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Frail Anne Boleyn And Her Many Loves by Benedict Fitzpatrick (1931)

April 11, 2014

“Peculiar” is the best word for this work, which was published in 1931 and doesn’t seem to have left much impression then or since. Part of the reason for this may be that it’s hard to tell exactly what it is – some people call it a novel, some call it a history, but in fact it’s a hybrid of the two, in which “there is no invented dialogue” as the author assures us, but that doesn’t restrain him from giving the lead characters plenty of invented thoughts. There’s an index, but no footnotes, although any experienced reader will be able to recognize many of the quotations; like many others, the author drew heavily on L&P. The “frailty” of the title is moral, not physical frailty; Mary Boleyn and various other ladies are similarly described as “frail.”

Another reason that the book has not lasted is the style it’s written in. As the title indicates, its use of language isn’t altogether standard for the period – it’s a lush, overwritten, sometimes tortured style which reads like an awkward translation. Consider the beginning of Henry VIII’s affair with Mary Boleyn: “At last hovering high above cirrus clouds the royal hawk espied floating in the heaven below a dove-like creature to all appearance fresh from its nesting. Swooping and wheeling in a vast stoop the great unjessed falcon went to earth in gentle ecstasy, his prey securely compassed in talon and beak. And from that time forth Mary Boleyn and her family walked freely in the tropic air of the inner intimacies and beatitudes in the life of the king.”

Unfortunately, the “auburn-haired, sweet” Mary Boleyn is only a passing interest, and by the time she gives birth to a boy significantly named Henry, the king has lost interest. He already has one illegitimate son who is indubitably his, why waste time and acknowledgement on a second? Besides, he has become more interested in Mary’s younger sister, Anne, the only member of the Boleyn family who doesn’t seem to care about him one way or the other and is instead more interested in Henry Percy, highly eligible heir of Northumberland. Henry soon takes care of that problem by ordering Wolsey to end the attachment, which Wolsey does in his standard style. Anne is outraged by it – and by Wolsey, of course – but after Henry starts besieging her with letters and attentions, she looks at Wolsey in a new light. He isn’t just the hated official who did her out of her marriage, but rather an example of just how high a commoner can rise in Henry VIII’s court. (This is a rather nice change from the usual scenario in which the haughty Anne sneers at Wolsey as being a mere butcher’s boy – not that this Anne isn’t haughty, and she certainly hates Wolsey, but not because of his origins. Of course, since Anne’s yokel ancestors receive an impressive “new gilding” in her official family tree, she hardly has room here to throw stones).

Anne quickly realizes that if she can do one better than Wolsey and actually marry the king, she’ll be virtually unstoppable, and while he wants to make her his mistress, she’s the first one to mention the possibility both of divorce and of marrying herself. (It’s conjectured that one of her now-lost letters to Henry, written in reply to one of the famous sequence, was a demand that he marry her). Of course, if her plan is to succeed fully, she can’t have Wolsey still around to be a political rival, so she begins pouring sweet poison into Henry’s ear on the subject, just as Cavendish described, but when Henry shows some hesitation she’s astute enough to back off for the moment – “He would be cured in time.” Wolsey’s fall is what convinces the attendant nobles at court that Anne, whom they laugh at for her pretensions and her enhanced family tree, is “a dangerous person whom few cared to offend.”
They’re not wrong about her being dangerous. After one too many objections to the divorce proceedings by Bishop Fisher, “a secret hand revealed the intensity of the resentment with which Anne and her family looked on the men who stood in her way to the throne” – the secret hand, of course, being that of the cook Richard Roos (here called Rice) who poisons the soup at Fisher’s home and manages to kill off several people who weren’t Fisher. Henry is horrified at this, not because he likes Fisher, but because “if a bishop could be poisoned so could a king, and Henry liked poisoning as little as the sweat.” Roos is dispatched via boiling, to show how very unsympathetic the king is to his methods, but nothing happens to Anne except, soon afterwards, ennoblement. Her creation as Marquess of Pembroke on September 1 1532 is described unambiguously as due to the fact that “Anne had at long last become Henry’s mistress. Warham was dead. The submissive Cranmer was to be the next archbishop of Canterbury …. There was small danger that Henry’s slaked passion might cool before Anne could become his wife.” Nevertheless, the “long-headed” Anne prudently requires that the words “lawfully begotten” be omitted from the patent, just in case some last-minute mishap should occur.

None does, except for the distant papal objections which they feel they can safely ignore, but Elizabeth’s birth throws a wrench into the works. There are many tellings of this story which have Henry temporarily aghast but afterwards embracing Elizabeth and telling Anne that he’ll never leave her. This is not one of them. Within a few weeks of Elizabeth’s birth, Henry is bitterly regretting that he ever met the “virago with goggle eyes”, and she in her turn despises him (he’s had to tell her that he carries a certain “ignoble malady”) and is concentrating her energies on helping the powerful, unscrupulous Cromwell terrorize the entire population of England into submission. Anne is quite pleased at the idea that those who commit anti-Anne thoughtcrime will be publicly whipped (unless very elderly, or pregnant) and contemplates the sundry executions with strong interest – that is, until the summer of 1534, when she realizes that her supposed second pregnancy is in fact a phantom one and she has to break the news to the king.

He is, in his turn, extremely angry and for the first time his anger puts Anne in fear of her own life, or at least of her own continued existence as queen. “The bloody scenes at Tyburn and Tower Hill now began to haunt Anne …. She saw the barbaric rites under Tyburn tree, that had once excited her curiosity and callous laughter. Away in the dark background of her mirror these scenes loomed spectrally before her.” She’s not wrong to be worried. Henry has decided that Anne is useless and divisive, and that in order to both get his own way in the matter of the monasteries and appease the angry citizenry, he’ll make her a scapegoat and kill her in order to appease them – but that can’t happen until the banished, ill Catherine of Aragon dies, as Anne’s too premature death would only mean a renewal of the conflict with Catherine. “[Anne] existed for him no longer as a person or queen, but only as a step and symbol in his liberation from Katharine. She would have been surprised to discover how often in Henry’s nightly dreams, as she lay bleakly by his side, he was coupling her with the Nun of Kent and speculating ghostily on the future.”

Catherine’s death, occurring a few months later, is so conveniently timed that the author smuggles several hints of poisoning into the text, despite his earlier characterization of Henry as having a horror of poison (though of course, in a good cause, Henry might have persuaded himself to help Catherine out of the world a little faster). Anne rejoices with Henry “feverishly”, and Henry dresses all in yellow, though we’re not told what Anne wore. Soon enough, though, she realizes just what Catherine’s death means for her, and that Henry was planning her ultimate disposal even before Catherine’s death. Anne’s pregnancy proves to be only a temporary delay, as she ends up miscarrying at the end of January 1536 and before the day is out Henry is confiding in Cromwell that he’s sure Anne seduced him by witchcraft and that he has no interest in remaining married to her. Jane Seymour is already in view, and she’s adoring, uncritical, and lowly placed enough that he could get rid of her later on with minimal fuss.

Cromwell is cautious – now that Catherine is dead, he’s trying to negotiate the alliance with the Emperor and dealing with Chapuys and the attendant complications is what’s foremost in his mind, not the king’s domestic issues. Henry also becomes embroiled in the political situation for a bit, allowing a bored, unhappy, fearful Anne free rein to flirt and dance with various gentlemen of the court; vain as ever, she can’t get enough compliments from men and since her husband isn’t in the mood to offer any, she’ll take what she can get from Norris, Weston, Smeaton, Brereton and of course her brother, Lord Rochford. As negotiations with the Emperor stall in April, due partly to Henry’s own obstreperousness, he realizes that Anne’s flirting has just handed him a perfect excuse for getting rid of her. He “drop[s] hints” to Cromwell, who retreats into his convenient “illness” of April and returns to discover that Henry is not only thrilled at the idea of being “rid of Anne in a manner that would gratify his murderous resentment and the hatred of a nation,” he doesn’t even take the “Will no one rid me of this turbulent spouse” approach and let Cromwell plan it out; Henry is right next to him, giving him helpful tips.

Henry knew Anne completely. He knew all her cunning wiles and wantonries of love, and all the impulses of a mind that had emptied itself before him in intimate retreat a thousand times over. And Henry was not the kind that kissed and never told. He gave Cromwell everything. A new lover had merely to be put in the place of Henry and the trick was done.

Cromwell sets to with a will, and having heard some key gossip from Lady Worcester about the queen’s “light” behavior, promptly has Mark Smeaton sent for and tortures him until he “confesses.” The other four men are arrested, as is Anne, and all that’s left for any of them is to make a dignified exit. Anne and George both acquit themselves superbly at their trial (as they did in life) complete with George reading aloud the note which said the king had been impotent, but their conviction is inevitable, and Anne manages to leave the room calmly even as her erstwhile lover Henry Percy is in the process of fainting. On the day of her death, she shakes off her previous hysterics and dies with style; as she processes towards the scaffold, “Her face, thought one, had never been so beautiful.” After her death, her corpse is stuffed into its arrow chest, and “Anne became a pale memory of something that had been and gone, leaving no trace.” Not for long, however. Decades later, her memory would be resurrected, and her true impact on the world understood. The England “which Augustine and Aidan built” is now gone forever, thanks in large part to her.

Hers was indeed a strange destiny – marvellous more in its sequel than in its dazzling rise and contumelious fall. To this hour the wisest and most foolish of mankind are alike uttering passionate platitudes, of which they would be upholding the opposite if an amorous Henry Tudor had never looked into the eyes of Anne Boleyn. The mother of Elizabeth still sits at the ear of half the world, as Wolsey saw her sitting by Henry, dictating its secret thoughts, telling it what to love and what to hate, bequeathing to generations unborn her spectral vendetta against the shadows between her and the mirage that hid the fire and the worm and the lake of brimstone that were to consume alike herself and the world into which she had been born.

SEX OR POLITICS? Politics, most definitely. Although a fair amount of attention is paid to Anne’s appearance and charm (not to mention her more vicious inclinations), the book tends to emphasize L&P material, and there’s a lot of politics as a result. Since Chapuys and Cavendish are relied on so much, we see a lot of fretting over whether England will ever really ally with the Emperor or not, and a lot of sequences which play out exactly as they do in the Life Of Wolsey. Surprisingly, considering the very Catholic slant of the book, there’s virtually nothing from Roper’s Life of Thomas More.

WHEN BORN? It’s never stated directly, but since Anne is “in her teens” in 1526, I’m guessing that the traditional birthdate of 1507 is the one being used. Mary Boleyn is described as being one year older than Anne, and is also said to have become Henry’s mistress at seventeen, meaning three years after her marriage to William Carey. George’s age is never stated.

THE EARLY LOVE The Percy affair goes just about as Cavendish describes it – in fact, most of the description is lifted wholesale from his book. Anne and Percy fall in love, Anne is in love with his position but also with him, but Henry notices Anne and orders Wolsey to separate them, whereupon Anne swears she’ll get revenge on Wolsey. However, it doesn’t end quite when Cavendish says it does – it seems that Anne was in receipt of at least one clandestine letter.

Nor had Percy given up hope. At Hever Anne was permitted to see, through a third person, an unsigned letter in which she was implored in his absence never to marry another. “Bid her remember her promise which none can loose but God only, to whom I shall daily during my life with many prayers commend.”

As Fitzpatrick states in his introduction that every quotation or passage of dialogue has a source, I wish I knew what this one was. History is not otherwise added to, however – Percy never writes again and he marries Mary Talbot on schedule.

THE QUEEN’S BEES We see very few – since the book confines itself to written sources, and they didn’t spend much time dwelling on maids of honour, neither does he. However, Anne Gainsford does make a brief appearance in the story of the poison-pen drawing which Anne dismissed, and of course we get a brief glimpse at Jane Seymour, who is depicted as being clever at playing Anne’s game but otherwise rather simpleminded. Henry’s state of mind on entering his third marriage is cynical and unsympathetic as the worst of his other fictional recreations. He doesn’t expect it to last, and doesn’t care much if she fails to bring him a son – just as long as he can upgrade whenever he has a mind to.

He had had his fill of Katharine’s clamping obstinacy. What Henry henceforth was to esteem in a bride was not fortune or high station, but the quality of easy disposal. Jane’s sheeplike adoration glowed superabundantly with the promise of quick, silent removability. Henry no longer believed in vows of eternal fidelity.


THE PROPHECY Just the usual assortment of astrologers saying that the baby was bound to be a boy. “Astrologers, witches and sorcerers had been unanimous. The child was to be a Prince of Wales and marvellous solemn jousts by favorite knights on Flanders courses were to hail him. Henry was striding with his head in the clouds, whence a rosy Tudor cherub bent dimpled hands towards him.”

IT’S A GIRL! Henry is stunned (“a hundred castles in the air toppled disastrously as hope died and desolation took its place”) but polite in the moment. However, it marks a violent rupture in his relations with Anne – a few weeks after Elizabeth’s birth, Henry is thinking of how hideous and worn out Anne is looking.

The rich bloom and ripe colour had gone. The seraph rainbow plumage had been plucked. The nimbused and aureoled Juno had faded and left a hard, cartilaginous virago with goggle eyes. He could note now the swarthy brow and hair and jaundice in the yellow cheeks. The pearly teeth that flashed hope and radiance had become discoloured buckteeth, from which the gums receded and the hollows showed …. An icy chill had struck Henry and he had sought forgetfulness among curtseying nymphs in forbidden gardens of the court.

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Yes, she has an “incipient extra finger” (George Wyatt’s description is quoted) as well as a mole on her neck. She does design her own clothes and set fashions at court in doing so, but there’s nothing mentioned about sleeves. And while the description of her appearance quoted just above sounds pretty grim, in fairness to the book, it gives a much different impression of her ten years earlier, on her return to England:

They recalled that the blood of the Butlers and the Ormonds and Fitzgeralds ran in that figure of Parian marble, and marvelled over the blue-black Irish hair and Irish eyes, where violets of midnight blue flashed and floated in a midnight sea. Like the Irish Isolt of the poet, Anne’s luxuriantly crowned head rose on a glossy neck and throat exquisitely modelled.

If this book had been written a decade or two later, I would wonder if the description of young Anne was inspired by Elizabeth Taylor, but since the latter wasn’t born until 1932 that can obviously be ruled out. The author may simply have liked that eye colour – Bessie Blount is described at one point as having “violet eyes and straw ringlets.”

FAMILY AFFAIRS We see very little of Anne’s family relative to other novels and biographies. Thomas Boleyn is the usual scraping climber, and Elizabeth Boleyn is barely mentioned. Mary gets the most attention of her two siblings, albeit not a lot. She also is “frail”, has acquired a very dodgy reputation in France and a less than top-notch husband in England as a result of that. Her son Henry is actually the king’s, but the latter doesn’t see fit to acknowledge him, and she has a briefly-mentioned second son after marrying Stafford, after which she fades out of the book. George Boleyn is “an untried man who thought of little but pastimes” when he’s sent on his first diplomatic mission, and we’re never given to understand that he becomes any different. He doesn’t get much screen time, though – unusual in a book starring Anne! Lady Rochford gets a few brief mentions, but no lines; nor does she have anything to do with the incest charge against George or his arrest. Her message of comfort which she sent him in the Tower is mentioned, though.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No, the text is clear. Anne is guilty of a lot of things in this iteration, but not adultery.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: You know the quotes above? They weren’t chosen because they were especially bad. They are absolutely typical of the book. It’s not quite as dense as Anne Boleyn (1912) but sometimes it comes close, especially when describing the scenery.

And the lovers could see the tiny water forests, the rushes with their red tiaras, the sword-leafed burweed, the tall sedges and nodding bulrushes of the coming autumn. Soon the white down of thistle and dandelion and groundsel would streak with hoary seed the woodbine throwing flowers in solitary loveliness. Blotches of russet would appear amongst the green, and the lavender would be all on fire in the sunset glow. And as the grasshopper chithered [sic], Henry and Anne could laugh over the clusters of red pheasant’s eye, which maidens called sadly, “rose-a-ruby”, for it told them that they would have no swain till it came into flower once more.

A further strangeness is the author’s tendency to paraphrase original documents without necessarily changing the more outdated words, which leads to startling pronouncements like “Henry’s incontinent feeling could have been set to no song.”

ERRATA There aren’t really that many overt misstatements. I don’t mean that I would go to this book as a reliable reference, but rather that so many of the things the author dwells on (chiefly the emotional states of everyone involved, or things like Anne’s skill at hawking) are unknowable. However, I’d say that definitely attributing the poisoning at Bishop Fisher’s to Anne was over the line, and he also states that fourteen people died, when in fact it was two. Saying that she had become Henry’s mistress before becoming Marquess of Pembroke is also not necessarily true – like the poisoning, that’s firmly in the realm of the unknowable. Lady Worcester is supposed to have told her brother that she behaved no worse than the queen “As Mark Smeton might tell,” but as far as I know there was no reference to Smeaton by her in the existing documentation. Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour also is said to have taken place on the day after Anne’s death, when in fact they were betrothed on that day and married ten days later.

WORTH A READ? Not unless you are a hardcore Boleyn aficionado – though the book does offer some interesting twists on the story, most of it is a traditional retelling of the “Catholic version” of Anne Boleyn’s story; it’s clear that the author looks on her less as an angel of the Lord than an angel of destruction, though even in this version she’s innocent of adultery – instead, she’s a victim of karma. She assisted and cheered at the executions of others falsely accused of crimes (and tried to murder at least one person) and in her turn she’s falsely accused and judicially murdered. In common with many other hostile authors, this one nonetheless admires how she handled herself during her trial; she may lack the other cardinal virtues, he implies, but she had almost enough courage to make up for it.

One notable feature of the book is the characterization of Henry – unlike many other books which are hostile to Anne, this one portrays Henry as a revolting, tyrannical monster from the beginning, and even though Anne is the one who suggests the divorce, she’s certainly not portrayed as having somehow corrupted an innocent or at least befuddled soul. Instead, Henry jumps at the suggestion and although he does show some signs of weakness where Wolsey is concerned, he is “cured” of that easily enough by Anne, and afterwards he requires very little encouragement to commit the worst atrocities. Unlike Anne, there are no flattering descriptions of him at any point – this one is typical:

The precipitous sleek surface of his countenance, the bony vulture beak, the bald temples, the square, spare beard, redolent of venison and hypocras, the tiny rosebud aperture of a mouth, with its irregular yellow teeth, had ceased to be mobile and become armoured, and battlemented, and sullen with menace.

He does “evolve” in the sense that he goes from being angry at the Fisher poisoning to being able to (perhaps) poison Catherine of Aragon without much a qualm, but with this Henry, I have to say it doesn’t sound like it was much of a moral leap for him. Certainly his plan to dispose of Anne, in which he’s not just smitten with Jane Seymour and trying to grasp at any reason for divorce but rather calculating how he’ll appease the mob by throwing them Anne’s corpse, is one of the more horrifying ones I’ve seen. His reasons for marrying Jane – that she adores him and that he could get rid of her more easily than he could get rid of a foreign princess or noblewoman – are no more attractive. This Henry is not confused, angry, excessively passionate, or anything remotely sympathetic; he’s a stone-cold sociopath and that’s all there is to it. Between him and Anne, I have a feeling even the Catholic author would choose the latter if he had to.

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From → Book Overviews

  1. Wow. WOW. That is some thick, day-old prose right there. “Cartilaginous virago”–good band name, bad character description.

    • sonetka permalink

      I don’t think it would do too well as a band name — imagine an exhausted MC trying to introduce them at a showcase! It makes a good tongue-twister, though.

  2. Annalucia permalink

    Benedict Fitzpatrick – that’s a right Catholic name, yon! 🙂

    You’ll see a lot of that clotted prose in historical fiction from the 20s and 30s – the 1928 translation of “Kristin Lavransdatter” is a particulary horrible example, but the stuff written in English was just as bad. It was supposed to sound old-timey and lyrical, I suppose. But I’m going to give the guy credit for “Henry was striding with his head in the clouds, whence a rosy Tudor cherub bent dimpled hands toward him.” Isn’t that a perfect glimpse into the mind of a selfish, romantic daydreamer?

    • sonetka permalink

      I was thinking of the cherubs in the Fantasia version of “Pastorale”. But I can’t say I was surprised that someone named Benedict Fitzpatrick took a rather jaundiced view of the Reformation :).

    • His side got beat onywye, padre!

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