By Carolly Erickson
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1984 Carolly Erickson
All rights reserved.
"This gentlewoman, Mistress Anne Boleyn, being very young, was sent into the realm of France, and there made one of the French queen's women."
In the golden light of a September afternoon, a long procession of horses, mules and wagons moved slowly along the Dover road. The riders, hundreds of them, were travelers from the royal court in London, and as they passed the country people ran up from the fields to watch them, standing in bedraggled groups and shouting and waving with enthusiasm.
The travelers held themselves stiffly in their unyielding brocades and thick felt cloaks, conscious of the splendid appearance they made and of the vast distances of class and income that separated them from the laborers and villagers they encountered. Pride kept them rigid and aloof, but despite their outward hauteur they grimaced inwardly with discomfort and hoped passionately that they would reach Dover before nightfall. Their longing grew greater as the sky darkened and rain began to beat down on their plumed caps and riding hoods. The rain was more than a present inconvenience: it meant storms in the Channel, and a dangerous crossing for Princess Mary and those who were to accompany her to France.
In this fall of 1514 the reign of King Henry VIII was five years old and the king himself, toweringly tall and energetic and youthful, enjoyed a hero's renown. He was only twenty-three, but already he had made himself a figure of legend. He was Great Harry, "our great king" to his people; to foreigners he was the awesome knight who had beaten the French at the Battle of the Spurs, driving them from the field with his thunderous horsemen. With his red-gold hair and beard, his laughing, hearty manner and his strong athletes body Henry was dazzling enough, yet he made himself even more resplendent by costuming himself in flashing jeweled armor and golden robes and doublets of cloth of silver. Young and strong, victorious, flawlessly chivalrous, Henry seemed "a being descended from heaven," and the shouts and cheers of the country folk swelled to their peak as he passed by.
There were cheers of encouragement too for the exquisite young woman who rode by his side. She was his younger sister Mary, a delicate beauty of nineteen whose glowing complexion and charming features made her among the most admired women of her generation. Mary Tudor was the center of interest of the royal perambulation to Dover, for she was about to become a bride and this was the first stage of her wedding journey. She was not only about to become a bride, she was about to become a queen. For her brother, having made his military reputation by defeating the French, was now about to make his diplomatic reputation by becoming their ally.
In the intricate sequence of treaties, battles and tergiversations that went to form continental politics King Henry was playing a quixotic role. He had been allied with his father-in-law Ferdinand of Aragon against the French king Louis XII; now he was abandoning Ferdinand for Louis. And Princess Mary, who had been engaged to Ferdinands Flemish-bred grandson Charles, now found herself pledged to the "old, feeble and pocky" widower who ruled France.
Were it not for the fact that she loved another man Mary would have been willing enough to accommodate herself to her brother's plans. After all, King Louis was a man in his fifties, weak-limbed and drooling with age, and could not be expected to live long. He had promised to shower his young wife with jewels, and in token of his promise he had sent her a casket of gems, among them a unique diamond "as large and as broad as a full-sized finger" called the Mirror of Naples. Gifts of this sort, and the title of queen, might make a brief marriage to an old man at least bearable.
But if she was to sacrifice herself to an "aged and sickly" bridegroom, Mary reasoned, it ought to be with the hope that after he died she would be free to marry a second husband of her own choosing. No more marriages of state: her brother must guarantee this. And it was with thoughts of bargaining on her mind that Mary rode, thoughtful and preoccupied, along the Dover road.
At a little distance from the king and his sister went Queen Katherine, plump and round-faced, wincing each time the litter she rode in sagged unexpectedly at a dip in the road. She was heavily pregnant, only two months or so from her delivery, and though her condition was reassuring — she had yet to give birth to a thriving child, an heir to the throne — she was worried over the sharply altered course her ebullient husbands diplomacy was taking.
Katherine was not only queen, she was, in all but title, her father Ferdinand's ambassador to England. More than any of the official ambassadors he sent to the court of Henry VIII, Katherine knew the country and its ruler; she had lived in England for thirteen years, and if her spoken English was marred by a strong accent her reading of insular affairs was relatively unclouded by the cultural blindness of the foreigner. She was, however, biased in favor of Spain and the allies of Spain. She much preferred to have England allied with Ferdinand and his Hapsburg in-laws, and she was dismayed by her husband's rapprochement with the French. There were those who said that Henry's disenchantment with King Ferdinand went even further than a diplomatic breach, that he was thinking of finding a way out of his childless Spanish marriage and taking a French bride for himself. But his behavior toward Katherine lent no support to such gossip, and besides, she was now carrying a child, and this time the pregnancy might not end in stillbirth or in a fatally weak infant. This time it might be a healthy son.
Hovering near the king and queen was the royal almoner, Thomas Wolsey, the clever priest who had begun to make himself indispensable to Henry the year before during his military campaigning in France. A portly figure in his clerical garb, Wolsey carried himself like a great aristocrat and not like the son of a provincial butcher. His wary intelligence was unmistakable as he observed the royal party and their mounted attendants, watching out for obstacles in the road, for broken wagons and lame horses, and for the bands of robbers who lived from plundering travelers along this well-worn stretch of highway.
As the afternoon advanced the riders straggled on in an untidy line a mile and more long, now bunching together, now splaying out into smaller groups to talk, sing or pass wineskins from hand to hand. The journey had an official function, to be sure, yet it had the character of a family occasion. Many of the courtiers had brought their wives along, and a few, their children.
One of these children, a small, dark little girl of indeterminate age, rode inconspicuously among the princesses' maids of honor. She was much younger than the others, a thin child among nubile and handsome young women, and she must have felt out of place and awkward in their company.
Her awkwardness came as much from her appearance as from her age, for Anne was afflicted with embarrassing disfigurements which made her hide her head and hands when anyone looked too closely at her. A large mole grew out of her neck, a mark too prominent to be hidden by her thick black hair. On one hand a sixth finger had begun to grow, and there was a double nail and an excess bulge of flesh. Such bodily marks, conspicuous enough in themselves, stood out even more conspicuously in an age when the extraordinary was always thought to be significant. Ignorant people might take the rudimentary extra finger to be a mark of the devil; to a more worldly observer, such as Anne's father, her blemishes were less diabolical than simply unlucky, for they were likely to lessen her value when she reached an age to marry.
As far as we know, Anne' s sister Mary had no such disadvantages. Mary was older than Anne, sensual and precociously attractive. Her appointment as maid of honor to the princess was the second such post she had held — she had spent a year in Brussels in the household of Margaret of Savoy, regent of the Netherlands — and her enviable status as a veteran of life abroad must have made her seem infinitely poised and sophisticated to her younger sister.
Compared to Mary, Anne was plain and unpromising, the sort of child a less ambitious father would have sent to a convent to live her life as a nun. Convents were full of wellborn girls with crippled limbs or addled brains or ugly faces, and Anne, with her flaws and unfortunate coloring, was a candidate for a life of genteel obscurity as a religious. If only her hair had been golden like the princess Mary's, or rich auburn like the queen's, instead of black and impossibly thick; if only her skin had been fair and rosy instead of dark and sallow like a gypsy's; if only her eyes had been the sweet, light-filled blue of religious paintings instead of piercing jet black, there might have been hope for her. Yet as she was, Thomas Boleyn was determined to make a cultured French gentlewoman of her. And if she had to be eclipsed by her better-endowed sister, then so be it. He would make the most of the little that Anne had to offer nonetheless.
Probably Thomas Boleyn gave no thought whatever to either of his daughters as he rode along, sleek and prideful, beside the other gentlemen of the court. He was a handsome, shrewd man in his late thirties, with a hunger for wealth and advancement that his considerable success at court had done nothing to assuage. In the next few days he would take up his most important assignment to date, as ambassador to France, and his thoughts were fixed on the details of his embassy rather than on the welfare of his children.
In the previous reign Boleyn had risen to be esquire of the body to the king, and then had turned his linguistic skills to advantage in carrying out diplomatic missions to Scotland, to the imperial court of Maximilian I, to the Low Countries and now to France. Henry VIII relied on Boleyn's experience and suavity in foreign affairs, and rewarded him with minor grants of offices and incomes and land. His most valuable reward, though, had been a fortunate marriage.
When Thomas Boleyn married Elizabeth Howard he was an energetic, strikingly good-looking nobody — or next-to-nobody. To be sure, his merchant grandfather had been lord mayor of London and his mother was the daughter of an earl. Still, in taking as his bride the eldest daughter of Thomas Howard Boleyn was entering the very highest circle of social rank, for the Howards had royal blood and under the Yorkist monarchy had enjoyed a ducal title.
At the time the marriage was made, the title had been withdrawn, forfeit to Henry Tudor's triumph over the Yorkist cause at Bosworth Field. But Thomas Howard had eventually rehabilitated himself and, ever the stalwart commander, had served Henry VIII in the battlefield with distinction and loyalty. In the previous year, 1513, the aged Howard had routed the Scots at Flodden Field. To reward him the king had restored to him the forfeited dukedom, so that now the fortunes of the entire Howard family — including the Boleyns — had taken a sharp upward turn. It was as the son-in-law of the duke of Norfolk that Thomas Boleyn was setting off, with his daughters, for France.
Swift reversals of fortune such as those of the Howards and their in-laws were commonplace in this age of parvenus. It was an unstable age, an age of upstart noblemen and gentlemen in muddy boots. It was, above all, an age of opportunity, for the old social order was shifting and the medieval hierarchy, with its triumvirate of kings, churchmen and peers of ancient lineage was giving way to a newer structure of power. The ancient titles were being conferred on relative newcomers to court, families only two or three generations removed from husbandry. Churchmen were still prominent, even pre-eminent, in the royal Council, as the thrusting career of Thomas Wolsey clearly showed, yet men like Boleyn and, even more, his bullying brother-in-law Thomas Howard the younger, heir to the dukedom and earl of Surrey, were challenging their right to dominate the king. And the monarchy itself was changing. Where the Plantagenets had ruled England for centuries, the Tudors had been on the throne a mere three decades, and unless Henry VIII managed to sire a son the dynasty would end with him.
For that reason the marriage of Henry's younger sister Mary was of the greatest importance. If Henry did die without a maleheir his sisters would inherit the throne, first his older sister Margaret, queen of Scotland (and if he should survive, her infant son James), and then Mary, queen of France. A dispassionate observer could have argued, in fact, that by her forthcoming marriage Mary would become the most distinguished of all the Tudors, for France was a far larger, far richer and far more powerful country than England and as queen of France Mary would surpass all her relatives, living and dead, in rank and wealth.
It was thus a considerable honor and a great opportunity for the dark little daughter of Thomas Boleyn to be allowed to join the wedding party. Whether she looked on her coming journey to France in that way is doubtful, however. While there is no evidence about Anne's thoughts or behavior — probably no one-paid much attention to her, certainly no one noted down what she did or said — she must have approached her embarkation with a mixture of excitement and apprehension.
Her apprehension must have increased as the royal procession neared its destination and the high towers and thick stone walls of Dover Castle came into view, and beyond them, the gray sea.
It was an angry sea, its surface broken into dark ridges and furrows by a treacherously high wind. The ships hired for the journey dipped and rose wildly in the harbor, looking pitifully small and flimsy in the heavy weather, and though there were fourteen of them their number did nothing to decrease their frailty.
In a day or two Anne must get aboard one of these plunging vessels and sail in it all the way to France, a place that must have seemed impossibly distant and alien to a child. Her sister would be with her, but not her highborn mother; with the older girls in the princess's suite she was being put into the care of the proper, stern-featured Lady Guildford. To a little girl who had never before left home the hazards of the journey must have loomed as fearsome. Among the least cultivated skills of a gentleman's daughter was her ability to swim.
For some days the wedding party and their escort stayed at Dover Castle, taking refuge within the Norman battlements as storm after storm beat upon the coast and whipped the water into foaming peaks. Everything bound for the journey had to be stored in the castle — the hundreds of horses for the princess and her party, the dozens of sturdy oak chests filled with her dowry and her trousseau, the wagonloads of furnishings for her wedding and the clothing and possessions of her servants.
Each evening there would be hope for calm seas and blue skies the next morning; each morning there were cold winds and black clouds, and often a shoreline shrouded in fog. It began to appear as if the wintry weather would never lift, and as it was already the first week of October the king decided that he dared not wait any longer to commit his sister to the fortunes of the Narrow Seas.
The loading of the animals and goods began, the travelers said their farewells. Princess Mary, in a final talk with her brother, was promised her freedom in marriage when Louis XII should leave her a widow.
In the blustery dawn of October 2, Mary and her companions embarked. Only a few hours out from Dover the overcast sky darkened almost to twilight and the wind rose around the ships, making them veer wildly in the troughs of high waves. The noblewomen went below, where they lay, wretchedly seasick, in their uncomfortable berths. On deck the sailors fought to keep the ships on course, but the hissing wind and towering waves defeated them, and before long they too were seasick and all but immobile.
For several days the little flotilla foundered in the storm, rising and falling in the steep seas, the timbers and masts of the vessels creaking as wave after wave crashed against their bows. Many a ship had been lost in the Channel, and it was customary for sailors and passengers alike to pray to the Virgin Mary, Star of the Sea, Port of Salvation, to save them in their hour of danger.
Then at last, whether through the power of prayer or a strong tiller, four of the fourteen ships sighted Boulogne and three of the four managed to sail into the harbor. The fourth, the princess's own ship, ran aground at the harbor mouth and Mary herself had to be carried ashore in the arms of one of her gentlemen. Green with illness, she and her women were hurried to shelter and given dry clothes and a blazing fire at which to warm themselves. They were at first too sick to eat, and the cold and the continual fear had numbed them so that they could hardly speak. But after a few days of rest they began to recover, and soon were well enough to go on with the ceremonial events and official welcomes that had been prepared for them.
Princess Mary, her complexion restored to its usual enviable fairness, rode dutifully on to meet her husband-to-be at Abbeville, and their wedding was as grand and as splendid as brilliant hangings and gleaming plate and golden robes — all salvaged, miraculously, from the water-soaked sea chests — could make it. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Mistress Anne by Carolly Erickson. Copyright © 1984 Carolly Erickson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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