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Norris And Anne Boleyn by John Overs (1844)

April 17, 2014

“I do not recommend it as a book of surpassing originality or transcendent merit … I do not claim to have discovered, in humble life, an extraordinary and brilliant genius.” This was written by Charles Dickens in his introduction to John Overs’ Evenings Of A Working Man, Being The Occupation Of His Scanty Leisure, source of the story Norris And Anne Boleyn. He goes on to state that Overs, being very ill and unable to support himself in his old profession of cabinet-maker, had turned to writing in order to make some provision for his family. He had impressed Dickens with “the instinctive propriety of his manner, and the perfect neatness of his appearance. The extent of his information: regard being had to his opportunities of acquiring it: is very remarkable; and the discrimination with which he has risen superior to the mere prejudices of the class with which he is associated, without losing his sympathy for all their real wrongs and grievances — they have a few — impressed me, in the beginning of our acquaintance, strongly in his favour.”

What Dickens’s biographer Michael Slater terms the de haut en bas manner of this introduction does not mean that Dickens did not have genuine regard for Overs. “As long as Overs knew his place and did not presume in anything approaching equality with gentlemen …. Dickens was even by his own standards quite exceptionally kind, encouraging and practically helpful to him” (Slater, Charles Dickens, 160). As Dickens was an industrious fundraiser and seeker out of jobs for people, the practical help must have been very welcome. Evenings Of A Working Man, with its prominently featured introduction by Dickens, was the last of these efforts. Overs survived its publication by only a few months, dying of tuberculosis in late 1844, at the age of thirty-six. His book is a somewhat engaging mishmash of romantic poems (“Woman’s Constancy”, “A Day-Dream” — full of Geraldines and greenwood bowers), short, drily humourous sketches of “The Baker” “The Costarmonger” and similar, and some long short stories on historical subjects, the two longest being about Fair Rosamond and, inevitably, Anne Boleyn.

The story opens in a manner Dickens would have approved of — a Christmas celebration at Hever Castle, complete with all the “relics of barbaric pomp and idle pageantry which descended from the feudal age to the era of the Reformation,” meaning masques, mummeries, dancing Sellenger’s Round, kissing beneath the mistletoe, and, of course, singing carols.

Very little of this is of much interest to Anne Boleyn, “then in her eighteenth year” (this is Christmas of 1525), who has young men circling around her like the planets but who finds their attentions a “cruel satire” since she and Henry Percy have recently been forced apart by Cardinal Wolsey, acting under orders from a lovestruck Henry VIII. In fact, Henry is so besotted that he’s currently at the Christmas celebration in disguise as a mere “stranger knight”, unbeknownst to Anne (although not to her father, who is entirely approving of this development). Henry VIII isn’t the only suitor crashing the party, though. Before long, some pilgrims arrive at the castle and ask for hospitality, among them a young man who begins singing a melancholy carol about being separated from his beloved.

Exiled from all I love, I spurn
The stern command, and thus return.

Anne sings the next verse in reply, which ends “Not yet — Return. Ere long: not yet,” but it takes a few more verses before her father begins to twig to the fact that something significant is happening here. “Ho! Retainers to your posts!” he cries. “A Percy is here, the traitor!” The pilgrims rip off their cloaks and reveal themselves to be armed, and Percy and his merry men lead an attack on Thomas Boleyn and his guests, an attack in which nobody is actually killed but Percy ends up in hand-to-hand combat with the “stranger knight”. Thomas Boleyn, in a panic, dispenses with royal protocol and starts shouting out to everyone who the knight really is, and they all rush to protect the king and seize Percy — but Percy manages to vanish at the last moment with the aid of “one Harry Norris, a mechanist.” The young, romantic, hardworking Norris has been busy putting the finishing touches on a secret passage which is needed for Beelzebub’s appearance during a masque, and feeling sympathetic towards Percy’s position, pulls him away from the surrounding crowd and pushes him through the trap door just in time. Afterwards, Percy is able to leave the castle and escape.

After a scene like this, making Anne forget him will obviously be something of an uphill climb, but the king manages it by sending secret orders that Percy should marry Mary Talbot forthwith, and then telling Anne that Percy had married her voluntarily. The king also hears from Percy’s father about how just how his escape from Hever was effected, and instead of coming down on Harry Norris like a ton of bricks he instead “sought Norris out and privately retained him in his service.” Presumably he was impressed by Norris’s ingenuity and figured it was better to have someone like that in his corner than in someone else’s, but we’re not actually told this.

Two and half years later, it’s May Day and the royal family are celebrating at York Place — though “celebrating” might be too strong a word, as Henry is currently in the process of trying to divorce Catherine; an idea suggested to him not by Anne or his conscience or his confessor or French ambassadors, but by Cardinal Wolsey, who’s so miffed at Charles V for thwarting his attempt to become Pope that he’s decided to get Charles’s aunt off the throne of England. Also present is Princess Mary, only twelve years old but already with unsavoury associates, chief among them “a little mis-shapen being” named Mabel Smeton, sister to Mark.

Her origin was obscure, but, by cunning, she had ingratiated herself into the favour of the princess, whose character was somewhat congenial to her own. In person, she was little more than a dwarf … She had a sharp, austere visage; little ferret eyes; and great pretensions to sanctity — some even, to prophecy. In her mistress’ service, she was almost ubiquitous. Mary regarded these offensive qualities as so many recommendations favourable to her designs and secret inquisitions; and she cherished her accordingly.

Mabel gets a chance to demonstrate her amiable qualities when she and Mary are passing by Black Friars Monastery and see a crowd of people gathered in front, asking for help for a woman who’s just been injured in an accident. Mabel hears Anne Boleyn’s voice among the helpers and observes that “there is a deadly viper hereabout,” so instead of assisting they stand back and watch the fun as Queen Catherine’s confessor Fr. Forrest (who’s living with the Dominicans for some reason even though he was a Franciscan) refuses to let the injured woman in, since, being with Anne Boleyn and Norris, she’s obviously a heretic. “We will not admit her, till she makes the holy symbol, and repeats her creed. We give no aid to accursed Lutherans.” On being begged for some wine, he tells them to “Get it at the vintners'” and slams the door. The woman’s husband, William Brereton, arrives just in time to see her die, Anne Boleyn escorts him away, and Norris leads a charge of disgruntled common folk against the friars.

Meanwhile, Anne Boleyn has returned to the king, who’s quarrelling with Wolsey over how slowly the divorce is going. Not that there’s any question about the legitimacy of Henry’s case, certainly not in Anne’s eyes.

Believing too — as most of the nobility and doctors of the time believed, under the seal and assurance of Warham and the bishops — that Henry’s marriage with Catherine, his brother’s relict, was void and adulterous; she naturally enough felt high ambition stirring in her breast; and resolved to improve her advantage.

The colloquy is interrupted by some indignant Black Friars, hauling the battered Fr. Forrest before Henry and demanding justice for his attacker, but Henry isn’t feeling particularly sympathetic towards churchmen today. “We know the city’s grievances with these friars,” he tells Wolsey, “and we commend the youth for his retaliation.” He then asks the youth his name and Norris introduces himself, and Henry tells him “We will provide you in our household.” Didn’t Norris already enter his service? The story was a bit confusing at this point, but I suppose if he were a gentleman-pensioner or something similar before you could forgive the king for not instantly recognizing him.

Shortly afterward, Norris made esquire to Anne Boleyn, who’s been advancing rapidly in the world — now Countess of Pembroke, and her father has been made Earl of Wiltshire as well. All the ennoblement in the world can’t stave off the sweat, however, and Anne’s illness (attributed by Mabel Smeton to “the vengeance of Heaven”) sends a panicked Henry scuttling temporarily back to Catherine, encouraged by “Forest, Fisher of Winchester, and many other fanatics.” However, Anne’s recovery and the arrival of the legate from Rome to try the divorce case renews Henry’s interest, and soon Anne is sending Norris attend the court at Blackfriars and bring back a report of what happened. Also attending, on behalf of Princess Mary, is Mabel Smeton, even though the testimony is “none of the most delicate.” And in a sterling example of values dissonance, our hero Norris decides to harass and torment the note-taking, minding her own business Mabel until she can’t take it anymore and leaves.

After gazing a moment with feigned astonishment, he cried, “A woman, by Jupiter! nay, a she divinity! Beautiful Iris, with her bow!”
“I command you to leave me, impertinent Sir,” said Mabel with the greatest chagrin.
“Say not so, sweet Constellation. I would fain learn the law from wise Minerva. Do you understand the point before the Court?”
“I understand you are a saucy fool!” she answered, rising in wrath.
“In taking you for a clerk, I presume; and, finding you a woman, in doubting your knowledge of the point,” he observed, laughing.

Clearly Mabel should know better than to be a dwarf and work for Princess Mary. The Blackfriars court ends unsatisfactorily, and Anne leaves Henry for Hever, having declared that she won’t have a hole in corner marriage with him even though she genuinely believes that Catherine isn’t his wife. This provides the kick Henry needs to shake off Wolsey and enlist Cromwell and Cranmer, who secure the opinions of the European universities in favour of the divorce and tell Henry to take the Pope’s powers upon himself. He and Anne are married on January 25th of 1533, and at Easter Anne is crowned, to the universal acclamation of the joyful Londoners. “LONG LIVE THE KING AND ANNE BOLEYN!” is the cry of the common people.

But certain parties are so perverse as not to be happy with this state of affairs. “Numerous ecclesiastics were opposed to the king and his measures; some for princple; more for prejudice; more for pelf,” we are told. Father Forrest is prominent among these, of course, and refuses to swear to the Act of Succession. “For this offense, nominally, he was tried and condemned; though, being suspected of conspiring against the life of the king, his guilt was really of a much earlier date.” Present at his anachronistically early execution (Forrest lived until 1538) are Norris, Lawrence Laitchbury, Patch the jester, the unsavoury Lady Rochford, the even more unsavoury Mabel Smeton, and the plain stupid Mark Smeaton. All of the above, except Norris, have a strong dislike of Anne Boleyn (although one of them still manages to get in a good anti-papistical dig at Bishop Fisher, who “boiled his cook John Roose to death”). After Norris indignantly pops Laitchbury in the jaw for daring to slander Anne, the others begin teasing Norris that he’s “a chamber gallant,” and Smeaton one-ups him by declaring that “I, Mark Smeton, can boast of my familiarities.” Lady Rochford, who’s been getting inside information from both Mark and Mabel Smeaton, declares that Anne has a wish “To draw her brother to her arms, for what on his part should be mine; on hers, the king’s, I trow.”

Norris gazed into the face of Lady Rochford with astonishment. “Base and abandoned woman!” at length he exclaimed, “I detect no blush upon the face that uttered that most foul calumny, atrocious and false as hell! Would you were a man. This moment, you should bite the dust for that unnatural falsehood. I cannot breathe the common air with so much turpitude; but, — mark me! — this wrong shall return to your own threshold.” Pale with his indignation, he strode away.

The next few years pass in a couple of sentences telling us how the “gentle, liberal and confiding” Anne was too open about her disapproval of Henry’s violent methods of persuasion as applied to both Catholics and Protestants, and so has fallen “under [Henry’s] displeasure.” She’s given him no cause, of course, but has made the mistake of assuming that when Henry took on all the prerogatives of the Pope that he wouldn’t actually use them, or wouldn’t use them capriciously. But despite his jettisoning of the Vatican, time has shown that the wilful tyrant remains strong in Henry, with all that that implies, and although Anne has already given birth to Elizabeth and is once more “heavy with the burden of a mother,” she fears that he’ll turn on her for opposing him. Furthermore, she can expect little help from her co-religionist, Cranmer.

Shadows came over her; misgivings of her position; fears that the formal divorce pronounced by Cranmer: her own public marriage and coronation: were but acts of a farce on which the curtain would be suddenly dropped, at the will of a tyrant. The religious consolations offered to her by the archbishop weighed but little against these impending evils: she saw too plainly that, though he coincided with the views of the Protestants, he had not yet sufficiently thrown off his papal prejudices, openly to avow his convictions and abide by them. Amidst these things, the faithful and chivalrous devotion of Norris was a pure source of gratification to her; and frequently occupied her thoughts.

Norris may be devoted, but for some reason he has utterly failed to inform her of what Mark Smeaton, at least, has been doing — pretending to be her loyal servant while secretly telling tales on her to her opponents. Anne consoles herself with good works and giving money to the poor, and has a brief moment of hope when news of Catherine’s death arrives, when she cries “Now I am queen indeed!” We’re told that “she decked herself in the gayest apparel” (the colour isn’t specified) but her happiness was dashed on discovering Henry with Jane Seymour in his lap. That, as it turns out, was the key moment at court when everyone turned on her. The Duke of Norfolk “urged on by the clergy and unhoused monks, and to pursue his own family aggrandisement” leads the conspiracy against her (although how the destruction of his niece would aggrandize his family is left vague). The “despicable agents” who undertake to bring her down are Princess Mary, Mabel and Mark Smeaton, Lady Rochford, Laitchbury, and Francis Weston, who appears out of nowhere as a former servant of Queen Catherine. Anne herself doesn’t help matters by then “giving premature birth to a prince,” increasing her own vulnerability.

Henry is at this point sick of Anne’s all-too-virtuous conduct and is happy to listen to the various stories brought to him by the different parties, but still wants actual proof of some sort, which he receives at the May Day joust when he sees that Henry Norris, unbeknownst to himself, has “a particularly small and elegant glove thrust into the breast of his haubergeon.” After Norris wins a contest, Henry demands to know to whom his favour belongs. Norris has no idea, but Henry does. “Henry Tudor is betrayed!” he shouts. “This glove, with tiny sandals, was sent to me by a dame of France … I gave them to Anne Boleyn … Now she hawks them to her gallant, who wears them here in open triumph!” Norris is forthwith arrested, as is Anne, and they’re both hauled off the Tower, soon to be joined by Smeaton, Weston and Brereton. Smeaton has been boasting about his “familiarities” with Anne, and has given Henry the names of the others in hopes that his life will be spared in exchange for handing them over. No such luck, as it turns out. George Boleyn is also arrested, thanks to “his unprincipled wife” and is condemned along with his sister, who declares herself innocent and also says in regard to Smeaton’s accusation, “There is malice — fierce, plotted, poisonous malice somewhere. And for that glove, of which so much is made, I know no more, my lords, than you — perhaps not so much.” Norris knows nothing about it either, as he tells the king when the latter visits him in prison to plead with him to confess: “Explicitly condemn her, and all is yours.” It seems that Henry isn’t quite happy with Smeaton’s confession and would like to hear one from a more trusted source. But when Norris tells him that “I would rather suffer a thousand deaths than conspire to wrong that innocent woman,” Henry flounces away, never to see any of them again.

Anne never discovers who planted the glove, but Norris does. When the five men are executed, a panicked, perjury-conscious Smeaton sees his sister in the crowd.

“She is there!” he suddenly cried, “My murderess! There is the fiend who drew me on: first to insinuate: and then to swear! ‘Twas I who put the glove in Master Norris’s corselet, by her direction! I never pranked it with the queen, never! so help me Heaven! She persuaded me to swear that I did! She! my sister there! Help me, people, help! help! Oh! I would tear her heart from her false, malicious body! Help me! Help!

At this point the guards subdue him while an interested audience presses in “to see the sister-fiend who Mark had pointed out to them.” But she’s no longer alive to be seen — “Beaten down in the crush, her groans were stifled by the tramp of the men; her breast was trodden in; and, crunching beneath their heels, they scattered her brains upon the pavement.” So, ironically, Mark actually ends up outliving Mabel — by a few minutes, anyway.

Anne’s last two days are spent “in the most devout and exemplary manner.” The only thing that distinguishes them from the many other fictional renditions is that this Anne gets permission from Kingston spend her last night, not to pray before the sacrament, but “to take a walk on the ramparts, and hold her last communion with Nature.”

The stars were bright and many; and the wind was moaning solemnly around the moat and bastions of the fortress: a rusty vane on one of the towers ever and anon creaking a doleful requiem. The frowning walls of the massive pile; its armoury, its altars, and its dungeons; were all inhabited by mild and melancholy moonlight: marking the shadow on the dial as distinctly as a summer noon. The placid river, stealing on beneath her feet, whispered histories of its secret conflicts with the gothic bridge above; and the calm sense of loneliness and solitude made such a powerful impression on her soul, that she desired to be dissolved, and at rest.

The next morning, she commends her soul to Christ before a weeping crowd and dies on the block. Her body is unceremoniously deposited in its arrow chest: “And there it lay, like a desolate city, within its walls. The fires of the soul were out; the hearths of affections cold …. and the sweet mystic music of the brain was still forever.”

The cannon is fired, the black flag “hoisted by telegraph”, and Henry marries Jane Seymour the next day. The story concludes with a commentary on King Henry which has a strong smack of Dickens’ later Child’s History Of England prose style about it.

And who has not heard and read of “bluff King Hal?” — the merry, roystering monarch — nothing more! with a roving taste for beauty, perhaps; but great customs curtsey to great kings: and to this hour you shall see paintings of him, as he looked when graciously accepting Bibles from the hands of pages. A most religious king!

On that great day, when sea and land give up their dead, and a long train of ghostly phantoms shall cry, with more than human wail, “We are from the block, the rack, the gibbet, and the stake!” on that great day, the Faith will defend its bluff defender. Do not doubt it.

ANALYSIS: Overs seems to have acquired much of his information from a thorough reading of Lingard’s History of England and of course Bishop Burnet’s History Of The Reformation, and it’s reflected in the text. Anne’s death, as in many earlier works, is spearheaded by a thoroughly Catholic conspiracy, in which Cromwell plays no part whatsoever and minor and imaginary participants are brought in to fill the void. Mabel Smeaton here takes on the role filled by Angelo Caraffa in Anne Boleyn: A Dramatic Poem (1826 — curiously, that work also featured an imaginary sister of Mark Smeaton), though here her inherent evilness is clear not because she’s part of a religious order but because she’s a “misshapen” dwarf, whose nasty personality finds a natural affinity with Princess Mary. Mabel’s dramatic ugliness is part of what allows to her to accomplish the rare feat of beating out Lady Rochford for the role of lead villainess. Her role is the one Lady Rochford is usually given; she’s active in moving the plot along — planting the gloves, badgering Mark into a false confession — is avid for information which she gathers both by spying and doing reconnaissance for Princess Mary, and acts as a go-between between unsavoury real-life characters. Active, ambitious women who are not named Anne Boleyn are seldom treated gently in these stories, and that holds true for many twenty and twenty-first century stories, not just ones that were written comfortably long ago.

Anne herself is an odd variation on a classic type; she seems at first very similar to most of the perfect, purely good Annes of the earlier centuries and, indeed, much of the nineteenth century, but what’s lacking in her is any kind of reluctance. The Annes from Vertue Betray’d (1682) up to the moment the book was published were seldom pleased at the prospect of marrying the king and suffered severe pangs subsequently. Even Fielding’s Anne, who unlike the other early ones had little religious consciousness to speak of, regarded marriage to Henry as a deeply mixed blessing, to put it mildly. But the Anne of this book has doubts only after she’s married and it’s becoming clear that Henry is still volatile and violent and that she’s unable to change that. Before that, she’s completely convinced that his case for divorce is a good one, and since Catherine is not really his wife (as we’re reassured over and over again) Anne has no particular reason to be concerned about her. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Anne lives in a world where every reliably Catholic character can be counted on for at least one act of Grade A dastardy, real or imagined — hence the real Fr. Forrest’s imaginary sneers at a dying woman, the real Bishop Fisher’s imaginary demand that his cook be boiled in oil (which he was, but that was Henry VIII’s idea, not Fisher’s) and so on and so forth. Even Catherine of Aragon, who’s usually treated very carefully, comes in for a few sneering implications that she was just bringing the drama — “She purchased relics, endowed priests, and founded chantries; one, in particular, beyond the Charter House: which, with a huge straining after effect, she christened Mount Calvary.” When Anne’s opponents all look like this, it’s not surprising that her conscience isn’t too bothered about sweeping them to the side. The end result is a less-common early hybrid of an Anne who is both deeply, sincerely, obsessively religious — albeit that last walk communing with nature has little in common with sixteenth-century religion — and also completely fine, even pleased, being elevated to the highest position a woman could have.

Overs’ story is too determined to show us the evils of Catholicism to spend much time on real character development, but while Norris himself and the surrounding courtiers are flat and cliched, the occasional glimpses into Anne’s head had interesting potential and I wish we’d seen more of them. I did like reading the passages where Anne was spending her last night looking at the stars, and in which she “desired to be dissolved, and at rest.” It was impossible to read this and not think of Overs’ own circumstances — dying steadily of tuberculosis, he must have had more than one painful, contemplative night in which similar thoughts crossed his mind. His story is by no means good, but it’s a valuable window into what an intelligent, well-read “working man”, a member of a class which seldom had enough leisure to write long histories but certainly liked to read them, ended up making of Anne Boleyn and her story.

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One Comment
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