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July 17, 2014

Anne Boleyn is a difficult subject for a novelist. Her life seems to veer between a blank sea of under-documentation to hyper-detailed, minute-by-minute records of her actions and, sometimes, her conversations. Filling in the blank spaces in a way both interesting and consistent with what we already know is an enormous challenge, and while I’m not sure it’s possible to succeed completely in writing a really world-class novel which does this, a lot of writers have come close enough that it hardly matters. A lot more, however, have vaulted completely over the top while trying, and in the process have ended up producing fictional scenes and events which are unique in the least flattering sense of the word. So to entertain myself, I decided to make a list of the least likely and most cringeworthy fictional additions to the Boleyn story, with one caveat: they have to have happened only once. Anything that at least two writers have come up with was off-limits, I was looking for the things that were so wildly ill-advised that not even two people have attempted them.

This turned out to be a lot harder than I thought. There are, of course, gay George Boleyns, gay Mark Smeatons, and deformed fetuses in plenty — these are common memes and seem likely to remain so. Annes who actually cheat on Henry — before or after marriage — are thinner on the ground, but there’s still at least four of them. (Two of these feature Elizabeth being fathered by another man). Anne has an affair with Thomas Wyatt reasonably frequently, and still finds time to try dosing people with arsenic occasionally. But even when the plot really starts to wander, it will usually find a shadow-self in some other book. Anne’s fate being somehow entangled with Herne the Hunter? He turns up at least twice, in Anne Boleyn (1967) and Windsor Castle (1843). Anne being stalked by a jealous, malevolent dwarf bent on her ruin? Look no further than Norris And Anne Boleyn (1844) and Anne Boleyn (1912). Speaking of the former, that features an invented character who has also turned up twice, in very different guises — Mark Smeaton’s sister. In Anne Boleyn: A Dramatic Poem (1826) his sister is Magdalene Smeaton, sweet ex-nun who tries to save him from his fate. In Norris And Anne Boleyn she’s Mabel Smeaton, a dwarf woman who serves the Princess Mary and shows her essential villainy by doing things like taking notes at the Blackfriars trial (how dare she!) while the heroic Norris makes fun of her height and tries to shove her out of the place. The way the imaginary sisters are presented gives a sufficient indication of the way Mark is in both pieces — as Magdalene’s brother, he’s a heroic moron, as Mabel’s brother, he’s a sneaky, conniving louse. And while we’re on the subject of siblings, here’s another repeat I didn’t expect: Brother-sister incest. In The Other Boleyn Girl (2001) it takes place between Anne and George and results in a horribly deformed fetus. In Luther’s Ambassadors (2008) it takes place between Thomas Boleyn and his sister Margaret and results in … Anne. The sixth finger is a byproduct of the incest, we’re given to understand, but at least she’s alive and in her right mind. Yes, I’m still wondering where on earth that one came from.

But even with all of these worthy contenders being disqualified, there were still a few truly unique additions to the canon which were so unnecessary, so execrable, that I hope they remain unique for a very long time to come.


This turns up in The Boleyn Bride (2014). And nowhere else, thank God. Elizabeth Boleyn as courtesan turns up in other books, but there was so much WTF-ery in this pairing that I had to include it. George Boleyn, whoremongering cad, takes up with Smeaton and then generously recommends him to Elizabeth. “A pretty bauble: it plays well, and it sings too,” he tells her, and she decides to “sample Master Smeaton’s wares.” It turns out that he’s pretty and talented enough in the sack but whines too much and doesn’t know when to stop asking for attention. The author of this book was also responsible the equally-unique Katherine Howard/Anne of Cleves affair in The Boleyn Wife (2007) but I’m choosing this one because it’s more directly related to Anne.


Anne, The Rose Of Hever (1969) goes all-in for the theories of Margaret Murray and in the process dates the book immediately and fatally. Thomas Cromwell, court factotum, is a member of the Dianic Cult, along with lots of other influential people (including Henry Norris). He manages to persuade Henry that a pagan wedding in which the bride and groom engage in mutual bloodletting would be the best way to produce a son. It doesn’t work, of course, but that’s no fault of Diana’s, especially since I can’t imagine she’s the best person to ask for children anyway.


Hilary Mantel did some rather strange things to the Boleyn story on her way to the Booker Prize, but this was by far the most ridiculous. Up until this point, Mark Smeaton was a better-fleshed-out version of his standard sleazy, cowardly, vainglorious incarnation, but when Cromwell arrests him and has him kept in a closet with his Christmas decorations overnight, well… and it starts off so well, too. Cromwell invites Smeaton to dinner and they have a genuinely terrifying little chat after Smeaton drunkenly boasts that the Queen loves him and Cromwell pounces and asks for full information.

“We all want our supper, let’s get on, here is the paper and the ink. Here is Master Wriothesley, he will write for us.”
“I can give no names,” the boy says.
“You mean, the queen has no lovers but you? So she tells you. But I think, Mark, she has been deceiving you. Which she could easily do, you must admit, if she has been deceiving the king.”
“No,” the poor boy shakes his head. “I think she is chaste. I do not know how I came to say what I said.”
“Nor do I. No one had hurt you, had they? Or coerced you, or tricked you? You spoke freely. Master Richard is my witness.”
“I take it back.”
“I don’t think so.”

After this the servants park Smeaton in a closet with Christmas decorations for the night, and Smeaton, panicked, becomes convinced that he’s locked in with a ghost. He’s so terrified of being put back in there that he tells all.

When Mark tumbles out of the room he is grey with shock. Feathers adhere to his clothes, not peacock feathers but the fluff from the the wings of parish seraphs, and smudged gilding from the Three Kings’ robes. Names run out of his mouth so fluently he has to check him; the boy’s legs threaten to give way and Richard has to hold him up. He has never had this problem before, the problem of having frightened someone too much.

Smeaton spills about a hundred names, of which Cromwell selects the most useful, and off the craven Smeaton goes to prison while the readers are spared the sight of our noble antihero Cromwell actually torturing or threatening to torture anyone. It’s so bewitchingly written that only after shutting the book did I realize what lunacy I had just read. It was that good. And that bad.


I last read At The Mercy Of The Queen straight through in the year it came out — 2012. Time has fortunately dimmed most of my memories of it, but one that’s as sharp as ever is that it features two characters so dimwitted that not only do they manage to get married without realizing it, not even the author realizes it! Madge Shelton and her imaginary beloved, Arthur Brandon (whom she calls “Sir Churlish”) are in a pickle: not only is she betrothed to Sir Snidely Whiplash, I mean Henry Norris, but she’s just been informed by Queen Anne that the king has taken a liking to her and that she, Madge, now needs to become his mistress. She’s never slept with anyone, and doesn’t want either of those to be the first one. So while she and Arthur are roaming the woods, they decide that they’ll get married right then and there, and joining hands, both say “Before God, I marry you.” Then they have sex, thereby sealing the deal legally, except that they don’t realize it. Instead Madge trots back to court, reflecting.

Madge thought about what she had done with Arthur. Though they were not married by a priest, she felt as if God Himself had married them. She agreed with the Queen that between herself and God, there need be no priest. What had happened with Arthur, though many would think it a sin, felt to Madge more like a sacred union.

This ninny proceeds to have an affair with Henry, get pregnant by Arthur, get packed off home once Anne is dead and then unwillingly married off to a neighbouring squire to hide her pregnancy, never mentioning once the fact that she and Arthur made vows de praesenti and then slept together, which in those days — provided both parties involved told the same story afterwards — meant that they were legally married. She doesn’t know, and never figures it out. Neither does Arthur. I can only conclude that this is because the author didn’t know either — and this, for all the Dianic caperings and unlikely affairs seething between the covers of other books, is what puts this book at the absolute bottom of the list. It’s a failure of research so abject that I refuse to believe it could occur in two separate professionally-published novels.

And with all that said, I’m feeling much better now.

From → Essays

  1. Clare permalink

    In Brandy Purdy’s novel ‘The Boleyn Wife’ she has Jane Boleyn having Cromwell’s baby. I don’t think that’s ever turned up in anything else?
    Mantel, I think, is the only person ever to have George cry at his trial. I think that particular nasty little fictional device is only credited to her, as is the fiction that Cromwell hated the men accused with Anne due them appearing in the play where Wolsey is dragged to hell. Definitely a WTF moment!

    • sonetka permalink

      Oh my God, yes, that completely slipped my mind — I think part of it was not wanting to have most of the list be Brandy Purdy/Hilary Mantel inventions and the other part I think I had mentally filed that under “Jane Boleyn has a child unattested to by history”, which happens in several books. The list wasn’t meant to be comprehensive, just a compilation of the things that really lingered in my mind as “How the HELL do you even come up with that?”

      That masque really needs its own post, I think — actually, I want to do a post on masques in general as portrayed in the books, with Mantel’s version of Cardinal Wolsey Goes To Hell as the centerpiece. My main obstacle is that I’m having a hard time getting hold of books which say much about how those masques were actually conducted; a lot of drama histories tend to shoot straight from the Mystery Plays to Elizabethan drama and only give a few sentences to early Tudor court masques, and I really need to learn more. I’ve found lots of scholarly essays on one particular early play or another (if I ever finish my novel about George and Jane Boleyn, I have GOT to find some way to get Jane to see “King Johan”) but very little on the masques in general except for the same couple of facts about the Masque of the Chateau Vert (Anne played Perseverance, Mary played Kindness, The French Queen was Beauty) and Cardinal Wolsey Goes To Hell (performed at Thomas Boleyn’s behest, reprinted by Norfolk). I do wish I were closer to the UK and the original sources on all of these things, but in the meantime I’ll just keep looking.

      • Clare permalink

        Try looking in the online Letters and Papers of Henry VIII. There are mentions to masques and the expenses for them in the miscellaneous sections which may be helpful.
        All the original sources say about the Wolsey masque is that Thomas Boleyn commissioned it for the French Ambassador and that it was held at his home. Thomas’ expenses indicate that he had his own ‘players’ who he commission and paid for.

      • sonetka permalink

        I’ve read the accounts, lots of good information there, but unfortunately they’re not concerned with things like who had what speaking role, what sort of “acting” was expected of a noble person rather than a chorister or professional musician (would they have said lines or merely danced and been decorative?) and that sort of thing. Cardinal Wolsey Goes To Hell was certainly a Thomas Boleyn production (stay classy, Thomas!) but that highborn men would do the things she describes …. no, just no.

  2. Clare permalink

    Have you taken a look at Hall’s Chronicles? He goes into more depth about the various revels and masques. I also found a book by Enid Welsford about the court masque which is interesting and can be read online.

  3. To be quite frank, Cardinal Wolsey Goes to Hell sounds very boring. No wonder authors of Tudor novels use their imaginations to come up with something better. Just compare – the Planet masque in Anthony’s novel, the Jewels Masque in Cassidy’s Black Pearl and Anne’s masque of night and day where she dresses as a Tudor version of Cruella de Vil ,(Margaret George) with one side of her hair black and the other side, white.

    Of course, the top favourite would be Purdy’s Dance of the Seven Veils, that Anne performs in her novel.

    There is a brief enactment of the Cardinal Wolsey masque in the film, Henry VIII and His 6 Wives which may give you an idea.

    • sonetka permalink

      Those are all good — and let’s not forget the Leda and the Swan masque in The Concubine and E. Barrington’s “Anne Boleyn”, where Anne is practically the Mistress of the Revels and organizes about five different masques (not to mention dancing veeeery suggestively with her brother during a harvest-themed masque :)). Cardinal Wolsey Goes To Hell is unusual only in the way it’s been used as a plot-driver beyond “Anne looked very attractive during this and Henry wanted to have sex with her as a result.”

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