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How Courtly Love Betrayed Anne Boleyn

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By Susan Bordo, author of The Creation of Anne Boleyn

On May 4, 1536, Weston and Brereton were arrested.

Anne may have unwittingly contributed to those arrests herself. “M. Kyngston,” she asked when brought to the tower, “do you know wher for I am here?” In a state of shock and disbelief, she searched her mind for the reasons for her arrest and shared her anxious musings with Kingston (who reported everything to Cromwell) and also to the ladies-in-waiting that Cromwell had chosen to spy on her.  In particular, Anne fretted about a possibly incriminating conversation she had with Norris, a long-time supporter of the Boleyns and the Groom of the Stool in the King’s Privy Council. Anne had been verbally jousting with Norris about his constant presence in her apartments, and had chided him for “looking for dead men’s shoes, for if aught should come to the King but good, you would look to have me.” This particular statement must have alarmed Norris, who replied that “if he should have any such thought, he would his head were off.”  There was good reason for his alarm:  In 1534, Cromwell had engineered an extension of the legal definition of treason, which was passed by parliament, and which had made it high treason to “maliciously wish, will or desire by words or writing” bodily harm to the king.  Under this new definition, Anne’s remark could be construed as referring to Norris’s desire for the King’s death. Anne apparently eventually “got it”, too, for after Norris made the comment about his head, she then told Norris that “she could undo him if she would.” What had (probably) begun as casual teasing ended with each ostentatiously declaring their horror at the thought that either entertained fantasies of Henry’s death.

But Anne worried that this wasn’t enough.  Later, realizing that their remarks may have been overheard, she asked Norris to go to her almoner, John Skip, and “swear for the queen that she was a good woman.”  Unfortunately, this attempt at damage control only worked to make Skip suspicious.  He confided his suspicions to Sir Edward Baynton, who then went to Cromwell, who surely felt that gold from heaven had fallen into his lap. All this happened in late April.  So clearly, at the point of Anne’s arrest on May 2, Norris was suspected of more than simply withholding information about her purported affair with Smeaton.  However, the full details of the conversation may only have been revealed by Anne herself, in her rambling self-examination with Kingston, and this may be why Norris wasn’t arrested until May 4th.

Anne also told Kingston about how she had teased Francis Weston, then reprimanded him, for telling her that he, too, frequented her apartments out of love for her.  Under other circumstances, it would undoubtedly been regarded as innocent, courtly banter.  But…what was considered “courtly” and what was suspected to be something more had changed since Anne had learned the rules, and Cromwell was able to take advantage of the different climate with regard to heterosexual behavior.

The times, to anachronistically poach from Bob Dylan, were a ‘changing. Yes, Anne had failed to produce a son for Henry VIII, and yes, Thomas Cromwell had his own reasons to plot against her. Yes, she had many enemies at court, and yes, there was Jane Seymour waiting in the wings, with the promise of greater obedience than feisty Anne and fresher eggs for the incubation of a royal heir. None of these factors, however, could have sent Anne to the scaffold had the charges of adultery and treason seemed utterly preposterous to the Tudor jury, for the Tudors were great believers in “the law,” and it was important to Henry that the “appearance of justice,” at the very least, seem to have been done. What helped make that travesty possible, I believe, was a cultural change in the interpretation of courtly banter, which Anne engaged in—innocently but as it turned out, fatally.

Anne was trained in traditions of courtly love within which flirtatiousness, far from being suspect, was a requirement of the court lady. But it must never go too far; the trick was to just go to the edge and then back off (without, of course, hurting the gentleman’s feelings). Purity was required, but provocative banter was not just accepted, it was expected. Especially in the French court [where Anne had spent much of her young adulthood—sb], a relaxed atmosphere was the norm in conversations between men and women. But as the Middle Ages segued into the Renaissance and then into the Reformation, people may have become disposed to believe things, based on the exchanges with the men Anne was charged with, that would have been dismissed as ridiculous forty years earlier.

Even in Henry’s courtship of her, Anne got caught in the net of changing romantic conventions. Henry had been raised on tales of King Arthur’s round table, virtuous knights, maidens in distress and chivalrous deeds. Nobility, generosity, mercy, justice, and the power of true love were the stuff of his boyish fantasies. However, by 1526, when Henry began to pursue Anne, Arthurian chivalry, a deeply spiritualized ideal, was well on its way to being transformed into the political “art” of courtly behavior, aimed at creating the right impression, even if deceptive, to achieve ones ends. In his letters to Anne, Henry gives her the impression that she is his Guinevere, and he her loyal servant: “I beseech you,” “if it pleases you,” “begging you,” “fear of wearying you,” “your loyal servant”, “to serve you only.” Etc. etc. Deeply felt emotion, or a pleasurable fiction, designed to woo and win?

Henry was in love, yes. But he was never the helpless swain that he makes himself out to be in his letters. And although he believed in Arthurian honor, which served and protected women as one of its highest goals, he could never have done what Arthur (in the legend) had done: stand nobly and patiently by while his best knight and his wife engaged in a long affair.  In the legend, Guinevere is condemned to death twice for treason (the second time for adultery with Lancelot) and both times is saved from the stake by Lancelot—with King Arthur’s blessings.  Arthur had, in fact, suspected the queen’s infidelity for years, but because of his love for her and for Lancelot, had kept his suspicions a secret.  When Modred and Aggravane, plotting their own coup d’etat, told the King about it, he had no choice but to condemn his queen, while privately hoping she would be rescued.  It was a romantic fantasy—but one which Henry and Anne had grown up with, and which no doubt shaped their ideas about love. Henry had himself been an adroit and seductively tender courtier, who had pledged himself Anne’s “servant” and swore his constancy. The pledges may (or may not) have been made manipulatively, but his infatuation was real and the gestures were convincing.

Until very near the end, Anne had hopes Henry would spare her. Henry had in fact honored her like Guinevere for six years, and if things went according to the old courtly script,  she had every reason to believe Henry would spare her, as Arthur did with Guinevere. But Henry lived in a time when kingly authority—not “knighthood”—was in flower. So while Guinevere, who actually had a sexual relation with another man, was saved by Arthur, Anne Boleyn—guilty of nothing more than a bit of courtly banter—was sent to the scaffold, and Henry never looked back.

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At the Scaffold

The following entry should not be sited, reproduced, or quoted without attribution to me and my book:  Susan Bordo, The Creation of Anne Boleyn, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

At the Scaffold.

Despite her proclaimed readiness to die, until very near the end Anne still harbored the belief that Henry might pardon her. It was not an unreasonable expectation.  Not only had no British queen up until then been executed, but the last-minute rescue of the condemned queen was a centerpiece of the romance of chivalry, which was still being avidly consumed at court via Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.  In the Arthurian legend, Guinevere is condemned to death twice for treason (the second time for adultery with Lancelot) and both times is saved from the stake by Lancelot—with King Arthur’s blessings.  Arthur had, in fact, suspected the queen’s infidelity for years, but because of his love for her and for Lancelot, had kept his suspicions a secret.  When Modred and Aggravane, plotting their own coup d’etat, told the King about it, he had no choice but to condemn his queen, while privately hoping she would be rescued.

It was a romantic fantasy—but one which Henry and Anne had grown up with, and which no doubt shaped their ideas about love.  The Arthurian romance, even today, has the power to move us.  And in 1536, many of the outward trappings and habits of courtly love still existed.  Henry was himself an adroit and seductively tender courtier, who at the beginning of his courtship of Anne had written seventeen letters in which he pledged himself her “servant” and swore his constancy. The pledges may (or may not) have been made manipulatively, but his infatuation was real and the gestures were convincing. Why wouldn’t Anne, who Henry had in fact honored like Guinevere for six years, cherish the hope that she, too, would be rescued from death?

Henry had no such plans in mind, however. As Anne prepared for her death, Henry was spending much of his time at Chelsea, visiting Jane Seymour and making plans for their wedding.  Chapuys describes the king as showing “extravagant joy” at Anne’s arrest.  Convinced (or making a great show for posterity) that Anne was an “accursed whore” who had slept with hundreds of men, he was “very impatient” and wishing to have the thing done with “already.”  Ironically, Anne, on her part, felt the same way. Expecting to die on the 18th, she took the sacrament at 2 a.m., having prepared her soul for many hours.  By now all who were in close contact with her must have been convinced of her innocence, whatever their politics. She had insisted that Kingston be present when she took confession, so her assertion of innocence of the charges would be public record. Even her old enemy Chapuys was impressed by the fact that Anne, before and after receiving the Sacrament, affirmed to those who had charge of her “on damnation of her soul, that she had never offended with her body against the King.”  In the 16th century, to speak anything other than the truth at such a time would be to invite the utter condemnation of God. Anne had nothing to gain and her salvation to lose by lying.

She was prepared to die.  Yet, cruelly, the execution was delayed twice, once in order to clear the Tower of possible sympathetic observers, the second time because the executioner had been delayed. The first delay dismayed Anne, who thought that at the newly appointed hour she would already “be dead and past my pain.”  Kingston, who seems to have been an absurdly literal man, took her to be referring to the physical pain of the execution itself, and reassured her that “there would be no pain, it was so subtle.” Anne replied with her most famous line: “I have heard say the executioner is very good, and I have a little neck.”  And then, according to Kingston, “she put her hand around [her neck], laughing heartily.”  Kingston flat-footedly interpreted this to mean that Anne had “much joy and pleasure in death.”  He apparently did not “get” Anne’s irony, or the fact that at this point, she was probably becoming a bit unhinged.  At the news of the second delay, she was distraught.  But “It was not that she desired death,” as she told Kingston (or perhaps one of the ladies, who then told him) “but she had thought herself prepared to die, and feared that the delay would weaken her resolve. “  So much for Kingston’s theory that Anne felt “joy and pleasure” at the prospect of death.

What she may have felt was something closer to what James Hillman describes as the state of mind that often precedes an attempt at suicide:  a desperate desire to shed an old self whose suffering had become unbearable, and thus be “reborn” in the act of dying.  This imagined rebirth, for Hillman, has nothing to do with belief in reincarnation, or even in heaven, but the perception, ironically, that the soul cannot survive under existing conditions. What Anne had been through was certainly enough to shatter any hold her previous life may have exerted on her.  She had been discarded by the man who had pursued her for six years, fathered her daughter, and seemingly adored her for much of their time together.  The person she was closest to in the world—her brother George—had been executed on the most hideous and shameful of charges.   The rest of her family, as far as we can tell, had either abandoned her or—as Anne believed of her mother–was awash with despair and grief over what was happening.  Still recovering from a miscarriage, her body and mind undoubtedly assaulted by hormonal changes and unstable moods, she had been sent to prison on absurd, concocted charges, and “cared for” there by women who were hostile spies.  She knew she would never see her daughter Elizabeth again, and—unlike the fictional Anne of Anne of the Thousand Days, who predicts that “Elizabeth will be queen!”—had no hope, after Cranmer’s visit, that her child would ever be anything more than she had seen Mary reduced to: a bastardized ex-princess forced to bow down to any children the new wife might produce for Henry.  She had been given reason to hope that she would be allowed to live, only to have those hopes crushed at her sentencing. In a sense, she had already been through dozens of dyings.   Nothing was left but the withered skin of her old life, which she was ready to shed.

As she mounted the scaffold, wearing a role of dark damask (black in some reports, grey in others) trimmed with white fur, with a red kirtle (petticote) underneath—red being the liturgical color of Catholic martyrdom—political and national affiliations continued, as they had through her reign and would for centuries to come–to shape the descriptions of her appearance and behavior. To an author of the Spanish Chronicle, she exhibited “a devilish spirit.” A Portugese witness who had snuck in despite the ban on “strangers”, wrote that “never had she looked so beautiful.” An imperialist observer described her as “feeble and stupefied” (which would be understandable, and not incompatible with her looking beautiful as well.)  Wriothesley says she showed “a goodly smiling countenance.”  French de Carles commented on the beauty of her complexion, pure and clear as though cleansed by all the suffering.  For all, the spectacle of a queen, wearing the white ermine of her role, mounting the stairs to the scaffold, was unnerving.

Unlike her trial speech and her “last letter,” Anne’s remarks on the scaffold made the more conventional bows to the goodness and mercy of the King—in this highly public context, it was virtually required, if only to prevent any retribution against surviving relatives—and asked the people to pray for her.  She did not admit to guilt for the offenses with which she was charged or accuse the judges of malice, but did make reference to the “cruel law of the land by which I die.” By now, the four young ladies who had accompanied her to the scaffold (clearly not the hostile spies that had lived with her in the Tower, but others, more intimate with her, who she had been allowed to have with her in these last moments) were weeping.  Anne, having helped them take off her robe—an act that in itself must have demanded great composure and courage—“appeared dazed” as he kneeled down, modestly covering her feet with her dress, and asked the executioner to remove her coif, lest it interfere with his stroke.  The executioner realized that she was afraid of the pain of an impeded blow; she kept looking around her, her hand on her coif, anticipating the moment.   Clearly “distressed” at the task he was to perform, he told her that he would wait until she gave the signal.  “With a fervent spirit” she began to pray, and the Portuguese contingent, unable to bear it, huddled together and knelt down against the scaffold, wailing loudly.

Anne gave the signal.  But either the executioner or someone else in charge had devised a scheme to distract Anne at the last moment, so the fatal blow would come when she wasn’t expecting it; he turned toward the scaffold steps and called for the sword, and when Anne blindly turned her head in that direction, he brought the sword down from the other side and swiftly “divided her neck at a blow.”   As these things went—others had died only after multiple clumsy hackings—it was an easy death: if the naturalist Lewis Thomas has it right, it was far easier than her weeks of suffering in the Tower:  “Pain, “ he writes, “is useful for avoidance, for getting away when there’s time to get away, but when it is end game, and no way back, pain is likely to be turned off, and the mechanisms for this are wonderfully precise and quick.  If I had to design an ecosystem in which creatures had to live off each other and in which dying was an indispensible part of living, I could not think of a better way to manage.”   He quotes Montaigne, who nearly died in a riding accident and later described the “letting go” that he experienced at what could have easily been the very end:

“It was an idea that was only floating on the surface of my soul, as delicate and feeble as all the rest, but in truth not only free from distress but mingled with that sweet feeling that people have who have let themselves slide into sleep. I believe this is the same state in which people find themselves whom we see fainting in the agony of death, and maintain that we pity them without cause…If you know not how to die, never trouble yourself; Nature will in a moment fully and sufficiently instruct you; she will exactly do that business for you; take you no care with it” (Lewis, 104-5).

While I was in London, conducting interviews for this book and visiting sites of importance, I had an experience that reminded me of Lewis’s essay. Returning to my hotel from a day-long visit to the Tower, I was obediently following the crowd across a busy intersection when I heard a voice call out “Watch Out!” and, struck on my lower back, was knocked to the ground. The impact was forceful and disorienting; I had no idea what had happened.  Then, out of the corner of my eye I saw the red of a London bus. “I’m about to be run over by a bus!” I thought, disbelieving but sure; it seemed impossible, on my innocent little research trip, that I should die in this arbitrary, unexpected way, but that was clearly what was about to happen.  I tried to lift myself up, and realized that although I was hurt, I wasn’t about to be crushed, for I’d been hit not by the bus I’d seen out of the corner of my eye, but by an impatient bicyclist; the bus had slowed to a stop by the time I was on the ground.

I was bleeding from a bad scrape on my arm, and sharp darts of pain in my back and side accompanied every breath, in a way that I recognized from a hair-line rib fracture I’d once received in an auto accident. I suppose I ought to have gone to the hospital just to be sure everything was okay, but I didn’t.  And eventually, everything did heal.  The only injury that remained was existential: the memory of that moment when I was sure that I was about to be extinguished, just like that, without warning.  I had felt terror, yes, but then, when the fatal blow seemed inevitable, an eerie calm overcame me.  It seemed useless to struggle—a feeling that I had never before experienced, in a life devoted to making things happen, protecting myself and those I love, and constantly moving forward.  For a moment, when I thought I was about to be struck by that bus, I relaxed into the unfamiliar sense of “letting go.” It was only for an instant, and then, when I realized that the bus had stopped and escape from the traffic was still possible, the self-protective fear returned and I scrambled to my feet, and hobbled across the street to the sidewalk where my husband was standing, looking alarmed.

Dostoevsky, too, had experienced a close brush with death—by the Czar’s firing squad, a sentence from which he was reprieved at the last moment—and fictionalizes his experience through a character in The Idiot.  His account, though very different from Montaigne’s or mine, nonetheless describes a radically altered state of consciousness, not characterized by pain but a sense of the infinity of time, stretching his final moments into an extended reflection culminating in the sense of impending re-birth into the “new self” that James Hillman describes:

“About twenty paces from the scaffold, where he had stood to hear the sentence, were three posts, fixed in the ground, to which to fasten the criminals (of whom there were several). The first three criminals were taken to the posts, dressed in long white tunics, with white caps drawn over their faces, so that they could not see the rifles pointed at them. Then a group of soldiers took their stand opposite to each post. My friend was the eighth on the list, and therefore he would have been among the third lot to go up. A priest went about among them with a cross: and there was about five minutes of time left for him to live.

He said that those five minutes seemed to him to be a most interminable period, an enormous wealth of time; he seemed to be living, in these minutes, so many lives that there was no need as yet to think of that last moment, so that he made several arrangements, dividing up the time into portions–one for saying farewell to his companions, two minutes for that; then a couple more for thinking over his own life and career and all about himself; and another minute for a last look around. He remembered having divided his time like this quite well. While saying good- bye to his friends he recollected asking one of them some very usual everyday question, and being much interested in the answer. Then having bade farewell, he embarked upon those two minutes which he had allotted to looking into himself; he knew beforehand what he was going to think about. He wished to put it to himself as quickly and clearly as possible, that here was he, a living, thinking man, and that in three minutes he would be nobody; or if somebody or something, then what and where? He thought he would decide this question once for all in these last three minutes. A little way off there stood a church, and its gilded spire glittered in the sun. He remembered staring stubbornly at this spire, and at the rays of light sparkling from it. He could not tear his eyes from these rays of light; he got the idea that these rays were his new nature, and that in three minutes he would become one of them, amalgamated somehow with them.”

Anne’s preparations for dying, facing the inevitability of her execution, may also have been filled with internal good-byes, existential confrontation with the mystery of “being” and “nothingness”, and imaginings of becoming one with nature.  I like to think of her final hours as immensely rich, in a way that I cannot comprehend but that was sustaining to her, even beyond her more conventional—but extremely deep, for Anne—religious faith.  And then, at the end, I hope that nature or God (it makes no difference), gave her no more to figure out, no more to regret, no more to say good-bye to, no more work to do, and took care of her dying.

Sir William Russell Flint – Queen Guinevere rescued from the stake by Sir Lancelot, from ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’, Book XX, Chapter VIII

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