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Luther’s Ambassadors by Jay Margrave (2008)

July 25, 2014

Inspired by Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors, this novel begins with a secret meeting between the young Anne Boleyn and the two future ambassadors themselves – Georges de Selve and Jean Dinteville. They’re all in their early teens and living at the French court, with ample opportunity to observe clerical corruption, most notably when the young de Selve was raped by a bishop. This last incident has convinced them that something has to be done, and they’re the ones to do it, so at the dead of night they meet up, cut their wrists, and mingle their blood together while vowing to fight the Church’s corruption from the inside. “We can persuade our own bishops and cardinals to spread the word,” says de Selve to Anne. “I, in my priesthood; you, through the influence of your great husband, whoever he might be, and Jean, here, as an ambassador.” Anne, in a rash moment, declares that “I will be a great queen!” but eventually dials it back a little and decides that she’ll be fine with someone who’s merely wealthy and powerful. As the lady of a powerful landowner, she’ll be in a good position to lean on the local clerics and push for an English Bible and similar reforms. However, there are complications along the way …

Although we’re told that these three have been friends for years, we don’t get much chance to see their friendship in action after the blood oath. After a brief interval in which Anne is pursued, unsuccessfully, by Francois I (“I like my women wilting and willing”) she’s recalled home by her parents in order to marry the Earl of Ormond. Home in a technical sense, that is – “An England she had not known for nearly ten years, to see a mother whom she hardly remembered and siblings she did not know at all except by report.” She knows them so little that she can’t even remember their relative ages. “George would, she thought, tell her what was amiss. They had been in the nursery together before going their separate ways of education. He had always been there, as long as she could remember but for the moment she could not even recall whether he was older or younger than her.” She’s sure that Mary must have been younger, yet Mary is already at the English court and married. Her parents tend to sidetrack the conversation when she asks directly about it, but one day her mother takes her aside and lets her know The Truth.

“Yes, you are your father’s first born brought to me after his sister died: do you understand? You were born a few months before we married. Your father told me all, and I forgave him, for I was betrothed to him in a holy betrothal …. Your father was repentant of what had happened in his youth, from lust and innocence with his sister. Only he and she knew, and mother Muncy. After we married, we lived first in Norfolk, in that remote Blickling Hall, and it was easy to hide the true facts. That is why he sent you away as a young girl and why we have been careful to confuse your age. You are, to the world, aged eighteen and that must be your official age if questioned.”

She implores Anne never to tell anyone about this since it would (obviously) destroy any future she has, and Anne, in severe shock, promises not to. And she doesn’t – aside from a significantly lowered opinion of her father, a tearful visit to her birth mother’s grave and the resolution that a strange conception means she’s destined for greatness.

You have to realize that from the moment this crazy revelation was made, I was looking forward to the end of the story. You don’t drop a bomb like that without having something come of it, do you? Either she’d crack and tell the wrong person at the wrong time, it would severely inhibit her friendships with her siblings, or longstanding whispers of gossip about Boleyn incest would end up rebounding on her and her (half) brother George. There are all kinds of possibilities when you have something like that lurking beneath the story’s surface. So I was happy to read through the scenes where Anne arrives at court and Cardinal Wolsey deputizes the foppish, lace-loving Henry Percy to befriend this mysterious Boleyn daughter and pump her for information, the scenes where Percy inadvertently falls in love with her and has a weeping breakdown when they can get married, the scenes where Anne decides to go for broke and introduces Henry VIII to a certain passage from Leviticus (while they’re playing a chess game, no less) … I could go on. She also brings one Tom Prideux with her from Hever – he’s a devoted servant with a mysterious, possibly aristocratic past, who shares her view on church reform. His quest to discover his real identity is the book’s subplot, and not a very interesting one – he does find out who he is eventually, if you’re wondering.

And after this long and winding road to the crown, Anne meets up with her childhood friends de Dinteville and de Selve once more. Remember them? They’re visiting England for a few months and the old friends get together to congratulate themselves on how they’re spurring on reform. Anne commissions Hans Holbein to paint a portrait of the two men, in commemoration of their visit and of the secret bond they share with her, and instructs him to make sure that the date is clearly Easter Sunday of 1533. (She’s commissioning this portrait before she’s married to Henry, I should make clear). Later on we’ll understand that she chose this date because Easter Sunday 1533 was the first time she was publicly prayed for as queen in England’s churches. How exactly did she know that was going to happen?

She duly gets pregnant, is crowned, and loses Henry’s interest – by the time she’s well along she can see that he’s already attracted to Jane Seymour, and realizes that a lot depends on her producing a son for her first child.

Elizabeth’s birth is a sign that Anne’s end is coming sooner than she would like. Still, Anne holds up – for the most part – and, looking into the newborn’s eyes, declares that if she has no other child “you must carry on my aim” and free England from Papal tyranny forever. Dinteville, holding the baby at the font as proxy godfather, “felt, even though he knew it was irrational, that he, de Selve, and Anne had done their work; they would succeed in building a new, better church.”

Then, straight on to the epilogue, in which Dinteville and de Selve are discussing the painting (de Selve wishes it didn’t exist, since his reputation as a good churchman would be stainless otherwise) and joking about the fact that de Selve’s story of the painting, supposedly about them, was really all about Anne.

“But she comforted you, de Selve, in the hour of your greatest need – did she not?”
“Hah, plotting at the same time!”

They conclude that Anne would really have wanted the painting to be called “Luther’s Ambassadors.”

And that’s it. No fall, no trial, no ironic accusations of incest. The end.

SEX OR POLITICS? Religion, with a bit of politics on the side. We see the young Anne reading from religious tracts and the French translation of the Bible, and lecturing Dinteville and de Selve on the contents in a way vaguely reminiscent of Hermione Granger scolding Harry and Ron about spending more time in the library. She also prays to St. Christopher to keep her safe from Francois I.

WHEN BORN? 1500, although given the awkward circumstances her father and (supposed) mother give out that she’s actually four years younger and send her to France very young so that nobody they know will notice the age inconsistency. Mary and George are actually two and three years younger than Anne but are supposed to be older.

THE EARLY LOVE In France, the fourteen-year-old Anne meets an Italian trainee soldier named Stefano and develops an innocent crush. “She found herself brushing the fabric of his quilted jacket as she passed him again but quickly danced on. Something in her knew she must desist from such a longing.” It never has a chance to get much beyond that, because Stefano disappears shortly after the bishop who raped de Selve is mysteriously murdered. Since the bishop’s entire household seems to be in a conspiracy of silence about the affair, the implication is that Stefano took ship for Italy one night, never to be seen in the story again.

Henry Percy duly makes his appearance as well; he’s deputized by Cardinal Wolsey to find out more about this mysterious young Mistress Boleyn but instead of pumping her for information he ends up falling in love with her. Anne doesn’t love him but is pleased with the idea of having a large portion of the north of England as a base for her religious reforms, and when he’s taken from her she dismisses him as a weakling (he does wear lace collars, after all) and decides that she’ll go for an even bigger fish next time. Interestingly, this is one of the very few books in which Anne doesn’t declare sweepingly that she’ll never marry the Earl of Ormond no matter what. She doesn’t want to do it, and doesn’t think much of Ormond himself (we never see him firsthand, though Elizabeth Boleyn calls him “that Irish idiot”); however, if her play for the king fails she’s ready to fall back on Ormond, since even Ireland is a better launching pad for reform than, well, nothing.

THE QUEEN’S BEES Barely mentioned. By the time of Elizabeth’s birth, we’re told that “The Norfolk faction are encouraging the spark the king has for that young Jane Seymour, despite the Seymour clan being enemies,” but that’s about it. Considering that Anne didn’t die until almost three years after Elizabeth’s birth, that particular spark must have spent a very long time kindling. It’s also slightly confusing, since Jane Seymour is described as Anne’s “young cousin” early on. Not that cousins couldn’t be rivals, but since Anne’s parents seemed pleased at the prospect of Jane attending Anne at court then, relations between the families have clearly deteriorated quickly.

Anne herself is of course a maid of honour to Catherine of Aragon, here depicted as a surly hypochondriac who convinces herself that she’s having a miscarriage every time her period arrives. She also starts sniping at Anne as her “rival” and making remarks about “You will have your king” when Anne has had roughly two conversations total with him.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR Tom Priedeux, foster-son of Anne’s old wet-nurse Mother Muncy, impresses her with his blunt-spokenness and also his inclination towards reformed religion, so she takes him to court with her as a servant. He has his own not terribly fascinating subplot where he’s trying to figure out his true parentage (and succeeds about three-quarters of the way into the book). There’s also a temperamental “master of ceremonies” (he mostly directs masques) named Jonril who at the end of the book makes a run for France on Prideux’s advice, since he thinks the birth of a daughter will doom Anne. There’s also a maid named Bridget, though she doesn’t get much attention.

THE PROPHECY Anne is given to making them; her two biggest are at the beginning of the book when she holds an extemporary bloodletting ceremony and prophesies that the church will be reformed through her efforts, and at the end when she gives birth to Elizabeth, looks into the baby’s eyes, and is struck by prophetic lightning. “Indeed, you have the brain of a man, I sense it. You will need to be as brave as a lion to survive this disappointment of your father’s, but I know you will succeed in the future where I may fail …. If I bear no other child for my lord you must carry on my aim and ensure that the Catholic Church never takes hold again in this island; that all can read the Bible in English, and all can make their own decisions whether good or bad.”

IT’S A GIRL! After a truly excruciating description of labour, Anne has the baby and the general reaction is “Silence. Disappointment. Wonder that Anne, the all powerful, confident, successful queen, had not produced what she had promised.” It is, in fact, the first time that Anne has failed to get what she wanted and the shock is correspondingly severe. Henry arrives to see the baby while wearing a “fixed smile” but says only that she’s a beautiful girl and that, much more importantly, boys will soon follow her.

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Yes, and Anne thinks it’s a result of her incestuous birth – certainly possible if the Boleyn family were already predisposed towards polydactyly.

FAMILY AFFAIRS The incest revelation kind of dominated here. Mary Boleyn gets a couple of references so we can be reminded that she was the king’s mistress for a bit (though the paternity of her children is never mentioned) and George Boleyn gets a scene or two in which he doesn’t leave too much of an impression one way or the other; he seems to be an agreeable sort. He does tell Anne that she is “all lightness and movement … [Mary] is dark and sombre …. who retires in matrimony, having done her duty by the king.” By far the longest scenes involving Anne’s family came just after she returns from France, when Elizabeth Boleyn makes the big revelation that Anne is actually the daughter of Thomas and his sister, who died giving birth to her. (And how they managed to keep that pregnancy secret, I cannot imagine).

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? We never get that far in the story, though given her extreme high-mindedness and devotion to religious reform, I’m going to go out on a limb and say she didn’t.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE The prose isn’t especially outstanding or especially terrible, except for a terrible tendency to both show and tell, a lot. “Stefano shrugged, a very continental gesture to show that he didn’t care,” is a typical example.

ERRATA Anne tells Holbein to make sure the painting depicts the men on Easter Sunday, 1533, presumably to align with the day she was publicly proclaimed as queen. Unfortunately, the painting actually shows them on Good Friday of that year. Anne also appears to have some language confusion – she describes translating terms from the Vulgate as forbidden, which it wasn’t. What got Tyndall and others like him in trouble wasn’t Latin but Greek and Hebrew. She also writes “the time will come” in her prayer-book in the “hated Latin”. If it’s the same prayer-book which still exists and is on display, that was written in French. Jane Seymour is described as Anne’s cousin – she was not. The ten-month pregnancy also strikes again, with Anne missing her second period just after Christmas, which when you work it out means that she would have been due at just about the beginning of August 1533. The sweat is also referred to as the pox – a very different and far more embarrassing, if less lethal, ailment. And of course, there is absolutely nothing to support the idea that she was a product of Boleyn incest.

WORTH A READ? It had good non-serious potential (admittedly it would have had much more if there had actually been more about Dinteville and de Selve in it than three scenes or so). But the incest subplot killed it. I don’t mind ridiculous plot devices that much, but they have to live up to their potential. To drop something like that on the reader and then have it turn out to mean absolutely nothing to the plot is just terrible storytelling.

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