Divorced, beheaded, died, birched!
Published in 2006 this best selling historical novel tells the story of two of the wives of Henry VIII from the women’s own point of view. In an early chapter the 24 year old Anne, Henry’s fourth wife-to-be, is beaten bare bottom with a rod for displeasing her brother William, the all powerful Duke of Cleves, who spies on the scene from an adjacent room.
I go through quickly to our privy chamber and fling my clothes into the chest at the foot of the bed and jump into bed in my shift, drawing the curtains around the bed, pulling the covers up. I shiver in the coldness of the linen, and wait for the order that I know will come.
In only a few moments, Amelia opens the door. “You’re to go to Mother’s rooms,” she says triumphantly.
“Tell her I’m ill. You should have said I’ve gone to bed.”
“I told her. She said you have to get up and put on a cloak and go. What have you done now?”
I scowl at her bright face. “Nothing.” I rise unwillingly from the bed. “Nothing. As always, I have done nothing.” I pull my cloak from the hook behind the door and tie the ribbons from chin to knee.
“Did you answer him back?” Amanda demands gleefully. “Why do you always argue with him?”
I go out without replying, through the silence chamber and down the steps to my mother’s rooms in the same tower on the floor below us.
At first it looks as if she is alone, but then I see the half-closed door to her privy chamber and I don’t need to hear him, and I don’t need to see him. I just know that he is there, watching.
She has her back to me at first, and when she turns I see she has the birch stick in her hand and her face is stern.
“I have done nothing.” I say at once.
She sighs irritably. “Child, is that any way to come into a room?”
I lower my head. “My lady mother,” I say quietly.
“I am displeased with you” she says
I look up. “I am sorry for that. How have I offended?”
“You have been called to a holy duty; you must lead your husband to the reformed church.”
“You have been called to a position of great honour and great dignity, and you must forge your behaviour to deserve it”
Inarguable. I lower my head again.
“You have an unruly spirit,” she goes on.
“You lack the proper traits of a woman: submission, obedience, love of duty.”
“And I fear that you have a wanton streak in you,” she says, very low.
“Mother, that I have not.” I say as quietly as her. “That is not true.”
“You do. The King of England will not tolerate a wanton wife. The Queen of England must be a woman without a stain on her character. She must be above reproach.”
“My lady mother, I…”
“Anne, think of this!” she says, and for once I hear a real ring of earnestness in her voice. “Think of this! He had the Lady Anne Boleyn executed for infidelity, accusing her of sin with half the court, her own brother among her lovers. He made her queen and then he unmade her again with no cause or evidence but his own will. He accused her of incest, witchcraft, crimes most foul. He is a man most anxious for his reputation, madly anxious. The next Queen of England must never be doubted. We cannot guarantee your safety if there is one word said against you!”
“Kiss the rod,” she says before I can argue.
I touch my lips to the stick as she holds it out to me. Behind her privy chamber door I can hear him slightly, very slightly, sigh.
“Hold the seat of the chair,” she orders.
I bend over and grip both sides of the chair. Delicately, like a lady lifting a handkerchief, she takes the hem of my cloak and raises it over my hips and then my night shift. My buttocks are naked, if my brother chooses to look through the half-open door he can see me, displayed like a girl in a bawdy house. There is a whistle of the rod through the air and the sudden whiplash of pain across my thigh. I cry out, and then bite my lip. I am desperate to know how many cuts I will have to take. I grit my teeth together and wait for the next. The hiss through the air and then the slice of pain, like a sword-cut in a dishonourable duel. The sound of the next comes too fast for me to make ready, and I cry out again, my tears suddenly coming hot and fast like blood.
“Stand up, Anne,” she says coolly, and pulls down my shift and cloak.
The tears are pouring down my face, I can hear myself sobbing like a child.
“Go to your room and read the Bible,” she says. “Think especially of your royal calling. Caesar’s wife, Anne. Caesar’s wife.”
I have to curtsey to her. The awkward movement causes a wave of new pain and I whimper like a whipped puppy. I go to the door and open it. The wind blows the door from my hand and, in the gust, the inner door to her privy chamber flies open without warning.
In the shadow stands my brother, his face strained as if it were him beneath the whip of the birch, his lips pressed tightly together as if to stop himself from calling out. For one awful moment our eyes meet and he looks at me, his face filled with a desperate need. I drop my eyes, I turn from him as if I have not seen him, as if I am blind to him. Whatever he wants of me, I know that I don’t want to hear it. I stumble from the room, my shift sticking to the blood on the backs of my thighs. I am desperate to get away from them both.