For Anne Boleyn was once King Henry's wife
Until he had the headsman bob her hair
I recently read Hilary Mantel's two historical novels about the court of Henry VIII, Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012). Both won the most prestigious English literary prize, the Man Booker Award.
Both books are compelling reading, although I had a little trouble keeping the myriad of characters straight. I kept confusing the Duke of Norfolk with the Duke of Suffolk, and there were at least a half-dozen major characters whose first name was Thomas.
The most important of all Mantel's Thomases is Thomas Cromwell, a lowly commoner who became the King Henry's closest advisor – his fixer, if you will.
Here is Hans Holbein the Younger's portrait of Thomas Cromwell, which was painted when Cromwell was about 48 years old:
Wolf Hall tells the story of how Cromwell managed to do an end-run around Pope Clement's refusal to annul Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon, which enabled the king to wed Anne Boleyn.
In Bring Up the Bodies, Cromwell must reverse field and find a way to get rid of Anne, who fell out of favor with the King after only three years of marriage.
A good lawyer could have come up with a number of arguments why Henry's marriage to Anne was legally null and void. But Cromwell had previously taken the position that none of those arguments were valid in order to clear the way for Henry to wed Anne in the first place.
For example, many believed that Anne had been betrothed to marry Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland, long before she married the King. If that had been true, she would not have been free to wed Henry VIII.
Percy, under pressure from Cromwell, had sworn an oath that there had been no betrothal, which removed that potential obstacle to the King's marriage to Anne. Cromwell could hardly ask Percy to now swear just the opposite of what he had originally sworn – that wouldn't have fooled anyone.
At one point in Bring Up the Bodies, Cromwell asks his son a rhetorical question:
Gregory, you know St. Uncumber? You say that women pray to her to be rid of useless husbands. Now, is there a saint that men can pray to if they wish to be quit of their wives?
I'll admit that I had never heard of St. Uncumber before reading this book.
Legend has it that Uncumber was a teenager of noble birth who had vowed to remain a virgin. When her father promised her in marriage to a pagan king, the devout young woman – who just happened to be super hot! – prayed for God to make her physically repulsive to her prospective husband.
Her prayers were answered, and she sprouted a full beard. The pagan king was totally turned off by hairy babes, and called off the wedding. Uncumber's father was so angry that he had her crucified.
As the above quote from Bring Up the Bodies indicates, St. Uncumber was venerated by women who wished to be liberated – or disencumbered (hence the saint's name) – from their husbands. (Presumably, St. Uncumber was kept very busy answering the prayers of those women.)
Henry VIII may not have had a patron saint to pray to in order to disencumber himself of Anne, but Cromwell eventually came up with a successful strategy for accomplishing the King's desire. He built the case that Anne had committed adultery and incest after she married the King, and prosecuted Anne for treason.
Her conviction and subsequent execution freed the king to marry Jane Seymour, which he did eleven days after Anne was beheaded.
The closing chapters of Bring Up the Bodies present Cromwell's interrogations of Anne and the five men (including her brother) who are accused of committing treason by sleeping with her.
Initially, Anne and her alleged lovers are incredulous at the accusations that are being leveled against them. But Cromwell tells them quite matter-of-factly that the die is cast – that they will never leave the Tower of London alive.
The usual penalty for a man convicted of treason is to be hanged, cut down alive, and eviscerated. A woman convicted of treason is usually burned at the stake. But Cromwell tells his prisoners that if they admit their guilt, the king may be merciful and allow them to be beheaded instead.
One by one, the accused traitors realize that the situation is hopeless and that an a less horrific death is all they have to hope for. They confess, are tried and convicted with a minimum of fuss, and are promptly executed.
The executioner – or "headsman" – is a skilled Frenchman who delivers the coup de grace to poor Anne with aplomb:
The man is behind Anne, she is misdirected, she does not sense him. . . . [T]he body exsanguinates, and its flat little presence becomes a puddle of gore.
For those of you who aren't readers, the BBC produced a miniseries based on Wolf Hall, which aired on PBS earlier this year:
"With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm" is a darkly humorous little ditty about how the ghost of Anne Boleyn haunts the Tower of London, walking thither and fro with her head tucked underneath her arm.
R. P. Weston and Bert Lee wrote today's featured song in 1934 for British music-hall performer and comic actor, Stanley Holloway.
Holloway was best-known to American audiences for his portrayal of Eliza Doolittle's father, Alfred, in both the original Broadway production of My Fair Lady and the movie adaption of that musical. (Holloway's character sang two of that musical's most popular numbers, "With a Little Bit of Luck" and "Get Me to the Church on Time.")
For some reason, the Kingston Trio left out this verse when they covered the song on their Sold Out album, which was released in 1960:
Along the drafty corridors
For miles and miles she goes
She often catches cold, poor thing
It's cold there when it blows
And it's awfully awkward for the Queen,
To have to blow her nose . . .
With her head tucked underneath her arm
Here's the Kingston Trio's recording of "With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm":