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Defender Of The Faith: A Romance by Frank Mathew (1899)

February 9, 2015

Henry Percy doesn’t get the starring role in too many novels (the only other one I’ve encountered is The Queen’s Promise, from 2012) but at least the few he’s gotten have made up for their scarcity by providing him with a much more dramatic and adventurous life than he seems to have actually had. This novel gives us a magical mirror which shows visions of the future, an Italian poisoner, a wife for Percy who’s also the first love of Pilgrimage of Grace leader Robert Aske, a faked death, and, most unusual of all for a nineteenth century novel, a Thomas Cromwell who’s a suave, vaguely atheistic, murderous puppet-master who both lusts after Anne and is the true engineer of her downfall. In light of this it’s not surprising to find out that Frank Mathew was a Catholic novelist — Protestant ones tended to either ignore Cromwell’s existence completely or else to cast him as a glorified bystander. Henry VIII himself is a jolly sadist who enjoys domestic abuse and the occasional startling turn of phrase (“Stop crying, baby, I hate to see it”). It’s hardly surprising that Anne Boleyn, being merely an intelligent, flirtatious girl who enjoys the occasional prank and has a tendency to get in over her head politically, comes off as practically heroic. However, it’s Percy’s imaginary wife, the staunchly-Catholic Magdalen, who survives to the end of the book. And yes, it’s symbolic.

The book opens with Percy and his company, including Robert Aske, riding out to arrest Cardinal Wolsey. Percy isn’t particularly happy about it — “Because my marriage offended someone mighty at court, I am given this unwelcome command” and we soon discover that the “someone” is Anne, who resents Lady Percy. (In this book, Lady Percy is not Mary Talbot but Magdalen, last name not mentioned, who was a childhood beloved of Robert Aske but who was married off to Percy as an adult and with whom she has a daughter). There’s a bit of speculation as to how exactly the king will rid himself of Wolsey once he’s arrested. Cromwell employs one Dr. Augustine Ciarpella, “the Italian wizard” who owns a magical mirror and has a number of pharmaceutical cures for an overly prolonged life, but fortunately “his Majesty has a horror of poison,” Percy tells Aske, “else we would all go in terror of the subtle Venetian.” He has other reasons to dislike the subtle Venetian, among them the fact that his magical mirror showed Henry VIII a vision of Anne Boleyn when Henry asked to see what his potential next wife would look like. Seeing as she was betrothed to Percy at the time, this made for a very awkward moment, but when Percy rushed off to her to ask her to marry him the next day and thwart the prophecy, she became angry and sent him away. He retired to Northumberland to marry the virtuous if unexciting Magdalen and Anne is now on the brink of becoming queen. So far, so dramatic, but it’s about to get even more so.

After an arrest of Wolsey which goes by the book (Cavendish’s) Wolsey takes Percy and Aske aside for a confidential chat in which he both warns them about Cromwell’s duplicity and harps on the evilness of Anne Boleyn. “You were always unjust to her,” is Percy’s response, which is the cue for Wolsey to drop the bomb. “By Canon law, a betrothal is binding … Mistress Anne was betrothed to you secretly … I stopped the marriage, but there was no dispensation.” There follows a convoluted explanation about how he had meant for the incomplete dissolution of the betrothal to be a barrier towards the kings’ actually marrying Anne, and that if he had heard of Percy’s intended marriage he would have stopped it but he had a lot to do at the office that year, and so forth. It isn’t very convincing but the upshot is that Percy is not, in fact, legally married to the virtuous Magdalen and Wolsey feels that it’s his duty to let her know. Percy, not surprisingly, feels that Wolsey is being overly legalistic. “”Are my hopes to be strangled in the net of your canonical laws? Let priests keep to their books … by this splitting of hairs you drive men to be heretics…. I acted rightly. A boy and a girl were betrothed; but they parted and believed themselves free. Would she admit the betrothal? It would ruin her. The King does not know of it.” Ah, says Wolsey, but there’s a letter out there which refers to it, and Thomas Cromwell has it, so it will come out sooner or later. Meanwhile, what to do about the marriage of Magdalen and Percy? Aske is all for telling her and accuses Percy of “deluding her to live as your concubine” if he doesn’t. Percy himself isn’t very impressed.

I was to be Defender of the Faith in my turn. Here I renounce my long allegiance to Rome. Never again shall I kneel in one of your chapels. All this is your doing.

His return home after delivering Wolsey to William Kingston is less than triumphant as a result, since the first thing he does is let his fellow northerners know that he’s no longer part of the Catholic faction and won’t be contributing any troops to cause. Of course, since he can’t tell his wife the reason for his falling-out with the church, she assumes it’s because he still loves Anne, “that degraded girl.” She then proceeds to give him the silent treatment for what appears to be about six years straight, since when the story gets going again it’s early January of 1536 and Percy has just been summoned to court by Cromwell, who has a few matters of business to discuss — Anne, of course, chief among them.

“If she basked in the sun with everything her heart could desire she would be innocuous. We thirst for wine, and the gods lavish it on us as soon as the years have soured it to vinegar. Through many days the Concubine entangled the King. Now his strength dies, and his love verges on hate … An unrivalled comedian, a charming girl, full of criminal happiness and gaiety. All gaiety is innocent, as flame must be pure though it rises from the burning of filth. Vanity incarnate! An irresistible weed! … I’ll feign to respect her. Yet I must warn you that the years have shown other merits in that amorous child. Now she hates readily. Often her laughter is an ominous mirth: she may live to find it unfortunate…. Do you remember how the Bishop of Rochester’s cook was accused of poisoning, and the King had him boiled as an appropriate punishment?”

Anne herself finally appears, “mocking and sweet,” and making a show of power which is somewhat belied when the arrival of the king is announced and she has to hide Percy behind an arras (yes, really). The king and Anne then proceed to have a huge, terrifying fight about her supposed flirting with other men, which ends with Henry wrapping his hands around her neck to “encourage” her to cheer up.

“You choke me,” she gasped.
Still he throttled her. Then he flung her off.
“There – be warned,” he said grimly.
Gasping, she rubbed the tears from her eyes.
“No tears,” he repeated … “Laugh, baby. That is right. While you laugh you can do anything with me.”
“Then I shall laugh forever.”

Word conveniently arrives of Catherine of Aragon’s death, and Henry’s commentary (after a casual “Poor Kate! How time slips away!”) is to accuse Anne of poisoning her. Anne denies it angrily if somewhat less than convincingly, since about half an hour earlier she had been urging him to put Catherine to death for treason. Exit Henry, “laughing uproariously,” and not long afterwards, Anne is being arrested alongside Henry Norris, Mark Smeaton, and Percy himself and accused of adultery and poisoning. In a highly un-Henry-like move, both Anne and Percy are confronted by him in person, with Cromwell assisting.

The inconvenient early betrothal is brought up again, and Percy finally confesses to it after being told that if Anne is found never to have been queen, she’ll live and be sent off in disgrace somewhere. Anne herself isn’t exactly overwhelmed with gratitude for this. “There are hours when a gentleman should lie for a lady,” she tells Percy, and then tells him what their break looked like from her perspective:

Oh fool, to take a child at her word! [when she told him to leave] We might have kept happiness if we could have seen one another with old eyes in our youth. We turned our backs on it – whose was the fault? I sent you away; but how could I know your love was extinguishable by a petulant answer? Or is it shining still? Here, after that wonderful vision in the Magical Mirror, you were stern to me, claiming the immediate performance of my promise to marry you. And I – well, I was proud and not accustomed to harshness. I have grown used to it since. I wept all that night; but I was sure you would be kind in the morning. A cold girl your wife is – I remember her. You and she are apart. I would have loved you in degradation and shame.

It looks like Anne might actually survive, but Cromwell has another shot in his locker. Not only has she been indiscreet with various gentlemen, but she has also solicited Dr. Augustine to murder Catherine, writing “with secret Italian ink,” and Augustine was so repentant afterward that he confessed. Furthermore, she attempted to poison the king as well. Anne denies it frantically, saying that Cromwell was the one who had been pushing her to have Catherine killed — “he had always been behind me, urging me to be merciless.” When she rejected his proposal of bringing Augustine in to poison Catherine, he turned on her. When Augustine himself is summoned to be a witness, he confirms Anne’s guilt and is hauled off to prison, along with Anne and Percy. “Forgiveness is injustice,” Cromwell tells Henry when he shows a brief sign of wavering.

Percy spends the next few months in jail and only hears of Anne’s death by report, but when uprisings are reported in the north, Cromwell frees him on the theory that Percy will be a grateful ally to the crown up in Northumberland. Unfortunately, this is also what Percy’s northern compatriots think, especially once he rashly frees a captured Cromwell who was captured while scouting (he did it “because he is my enemy” he semicoherently tells Aske). Once he arrives home he’s promptly attacked by a gang of Pilgrims of Grace and only survives thanks to the heroics of his foster brother Allan Thorne, who’s been mentioned previously as being one of the few men loyal to him no matter what. Thorne goes furiously charging into the crowd while wearing Percy’s borrowed armor and is promptly beaten to death and thrown into the river. Everyone, of course, assumes that he’s Percy and off go the Pilgrims, rejoicing that the traitor is dead, while Percy (who’s suffered a head wound earlier on) grabs a purse and gets out of there, though not before it transpires that Aske has accidentally let Lady Percy on to the fact that she’s bigamously married. He ends up passing out at the threshold of a shepherd named Barnaby, and since he hasn’t got anywhere else to be and will be pursued both by Henry VIII’s troops and the Pilgrims of Grace if he reappears, he lies low for about half a year, tending sheep and listening to comic speeches from Barnaby on less-than-comic subjects like the total destruction of the Pilgrims and the gruesome executions of many of them, including Aske. One day, Barnaby brings back news gathered from Percy’s old chaplain that Lady Percy has been arrested is going to be burned at the stake at Westminster for committing treason. Off rushes Percy to his old home to see the chaplain and also to get a change of clothes, since he’s been wearing the same ones for half a year and the sheep-tending hasn’t improved them.

The chaplain is overjoyed to see him and gives him some bonus information: Dr. Augustine, who “escaped” from prison on the poisoning charge thanks to Cromwell, was later on poisoned by Cromwell once the latter realized that he was too dangerous to be running loose anywhere. But before he died he begged for a priest, and who should be summoned by Percy’s chaplain? Augustine confessed that Cromwell was the actual poisoner and that he had framed Anne by writing letters in her name in invisible ink. Off rushes Percy to Westminster, where he runs into Cromwell in Westminster Abbey. Cromwell, unflappable as always, is pleased to discover that Percy is actually alive; it turns out out he had delayed in arresting Lady Percy (and putting Percy’s daughter into the Duke of Norfolk’s household) since he had thought that Percy wasn’t actually dead and would surely emerge from cover in time. He updates him current events: Anne of Cleves has been hastily retired and Catherine Howard is in the ascendant. When Percy confronts him about Augustine’s confession, Cromwell has no problem admitting to it. “I shall not profit by his witchcraft again. Do you remember that pleasant device of mine, the Magical Mirror? I had put a sheet of glass in front of the hidden door; and there was the Concubine, dim on the steps, while behind her I watched you and his Majesty gaping together.”

Cromwell proceeds to do some longwinded but nonetheless interesting monologuing about his motivations. He had manipulated the Pilgrimage of Grace from the beginning, writing false pamphlets in Aske’s name, “So I furnished the rebels with a captain inexperienced in war and law-abiding and scrupulous and reluctantly obeyed by the nobles.” As for Anne “I once sought a helper in the Concubine … Mated with her, I would have set the world free.” The mirror stunt was a little too successful, however, and the king cut him off. No matter, says Cromwell.

Seeking myself under my many masks, I found God. The Word is the Life. Now I see God in everything, life in stones, birth in corruption. Worshippers kneel to themselves. Yet the vulgar need threats of damnation. For their sake I assume convenient religions … Tilling is killing. A spade must bring disaster to worms. The clod and the worm are as divine as the gardener.

In other words, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. Cromwell takes Percy to see the king, who is suffering enormously from old age and an ulcerated leg and can only get his mind off his own troubles by enjoying someone else’s. “Now I am sick and shunned and a laughing-stock … I wait to see your wife burn.” Percy gives him the transcription of Augustine’s confession, but Henry isn’t interested and rips it up. “Thus she tore Catherine’s letter,” he says of Anne, but is quickly distracted by the arrival of a message from Catherine Howard accusing Cromwell of sacramentarianism. Apparently none of Percy’s extended grievances were good enough, but one word from Henry’s current lady love is enough to get Cromwell arrested and his own earlier words of “Forgiveness is injustice” quoted back at him as he’s hauled off to his doom.

Henry hands Percy Anne’s old ring after witnessing this scene. “Tell him I spare your wife. Go back to the North and the joys of innocent love.”

You think that’s the end, right? Not quite. Percy joyfully takes the ring and tries to run to the prison — except that the door is locked and the king isn’t giving up the key. Instead he’s laughing at Percy for being enough of an idiot to believe him. “And I crush you!” Luckily, Catherine Howard still happens to be there. Having damned Cromwell easily, she has a bit more of a struggle freeing Lady Percy; she has to grab Percy’s sword and threaten Henry before he’ll give up the key. But at last he does laughs while telling Percy to “save your wife. Never let me see you again.” Exit Percy, presumably to save his wife in the nick of time and then head back north. Since they haven’t had a conversation in about seven years, at least they’ll have a lot to talk about on the trip.

SEX OR POLITICS? A bit of both. Cromwell’s dramatic speeches don’t have much to do with the day-to-day politics of the time, they’re more dramatic expositions of his own idiosyncratic religious views, but while he’s very unusual in actually cherishing feelings of his own towards Anne (even if not very attractive ones) they come second to his policy choices. When Anne rejects his idea that Augustine should be called in to kill Catherine of Aragon, he turns on and eliminates Anne; now that she’s showing signs of not wanting to be controlled by him, she’s become a risky proposition. All of this is of course in strong contrast to Percy’s actions, which are based on a deep emotional attachment to a particular person – whether it’s Anne, his wife and child, or to a lesser extent someone like Aske.

WHEN BORN? Not clear, though she’s frequently described as being young. Since none of her family are mentioned at all, not even her brother, the issue of sibling birth dates and birth order does not arise. The king describes himself as “twice your age” in what’s presumably early January of 1536 (news of Catherine of Aragon’s death arrives later on in their conversation) but as he was forty-four then, a literal interpretation would make her twenty-two, meaning that when they first met she was roughly twelve. However, since the passage of time is telescoped greatly here, with about six years’ worth of action happening two years or so, comparing dates doesn’t really tell you much. Let’s just say she’s a good bit younger, closer to 1507 than 1501.

THE EARLY LOVE Anne and Percy for each other, and (it appears) a genuine case of love for both of them, their subsequent actions notwithstanding. Magdalen is also the first love of Robert Aske, though the chaplain later assures Percy that Magdalen didn’t reciprocate his feelings at all.

THE QUEEN’S BEES “That white doll, Jane Seymour – and that saucy babe, Catherine Howard,” angrily denounced by Anne for luring the king away from her, are the only two mentioned by name. Jane Seymour, as usual, gets no lines and dies offstage, while Catherine Howard (who wasn’t even there at the time in reality) is the audience who listens to the “tragedy” Henry writes about Anne’s downfall while Anne is still alive. “Mistress Catherine Howard wept, and said I was a prophet,” the king boasts to Percy and Cromwell. “A girl of fine intellect – winsome and spirited! – Harry, I’ll read you the third act of it when I am at leisure.” Later Catherine proves her worth by both accusing Thomas Cromwell of sacramentarianism and forcing the king to free Percy’s wife.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR Henry Percy has a couple – the most dramatic is his former foster-brother Allan Thorne, “his attendant in sports and his trumpeter when the sports were arrayed” who shows that he’s a sturdy honest working man by having sunburned skin and “steady blue eyes [which] made the Earl think of lost happiness.” When Percy’s popularity drops over the religious divides, Thorne remains faithful to him as everyone else peels away, and when Percy returns after his spell of being jailed and is denounced as a traitor the Pilgrims, Thorne charges into a mob while wearing Percy’s armor in order to defend him. He is, unsurprisingly, killed within minutes. More comical examples are Barnaby the shepherd who takes Percy in after he’s fled the mob and fallen down unconscious and ill – Percy lives with him for what seem to be about six months, and learns how to tend sheep. Percy’s chaplain Friar Anderton is also on hand more than once to save the day with a useful piece of news. Norris is also faithful to Henry VIII, not that the latter realizes it.

THE PROPHECY Dr. Augustine has a supposedly magical mirror which shows you a vision of the future, though none of the heroic characters is overly impressed by it. “Prophecies lead to their own fulfillment,” is Aske’s verdict, and Wolsey says that “Erasmus jeered at such things … so did More sometimes. Yet I think he believed them.” It’s Henry VIII’s vision of Anne Boleyn as his future queen which begins his pursuit of her — and of course, it turns out in the end that the mirror was a fake, and engineered by the evil mastermind Thomas Cromwell. In terms of prophecies which were actually contemporary, we also see an episode straight out of Cavendish, when Wolsey remembers the prophecy of “When the dun cow rides the bull, then priest, beware thy skull.” And again per Cavendish, he thinks it’s too obscure to interpret effectively.

IT’S A GIRL! Because of the time skips, we never see Henry’s reaction to Elizabeth’s birth, and it isn’t discussed later. He is very concerned that Anne’s final pregnancy stay the course but doesn’t lay any particular emphasis on the baby’s sex. When Anne herself is about to be taken away after her last confrontation with Henry, she asks him to “cherish our little daughter Elizabeth. Pining for a son, I was cold to her. Elizabeth will never remember motherly love.”

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Never mentioned – though Anne still has fashionably wide sleeves. She does have hazel eyes and very dark hair, which Percy thinks of several times. (His wife Magdalen, whom Anne describes accurately enough as “cold”, has grey eyes).

FAMILY AFFAIRS Barely mentioned, though early on Wolsey describes Anne as the “daughter of a bad woman,” and when Anne is arrested she stays true to historical record by lamenting that her mother will die of sorrow. Since the story is told from Percy’s point of view, and in this version the breakup of their betrothal was entirely brought about Wolsey, it’s understandable that Anne’s family is downplayed, however, the complete absence of George, Thomas and Jane Boleyn from the story is very weird. Northumberland is equally bereft of real-life relatives; after his presumed death, his estates are claimed by Cromwell since he has no male heirs, and his imaginary daughter Cecily is put into the Duke of Norfolk’s custody. His father’s death is mentioned, but there’s no sign of his younger brothers.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No – on both counts, both adultery and poisoning, though Cromwell leaves Percy (and the reader) in doubt about the latter for a while. It turns out, however, that Cromwell actively framed her (going so far as to write letters from “her” in invisible ink) and she had nothing to do with any poisonings.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE I’ve quoted a good bit, though there’s much more where those speeches came from. Longwinded though they might be, they actually make pretty quick reading; they certainly don’t lack for drama. Henry VIII’s speech has mannerisms which probably didn’t seem remarkable at the time but which I found amusing mostly because they sounded so contemporary. I had no idea that calling a loved one “baby” casually went back that far, but he does it all the time. He also casually tells Percy that “boys will be boys” when reassuring him that if he did sleep with Anne, it isn’t necessarily such a big deal as long as he can prove there was a betrothal. One interesting clothing-related twist: Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII both have elaborately-described yellow outfits, but these are worn only on very unhappy occasions. Anne wears a yellow dress when she’s arrested and later on when she confronts Henry and Cromwell and is accused of poisoning. Henry wears yellow clothing when Cromwell is betrayed and Henry himself tries to double-cross Percy. Whether this was an ironic nod to the line that yellow was “a colour of mourning”, I don’t know, but it was emphasized far too much to be a coincidence.

ERRATA Mathew has a pretty thorough “Note” at the beginning of the book summarizing where it departs from history – really, it’s about as thorough as anyone should expect from a book whose subtitle is “A Romance”.

All the chief characters – except Lady Northumberland – are drawn from historical models. Many of the words ascribed to them are taken from historical documents; for instance, Wolsey’s words are main derived from Cavendish’s “Life Of Wolsey,” and Anne Bullen’s words in the Tower are based on Kingston’s “Memorial.” The writer adopts Chapuys’ explanation of Anne Bullen’s fall. Few of the scenes are historical. Aske was not present when Northumberland arrested the Cardinal. Northumberland died during the Rising of the Pilgrims of Grace. The King was not at the Council on the day of Cromwell’s arrest. The writer differs from Froude’s opinion that Cromwell was honest in his profession of piety. Other students believe he had no religion. It is known that he had been fervent in his profession of Roman Catholicism when that was convenient. The writer has used the “State Papers,” the “Baga de Secretis,” Strype, Godwin, Constantyne, the “Cabala,” and other authorities.

In other words “There’s no way most of this could possibly have happened.” Can’t say it any fairer than that – though it’s not strictly accurate that Northumberland died during the Pilgrimage of Grace, which had been ended by the spring of 1537. He survived into the summer of that year, though he seems to have been ill for a long time before then. And while there was a real Dr. Augustine, his last name wasn’t Ciarpalla, nor does he seem to have been anyone’s go-to poisoner (though of course they would hardly have talked much about it if he were).

WORTH A READ? Anne really jumps off the page in this one, though at heart she’s not really that much different from numerous other nineteenth-century Annes, especially the ones who appeared on the stage. She’s lively, flirty, intelligent, but with a tendency to get in over her head and at the end of life regrets that she was so thoughtless at the beginning of it. Certainly she’s not a natural politician, and although different characters make noises about her Lutheran tendencies, we never once see her discussing anything remotely theological — she certainly doesn’t philosophize like Cromwell does. Her anger at Percy, for having taken her at her word when she dumped him (she had assumed they would reconcile) makes her sound more like one of L.M. Montgomery’s incautious heroines than a sixteenth-century courtier. The one thing that makes her truly stand out is that she is explicitly stated to have been Cromwell’s puppet throughout most of her reign. He chose her to appear in the “mirror”, he prompted her to push for Catherine’s and Anne’s deaths, and he was very likely behind most of her attempts at religious reform. This is a highly, highly unusual take on her situation, even in twenty-first century novels where Cromwell consistently appears as the arch-villain. But this Cromwell, terrible as he is, struggles to be worse than Henry VIII, who’s just a sadistic brute. He really enjoys people’s pain, unlike Cromwell, who doesn’t particularly mind it but doesn’t go out of his way to increase it either if he doesn’t find it necessary.

The title is a double-edged one: Percy renounces the title of “Defender of the Faith” with regard to Catholicism early on and never actually tries to reclaim it during the story. What he does defend is (first) the faith between himself and Anne, which he had not known still existed, and (second) the faith between himself and his wife — although technically she isn’t his wife, they still married in good faith and he feels a spousal obligation towards her. He fails to save Anne, but he does save Magdalen — the symbol of Lutheranism (however little she says on the subject) dies, and the symbol of Catholicism survives. However, it seems clear that she’ll survive in a private sphere only. Percy makes it clear throughout the story that he’s not interested in being involved in government (to the surprise of Cromwell, who snarks that he’s the first Percy ever to turn down a chance of power) and at the end of the story it’s clear that both he and Magdalen will die if they end up at court again. Magdalen and her religion will live on, but only away from the court, and under threat of death if they show themselves openly.

From → Book Overviews

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