to Anne that she should listen to her mother, and some pathetic crowing over his newly-awarded earldom. “I am as much a lord / As any Howard of them all, i’faith,” he tells us, and we can sense the decades of wifely admonishment which lie behind those words.

While Anne is having a minor breakdown over Percy’s supposed unfaithfulness, George Boleyn races in, determined to save the day. “Anne, he loves thee better than his life,” he says of Percy, and when Elizabeth loftily informs him that Anne now has a far grander destiny than being a mere countess, George’s rejoinder is that:

He who is false to one
Will not be true to any. Trust him not.
…. I fain would save thee, Anne,
From lot as cold and joyless as my own;
A marriage bond without love or faith.

Furthermore, he reprimands his mother – “Proffer not evil counsels, Madam.” Alas, the evil counsels get a strong reinforcement with the arrival of the Duke of Norfolk, addressing Anne as Marchioness of Pembroke and informing her of her new income – £2,000 a year. “Alack, alack! What shall I do?” wails Anne, but “Trust me, ’tis not so difficult to mount a throne,” says her mother, and drags her offstage to her fate, while George mutters ominously that this hour “is fraught with ruin to our house.”

Ruin is certainly on the horizon, but its first victim will be Cardinal Wolsey, who has overstepped his bounds by writing “Ego et Rex meus” one too many times, and has also failed to secure an annulment in under eight hours. He’s convinced that his impending doom is the fault of both Henry and Anne equally, which leads to a very one-sided scene in which he confronts Anne – “Thy star hath conquered,” he tells her bitterly, and goes on to deluge her with ominous and very accurate predictions about what will happen to the state of England’s religion, of which she “will the frail cause and pretext be,” and warns her furthermore to beware of Henry’s wrath, because soon enough she’ll find herself supplanted by a prettier girl and then “Thou wilt be then alone, as I am now.” It goes on for pages and Anne can barely get a word in edgewise except to tell Wolsey that she’ll try to intervene for him, but Wolsey isn’t listening – he goes right on reviling her for her wish to take Catherine’s place and have the king all to herself, and never gets the chance to have her tell him that she doesn’t actually want to do these things at all. We, though, get to see evidence of this first-hand (after a really nice scene with the defeated Wolsey being comforted by Cromwell – who unfortunately is wasted here in a role that could just as easily have been named the First Spear-Carrier). Anne, now unwillingly married and crowned, is being put in order by her mother to get ready for her first public appearance, and Anne is such a sobbing mess that when Henry arrives and is shocked and annoyed by her tears, her mother has to resort to saying that it’s pure emotion – “The Queen is overcome by her new state.” “I would that it were rather shown in smiles,” says Henry, turning on the charm. Anne calms down and tells Henry that she thanks him and will give him all the duty and obedience at her disposal. She is now, in fact, bound to obey and serve.

Jump forward to the next act, and Wyatt and Surrey helpfully informing us that it’s now three years later, the king is infatuated with Jane Seymour, and that Catherine of Aragon is dying at Kimbolton. “The road of divorce / Once found, ’tis easy travelling o’er again,” says Surrey, who’s deeply concerned because Anne has recently been showing herself to be “light of mood” and giving material for “malice to invent its fatal slanders.” These light deeds apparently consist of favouring those “beneath her royal state” like Mark Smeaton and Francis Weston, and Henry Norris has been mounting the Queen’s device at some recent jousts, which clearly is not a state of affairs that can last long.

At this point, Anne herself comes in with these gentlemen in tow, along with some ladies (including, of course, Lady Rochford – spiteful and ready to insinuate the worst any time). “Close Lady Rochford’s mocking lips with song,” Anne tells Smeaton, but instead of an extended musical interlude she gets a hectoring from Wyatt and Surrey. “The Seymours are ambitious,” Surrey tells her, “And urge / Their sister to the prize.” Anne is already well aware of, and resigned to this, but laughs off the suggestion that she might be giving Henry cause to be jealous. Must she “yield all solace up,” she asks, because of a fate she didn’t choose? Fate steps in again at this point in the form of Wyatt, bearing the news that Catherine of Aragon has just died. Anne’s “Now I am Queen indeed!” is her bitter recognition that

We well may spare her now the empty title.
The childless mother, discrowned queen! The King
Refused her prayer to see her child – these men
Have hard hearts. Queen Katharine dead! Woe’s me!
… I feel as if the weight of the whole globe
Were poised above my head. There, take my crown;
It seems too heavy for my brow to-day.
Smeaton, a dirge, not for the dead, but living.

Unfortunately, Henry chooses this moment to burst in on them, interrupting the dirge with “Ha! At your wanton sports, when lamentation / Should fill these walls to bursting,” and accuses Anne of being a viper who murdered her former mistress. Anne, remembering Wolsey’s prediction of her own fate, collapses and is carried out. Next thing we know, Wyatt and Surrey are filling each other in on the details of the “fatal tournament” on May Day – Norris kissed Anne’s dropped handkerchief, and now he, Smeaton, and Weston are all in the Tower and Lady Rochford is busy giving evidence of some sort. Anne herself is still at large, wondering where her friends, her brother, and her sister-in-law have all got to, but she soon finds out when Norfolk comes to arrest her. Urged to confess her sins against the king, Anne can only think of one: “Subservience to his will is the sole crime / My conscience doth lie charged with.” “Tut, tut! No more of this!” says Norfolk, as he did in life, and Anne is delivered over to the keeping of Sir William and Lady Kingston, who are sympathetic towards her but don’t let that stop them from locking her up.

It’s from the Kingstons that we learn how Anne’s trial went. When Sir William announces that the Queen is condemned, his wife is baffled – they had thought that a pre-contract between Anne and Henry Percy “would, by rendering null / Her after marriage with the King, give plea / For absolution of all charges.” It turns out that didn’t happen, though, as Percy inexplicably denied that anything stronger than “light compliments” had ever passed between them. “His lips have sealed her doom.” Furthermore, “That fiend, Lady Rochford” has managed to sink her husband and the other men with perjured testimony (about what isn’t quite clear, though naturally we can guess the worst). Anne then enters, pursued by Norfolk, telling her her sentence, and Gardiner, urging her to repent of her Protestant tendencies before it’s too late. She doesn’t have much time for either of them – she does, however, have time the wildly repentant Percy, who’s burst in and is trying to tell her where his testimony went wrong. “They told me, I should save thee, by forswearing / That ever marriage contract passed between us / They told me that the King sought but divorce.” The theological details aren’t clear but Percy appears to be quite accurate in calling himself “a fool.” (Who “they” were is left tantalizingly unclear). He and Anne embrace, talk about the men who have already been executed, and leave each other to their respective unhappy fates.

At sunrise the next morning, Anne is awake and dressed, and calling for a mirror “I would once more behold myself a queen, / And so take leave of queenship!” Rebuked by Norfolk and Gardiner for dressing as a queen when she should be thinking of – and dressing for – the Hereafter, she tells them:

The King could ne’er be wroth that I should take
One look on all that he hath done for me:
This crown, these robes, that decked me for his pleasure …
Now help me to undress and make me ready
For the brief journey I must undertake.
My crown I do bequeath to Mistress Seymour;
This ruby carcanet to my successor;
These royal robes are not yet frayed or dulled
By use, may serve another coronation.

She also confesses, as in life, that while she hasn’t always born herself humbly towards the king, she’s guilty of nothing else. Lady Rochford appears once more to escort her to the scaffold, but Anne tells her that “death hath its privileges” and one of them is go and meet it without unwelcome company. She then departs the stage, and the play. Afterwards we see Henry and various minor nobles hunting, while a few of the nobles tell stories which wend their way along for far too much time and are mostly ironic, veiled commentaries on Henry’s marital career. Henry enjoys the stories, but doesn’t get the jokes; he’s waiting for a certain gunshot and is a bit distracted. Finally the gun goes off, and “the deed is done, the deed is done!” he shouts. “To-morrow we will wed with Mistress Seymour!” And off he rides to do so.

SEX OR POLITICS? Sex. Anne’s Protestant sympathies are mentioned and sometimes deplored by a less-sympathetic character (Wolsey, Gardiner) but it’s clear that Henry’s inclination towards Jane Seymour is the real reason for her downfall.

WHEN BORN? Not stated.

THE EARLY LOVE: Henry Percy, who could count as a later love as well – he shows up in the end to apologize for having denied any precontract with her, since he was told that if he did, she’d live. Wyatt loves Anne unrequitedly, and Surrey has a nice cousinly interest in her – “Oft I have used a kinsman’s privilege / To warn her,” he tells Wyatt when they’re both worrying about Anne’s “light” behavior as queen.

THE QUEEN’S BEES: Jane Seymour is mentioned several times but not seen – Anne is attended mostly by Lady Rochford, who’s in her usual form and practically vibrating with glee when Henry starts to take an interest in Jane Seymour. Lady Rochford’s dislike of Anne is mostly rooted in jealousy of her beauty and the feeling that Fate somehow went astray in giving Anne a crown when she didn’t even want it, whereas Lady Rochford would have been a most willing recipient.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR Mark Smeaton, albeit he fails her in the end by confessing, much to her displeasure.

THE PROPHECY: Several – when Norfolk brings Anne news that she’s now a Marchioness, he also brings a gift of a ruby necklace, but when Anne puts it on, she’s terrified: “I feel as if / Some murderous hands were at my throat – the gems / Red gouts of blood flowing adown my bosom.” Later on, when the doomed Wolsey confronts Anne, he warns her “When thou’rt queen / Look well that none come near thee, save foul age,” and that when the king sees “a fairer face than thine” he’ll come up with an excuse to make away with her. “Take this curse from me / For such I feel it, O Lord Cardinal!” says Anne, but he’s distracted by the arrival of Norfolk. Still later, Anne tells her mother that “a sybil” once told her fortune, predicting that Anne would be “great beyond all hope, the end / Would be most miserable.” Whether this actually happened or whether it’s a feeble attempt to stop Elizabeth from bodily hoisting her into St. Edward’s Chair is unclear.

IT’S A GIRL! Elizabeth’s birth takes place between Act II and Act III, so it’s never directly referenced. However, if Henry’s earlier declaration that “I would not to a puling girl bequeath / My kingdom” and his anger at Catherine of Aragon’s having only one surviving daughter are any indication, he wasn’t too pleased about it.


FAMILY AFFAIRS Very unusually, Elizabeth Boleyn is the Svengali behind Anne’s success, and her father, while in agreement with her mother’s plans, is clearly not in charge of anything – not surprising, as Elizabeth has apparently spent the previous twenty-five years making sure that he knew his place. When he’s made Earl of Wiltshire, he crows that she

No more shall twit me with my plain descent:
No more despise the coat of arms first borne
By my good father, the late worthy mayor …
I’ll hear no more of her high ancestry.

Despite Elizabeth having bullied Anne into the marriage, she makes herself scarce when the hour of reckoning comes around. “Even my sire, my mother / Refuse to see me ere I die,” says Anne while in prison, and adds that since they’re courtiers it makes sense, as “the King’s bounty” might dry up if they did anything so counter to his policy. George is his usual self – the devoted brother, unhappily married (although we never actually see him and his wife together, he describes his marriage as being miserable and done for policy only), and urging Elizabeth Boleyn to let Anne marry whom she wants and not uproot her life. Naturally, the unwilling children pay the supreme price for their parents’ folly, while the parents slink off in the background. Mary Boleyn is not mentioned and doesn’t appear to exist.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No – she’s only guilty of being forcibly married to a man she hates (“three years of empty pageantry” is how she describes her marriage) and seeking music and conversation from men she doesn’t hate. But even without that, we’re given the distinct impression that Henry would have found something to allow him to jettison her.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: You’ve seen a good bit already, and it’s absolutely typical – all of the characters talk like this, all the time. It’s easy enough to read and isn’t the worst blank verse, but after a few passages, quoting is redundant; the voices are mostly quite similar.

ERRATA: Well, the timeline is violently compressed, as it has to be in a play, but sometimes it goes to ridiculous lengths; Anne learns of her loss of Percy, her new title, and her impending wedding to a new husband in the space of one conversation which would last about eight minutes. Percy makes an unhistorical visit to the Tower to apologize to Anne, when in life he did no such thing. (His denial of the pre-contract took place not during Anne’s trial but about a week earlier, and was done in the form of a letter to Cromwell). William Brereton, alone among Anne’s accused lovers, is left out of the story completely. Anne is said to be given an income of £2,000 per year when she becomes Marchioness of Pembroke; in fact, it was £1,000.

WORTH A READ? It’s interesting in that it breaks the usual nineteenth-century mold in several ways; first, and very importantly, Thomas Cromwell actually appears as a named person at court! This is huge for this time period; I cannot count the number of nineteenth-century works which seem determined to ignore him completely. Unfortunately, he’s barely there – he appears only in his capacity as Wolsey’s servant, and when Wolsey disappears, so does Cromwell. It’s a shame that such an opportunity was missed – especially as Anne’s downfall ends up being engineered by a disappointingly vague “they” on behalf of her estranged husband.

If it looks forward with actually having Cromwell as a character, it looks back in another way; that of portraying Anne as a completely victim. In this aspect, it’s a lot closer to Vertue Betray’d from two hundred years previously than to its contemporary plays; Anne is not seduced or tempted by some fatal flaw in her character (Surrey’s crack about her “fair spice of vanity” notwithstanding) instead, she’s forced into her marriage and three years later has not become more reconciled to Henry, although she talks very lovingly about their daughter. Ironically, she only really seems to take control of anything once she’s sent to prison – dressing as she wants, making her opinions clear by bequeathing her jewelry to Jane Seymour, and so forth. It was in that last act that she really began to come to life, and it was quite effective when read – I just wished she had managed to do so sooner. The portrayal of her parents was also a bright spot – Elizabeth Boleyn was, of course, bordering on caricature, but I appreciated the imagination which for once portrayed her as the most ambitious one.

All that being said, this play isn’t a lost classic by any stretch of the imagination – characters float in and out and disappear for no reason, and the verse is turgid and can be terribly monotonous after a while. I wouldn’t go out of my way to read it for pleasure, but if you want a demonstration that the nineteenth-century Annes were as diverse a crew as the modern ones, look no further than this book.

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