Her skin was rather sallow, Anne thought as she studied herself in the silver mirror, and she had too many moles, but at least her face was a fashionable oval. At eleven she had no womanly figure to speak of, but that hopefully would change in the next year or so. Mary, after all, was already buxom at thirteen.
She drew back, considering herself. People had often said, within her hearing, that Mary was the more beautiful of the two Boleyn sisters. Yet they were both brunettes, with long glossy hair, high cheekbones and pointed chins, and both slender and graceful, for the deportment fit for royal courts had been drummed into them. So what was it that made a girl beautiful? What made the arrangement of Mary’s features better than hers? It had begun to bother Anne, now that she was growing up and was constantly being enjoined to prepare herself for a glorious future in which royal favor and a wealthy husband of rank loomed large.
Maybe it was the moles and the sallow skin. The sallowness could be rectified by a lotion of powdered egg whites and alum. At least she had a pretty mouth, and the black eyes that her Grandmother Butler always said were her best feature.
“And you know already how to use them for effect, child.” Anne had not quite understood what that meant, but then Grandmother was Irish and a little fey and often said some startling things. Everyone tolerated it because she had been a great heiress and one of the chief sources of the family fortunes.
Anne propped up the mirror on a chest and twirled in front of it. She did look good in the green gown, which made her waist seem so slender. The dark color became her too. The only thing that was wrong was the cut of the sleeves, which were tight to the wrist and did not cover the deformity of which she was always so painfully aware. She was forever curling it into her palm, the little finger of her right hand, so that none should see the tiny extra nail. If only she could have a gown with hanging sleeves that would cover it! But Mother said it was foolish to worry about such a little thing. It was not a little thing to Anne, and it had loomed larger than ever since the day when Mary, bested in one of their interminable arguments, had called it a witch’s mark.
Anne pushed the hateful memory aside. She would not dwell on it on this beautiful late-summer day. She had a free hour before her lesson with the chaplain, and was determined to waste not a minute of it. In a trice she had summoned her maid, changed into her everyday worsted, descended the stairs and crossed the stone drawbridge across the castle moat; then she picked up her skirts and ran through the gardens into the meadows by the River Eden, where she loved to wander.
From here she had a grand view of moated Hever Castle, her family’s seat, and the lush wooded Kentish countryside that cradled it. But of greater interest was the sight of her beloved brother George lying sprawled in the grass, twanging his lute, his dark brown hair tousled, his clothes crumpled.
“They are looking for you indoors,” she told him, kneeling down. “You should be at your books. You’ll be beaten if you don’t go back.”
George grinned up at her. “I had an idea for a song. Listen!”
He played well for a boy of nine, and his composition had the sophistication one would have expected from someone far older. He was gifted, this brother of hers. He could make his mark as a musician if he did not carve out a career at court, as their father expected.
They had always been close, Anne and George. They looked alike and thought alike.
“I know, I know—I can’t spend my days making music and writing poetry,” he sighed, mimicking Father’s voice.
“Much good it would do you! And in the end you would not be satisfied. It would never be enough for you. So stop playing truant. Father Davy is livid.”
For all her mock reproof, she felt sorry for George. She knew how deeply it gnawed at him, being the youngest of three sons. It was sixteen-year-old Thomas who would inherit Hever and all their father’s lands and wealth—and it was Thomas who, to George’s envy, had been sent to the household of the mighty Duke of Buckingham at nearby Penshurst to learn courtly manners and the martial arts, which would befit him for the glorious future that awaited him. And then there was clever Henry, twelve years old and destined for the university at Oxford, since Father had decided to dedicate him to the Church—and save himself the burden of having to provide for him. There had been other sons too, but they slept in St. Peter’s Church, to their mother’s great grief. Anne had never gotten used to the appalling sight of her tiny dead siblings lying in their cradles, all decked out in macabre finery, to receive the final prayers and farewells of their family.
Lady Boleyn doted on George, her youngest, more than she did on Thomas and Henry. But in George’s breast there burned a fierce resentment against his older brothers. Unlike them, he must make his own way in the world. Father reminded him of it often.
Given her rivalry with Mary, and George’s envy of their older brothers, Anne often felt that it was a case of her and George, the two youngest Boleyns, against the world. Because she did not have looks and he was not the heir, they had pulled together since they were very little. Some took them for twins.
“Come on!” she commanded, pulling him up, and together they raced back to the castle.
Father Davy was waiting for them as they sped across the courtyard and tumbled into Father’s new entrance hall. Their tutor was a rotund little man with a merry face and cheeks rosy as apples.
“Ah, you’ve deigned to grace us with your presence,” he said to George. “And mightily timely too, for we’ve just had word that your father is expected home this evening, and we wouldn’t want to greet him with the news that you’re in disgrace, would we?”
“No, Father Davy.” George was trying to look contrite.
“Mistress Anne, you may join us,” Father Davy said. “You can set an example to this young knave.”
“Where’s Mary?” George asked, rolling his eyes.
“Reading,” said Father Davy. “I have given her a book on kings and queens. It will improve her mind.” It was no secret that he had almost given up on Mary.
Anne followed them into the private parlor used by the family in the evenings, and sat down at the oak table. She knew she was fortunate, being a girl, to receive a good education. Father had very advanced ideas, but then he was always concerned that his children should do well in life—which, of course, would reflect favorably on him. Accomplished in foreign tongues himself—which was why he had been away these last weeks at the court of the Regent of the Netherlands at Mechlin in the Duchy of Burgundy—he was particularly anxious that his sons and daughters become proficient too.
Anne struggled with French, despite excelling at everything else. Mary was good at French, but dismal in all other respects. Anne could compose passable poetry and songs, thanks to Father Davy being a famous composer of church music and a gifted teacher. Mary battled, murdering her lute; it did not help that she was tone deaf. Anne danced gracefully; Mary galumphed about the floor. Anne sang like a lark; Mary’s voice was flat. But Mary had the looks, everyone said, so it didn’t matter that she was an idiot. Most men would not see beyond her beauty and the dowry Father could give her. Thus it did not matter that, when the time for lessons arrived, she was rarely to be found.
Most of the daughters of the local gentry in the Boleyns’ circle could barely wield a pen, Anne reflected, as her quill traced her graceful Italianate hand across the paper. Today’s exercise was composing a letter in French, which was a challenge, but she was determined to persevere. She enjoyed learning for its own sake, and reveled in the praise Father Davy lavished on her.
From the kitchens nearby they could hear a great clatter and commotion. The household was preparing for the return of its master, and Mother would be giving orders and inspecting the cooking pots, much to the cook’s ill-concealed annoyance. There would be a feast tonight, Anne thought happily.
Dressed in the new green gown, Anne stole a peep at the great hall, where the tables had been beautifully laid with snowy-white linen. The best silver was set out on the high table above the great gilt salt, with polished pewter on the lower trestles set at right angles to it. Banks of greenery trailed along the center of the boards, interspersed with candles and ewers of wine. Hever was a small castle, and the hall not large compared to some she had seen, but it was sufficiently grand for an up-and-coming diplomat and favorite of the King, with its great stone fireplace and imposing carved screen. The early evening sunshine cast a golden glow through the tall windows set high in the thick walls, reflecting its jewel-like glints on the impressive display of family plate on the buffet and the expensive wall hangings. Father liked to impress his neighbors with his wealth. They were all coming tonight: the Wyatts from Allington, the Sackvilles from Buckhurst Park, and the Hautes from Ightham Mote.
Normally the family dined in the parlor, seated at the long polished table. It was a cozy room, its walls adorned with wainscot of oak and painted friezes, and hung with another of the costly tapestries of which Father was inordinately proud. But that was all familiar and commonplace; feasting in the great hall was an occasion, and Anne was impatient for it to begin.
Father was home, and she had been summoned to see him in his study before dinner. There he sat, in his high carved chair, nodding as she made her curtsey: the man who had dominated her life for as long as she could remember, whose lightest word was law to his family and servants, and to whom Anne and her brothers and sister had been brought up to render unconditional obedience. When she and Mary married, their husbands would take over his role. It had been drummed into them both that women were weak creatures and should always be subject to the wise dominion of men.
When Sir Thomas Boleyn was at home, the household revolved around him, but that was a rare occurrence. When he was not abroad using the diplomatic skills that had so endeared him to King Henry, he was usually at court, building on his reputation as a jouster and courtier and all-round good fellow. At thirty-four, he was still a handsome and agile man, and sat a horse superbly. He was outstandingly learned—it seemed to his children that he knew everything—and even the great Dutch scholar Erasmus had dedicated two books to him. Thanks to these virtues he had risen high and fast in royal service, becoming one of King Henry’s best friends and jousting partners, and never tired of reminding everyone of it. He had been knighted at the King’s coronation, three years earlier, and then appointed Esquire of the Body to the monarch.
“It is a most sought-after post,” he was prone to boasting, “for it brings me into daily contact with the King. I enjoy great influence. I have His Grace’s ear.” He would gleefully expand on the patronage he was in a position to exercise. Anne understood that there were many people who wanted Sir Thomas Boleyn to ask the King for favors, and that they were ready to pay him a lot of money to do that.
She was pleased to see Father’s pugnacious face broaden into a wolfish smile as she rose from her curtsey. “I have some good news,” he said. “The Regent Margaret was most interested to hear of your accomplishments and has offered to take you into her household as one of her eighteen maids of honor. It is a signal favor, much sought after.”
“Me, sir?” Anne echoed. “Surely Mary . . . ?”
“I know, it is highly unusual for the younger sister to be advanced before the elder, and Mary speaks good French. But,” and he gave Anne a calculating look, “I believe that you have what it takes to succeed at court and be a credit to me. Besides, I have other plans for Mary. And the Regent specially asked for you.”
Anne felt excitement bubbling up.
“When am I to go, sir?” she breathed, envisaging the glorious palaces, the fine gowns, the glittering lords and ladies, the Regent smiling as she made her obeisance with everyone looking on.
“Next spring,” her father said, and the bubble burst. That was months away. “There will be many preparations to make. Your mother will know what is required. I’d rather it be you than the Devil who makes work for idle hands.” He and Mother barely spoke to each other unless they had to.
“You must work hard at your French,” he went on. “You will complete your education at the court of Burgundy. There is no finer place, for it offers many opportunities for a young girl of good birth, and is universally well regarded. You will be well placed to attract a marriage that will advance the interests of our family. I hope you appreciate your good fortune.”