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Anne Boleyn: A Tragedy by Henry Montague Grover (1826)

November 18, 2015

Anne Boleyn: A Tragedy was published in the same year as Henry Hart Milman’s Anne Boleyn: A Dramatic Poem and in fact was reviewed in tandem with it in at least one publication. (The Edinburgh Review, doing one of those those classic 20-page literary teardowns which seem to have been the nineteenth century’s most popular light reading). Milman’s play came out first, so he makes no mention of Grover’s, but Grover was acutely conscious of the fact that he had been beaten to the punch — and by a professor of poetry at Oxford, no less. Hence the reader is first presented with a several-page apologia and explanation in which Grover makes it clear that this play was in no way inspired by Milman’s work and in fact may have predated it.

The following drama was written by me in the months of January and February, 1823; and was shortly afterwards, at the instance of a friend, put into Mr. Murray’s hands for publication; who informed me that it was consigned to some person for perusal. It was returned, however, with a polite intimation, that, in consequence of the failure of some poem by Lord Byron, the public taste did not seem disposed towards works of the sort: and, in plain terms, that it was not convenient to Mr. Murray to publish it.

He goes on to explain that he put the poem by with the intention of revising it at some point, but that when Milman’s poem was published he read it and was dismayed to “find in it a series of resemblances, both in the plot and the expressions, to those of my own poem.” Therefore he rushed his own poem into print as fast as possible lest he be accused of plagiarizing, although he had no time for real revisions. He concludes by expressing the hope that the public will enjoy it, although he is “fully aware … how much it has to compete with in established reputation, which guards, like a protecting aegis, every literary production of the Oxford Professor of Poetry.”

Grover was, I think, over-sensitive about his competitor’s place in the world, because in spite of the defensive note struck throughout his introduction, his play doesn’t resemble Milman’s work any more than most books and plays centered around Anne Boleyn resemble each other. This isn’t to say that it’s any better, but it has entirely different weaknesses, and these weaknesses are such that by the end I was feeling rather wistful for Milman’s imaginary villain, Angelo Caraffa, S.J. Say what you want about him, he at least managed to stick around and see his plot through to the end. He may have appeared a little too often, but the characters in Grover’s play have the opposite problem; all too often they’re wheeled on for a token appearance, then wheeled off, never to be seen again. The play is a sort of literary Winchester House; every time you think you’re getting somewhere, you run slap up against a blank wall and the subplot you thought was turning into something interesting instead ends up vanishing along with the characters involved.

We open in what will prove to be characteristic fashion with two minor characters who are there to explain to the audience what’s happening before disappearing forever: in this case, the characters are Sir Thomas Audley and “A Lawyer” who are debating the rights and wrongs of “the King’s divorce from Spanish Catherine.” Audley is in favor of it, largely for practical reasons — the dispensation was fishy, but the real problem is that Henry now “broods on his private grief more than beseems / the public good” and the problem will only get worse with no viable male heir in the picture. His opponent takes the view that “expedience may not justify / Inflictions of deep wrong: nor to to attain / The distant and contingent good you hope for.” The argument continues for a bit, with each man expressing his fear that the country will be destabilized one way or another (Audley fears the lack of a male heir, the lawyer fears overly-sweeping church reforms if Catherine is removed). Neither man seems to think for a second that the king’s primary interest is really religious reform. “All the reform his Grace desires / Is in the Kingly chambers,” says Audley.

The new religion of the King is love;
And when the riot of fresh blood subsides,
Our Henry, like a youthful wanderer, will
Come to his parent church; and, to gain access,
Come with full hands.

They exeunt, and the scene transfers to Greenwich Park, where we see Anne and Henry enter, both in hunting dress. (This is in very strong contrast to Milman’s Anne, whose scenes are almost all domestic and take place indoors). Henry, it appears, has been teaching her to hunt and she’s been an excellent pupil. “So much I owe my teacher,” Anne says, when the French envoy Montmorenci praises her skill, and describes how she “did aim / the feather’d death” at Henry’s guidance, and, apparently, loved every second of it. A round of mutual flattery follows, as Anne and Henry are anxious to keep the French on their side and Montmorenci is equally anxious to stay in their good graces. The portrayal of Anne is, at this point, fairly intriguing; she’s much more active than Milman’s Anne, who didn’t hunt or direct anything except poor relief, but it’s clear that she’s also entirely submissive to Henry and considers it her duty to give him whatever he wants — a far cry from the Scarlett O’Hara-esque spitfire who would populate so many twentieth-century interpretations of her. She speaks briefly and with a bit of guilt about Catherine, but makes it clear that in her eyes Catherine’s primary sin is not listening to Henry.

I do indeed bethink, she does not well
To thwart Your Grace’s pleasure in this matter.
Were Henry’s mandate, so imperative
As thine to her, convey’d to Anne Boleyn
That she should aught submit to, to promote
The least of her lord’s pleasure; she would willing
Doff all her honours and her heart’s best hopes
To meet her sovereign’s will.

Meanwhile, in her chamber at Ampthill House, Queen Catherine is expressing a different sort of resignation to her faithful maid of honor, Margaret Lee. (This is, at least in my experience, the only time in which this particular woman has been depicted as Catherine’s adherent rather than Anne’s). “There is no sorrow, when the heart is free / From inward admonition” Catherine tells her, and goes on to relate the story which is illustrated in the tapestry they’re currently embroidering. It’s an involved tale in which a Christian princess is engaged to a Moorish prince although she loves someone else, and ends unhappily, but the moral, as Catherine points out, is that although the princess ended grief-stricken and alone, she was at least able to take comfort in the fact that she had acted according to her conscience throughout. “She was indeed most happy to possess / A mind so fortified,” says Margaret, who at this point is clearly talking about Catherine and not the princess in the tapestry. Margaret herself, alas, does not yet have a mind quite as fortified as all that, because she’s deeply in love with Francis Weston, who at that moment has just turned up to summon Catherine to the court at Dunstable. “Weston too / Who bears this forward part!” cries Margaret, but Weston protests — insincerely, as we’ll learn — that he’s actually Catherine’s partisan and is only carrying the summons because he doesn’t have any other choice. When Margaret rebukes him for doing so and says he should tell Henry where he gets off (I paraphrase), Weston’s dry response is that if he does, she’ll have to “take her love without a head / which I shall surely part with, if I follow / This loyal counsel.”

Weston might be able to persuade Margaret of his good intentions but he has less luck with Catherine, who refuses point-blank to answer the summons as she doesn’t recognize the court’s authority. “She knows no court but the just throne of Heav’n / Hath pow’r t’appeal her of her wedded vows …. Then let them wait, sir / And tell them, Catherine hath no answer; which / she will degrade her tongue by uttering.” Exit Catherine, never to be seen again.

Margaret Lee will soon after sneak out to have a nocturnal rendezvous with Weston, who instead enjoys himself by hiding in the bushes while she looks around for him. When she gets aggressively set on by a party of wandering drunkards, he belatedly sends a servant to get her away before anything violent happens. Margaret is not impressed when he finally reveals himself even though he tries to play it off as a joke, but Weston manages to talk her around by telling her about all the magnificent things he’ll give her when she’s married to him, although this will of necessity mean currying favor with Anne Boleyn — “in the assured safety of her favor / My wife must prosper.” Then the nub of it: “Come, Margaret, come; / Fulfil the promise you so long have pledged me, / And cease these wearisome delays.” He’s not talking about a promise to marry him. Margaret havers and finally says no since she can’t leave Catherine, and Weston leaves, vowing that one day she’ll be his.

Next we’re back at court where the admiring Montmorenci is watching Anne play the starring role of Diana in a masque she directed herself, during which a page sings “Forget Not Yet” and Anne presents Montmorenci with a hunting outfit and weapons. The persistent imagery of Anne as the huntress is a striking contrast with her attitude, which is closer to the complete submission of Catherine Howard’s motto of “No Other Wish But His” than anything. Certainly she has no inclination for participation in serious political matters, like Henry’s debate with Sir Thomas More, who’s quitting the chancellorship and trying to explain that it’s not any sort of personal antipathy to Henry, certainly not.

I do not judge the times too hardly,
But rather do accuse mine own unaptness
To keep their paces; but now my jaded mind
Lags in the rear, and is surpassed far
By the quick fires of younger counsellors;
My old tuned maxims are now out of note.

Henry isn’t buying this, since he can’t believe that any man could be sincere in “tell[ing] his faults so freely.

Upon mine honour, that your speech doth taste
Mostly strongly of flat treason; and in the mock
Of this humility is a most plain rebuke
And traitorous slander of your sovereign.

More naturally denies this and comes off looking pretty well. He’s never tried to take a side between Henry and the Pope — he prays for both of them, in fact, and his sole prayer now is that Henry and the Church will find a way to reconcile, so “you, my liege, may be its best defender,” but in the manner of a good lawyer he declines to say who or what exactly the church needs defending against.. Exit More, never to be seen again.

While all of this is going on, Anne is shunted off to the domestic sphere, where she and George Boleyn are happily discussing her impending coronation. “The pride and blossom of our happy house,” George calls her, but Anne sounds a slightly reluctant note: she thinks she’ll find “the duty arduous, but in a noble breast / The prize that costs most toil is loved the best.” George is uneasy, however, about More’s resignation: “I do esteem that man, and would have seen him / Maintain his office,” whether or not he has sympathy for the Pope. He wonders if More will find an ally in Norfolk, but Anne, endearingly but also incredibly naively, declares that once she’s Queen she won’t have to worry about that sort of thing and hopes to get along peacefully with everyone. Granted, we haven’t seen her showing a whole lot of political acumen until now, but even for a nineteenth-century Anne it’s kind of stunning.

As the soldier quits
His toiling marches, when the war is o’er,
And gathers the rich guerdons of his toils
In tranquil quiet, and sweet smiling peace;
So would I, being Queen, pluck from my mind
All thought of enmities to Anna Boleyn.

Scenes of Anne’s preparation for her coronation are now intertwined with a series of scenes starring “Peter, a Poet,” “The Landlord of the Dolphin” and sundry other commoners who have banded together in order to prepare a masque to be performed during the new Queen’s coronation procession. The best that can be said about this scenes is that they could have been longer; at first glance this interlude seems to be Montague’s attempt to replicate the Players from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.“Master Peter, if this little bit of a pageant should get me into favor at Court, you know I should be gratitude, that’s all,” says the Landlord. “But come you to the Dolphin; there is the best larder this side o’ Ludgate.” They argue over how many people are necessary for the cast, and Peter sketches out his idea: “The Lady Bountiful, which must be your wife, shall advance in likeness of the sun; bearing in her hands baskets of grapes and fruits, made artificial, and leading by her side a Cupid, with the bandage off his eyes … The Lady Bountiful pointeth to the Queen, and is a memento of the abundance of her means, to be abundant of her favors to you … And the two tapsters must be converted, one of them into Cupid, and the other into a goat.”

This grim outline should be enough to convey the flavor of these scenes, which contain a lot of terrible puns and goofy peasants pratfalling and screwing up their lines. Meanwhile, in another dimension, Anne is meditating in her rooms in the Tower of London, trying to reconcile her own joy with Catherine’s displacement and concluding, rather as she had at the beginning of the play, that it was unavoidable fate (in the form of Henry, but she doesn’t say that).

Yet, therein do I stand
Absolved from reproach; since, being fated
To this estate and Catherine declared
Unjustly crown’d, I do but tread the way
Heav’n hath appointed ….
Forget not, oh! forget not yet — most true —
Nor yet too deeply meditate, but learn
To chasten your big joys with Catherine’s sorrows.

She also has some fleeting premonitions of sorrow, though she shakes them off as being a result of her isolation.

Before she’s crowned, though, she’s finally shown engaging in politics, although characteristically this Anne ends up just punting the questions over to Henry instead of answering them herself. The Duke of Norfolk and Bishop of Winchester try to draw out an answer from her concerning the problem of an anointed ruler who breaks his coronation vows, but “Here comes my loving King; he shall resolve / This difficult question,” says Anne, and Henry enters and promptly puts the questioners in their places in characteristic style. “You, my lord Bishop, / Should better know your duty than thus preach / Unloyal reasonings”, and tells them that Church has extorted enough property and cash already for the remittance of sins and he sees no reason why he should add to their holdings by way of repenting — and cash and possessions are what he’s sure they would e after. Anne shows her essential sweetness by begging him not to be angry with them for just asking a hypothetical question, and off she goes to be crowned. At the same time, Master Peter and Co. go off to perform their pageant for her, and so in anticipation of a painful, possibly comic encounter, we turn the page and discover …. a speech by the God Mercury telling us that three years have now flown by at his poetic direction and now we’re going to see the conclusion to the story. So, no coronation, no comic pageant, and no more appearances from Master Peter and his friends, who like Catherine and More disappear without a mention. Why were they even there in the first place? Don’t worry, though — the sudden vanishings of major characters will be made up for in the second half of the play, when we meet several hitherto-unmentioned characters who play important enough parts that you’d really think someone would have at least wondered about them while all the earlier action was going on.

The first one appears solely to help conclude the subplot with Margaret Lee and Francis Weston. Weston has apparently tired of stringing her along (it’s been more than three years at this point), especially after Margaret finally gave in to him and, as she somewhat evasively puts it, “did stoop / To trust his honor in the shadows grey / Of the still lawns.” He sends her a letter breaking off their relationship because his court duties are too overwhelming and he doesn’t see any way that they’ll end soon — in other words, it isn’t her, it’s him. “I can no more — and thus he gives me up!” cries Margaret.

So be it, Weston. Well, then; my heart, as pure
And calmly set as e’er your false persuasions
Spoke to its hopes, shall seek a home more true.
Gadsden, I’m thine! Come when thou wilt, I now
No longer will reprove with distant looks
Thy honest love. Far from the treacheries
Of courts and courtly men, beneath the shades
Of rural quiet shall my life be pass’d.

Wait, who’s Gadsden? I had to look back and check, but no, this is the first we’ve heard of him. Gadsden, it appears, is the honest country squire who has loved her for years but whom she spurned in favor of Weston. He apparently also has second sight, because as soon as Margaret leaves the stage, dropping Weston’s letter on the ground in the process, Gadsden himself appears, along with his sister. Gadsden is telling her of his plans to put up a monument to the unobtainable Lady Margaret when he notices and picks up the letter. He has just time enough to see that it’s addressed to her, when Margaret comes back and Gadsden hails her.

Ye gentle winds, and shadows still,
Oh! had I but your pow’rs to woo,
With balmy breathings, Margaret’s will,
And guide her willing feet, as you;
Pass through those locks each raptured finger,
And round that form for ever linger.

Margaret tells Gadsden that she is “deceived by a false man”, but he and his sister both brush that off and make it clear that their feelings towards her are unchanged. Gadsden takes her arm to “bear off his prize” and Margaret, Gadsden, and the sister all depart both the stage and the play. Oddly, Margaret never even mentions Catherine of Aragon; presumably she’s dead by now but you’d think the subject of her whereabouts would have at least come up.

The other major character who appears out of nowhere is Lady Rochford, who’s conspiring with the Duke of Norfolk to depose Anne and get the King’s new paramour Jane Seymour elevated to Anne’s place. The nominal reason for this is that Norfolk and Lady Rochford are distressed by More’s recent execution and feel that Anne, as the root cause, must be eliminated, which will be difficult since she’s currently pregnant and king is pinning his hopes on the baby. However, there has been a promising development: “The quick spirits of the King are charm’d anew / Of this new flame” and she hopes to make the most of it. Why Norfolk is conspiring at all isn’t very clear since the impending marriage of his daughter Mary Howard to Henry’s son is mentioned and he makes it clear both that he approves and that it was Anne who brought the marriage about. Anyway, after an uncomfortable scene in which Henry, encouraged by Lady Rochford, is blatantly flirting with Jane right in front of Anne, Lady Rochford caps her efforts by having the Duke of Norfolk make sure that Henry just happens to overhear Lady Rochford and Jane Seymour as they take a moonlight stroll together and talk artlessly of love. Henry is, naturally, overcome and bursts out of the bushes to declare his love to Jane Seymour, who demurs at first.

Nay, Your Grace
I dare not so encroach upon the reign
Of Her Highness the Queen; to whom alone
Belong the secret counsels of your heart.

They flirt together for a bit while Lady Rochford and Norfolk rush back inside to “warn” Anne what’s going on, and thoughtfully escort her to the gardens so she can be shocked and horrified in person, not least by Henry’s reaction. “Is’t you, then, Anne / That, like the shade which haunts an evil mind / Thus comes across my path?” However, this rendition departs from the old story of Anne and Jane Seymour fighting; this Anne is too gracious for that. She apologizes to Henry, saying that her “intrusion was most heedless” and then collapses — a prelude to her miscarriage.

Henry’s reaction to the miscarriage is about as sympathetic as a knife between the ribs.

What, Anne; how fares the Queen?
We would have wish’d more welcome in this meeting,
And bade our consort hail with better seeming,
If she had been more favour’d of high Heav’n;
And brought the chief hope of our royal breast,
The heir we looked for. How comes it, Anne,
That you, whose every living thought should move
In strict obedience to our royal wishes,
Have thus forgot the duties of your state…

Anne pleads for mercy on the grounds that she’s never disobeyed him and has always been honest: “Did ever Anne, the favored Anne of Henry / Disguise from him the workings of her bosom, / Or hide the quick throbs of an anxious heart?” She also pleads that contrary to what he might think, she’s actually in serious pain over the whole business and regrets it even more than he does. Henry, not to be swayed, mutters that she’ll pay fort his treason and stalks out.

Meanwhile, Lady Rochford is hard at work on Jane Seymour, who’s starting to have some doubts about the affair. She loves Henry, but she also respects Anne and can’t quite reconcile the two emotional states. Lady Rochford tells her that the most foolish thing she could do would be to stop halfway when she could have gone the distance, and also reminds her that there’s a certain poetry to the whole affair — after all, this Queen is the one who

stole the title
Of the true owner Cath’rine; and pluck’d
The crown, unprecedented, from her.
Psha, psha! These consequences come of course,
And are not our own making.
Take you the gifts are offer’d to your hand
And leave the rest to fate.

“I know not / my own purpose” is Jane’s response, before admitting that when it comes to Henry “I cannot resist, nor sway the charm / May Heaven forfend me and preserve the Queen.” If you think this scene sounds remarkably similar to the one in Act I when Anne was justifying her own half-willing usurpation of Catherine, well, you’re not wrong. The insistence of both Anne and Jane on completely letting go of personal responsibility and handing it over to “fate” may not be a terribly attractive trait but it at least gives the reader a hint about just what Henry saw in both of them.

As it turns out, however, Lady Rochford and Norfolk aren’t playing Henry quite as much as they think. As he thoughtfully reveals in a soliloquy, he knows what they’re up to and is going along with it because, well, why not? Anne is “a thorn, and must be plucked out” so he can marry the sweet and innocent Jane, and if Norfolk and Co. are willing to do the heavy lifting of framing her, more power to them. Francis Weston has been nominated as a potential “lover” for Anne, since he’s extremely devoted to her cause, and Henry is just waiting for him to say or do something suspicious enough to get himself arrested. “Norfolk too / And Lady Rochford shall be my spaniels / To hunt this game,” he says — an apt enough simile since once again, as at the beginning of the play, he’s part of a hunting party, except that this time it’s Jane Seymour who turns up in hunting dress to accompany him. Henry finally proposes outright to her: “You must be mine; and for those modest looks / And tempting flowers of love, I will return / An equal, nay overflowing cup of fondness / And faithful constancy.” Jane demurs, telling him that whatever he might say, the Queen is still the Queen, and urges him to wait for a year and see what developments might happen. “While she holds that seat, it cannot be / That Jane is worthy of Your Highness’ love.”

Meanwhile, Anne’s friend Lady Worcester (variously characterized in the stage directions as either Duchess or Countess of Worcester) has got wind of what’s going on and has rushed off to Anne and George to let them know — George apparently so checked out of his own marriage that he’s stunned to learn that his wife doesn’t like Anne, let alone has been trying to frame her as Weston’s lover. Lady Worcester’s entirely sensible advice to Anne with regard to the Weston rumor is to “At once dismiss that man / On some presence of quarrel, for his duty / Unperform’d.” Instead, Anne tells George to summon Weston at once, so she can explain the situation to him and suggest a solution instead of just tossing him out on his ear. If you can see the potential pitfalls, well, you’re more on the ball than this Anne is. Weston appears, silver-tongued as ever.

My Queen so speaks
As if a lute should move its silv’ry notes
In mortal converse. What she wills, is to me
A law as strict as are the stern decrees
Of Ottoman or Turk.

Anne remembers, rather belatedly, that Weston was engaged to Margaret Lee for a long time, so she advises him to marry Margaret at once, so that the scandal being spoken of him an Anne will be “removed at once.” Weston protests that unfortunately, Margaret has married another, and Anne rather impatiently points out that there are many eligible “dames of the court”, so he should find and marry one forthwith and preferably remove himself and his new wife to another household. Weston chooses this moment to kneel and declare his love for Anne, who outright panics. “Am I beset with demons; whose deep malice / Looks from behind the thick enshrining curtain / …. away, base groom, away! / Nor tempt mine further anger.” Weston aways, and Anne collapses in the arms of the faithful Lady Worcester.

Arrest is imminent, and there’s only time for a brief conversation with Bishop Latimer, who’s reminding her that fortune’s wheel is always turning and that “he whose lavish cup / O’erflows with dancing pleasures, must look to ’t / Lest the bright sparkling chalice fail from his hand / And spill his rosy life upon the ground.” Then Norfolk comes striding in to arrest her, and Anne once again melts down. “Now hath my soul fulfill’d her auguries,” she says, then decides that she’s being too pessimistic. “My senses, press’d / With apprehensions of impending evils / Have ta’’en too wide a flight; I will recall them / And be more cheerful.” Lady Worcester accompanies her on her way to prison, while rebuking the others for for their unsympathetic attitudes. “May Heav’n so visit you, as ye do now / Beset my dear Queen with your bitter deeds.”

While Anne languishes in the Tower with Lady Worcester (who, you won’t be surprised to learn, quickly vanishes from the stage to be replaced by Lady Kingston) Henry is busy making his case to the council. Anne was raised up “to be the stock, whereon / To graft the scions of our succession” but alas, she “hath outrun the commonest voice of fame; / Which, though full-mouthed with her corruptness / Falls short of the true account.” Norfolk and the rest all rush to agree that these proofs are indeed damning and shocking, and after they all file out Henry soliloquizes for a bit, making it clear once more that he doesn’t believe a word of what he’s been saying, he just wants to switch out one wife for another and this is the fastest way to do it.

The poorest housewife changes oft
The tinsel and the gewgaws, that adorn
Her lowly person as the fancy changes;
Shall I, King Henry, then be crampt and staid
In the free scope and liking of mine eye?
To hold against my will the thing I loathe;
And be debarred from tasting that I love?
The thought is treason to our royal state;
And Henry is no traitor to the king.

Weston is then brought in to be interrogated by the King, and is informed that if he confesses he’ll be spared, but that if he denies sleeping with the Queen, he must “shake hands with the world; / For it and Weston must soon part company.” Weston, who until now has managed to look like a complete sleaze in every scene he’s in, manages to rise above himself long enough to deny everything in words that sound very similar to those attributed to Henry Norris. “May every pang, which Heav’n hath laid in store / For the most guilty of mankind, fall on me; / If I should e’er avouch a tale so slanderous”. Off goes Weston, now marked for death.

Anne’s trial, as it turns out, is a star turn for Lady Rochford, who makes speech after insinuating speech detailing Anne’s complaints about losing her privacy as Queen, her very friendly attitude to her brother (now also arrested, albeit offstage), and her “secret meetings” with men who were — horrors! — not all highborn. Weston, who has “boasted of the honors / The Queen design’d him” is bad enough, but worse awaits:

E’en her musician
Smeeton, a being of base and lowest extract,
Bred in the dregs of life, was oft incased
With his fond bird to teach — let all believe
The purpose, who believe that birds have souls
To sing in paradise — to teach it music.

The only person who resists or questions her testimony at all is Northumberland, although since he’s never actually mentioned as being Anne’s former intended some of the emotional impact of the scene is lost. When Anne finally gets a chance to defend herself (weeping all the while at her sister-in-law’s betrayal) she says essentially what she seems to have said in life; there was no proof, and her interactions with these men were entirely innocent.

Of Smeeton
I have no knowledge; save that once he came
With my sweet brother, the Lord Rockford,
To show me a new madrigal.

As for Weston “am I to blame, my Lords, / In that my servant should be so beguiled / With case conceit and coxcombry, t’indulge / Such idle visions?”

Norfolk tells her blandly that he had hoped to hear “some refutation” but under the circumstances he’s forced to find her guilty. Anne, all the while “avowing [her] innocence” declares that “If my death / May heal his Highness’ peace, I joy to lend it / Most freely to its doom.” She follows with a declaration familiar from the history books but which sits oddly on this particularly submissive Anne.

To my Lord, the King,
I have observed my utmost vows; though wanting
Perhaps, and I do own it as my failing,
In due submissive reverence to his failings.

This would make more of an impact if we had ever, once, seen Anne want reverence towards Henry. The only time we’ve ever seen her contradict him is when he accuses her of treason for miscarrying their son, and it would be a real stretch for any woman except possibly Patient Griselda to nod along with that sort of declaration.

Anne, back in prison, kneels before Lady Kingston and asks her to convey her apologies to Princess Mary for her treatment of her (this is the first we’ve ever heard of Mary — even Catherine, in her early appearance, didn’t mention her), is comforted by Thomas Cranmer since apparently Latimer was also contractually obliged to disappear from the play after one scene, and has a final soliloquy. “Now Anne is but a name,” she thinks, looking out at the stars and listening to the hammers thudding away as they build a new scaffold. “And so, being perfect in her date of life / The leaf is turn’d to note another’s story. How strange these quick transitions.” Looking out the window, she watches the scaffold being built as she remembers how she stayed in this room at her coronation and had a dire premonition on that occasion.

In this reality of grief, than when
The vision of my fate did prick my fancy.
So Heav’n doth temper all things. To my fate
I am so wooed, that I would scarcely change
The speedy consummation of my hopes
Beyond these stars, to be Queen Anne again.

Finally we see Jane and Henry, hunting together while awaiting a certain piece of news. A distant cannon fires, and he rejoices. “Now, Jane, the game is hit. To horse, to horse / And ride with majesty in this day’s chase.” They’ll hunt the rest of the day in honor of “Jane the Queen, and your thrice-wedded King.”

SEX OR POLITICS? The play keeps trying to take a stab at fleshing out the religion and politics of the time but never sounds very convincing. Norfolk and Lady Rochford are upset over More’s execution, or so they say, but that reason is tossed aside after about three seconds in favour of their purely personal hatred of Anne. The lawyers at the beginning argue about the validity of Henry and Catherine’s dispensation, but Henry and Anne themselves never have much to say about it. Henry’s reasoning is clearly that as the king, whatever he wants is right and God help anyone who crosses him, and Anne’s reasoning is very similar. There is absolutely no religious introspection in any of the character soliloquies. So despite the time in which it was written, I’ll say sex. It’s clear that the real driving force behind the play — to the extent that it really has one — is the extreme power of physical attraction and how the characters can use it to justify just about anything.

WHEN BORN? Not stated, nor for that matter is George Boleyn’s age so it’s not clear if she’s older or younger than him. (Mary Boleyn, as in many early works, doesn’t appear to exist).

THE EARLY LOVE Never mentioned as such — Henry and Anne’s romance is well underway when the play opens. However, the “Duke of Northumberland” (presumably meaning the Earl, that being the only Northumberland around at the time) does make a one-shot appearance at Anne’s trial, shooting down Lady Rochford’s testimony and expressing extreme skepticism over the woolly, highly dubious “evidence.” At the end of the trial he is “overcome with emotion” and leaves, but his previous connection with Anne is never actually mentioned, even though his behavior would become much more meaningful to the audience if it were.

FAMILY AFFAIRS George is the only one of Anne’s relatives that we see, and he plays his usual role as the cheerful, supportive brother (“The dearest brother / that ever sister prized” Anne calls him) who isn’t above cautioning her not to move too quickly and regretting that people like Thomas More are being pushed aside wholesale. Mary, Thomas and Elizabeth do not appear and are never referenced.

THE QUEEN’S BEES Uniquely in my experience, Margaret (Wyatt) Lee appears not as Anne’s faithful servant, but as Catherine of Aragon’s. Her origins seem to be more obscure than the real Margaret’s — she says that Catherine “took me, when a child / From a most fallen fortune.” Margaret is also being pursued by the ill-intentioned Sir Francis Weston, but refuses to leave Catherine while she’s in need. Weston pretends that he’s also an adherent of Catherine’s cause, but he’s actually the king’s man and is just saying what Margaret wants to hear. Their engagement ends badly after Weston seduces Margaret and then forgets that he promised to marry her, and after Catherine’s death Margaret marries the hitherto-unmentioned faithful country squire Gadsden and exits stage left.

Anne also has a faithful lady in waiting in the form of Lady Worcester, but she doesn’t have nearly as big a part as Margaret Lee — nor, for that matter, do either Jane Seymour (who’s shown as feeling highly ambiguous about Henry’s suit of her and reluctant to hurt Anne) or a Lady Geraldine who’s also depicted as a maid of honor to Anne but has only a few lines. Lady Rochford has by far the largest part of any of Anne’s ladies in waiting and she, of course, is entirely malevolent.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR No servant characters unless you count the comic yokels practicing their skit for the coronation, but since we never actually see them interact with Anne or any other highborn character it’s something of a stretch to have them in this category.

IT’S A GIRL! Since the play skips directly from Anne’s coronation to the beginning of her fall, we never see Elizabeth’s birth and, more unusually, barely hear her mentioned except for a very vague reference (from George Boleyn) to “expectations”, just before Anne’s coronation and Anne’s reference to “my dear innocent babe” just before her own beheading. The only obstetrically-related observations we hear from Henry are on the subject of Anne’s miscarriage.

We would have wish’d more welcome in this meeting,
And bade our consort hail with better seeming,
If she had been more favour’d of high Heav’n;
And brought the chief hope of our royal breast,
The heir we looked for. How comes it, Anne,
That you, whose every living thought should move
In strict obedience to our royal wishes,
Have thus forgot the duties of your state,
And leaving without guard the quick approaches
That ope the common way for crazed though
Into suspicious minds, have let your bosom
Foster a deadly care to your well-being,
And to the better hopes that were with ye?

It’s an ironic echo of Anne’s earlier promises to be, and do, everything Henry wishes. When she begs him for a little compassion, he makes it clear that his sympathy is reserved for one person only, and it’s not her. “God’s peace, ’t might well be thought I had miscarried / And you had lost an heir.”

THE PROPHECY None that’s explicit, but Anne experiences serious forebodings a number of times. Meditating on her upcoming coronation, she says

My heart is charged too full to bear
The flood of good, that pours into my breast.
With love and honours bless’d beyond all equal;
There is no higher path to tread. My way
Lies now along the level plain of life;
Or perhaps — but Heav’n defend me from such fate! —
Leads to some precipice of deadly height.
… I did but feed
My thoughts too freely; and the strange jar
Of past and present times, like ruffling winds,
Blew up a show’r of tears.

On the night of her coronation:

Oh! if the hidden spirit of prophecy
E’er visit now the earth with mystic bodings,
To fright the spirit with unfashioned warnings;
I could indulge my fancy in a train
So full of dire disaster, that e’en here
I could point out, as now before mine eyes
The crimson ministers of vengeance
… Would the King were here,
To chase these bodings from my heart!

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? No — no wen or mole either. Agnes Strickland had not come along to revive the legend of the sixth finger yet.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE I think the previously quoted examples will give you a pretty good idea.

ERRATA Most glaringly, Margaret (Wyatt) Lee was married to Sir Anthony Lee and not to anyone named Gadsden, and she appears to have been very much Anne Boleyn’s attendant during her rise, not Catherine of Aragon’s. There’s no indication that Francis Weston was ever involved with her; he was in fact married to someone else when he died. The chronology is a little out of order, which is hard to avoid if you’re writing a play — Anne is Marchioness of Pembroke as the play opens, and Thomas More resigns on the eve of her coronation, when in fact More resigned in May of 1532 and Anne was created Marchioness in September of that year and of course was not crowned until June of 1533. Her hunting with, and gifts to, Montmorenci were very real but took place several years earlier, in the late 1520s, and “Montmorenci” was in fact Jean du Bellay. (I have no idea why the name was changed: perhaps Grover was thinking of Anne de Montmorency?) Anne had five alleged lovers, not three, and though ordinarily I would understand why a playwright would trim Henry Norris and William Brereton out of the story, he’s already shown that he has no problem introducing random characters for one-off scenes and then never letting us see them again, so I don’t see why he couldn’t have done that for them as well.

I was pleased to note that in a stage direction, Anne was wearing a “robe of cloth of gold” which made me think that he must have taken a look at the Privy Purse Expences of Henry VIII, except that that’s not listed as being published until 1827. Could he have found a reference elsewhere or read the original accounts? Maybe he saw an advance copy, or perhaps it was just a lucky guess. Still, it was nice to see. In fact, Grover clearly did a lot of research on the topic — one of the many problems with the play is the fact that although he could put the information together he apparently had no idea how to edit or explain it appropriately.

WORTH A READ? This was a peculiarly frustrating work. It is, in most respects, much more accurate than Milman’s, except for the silly subplot of Margaret Lee and Gadsden — but that ends up being its worst weakness. Grover has done a lot of reading and he’s clearly introducing and then disappearing characters because it was the most literally accurate thing to do: More wouldn’t have been much in Anne’s orbit after his resignation, so he disappears from the stage, Catherine was banished to far-off locales, so she disappears as well. Cranmer visits Anne in prison because he’s on the record as doing so, and Latimer sees her earlier because that’s how it’s on the record as happening. Henry Percy only appears at her trial because in actual fact that’s probably the only time she ever saw him after the mid-1520s. Smeaton is, accurately, described by her as someone in her chamber only once and never even appears on the stage — but why drag him into things at the end and leave Norris and Brereton out? Much of this may be literally accurate but it makes for terrible drama (and let’s not even talk about that awful abortive “comic townsfolk put on a pageant” in which we never even got the satisfaction of seeing the final performance before Anne herself).

Furthermore, Grover knows his subject well enough that like many another aficionado, he keeps forgetting what his audience doesn’t know. Why is Anne apologizing for her treatment of Princess Mary when we never even heard of the girl’s existence before that passage, let alone saw Anne treating or speaking of her cruelly? What happens to Catherine of Aragon? Her death is never mentioned. We could infer it from Margaret’s willingness to go off with Gadsden but we’re never actually told. How did Henry even find out about Weston’s declaration to Anne? We know that it was information from Lady Worcester — acquired from her somehow by Thomas Cromwell — but in the play we’ll never find out. Why is Northumberland so determined to plead Anne’s case as far as he can? He may just be a fair-minded lone wolf but why on earth shouldn’t the audience know about his previous connection to her? It must have crossed her mind at least once during or after the trial.

So we have a paradoxical situation where Milman’s work, for all its baroque inaccuracies, is actually a better play, even with its imaginary Jesuit, filibustering Protestant George Boleyn, obnoxiously pious Anne and bizarrely lovesick Mark Smeaton. These characters all have goals they want to accomplish and spend the play trying to achieve them. Even Lady Rochford gets to have an actual motive for her actions towards Anne, albeit a rather unlikely one. In Grover’s play, by contrast, characters wander on and off-stage apparently for no particular reason, and the ones who stick around for multiple scenes are usually doing things because that’s how in happened in history. Norfolk turns on Anne because that’s what he did historically and not because he has any particularly noticeable vendetta against her. Ditto for Lady Rochford. Anne herself is just dull; she submits, cries, submits, and cries some more. After a few acts, one is tempted to cry “Help us, Angelo Caraffa, you’re our only hope!”

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From → Book Overviews

2 Comments
  1. Good to see you back and posting again, though I marvel that you can get through these stinkers without falling asleep over them.

    Thanks for the link to “The Edinburgh Review.” I wonder if the author was being paid by the word? He spent many, many pages on Protestants versus Catholics in their views of the Tudor era, before actually getting down to the poems themselves. But this would be a great opportunity for a writer of Regency romances – shoehorn in a scene of a tedious father or dull suitor reading aloud from one of these essays.

    • sonetka permalink

      Oh, I don’t know. Even the worst books take a lot of effort to write and I like to go into more detail about the books which are really hard to find, as a sort of online memorial. This may be a poor thing, alas, but it’s his own. As for the Edinburgh Review, maybe it was that, but in an age when reading was the primary form of entertainment articles tended to be longer in general for purposes of diversion and reading aloud. Look at all those 19th century articles about trials; no quick summaries, but pages and pages of transcripts — excellent for reading aloud. Also, consider that even though encyclopedias were becoming cheaper and more readily available, you couldn’t necessarily count on your readers having access to one, or to a convenient library if they lived out in the sticks — and of course they certainly weren’t going to be able to get online and fire up His Majesty’s Wikipedia. I’m sure a lot of his readers found the table-setting to be redundant but there were likely quite a few who genuinely needed it in order to fully appreciate the rest of the review.

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