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About St. Andrew’s Day

December 6, 2016

Cardinal Wolsey died on November 29, 1530, and as his servant George Cavendish recounted years later, he was mindful of the church calendar to the end.

And then I went to Master Kingston and gave him warning that, as I thought, [Wolsey] would not live; advertising him that if he had anything to say to him that he should make haste, for he was in great danger …. After [Wolsey] had eaten of a cullis [broth] made of a chicken a spoonful or two, at the last quod he, “whereof was this cullis made?” “Forsooth, sir,” quod I, “of a chicken.” “Why,” quod he, “it is a fasting day and Saint Andrew’s Eve.” “What though, sir,” quod Doctor Palmes, “ye be excused by reason of your sickness.” “Yea,” quod he, “what though? I shall eat no more.” (Two Early Tudor Lives, 186)

Just one year earlier, an altogether livelier scene had taken place on this particular feast day. In The Wives Of Henry VIII, Antonia Fraser recounts the story:

In 1529 a court dinner to celebrate St. Andrew’s Day, 30 November, gave Queen Catherine an opening, as she saw it, to upbraid the King for never supping with her privately …. In a temper, the King rushed from the room, and went to find consolation from his pretty sweetheart elsewhere in the palace. Anne Boleyn however was in no mood to play that particular role. The King found himself in the yet more disagreeable position of a man caught between a nagging wife and a nagging mistress. In her turn Anne Boleyn snapped at King Henry: `Did I not tell you that whenever you disputed with the Queen, she was sure to have the upper hand?’ Then from anger Anne turned to tears, as she lamented her dismal fate. One day the King would go back to the Queen and abandon her, she wailed: `I have been waiting long and might in the meanwhile have contracted some advantageous marriage, out of which I might have had issue, which is the greatest consolation in this world, but alas! Farewell to my time and youth spent to no purpose at all.’ (pp. 168-169)

As with many episodes in Anne Boleyn’s life, the sole source for the story is Eustace Chapuys — or, more precisely, whatever anonymous courtier reported this scene to him, as Chapuys’ direct contact with Anne was extremely limited and, being afflicted with gout, he would have found it hard to spend much time crouching behind an arras while Anne and Henry had their showdown. Since neither the source nor Chapuys were friendly to Anne, the story may well have been touched up a bit, but at the same time there’s nothing inherently ridiculous about it and it may have happened exactly as reported. It certainly paints a lively picture of Henry’s and Anne’s relationship and can make for an equally lively moment in a novel about her. However, until fairly recently this particular episode has tended to be either ignored or rushed past — when it has made a real appearance, it’s often been for the purpose of setting Anne up as a manipulator whose real concerns were far removed from the ones she actually stated. A few possible reasons for this follow (although there are doubtless many more).

The first possibility is the simplest: the late 1520s were an extremely eventful time for Anne and provided enough incident to fill an entire novel in themselves. From Anne’s near-death from the sweating sickness in mid-1528 to the failed Blackfriars trial in mid-1529 to Wolsey’s death on St. Andrew’s Eve near the end of 1530 — there was a lot going on even if you ignore the royal love letters which floating around about this time as well. Although the recent revival of the two and three-volume novel format has eased the pressure somewhat, a novelist trying keep things moving has enough major events to squeeze into that thirty-month period without taking too many detours. I’m not saying that the highlights-only approach is a good one, just that if someone is trying to keep the entire story of Anne’s life under three hundred pages, it’s an understandable one.

The second possibility is a bit more speculative, but I think finds some backing in the fact that, until recently, most of the novelists who emphasized the episode were in the minority who were openly hostile to Anne. Frail Anne Boleyn (1931) and Sow The Tempest (1962) both depict Anne’s distress with extreme cynicism — “the woman of Toledo tempered steel” as Frail Anne Boleyn calls her, coldbloodedly deploys her “passionate, wailing scenes …. over her frustrated love and lost youth and honor” entirely to bring about the arrest of Cardinal Wolsey. Sow The Tempest similarly depicts Anne’s complaints of “losing her youth” as calculated to light a fire under Henry, not because she had any actual fear of losing her chance at marriage and children. Jean Plaidy, more sympathetic, still depicts Anne’s lament as being partially calculated in The Lady In The Tower (1986). She is genuinely distressed at realizing that Henry has been allowing Catherine to influence him — “I thought: we shall never defeat this woman. She will always win” — but composes her speech (and leaves just as she finishes) in order to give Henry plenty of time to stew over the fact that “there were many men at Court who wanted to marry me”. The sympathetic YA novel Doomed Queen Anne (2002) pushes the episode forward a couple of years, to 1531.

The thing which all of these books have in common with each other (not to mention the vast majority of Boleyn-centered novels) is that they all assume that Anne was born sometime in 1507. It’s impossible to blame them for this: almost every history book the authors would have consulted would have told them that this was Anne’s birth year. If this were the case, then Anne’s loss of temper and lament for her lost youth in November of 1529 would have taken place when she was, at most, twenty-two years old. Even by sixteenth-century standards, Anne would not have been anywhere close to leaving her youth and marriageability behind her (although she may well have had the legitimate complaint that even though she was young, other men wouldn’t dare to come near her as long as the king was interested). Hence, Doomed Queen Anne gently pushing the date forward by two years, so that Anne is twenty-four years old and her complaint is marginally less ridiculous.

However, in light of scholarship showing that the 1507 birthdate is almost certainly too late, and that 1500 or 1501 is much more likely, the episode takes on a dramatically different look. If Anne Boleyn was closing in on thirty while the courts, prelates, and Henry himself dithered away while making no apparent progress, she could well have felt exactly what she’s reported as having said: that she had spent most of her twenties waiting for Henry, and received nothing in return.

The story has begun to come into its own in the last ten years, as the number of novels about Anne has exploded. (I still treasure a quote from an academic magazine published in 1951 which lamented the fact that two novels about Anne had been published in a single year and thought that this would saturate the market for the next decade at least). Easier access to the primary sources, combined with a widespread acceptance of the earlier birthdate, has usually led to Anne’s outburst being presented as largely if not completely sincere. Of course, not everyone is sympathetic. In Wolf Hall (2009) Thomas Cromwell is naturally not an eyewitness to the quarrel, but hears of it from Mary Boleyn afterward.

She looks down, glance swiveling away from him. “Worn down. Frayed a little, you might say. Christmas was …”

“They quarreled. So one hears.”

“First he quarreled with Katherine. Then he came here for sympathy. Anne said, what! I told you not to argue with Katherine, you know you always lose. If he were not a king,” she says with relish, “one could pity him. For the dog’s life they lead him.”

Mary goes on to inform Cromwell that there’s no risk of Anne’s being pregnant since she never lets Henry get past second base (I’m paraphrasing). There’s no mention of Anne’s lament for the lost possibilities of a husband and children, presumably because Mary had the opposite problem and very little pity to expend on the sister who has climbed considerably higher up the social ladder than she. (The scene makes an amusing companion piece to the scene in The Other Boleyn Girl in which an exhausted Anne confides in a similarly unsympathetic Mary about how exhausted she is with having to keep Henry dangling, as well as being terrified of growing old and missing out on having a child. Sometimes the reader has to remind herself that the Anne of Wolf Hall is critically certified as three-dimensional and complex, whereas the Anne of The Other Boleyn Girl is a one-dimensional stereotypical witch. Both books seem to forget these facts on a regular basis).

But a more typical modern example is the version of the quarrel in Je Anne Boleyn (2014), in which Anne tells Henry that “If anyone has a legitimate complaint, it is I! I remain loyal to you, love and honour you, when I have no guarantee at all that I shall ever become a wife, or a mother — nay, that I shall ever even have a chance to bear a child!” She leaves the scene not to let Henry fret over the possibility of losing her, as she would have done in a book from fifty years earlier, but because she’s afraid the servants might see her crying and run to the nearest hostile ambassador to tell all. The next day she apologizes to Henry — an apology well-greased with flattery, in which she tells him that she was really angry on his behalf, because Catherine and Wolsey were treating him as “merely another nobleman.” But even this is still her genuine opinion — she’s just so in awe of Henry’s glory that she becomes furious at anyone who would deny him anything.

The story of Anne’s outburst is a simple and intriguing little episode which has been used to illustrate her character in several incompatible ways — it’s been used to show that she was a coldblooded manipulator, that she was sincere in her feelings but nonetheless careful about when to deploy them, and that she was completely sincere and straightforward about her feelings on this subject and in fact suffered from her inability to conceal her feelings. We will never be able to peer into Anne’s mind and see what she was “really” feeling — she may not have been completely sure herself. However, there is one detail about the date on which it occurred which I have never seen mentioned in a novel about Anne and which may be of some relevance to her emotional state. Advent, the beginning of the new liturgical year in the Roman Catholic Church, begins on the Sunday closest to St. Andrew’s Day. Anne’s lament for the passing of time may have been sparked by the fact that the year had just ended — not the calendar year (which wouldn’t technically end for another four months, although the court celebrated the New Year on January 1st) but the liturgical year. Another liturgical year had begun, another Advent season was upon her, and she was no further ahead than she had been twelve months earlier. Hence the cry of “Farewell to my time and youth spent to no purpose at all!” To see another year gone and nothing improved must have been dismal — no wonder both she and Queen Catherine felt quarrelsome that evening.

From → Essays

  1. I just want to say that Agnes Strickland actually suggested that Anne was born in 1501/2 and was older than her sister Mary. So I’d guess that earlier authors who favoured a 1507 birthdate for their novels were probably influenced by Gardner, who published several essays on the Boleyn sisters.

    • sonetka permalink

      Oh good lord, you’re right. That’s embarrassing, considering the number of times I’ve gone through the relevant bits of Strickland’s work. Thanks for catching that, I’ve corrected it. (And now I’m puzzling over why Strickland’s stepmother and Simonette the governess managed to hang on into the twenty-first century but nobody seems to have paid much attention to her take on Anne’s age!)

  2. Idhun permalink

    Why you think Mantel’s Anne is three-dimensional and complex while Gregory’s Anne is one-dimensional witch? I read Wolf Hall and I found Anne too stereotypical bitch/manipulator, even more than Gregory’s Anne.

    • sonetka permalink

      I don’t, I was being sarcastic in that aside. They’re both pretty nasty, so it’s weird to see reviews giving Mantel so much more credit than Gregory in that regard; I think Mantel is getting a pass because she writes capital-L Literature. One of the most irritating parts in The Creation Of Anne Boleyn was when the author was reverently soliciting Mantel’s opinion on how awful Gregory was and all I could think was “But you did the exact same thing!”

      • Idhun permalink

        Oh, I didn’t get the sarcasm (Oooooops!) I’m the same opinion as you, I would even say that PG’s Anne can be sometimes more human than Mantel’s Anne (whose only “human” moment is the part of “I was always desired, now I’m valued because of this” when she’s pregnant, and then Anne is a horrible harpy again until the end). By the way, I love your blog, I read Evelyn Anthony and Karen Harper’s books inspired by this site and loved them! Especially Anthony

      • sonetka permalink

        Thanks! I’m really glad you’re enjoying them — Evelyn Anthony is still my favorite (though there are lots of excellent or at least entertainingly bad books) though of course that’s probably because it was the first Anne book I read. I’ve been slowed down by a lot of things recently but am hoping to get to even more books soon, though of course I’ll never get to the end because people keep writing new ones :).

  3. Lidia permalink

    Jane Dormer stated that Anne was not twenty-nine when she died. Jane chatted with Mary I and there is no reason to suppose that Mary lied or did not know her stepmother´s age.

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