Reprint: “Never with the mother…”

So you thought I was kidding when I mentioned the French Revolution, didn’t you? Hah.

Actually, I thought I’d start off with something a little less apocalyptic, not to say a neat tie-in with the new movie, The Other Boleyn Girl. Not entirely certain if I want to watch that one or not; for the same reasons why I haven’t read the Philippa Gregory book it’s based on. Tudor history was so determinedly florid as it was that any effort to fictionalise and sensationalise tends to come off as unnecessary at best, and wholly ridiculous at worst.

In real life, almost nothing is known about the the Boleyn sisters’ relationship, for the simple reason that quite frankly nobody cared until Anne vaulted onto the English throne; they were women, after all, and commoners to boot. Mary, the eldest (although even their exact birthdates are unknown) does seem to have been a very pretty girl in a soft, Scarlett Johanssen-y way, all blonde curls and blue eyes. In no time she became basically the court hobbyhorse, racking up an impressive mileage even before King Henry – still in his tall athletic Golden Boy stage himself – decided to try her out.

Anne, on the other hand, was either much more demure or much more cunning, depending on who’s telling the story. It’s assumed from the modern perspective that she must have been at the least rather contemptuous of her sister, whose royal liason lasted all of about six months before she was married off to an obliging minor nobleman, but there’s no contemporary evidence to show it. Mary simply retired to the country, while Sister Anne, her replacement in Henry’s heart if not his bed, became Queen.

The legend goes that some years later, accused of sleeping with all the Boleyn family women in succession, Henry muttered ‘Not with the mother – never with the mother.”

At any rate, it all makes a nice preamble to a piece I wrote for the old forum some while ago, plus some later addenda…

*****************************

…I listened to a knowledgeable schoolchild pronounce on a presumed portrait of Anna of Cleves: “That’s her, the ugly one.” To which her companion agreed: “That’s right, she’s dead ugly” – except that they were both actually looking at a picture of the Temptress, Anne Boleyn.

–Antonia Fraser, The Wives of Henry VIII

The New York Times called it a ‘portrait of a marriage – in serial’, and that about sums it up. Over the course of nearly forty years good ol’ King Hal ran up against nearly every marital complication going, and some he invented right on the spot. Even Elizabeth Taylor never had a man break up with the Pope for love of her.

Divorced: Katharine of Aragon – On the one hand, an Enfanta of Spain, the pitiful widow of an English prince raised to become beloved wife of the current King, wise, kind, pious, courageous and devoted to her royal mate – also, quite a pretty young girl. On the other, no sons, plus twenty years of trying has left her with all the sex appeal of a potato sack. And her husband’s trying to shore up an already shaky dynasty…

Faithful Guiding Light viewers can see where this one’s going a mile off, right? Only you have to picture it with everybody having, like, religion and politics and stuff. Which is to say, Henry took one look at lady-in-waiting Anne Boleyn and suddenly decided his marriage to her boss was obviously cursed.

No, really; he took it all the way to the Pope. He’d violated Scripture – the one about ‘a man not taking his brother’s wife, lest they be childless’. Well, yeah, there was his daughter Mary, but c’mon. The Almighty clearly meant, y’know, children. Strapping heirs, to take up their divinely-ordained throne.

Which still might’ve developed into a decent storyline, until Queen Katharine decided to show off an [ick!] conscience. Eventually the whole mess sparked off the Protestant Reformation when his Holiness refused to play ball, resulting in Henry taking his ball and breaking with the Church entirely. Let us just say there’s a good reason medieval divorce proceedings aren’t usually multi-episode sweeps specials.

Especially since, Instead of sweeping back onto the scene laden with Bob Mackie creations, the dragon-lady ex in this case was forced to live out her days a prisoner in a series of increasingly dark dank castles, before finally dying of…I swear I am not making this up…a broken heart. (OK, a rare tumour on the heart. But who’s quibbling?)

Beheaded: Anne Boleyn – OK, the good news – or not, depending on just how deep you’re into daytime TV – is that she wasn’t a monster. No third breast, no big ugly moles, no sixth finger. This was waaaaaay before affirmative action for the physically challenged, trust me.

No, our Anne was by modern standards quite the go-getter no matter how you interpret her actions – save the handful of feminist authors who see her as the hapless victim of sexual harrassment. For awhile there, things looked positively happy-ever-after: Anne the commoner who caught the eye of the King.

Made it to the top past the Enfanta, past her nephew the Emperor Charles V, past the Pope his prisoner (Sack of Rome, 1527, long story) and past a whole countryful of disgruntled English subjects to boot – on the strength of nothing more than a pair of ‘witty black eyes’ and French sophistication. Picture Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina, only with less omelet and more Hamlet.

Of course, she then abruptly morphed into Meryl Streep in the Devil Wears Prada, only with more jewels and less fertility. Took Henry a quick three years to realise the loophole in the Reformation logic: she’d bewitched him, that nasty witchy lady! Yes she did, with her black eyes and her French wit and her, uh, adultery and her…er…well, anyway, did he mention he was King? [chop!]

Died: Jane Seymour – Boring. Caught the King’s eye as one of Anne Boleyn’s waiting-women. More boring, during which she demurely refuses a royal gift of gold coins, thus proving she’s not a power-hungry slut like, um, the Queen. Well, not a slut, anyhow. Power-hungry, that’s still being debated.

Anyway, the king, still wearing a metaphorical ‘I broke with Rome and all I got was this stupid daughter’ T-shirt, decides boring has its advantages, especially when Queen Jane immediately adopts the motto ‘Bound to obey and serve’. Promptly gives birth to the son and heir. Dies – not of a primitive Caesarean, mind you, but still, pretty ruddy dead. Now that’s what I call civic-mindedness.

Divorced: Anna of Cleves – Official small-talk of English visitors to Continental courts in the summer of 1538: Yeah, Queen’s dead, court in mourning, yada-yada-bummer-cakes. Say, you got any princesses sitting around you’re hoping to turn into cold hard political capital? After all, the King’s still [ahem] young, and the new heir’s pretty sickly-looking…

Well, boy, did the ol’royal ego get a shock. They’d love to take Henry on, the other great royal houses of Europe assured him one by one; if only their daughters had an extra neck to spare. (True story.) Eventually it got so dire his secretary Cromwell was able to maneuvre him into a Protestant alliance with a teeny little German duchy. Again, alert soap watchers will spot the flaw immediately:

English envoys to Cleves [staring in awe as the Honourable Anna and her sister are presented to them wrapped to the eyebrows in robes, hoods, veils, possibly the downstairs tapestries]: Uh, you think we could at least ditch the top layer?
Clevian courtiers: Gasp! You would see them naked?!
Envoys: Well, uh, no, but…Oh, the hell with it, the King can’t do any worse than the last one. Let’s go get a beer.

Actually, according to the official betrothal portrait (for which they had to at least reveal her face), Queen Anna was sort of possibly kind of cute. Once Henry finally got her unwrapped all the way, though, he wasted no time bundling her back up and sticking a ‘No forwarding address’ stamp on top. Oh, and just to give it that special Bluff King Hal touch, his secretary got beheaded.

Beheaded: Katherine Howard – Y’know, at this stage of the game you’d really have to be stupid to cuckold the King of England. Really stupid. Eighteen-year-old bubble-brained blonde stupid…

…Meet Katherine Howard, Anne Boleyn’s cousin…Mary’s, too. Wasn’t too tricky to figure out which way the gene pool had tipped, either. In our Kate’s defense, her new husband – who dotingly referred to her as his ‘rose without a thorn’, ha ha ha whoops – had, like most elderly athletes, pretty much reached the iconic-imagery stage by now; armour made for him around this time measures a whopping 54 inches about the waist. And suffered from stinking leg ulcers to, uh, boot. But still. If there ever was a man in history that’d be unmoved by the ‘I didn’t know my own mind!’ speech, it’d be this one.

Survived: Catherine Parr – ‘Not nearly as pretty as me!’ sniffed Anna of Cleves – and, well, hey, nobody rushed to contradict her or anything. Nice lady, though, Catherine P.; solid, well-meaning, pious, ditched her handsome dashing chivalrous fiance without a murmur of complaint to take on a sick old man and his three by now seriously-issue-intensive kids.

Nasty habit of arguing religion with the King, mind you, but that got cured right up with just a few quick applications of potential arrest warrant. (Basically, when the King said it was sunny, the prudent Queen looked out at the rainstorm and exclaimed ‘Everywhere you are, there must be glorious celestial rays from heaven, oh husband!!’)

Of course, it all went to pot after King Henry finally kicked one. Catherine married her erstwhile handsome dashing etc. fiance, who wasted no time proving that chivalry was sort of over-rated. If you’re beginning to think the moral of this whole story is that is basically kind of sucked to be a woman in Renaissaince England no matter what, you’d be…not far off at all.

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5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. solo_1
    Feb 29, 2008 @ 16:23:18

    Hee… this was funny. Reminded me a bit of “1066 And All That” Have you ever read this? For being published in 1930 it is still a wonderfully hilariously good read. When I next get to go to Hampton Court I will remember your take on the “wives”

  2. shoebox2
    Mar 07, 2008 @ 22:09:08

    Thanks much!

    You get to go to Hampton Court? [whimper] You wouldn’t have a really big suitcase perchance?

    Meanwhile…no, although I’ve heard of it, must confess I’ve never actually picked up ‘1066’. Clearly, I need to fix that pronto.

  3. solo_1
    Mar 08, 2008 @ 14:01:20

    Oh Shoe…If I could take you to England I surely would.

    I grew up with parents who felt that just because you lived in London it did not give you the rignt to ignore all the historic places that abound. So thanks to them I have visited quite a few of these wonders more than once.

  4. anonymous
    Aug 24, 2008 @ 02:35:51

    I’m new here, just wanted to say hello and introduce myself.

  5. shoebox2
    Sep 21, 2008 @ 19:49:36

    Well, hello there! Sorry, apparently I need to check the ‘recent comments’ feature more often. Nice of you to stop by, and please do feel free to make yourself at home. šŸ™‚

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