I sometimes wish I was the kind of person who could look at something and say “That’s interesting,” and move on. You know, have a cup of tea and think about the garden or something. Or think about nothing. I know people who can do that (Or at least when I say to them, “What are you thinking?” they say, “Nothing,” but that could be a ruse…) It must be very restful to be able to empty your brain. But I can’t seem to stop mine asking questions or imagining things or dwelling endlessly on possibilities, on what it must have been like to climb Everest, capsize at sea, live in a basement for 12 years (I can’t read those kind of books).
So when we took our Australian to Hampton Court on a polished afternoon in May, my brain went beserk. It was partly the weather – stunning – and partly the fact that I hadn’t been inside it for years. Also I had mentally escalated the cost and it was not as expensive as I’d thought – how English – so by the time we were actually inside Henry VIII’s apartments, my brain was in heaven.
Henry’s first two wives, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, fascinate me. This is after reading The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory who I discovered after enjoying The White Queen on the BBC. Catherine, Spanish, religious, formerly married to Henry’s dead brother, believed she was called to stand at the king’s side and serve this country until her dying day. Anne, pert, pretty and from an influential family, caught the eye of the most powerful man in England after he became bored with her sister, Mary.
What was it like dancing around these impressive rooms when the Royal Court came down to the palace on the Thames? The sheer size of the place must have been overwhelming with its high ceilings and long corridors. A heady summer’s day, an infatuated king, an opulent palace full of servants to do your bidding. And all you had to do was sit around and sew and dance and be entertaining. It’s enough to turn anyone’s head. Or their virtue.
Anne Boleyn must have been a determined young lady. She knew the king was in love with her but refused to become his mistress as her sister had done, despite the wrath of her family for whom she was a ticket to security. Daughters were pawns to be given to men who could improve their position. However, Anne was confident of her charms and made the king wait for her, at least until he got Thomas Wolsey to petition the pope for a divorce from Catherine. Frustrated by Catherine’s inability to produce a male heir, Henry had read in Leviticus that if a man takes his brother’s wife, they shall be childless. He and Catherine had a healthy daughter, Mary, but she was a girl and didn’t count in Henry’s mind. He therefore decided that God wanted him to get rid of her. It’s not the first time the bible has been used to defend an injustice and it would not be the last.
How did Catherine feel, praying to God month after month for a healthy boy only to produce one girl, several miscarriages and three boys, none of whom survived? As she watched her famous philanderer husband pursue yet another of her ladies-in-waiting, knowing his patience with her was gone, did she gaze despairingly out of these windows or seek comfort in the grounds on summer evenings? Did she believe that God would answer her prayers; it was just a question of time? Or did she see the fact that he didn’t have her killed as answer enough. “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived…” That’s how we used to learn the fates of Henry’s wives at school. After Henry rejected the power of the pope in England and got the Archbishop of Canterbury to annul his marriage to Catherine, she was banished from Court and lived in various castles and manors with just a few servants. It is said that she never complained of her treatment and spent a great deal of time in prayer.
The scents in the gardens that day were plump with summer, a seared earth smell of heat and blossom that remind you of being young, able to do anything. Did these two women at the height of their influence, walk these paths, or similar, with the heady scent of certainty – strong, safe, married to the most powerful man in England? If they did, it didn’t last long.
I’m so glad to be me, living in a small house in suburbia in the twentieth century with a cat and a man who loves me. I would not have been great at fifteenth century queening – I would have asked too many questions, argued too hard. Besides I can’t sew and my dancing, though hearty, looks more like electric shock treatment. I’ve also been known to burp loudly and unexpectedly on smart occasions. I did produce a son though, so perhaps I would have been tolerated, even respected.
I think our Australian liked the place. At least he took lots of photos, some of which I’ve used in this blog post. I’m grateful to him for those, and for giving my brain a chance to dwell on something different for a change. Although I would prefer not to have woken in the night, sweating and afraid, dreaming I was Catherine of Aragon fleeing through the palace gardens in a Honda Civic Aerodeck, pursued by a herd of reindeer and a kangaroo. My poor brain…