Sutton Place by Dinah Lampitt (1983)
This is a giant, tangled mess of royal curses, colliding time periods, Romany crystal-gazers, witchcraft imaginary illegitimate children, unwitting ghosts and, of course, a Haunted Manor. And I loved every second of it. The central conceit is that Sutton Place, home of Sir Francis Weston’s family, was afflicted by a curse which worked itself out upon the families who lived there by killing off their heirs untimely and driving the other inhabitants to madness and despair. Of course, considering the percentage of noblemen who died young and violently during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, it would be harder to find a manor which wouldn’t qualify as cursed than one that did.
It all begins a dream experienced by J. Paul Getty while on his deathbed at Sutton Place. He’s waiting for his dead son George to come for him, but instead of George he sees a vision of Edith of Wessex, unhappy wife of Edward the Confessor. Her unhappiness stems from the fact that Edward is a proto-Shaker who believes that all sexual relations are inherently sinful and becomes outraged when she suggests that he might want to do a little more in bed than merely kiss her forehead and then retire to his prie-dieu for the evening. Edward, already furious because of his political tangles with Edith’s father and brothers, accuses her of still harboring pagan sympathies and sends her off to a nunnery. She manages to bribe her captors into letting her detour to Sutton Manor in order to confront Edward one last time and beg him for mercy, both for her family and herself. “Edward, in the name of Christ, show your Christian charity. Remember I have committed no sin against you – all I asked was your love.”
Edward says nothing and turns away, and that’s when Edith snaps. She falls into what looks like an apoplectic fit on the ground, and this is what her attendants see:
They all heard her call to Odin to avenge her and Tom – a descendant of the raid that had brought Knut to England – said she called out to the Norse King as well. Everyone differed as to exactly what was said next, with one exception. They all heard her curse the Manor of Sutton for time immemorial, with the words “May it know death, madness and despair.” Will thought that she cursed the Lord of the manor too and this would have made sense for King Edward was lord at that time. But the frightened men all witnessed that when the malediction was done Queen Edith’s body went into violent convulsions and she lost consciousness.
Several hundred years later, Sutton Place has passed through the hands of several doomed members of the nobility (Hugh Despenser, most notably), and has now been granted to Richard Weston, loyal servant of both Henry VII and Henry VIII and father of Francis Weston, as well as two daughters. He’s decided to have the old manor torn down and a new, modern, non-fortified one erected, but even as the architect goes to work he starts getting an uneasy feeling about the place, which is only exacerbated when young Francis is discovered having a panic attack and saying he saw a frightening, ghostly woman by a well. Richard’s wife Anne Weston isn’t entirely ready to write that story off since she herself has begun having brief, strange encounters with strangely-dressed, shadowy people who don’t seem to see her, or else see her and are terrified.
Francis grows older and in his mid-teens is lucky enough to get a place in the king’s privy chamber, so off he goes to be taught his duties by Henry Norris and taught some entirely more interesting things by some of the young ladies who populate the court. Anne Boleyn is not one of these teachers, though he’s seen her dark eyes, dark hair, and semi-concealed sixth finger and become fascinated by her, although he’s not quite sure why. She’s in love with Henry Percy and it looks like she’ll shortly be departing for Northumberland anyway, but then King Henry, playing Ardent Desire in the famous Shrove Tuesday masque, gets a good look at Anne, as Perseverance, and tells Wolsey that any impending nuptials are off; he’s going to make Anne his mistress instead. Anne herself is less than pleased about this game and decides that if Henry is going to upend her life on a whim, she can do the same for him – and Wolsey.
We see her figuring this out in real time as she has a conversation with Francis after watching him play tennis. “The King is a better player than I, my lady,” Francis tells her. “But he is not nearly so fast. Therefore it seems to beat him, I must outrun him.”
He felt the brilliant eyes turn on him and looking at her saw a thoughtful expression on her face.
“To beat him I must outrun him,” she repeated quietly.
“That is what I believe.”
…. Suddenly very curious, Francis asked, “Will you be staying at Court, Mistress Anne?”
“Aye, for a long time,” she answered and her small white teeth showed as she smiled at him. “I think you have helped me decide that.”
“You have just given me some very good advice.”
Francis, nice, somewhat dimwitted man that he is, has no idea what she’s talking about, but luckily we the readers are able to see Anne’s inner monologue. She wants revenge for losing Henry Percy, and like many another Anne has decided that if love can’t be had, she might as well take gold and glory in its place. She reflects while perching in a tree and watching the unknowing Francis washing himself in the river.
They had married Harry to Mary Talbot with disastrous results and now it was up to her to take revenge for his and her ruined life. She thought of the King’s body – the first signs of corpulence just appearing, despite all the hard exercise he took. And as her dark eyes steadily watched Francis dressing she thought of his words. “To beat him you must outrun him.” Yes, she’d do that all right. She would run and run until the Queen’s crown was placed on her head and Henry Tudor would know – if he didn’t already – what it was like to physically ache with frustrated longing.
None of this happens as linearly as it sounds, by the way, since while Francis and Anne are both experiencing court in their different ways, we’re also being shown the Duke of Norfolk and his bastard son, Zachary Fitzhoward, whose mother was a Romany woman who was burnt to death by a mob for witchcraft. Zachary has inherited her scrying talents to an almost obnoxious degree and Norfolk keeps pestering him for inside information. We’re also shown the trials of Weston’s parents – his father has been given a post in Calais when he’d rather stay in the new manor he just had built, his mother keeps seeing and hearing ghosts and worrying about the curse on Sutton Place, and his sisters are having their own romantic travails. Weston’s mother is additionally very concerned about his friendship with Anne Boleyn, not only because he’s destined for a different Anne (Anne Pickering, promptly nicknamed Rose by Francis) but because Francis’s mother was an attendant and friend of Catherine of Aragon and can’t see Anne Boleyn as anything but a minx on the make. This opinion hasn’t changed by 1531, when Anne briefly visits Sutton Place with the king. Anne Weston, watching Anne Boleyn, sees what the last nine years have made her.
She saw that though her clothes and jewellery were now expensive and she had painted her face, yet those great dark eyes had an almost tired expression in them – as if she had travelled a million miles and was weary of all things. Just for a split second Anne Weston felt sorry for the woman who was rocking the monarchy to its foundations. It seemed to her that Anne Boleyn was no longer a free soul but drive by some relentless force.
“Remorseless, and bitter too,” is the verdict of Francis’s wife Rose, and when the narrative enters Anne’s point of view again, we can see that she’s right to some degree. Anne has made a trap for Henry and walked into it herself; now there’s no way she can marry anyone else, as there’s nobody else who would come near her and her entire career is based on the king’s wanting to make her queen. When Henry makes her Marquess of Pembroke in September 1532, it’s effectively understood that she’ll return the favour by sleeping with him, which she does without any enthusiasm. When she becomes pregnant with Elizabeth, Francis and Rose Weston are among the very few witnesses to her wedding.
The threads of the story begin coming together – though not completely — after Anne’s wedding. Since half the people at court have consulted Zachary for some helpful hints about the future, Anne seeks him out – and promptly tosses him into prison when he predicts that the baby will be a girl (Norfolk gets him out and dislikes Anne as a troublemaker even more than he did before). Zachary has already been tangled up in a subplot of his own where he’s married to Thomas Wyatt’s imaginary sister Jane and they have a daughter whose magical abilities might be called on too soon. Rose Weston is now waiting on Anne at court, and her antagonistic-but-polite relationship is detailed very nicely. She, like many other characters, is just a little put off by the sixth finger and Anne is aware of that and dislike it. Anne Weston keeps having portents about the curse on Sutton Place – not to mention that she keeps walking into different time periods, including Getty’s, and being seen as a ghost – and is especially nervous about Francis since he’s her only son and the heir to the manor. She’s convinced that his association with Anne Boleyn will somehow hurt him, which ultimately it does when he becomes involved with Anne’s cousin Madge Shelton while Rose is pregnant. He gets an attack of guilt and ends the affair after Rose slips him one of Zachary’s magic potions, but unfortunately it becomes fodder for Anne to tease Francis with at the exact wrong moment in April 1536. When he responds jokingly that he has more interest in Anne’s company than in Madge’s, the remark is remembered by Anne and is blurted out by her in terror after her arrest. She’s afraid of Weston as a potential witness, but the far-seeing Cromwell (whom we never see directly, he’s always a shadow in the background) realizes that Weston as witness could contradict the adultery story and so neutralizes him by having him arrested and condemned instead.
Weston’s family offers the king a literal fortune in exchange for his life, but it’s no good. The story of Anne’s adultery has to hold together, and if it’s going to be convincing, Weston and the other men have to die. Anne dies two days afterwards, and last of all J. Paul Getty dies after seeing his son’s shade coming for him, and realizing that the curse of Sutton Place took his son away from him as well.
SEX OR POLITICS? Sex, without a doubt. The curse on Sutton Place originates from Edith’s anger at Edward’s refusal to use her as his wife (as they used to say) and her ultimate banishment. Francis’s own sexual misadventures get a lot more airtime than any political or religious debates.
WHEN BORN? 1507 – Anne is described as looking fifteen or sixteen when she returns to England. Francis’s birthday is early in 1511 – Catherine of Aragon reminisces to Anne Weston about how her son Prince Henry, born on January 1 1511, was only a few weeks older than Francis. George and Mary Boleyn’s birthdates are left vague but since George is already established at court and Mary is married (not to mention a mistress as well) they’re almost certainly older.
THE EARLY LOVE Henry Percy, no doubt. They’re mutually infatuated, as Anne Weston notices when she happens to pass by them in a garden where they think they’re alone.
The rapturous way in which their bodies melded together told Anne Weston everything. This was no court flirtation with games of lust as the play and bed as the prize – the couple genuinely loved. A sense of relief filled her. Anne Boleyn had seemed to her a strange girl and it was reassuring to think of her safely married and bedded and out of the way in Northumberland.
Anne never loves anyone after Percy; her regrets in 1536 all stem from her pride and lost status, not from losing the king’s love, since she’d never liked him much at all. Anne is also something of a youthful crush object for many people – Mark Smeaton moons over her, Francis Weston finds her fascinating, Zachary Fitzhoward is very taken after one meeting and even after she throws him in jail for a while he hasn’t totally lost all feeling for her. She also lights the fire of at least one not-so-young courtier; the middle-aged widower Henry Norris loves her in a thoroughly one-sided way and ends up becoming engaged to Madge Shelton not so much because he loves her, but because he thinks this will help Anne’s faction by getting Madge out of her hair.
The Duke of Norfolk, of all people, gets a first love as well – Zachary’s now-dead mother, whom Norfolk calls the only woman he ever loved. (Of course, he’s talking to Zachary at the time so we have to consider the intended audience for this admission. Still, nothing written from Norfolk’s point of view actually contradicts it).
THE QUEEN’S BEES Anne Weston was one of these back when Catherine of Aragon was in the ascendant, and they both have fond memories of each other; Anne Weston (and by extension Rose, her daughter-in-law) are strongly inclined to dislike Anne Boleyn. Margaret Wyatt is her usual sensible self as Anne Boleyn’s friend, and her imaginary sister named Jane Wyatt ends up marrying Zachary Howard. Nan Savile makes a few appearances, an imaginary sister to Mary Talbot named Lucy deflowers Francis roughly twenty-four hours after his first appearance at court, and Madge Shelton makes an appearance as an extremely sexed-up, aggressive type who pursues, and beds, Francis several years later while his wife is pregnant. She’s been sent to court not to help Anne out but simply to make sure that if the king doesn’t want to sleep with Anne, he’ll at least still be sleeping with someone from the Howard family. And of course Francis’s own wife Rose (Ann Pickering, called Rose as a pet name and also so the author could avoid have three main characters named Anne) attends on Anne Boleyn although she dislikes her at first. Jane Seymour doesn’t have much to say but is unflatteringly described as dull and pudding-faced, and manages somehow to have a double chin and no chin at all.
And since Francis is a point-of-view character, we get a rare glimpse of the king’s household as well! Henry Norris is groom of the stool, of course, and takes the newly-arrived Francis on the rounds to introduce him to William Taylor, Thomas Cheyney, Anthony Browne, John Russell, and William Carey, and also has a lot of interesting and not-too-forced exposition about things like who the head of the privy chamber is and what Francis’s duties are.
“Now, you will share a room in another part of the palace with the Chamber grooms …. You will rise at six sharply each day and help the grooms clean the Privy Chamber and light the fire. At seven o’clock the Chamber ushers – Roger Ratcliffe and Anthony Knevett – will arrive to guard the door. Shortly after that the yeomen of the wardrobe will bring the King’s doublet, hose and shoes. He will hand these to one of the grooms and it will be your job to help warm them by the fire and take them to the gentlemen-in-waiting. You are at no time allowed to touch His Grace. Is that clear?”
I admit I love reading stuff like this – it makes the world they’re in seem so solid. Of course, Norris himself has a passion for Anne Boleyn, but restrains himself from making any indication of the fact because it would be dishonourable – for all the good that does him in the end.
THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR Zachary to the Duke of Norfolk, and a maid named Peg to Anne Weston. Mark Smeaton is embarrassingly devoted to Anne Boleyn – she’s responsible for raising him up from nothing to court musician – and occasionally fantasizes about sleeping with her, but at least he’s not stupid enough to voluntarily confess or boast about actually sleeping with her, as some other versions of Mark have done.
THE PROPHECY With a Romany seer in the cast, how could not have a few juicy prophecies? They’re all over the place, most notably when Zachary reluctantly tells his father what he’s seen in his scrying sessions: Anne will burn, and the Duke will be the man who sentences her. “It is you – who lost your love in the flames – who will condemn her to burn.” Norfolk is shocked, but rallies with the sort of reflection “that make born survivors the breed of people that they are,” namely, “At least I’ll live through this. And if Boleyn’s daughter is to bring havoc in her train then I’ll not quibble if indeed I am he who dooms her.”
The most significant one for Anne is, of course, the one he makes when she asks if she’s having a boy or girl.
“Forgive me, Majesty, how can I help you?”
“God’s blood and body, you know how you can help me! Consult your stars and glass. Am I to have a son? Does a Prince leap in my belly?”
“No, your Grace,” his voice was a whisper in the quiet room.
Anne stared at him blankly.
“What are you saying?”
“I am saying, Majesty, that you will bear a girl. A girl so mighty that she will become the greatest Queen this country will ever know.”
But Anne was not listening. Her eyes were dilated and her face drawn and haggard.
“You lie! Every other astrologer says a boy. You have not even looked at a chart, studied your crystal. How can you know?”
“I have always known,” he said humbly. “Forgive me – I hate to bring such bitter news.”
“God damn you,” she said, “you cannot understand what this means.”
“I do, your Grace, I do. The King has done the impossible. He is losing interest. You desperately need a son to strengthen your position.”
Anne ends up ordering him the Tower in her anger, which seems a bit rough considering that he didn’t want to tell her in the first place and, like many a male character in this book, is half in love with her himself.
Francis Weston gets his own brief moment of vision when he first meets the king and touches his hand.
He experienced stark terror for the second time in his life. His mind flashed back five years and he saw again St Edward’s Well and the ghastly spectre that had looked at him with that wild empty stare. He had known with certainty then that he had seen a ghost. And now he felt the same ghastly chill. It was incomprehensible. The big, kindly King and that long dead woman; there was no sense to it.
IT’S A GIRL! “The King turned his head away so that his uncontrollable tears should not be seen as the physician gave him the news. Was it for this that he had defied Rome, the Pope, and perhaps even God Himself? ….With a tremendous effort Henry rallied and called for a great celebration throughout the land. The Queen was safely delivered of a Princess who would be named Elizabeth after the King’s own mother. There would be rejoicing.”
DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Yes – several characters make sotto voce cracks about it being a sign of a witch. She tries to hide it under her sleeve most of the time, and in a moment I liked, she first displays it freely when showing off her wedding ring (though the other characters are still rather unnerved by it, they’re too polite – and cowed – to say so.
FAMILY AFFAIRS Anne isn’t the only main character so her family is somewhat pushed into the background, with Francis’s family getting more attention – the exception is the Duke of Norfolk, who gets much more page time than usual. He’s actually portrayed somewhat sympathetically for once – though of course, much of his relatability stems from his affection for his illegitimate son who didn’t actually exist, much as Thomas Boleyn owes his few three-dimensional portrayals to his second wife, who also didn’t exist. Still, it was nice to see Norfolk being confused, angry, stubborn – anything other than the usual chessmaster who moves smoothly and predictably because he’s already read the history books and knows exactly what he’s supposed to do, and when. Anne Weston calls both Anne and George “prize parvenus” but of course she’s not 100% objective. We only see George briefly, usually being sarcastic and devil-may-care about things and making the occasional acid comment about his wife, whom we never see and who isn’t mentioned in relation to the incest charges. Mary isn’t seen at all, but is mentioned a few times.
DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No. Even Anne Weston, who’s no friend of hers, refuses to believe that Anne could throw her position away for thrills. Francis, of course, has a brief affair with Madge Shelton (ended when his wife doses him with an anti-love potion from the ubiquitous Dr. Zachary) but his wife says later that his “true mistress” was gambling.
WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE You’ve seen a lot of it already, but while the prose does tend towards the purple it’s nonetheless vivid and enjoyable to read. I really enjoyed the trips into the various characters’ heads and there was always enough detail there to make the world seem real (or real-ish – I never quite bought that Zachary’s amazing powers of prescience could have been known to that many people for that long without someone either publicizing one of his predictions or having him jailed long before 1533).
ERRATA Alas for romance, Queen Edith doesn’t seem to have been the rejected virgin bride of a sexually warped Edward the Confessor, but the casualty of a political struggle between her husband and her family of origin; it’s true that she and Edward were childless (quite possibly another source of tension between them) but it’s a long way between that fact and Edward’s portrayal in the book. Thomas Boleyn is shown attending and judging at Anne’s trial, much to Norfolk’s disgust – he doesn’t like Anne or her father, but still thinks the man could at least pretend to be concerned about her. Luckily for Norfolk, the real Thomas Boleyn wasn’t there at all, although he’s caught a lot of grief for that as well. The Duke of Suffolk’s last wife is called Frances instead of Katherine, and she hates him and makes him as miserable as possible. She’s a minor character, but it still seemed like a strange change. And of course Norfolk’s Romany mistress and Zachary are made entirely of whole cloth, though I doubt that really needs saying.
WORTH A READ? Well, does the description sound appealing to you? Then I’d say yes. I enjoyed it immensely – there was always something happening (I haven’t even touched on some of the subplots – this book is dense in a good way), there was lots of detail which managed not to be overwhelming and a lot of capital-D Dramatic elements. The Anne Boleyn depicted here isn’t terribly different from a lot of others, but I thought she was well-done nonetheless – the point of view shifts really help here, as we go from the hostile viewpoint of someone like Anne Weston to Anne Boleyn’s viewpoint and see how a few changes in her inner monologue make a great deal of difference in what we think of her.
And of course, there’s the fact that Francis Weston is one of the main characters. While I didn’t get the impression that Sutton Place was cursed any more than hundreds of other ancient houses owned by the elite, I did appreciate seeing more detail about the Weston family. The author obviously did a lot of research on them and on their house (details like the “Tun gate”, and Richard Weston’s interest in architectural design were much appreciated), and it was good to finally read a book which acknowledged that the Weston family were not, in fact, supporters of Anne Boleyn and that executing Francis did nothing to hurt the Boleyn partisans at court. Obviously you can’t expect too much of the books in which Weston is a minor figure; to spend too much time delving into his back story would drag the book down. But it does get a little annoying to see book after book treating Anne’s “lovers” like a unit – all similar, all devoted to her, all targeted ahead of time and arrested at practically the same moment. Here instead we see the events playing out as they did; Weston’s family’s hostility to the woman whom their young heir was professionally obliged to charm, the early arrests and then Weston’s own detention a few days later thanks more to some freak remarks than anything else. It wasn’t enough to make me believe in a curse, but it was enough to make me glad that I don’t know any billionaires or high-ranking politicians.