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The First Elizabeth
By Carolly Erickson
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1983 Carolly Erickson
All rights reserved.
The people flocked there amain,
The multitude was great to see;
Their joyful harts were glad, and fain
To view her princely maiesty,
Who at length came riding by,
Within her chariot openly;
Even with a noble princely train
Of lords and ladies of great fame.
The afternoon sun was already low as the constables and marshals, their great staves ready in their hands, took up their stations along the route the royal procession would follow. They wore liveries of velvet and silk, in keeping with the pomp of the occasion, but their function would be more than ceremonial this day. The crowds that had gathered to watch the spectacle had begun to bank up behind the railings erected along one side of the route, and threatened to spill out into the path of the marchers. It was a noisy, restless crowd, sullen rather than welcoming, and the men deputed to keep order set their faces in a stern rictus and gripped their staves more tightly as the sound of hoofbeats in the distance signaled the beginning of the parade.
Anne Boleyn, wife of King Henry VIII, was to ride in ceremony on this May afternoon in 1533 through the City of London and then westward along the Strand to Westminster, where next day she would be crowned queen of England. The route of march was set by time-honored tradition: from the Tower of London the queen and her attendants would process by Gracechurch Street and Cornhill to St. Paul's, pausing frequently to enjoy the singing and pageantry prepared in Anne's honor, and then along Fleet Street to Temple Bar and so into the Strand. The houses and shops lining these streets were decorated with tapestries and silken hangings, and from their upper windows ladies and gentlewomen who had not been summoned to ride with the queen looked out expectantly, watching for the first of the riders to come into view.
As the procession snaked its way through the narrow streets tradition called for the onlookers to kneel and take off their caps when the royal litter passed, and to give a lusty cry of "God save the queen!" But few such greetings were heard. Instead there were rough snickers and laughter, or silent glares and frowns of disapproval or, when the constables and marshals were out of earshot, insults and curses.
Women jostled one another and rolled their eyes, nodding to indicate the slack lacing of the queen's white satin kirtle. They noted the elegance of her gown, cut in the French fashion and furred with ermine, but they paid more attention to her swollen belly, and to the odd bulge at her neck and the marks of scrofula that, in their eyes, disfigured her beauty and made her monstrous.
Children squinted to look hard at her hands, trying to catch a glimpse of the freak sixth finger which, they heard their parents say, was the sure mark of a witch. And men stared at her, some quizzically, some in censure, curious to see at close range the notorious woman who had caused the great scandal only to be touched despite themselves by the allure of her features and expression.
Through it all Queen Anne rode unabashed, regal, triumphant. She paid little heed to the jeers and mockery around her, and none at all to the appraising stares directed at her person. She carried her head proudly, not only to keep in place the jeweled circlet she wore but from habit, for she had a long and graceful neck and knew how to show it to advantage. She was at her best that day, her color high from excitement and her cheeks rosy in the cool spring air. The contours of her oval face had rounded noticeably in recent weeks, and now that she was in the sixth month of pregnancy her morning sickness was past and she felt as well as she ever had in her life. She sat back against the gold cushions of her litter, aware of the sensation she was creating, aware of the attractive picture she made in her satins and shining jewels, her silhouette framed by the thick black hair that fell in waves to her waist.
What if her subjects mocked her? What if they called her Concubine, Whore, the Scandal of Christendom? She had borne their taunts for years. This day, this procession was her revenge. Today all the leading nobles and gentlewomen of the kingdom — including many who were her bitter enemies — were escorting Anne to the site of her coronation. Tomorrow at the coronation itself they would attend her, kneeling reverently before her to swear fealty. Only her haughty uncle the duke of Norfolk was absent — pardonably, as he was on a diplomatic mission in France. Norfolk's wife, however, had flatly refused to ride in the procession, though his stepmother, the aging dowager duchess, rode conspicuously beside Anne's mother in a handsome chariot; tomorrow she would have the honor of carrying Anne's train.
Yet sweet as it was, the crown was not Anne's ultimate triumph. Her child, the male heir the astrologers so confidently predicted: he was her final vindication.
He had been the real objective from the beginning, from the time seven years before when the king, Henry VIII, first began to woo her. All along the king had needed, had wanted a son to succeed him. And Anne, once she realized that her destiny was to be bound up with the king's, had been determined to bear his son — not a bastard, born in secret like Henry's son by his mistress Bessie Blount, but a legitimate scion of the Tudor line, born in a royal bed, christened true heir to the throne.
For all these years, through all the stumbling blocks and confusions of the king's infamous divorce from his formidable first wife Katherine of Aragon, Anne had held firm to her purpose. She would wait to have her son until she could be queen, until he could be prince of Wales.
Then last fall the waiting ended. The king had taken her to Calais, not as his mistress but as marquess of Pembroke, a great lady with a man's title (for she held it in her own right) and a queenly entourage. At Calais she had been provided with everything a queen could desire, new fur-trimmed silken gowns, her favorite foods — grapes and pears specially imported, porpoises and pasties of red deer — even the jewels of a queen. (These Anne's rival, Henry's wife Katherine, had at first refused to provide, saying it went against her conscience to lend her jewels to adorn a woman of ill repute, but in the end she had yielded.)
Everyone, including Katherine, had been convinced that the king would marry Anne in Calais, during his days of banqueting and jousting with the French king, far from the angry crowds that would have been certain to protest the marriage in England. But Anne's closest confidants knew otherwise. She had reportedly told one of them that even if King Henry wished it she would refuse to marry him in Calais, wanting the ceremony to take place in England, "where queens are wont to be married and crowned."
But if she resisted marriage for the moment Anne had clearly calculated that, one way or another, she would very soon be queen. How long she had shared the king's bed is impossible to say. Rumor had it they had been living as man and wife for years, and beyond the large stake both had in assuring the legitimacy of any child that might be born to them, there is nothing to argue against those rumors. Now, however, in the weeks following the celebrations at Calais, the couple were certainly cohabiting, for in December of 1532 Anne became pregnant.
From then on nature ruled events. As soon as her condition was suspected Anne married Henry, in a tiny private ceremony with only her parents and her brother and two friends present. It was not the formal royal wedding Anne had set her sights on, but it was the next best thing. And open recognition of her rank was not long in coming. At Easter mass, as Henry looked nervously on, Anne made a dramatic entrance, heralded by a royal fanfare and with all of Katherine's jewels blazing on her gown of cloth of gold. Then Archbishop Cranmer presided over the final judicial resolution of the king's disputed marital status. In the last week of May the marriage to Katherine was judged invalid, and that to Anne legal and binding. The way was open for the coronation of Queen Anne, and for the birth of the prince.
The summer came on, and with it, the hunting. The king was often in the fields, his huntsmen and companions beside him, riding down the red deer from early morning until last light. King Henry loved the hunt as he loved every other vigorous, challenging sport, and he was a familiar sight in the hunting parks near the capital, a tall, red-haired figure riding a swift and splendid horse, joyously intent on his quarry.
At forty-two Henry VIII was a burly, athletic man of unusual vigor, with broad shoulders and powerful legs — legs which, though afflicted with painful chronic infections, still carried him magnificently through night after night of energetic dancing. At an age when other men were in decline he seemed to be waxing toward manly perfection; foreign visitors to his court were invariably as astounded by his handsome, vital person as they were by his lively intellect and detailed knowledge of European affairs.
Those who knew him best saw a complex man, restless with nervous energy that burst out now in hearty camaraderie, now in sharp-witted debate, often in flashes of anger. When displeased he could be chillingly royal, lowering, yet more often he disarmed all who came near him with his boyish enthusiasm, drawing them irrevocably into the circle of his mantling charm. No ruler of his time was more quick to cast aside the curtain of regality and become a high-spirited comrade, "more a good companion than a king."
He had never shown himself a better companion than in this summer of 1533, traveling through the country districts close to London and enjoying the hospitality of his favorite courtiers. "I never saw the king merrier than he is now," one of these courtiers wrote in early August, "and there is the best pastime in hunting red deer." Good cheer prevailed in the hunting parks and banquet tables of the king's favorites until midsummer and beyond, dampened only, it seemed, by a brief epidemic of the sweating sickness, that recurrent scourge of Henry's reign that invariably drove the king into a panic and sent him hurrying into seclusion with only a handful of retainers.
The contagion, though not widespread, was fateful; two of his household officers succumbed quickly to choking congestion and high fever, and were carried off, and a number of other servants and courtiers were disabled for weeks. Yet alarming as the outbreak was to King Henry another issue preoccupied him. The first counterblast to Anne Boleyn's coronation had been delivered. Henry had been excommunicated. The excommunication had not yet been publicly pronounced, however; Pope Clement VII held out a fatherly hand to his erring son and offered him one last opportunity to redeem himself. If within the next few months the king would forsake his concubine and take back his true wife Katherine, he would be restored to the Roman fold. If not, the world would soon witness his final irremediable expulsion from the true church — and the damnation of his soul.
Henry went to great lengths to keep this ill news private. He installed Anne at Windsor, where she would avoid risk as the time of her delivery was approaching, and then rode off as if to the hunt but in fact to an urgent conference. Unknown to the queen he had summoned councilors and theologians to a town in the vicinity of the castle, where under his direction they were "hard at work" attempting to defend the king against this ultimate censure.
Supervising his doctors, watching out for his wife, hunting when he could, Henry can only have been annoyed by dispatches from his diplomats in Flanders, where popular rumors caricatured the truth. Henry, it was said, was the victim of "diabolic illusions," which made him dote spinelessly on his wife day and night while his people laughed at him and his gentlemen did as they pleased. As for Anne's child, it had been born dead, the rumors went, or else it was a freak. The gossip stung, especially when it made Henry out to be his wife's willing slave. In truth he had got the upper hand, and only recently.
"The king," a Spanish diplomat wrote, "is courting another lady, with whom he seems to be very much in love." Who this other lady was he didn't say, but King Henry's interest in her was unmistakable. Equally unmistakable was the satisfaction of his courtiers, who encouraged and helped his suit with a vengeance in order to alienate him from Anne.
Anne had, in fact, earned the opprobrium and ill-concealed hatred of many at court, from the Italian diplomat she publicly insulted to the royal comptroller Guildford, who was so affronted by her that he tried to resign his office. Her enemies were legion: household officers she had threatened to dismiss, women she suspected of arousing the king's lust, even distant relatives whom she knew to be partisans of Katherine. Her near relatives had become venomous. Her father had worked to postpone her marriage to the king, and her uncle the duke of Norfolk had been overheard to say that he feared she "would be the ruin of her family." (Norfolk had put family honor first, though, when Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk, and his wife insulted Anne; with twenty of his men he assaulted Brandon's chief gentlemen and a bloody brawl ensued.)
Now that Anne was being humiliated by her husband all those she had offended took pleasure in her predicament, and did what they could to widen the rift between the king and queen. Anne was jealous, and told Henry so, "making use of certain words which he very much disliked." But whereas in the past her angry outbursts had stung and confused him, and sent him hurrying to her relatives for support, he now returned her anger in kind, whirling on her and telling her "that she must shut her eyes and endure as those who were better than herself had done, and that she ought to know that he could at any time lower her as much as he had raised her."
The rebuke must have struck Anne with the force of a thunderbolt. Not only had she lost as a wife what leverage she had possessed as a mistress, but there was a menacing hint of bitterness in the king's words. In a single sharp phrase he reduced her from pampered sweetheart to abused spouse — Katherine's unenviable status — and threatened to take even that from her at his whim.
The quarrel bit deep, and left Anne shaken, though she concealed her fear and kept herself at an ill-tempered distance from her husband. For most of the summer there was "much coldness and grumbling" between them. Henry did not speak to Anne for days on end, until some said he had repented of his marriage and had begun to think of recalling Katherine. Thus when following custom Anne took formal leave of the court and withdrew to await the birth of her child, it was amid an atmosphere more strained than festive, and with the almost certain knowledge that her husband was playing her false.
She "took her chamber" in the time-honored ceremony at Greenwich, escorted to and from mass by the nobility and honored as she stood under her cloth of estate. Her chamberlain solemnly requested all present "in the queen's name, to pray God to send her the good hour," and then she went into the inner chamber prepared for the birth. The chamberlain drew the curtain; she was alone.
From now on no man would come near her, save King Henry, and he was not likely to be a frequent visitor. Women would take the place of her chamberlain, her ushers, her grooms, bringing her food, attending her as she bathed and dressed, watching her as she slept, waiting for signs that her "good hour" was at last come upon her. What her own thoughts may have been during these last expectant days we can only guess. Yet it seems likely that as she lay in the magnificent bed Henry had provided for his son's birth — a bed from his treasure room, hung in silks and carved in elegant scrolls — Anne thought less of the ordeal she faced than of her child's future.
Excerpted from The First Elizabeth by Carolly Erickson. Copyright © 1983 Carolly Erickson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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