The Rose of May by Nan Collain
She walks in the Garden of Roses. Everything around her is blooming: the roses, the apple trees and even the pod have a shimmer to them, as if they were shadows of the lust and love that planted and created them ten years ago. She plucks one of the roses growing around Lover’s Bench, with the HA monograms still attached to it, and holds the flower to her mouth. She kisses it and takes in the sweet scent it nourishes…the scent of love? Of passion and devotion? Of deception…
As the thought dawns upon her she drops the rose, quickly, as by accident. The sudden shiver in her hands has made them too weak to hold on to anything. She is thinking of me. Of the Anne Boleyn she has become. For rest assured, she is me now. Or that which was me ten years ago.
– Your Majesty.
She sinks into a deep courtesy, that compliant little thing. I would never have turned around that quickly. I would have stood there, knowing him to be behind me, and let him wait while I feasted on my rose. Only then, when I had taken in the passion of its pedals, the promise of its fruit and the bewilderment of its seduction, only then would I have turned around and looked him right into the eyes.
But he has changed, of course. He cannot bear to be directly reminded of me, though I am curtseying before him right now, modestly, with my eyes cast down. He was always somewhat simpleminded. The same can’t be said about her, who is playing the game with the same precision and calculation as I was. If I only had been a bit more discreet…Every fool will learn the art of imitation if it served to him on silver platter. And as a result, there she is. A nymph, as I was, though she has masked herself as an angel. She is playing my game as a modified Anne Boleyn, the better to meet Henry’s wishes. My God, she is ruthless!
– You dropped something, milady.
She lets him place the rose in her hand with all the meekness of an angel. She blushes at his passionate touch and silent groan of desire as their hands touch. Yet she is not unwilling. She doesn’t step back when his hand works its way up her sleeve, not even when he boldly leans forward and kisses her on the lips. She is as beautiful as a nymph and as pure as an angel. No wonder he thinks he has found something new.
Aren’t I a nymph still? A little hardened by life yes, but a nymph all the same? Aren’t I still Anne Boleyn?
– If I were you, I’d spend a little less time dreaming about your lovers and a little more time on prayer and preparation for your scaffold speech!
It’s my aunt Boleyn who snaps at me, once again. She is as thick-headed as our beloved father…She truly thinks I have committed adultery! With that dog (for try as I might, I cannot forgive Smeaton his cowardness: he condemned me to ease himself of worldly pain) and with my own brother! It is all such a farce, such a trifle that I cannot help but burst out laughing.
– Stop it! You’re mad!
Do I recognize fear in my dear aunt Boleyn’s face? Yes, fear it must be. That fear which is mostly nurtured only by common folk, the fear of the supernatural, the fear of the devil in the shape of a human being. A woman, usually. I raise my hand to make her stop her mutterings of witchcraft and force her to listen to me.
– Dear aunt Boleyn, you cannot believe those arguments to be true. I am condemned as an adulteress, yes, but the truth is this: Henry just wants to marry mistress Seymour, – no, I am not finished yet – and have a son, which I, sadly, didn’t get time enough to give him. The whole affair was a plot made up by Cromwell at Henry’s command – and God knows Cromwell has reason enough to have me out of the way when he pursues his dirty work with the dissolved abbeys – and now you actually start to believe it! Just think about it! I, the Queen of England, a musician’s whore and my brother’s lover? Hahaha, what a farce! Hahaha!
Aunt Boleyn apparently still finds my laughter frightening and the first sign of madness, for she returns to her embroidery and refuses to look at me. But I have more in store for her.
– As a matter of fact, it is Henry who is transferring his feelings of guilt, for the adultery he has committed, on me. Aye, it is not I who has lain with five men, but he who has lain with five women, with five-hundred if you like! You’ll both remember his affair with your daughter, lady Shelton, our cousin Madge, no doubt?
My other aunt, lady Shelton, blushes at the mention of her daughter’s lewdness, but lady Boleyn just turns her back on me. She still does not look at me but focuses on her needles with greater diligence than the diligence of the best of seamstresses. I grow tired of chiding her for her thickness, and decide to lie on the bed instead. It is not comfortable as my great bed at court, but at least it’s a bed and not straw I’m sleeping on.
– Milady… You should compose your speech.
It is lady Shelton, who suddenly has spoken up from her embroidery. Lady Shelton was always kind and loving to me, though I cannot tell whether she believes the accusations to be true or not. At least her somewhat frightened look doesn’t bear resentment as aunt Boleyn’s does, but something that sooner looks like awe.
– I shall, and that was precisely what I was thinking about before this interruption, so have no fear. The speech will be composed in time for the scaffold.
A scaffold speech…words to say to the crowd minutes before my death. What is there to say? Nothing. They hate me and will believe me to be a witch and an adulteress no matter what I say. Everything. By making a good sortie I can secure a place in their hearts and minds, which might make them look kindly upon my daughter when her time comes. Oh God, there is still much at stake!
I sit down at the wooden table, grab a piece of parchment and start writing.
Good Christian people,
I am come hither to die, according to law, for by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it.
I think it wisest not to mention anything about the alleged adultery, nor try to argue against it. I shall focus on my piety, on religious things, and of course on the preservation of the King, as is fitting for a speech of this kind. For did not Christ himself say that true greatness comes from true humility?
I come here only to die, and thus to yield myself humbly to the will of the King, my lord. And if in my life I did ever offend the King’s Grace, surely with my death I do now atone.
This will do for an apology. What I really do apologize for, they need not know.
I come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that whereof I am accused, as I know full well that aught I say in my defence doth not appertain to you.
I somehow had to allude to my innocence, but I am careful not to bemoan my fate. They shall all think of me as a person of great wisdom and humility, since I go to my death an innocent woman, not protesting my innocence, but humbly submitting to destiny and to God.
I pray and beseech you all, good friends, to pray for the life of the King, my sovereign lord and yours, who is one of the best princes on the face of the earth, who has always treated me so well, that better could not be, wherefore I submit to death with good will, humbly asking pardon of all the world. If any person will meddle with my cause, I require them to judge the best.
If Elizabeth becomes queen, my case may well be up for debate once more. Perhaps the time then will be ripe to examine the papers touching my so-called adultery with unbiased eyes…
Thus I take my leave of the world, and of you, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. Oh Lord, have mercy on me! To God I commend my soul.1
Everything is suddenly still inside of my head, which must mean I have nothing more to say. This is the speech I will give tomorrow, this, nothing more and nothing less.
– I shall go to sleep now, aunt Shelton. May God bless you. And you, aunt Boleyn.
Aunt Boleyn still acts as if I was air to her, but aunt Shelton nods quietly to me and starts to attend to the fire. I am too weary to wait for her to finish, and so I just fall back on the bed and fall asleep almost immediately.
It is May. I can tell from the colour of the roses. Most of them are scarlet red, with a small touch of pink to light up the otherwise solemn, majestic colour. ‘This is the colour of Anne Boleyn’ he once said. ‘And these roses shall always bloom in May, since that was the month I first kissed you. And just like my love for you, the roses of Anne Boleyn will bloom forever and never fade, and they shall be most beautiful in May’.
I laugh when I think of his boyish infatuation for me. Oh, he knows the art of words well. I must not fall for his flattery, his promises and his intimacies, whatever my true feelings. Only when Catherine is gone can I be his true queen, and only then can I show him how much I love him…
– Your majesty. You sent for me.
– Have you made up your mind?
– I have. And the answer is still no. I will not risk my honour.
Will he hit me now? There is fervour in his eyes, such as I have never seen before. His anger is as strong as his passion, and they are much the same thing anyway. Well, let it come. I will not move an inch.
He slaps my face with greater strength than I had expected, and I fall to the ground. I will just lie here, refuse to get up. He storms away in rage when he realises I won’t change my mind.
He didn’t love Catherine, because she simply wasn’t the one for him. She was dull and all too occupied with the thought of having children, which of course is natural for a queen and a wife. There is only one love in his life, and that is Anne Boleyn. The woman he loves for herself, and the woman who loves him for himself. The woman who lets him be a peasant man, a penniless troubadour, a man who owns nothing but his love for her. With her, he is no king, and she no queen. They are a man and a woman, consumed by love for one another, without a thought on what the rest of the world will think. That man is Henry Tudor, and that woman is Anne Boleyn.
Now I am Catherine. As I became queen, some part of me was left behind, nay, altered. I no longer cared about love as I used to. After my first miscarriage, the pressure to have a son was so great I could scarcely think about anything else. And when I did, it was chiefly about worldly matters. Power, money, politics, revenge. They interested me, which was no fault in itself, but they estranged me from the love and the passion I once held so dear. I was first and foremost queen, not Anne Boleyn. The queen must think of the good of the kingdom, and yet Henry didn’t approve of that. He wanted me to be just a childbearing machine.
As his mistress, I had his ear. I turned his superstitious, popish ideas into true belief. I got to love both the man and the politics. But as his queen, I was not to speak on such matters, according to him. Yet, according to the world, it was exactly what I should do. And since I had lost his love, I started loving politics even more. And hope desperately for a male child. Just as Catherine had done before me, failed, and been cast aside.
Jane Seymour is now Anne Boleyn. She is exactly as I was: loving, cunning and besotted by passion. He loves that. He loves that woman. Anne Boleyn.
He still loves me. For deep inside, I am still Anne Boleyn.
He still loves me.
I have to wait for the executioner a whole day and a whole night before he finally arrives. But time doesn’t matter to me anymore. I feel like an amorous girl of fifteen again. I walk up and down, planning what to wear, and I am as excited as I was before our first meeting. I don’t care about practising my scaffold speech as I am too euphoric to think about anything else than Henry. My true love…who still loves me!
When master Kingston comes to fetch me I ask him idly if there will be any pain. He assures me that there won’t be, for the Frenchman is very skilled with the sword. As I hold my hand to my neck to touch the skin the blade will touch within minutes, I recall my first love-making with Henry. He loved to caress and kiss my neck. He thought it most beautiful, so small and elegant, the neck of a true lady. And in my amorous state of mind, I cannot help but to repeat his words. At the memory of our joyful days of love-making, of caresses and passionate games, I suddenly burst out laughing. I simply laugh of joy and love, because I am so happy.
I make my way through the crowd smiling. I see grim, scornful, frightened looks upon me, but they are no worse than aunt Boleyn’s. Anyway, nothing can spoil my happiness this day.
When I have mounted the scaffold, I cast a hopeful glance at the back of the crowd. Is there any possibility that my love could be here? No of course not, he must be out hunting a fine day such as this. He has a passion for hunting.
– Milady, you may now say a few words.
Kingston’s words take me back to reality. The speech. I left it on the table and I haven’t practised. I cannot remember a single word I have written. What shall I say? What have these people come to hear?
For a second, I am struck by panic. But then I suddenly recall something mother told me when I was a little girl, afraid of answering the questions my tutors posed for fear they might find me stupid.
– Just say what’s in your heart.
I search my heart and find what I want to say.
– Good people. There is only one thing that unites life and death, and that is love. True love doesn’t die with the body, because it never lived inside of the body. True love comes from God. And just as God is eternal, and isn’t bound by time, world, body or will, my love will follow me in death. For rest assured, I love my husband. And he still loves me.
The crowd gasps at my imprudence and starts to clamour, but I can hear them no more. I kneel, thinking no more, but simply trusting. Trusting in God, trusting in love, trusting in my euphoric state of mind. And with an enigmatic smile upon my lips, I die.
As my chamber in the Tower was emptied, lady Shelton found my scaffold speech and gave it to master Kingston. That was what he then reported as my last words.