Miscellanea and Ephemeron
07/19/2007 Archived Entry: "Book review: The Boleyn Inheritance"
The Boleyn Inheritance
Review by Ida Vega-Landow
I've been a fan of Philippa Gregory since reading her first book, "The Constant Princess". This touching historical romance about Princess Catalina of Spain who became Catherine of Aragon filled me with pride for my Spanish and my Catholic heritage, as well as some shame over the way that King Ferdinand of Aragon and his queen, Isabelle of Castile, treated the Moors, assimilating the best of their Muslim culture while driving them out of the country, even when they were settled well beyond Spanish borders. Just goes to show what can happen when fanatical Christian rulers are in charge.
"The Boleyn Inheritance" also shows what can happen when a fanatical ruler is in charge. I'd always thought old King Henry VIII was a fat, egotistical, male chauvinist pig whose claim to fame was starting a new religion because the Catholic Church wouldn't give him a divorce. Gregory suggests that there was literally madness in his method. Henry Tudor may have seemed like a jolly old soul, and is usually depicted that way in movies, but according to Gregory the running sore on his right leg, which he got in a riding accident, that never healed and always had to be drained, was usually swollen with pus and extremely painful, which put Henry into a perpetual bad mood. That may have been the reason why old Henry was so merciless with those who opposed him; the pain in his bad leg made him crazy.
Incidentally, syphilis also leaves suppurating sores that never heal and eventually leads to mental deterioration. Since it is well known how sexually active King Henry was, it is possible that the running sore on his leg was caused by syphilis and may be the real reason why he went off his royal rocker whenever his royal will was opposed. Why else would he have had so many people executed for treason simply for suggesting that his will was not the will of God?
But his madness ran deeper than that, as described so tellingly by Gregory in her depiction of the lives of three different women in King Henry's court:
1) Anne of Cleves, the German princess from Düsseldorf, ruled by Duke William, her fanatically religious Lutheran brother, who was also fanatically stingy. (He sends his second sister off to England to marry its king without bothering to buy her any new clothes or jewelry; even the jewelry she wore to pose for the painting by Holbein was borrowed!)
2) Katherine Howard, the pretty, empty-headed little cousin of the late Anne Boleyn, whose ruthless uncle Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, puts her into the new queen's court hoping to attract the king's attention and get another Boleyn girl on the throne, thus increasing the power of his house.
3) Jane Rochford, widow of George Boleyn, Anne's brother, who testified against her husband at Anne's trial to save her own skin, as well as for revenge on George for preferring his sister's company to hers, not to mention jealousy of Anne.
Jane Rochford hoped to salvage the Boleyn Inheritance by betraying her husband, but she wound up losing Hever Castle, the hereditary home of the Boleyns, and living as a poor relation in her brother's house, surviving on a pension from Thomas Cromwell, Henry's new best friend at the novel's opening. Now she lives in hope of hearing from her uncle, Duke Norfolk, summoning her once more to the Tudor court to serve him and the Boleyn family by doing what she does best, namely spying and snitching.
He plants her along with her lovely young Howard cousin in Anne of Cleves' retinue as ladies-in-waiting, knowing Henry won't be able to resist the fresh-faced, well-dressed beauty (unlike the Duke of Cleves, Norfolk doesn't grudge spending money on a lady's clothes to impress a king), especially after comparing her to the plain-faced, sensible German princess in her dowdy clothes, which her cheapskate brother insists she wears to preserve her modesty in England, that land of sinners. Poor Anne is expected to encourage the king to lead England on the path of Protestantism for righteousness' sake, while Norfolk is equally determined to bring back the old religion, Catholicism.
Gregory's depiction of the Duke of Cleves as a fanatically religious tightwad would be funny, were it not under laid with something more sinister. It seems that madness runs in the royal family of Cleves; their father John III was an alcoholic who went into violent rages, to the point where young William locked him up and ordered him left to die of starvation. Nobody dared to oppose him, William being as masterful as his father had been in his younger days. But Gregory suggests that despite his much vaunted Protestant piety, Duke William may have nursed a secret lech for Anne. She describes him from Anne's POV as a bully and a tyrant who picked on all three of his sisters growing up, but singled out Anne, the middle sister, for especially cruel treatment. It seems she was the only one who didn't run away crying when he teased her; her silent stoicism and brave endurance must have driven him crazy with frustration.
Not only that, but the way Anne catches him looking at her sometimes, when she's looking especially pretty, or behaving immodestly by his puritanical standards, makes her very uneasy. He likes to run and snitch to their mother about Anne's behavior, urging her to beat the poor girl, which she frequently does, merely on her son's say-so that she's done wrong. The description of one scene where Anne is being whipped by her mother, bent over a chair with her skirts up around her hips, while William watches from a dark corner practically licking his lips with excitement, made me feel a little sick. No wonder she was so eager for a marriage with King Henry of England, a man old enough to be her father, who'd buried three wives already! It was the only way she could escape from her brother's cruelty and her mother's abuse.
You'd think that an unloving brother like Duke William would be glad to get rid of an unloved sister via such an advantageous marriage. But in his haste to be rid of her, he forgets to include a certain document proving that her previous betrothal to the Duke of Lorraine's son was cancelled. And, as anybody familiar with the history of English royalty knows, betrothals are usually the joker in the deck. How many English monarchs have declared their marriages invalid because their wives were previously betrothed to someone else? This was usually a convenient excuse to rid oneself of an unsatisfactory wife, usually one who had committed no crime other than failing to bear a male heir. In poor Anne's case, she never got the chance to prove she was fertile enough to bear an heir; after his first look at her, King Henry was so disgusted he made the unchivalrous comment that "by her breasts and belly, she can be no virgin!"
Seeing him for the first time must have been a shock for Anne too. When Henry surprises her the night before their wedding by showing up in disguise to greet her in the king's name, the author spares us nothing of Anne's dismay and disgust at being shouted at, ogled and pawed by what appears to be a drunken old courtier, half-bald and fat as a wine barrel, who kisses her with a mouthful of stinking, rotten teeth. Naturally she pushes him away and spits out the bad taste from her mouth. This does not endear her to Henry or him to her when she finds out who the drunken, fat old courtier really is. Little Katherine Howard takes advantage of the situation to soothe the king's vanity, pretending she doesn't recognize him while pouring on the charm, thus cooling the king's anger toward his German bride while arousing his interest in this fresh, young face in her retinue. From thereon, his marriage to Anne goes downhill.
There are a few tense moments in the story, even for those who are familiar enough with history to know that poor Anne survives her brief marriage to Henry. The real heartbreaking moments come when you read about Katherine's doomed romance with Lord Thomas Culpepper, Henry's favorite gentleman of the bedchamber. They carry on in her chambers while the king's lying in his sickbed most of the time, aided and abetted by Lady Rochford at her corrupt uncle's order. They know that the king is too old and sick to get himself another heir, so they're hoping that Culpepper can do the job for him. The Duke of Norfolk callously remarks that as soon as the queen is pregnant, the young man can be disposed of afterwards in a conveniently arranged accident.
Before you go feeling sorry for Culpepper, let me inform you that despite his youth he was no innocent, any more than Katherine was. He used his influence with King Henry to get himself acquitted on a charge of raping a gamekeeper's wife and killing her husband when he tried to defend her. And Katherine was a sexually precocious little tart who was getting her skirts lifted by her music teacher when she was only eleven! I swear, this girl sounds like the Paris Hilton of Tudor times. All she thinks about are clothes, jewels, parties and boys, not necessarily in that order. Raised in the rambling old mansion of her step-grandmother Agnes Tilney, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, where she and all the other young ladies were so loosely supervised that young men were able to sneak into the girl's quarters after dark, is it any wonder that she was already sexually experienced by the time she met Henry? And he, the poor old fool, was so besotted by her fresh-faced beauty and her flattering ways that he called her his "rose without a thorn". I would have liked to see old Henry's face when he found out that his little rose wasn't as unsullied as he thought she was. I'm sure he regretted giving up his well-bred, Plain Jane German bride for her then, especially when someone in Anne's household spreads a rumor that she had secretly given birth to a son.
Anne does surprisingly well after her separation from Henry; all she has to do is agree that her previous betrothal is still valid and that Henry never consummated their marriage during their brief time together. In return, she gets Hever Castle and a generous pension, and permission to remain in England and call herself the king's good sister, which relieves her of the necessity of going back to Cleves and having to live with her family's reproaches. In those days, the only thing worse than being a penniless widow living on your family's charity was being a failed wife turned out by your husband for failing in your marital duties, i.e. producing a son. But Anne revels in her freedom as a single woman, once she realizes that she no longer has to please a man to survive. I rejoiced for her, even as I grieved for poor little Katherine when her adultery was exposed, along with her sinful past.
Despite her stupidity, her vanity, and her lack of common sense which led to her downfall (Whatever possessed her to hire her former paramour, Francis Dereham, as her secretary?), I couldn't help feeling sorry for the poor little fool when her world came crashing down. She wound up in the Tower of London, stripped of her jewels and pretty gowns, even the little dogs she loved, while her ladies-in-waiting, the same girls who had taken part in the same shameless behavior with the boys at Grandmother Agnes' house, were locked up separately and pressured into giving evidence against her. When her uncle Duke Norfolk comes to take her away, she is still hoping that she will be forgiven if she just admits her sins and says she is sorry. After her uncle brutally informs her that won't be enough to save her, she's carried out screaming by two brawny guardsmen, crying and calling in vain for some friend to help her. That's when it finally dawns on her that she has no friends, not anymore, now that she's fallen from grace with the king, and no one will lift a finger on her behalf.
Even the obsequious Lady Rochford, who helped her carry on with Culpepper, is busy feigning madness in another part of the tower, hoping to avoid the death sentence imposed on all traitors during Henry's reign. Imagine Lady Rochford's surprise when she's informed on the steps of the scaffold itself that Henry changed the law, so that anybody convicted of treason can be executed, even if they are mad. I wonder if old Henry changed the law solely for Jane Rochford's benefit, after receiving a report from his own physician about the crazy way Lady Rochford was behaving in the tower? Knowing Henry, he probably did.
I thought it would give me some satisfaction to see Lady Rochford get hers, after seeing how she was prepared to give false evidence against Anne of Cleves at her uncle's order, just as she did against her husband and his sister, so the king could rid himself of another unwanted wife. But her end was just as pitiful as Katherine's, in its way. Poor little Katherine thought that her beauty and repentance would be enough to get her acquitted, while Lady Rochford was counting on her powerful uncle's influence, since she was such a useful servant to him. But he washed his hands of both his nieces once they were no longer of any use to him, just as he did when Anne Boleyn fell from grace. It irked me more not to see Duke Norfolk get his. Hopefully Ms. Gregory will write a sequel in which we learn of his eventual fate.
Until I got to the death scenes, I thought I was reading the diaries or personal journals of these unfortunate ladies. But it seems that Gregory was simply writing their innermost thoughts and memories; why else would Katherine and Jane be able to describe the scaffold they were forced to mount and the chopping block on which they had to lay their heads in such detail?
I look forward to the Christmas release of "The Other Boleyn Girl", a movie based on another Tudor novel by Philippa Gregory, in which we learn about the first Boleyn mistress Henry VIII took. No, it wasn't Anne, but her elder sister Mary. Like Anne of Cleaves and her successor Katherine Parr, she was one of the few women fortunate enough to survive the king's fickle favor.
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