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Anne Boleyn, Or, A Crown Of Thorns by Anna Dickinson (1876)

June 29, 2019

There have been a fair number of plays written about Anne Boleyn which never saw the stage, or saw it only for a brief time, but which nevertheless lived on in book form to be read by — and to influence — future Boleyn enthusiasts. Anne Boleyn, Or, A Crown Of Thorns by Anna Dickinson is a much rarer specimen: a play which saw many performances over a few years but which has never been published, although it got a great deal of (not always positive) attention from the newspapers and a number of actresses wanted to procure it for their own use. There is a long, complex, and ultimately somewhat sad story behind this, but briefly put, Dickinson — who had previously been a well-known abolitionist platform speaker, and for whom playing Anne was her first acting role — seems to have developed a strong attachment to her character, and although her acting was generally considered poor, she did not want anyone else to play her. Her possessiveness might even have extended to her own official copy of the script — the Library of Congress has two manuscript versions of the play, a fair copy in clear handwriting, and much scratched-out and amended rough copy. Only the rough copy contains Anne’s dialogue, the fair copy contains only dashes and a cue at the end of each piece of Anne’s dialogue, although all of the other characters have their dialogue intact. It’s not clear whether both versions were submitted by her together for copyright purposes, but if the fair copy was intended to be the “official” copy, her protectiveness towards the part extended far enough to prevent anyone else from seeing it even with the greatest amount of effort. Under these circumstances, it’s less surprising that the play does not seem ever to have been officially published. Dickinson’s quarrels with managers, her inability to act up the standards demanded by her own play, and her refusal to publish or sell the play to any other actress led, inevitably, to its disappearance. It survives now only in two handwritten manuscripts.

This is the more unfortunate because although it is far from the best ever written, the play is, in a few ways, shockingly ahead of its time. Its Anne is a paradoxical figure; determined to create her own fate and laughing at the idea of prophecy, yet ultimately hemmed in and destroyed by forces over which she has no control, never realizing that the choices she does have are all false ones, and that her fate has been predetermined. This predetermination is the work of none other than Thomas Cromwell.

It’s common now to see Cromwell portrayed as a villainous character, working to destroy Anne to secure himself and his fortune. But in the nineteenth century it was not at all common, in fact, it was virtually unknown. Cromwell’s role then in plays and novels was as a glorified spear carrier — if he existed at all. And virtually never was he the actual engineer of Anne’s downfall — that role was always allocated to mysterious, Catholic-aligned forces — the Duke of Norfolk, Chapuys, imaginary Jesuits, but never to the man who made a heroic appearance in Foxe’s Book Of Martyrs. In fact, the first Boleyn-centered fiction that I know of which features Cromwell as villain-in-chief is Frank Mathew’s Defender Of The Faith, published in 1899. Dickinson’s play predates him by twenty-three years, and furthermore, has no apparent partiality for the Catholic viewpoint.

Nonetheless, Cromwell is the man who throughout the play is one of the guiding hands on the tiller — and at the end, he’s the only one. At the beginning of the play, the other hand belongs to Cardinal Wolsey, currently scheming to bring about an alliance between England and France who, united, will bring Spain and the Emperor low and help him secure the ultimate prize of the Papacy. Cromwell, ever alert to possible complications, urges caution — “Ill as [Catherine] seems, you cannot depend upon that. People whose death is to benefit anyone never die.”

“Death? Who spoke of death?” is Wolsey’s response — what he actually intends is the radical option of divorce, and in fact the secret inquiry before Archbishop Warham is taking place even as they speak (Cromwell’s lack of awareness is due to the fact that he’s only just returned from abroad). Soon after, Henry Percy lopes in to give both the men and the audience a summary and progress report on the inquiry — the caution and confusion of the bishops, John Fisher’s refusal to consent, and of course the King’s appeal. “Most eloquently he spoke,” says Percy, “Not after the fashion of a pedant, a preacher, or a pleader, but in soldier-like style, right on, to the delight of all who listened.”

“What was the substance of these?” is Wolsey’s answer, and Percy obliging summarizes Henry’s (and Catherine’s) early engagement, the deaths of their children, and his fears that without a male heir the kingdom would once again be thrown into chaos as it had been in the previous century. Wolsey presses him for the exact reactions of the various attendees, and finally sends him off to finish his work after a short scolding when Percy shows signs of being distracted by a particular attractive girl who happens to be walking below the window (“Aha, Mistress Boleyn is abroad!”)

As it turns out, Wolsey also has his eye on Mistress Boleyn, but for more practical reasons. The King has lately taken a fancy to her, and she may be a useful tool to make sure the royal marital separation is permanent.

His Majesty still has left some foolish habit of affection for the Queen, that may stand in the way of a great alliance. He will lose all that in this new, mad infatuation for Mistress Boleyn — and, that holiday overpassed, will be ready for more serious matters, when the time is ripe for them.

Cromwell, promisingly astute for a man who’s been out of England for years, demands to know if “Mistress Anne will be moved on this chess-board of yours, as it may serve your purpose? She hath a right royal will of her own. Brief time as I have been at court, I have seen how she doth affect that gallant sprig of Northumberland’s … it may hap there is a woman who would rather be the wife of an honest poor man, than the idol of king.”

“Not in the kingdoms of this world,” is Wolsey’s cynical reply. As he strides out to let the king know what the next order of business is (presumably to go after Anne), he’s followed by his fool Patch, who has been punctuating the scene with jokes and songs and whose final joke — walking ahead of Wolsey — underlines the place that Wolsey has created for himself. “’Tis proper for the greater to precede the less,” Patch sauces, “…For thou art but servant to Harry of England, while I am servant to my lord Cardinal Wolsey. Judge, then, which is the greater of us twain.”

We’re then treated to a brief interlude between Henry Percy and Henry Norreys (who as it turns out will function as a parallel friendship to that of Anne Boleyn and Madge Shelton, except that in this instances Percy is the young, Madge-like idealist, whereas Norreys is the highminded but more realistic counterpart to Anne). Percy laments that he has barely had a chance to see, let alone speak, to Anne, and Norreys gently scoffs at Percy’s insistence that “It must be the shadow of the Cardinal that makes the wall between us.” Norreys, friendly and sympathetic but still a bit cynical, hints to Percy that Anne “has been seen to smile upon the King” but Percy won’t believe that Anne is anything but honorable and faithful “till her own lips tell me otherwise.” (Percy, regrettably, will have a hard time remembering this particular vow). They exeunt, which is unfortunate timing for Percy, since Anne promptly enters alone, looking over a book of prophecies. Her opening words are significant both then and later:

Tchee! Why should I care for a book? ’Tis but a bauble. (Looking at it). A horoscope! My horoscope. The shadows of things to be. (Throwing it down). Why to believe would be to make them! One says thus it must be and it follows. Thus it is. No, no. What does Master Bulstrode know of Fate more than I? He pictures to decide. Which is on surer foundation? (again looks) Happiness — none! Lover — all! The end — Anguish, disgrace, death. Pretty tales, truly!

The King promptly enters after this (one senses that Wolsey has tipped him off about her location) and offers her flowers — after a little sharp bantering about the exact composition of the bouquet (the King has thoughtlessly included rosemary) they start in on the subject Anne’s horoscope. Anne is clearly a believer in free will and setting one’s own destiny — “I believe our own deeds are our doomsmen,” she tells the king, after pointing out that she is “not so vain as to believe the stars in their courses watch over me, nor sufficiently humble to be willing for them to control me.”

The King, teasingly, takes the opposite tack. “Though I have not meddled with the black art, I can see that thou art reserved for a lofty destiny,” he tells her, and in the ensuing dialogue makes it clear to the audience, if not Anne, that her freedom to set her own destiny is more of an illusion than any horoscope.

King: Fortune smiles on thee.

Anne: I trust not her smile. I do know that full often upon whom she smiles at morning she frowns at night.

King: But she would enrich thee

Anne: Only to make me afterward the subject of her spoil.

King: She would exalt thee.

Anne: (turns away) And pleasure herself thereafter with my ruin.

King: Nay, sweet mistress, turn not away from her; listen to what she promises. I speak as thy friend. I urge her upon thee.

Anne: Nay, sire, thou speakest rather as mine enemy. Wert indeed my friend, thou wouldst wish me a quiet fortune, sheltered from wind and weather, rather than an exalted one, exposed to storms and followed by some dismal fall.

King: What more secure shelter than a King’s favor?

This impression is only strengthened after Anne departs and Henry and Wolsey have a confab in which Henry says point-blank that Percy needs to go away until he’s safely married to Mary Talbot (or better yet, he should get married and continue to stay away) and Wolsey makes it clear that in his opinion, Anne’s reticence is due entirely to her desire to extract as much as she can get from her royal suitor. “She hath lived in the world long enough to learn that the price gives value to the diamonds.” Off Henry goes to dismiss Percy from court forthwith, off Wolsey goes to scheme some more, and Anne returns with her confidante Madge Shelton. Anne is optimistically certain that Henry would be Percy’s friend, and hers, if not for Wolsey’s influence, and reads Percy’s latest letter, which she hasn’t yet had a chance to answer. (Percy, like the King, is fond of floral motifs — Anne is his “rose of June”, and he waxes rhapsodic on that theme: “I inhale you. I thrill at the perfumed touch of you …. What should my rough hands do with a flower in bloom?”)

But look! Percy has finally found Anne, and while she’s reading his letter, he approaches her unseen. “Strong feelings in dumb show” say the stage directions, but alas, we only get to see him saying “My darling!” and Anne saying she loves him before Wolsey appears, unseen by the two, and makes a “threatening gesture” before the curtain falls.

When it rises again, a few weeks (at least) have passed, Percy has (we are informed by characters’ dialogue) been banished to the north, Anne has left the court in fury at this, swearing not to return unless ordered, and Wolsey and Cromwell are merrily working on several irons they already have in the fire: first, a secret letter to the Bishop of Bayonne (to be forwarded to the Pope) which is intended to forward the French alliance and get the King committed to Marguerite. Second, a false “copy” of the letter for showing to the King when he requests it. The real letter will be carried by Wolsey’s trustiest messenger, Mark Smeaton.

Cromwell, ever with his ear to the ground, is concerned about using this particular messenger. “This man, if I mistake not, was once in the service of Sir Thomas Boleyn and, it is said, presumed to lift his eyes to the haughty Mistress Anne.” He’s worried that Smeaton’s loyalty to Wolsey may not be complete, but Wolsey scoffs, pointing out that Smeaton was dismissed from Sir Thomas’s household because he was too forward with Anne. “All his sweet new wine of love turned to vinegar, by her scorn. He who hates those whom I hate is not mine enemy.” Before Smeaton can depart on his errand, the King blunders in, scolds Wolsey for ordering Anne back to court when the King prefers the romantic, wooing approach, demands to know what message Smeaton is carrying (Smeaton, well primed by Wolsey and Cromwell, lies and says it’s a letter to Cardinal Campeius telling him to stop using the weather as an excuse) and says that since Smeaton already knows the way to Hever Castle well enough, he should also take the King’s love letter to Anne, along with a ring, and deliver those things first. “I have withdrawn my eyes from France, to look closer to home for an alliance,” says the King, just to underline how duplicitous Wolsey is being, then fondly gives Wolsey a locket and swears that despite grumbling about Wolsey by Norfolk and Suffolk, the King himself will “believe no word against thee unless it be spoken by thyself.”

“My dupe and my tool!” is Wolsey’s fond assessment of the King as soon as he leaves the stage. Cromwell, understandably, is anxious that Wolsey might have become overconfident after so much time in power and that the French alliance might not be as easy to push on the King as all that. “Eyes as clear as yours go astray when they are groping in the dark.” Wolsey disagrees, and in the course of explaining why, thoughtfully explains to the audience just what’s going on with all the criss-crossing letters and in the course of it shows just how badly he misunderstands Anne:

Fear not. I see every step of the way. Percy is married, and married by a strategem that will make — that has made — him hate her. The letter that seems to recall her will but more certainly keep him from the Court. He doth think her already the King’s mistress. She, knowing him false to her — her hopes elsewhere rebuked — his Majesty held in check in the matter of the divorce — she, discovering her stout-heartedness to be of no avail, will lend a readier ear to the glorious proposals the King will offer her for acceptance. After all, ’twill be but the difference of a letter. She had hoped to be his Queen, she will be his quean! ’Tis but the splitting of a hair! That being wrought, the divorce will be accomplished, and my way will lie smooth to Rome, as an it were to be trodden upon velvet. Then shall I be no longer the thing I despise, tacking this way and that. No longer the servant of a King, but Kings shall be my servants. No longer dependent on the gusty breath, which is as like any moment to puff us out as to blow us into a more glorious blaze — but the very wind of the world shall blow as we command. Nan Bullen! No! No! We’ll have no Nan Bullens for Queen.

What is this “stratagem” that will make Percy hate Anne? We won’t have to wait long to find out, as immediately after this scene we see Percy, hanging around in the woods near Hever, letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would” as he debates whether to actually approach the place and have it out with Anne. (“Has she a heart? or is that, too, dead? Slain with her honor? Oh, to make her suffer, if but for a moment, the hell into which she has flung me!”)

As Percy dithers about whether to approach, the scene shifts to inside the castle, where Anne is chatting with Madge Shelton, wondering why Percy hasn’t contacted her, until Sir Thomas Boleyn arrives to let her know that a certain young man has arrived — not Percy, but Mark Smeaton, with a message from the King. “I want thee to serve as a mousetrap,” says her father. “I like not to meddle with vermin,” is Anne’s reply, and in response to his plea that it’s to help him and his intrigues, she shows herself a true nineteenth-century Anne by making it clear that court is a place that’s ultimately not her choice to be. “I detest [intrigues]! Ah, how much happier we were in the beautiful old country life, before thou wast in such demand at court and favor with the king.”

Her father, kindly but insistently, makes it clear that she might want to reconsider since she’s in a position to reap some large rewards at court. “His Majesty talked with me freely, but this morning. — Complained that you shunned the Court, and avoided him. `Each day,” said he,`I hope to be free in form, as I am in law, to make another tie. This freedom shall be mine own to use. If I can marry a French princess, I can marry an English gentlewoman.’” Anne does not want to hear this — “Love is an absolute sovereign and being once crowned, never abdicates. I wear Percy’s ring upon my finger. He carries with him my pledge to be his wife.” All right then, says her father, but can she at least have a casual chat with Mark Smeaton as he delivers his message to her. For, says Thomas, “As we rode, a paper fell from his doublet, which he did leap for, and snatch as though it were a drowning man, and it a life line — not so quickly but that I saw upon it, in Master Cromwell’s writing, `To the Bishop of Bayonne — private and in all haste.’ Sure am I, that his master would be broken past mending, if the paper is what I suspect, and could pass from his keeping, to thine or mine.’”

Smeaton’s delivery to Anne turns out to consist of a ring from the King (“I will not wear it,” she says) and a note from Cardinal Wolsey telling Anne that “she hath won” accompanying a copy of the letter telling Percy that he can come back to court. As Percy is now allowed back, and “must obey her liege’s summons” and return to court as well. Scarcely has Anne had a chance to read this when Percy comes barging into the room as Sir Thomas tries to restrain him — “I tell thee, I will speak with her alone!”

Percy is angry, tells her not to touch her, had faith in her honor and has been betrayed, Anne wounded and shocked, finally sees the letter, tells him it’s forged, and calls him out for an idiot. The letter supposed sent by Anne says “I release you from your contract. I give you back your troth. I have found my happiness elsewhere.” as well as “Marry her to whom thy father’s faith was pledged in thy behalf when thou wast a child” Anne tells him “Had you indeed known me you would have known that that this right hand should have been burned to ashes ere it should so belie alike honor and love. ’Tis not my writing, ’tis a forged hand. Oh, ’tis cunningly done, but love should have been keener to detect than infamy, to execute. … Had sense and faith stood allies in thee thou couldst have seen ’twas but a blot of the Cardinal’s to hurl us down the rock of his ambition and wrath at the base of which may be dashed in pieces already the wrecks of how many lives!”

Percy, not for the first or last time, panics and breaks down — “I am a thing accursed! A creature of Destiny! Its wheel has crushed, and yet not killed me.” He reluctantly reveals that he married Mary Talbot almost instantly after receiving the letter, and Anne’s response is about as sympathetic as one might expect. “And you with broken vows and blasted faith, false to your love, false to your honor, forsworn at the very altar, you dare to come here to upbraid me with your wrongs and tarnish me with your scorn!”

As Percy tries to embrace her, Thomas Boleyn makes his entrance and pushes Percy back. “Thou shalt not touch her … recreant and forsworn!” Anne asks her father to spare Percy anything worse, for the sake of her own pride, bids Percy farewell, telling him that henceforth “Between thee and me sight and speech would be a crime.”

Although Thomas is depicted as genuinely loving Anne and feeling concern for her, he’s still Thomas Boleyn and never misses a chance to strike while the iron is hot. At Anne’s cry that “I am left with empty hands, bankrupt, past remedy. Life is done,” Thomas promptly points out that “Destiny does not close one door without opening another. If you have lost the sweet and gracious things of the past, there remains in your future the bitter strength of Ambition and Revenge.”

“These I will take for the guardian spirits of my life and will follow where they lead,” says Anne — “But first, Revenge! I will crush this Cardinal. I will repay him in full for the wrongs that he has done … Mark! Mark Smeaton? What was thou saying of a paper carried by him that would injure his Master if held by thee — art sure?”

Thomas eagerly assures her that it would, indeed, ruin the Cardinal, and is happy that Anne is now ready to play the political game with him — though not, perhaps, as wholeheartedly as he would wish, for as she departs to charm Mark Smeaton and steal the letter, she “recoils” from her own father’s embrace, telling him “Don’t touch me!”

We’re not to see Anne’s conversation with Smeaton or its results straight away, however — instead we’re returned to the court a few weeks later where the King is making merry with Wolsey’s fool Patch, Wolsey is happily anticipating the French match which is sure to come of his totally undiscovered secret letter to the Bishop of Bayonne, and Cromwell is quietly and carefully cultivating a few courtiers, most notably Jane Seymour, who is thrilled at the idea of a broken Anne returning to court. “She will, perchance, carry herself with somewhat more humility, when she finds that instead of conquering a King, she is abandoned of a courtier,” says Jane, with all the malicious satisfaction of someone who enjoys seeing others taken down a few pegs. Cromwell, wiser, cautions her to be quiet and to “count not to pleasure thine eyes with the sight of my lady Anne wearing the willow. If all hope failed her, and she was in dying agonies, she would make no sign.”

Meanwhile, George Boleyn, Henry Norreys, the Duke of Norfolk, and a few others are gaming together and providing us with commentary on Wolsey. “Drunk with too much prosperity,” says George Boleyn, and when his uncle Norfolk observes that “Drunken men reel to a fall,” George’s rejoinder is “Not when propped by a king.”

During all of this, Mark Smeaton returns to give his report to Wolsey. “My lord, she did make me welcome as flowers in May,” says Smeaton, in the apparently sincere belief that Anne had no ulterior motive when she was cozying up to him and the valuable letters he was carrying. He conveys several messages from Anne — to Wolsey that he has “put her under a so heavy debt, that any effort of hers must be ineffectual to cancel it” and to the King that “she will bloom in the life-giving sunshine of his smile, presently.” In other words, she’s on her way back to court. Smeaton returns the letter to the Bishop of Bayonne to Wolsey, having not delivered for reasons never fully explained, but which Wolsey seems all right with, since he needs to rewrite it anyway, in light of recent developments. As Wolsey burns the unopened old letter to the Bishop of Bayonne, Anne quietly slips into the scene. “You are merry, my lord Cardinal,” is her opening observation.

“I have here been playing a game. He laughs who wins,” is Wolsey’s reply, and after a little more hostile banter and exchanges of epigrams to the effect that their actions may have unforeseen negative effects, Wolsey finally demands that she speak plainly — only to be interrupted by both the King and Cromwell, entering separately. “Thank you for bringing my dear mistress to our midst again,” the King tells Wolsey, and then Anne plays her card. “Nay, your Majesty, not he but duty to you hath brought me,” she tells him, and from her dress she pulls out a sealed letter — in fact, the letter to the Bishop of Bayonne which Mark Smeaton had had on him, and which Anne at some point in their flirtation managed to steal while substituting a fake. “Hadst thou looked ere burning, thou couldst have saved the destruction of a blank paper,” Anne taunts Wolsey, as the enraged king reads the real letter, which is full of Wolsey’s intention to delay the divorce as long as possible and certainly not to allow Henry to marry Anne.

As Wolsey collapses in shock, he makes one last request of Cromwell. “She has dug my grave,” he says. “I leave you to dig hers in time to come.” Apparently nobody else in the room hears this, as they’re too busy watching the King proclaim his intention to make Anne “Marchioness of Pembroke, our wife and Queen!”

When Act 3 beings, there’s a substantial time skip — Anne’s marriage, coronation, and triumphs have all been passed by, and it’s May Day, the last one she’ll ever experience. Madge Shelton and Henry Norreys are still flirting with each other but not quite at the point of engagement, just as they were starting to do seven years earlier, and Anne is playing the role of a wise older sister to Madge. “My girl, how can you so torment that poor lover of yours, whom nature and art alike fashioned for a so gracious reception with ladies? Surely never was one gayer, yet more faithful …. do not play with your happiness, and his.”

Madge, naturally, is distressed at Anne’s gloom. “Oh, if only the last seven years could be undone!” But Anne is determined to take the blame as well as the credit she feels is due to her. “What right indeed have I to complain? If I sold myself to the devil of pride and revenge, I have not been cheated in the bargain. I have been paid my wages.” Madge and Anne talk about the upcoming May Day festivities, how Anne is full of dread of some nebulous misfortune and wants to hide in her room, and how Henry Percy has been recalled to court for reasons nobody knows.

“What compensation will your Majesty bestow upon one who makes its muddy waters clear?” says a third voice, and suddenly Mark Smeaton is on the scene, and none too welcome at that.

“Softly, Madame,” is his response to Anne’s rebuke. “I did you good service once, for which you promised to smile upon me — and then cheated me of my wages! Yet will I serve you again — and you know not how great and dreadful is your need — if now, after so long delay, you will but keep the promise. Sure, your heart cannot be stone. In mercy to yourself, Madame, grant me some of the favor you gave me years ago when I was in your father’s house.”

Anne, unhappy at being reminded of how she was willing to lower herself in order to get Wolsey’s letter, tells him that she’s not interested in any of his new information and wishes she had never paid for it in the past. “Thy suit I rejected, thy petition denied when we were both free and our estates higher than those of lackey and Queen! That I did use thy service once I know to my undying pain, that I secured it by spurious coin of non-fulfilling hopes is the sole cause why I, as a penance for my pride, have soothed thy peevishness, argued with thy madness, reasoned with thy folly, been patient with thee as the mother who bore thee …”

Smeaton finally gets the message: “Thou wilt not accept my help and love? Then thou shalt reap the harvest of my scorn and my hate.”

Madge is aghast that Anne passed up a chance to learn about the plots against her, but Anne is resolute. “I can break, Madge. I cannot bend.”

“The saints preserve us! Here comes another of Satan’s family,” says Madge, as Jane Seymour makes her entrance. Anne, who’s had enough of hostile court minions for the moment, sweeps off and leaves the accommodating Madge to deal with her. Madge scornfully dispatches Jane (assuring her that Anne is quite well, despite the ill-wishes of various unnamed people around court). After Madge departs we see Cromwell approaching Jane, who informs him that Anne will indeed be at the May Day tournament. “Then the time to strike has come,” says Cromwell. When Jane hesitates (“I have ventured much, but I am afraid that if this plan fail, our heads fall for it”) Cromwell then expounds a little for the benefit of both Jane and the audience.

Fail? How can it fail? The King hates her with a hate equal to the love with which he once loved her. Hates her for her free speech and reckless honesty, and her upright and downright yea or nay, whether it please or cross his will …. Norfolk hates her, as Suffolk and Dorset and Exeter and Montague hate her — because she is in their way. She blocks all their pathways to the throne. For them to fight the Queen is to fight for their own claims to the Crown …. I hate her, with a heritage of hate received from my great master, the Cardinal, even while I admire her courage and dauntless will.

“And I?” asks Jane, rather surprisingly (she doesn’t already know?) But Cromwell reminds her that “You hate her, most of all, because you have most of all to gain from her destruction.” The plan is that Jane will tell the King of Anne’s supposed infidelity, but Jane is having last-minute doubts, first that it has be her instead of Cromwell (Cromwell, ever intelligent, says that the King will listen to Jane more than him, although it’s awfully convenient that this keeps him out of the line of fire) and remembering that Wolsey once described the King’s love as a snare. Cromwell gives her a pep talk. “’Tis a death struggle ‘twixt you and her. You aimed at this point. You have readied your destination.”

Hold to the line I have marked for you, tell his Majesty straight — with no holiday phrases — that the Queen is false to him, that she will give the signal for a rendezvous to one of her lovers, before his vey eyes, this afternoon at the Tournament — the signal to be a bunch of flowers, or a handkerchief, dropped from her hand. And you yourself will stand so close to her arm as to make sure the signal shall not fail. Do this, and I promise Anne shall be out of your way in a fortnight.

Jane departs to break the bad news to the King just as Norfolk drops in to confirm with Cromwell that Mark Smeaton will swear “even to his own success, and the Queen’s infamy.” Smeaton himself then appears to confirm that, speaking wildly about how he would have saved her if she hadn’t rejected him, but now all bets are off. “Oh thou proud woman and haughty Queen, thou, who treadest heart’s blood under thy feet, I will have thine for wine. Quick! Quick, my lords! Where is the paper of damning accusations? I will sign it and swear to anything that will bring her high head and heart lower than her `lackey’s’!”

“You must submit, for form’s sake, to the show of imprisonment,” Cromwell tells him. “’Twill be brief!” The stage directions tell us that he “looks significantly” at Norfolk as he says this.

Jane is snuggling up to the King when Anne confronts them, but Jane tells her that “if I am to be condemned for the path I tread it should be by her who pointed me the way.” The King hypocritically agrees — “The truth can stay even thy fiery wrath” but Anne hits back in a way that few Annes have done — most of them feel some guilty over Katherine in their waning days, but not this one.

The truth? This is too much! Your Majesty doth right well know it is (in Saxon plainness) a lie. Katherine? She was not the Queen. Every prelate in the realm declared her marriage null. The place was vacant, her crown reclaimed, her title withdrawn with intent to offer them in King’s palaces, when your Majesty was previously pleased to bestow them (an unsolicited gift) upon me. The space beside your throne was clear ere I put foot on it. There is no room for her here. If she would find undisputed ground, she must move further off.

Anne then banishes Jane from court, a banishment the King promptly revokes, with Anne snarling that Jane can stay as the King’s minion, then, and not the Queen’s maid. As everyone storms off, Henry Percy reappears for another round of dramatic developments. He had sworn never to return to court until he could claim Anne, so he hasn’t been back since their affair ended, but now he finds her “the ground beneath her feet undermined, her foes of her own household, her sworn protector her destroyer!” In short, he thinks she might want to reconsider and console herself with him. Anne sharply reminds him that she has a husband and a child and no desire to dishonor herself, and Percy backs off. “Nay, I swear you shall not see the lover, you shall know only the services of the friend. — But I will no more obey my Queen by leaving her alone in the midst of plot and enmities, than I would abandon a forlorn hope on the battlefield, or strike the flag where mine was the only hand to uphold it.”

Anne is genuinely touched by this, and as Percy departs the traffic onstage moves again with both Madge coming to console her and a page arriving to deliver an “ornament” to her from the King. She thanks to page, but remembers that “the King gave this to the Cardinal in the very hour he destroyed him.”

She and Madge leave for the Tournament (Anne ominously noting that thunder will come soon from the stillness of the air) and the conspirators buzz around finalizing their plans. Norfolk reappears with a transcript of Smeaton’s confession — “I did not think even his madness could have spoken it! He will soil the fingers of the hangman!” is Cromwell’s delighted verdict, and when Norfolk is somewhat unrealistically surprised to learn of Cromwell’s plans for Smeaton, Cromwell exasperatedly informs him that if Smeaton is dispatched before Anne’s trial, he cannot either recant or confront her.

The key moment in which Anne is framed takes place off-stage, as it’s supposed to happening at the May Day tournament and staging that would be a bit grand. Cromwell instead hangs back in the wings and informs the audience what’s going on.

What! The Queen has no flowers? — Nothing in her hands? — The signal, then, cannot be given! — Ah, what good fortune! — She lifts her handkerchief! Better and better! She even smiles as she raises it to her lips! — Norreys approaches in the lists! Will Jane be in time? Yes — she reaches the Queen, — she jostles her arm! The handkerchief falls! Norreys leaps from his saddle and seizes it! The King rises in fury! Will he strike her? — George Boleyn pushes between them! He will die with the rest! — ah ha! It is done!

Exit Cromwell, enter George Boleyn, Francis Weston and Sir William Brereton, all under arrest, and Norreys, who’s being implored by the King to swear to “the truth” about Anne. “You have been more in her antechamber and can speak with more authority than any other man. That is why you are to swear she is false … If you loved me you would not leave a stumbling block in the way of my happiness — What, silent! If you yield, you shall not suffer in purse or person. If not, you shall go to the block.”

Norfolk refuses — his life is not so precious “as to be worth the price your Majesty exacts — treachery and dishonor!”

“Die, then, fool,” is the King’s farewell, and all the men are taken away as Anne is hauled onto the stage by guards, calling out for her mother and her friends. Norfolk has apparently warmed to his work — he’s gone from hesitating about executing a lowborn musician to happily arresting the Queen of England for high treason. Percy, in the background, draws his sword at the words, but Anne gestures at him and he falls to the ground, presumably putting his sword away before anyone else notices.

The last act begins with a conversation between Sir William Kingston and the Magistrate of London so that we can catch up on what’s been happening during the intermission. Anne’s trial has already taken place, and despite the guilty verdict, “not one” person really believes her guilty, and testimony was virtually nonexistent. (One side effect of George Boleyn’s virtual non-presence in the play is that Jane Boleyn is not even a character — she’s thus spared being the villainous testifier, and instead we’re told that not one of the Queen’s servants or ladies have said anything against her.) Anne herself “pled her own cause, as earnestly, so eloquently, so truthfully, that one and all did look for her acquittal at the hands of her peers.”

“Such was not the King’s will,” says Kingston, and the Magistrate bitterly paraphrases Agnes Strickland by observing that “Even now the wedding beer is brewing, the wedding feast is baking, the wedding garments are done, while she is yet warm.”

Their lamentations are interrupted by Cromwell, who gets down to business — first, the hour of execution has to be left unannounced or people will riot when it happens, secondly, ensuring that Kingston has followed his orders that a block be placed in Anne’s room as “such companionship will make her ready for another,” and thirdly, a request for some assistance. “Nothing hath been proven against the queen,” says Cromwell, a somewhat surprising admission for him to make (and also unnecessary, since she’s been found guilty — evidence or not, the verdict is there). But Cromwell doesn’t just want her dead, he wants everyone to know she deserved it. “Something must be wrung from her!” he says, and at Kingston’s horrified question “Torture?” shows himself to be a true ancestor of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell in being a believer in psychological torture only. “No, no. Save that keenest agony of the soul, that leaves no mark on the flesh.”

It transpires that Cromwell has “invited” Northumberland to the Tower to visit Anne, and be left alone with her. Knowing both Northumberland’s devotion to her and his extreme gullibility, Cromwell is positive that he’ll try and get Anne to escape with him through a “secret passage” about which Cromwell has thoughtfully informed him. There will, of course, be twenty guards posted at the other end, ready to catch Anne guiltily running off with another man. She won’t refuse, he’s sure, because “Life is sweet, and death is bitter.” But if the plan does fail, he can badger her into confessing to having a precontract with Northumberland, thus making her marriage to the King legally nonexistent.

We now shift to Anne herself, sitting up in the wee hours, contemplating the block that Cromwell has had placed in her room. “I will not look at it! I will not see it! It is not there!” she cries, and then “This is my royal apartment in the Tower! This my chair of state! This my crown! I am Queen of England! What have I do with shame and death? With blocks and scaffolds and executions!” As the sun begins to rise, Kingston shows Percy in, the latter rushing to Anne and embracing her, declaring that at last she is his. “Merciful heavens, he is mad,” is Anne’s verdict, but Percy insists that far from it, he’s come to save her. He points to the block. “See, there is death, there [pointing to a door] is life. A secret passage — a key — the river — a great ship — the sea — a great new continent beyond the sea. Life together, happiness, heaven for us through long years to come.”

Percy, as is his habit, has completely failed to understand Anne’s thoughts, because while she’s tempted for a split second, immediately afterwards she firmly turns him down. She is not dishonorable, and she won’t make the King’s and Cromwell’s lie into truth by going off with Percy.

I am a wife. Free? The judgement that has freed [Henry] by dishonoring me is a lie. I refuse by any word or deed of mine to sanction it. I am a mother. Stripped of every other dignity and right that is mine. I know you will tell the whole realm has decided against me, that my name is blackened and my fame smirched past whitening. Still, I am innocent. Other times will know me innocent. My child will live in other times. This act of mine would do all that the malice of mine enemies has failed to do. I would stand condemned of all that I have been wrongfully accused because of this coward flight and fear of death and love of life and happiness. I would seem guilty — seem? Nay, since I am bound by truth not freed by a lie — would be guilty, no more!

Percy attempts to argue for Elizabeth’s sake, saying that the King has promised that if Anne should “give him good show of just cause against you” (by admitting to a precontract? Presumably, though it’s not clear), Elizabeth will be confirmed in the succession — otherwise, she’ll be thrown aside like her older sister. Anne isn’t biting, though. “I would rather have my child live and die a beggar than wear the Crown of England, stained not by her mother’s accused but proven shame.”

Percy, as is his wont, melts down and decides that his best recourse, since Anne won’t flee with him, is either to assassinate the King or commit suicide. When Anne rebukes him — “It requires more courage to live, than to die,” Percy asks helplessly what he should do. “You will live to defend the innocent accused, and to fight the battles of the weak — to do your duty well …. God willing, I will wait for you — there.”

She then summons Kingston to conduct Percy out — one suspects it’s in order to keep the latter from changing his mind again — and then several executioner’s assistants, Madge Shelton, and Cromwell himself make their appearance, after Cromwell has discombobulated Anne yet again by arranging for an “unexpected delay.” Madge cries and begs Anne to save herself, and Anne takes it calmly — “Wouldst thou hold a tired traveller from rest?”

Cromwell sneers at Anne that her calm is doubtless due to her being sure of a last-minute pardon, she assures him that on the contrary, she knows that the King and Cromwell want her to die, and gives her final message to the King — it’s the well-known line about having raised her from gentlewoman to Marchioness to Queen and finally, to a saint in Heaven.

Cromwell, it turns out, is not quite done yet, and the reason for the delay becomes clear. It’s now time for her supposed lovers to be executed, and hearing the sound of the cannon as each one dies shakes her deeply. “Oh my brother! My cousin! My friends! Great hearts,will ye then die for me?”

“Sign, sign this paper,” urges Cromwell, “One that does but declare a prior contract with Northumberland, that will set his Majesty free to wed with Jane Seymour, and you save your brother, your cousin, your friends.”

After some agonized glances at Madge and Kingston, she hastily does so — just as Kingston, looking through the window, announces that the executioner is now holding the severed heads of George Boleyn and Henry Norreys up for the crowd. Cromwell, all but cackling, points out to Anne that she’s just rendered her marriage to Henry invalid and destroyed her daughter’s claim to the throne — however! He will give her the paper to burn if she will confess to having committed adultery after all.

At this point, however, Anne is done. “There is a final appeal … to the King of Kings,” she says. And as she’s taken off the stage to her doom, she tells Cromwell “Doubt not that at the same great judgement bar, for thee also awaits justice.”

And on that note, with Cromwell cowering in sudden fear, the curtain drops.

SEX OR POLITICS? A generous mixture of both. The first three acts of the play are devoted largely to Wolsey’s politicking and Anne and her father’s ultimately successful attempts to bring him down — but Anne at least has no particular political goals that do not ultimately relate to romance; her fury at Wolsey for having broken up her romance with Henry Percy is the driving force behind her actions, though her father’s motives are broader and have more to do with the advancement of his family and bringing down a political rival. It’s notable that even Anne’s politicking all involves romantic gestures, real or feigned — it’s strongly hinted that she was quite affectionate towards Mark Smeaton in order to get him to let down his guard so she could steal the letter he was carrying. Although ultimately we’ll discover that Anne believes in the rightness of the King’s divorce and genuinely believes his marriage with Catherine of Aragon was invalid, comparatively little time is devoted to her or anyone’s religious interests except at the very end, when Anne is praying in the expectation of her death, and calls on God to see Cromwell’s sins.

There is no sectarian commentary in any of this, however. In the final two acts, Cromwell inherits Wolsey’s political mantle and determines to bring Anne down largely out of devotion to his old master and getting revenge in his turn. Very unusually for the era, Cromwell is the chief engineer of Anne’s downfall — no evil Catholics are helping him spearhead the scheme, although Norfolk is happy to assist. Religious reasons are not mentioned (in fact it’s somewhat vague what Norfolk *does* hope to accomplish with Anne’s fall — his and others’ motives are ascribed to her blocking “[their] pathway to the throne” — how is not explained) and Jane Seymour is simply a power-hungry climber who wants to be Queen. Anyone going solely by this play could be forgiven for not realizing that there had even been a formal break with Rome by the time Anne died. There’s also the unfortunate but common phenomenon wherein Henry VIII comes across as less of a fearsome colossus before whom all trembled than an easily gulled puppet. Unlike Shakespeare’s play, to which there’s a glancing resemblance in the first half, the King never comes into his own; power is merely transferred from Wolsey to Cromwell.

WHEN BORN? Not stated, although give her maternal attitude towards Madge Shelton the character feels like she’s on the older end of the spectrum — not surprising if Dickinson followed Strickland’s suggestion that she was born closer to 1500 than 1507.

THE EARLY LOVE Henry Percy, exclusively — Thomas Wyatt doesn’t get so much as a mention, much less James Butler. What’s maddening is that we never actually get to see much of them when their relationship is going well — we see Anne happy about Percy, and Percy happy about Anne, but their one meeting before their forced separation is extremely brief and tells us virtually nothing about how they actually interact when not under extreme pressure. This wouldn’t ordinarily be a problem, except that Henry Percy is a major character who moves the plot considerably — and his one notable characteristic, whether rebuking Anne for her supposed abandonment or begging her to fly with him at the last, is that he never listens. To the very end, his method is to plough ahead, assuming he has complete command of the situation and knows exactly how Anne feels, and only reluctantly and noisily come to understand that Anne might have a different opinion — indeed, may even know different facts.

He’s actually very similar to Henry VIII in this regard — who similarly forges ahead under the assumption that whatever Anne might say to him, he knows how she really feels. Whether it was Dickinson’s intention for the two men to be so similar I don’t know, but the grim parallels between the two Henrys do lend a certain poignancy to Anne’s refusal to take the supposed escape offered to her. Wherever she goes, it seems, she’ll be accompanied by a Henry who never, ever listens.

THE QUEEN’S BEES There are very few of these — the play is intensely concerned with the doings of the powerful men surrounding Anne, as well as Anne herself, and the only maid of honor she appears to interact with much is Madge Shelton, towards whom she takes on a quasi-maternal role — advising her about her romances, calming her when she’s upset, even comforting Madge while on the brink of her own death. Jane Seymour appears as well but most of her interaction is with Cromwell — when she interacts with Madge and Anne the relationship is already clearly quite hostile and does not change. We do not see Catherine of Aragon at all, though she is occasionally mentioned, and no other maids of either Anne’s or hers appear.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR The ultimate example here is Cromwell; devoted to Wolsey, he makes it his life’s mission to avenge Wolsey’s downfall and destroy the woman he believes to be chiefly responsible. Mark Smeaton is a shadier example — he’s happy to do Wolsey’s dirty work, but later on tells Anne outright that he would be just as loyal to her — for a very physical price. Among the ranks of creepy Mark Smeatons, this is one of the worst; he has a lot in common with Peter Albery’s version, a three-quarters of a century later — a man of low rank who has a strong physical desire for Anne and few to no qualms about attacking her. But even Albery’s version, when he finally does threaten her, has at least the excuse of having been drugged by a manipulative alchemist. Dickinson’s Mark is cold and in control throughout, taunting Anne about the fact that he’s refusing to help save her as punishment for her rejection.

Since we don’t see Wolsey’s decline and death after his downfall, it’s not clear what happens to Patch in the play — after taking up quite a bit of stage time in the first three acts, he disappears along with his master in the last two. (Wolsey’s attitude to Patch is affectionate and paternalistic — where the younger, less secure Cromwell is shocked at Patch’s raillery, Wolsey laughs off even the sharpest remarks. The Cromwell we see in the second half of the play has no such virtuous shock at anything anymore.)

On Anne’s side, Madge Shelton is a faithful lady in waiting from first to last, always hoping for the best. She’s the only maid we see besides Jane Seymour, who could never be described as faithful or anything close to it.

THE PROPHECY: It’s hard not to get the impression that Anne is speaking directly for Dickinson when she mocks and disavows astrology and how one determines one’s own fate; she sounds very much like a progressive young nineteenth-century woman. And yet, there is the inescapable fact that the horoscope she scorns with her first words — “Happiness — none! Lover — all! The end — Anguish, disgrace, death” turns out to be entirely true. The central irony of the play is how little truth her very sensible words about one’s own deeds being one’s dooms men hold — at least, for Anne herself. Wolsey, the King, her father and even to some extent Percy manipulate and use her for their own ends, mostly with success. She doesn’t want to marry the King, but she’s buffeted into it, because it’s what the King wants. She does want to marry Percy, but doesn’t, thanks to the manipulations of Wolsey and Percy’s stubborn idiocy. She doesn’t want to play politics, but at her one of her worst moments her father badgers her into it. Her one ill deed which she regrets is being badgered into flirting with Smeaton in order to steal the letter, and given what we’ve already seen of these characters, it’s hard to believe that this was the only possible way Wolsey could have been brought down. Anne’s life story may not have been written in the stars, despite the eerily accurate horoscope — but it certainly wasn’t written by her, either.

IT’S A GIRL! Elizabeth is mentioned, but not seen — Anne cries out for her daughter and fears for her after her arrest, and she also uses Elizabeth to justify her refusal to flee with Percy. She doesn’t want her daughter to grow up with the shame of having a mother who is genuinely guilty of the crimes she’s been accused of. There’s no discussion of her birth or how her parents may have felt about her having turned out to be a girl.


FAMILY AFFAIRS We see a good deal of Thomas Boleyn in the first half of the play — he seems genuinely affectionate towards his daughter and angry at Henry Percy for having fallen for the ruse that made him leave her, but he’s not above using Anne’s anger and grief for his own purposes, and it’s hard not to wonder how her instant disgust at her own actions affects her feelings towards him afterwards. She doesn’t call out for her father when she’s arrested, after all — and, like it or not, he was the cause of her possibly compromising herself with Mark Smeaton. Her mother is not seen, and George appears in only one scene which establishes that he’s a man-about-court and not much more. Her sister Mary is, as was common at the time, unmentioned. Jane Boleyn also receives no mention, probably because George is such a minor player and Mark Smeaton contains enough slimy betrayal for any play.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? It’s implied that she may have been extremely friendly, not to say affectionate, towards Mark Smeaton in order to get close enough to him that she could make the letter exchange without his noticing, but as we don’t see it and they both speak somewhat evasively about it, it’s hard to know exactly how far that went. It’s clear that it wouldn’t take much to raise hopes in the already unhealthily stalkerish Smeaton, and given the way Anne is portrayed it’s very hard to believe that they’re supposed to have gone beyond a kiss — and even that seems like a bit of a stretch. Certainly it’s clear that Anne didn’t do anything the slightest bit out of line after her marriage — she’s literally willing to die rather than give Elizabeth any reason to think that the charges against her were true.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE “She hoped to be his Queen, she will be his quean” says Wolsey of Anne early on — it works on the page but in the theater it has the potential to be confusing unless Wolsey uses fairly explicit body language. But all in all in the dialogue is enjoyable to read, even if the platform speaker does peer out sometimes in Anne’s longer speeches, and Cromwell has a dry wit which makes him oddly charming. As Jane Seymour wrings her hands over the impropriety of becoming engaged so soon after her predecessor’s death, Cromwell is there to cut her down in short order. “If you do not stick at murdering a woman, why should you stick at wearing her shoes ere they grow cold? What! You would compound with the devil, and gain absolution for the crime by the decency of its commission! Unluckily, time does not allow.”

ERRATA Dickinson clearly did her reading and although there’s a lot of fanciful material, especially in the first half, there’s very little that’s outright provably wrong except for the distortions that naturally result from time compression — Anne’s engagement is broken and Cardinal Campeggio contacted within weeks if not days of each other, and Henry’s pursuit and elevation of Anne happen much more quickly than they did in actuality.

WORTH A READ? If you’re a Boleyn enthusiast, absolutely, if only to see the incredibly unusual portrayal of Cromwell. I’m still in the dark when it comes to Dickinson’s sources for Cromwell; none of the popular histories that I know of her reading depicted as anything like the mastermind he’s shown as here, and of the works which depicted him as outright villainous, virtually all had a strong Catholic slant — which isn’t to say that she couldn’t have read them, but that if she did, they left no trace of any kind of pro-Catholic bias. It has its faults, chiefly related to over-plotting— there are far too many mysterious letters flying around by Act III, which gets terrifically confusing even when you can go back and re-read, as original audiences couldn’t. Patch gets some good lines but it’s hard to imagine that the audience was really thirsting for more of his songs after about the fifth one. Key events take place offstage and are referred to evasively enough that it’s easy to imagine an audience missing the first pass and losing track of what exactly Anne did after promising she would help her father, or whether or not Mark Smeaton is actually dead or not. With its long speeches and complex plots, it feels in a way like a play that’s trying very hard to be a novel — and Dickinson had in fact written a novel, What Answer? some years previously.

Its depiction of Anne is grim, perhaps even grimmer than Dickinson intended. Of all the people in her life, not one of them understands her or even listens very much — Madge is sympathetic but uncomprehending, the men are almost all confident that they understand her when in fact they know her so little that they make the most elementary errors about her — Percy believes that she would throw him over by letter, the King believes that any girl would be honored to be pursued by him, Wolsey believes that Anne’s resistance to the King is an act and that in reality she merely wants him to pay a higher price for her. The only man — the only character — who shows even a glimmer of understanding her is Cromwell, who sees her not as a tool but as a rival — one he respects, but will not hesitate to destroy. Even Cromwell doesn’t know Anne well enough to realize that she is capable of consciously choosing death over life — but at least he respects her enough to have a backup strategy when she does so.

A Crown Of Thorns is currently available only on microfilm, which is one reason I’ve been so ridiculously over-thorough on the summary — as it is not easily accessed, it seems only fair to bring as much of it to people as possible. It’s not Shakespeare (though the depiction of Wolsey at the beginning owes something to Shakespeare’s play, I think) but it’s better than many others, and in respect of Cromwell, it was downright revolutionary.

From → Book Overviews

  1. Annalucia permalink

    “Quean” – I had to look it up; I thought it meant a female cat 🙂

    I get dizzy just thinking about the amount of spadework you put in just to reassemble this play, let alone read it and review it.

    • sonetka permalink

      The vast majority of the credit goes to the people at the Library of Congress who organized her papers and then microfilmed them — without being able to order that, I’d be right at square one. There’s another play I’ve seen mentioned in the papers a few times, from 1838-9, but as far as I can tell nobody involved left any organized papers behind, and I can’t even find out if it was ever printed. That one saw at least a few dozen performances in New Orleans and New York, but I’m afraid it’s as gone as Anne herself is.

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