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The Chained Book by Emma Leslie (1879)

March 13, 2019

This is one of the earliest books about Anne Boleyn aimed specifically at children, and given that it was published in 1879 by the Sunday School Union, it’s not surprising that this earnest little novella puts the cause of serving and promoting Protestant orthodoxy well ahead of such considerations as character development, internal consistency, or historical accuracy. The chief aim of the book is to give children a simple, interesting story about the beginnings of the Bible in English, and how wicked men sought to stop it and good men sought to promote it, at which the latter group finally succeeded with some help from Anne Boleyn, who is the only person in the book with even a tiny bit of nuance to her character.

This nuance is largely borne of the unavoidable fact that Henry VIII was at least reputedly married to Catherine of Aragon at the time he began to pursue her — although the original idea for the divorce is, as it often is, Cardinal Wolsey’s, and the original aim to marry Henry to a suitable replacement princess, it’s stated that Anne is somehow an object of his interest even before she’s returned from France and is even receiving “royal love-letters.”

Cardinal Wolsey’s interest, however, is in Marguerite d’Angouleme, sister of Francois I — the latter of whom, the modern reader will be surprised to learn, presides over a court full of both the most advanced learning and unimpeachably correct moral behavior, at which Anne Boleyn has learned to love not only the Bible in the vernacular but also high-necked dresses. “The French court, at this time as pure in its moral tone as it could be, was yet a far livelier and much more inviting scene than that of Catherine of Arragon’s.” Anne is present when Wolsey pays a visit to Marguerite to try and persuade her to be Henry’s wife once his marriage to Catherine is annulled. “We poor women are but used by men,” Marguerite tells Anne when they discuss this, and yet “God does not so utterly despise us but that He will use us for the gracious furthering of His own Divine truth.” Marguerite, anxious though she is to bring the Divine truth to a country whose people learn their religion from a “screaming, bawling, ignorant friar” feels that the injury to Catherine would be too great. “She had not so learned Christ as to do evil that good may come …. `Let me hear no more of a marriage that can be effected only at the expense of Catherine of Arragon’s happiness and life.’” Her polite refusal and subsequent departure from court for marriage to the King of Navarre mean that Anne, her erstwhile attendant, has no choice but to return to England, where she quickly establishes a reputation as a friend of the Gospel (Marguerite gives her a copy of Tyndale’s Antwerp-printed English translation before she leaves) as well as for unwelcome sartorial innovations. “She has introduced the close bodice,” says another character, “which ’tis said hides all a lady’s beauty and persists in wearing it instead of the low, open stomacher hitherto worn.”

The English fashions described comport oddly with Catherine’s stated predilection for constant gloomy prayer and meditation (her prayers to saints are particularly disparaged), but the author is clearly anxious to show Anne in as positive a light as possible to counter the king’s pursuit of her, and she emphasizes several times that Anne never encouraged him.

Intertwined with the chapters describing Anne’s career is the story of Muriel, a fictional adoptive child of the real John Tewkesbury, whom he ends up leaving with a couple who live in Greenwich and work at Placentia Palace, as he’s very busy organizing illegal shipments of “corn” from Antwerp and needs to have her out of the way should he be caught red-handed with any Tyndale Bibles. Muriel, an ideal child who reads the forbidden English Bible every day, soon has an accidental encounter with Anne at Placentia Palace, in which she recognizes the book the latter is reading — “That looketh greatly like the New Testament I sometimes read at home.” Anne, somewhat startled by this, soon learns that the reformers have been whispering to each other that she will soon be queen, and that “this lady had it in her power to help those who wished to have the right to read the Word of God for themselves.” Touched both by Muriel’s “large, earnest blue eyes” and the sincerity of her words, Anne promises Muriel that she’ll do her best to help and is filled with “a sense of responsibility she had never felt before.”

”So men are saying I shall be queen of England,” she said, in a meditative tone. Who can wonder if there was a touch of ambition in it? Anne was little more than twenty, and her royal lover was so constant and so devoted in his attentions to her, that she may surely be pardoned for glancing sometimes at her prospective elevation, although she was not so eager to grasp it as to forget her duties to her mistress, Queen Catherine. That she was not as tenderly considerate as Margaret of Navarre may be allowed; but then it must be remembered that most of the divines in England had agreed that Henry’s marriage with his brother’s widow was unlawful and must be dissolved, and this being so, what could Anne do to prevent her Mistress’s downfall? Certainly she did nothing to hasten it, for Henry was constantly complaining of her coldness; and now, as Muriel sat gazing up at her beautiful, earnest face, she drew from her pocket one of these royal love-letters in which it was promised that anything in the realm should be hers for the asking, if only she would show her devoted Henry a little more favour.

She tells Muriel that if any of her friends ever get in trouble for reading the Gospel, tell them to send for Anne Boleyn and she’ll help them if she can. She soon gets the opportunity, as Tewkesbury is, inevitably, caught and tortured, but Muriel doesn’t discover this until after his release, as her foster parents kept it from her to spare her. (Oddly, Tewkesbury’s actual death is not mentioned.) Muriel runs in tears to Anne, pushing her way past guards to do so, and while Anne is distressed to learn that she was summoned too late to help while Tewkesbury was still in prison, she soon learns of another reformer who’s been ensnared, at which she takes a copy of the book he was caught with, “which she herself had read and marked”, to the King, who is persuaded by the argument, and Wolsey is “for once defeated.”

Not long after, the still-plotting Wolsey makes the fatal mistake of adjourning the court at Blackfriars and asking the English universities their opinion of the validity of Henry and Catherine’s marriage: to a university, they answer that it’s invalid, and the pious Anne at last marries Henry and begins her reign as Queen, while Muriel grows into a young woman who occasionally attends Anne and reads ever more fervently from the English Bible. Anne’s apotheosis as Queen comes when the combined efforts of Cromwell and Cranmer install a “chained” Great Bible in every church in England, thus fulfilling her wish to bring Scripture to every possible commoner. Muriel, of course, goes to see the new Bible at the Greenwich church at the first possible moment, and the assembled illiterate throng sees that she’s not merely looking at it, but reading it.

In a moment, as though speaking with one voice, the people standing round cried, “O gentle mistress, read to us, for we cannot read for ourselves.”

Muriel looked round on the upturned faces of the little crowd and blushed, but she could not refuse their request. Turning from the Old Testament, where she had been reading for herself, she opened the book at the fourteenth chapter of St. John, Master Tewkesbury’s favourite chapter, and, clearing her voice, she read aloud the sacred words, “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.”

Muriel’s reading is soon interrupted by “a little bustle” which turns out to be an unannounced visit by Queen Anne herself, accompanied by the small Princess Elizabeth. Anne praises Muriel’s reading and tells her “I have kept my promise made to you so long ago. Now I have done my share of the work, you must do yours,” which turns out to mean that she should keep reading it aloud and in time teach others to read. “It is not seemly that a maiden should be reading in a church before her betters,” replies the ever-modest Muriel.

”But God will accept maidens’ work, I trow, if no better is to be had,” said the queen with a smile. “What sayest thou, my pretty one?” she added, turning to the little Princess Elizabeth. “Wilt thou disdain all work because perchance thou mayest be a maiden?”

The child shook her head, and Muriel hastened to say that she did not disdain this work, but thought there might be better found to perform it.

Alas, the eye of the King — whose actual interest in religious reform is nil — has wandered towards the “Lady Jane Seymour” and the installation of the Great Bible will be her final triumph. She is quickly and mysteriously bustled off the stage and onto the scaffold by vague machinations of “Romanists”, and dies a martyred and solitary death, none of her five co-accused rating so much as a mention. A grieving Muriel is left to fulfill her vow to Anne always to read the Great Bible aloud to anyone who might want to hear it, and she persists, despite feeling her own unworthiness — she is, in fact, the beginning of a complete cultural transformation.

The church then was not the quiet retreat it is now. There was little of the hushed feeling we experience as we cross the threshold of God’s house known among the people of those times. The priests had well-night killed all reverence for things sacred, and the aisles of the church were the general resort for the idlers and gossips of the town … Some from among the laughing, chattering crowd would be attracted by curiosity to hear a woman read, and so Muriel would never be without an audience — some earnest, hungry souls, who had long pined for the bread of life, and others only just waking to the consciousness that there was a Word of God differing rom the vulgar legends bawled out by the ignorant monks. Year after year the lowly, unnoticed work went on — unnoticed by men in the rush and turmoil of those troublous times, but owned and blessed of God, and made effectual to the saving of many souls, who owed all the light and knowledge they possessed to the chained book of the parish church.

ANALYSIS: One may, perhaps, perceive a quiet rebuke into the final passage, as the intended readers of this story were children in Sunday school, who may have been less than perfectly attentive during quiet services and probably were not quite as enthusiastic as Muriel about Bible studies. But of course, that was the point — to emphasize to them what a privilege they had in living in kindly, ordered Protestant times instead of the Papistical hellhole of yore, as well as the positive changes which even a child could make simply by being good, and to do so by means of a fairy tale. As in any good fairy tale, there are clearly delineated good and bad sides, which leads to such historical anomalies as Tyndale and Coverdale being commissioned by Henry VIII to create the Great Bible during Anne’s lifetime, when in actual fact it was authorized several years after her death — and Tyndale’s death which, like Anne’s, was brought about by Henry VIII’s wish. Cranmer is a heroic figure, and Cromwell takes on his usual nineteenth century role of harmless spear carrier for the side of the angels — he does dissolve some monasteries, but only because the monks were being very stubborn and not listening to the king. Henry VIII himself is an ogre — but then, he’s not really Protestant. As the author says, “For actual reformation in religion Henry cared not two straws. He lived and died a papist; but his quarrel with the Pope induced him to favour many movements brought forward by the reformers.”

Anne herself is very childlike in her own way — her youth and earnestness are commented on early, and her flaws (and she is the only Protestant character to have anything resembling flaws) are small enough to be considered rather endearing than anything else; she’s a little vain, but never encourages anyone’s attention, she doesn’t turn Henry away like Marguerite would have, but then, she is so young — “barely twenty.” When she first encounters Muriel — who is an actual child, albeit an ideal one — the two converse and even play together on almost the same level.

”Everybody has forgotten us, Muriel,” she said, laughing, as she noticed that the daylight was beginning to fade already. Muriel laughed too. She was quite content to stay where she was; and Lady Anne, not without a spice of fun and mischief in her character, proposed that they should sit there quite quiet until somebody found them; for she knew what a fright her servants would all be in when they found she had returned from the boats at the last minute instead of going to the Tower.

In a few minutes they heard footsteps coming along the corridor, and Lady Anne held up her finger. Then somebody called Muriel, but Lady Anne motioned to her not to speak. This child’s play was enjoyed almost as heartily by the great lady as by Muriel herself; and when at last the door was pushed open, and Dame Franklyn with Lady Anne’s maid came in, staring with fright, both burst into a merry peal of laughter.

Unlike many innocent, well-meaning Annes of the nineteenth century, family ambition is not at fault for pushing her into Henry’s way — in fact, her family isn’t mentioned at all. But her youth,her vulnerability, her good intentions, and her being convinced that Henry’s case is right are enough to excuse anything she might have done. And right Henry’s case is — there’s no hint that Cranmer had anything but honest intentions or that the English universities might have had some sort of vested interested in not upsetting the all-powerful king.

A thread running throughout the story is the theme of female ability — but it is strictly female ability to serve. Marguerite tells Anne that although women are used by men, God may still use them, Anne tells Princess Elizabeth that she should not avoid tasks simply because she is “a maiden”, and of course Muriel becomes the semi-official Bible reader although she feels that she’s unworthy of it. Another aspect which is curious to the modern reader is that for all the talk of the transformational effects of reading the Bible and studying it, throughout the story we see exactly one actual passage quoted — “In my father’s house there are many mansions.” There are solid dramatic reasons why writers don’t want the characters to get bogged down in theological minutiae or extended wrangles about particular Bible passages (one reading of the “Protestant’s Hymn To The Virgin” in Milman’s 1826 Anne Boleyn more than demonstrates why) but in a story centered on the life-changing magic of merely looking at the printed text of a Bible, it is strikes the modern reader as a strange omission. A nineteenth century Sunday school student, however, had probably memorized more passages than most of us have ever heard of, and wouldn’t have had the need — or the wish — to see them all recited again.

With the book’s emphasis on Anne’s gentleness, faith, and humility, as well as her efforts to save souls — “She shall not have lived in vain! … But for Queen Anne Boleyn, we people of England might never have gained permission to read the Bible” — the book bears a striking resemblance to a form of literature which is consistently derided throughout the story — hagiography.

From → Book Overviews

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