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The Novels Of Elizabeth, Queen Of England, Containing The History Of Queen Ann Of Bullen by Mme. D’Aulnoy, Translated by Spencer Hickman (1680)

January 5, 2015

Although Queen Elizabeth appears both at the top of the title page and in the rather grim-looking frontispiece opposite, she’s not the heroine of this book – rather, she presides over its framing device, which is an evening of storytelling taking place sometime late in her reign. “As Conversation did chiefly delight the heart of this Princess, it was herein that this great Queen (who was always projecting high Designs for agrandizing her Government) was accustomed to recreate her Spirits.” And it’s during the course of one of these royal salons that she learns the true story of her mother’s life and death; a story which includes forged letters, a vengeful ex-mistress, and several courtiers being accused of villainies on which the historical record is silent.

Assembling one evening at Westminster for a round of conversation and storytelling, the somewhat awkward subject of Henry VIII’s accomplishments is raised by one anonymous courtier, and, we are told

Some persons thought to make their Court in condoling the destiny of the Queen her Mother, of whom divers had spoken so differently, and the Truth so little known. The Queen, who was naturally good, replyed that Kings do usually guide themselves in a different way from particular persons, and that what passeth in their Cabinet-Council ought not to be divulged to all the World, therefore the Death of the Queen her Mother had till that time, upon politick Considerations, been kept secret …. But as the too great credulity of the King her Father ought in some measure to be blamed, she should be very glad that the Duke of Northumberland would relate it, he having been a Witness to the greatest part of those things which did conduce to that wicked Action, and he being exempt from Partiality.

The Duke then launches into the one hundred and fifty page narrative which comprises the first half of The Novels Of Queen Elizabeth by giving a brief history of Henry VIII’s early years. The promising start, his reliance on Wolsey (who although a butcher’s son is “a most pregnant Wit, capable of the highest Affairs”) and his youthful marriage to Catherine of Aragon, “a Princess infinitely wise,” although we’re told that he initially married her “not without some repugnancy” as he felt some scruples over her being his brother’s widow. Shortly thereafter he took up with the lively, attractive, but also ambitious and rather twisty Elizabeth Blount, who “loved Splendor and vast expence, nothing was there seen but Balls, Comedies, Turnaments and stately Magnificence.” Catherine of Aragon dealt with this indignity by rising above and pretending not to notice, hoping that eventually the birth of a son would increase Henry’s interest in her, but the son “whom she sent as a New-year’s gift to the King” died at the age of one month, while Blount’s son lived and was immediately showered with titles and preferments – all of which served to make Blount even more ambitious.

There were certain Circumstances in the Kings Marriage which made her conceive other hopes, and Woolsey’s Friendship being most necessary to her, she sought by all possible means to gain it; but he well saw her Power was so great that he feared he had too much favour’d a Passion which might diminish or at least limit his Estate.

Wolsey thinks Blount has too much influence over the King already and so begins to keep an eye out for opportunities to undercut her whenever possible. When Henry VIII first sees a certain young lady at the Field of Cloth of Gold – “there was no sight there comparable to the fair Ann Bullen … [and] King Henry … felt at the sight of Ann Bullen that his Soul was too great to be limited to one single passion” – Wolsey takes note. Unfortunately, Anne is waiting on Queen Claude and has to return to Paris, and furthermore she’s being followed there by Henry Percy, who has also become enamoured of her and whose prospects are looking a lot better than Henry VIII’s at this point.

[Percy] had submission and heat, perseverance and a certain sweet and agreeable temper of Wit … Ann Bullen was tender and courteous, her Eyes found him worthy of her heart, and he found no difficulty in gaining her love, after he had assured her of his.

After a run-in with Blount while bringing down the Duke of Buckingham (Blount is opposed and almost wins out) Wolsey decides to recall Anne from France forthwith so that he can maneuver her into Blount’s place. Anne has no idea why she’s been brought back, but when Henry begins pursuing her she “became nothing proud thereof, and found nothing subject of perplexity in this advantage.” She continues to love Percy, seeing him every day, and manages to become beloved by everyone at court – except, of course, Blount, who’s worried about this new object of Henry’s affection and begins an affair with George Boleyn so she can get inside information about his sister from him. Meanwhile, Henry has been developing “some sentiments of indifferency for the Queen”, and enlists Wolsey to find some way to end the marriage so he can contract a new one. Wolsey is thrilled and promptly starts planning a new marriage for Henry with the Duchess of Alencon, thinking that if he can pull off this marriage and get Anne into Blount’s place, “he might at the same time have a Queen absolutely for him, and a Mistriss for the King who was in some measure his Creature.”

But Anne, though becoming fearful of the King’s persistence (with his authority, after all, he has the power to make both her and her family quite miserable) resists him and during the course of her meetings with Percy decides that they need to get married as soon as possible before Henry makes any further moves on her – pending approval of their families, of course. Her father, called “Old Bullen” throughout, is cautiously approving; the Northumberland alliance is a good one, but he wants royal approval before consenting to it. Anne enlists Mary Tudor the elder’s help now, asking her to be the one to get approval from the King, on the theory that he’ll be less likely to refuse if the request comes from his beloved sister. Not so, as it turns out.

But he enquired of her whether Piercy was beloved, and having learnt the truth, he immediately quitted the Dutchess of Suffolk and sent to find Woolsey, whom he commanded to think no more of the Dutchess of Alencon for his Queen, but to employ all his Art to preserve Ann Bullen for him.

Wolsey rolls with it – even though Anne has been obstinate so far, “he did not believe that a person of her Age and condition have Constancy proof against a Crown.” In this, of course, he turns out to be very wrong. Despite a number of charming come-ons from King Henry, complete with veiled threats against Percy – “Abuse not my moderation,” he tells her, “I am not exempt from some transports I would willingly avoid …. the life of Piercy shall answer for what you make me suffer.” Anne nonetheless says she’ll always love Percy, as does Percy when he’s told by Wolsey that he should “free yourself” from this particular emotion – “Neither all the Powers of Earth, nor a whole Age of Reflection, can ever be able to make me change,” says Percy, after which Wolsey washes his hands of him, “since you resolve so blindly to destroy yourself.”

After this follows a long series of increasing trials for Anne and Percy, beginning with their separation; since word has gotten out that Henry’s divorce is now aimed at his marrying Anne, she’s getting a lot of unpleasant attention from the populace, as well as from Elizabeth Blount and (more understandably) Queen Catherine – who isn’t represented as being particularly unreasonable in feeling this. Eventually Wolsey suggests that Henry send Anne away from court until everything is resolved, which he does. Anne is thrilled. “I shall joyfully depart from a Court, where I am often forced to hear thos things that displease me, to retire into a solitude, where I may with liberty entertain my self with those thoughts that please me.” One though that pleases her is the thought of writing to Percy, but although her mother is sympathetic and helps her get the letters sent, her father is considerably less sentimental and, together with the Earl of Northumberland, starts conspiring first to make sure that Anne’s letters go astray and second to start forging letters from her proclaiming her love for the King, which Northumberland just happens to leave lying around in a place where Percy will see them. Percy is smart enough to realize that the letters are fake, but a combination of threats from his father and the news that Anne has been made Marchioness of Pembroke (which surely wouldn’t happen if she hadn’t given in!) make Percy finally give in and marry the Earl of Shrewsbury’s daughter. Not surprisingly, he “found not that tranquility in his Marriage which he expected,” and soon he’s back at court, depressed over Anne’s supposed faithlessness. And of course, eventually they bump into each other, and the sentence describing her reaction is my favourite one in the entire book: “She gave a screek when she perceived it was he, who took her surprize to be aversion.”

They eventually figure out what happened, but at this point there’s not a whole lot they can do about it – except, of course, for Anne to use her unwanted influence with Henry to get him to dispose of Wolsey at last. Since Elizabeth Blount and Queen Catherine are also gunning for Wolsey, albeit all for different reasons and they’re certainly not joining forces to do it – the measure of his days is a short one, and he eventually dies while travelling after his arrest, just as Cavendish described it – though weirdly, the fact that Percy arrested him never comes up.

After their journey to France in the autumn of 1532, during which the French King tells Anne that she should marry Henry (and she picks up another admirer in the form of Henry Norris), and her realization that her parents and even Percy think that marriage is probably her only good option at this point, she gives in and and is married to Henry in the presence of Rowland Lee, Thomas Cranmer, and lots of other people including her brother, who chooses not to pass this interesting bit of information on to his mistress, Blount. A bad tactical decision, as it turns out, because once Anne is publicly announced as Queen, Blount is enraged and determines that when she gets revenge on Anne, she’ll get it on George as well. To begin Phase One of her new revenge plot, she tells George that their letters are too easy to intercept and he should address all his love letters to her with “Sister,” to deflect suspicion.

In the meantime, now that Henry has Anne all to himself, he’s started to lose interest, and Henry Norris is more than willing to help him procure new mistresses, in the hopes that news of the King’s infidelity will allow him a free run at the lovely, grieving Anne.

Although her Beauty was nothing diminished by Marriage, the King could not forbear following his Inclinations for unconstancy, and became amorous of Jane Seymour. The perfidious Norris, who was the occasion hereof, pretends to make himself meritorious of the Queen’s Favour hereby, and acquaints her with the King’s new Amours, in hopes to please her therewith. She told him that since his Majesty had been pleased to honour her with his tenderness, and rendered her Condition so glorious, he was not obliged to confine all his Affections to her Person; and she should be so far from perplexing her self with an incommodious Jealousie, that she should be joyful to see him search his Satisfaction.

Blount, meanwhile, sees Henry losing interest in Anne but is not at all consoled by this since he’s now interested in Jane Seymour instead of returning to Blount and their son. However, she has no problem helping to drive a wedge into the rift, spreading rumours that Anne has been corresponding secretly with Percy, which nobody takes seriously. Then she plays her ace.

The fury of this enemy proceeded yet farther, and she reported in several Places that Viscount Rochefort was passionately in Love with the Queen his Sister, and received favour enough from her. These noises were spread abroad every where, and Tales which never lose any thing in carriage, were now augmented according to the old Custom. These Reports reached the King, who the rather gave ear to them to Authorise his Change, than that he thought there was any truth in them.

George is arrested, as is Anne – and so is Henry Norris, after the King receives an accusatory letter naming him while he’s watching Norris and George Boleyn jousting at the May Day tournament. It’s unclear from the text whether Blount sent the letter or whether it was one of Norris’s compatriots who felt that it would be more profitable to turn him in than otherwise. (Stolen and misused letters are very frequent occurrences in this version of Anne’s story). Anne is tried and nobly declares her willingness to accept a heavenly crown and to ask only for merciful treatment for her daughter. Blount, on seeing Anne’s and George’s severed heads, has a massive mental breakdown and lives out the rest of her life miserable both because of her betrayal of George and her continuing failure to get what she really wants – a crown for herself and legitimization for her son (who dies soon after Anne and George). Percy survives Anne by “only a few languishing days.”

Northumberland, who’s been narrating the story, concludes by telling his listeners that Anne “was not only Beautiful, Generous and Benificent, but was endowed with a real and true Wisdom, and was altogether worthy of that Grandeur to which she was raised.” Queen Elizabeth, who had had to leave the room during the account of the execution, returns, and promises that the next evening she’ll be the one to tell a story to the company. Said story is “The History of Bassa Solyman And The Princess Eronima” which concerns an escape from a seraglio, and which appears in the second volume of this book. But Anne’s part in The Novels Of Queen Elizabeth ends here, and so does mine.

SEX OR POLITICS? Politics – which isn’t to say that the politics are strictly accurate (Elizabeth Blount’s web of schemes and her use of George Boleyn, while very political, are also completely fictional). Everyone is scheming against everyone else, with varying degrees of success, though it’s notable that Anne isn’t one of them. She eventually surrenders and allows herself to be used for others’ ends, but the only really politically-oriented woman in this story is Blount.

WHEN BORN? Not stated. George is mentioned, albeit not by his given name, and isn’t given a birth year either. Mary isn’t in the story at all.

THE EARLY LOVE Henry Percy (Piercy, in the old style) – as is amply and dramatically demonstrated throughout the text. James Butler isn’t mentioned, nor is Thomas Wyatt. Henry Norris, however, joins the ranks of her admirers at a dangerously late stage, after she’s already been Marchioness of Pembroke and is clearly Queen-in-Waiting. During the meeting of Francois I and Henry VIII in autumn of 1532,

Norris was so charmed with her, that he could not forbear saying to one of his most particular friends at their breaking off; How fair is the Marchioness of Pembroke, and how unhappy is a man to have a heart so sensible of it as mine? The King passed by him at that instant, but the place was dark, and he not speaking it very loud, his voice could not be discerned.

This attraction leads Norris both to encourage Henry in chasing other women and to tell Anne about it, hoping that he’ll be able to, ahem, comfort her. She shuts him down in short order, but he’s still rash enough to write about his feelings in a letter to a friend, which of course is discovered (though not by Blount, for once). The letter is brought to Henry during the May Day joust, and Norris is promptly arrested.

THE QUEEN’S BEES Jane Seymour gets a brief mention, but Elizabeth Blount is otherwise the only one who has any kind of role – and what a role it is! Angling for a crown both for her and her son, trying to use Wolsey as a means to get it, helping to throw Wolsey down when he fails, seducing George Boleyn in hopes of getting information about his sister, and finally damning him for incest after discovering that he’s had the temerity to withhold information from her! It’s like she was given the chance to play Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford for one book and played it to the hilt. Why the author hit on Blount for the role of chief female villain, as opposed to anyone else, is a mystery, though I’d imagine it’s because she thought that Blount’s ambition for her son would be a good dramatic driving force. (It also should be noted that while Lady Rochford’s bad reputation was already established, the full depth of her supposed villainy wasn’t plumbed until Bishop Burnet’s history of the Reformation first appeared in 1679. It seems unlikely that Mme. D’Aulnoy would have read it, especially since delays in translation leave it unclear whether his book or hers was actually written first). No other maids are named but it’s implied that Anne was popular with them, since after she comes to the English court, Blount is “the only person who sought not her friendship,” and when she’s imprisoned in the Tower she consoles her maids, who are all weeping at the prospect of losing her.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR Anne herself to Catherine of Aragon (as long as she’s allowed to be, anyway) and earlier to Henry’s sister Mary Tudor – the two are good enough friends that Anne asks Mary to be the one to ask Henry for permission for Anne to marry Percy, thinking that he’ll be much less likely to turn down a request from his sister. (He turns her down regardless, but it does bother him to do so).

THE PROPHECY None to speak of.

IT’S A GIRL! Henry’s and Anne’s reactions are not recorded, just the fact of the birth. “In the Interim the young Queen was with Child, and was delivered of a Daughter who was afterward that famous Princess Queen Elizabeth.”


FAMILY AFFAIRS Her parents’ first names aren’t given but they feature nonetheless, and they follow a pattern which would be familiar to readers in the ensuing centuries. “Old Bullen”, her father, is at first kindly disposed towards his daughter but that doesn’t mean he’ll put sentiment over ambition; he’s quite happy with the Percy match, as it will improve Anne’s finances and status, but refuses to let the marriage take place until Wolsey and King approve of it. When they forbid it, he forbids it as well – and when he realizes just what Henry’s and Wolsey’s designs are for Anne, and that his daughter could potentially become Queen, he’s happy to pressure her, suborn messengers to make sure her letters go astray, and eventually to lie outright both to her and Percy in order to bring all this about. Anne’s mother is more sympathetic (allowing Anne to write secret letters to Percy while she’s in exile at Hever) but ultimately it’s “Old Bullen’s” opinion which counts, not hers.

The only sibling mentioned is George, though he’s only given his title of Lord Rochford and not his first name – in this, the author is more cautious than John Banks, who a few years later ended up guessing wrong and christening Anne’s brother as “John.” George is presented as an able and intelligent young man whose downfall is brought about by temptations of the flesh and a temporary plummeting of IQ which lets him go along with Blount’s suggestion that he address his letters to her with “Sister” in order to prevent suspicion falling on them.

This fair Ann had a Brother whose great Merit made a considerable figure in King Henry’s Court, but whose wicked Destiny inspired him with a Passion for Blunt. The Kings Constancy to her had hindred his discovery of it, but the levity which he now observed in him emboldened him; He took Blunt in one of those moments of despight wherein she passionately desired to be revenged on the King, and hoping for great advantages from such a lover as young Bullen, who could not probably be ignorant of his Sisters Secrets, she bound him in a commerce of Gallantry.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? Naturally not – this isn’t a surprising discovery, since on the first page of the story Queen Elizabeth’s virtues are being lauded and clearly “the Princess to whom she owed her Birth” must have been of sterling character as well.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE There’s not a lot of rapid-fire dialogue; it’s usually either description a long, dramatic speech from one of the protagonists. It takes a little getting used to but it’s clear and I enjoyed it – it was concise, quick-moving and much easier to get through than many books written centuries later. The speeches aren’t the easiest parts to read, though. Here’s Anne reproaching Percy for his supposed unfaithfulness in marrying.

In a more happy time, I should certainly have found the most sensible of all Pleasures to have seen the faithful and generous Piercy, but I ought to have nothing but horror for a man who after his dearness to me, is become unconstant, perfidious, and in one word the Son-in-law of the Earl of Shrewsbury …. You are married, can you say that I have given you Examples of levity, I whom neither King, Father, Favourite, nor Fortune herself could be ever able to shake, nay, even since you have betrayed me.

It’s not much by itself, but when Anne and Percy are hurling speeches like this one back and forth for several pages, a twenty-first century reader realizes just how accustomed she’s become to novel characters talking the way people do in television shows.

ERRATA Like a lot of older books, this one freely compresses the timeframe – it seems to take place over roughly five years at most. The entire subplot with Elizabeth Blount is really peculiar – I have no idea what Mme. D’Aulnoy’s source was for this story or if she just decided to make Blount the antagonist since it made sense for the mother of Henry VIII’s illegitimate son to have a strong interest in advancing herself. The real Blount did have Henry’s son (albeit eight years after Catherine of Aragon’s first son, not within a few months like in the book) but afterwards she seems to have been married off to a respectable, landed non-royal, which ended whatever nascent political career she might have had. A small but peculiar error in addition lay in the identity of the narrator of the story: the Duke of Northumberland. There was briefly a Duke of Northumberland in the middle of the sixteenth century, but he was beheaded by Queen Mary and the title was not recreated. The Percy family became Earls of Northumberland once again after this – they were descendants of Henry Percy’s brothers – but they were never dukes. A minor detail, and undoubtedly the author only meant that a relation of Percy’s was telling the story, but the swapping of titles was noticeable.

WORTH A READ? I would say so, especially if you want to make a comparison with the play Vertue Betray’d, which came out two years later and which was based on this book – up to a point. It departed dramatically when it came to religion – in the book, Anne’s religious affiliations are never explored and it’s only by reading between the lines that you know that there was even a real break between the church in England and the church in Rome. Additionally, Wolsey’s schemes, even if coloured up a bit, aren’t completely off from what he was doing in real life, and he dies on schedule and before Anne. The play retained the villainous Blount and her affair with George, but completely deleted the villainous Henry Norris and grafted the religious hysteria of the moment (the Popish Plot) onto the story by completely altering Wolsey’s character – instead of scheming to bring Anne up in the world, so she’ll be beholden to him, he tries to bring her down since he’s strongly opposed to her “Lutheran” ideology. There were lots of little moments in the book which I enjoyed independent of the play, however – Anne’s “screek” at seeing Percy, Queen Elizabeth’s overly-optimistic description of her father has having been deceived about her mother when it becomes remorselessly clear that he was no such thing and simply didn’t care how he got rid of her, and George Boleyn’s astonishment that a woman who’d slept with him could possibly turn on him afterwards. It’s not easy to find, but if you want it enough to dig it up, you won’t be disappointed. Plus, you’ll get a bonus seraglio story!

From → Book Overviews

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