Anne Boleyn Files visitor, Valerie Christie, has written a short story about Anne Boleyn and would like some feedback so do comment and let us know what you think of the story.
The Seamstress’ Tale
by Valerie Christie
Cloth has always been my life. Ever since I was a girl I have been fascinated by the different colours and different textures, and in a way I always knew that my destiny lay in working with it, in some way.
I was five when I first realised that this was what I wanted to do. My mother found me with her best gown one day. I was staring at it, and occasionally putting my hand out to lovingly caress the fabric. It was a rich red velvet.
‘Margaret, what are you doing?’
I started guiltily. ‘I’m sorry Mother, your gown is just so beautiful, I couldn’t help but touch it.’
My mother laughed. ‘Ah, Margaret, I hope that when you grow up and we find a good match for you that you will have many beautiful clothes like this!’
My mother was wrong. I did see many beautiful gowns when I grew up, but this was because I was the one who was making them. When I was fourteen, I finally realised that the life of a wife and mother was not for me. I knew of course, that many girls thought this, but had no choice in the matter. I however, was fortunate enough to have a father who was ahead of his time. He arranged for me to go to Flanders, to stay with a distant cousin of his who lived there. He was aware of my love for cloth of all kinds, and it was his wish that I would become a renowned seamstress at the court of Burgundy.
While I stayed in Flanders I grew to love the Flemish people, and as I learned my trade I grew to love making clothes. While I sewed shirts for the noblemen of Flanders, I made gowns for their wives. I came to know their measurements off by heart, and even though I had never met them, I felt as if I knew them intimately. I wondered sometimes about the clothes I had made for them, where they had worn them to and how wearing their clothes had made them feel.
I stayed in Flanders for ten years. During that time I made many friends, worked hard at my profession as a seamstress and earned the respect of the nobility. ‘The Englishwoman’ as they always called me, made many clothes for them, and as such I was aware of the intimate details of their lives. I knew when their ladies were pregnant, as I was always sent their gowns with instructions to let the bodices out a little. As the pregnancies developed I let the bodices out a little further. I knew when the babies had been born when the gowns were sent to me again with instructions to return the bodice to its original state. Of course, there were some who did not survive childbirth. I made a mental note of each dress I had worked on, and was painfully aware of those who were not returned to me for alteration after the nine months of pregnancy was over.
The time came when I had to return to England. I received a letter from my mother telling me that my father was ill, and had been asking for me. I knew deep down that this day would come eventually, but it was not something that I had been looking forward to. I had heard various things over the years, and knew that England under Henry Tudor was not a pleasant place to live. He was a tyrant, obsessed with carrying on his dynasty, and all known opposition to his family’s claim to the throne had to be wiped out. So poor Edward Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham, had been beheaded because Henry believed that he might try to claim the throne. That was something that could not be tolerated. I did not want to return to England, to live under such a ruler, but my family needed me, and as the only daughter I had no choice but to return to my homeland.
When I returned to England, it seemed that my reputation had gone before me, as my services were much in demand. I was soon making and altering dresses for the great and the good of that country. Of course, much of the time I knew nothing of these women, all that was told to me was their title and their measurements. As I became accustomed to my work, I was able to guess that this one was pregnant, or the other one had had her baby, as I had been able to in Flanders.
My reputation grew and soon I received my first order from the King’s household – a kirtle for the Queen. I was told, of course, that this was an extremely important customer. The Queen was extremely small in stature, and plump, or so I gathered from the measurements I was given.
Over the next few years, I made quite a few dresses for her. Then, things began to change.
I received an order from the King to make a night robe. It was to be of black damask, trimmed with fur. But what perturbed me was the fact that the measurements I was given were not the same as before. And it was well known that the King did not order garments to be made for his mistresses. He did not love them well enough for that.
I discussed this with my apprentice. Jane was a good, trustworthy girl, and I knew that the conversation would remain between ourselves.
‘I have heard that the King has a new mistress.’ she said. ‘But they say this one is different. They say that the King loves her, perhaps even more than he loves the Queen.’
‘Surely it will come to nothing.’ I said. ‘His passions never last.’
‘That has been the case up until now,’ said Jane. ‘I think this may be different.’
Jane’s prediction proved correct. The King turned his affection towards this other woman, who
we all now knew was Anne Boleyn, and the Queen had to make do with the garments she already owned. Meanwhile, I made, with Jane’s help, sumptuous gown after sumptuous gown. I was once again mesmerised by the colours and textures of the fabrics, in a way that I had not been since I was a child. I wondered about the woman who wore these clothes that I made. Was she happy? Did she love the King? Did he truly love her more than Queen Katherine? I had no idea of the answers to any of these questions.
I thought about those days almost ten years later, on the 19th May 1536, when I stood among the crowd at the Tower of London. The woman whose measurements had replaced the Queen’s all those years ago was about to die. She was to be executed for adultery and treason. I had always had a kind of a curiosity about her. I had always seen her as someone who had good taste in clothes, who loved to be well dressed and to be seen in the latest fashions. I did not think about whether she was guilty or not, for me this was irrelevant. I knew that I could not see into someone’s soul by knowing what they liked to wear.
I looked at her as she came out, ready to mount the scaffold. She was wearing a dark grey night robe, not unlike the one I had made for her all those years ago. Under the robe was a red kirtle. Red: the colour of martyrdom. I had been fascinated by colours all my life. I had been obsessed with their meaning, and why people chose to wear them at certain times of their life. Often, the colours had no meaning, but sometimes they did, and I wondered if Anne had chosen her clothes with the significance of the colour in mind. I had no way of knowing, but I like to think that perhaps she did.
As she stood on the scaffold and made her final speech, I listened intently. After all these years making her clothes, perhaps I would now find something out about her other than the details I needed to make her dresses.
‘Good Christian people, I am come here to die, according to the law, and I will speak nothing against it. I am come here only to die and thus to yield myself to the will of the King, my Lord. If in my life I did offend the King’s Grace then surely with my death I do now atone. I beseech you all to pray for the life of the King, who is one of the best princes on the face of the earth, and has always treated me so well, wherefore I now submit to death with a good will, humbly asking pardon of all the world. And if anyone should meddle in my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus, I take my leave of the world and of you, and heartily desire you all to pray for me.’
We, the spectators, all knelt in prayer. As I bowed my head, I thought about her words. I could not claim to know her innermost thoughts, for no one, only God, could know those. I could not judge her harshly, I did not know her soul. Only God knew. As I heard the cannons roar out the news of her death, I knew that her soul was passing into the place where nothing could be hidden. As for the rest of us, we could only hope for a glimpse of the truth.