Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Anne Boleyn

Another snippet from A Wider World, because today is the 485th anniversary of Anne Boleyn's execution.


“We’re off now, Rob. Are you coming?”

“I thought I’d get some work done.” I hadn’t intended to witness the executions; I lost my taste for such matters as a boy, when I saw the Duke of Buckingham’s trip to the block.

Ned’s eyebrows raised. “We’re all going.”

I took his meaning. Of course, they were going. Cromwell had worked tirelessly toward this for months. He would be in front, in his rightful place in the proceedings. My absence would be noted.

“I’ll be right there.” Part of my hesitation was a strange sympathy for Smeaton. He’d gotten his start in Wolsey’s choir, transferring to the Chapel Royal on the cardinal’s fall from grace. From there, he found the queen’s favor and moved to her household, where, by looks, talent, and breathtaking stupidity, he encompassed his own end.

I hadn’t spoken up for him, of course. What I said to Tom was true—Mark was already dead, and I had no desire to join him in that subterranean chamber with the maiden and the rack and the thumbscrews. Being one of Cromwell’s men would not save me.


     The five men who died that day were guilty, though not of the charges brought against them. They were guilty of the crime of getting in the way of Thomas Cromwell.

     I was torn. I liked Cromwell. He was a man like myself, or Cardinal Wolsey: born low, and achieving greatness by sheer, stubborn hard work. He was arrogant, and rearranged facts to suit his intentions, but I would not condemn a man for my own faults.

     “All of them married men,” Ned said hoarsely. “With children.”

     “The king will not punish them for their father’s misdeeds.” I was almost certain of that, for Cromwell had worked with Wolsey, and had only risen after his master’s death. If one was useful, King Henry looked away.

     Smeaton died last, after the gentlemen, and worst. He was carried to the platform, the rack having done its evil work on his joints. When he saw the block, slick with blood, and the sodden, mucky straw beneath, he cried out and twisted away, so that the crowd jeered.

     Two days later, Anne Boleyn met a similar end. That execution I did not attend, having given myself no time the day before to complete some necessary task for my master. I had never been fond of her, but I could not bring myself to watch her die; if I did, I would have to write that to Bess.

     She was given the favor of a French sword, instead of an English ax. Her black hair was tucked up under a plain coif, and once her eyes were covered, the swordsman struck a clean blow.

     The king was rid of his troublesome second wife, and he celebrated by announcing his betrothal to Jane Seymour the very next day.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

485 years ago today

 Anne Boleyn took a boat ride to the Tower of London. The day before, she and King Henry had been at a tournament. He left early - because he'd gotten his "conclusive proof" that she'd been unfaithful.

It's very unlikely that she was, and certainly not with the frequency and variety of men of whom she as accused, one of them being her own brother.

In Henry's mind, Anne had been the cause of his break with his first wife, his break with Rome (because the pope wouldn't let him divorce his first wife), and a lot of upset with everyone around him. And all she had given him was a daughter.

The combination of miscarrying a son and being less fun to have around (any wonder?) was, for Henry, the last straw.

As I've said many times, the more you know about Henry Tudor, the less you like him.

Here's a snippet about this period from A Wider World.


     One day Anne Boleyn was Henry’s cherished queen, and the next she was imprisoned, charged with crimes that would make a man blush. There was a feeling in the air that anything could happen.

     I accompanied Cromwell on one of his frequent visits to Greenwich to meet with the king. We went by river, and I looked down as we passed under the arches of London Bridge. Despite the profusion of shops scattered across—and built up—along its length, the heads of the executed were still visible, and if they were not, I would know they were there by the circling kites.

     We shot the rapids under the bridge with ease, the size of the barge and the time of day making it less risky. I’d seen smaller boats try the same maneuver during a high tide and capsize, and I frequently walked across to avoid an unnecessary trip on that section of the river.

     It was more difficult to ignore the heads when I walked.

     Cromwell was silent for most of the trip, riffling through the papers he carried in a thick folio. An attack of conscience? It could not be that; he had drawn up the warrants himself. Did the idea of her downfall start with him, or with the king?

     He’d once been her champion, but the king was his master, not Anne Boleyn, and the king was convinced that only a new wife would give him a son. Cromwell had to help or be sucked into the maelstrom while someone else did the king’s bidding.

     As we entered the palace, he turned to me. “I’ll meet with the king privately, Lewis. Find occupation as you will: I know you have acquaintance here. Meet me in the outer audience chamber at four of the clock.”

     Did he know I had acquaintance at Greenwich because of my history, or was there something ominous in his knowledge? Cromwell had spies everywhere, but I never thought to question whether he kept an eye on his loyal clerks.

     Because of that, I kept to myself until after dinner, when I met Bess in the hall. We made our way to the suite reserved for the king’s vicar general, principal secretary, and current favorite, all of whom were Thomas Cromwell. I felt a sliver of pride that she would see the oak paneled room where I worked, with its windows overlooking the verdant lawns.

     She noticed none of it, turning immediately to ask, “How is the queen?”

     “I wouldn’t know.”

     “How could they accuse her of such things?” Her brown eyes were bright with anger. “Unfaithful, with her own brother? It’s madness.”

     I gave her a warning glance. “The king is not mad.”

     “He hunted her like a deer,” Bess said, “and now he has his quarry, he is disillusioned and all out of love. That is no better reason to put her away than he had for Queen Katherine.” Her feelings were evident on her face. “I love the king, but he should try to accept life, as the rest of us are made to.”

     Such words could land her in a cell next to Smeaton. “There is nothing you can do,” I said, “except remain quiet and follow my suggestions. I’ll explain further when Tom gets here.”

     “He is off somewhere.” She peered out the window, then settled quietly before me. “Tell me now.”

    “You are too close to the queen.” It had come to me, while eating the king’s dinner, that more people were at risk than just those currently imprisoned. “I am afraid for you.”

     Bess made the same impatient face I’d seen her make for nearly twenty years. “Don’t be silly.”

     I sat down behind a desk, hoping it would lend me some authority. She took direction only from the master of minstrels, who was also her husband. “The queen is in the Tower,” I said. “Very few people return from that place.”

     “But she isn’t guilty.” Bess popped from her seat and paced the floor. “None of them are. Mark is a stupid boy, but not stupid enough to involve himself with the queen, even if she would be unfaithful to King Henry. Which she would not.”

     I gestured for her to lower her voice. “I know you have sympathy for both of them, but you must be discreet. There are more important things to think of right now.” I looked pointedly at her belly, straining behind her front-laced bodice. “Young Harry and this one here, they don’t care what becomes of the queen. They just want their parents.”

     “And they have them.” She softened at the mention of her boy, and the unborn little one.

     “You should go away, at least for a while.”

     Bess laughed in my face. “This is our home.”

     I sighed. “Maybe it was, but the court has changed since you arrived, even since you were wed. The king will have his way, and if it kills the queen, Smeaton, and any other number of innocents, he will not care.”

     She sat down hard, as if her knees had given way. “He wants Jane Seymour now, doesn’t he?”

     “He wants a son,” I said bluntly. “If Queen Katherine had given him a living son—even one—she would still be queen, and we would still be tied to Rome. People forget the king’s father took this throne. King Henry may look secure, but without an heir, anything could happen.”

     “But he has an heir.”

     I pressed my fingers to my temples. “No, he has daughters. No woman will rule England.”

     There was a knock, and Tom entered without waiting. “I’m sorry I wasn’t at dinner,” he said without preamble. “I tried to see Mark.”

     “How is he?” Bess reached out and he sat on the edge of my desk, one hand on her shoulder. She relaxed at his touch. If I could get him to see sense, she would follow.

     “I wasn’t admitted.” His face showed concern. “The guards said he’s been racked. I imagine he told them whatever they wanted to hear, to make it stop.”

     Mark Smeaton was a stupid boy, as Bess said, and perhaps bragged too often about being in the queen’s favor, but he was no more her lover than was her brother George. “I’ve been telling Bess—you need to get away before either of you are pulled into this.”

     “We are not in so deep as that, Rob.”

     “You are master of minstrels, Tom.” I raised my brows. “Which means you supervised him and should have known his whereabouts. It might even be assumed that you were sympathetic.” I looked at his wife. “It’s well known how close Bess is to the queen. She may have looked the other way when Mark came to her.”

     Bess gasped, and Tom said, “You think they would go so far?”

     “I think an outcome has been decided and all that’s left is to build the case.”