Sunday 15 August 2010

The Feast of the Assumption, 1524

"It would be so wonderful to see you all again for Assumptiontide, which we are marking with a supper and dance at Hever this year, as usual. I do so hope you can make it. Anne is back from London, as the Queen is on progress for the summer, and, as usual, she has been the most wonderful help to me, especially as this time of year always has such unhappy memories with the anniversary of Henry's death weighing upon my mind. Mary has come back from Leeds, where she and William have been decorating their new house together, although sadly William could not accompany her this time, as His Majesty had need of him. My husband, alas, remains in London for much the same reason and George has gone back to Oxford, to spend the holiday with some of his classmates... You asked about the Wyatts in your last letter. Well, old Sir Henry remains a martyr to the gout, as always, his eldest girl, Margaret, is at Court with Anne and she has come home at the same time and for the same reason. Her younger sister, Mary-Anne, is due to be presented as a debutante at Court, next summer, with my mother acting as her sponsor. Truth be told, I think she is rather looking forward to getting away and once it is decided whether she is to presented to the Queen or to the Duchess of Suffolk, preparations can begin in earnest. As for Tom and his wife, Bess, I am afraid I am at a loss as to what to tell you. In short, Jocasta, it can best be put this way - Tom has fallen in love with Anne who, quite sensibly, has rejected his advances, and Bess has fallen in love with anyone and everyone, except her husband. Their marriage is not just miserable but conspicuous in its misery, which  makes matters worse, as I know all too well from the behaviour of my brother in recent months. In any case, the Wyatts' marriage has caused quite the scandal, as only scandals which take place in either the London Set or in small, rural communities, can. And it is to Tom and Bess's great misfortune that they happen to be members of both.... Do write to me with all your news, With love and prayers, Elizabeth."
- A letter from Lady Elizabeth Boleyn to Lady Jocasta Howard, from The Rise and Fall of the House of Boleyn by Gareth Russell

Today marks the Feast of the Assumption in the Church Calendar and the extract below comes from an incomplete novel of mine, The Rise and Fall of the House of Boleyn

In this scene, some members of the Boleyn family are spending the summer of 1524 at their main residence, Hever Castle, in the southern county of Kent (above.) Kent, which is known as the "Garden of England," was much-loved by the Boleyns and despite having homes in Essex, Norfolk and London, as well as dozens of minor manors across the kingdom, Hever remained their favourite castle.

In the summer of 1524, Henry VIII had not yet declared his interest in the youngest of the Boleyn children, Anne, and her elder brother, George, had recently been betrothed to the society heiress, Jane Parker. The eldest Boleyn, Mary, had been married for four years to the courtier and art collector, Sir William Carey. Also in residence at Hever are the girls' mother, Lady Elizabeth, and their Anglo-Irish grandmother, Lady Margaret, daughter and co-heiress of the Earl of Ormonde, who, today, would be described as "Ascendancy" class.


As events transpired, Tom Wyatt was not to lay eyes on Anne again until a full six weeks after her seventeenth birthday, when the impending Feast of the Assumption made it impossible for him to avoid her any longer. It was traditional that, on some of the great Holy Days - mainly the Epiphany, Easter Sunday, the Feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, the Assumption and All Saints' Day - the most prominent families of the Weald would congregate in one of the families' parish chapels to attend Mass together. Tom had been in London for Saint Peter and Saint Paul's Day, meaning that he had mercifully avoided the Boleyns' company, but with the arrival of the Assumption and his return to the family home at Allington, he could not put off a reunion any longer. Moreover, when Tom had discovered that, this year, the Assumption was to be marked by a Mass at St. Peter's Church, "the Boleyns' chapel," and had subsequently tried to wriggle out of attending, his ailing father had insisted he attend, in order to pay his respects to the new Earl of Kent, who would almost certainly be there, now that the mourning for his late father had ended.

Riding past Hever on the way to the church, on that predictably sweltering Assumptiontide, Tom could see lanterns, tables and decorations being set out around the gardens of the castle by a busy army of servants, all at Anne and Elizabeth's instructions, he presumed. A small statue of the Virgin had already been installed near the bridge, with poesies of flowers clustering around her feet. From somewhere in the grounds, he could hear the voice of three maids cheerfully singing Star of the Sea in honour of the Holy Mother. Later, there would be music and dancing far into the balmy evening in honour of the Assumption and the overwhelming aroma of the flowers the Boleyn women had clustered around their garden as decoration for the night-time ball wafted softly through the heavy summer morning air. Hever always reminded him of Anne and seeing the castle and its gardens abuzz with preparations that bore all the hallmarks of her sensibilities, Tom felt a new sense of foreboding at seeing her after their last, disastrous meeting.

Walking reluctantly into the packed knave of St. Peter's with a miserable looking Bess by his side, Tom tried not to scan the congregation for a glance of Anne. Proceeding to his pew with the rest of the gentry, he kept his eyes resolutely fixed on the less well-dressed worshippers, correctly assuming that Anne would be taking her place with the other aristocrats,  in the company of her mother and sister.

The church choir were already giving a pre-service rendition of Assumpta Est Maria, whilst Anne's sprightly uncle, Father William, prepared to start the Mass. Nearby, glistening in the light of dozens of votive candles was an icon of Mary, Assumed in Glory into Heaven, there to be crowned its queen. It sat opposite a decidedly less lovely painting of Saint Bartholomew being skinned alive by the heathen Armenians and a scene from the vision of Lazarus painted in excruciatingly bright detail. After Assumptiontide, the Feast of the Coronation of the Virgin would follow a week later and if it had been anything like the previous two years, it would be marked by yet another banquet at Hever, with dancing in the gardens afterwards - weather permitting, of course - and a homily by Father William. Tom was determined to leave Kent and get back to London before the Feast of the Coronation rolled along, with or without Bess by his side. She could do as she liked now.

Shifting nervously in his seat and cursing himself for not bring his infrequently-used Rosary beads, so he would at the very least have had something to do, Tom heard Mary before he saw her. The bright, vivacious rhythm of her speech floated through the noise and incense of the chapel, spurred on by her signature volume, which was always just one notch above what was required and one notch below what was offensive. She wore a dress of rose-pink and a white lace mantilla, similar to those favoured by the great ladies of the French nobility, two years ago. Her husband was absent, which gave Mary the opportunity to flash that irresistibly winsome smile at several of her usual partners in flirtation. It was one of the great mysteries of Mary Boleyn-Carey's life why, after treating these men to a virtuoso performance in flirtation, they should all of a sudden expect something of her and become angry when she failed to oblige. Still, for all that, Tom liked Mary. He liked her vivacity, her zest for living and her good humour, above all, he liked her prettiness and he occasionally found himself fantasising what she would look like without her clothes on.

The ever-lovely Mary settled into her pew, as the rest of the Boleyn family entered the church, acknowledging bows from their tenants and passing salutations to their neighbours and equals. Today, unexpectedly, the family was led in unofficial procession by the Dowager Lady Boleyn, still swathed in velvet mourning for the husband who would be dead twenty years next October. It was tacitly understood by everyone in the parish that the Dowager's mourning was an affectation, since, like almost everybody else of her acquaintance, she had found her late husband to be insufferably tiresome. Moving only a step behind her were her daughter-in-law and youngest granddaughter, both of them dressed in blue, the colour of the Holy Virgin. Breaking off briefly from her family, Elizabeth Boleyn knelt on the cold stone ground to kiss the spot where her baby boy had lain since death snatched him from her as a toddler. Had he been alive today, he might have been joining her as a handsome lad of nineteen, a second brother for Mary and Anne, a second son for Elizabeth and Thomas.

Tom's eyes fixed on the graceful figure of Anne, her beautiful brunette tresses swept up beneath a mantilla that floated around her head like a nimbus cloud. She was, quite simply, breath-taking and Tom did not care who thought otherwise. She carried a Book of Hours and silver Rosary in her hand, with her face a study in elegant detachment. As she walked, however, Tom fancied he saw a look of irritation flash across her eyes as she glanced towards the figure of her sister.

"Mr. Wyatt."

Tom jumped to his feet and bowed to the Dowager, who now stood before him, having deigned to stop at his pew. "Your ladyship."

"How kind of you to join us today," she smiled, her voice lilting out over the chapel in the almost absurd Anglophile drawl of the Irish nobility. "And you too, Mrs. Wyatt. How lovely to see you again."

Anne's eyes flickered contemptuously over Bess, but her grandmother continued on in a tone so flawlessly polite that had one not known better, one would have assumed that nothing on Earth could possibly have given the Dowager Lady Boleyn greater pleasure than having the notorious Mrs. Wyatt in her company.

"Thank you for inviting us," Tom replied, as his wife fixed Anne with a look of sizzling dislike. "The church looks lovely, Your Ladyship."

"Oh, you are frightfully kind," the Dowager replied carelessly. "It's so nice to see all the people of the parish together on a day such as this, don't you think?"

"Of course and nothing bar ill-health could have kept my father away. He sends his apologies."

"Oh, he shouldn't be so silly as to worry about apologising for something like that. I was so sorry to hear that he was indisposed. Won't you please pass along my very best wishes?" 

"Yes, thank you, milady, you're very kind. I had hoped to speak to Lord Kent today, on my father's behalf. We have not seen him since his father's funeral."

"I'm afraid His Grace the Earl is indisposed also," explained the Dowager, "and is unable to attend."

"That's a shame," said Tom, catching the exquisitely arched eyebrow now raised into a perfect arc of disbelief on Anne's forehead. The Earl of Kent was evidently not indisposed, but either too drunk or too indebted to make a reasonable showing at today's festivities. 

"Isn't it?" smiled the Dowager. "Well, if you will excuse us, the Mass will be starting at any moment. Will you be joining us for supper, later?"

Tom glanced over at Anne questioningly, but her eyes were now so devoid of feeling that she seemed rather to be staring through him. "I am not sure, my lady," he stammered. "We... I had thought perhaps to start back for London in the morning..."

"Nonsense. My granddaughters have arranged a ball in the gardens afterwards and I am sure you would enjoy it. Do call anytime after six o'clock, this evening. It would be too impossibly lovely to see you both, and your wonderful sisters, of course. Come, Anne."

As the Dowager made for the front of the church, Anne turned her attention on Tom at last, "So nice to see you both," she smiled politely. It was hard to remember something she had said which had cut Tom more deeply.

© Gareth Russell


  1. Great!! It's charming the way Elizabeth Boleyn comes off as so motherly and good-natured in the letter.

  2. Thank you, Matterhorn. Part of the fun was being able to take the tiny snap-shots of information we have about the real people and build more substantial characterisations out of that - in Elizabeth Boleyn's case, the strong maternal relationship she had with her daughter, Anne, and in the Dowager's, building on what I knew of more recent members of the Irish Ascendancy.


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