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Windsor Castle: An Historical Romance by William Harrison Ainsworth (1843)

June 25, 2014

There is an old tale that goes that Herne the hunter, sometime a keeper in the Windsor forest, doth all the winter-time, at still midnight, walk about an oak …

– Shakespeare, The Merry Wives Of Windsor

The plot was the usual sadomasochistic daisy chain of events known as “a lot happens.”

– Florence King (on writing a bodice-ripper)

An enjoyable if messy and incredibly dated read by an author who loved cliffhangers just as much as Dan Brown but whose research was better, this book doesn’t even pretend to be recreating actual history – it’s more like the nineteenth century forerunner to Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, in which we discover how Anne Boleyn’s fate was manipulated by the vengeful spirit of Herne the Hunter. Herne doesn’t spend much time here walking about an oak but instead works double shifts attempting to damn the soul of virtually every male who appears in the story, with a little kidnapping, borderline rape, and impersonation of clergy thrown in for good measure.

Our story begins in 1529, with Anne as the established love of the king and grumbling courtiers nonetheless bending the knee in public while gossiping about her behind closed doors. Among the men Anne has not enchanted are Henry Fitzroy and the Earl of Surrey (both adults here) who are enamoured of Elizabeth Fitzgerald (“The Fair Geraldine”) and regard Anne with tolerant amusement. Less tolerant is a butcher living near Windsor Castle named Mark Fytton, who describes Henry’s divorce of Catherine as “a wrongful act” and a few pages later is hanged for his outspokenness, though not before a mysterious, hooded visitor has stopped by his cell and offered him his life in exchange for joining Herne’s band. Fytton nobly refuses and dies, although apparently his refusal was to little effect, for shortly afterward a note is pinned to the door which reads “MARK FYTTON HAS JOINED THE BAND OF HERNE THE HUNTER,” so that we and the startled main characters all know that something sinister and supernatural is in the air. However, their search for Herne is hampered by the surly and uncommunicative forest keeper, Morgan Fenwolf, and equally surly and uncommunicative cottager Tristram Lyndwood, who lives alone except for his startlingly attractive and innocent granddaughter Mabel – “the fairest maid of low degree I ever beheld” is how Cardinal Wolsey describes her. He doesn’t want her himself – just as well, as it later turns out – but he thinks she would be just the sort of dainty dish to set before the king in order to make him forget about the perniciously Lutheran Anne.

So, what is Anne like? Here she is in a nutshell:

Of her accomplishments other opportunities will be found to speak; but it may be mentioned that she was skilled on many instruments, danced and sang divinely, and had rare powers of conversation and wit. If to these she had not added the dangerous desire to please, and the wish to hold other hearts than the royal one she had enslaved, in thraldom, all might, perhaps, have been well. But alas! Like many other beautiful women, she had a strong tendency to coquetry. How severely she suffered for it, it is the purpose of this history to relate.

This is Anne all throughout the story; ideal in all ways except for her one Fatal Flaw of flirtatiousness. Henry doesn’t mind it – at least, not yet – but Anne’s enemies, chiefly Catherine of Aragon and Cardinal Wolsey, have taken note and will keep trying to persuade Henry that this trait makes her a bad risk. Meanwhile, Anne’s friends aren’t helping matters, especially the love-crazed Thomas Wyatt, who in a “jealous fury” goes to the extreme length of hiding himself in Anne’s chamber, knowing that Henry will shortly be visiting her there, just so that Henry can “suffer as I have suffered.” On being reminded by her that this will probably mean death or banishment for both of them, his response is “better far you should perish by his tyranny for a supposed fault now than hereafter,” which doesn’t really make a lot of sense, but at any rate Surrey appears just in time to save the day – he’s heard a page telling the king that Anne had a man in her chamber, and contrives to make the situation look less fraught by threatening Wyatt into hiding and then telling the enraged Henry that the “man” was just Surrey himself, petitioning Anne for a favour. All is saved for the moment, though Surrey is sent to jail for a few months to improve his behavior, but Henry still has his suspicions and next time he sees Wyatt, orders him off on a diplomatic mission to France, with the unspoken implication that he’s welcome to stay there as long as he likes.

Instead of going to France, Wyatt goes to Herne the Hunter. It’s not entirely intentional; after an angry discussion with Cardinal Wolsey, Wyatt rides out on the classic dark and stormy night only to realize that Something is in the woods besides himself, and furthermore that this “devil” had probably been spying on him earlier. Wyatt decides to take the brave if monumentally shortsighted path and call for Herne, who promptly appears. It’s the work of a moment for Herne to promise Anne Boleyn to Wyatt in exchange for his “service”, meaning his soul, on the understanding that he’ll get her after three days trial period. The subsequent chapter heading “What befell Sir Thomas Wyat in the Sandstone Cave – And how he drank maddening Potion” brought to mind visions of the cave scene in the sixth Harry Potter, but what the potion does in this case is give Wyatt visions of Anne coming back to him, though he knows they’re illusive.

Meanwhile Wolsey is doing his best to get Henry into Mabel Lyndwood’s company by enticing Henry to go hunting as “a simple gentleman” and just happening to stop by the Lyndwoods’ cottage when it’s time for lunch. Henry is intrigued by Mabel, but her grandfather isn’t too thrilled and Morgan Fenwolf isn’t either, especially as the latter wants Mabel for himself. Further adding to the drama, Catherine of Aragon has made her way to Windsor Castle in disguise and manages to surprise Henry in the chapel; Anne, in her turn, surprises them while Catherine is denouncing her, and the result is explosive. Henry has promised Catherine one final favour, and now she calls it in. “You have pledged your royal word to me, and given me your hand upon it, that if you find this woman false to you she shall expiate her offence on the block. I call upon you to ratify the pledge in her presence.” Henry actually goes one better. “I do so, Catherine,” he replies. “The mere suspicion of her guilt shall be enough.”

Anne screams and protests as any sane human would, but Henry doesn’t see any reason why she should be upset. She’ll set “a greater guard on [her] conduct,” after all, so what problems could arise? A lot, as it turns out, when Catherine comes back with compromising letters written from Anne to Wyatt, in which she (shocker!) promised to love her eternally. Henry is temporarily swayed from Anne, but is brought back a few pages later when Anne discovers the existence of a secret horde of gold in the cellars at York Place and forces Wolsey into handing the entire place over to the king. Meanwhile, Herne the Hunter has been busy – in addition to appearing in Surrey’s cell to try and entice him into joining his band in return for an instant escape, he is of course the source of the letters Anne wrote to Wyatt, having snaffled them from the semi-conscious Wyatt’s clothes.

And here’s where the story starts to get really out of control. Herne, unlike most of the men in the story, doesn’t give even a passing glance to Anne Boleyn. The girl he wants is Mabel Lyndwood, since she reminds him of the girl he loved when he was still alive; however, Mabel has objections to being married to an undead groom and Thomas Wyatt – who forfeits the promise of getting Anne after he refuses to kill the king on Herne’s command – ends up becoming accidentally tangled up in a kidnapping plot after Mabel falls for him and Herne realizes that Wyatt – along with Tristram Lyndwood – would make great leverage if Mabel shows any hesitation about “giving herself” to him. What follows after is a truly dizzying series of episodes where Herne is usually in about three places at once; breaking evil henchmen out of Windsor Castle by disguising himself as a monk, threatening someone with death about every fifteen minutes, and foiling several escape attempts until Wyatt finally manages to get Mabel out of Herne’s prison. During the course of their captivity the information emerges that Mabel is not, in fact, a simple cottager’s granddaughter – she’s actually the daughter of Cardinal Wolsey, although the latter didn’t know it when he was trying to pimp her out to the king. (Although Herne sneeringly observes that it wouldn’t have made much difference to him if he did know). Wyatt and Mabel’s escape comes about too late, though – she dies in his arms, and Tristram Lyndwood wades out into a lake and drowns himself. He and Morgan Fenwolf had both been helping Herne out semi-voluntarily now and then, partly from greed for the rewards he could bring, partly from fear of what he would do if they refused, and partly for the simple gratification of watching Herne cause chaos among the noblemen at the Castle. Now Lyndwood can’t forgive himself, and doesn’t take the time to try. After all this is over, Wyatt … goes to France, just as he did in life. It’s pretty anticlimactic, really.

Also curiously anticlimactic is the last portion of the book, in which we’ve skipped forward in time to the spring of 1536: Catherine is dead, and Anne has a new rival – Jane Seymour. “Tall, exquisitely proportioned, with a complexion of the utmost brilliance and delicacy,” is how Jane is described, but nonetheless Anne doesn’t take her too seriously; just an enjoyable flirtation for the king, much resembling the flirtation that Anne herself is currently having with Sir Henry Norris.

She was mistaken. Jane Seymour was absolute mistress of his heart; and Anne was now as great a bar to him as she had before been an attraction. Had her conduct been irreproachable, it might have been difficult to remove her; but, unfortunately, she had placed herself at his mercy, by yielding to the impulses of vanity, and secretly encouraging the passion of Sir Henry Norris, groom of the stole.

She even gave Norris a copy of her own portrait, a fact which Jane Seymour mentions when Anne scolds her for having the King’s picture.

“I gave the portrait to Sir Henry as a recompense for an important service he rendered me,” said Anne, after a slight pause.

“No doubt,” replied Jane; “and I marvel not that he should press it so fervently to his lips, seeing he must value the gift highly. The king likewise bestowed his portrait upon me for rendering a service.”

The episode is enough to frighten Anne into warning the amorous Norris off: “That I am sensible of your devotion, and grateful for it, I admit, but nothing more. My love and allegiance are due to the king.” However, Norris won’t just let it go, and insists on taking Anne for a little stroll in which they just so happen to observe Henry VIII pledging his faith to Jane Seymour and promising that Anne will be out of the way very soon – and if that weren’t enough of a problem, Anne and Norris soon realize that they’ve been overheard by “a tall monk.” Fearful that he’ll tell the king what he’s overheard, Norris pursues the tall monk, only to discover that he is – surprise! – a bit more than he bargained for. “There is one way – and one way only – by which my secrecy may be purchased,” says the monk, and Norris rashly promises “his soul’s perdition” if that’s the only acceptable offering. “You have hit the point exactly,” says the monk, and after a few more minutes’ conversation to which we are not privy, Norris returns to Anne, “his looks ghastly,” and tells her that “you must love me now, for I have perilled my salvation for you. That tall monk was Herne the Hunter.”

He urges her to run away with him, to escape both the king and Herne, but Anne refuses; she’s queen, and will remain queen until the crown is forcibly taken from her. Herne, of course, is now busy seeing to it that this happens very soon. At the May Day joust, when Norris is going up against the king, Herne whispers to Norris to aim for Henry’s head in order to unseat him, and Henry’s ensuing anger is stoked even higher when the tall monk, who just happens to be standing by the royal box, points out the Henry that Norris is now carrying Anne’s favour on his spear. Arrest, trial, and execution speedily ensue; Anne and Norris are the sole targets, though brief reference is made to Anne’s father being imprisoned (although not executed, or charged with incest – which would be a new charge even for one so maligned as Thomas Boleyn). Herne has one last card to play, however – it turns out that his reason for contriving Anne’s and Norris’s arrests was so that he could procure her soul along with Norris’s, for Herne appears by magic in her cell and offers to set both herself and Norris free as long as she promises to give her soul to Herne. Anne refuses – “I may save my soul now; but if I embrace your offer, I am lost for ever …. I have yielded to temptation already, and am now paying the penalty of it.”

“Norris will say, and with reason, that you love him not,” cried Herne.
“Then he will wrong me,” replied Anne, “for I do love him. But of what account were a few years of fevered happiness compared with endless torture?”

And with a cry of “Take your fate, then!” Herne leaves Anne and departs for the forest, where the next day he meets Henry, awaiting the cannon shot that will tell him Anne is dead. “You are on the eve of committing a great crime,” he tells the disbelieving Henry, and “We shall meet again ere long – ho! Ho! Ho!” With that he takes leave of both Henry and of the reader.

SEX OR POLITICS? Well, Book 3 is a pretty substantial history of Windsor Castle, so in the sense that history is indivisible from politics, Book 3 qualifies for the latter. Books 1-2 and 4-6, on the other hand, are pure sex. Nothing happens on stage, naturally, but both Henry VIII and Herne are clearly in a fever to get their respective lady-loves deflowered as soon as possible. Herne, in fact, refuses to contemplate any other option even though Mabel makes it clear that she loathes him. “You cannot escape me,” he tells her, “You cannot avoid your fate. But I want not to deal harshly with you. I love you, and would win you by persuasion rather than force. Consent to be mine, then, and I give Wyat [sic] his life and liberty.” He’s not even the first person that evening to make that offer; before Herne’s arrival, the jealous Morgan Fenwolf tells Mabel that he “will set Sir Thomas at liberty, and run all risks of Herne’s displeasure, if you will promise to be mine.” Henry VIII and Anne are low-key by comparison.

WHEN BORN? Her age is never directly stated and since the book begins in 1529, there are no French scenes in which to deduce it, though since there are references to Anne having “trifled with the gallants” in France, she probably wasn’t a child. She doesn’t sound terribly old, though. Mabel Lyndwood is sixteen, so presumably she was born in 1513, when Wolsey was on a definite upward trajectory.

THE EARLY LOVE Thomas Wyatt to Anne, to the point where she’s written him several marginally compromising letters which he keeps on his person and which are stolen by Herne after he (Wyatt) is knocked unconscious. Anne herself is said several times to have loved Henry Percy early on, but we don’t see any of this in action. Unusually, Anne also has a late love in the form of the romantic and doomed Henry Norris. Mabel is pursued by Henry VIII, Morgan Fenwolf, and of course Herne, but the only one she loves is Wyatt, to whom she confesses this when he comes to help with her ultimately unsuccessful escape.

THE QUEEN’S BEES Lady Elizabeth Fitzgerald (“The Fair Geraldine”) and Lady Mary Howard both make appearances, as of course does Jane Seymour, who has a rare speaking role and even something of a personality – she may be snippy and unpleasant, but she’s astute enough to see that there’s something more than ordinary going on between Anne and Norris, and uses the fact as leverage when Anne says she’ll be banished from court.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR Will Sommers is this to Henry VIII – he’s “a great favourite with the king, and ventured upon familiarities which no one else dared to use with him.” And of course Herne the Hunter has a fair number of followers, all extremely faithful since they don’t exactly have other options. (Herne describes himself as “faithful” to them as well, often to the point of oppressiveness). Henry VIII has, along with Will Sommers, a duo of faithful archers, jokingly christened by him as the Duke of Shoreditch and the Duke of Paddington. Could this have inspired Conway Edwardes, four decades later, when his burlesque on Anne also featured Dukes of Paddington and Shoreditch? Unless we somehow unearth a playbill for a production of Windsor Castle from that year I don’t think I can ever be sure, but the names were striking enough.

THE PROPHECY Several, all grim and all accurate. Mark Fytton the butcher, after being condemned to death for slandering Anne (who tells Henry “Your highness has judged him justly”), tells her that “you yourself shall one day stand in as much peril of your life as I do, and shall plead as vainly as I should, were I to plead at all, which I will never do with this inexorable tyrant.” Catherine of Aragon later contributes another prophecy to this effect. “No, you shall stay. You shall hear your doom. You imagine your career will be a brilliant one, and that you will be able to wield the sceptre you wrongfully wrest from me; but it will moulder into dust in your hand – the crown unjustly placed upon your brow will fall to the ground, and it will bring the head with it.”

IT’S A GIRL! Elizabeth’s birth is mentioned, but that’s about it. Certainly we don’t learn anything about either Henry’s or Anne’s reactions to her, we’re merely notified that she now exists and will go on to become a great queen, and then hurry on the scenes with Jane Seymour. Neither Henry nor Anne have much to say about her later, certainly nothing about her disappointing gender.

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? No, but she does have another unusual feature – eyes that are “large and blue, and of irresistible witchery”. We’re told that she’s very appealing. “Her nose was slightly aquiline, but not enough so to detract from its beauty, and had a little retrousse point that completed its attraction. The rest of her features were delicately chiseled: the chin being beautifully rounded, the brow smooth and white as snow, while the rose could not vie with the bloom of her cheek.”

FAMILY AFFAIRS The only one of Anne’s family to make an appearance is her father (called “Lord Rochford” throughout). He’s the usual ambitious self-seeker – but Anne is more than willing to go along with him and he often has to hold her back and remind her that theirs is a precarious position. “Catherine had not the art to retain him,” Anne tells her father of the king. “Henry will never divorce me.” Her father’s reply is that she should “Take care he does not rid himself of you in a more summary manner … If you would stand well with him, you must study his lightest word, look, and action – humour him in every whim – and yield to every caprice. Above all, you must exhibit no jealousy.” Anne signally fails to heed this advice at any point during the book.

Her other family members are never mentioned – in a rare omission, even George Boleyn doesn’t make the cut (so to speak), and 3/5 of Anne’s supposed lovers vanish from the story with him – the only one to face charges here is Henry Norris, who though not guilty of adultery has certainly been urging Anne to run away with him, though where exactly they would go is left vague.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? Not exactly. She did flirt intentionally with Henry Norris and was certainly much more emotionally entangled with him by the end than she was with the king, but they never actually do anything, though given the way Norris talks it’s certainly no fault of his that they haven’t.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: Good pulpy prose, for the most part, and the dialogue isn’t too awful – there are “an’t please yous” and a few other archaic forms, but not so many that they drive the reader crazy. The action scenes are nice and vivid: here are Surrey and Richmond, pursuing Herne the Hunter in the forest.

While they were thus sheltering themselves, the low winding of a horn was heard. The sound was succeeded by the trampling of horses’ hoofs, and the next moment a vivid flash of lightning showed a hart darting past, followed by a troop of some twenty ghostly horsemen, headed by the demon hunter.

The Duke of Richmond bade his companion send a shaft after them, but the latter was so overcome by terror that he could scarcely fix an arrow on the string, and when he bent the bow, the shaft glanced from the branches of an adjoining tree.

The storm continued with unabated fury for nearly an hour, at the expiration of which time it partially cleared off, and though it was still profoundly dark, the duke insisted upon going on. So they pressed forward beneath the dripping trees and through the wet grass. Ever and anon the moon broke through the rifted clouds, and shed a wild glimmer upon the scene.

As they were tracking a glade on the farther side of the hill, the spectral huntsmen again swept past them, and so closely that they could almost touch their horses. To the duke’s horror, he perceived among them the body of the butcher, Mark Fytton, sitting erect upon a powerful black steed.

ERRATA Timelines are the usual spaghetti tangle: the Duke of Richmond is 18, three years older than the Earl of Surrey, and is already out of university in 1529 when in fact he wasn’t quite ten years old at the time. The Fair Geraldine and Mary Howard’s ages are similarly arbitrary, and some of the dates are off; Wolsey is said to have died on November 26 instead of November 30, for example, which development was probably the result of an encyclopedia typo. Otherwise it’s so far in the realm of fantasy that I don’t think it’s possible to talk about things being accurate or inaccurate.

WORTH A READ? This was a bear to summarize but I really enjoyed reading it; if you’re into pulpy Victorian fiction with lots of cliffhangers you could do a lot worse, and Herne’s ability to materialize anywhere and everywhere – “The friar had thrown back his cowl, and disclosed features of appalling hideousness, lighted up by a diabolical grin” – was genuinely unnerving. One very strange bit was the author’s choice to devote Book 3 (there are six in all, named after different characters) to the history of Windsor Castle up to 1843. It’s interesting and shows that the author certainly did his homework, but why on earth the interlude was placed smack in the middle of the story I cannot figure out. So if you pick it up, save Book 3 until after you’ve finished the rest of it.

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2 Comments
  1. Annalucia permalink

    Are you sure that Herne the Hunter isn’t just Angelo Caraffa, SJ, in disguise?

    • sonetka permalink

      No, he’s not interested in saving anyone’s soul (quite the opposite) and is pretty equal-opportunity about whomever he catches.

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