by Heather R. Darsie
The twelfth love letter from Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn is a doozy, colloquially speaking. It shows the passion Henry has for Anne, the court intrigues of the Boleyn family, issues Henry had with religious entities in England, and was likely written just before Cardinal Wolsey made a brazen move counter to Henry’s wishes. Let us begin.
Wenceslaus Hollar, via Wikimedia Commons
Written around 6 July 1528, Henry VIII’s letter addresses Anne as, “mine own darling,” and details that members of Henry’s household have fallen ill with the Sweating Sickness. This included Walter Welshe, to whom we were previously introduced in Letter Eleven. Henry writes,
“…thanked be God, all are well recovered so that as yet the plague is not fully ceased here, but I trust shortly it shall. By the mercy of God, the rest of us yet be well, and I trust shall pass [the Sweat], either not to have it, or, at the least, as easily as the rest have done.”
Mary Boleyn, via Wikimedia Commons
Now, the court intrigue! Wilton Abbey, located in Wiltshire, was very important to the English crown as it held a barony. Only two other abbeys in England had this distinction. In April 1528, the current abbess had died, leaving the spot open. Anne Boleyn’s sister Mary had recently married William Carey. William Carey had at least two sisters who were nuns, one named Anne and another named Eleanor. Anne Boleyn put forth Eleanor Carey as a candidate for Abbess of Wilton. Bear in mind that Anne’s father Thomas Boleyn was not created Earl of Wiltshire until December 1529, about seventeen months after the events contained in this letter. Henry, much in love with Anne, went ahead and asked Cardinal Wolsey to interview Eleanor Carey for her suitability as Abbess. We learn from Henry’s letter,
“As touching the matter of Wilton, my lord [Cardinal Wolsey] hath had the nuns [including Eleanor Carey] before him and examined them, Mr. Bell being present; which hath certified me that, for a truth, she [Eleanor Carey] had confessed herself (which we would have abbess) to have had two children by sundry priests, and, further, since hath been kept by a servant of the Lord Broke that was, and not that long ago.”
Note how Henry VIII changed from using the familiar, “I” with Anne Boleyn to the formal royal “we” in this portion of the letter. One has to wonder if Anne Boleyn had any idea that Mary Boleyn’s sister-in-law had committed such conduct outrageous for a nun before Anne proposed Eleanor Carey as a candidate for Abbess. Henry continues,
“Wherefore I would not, for all the gold in the world, clog your conscience nor mine to make [Eleanor Carey] ruler of a house which is of so ungodly demeanour; nor, I trust, you would not that neither for the brother nor the sister, I should so destain mine honour or conscience.”
“Destain” mains “stain.” It is unclear whether “the brother nor the sister” refers to George Boleyn and Mary Boleyn, or William Carey and Anne Carey. As gleaned from the letter, Anne Carey was serving as prioress at Wilton during this time. Henry thought it best to avoid appointing either of the Carey sisters to the position of Abbess of Wilton. He tells Anne,
“…to do you pleasure, I have done that neither of them shall have it, but that some other good and well-disposed woman shall have it, whereby the house shall be better reformed (whereof I ensure you it had much need), and God much the better served.”
Henry next addresses Anne Boleyn’s questions about Hever Castle, telling her,
“As touching your abode at Hever, do therein as best shall like you, for you best know what air doth best with you; but I would it were come thereto (if it pleased God), that neither of us need care for that, for I ensure you I think it long.”
It seems in this letter that Henry is responding to Anne’s desire to leave and go to Hever, which may have better air, or that Anne is seeking to cleanse or change something about Hever to improve the air.
Henry closes with,
“…I think you long to hear tidings from us, as we do likewise from you. Written with the hand de votre seul [of your only], H. R.”
Turning back to court intrigue and Cardinal Wolsey, Wolsey had posited a woman named Isabel Jourdain for the position of Abbess of Wilton. Anne Boleyn and the Careys protested Isabel’s appointment, saying she was unchaste. Wolsey believed her to be wise and fit for the position. Henry was not interested in having Isabel made Abbess, but Wolsey did it anyway. Not a smart move by the Cardinal, whose relationship with Henry and security within the realm was swiftly growing tenuous.
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Sources and Suggested Reading
- Luce, John W. and Company, with designs by Florence Swan (1899). Love Letters of Henry Eighth to Anne Boleyn. Pp. VXXX-XXXIII. Boston and London: John W. Luce & Company (1906).
- The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. Published 15 December 2016. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Thomas-Cardinal-Wolsey Accessed 30 April 2018.
- Power, Eileen Edna. Medieval English Nunneries, 1275 to 1535. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1922).