In September of 2012, as part of my research while writing the fictional memoir Je Anne Boleyn, I was granted the great privilege of access to the Manuscripts Room in the Papal Library with a rare opportunity to study the love letters Henry composed. As I progressed through the various levels of security in the fascinating and intimidating realm of the Library, it became increasingly evident how greatly these letters are treasured and protected within the thick, ancient walls. I was the object of polite, but keen scrutiny by the gentlemen in the Office of the Secretariat, and by the Scriptores, the Assistants, and the Vice Assistants in Manuscritti – the Manuscript reading room. Once seated in the whitewashed room, the barrel-vaulted ceiling soaring overhead, statues peering down from alcoves carved into the walls, I waited while the decision was made by the Director as to whether I would be granted an audience with the documents which expressed the depths of the heart of Henry VIII.
At last, I was summoned to be seated in the first row of study tables, directly in front of the administrators, and a Scriptore approached me and handed me a smallish book, quite unremarkable in its appearance. It was about 7 by 5 inches, and covered in a pale green fabric. There was no decorative element to it at all; in fact, it appeared almost as would a homemade keepsake book, the pages within bulging a bit. No gloves were required to be worn, yet I knew that this was something I would touch minimally, and only with the greatest of care as I examined it.
I opened the cover, my heart literally pounding in my chest. I was met by the sight of the first letter: on thin, yellowed, subtly lined parchment which had been affixed to a larger page at some point since its acquisition by the Church of Rome – there was his handwriting! And his opening words were “Ma Maestres et Amye…”, my Mistress and Friend…
I was overcome with the awareness that I was inches from something so personal, so intimate – a message written by the hand of Henry VIII intended only for the eyes of Anne Boleyn. And 485 years later, there sat I, scrutinizing the same scratches of the pen, the same words crossed out, the same smudges made by his very hand, as did Anne. It was an experience like no other I have ever had.
Very quickly, one could identify the unique markers of Henry’s handwriting. The strong, bold strokes, the decorative letter ‘q’, the broad slash ‘/’ which indicated the end of a sentence. I smiled to myself as I observed that he had a very difficult time maintaining the straightness of his lines of writing. In almost every letter, by the 4th or 5th line, there was a decided slant upwards, and by the end of the page, the words crowded themselves toward the upper right corner.
Also fascinating was the difference he used in ink color and the thickness of the pen nibs. Each variation created a quite distinct feeling for that particular letter. In my view, it became very apparent which letter was written first in this series (though it is evident by his own statement that Henry had written other letters to Anne, but perhaps none of such a personal nature). The early letters were formal in their composition, their execution, and their penmanship. This would make sense, based upon the fact that Anne had not yet determined her position with regard to Henry’s feelings for her. He courted her with beautiful writing!
Henry’s frustration with Anne’s absence and her reluctance to commit to him appeared clearly in the letter which was pasted fourth within the Vatican’s book (they are not placed in a particular sequence in time, nor are any of the letters dated). Written with unusually large, bold strokes, well-spaced and purposefully transcribed, Henry states that he is in great agony, not knowing how to interpret her recent letters (they are not known to be in existence – if only we had them today!). It is not difficult to imagine Henry, reading and re-reading Anne’s letters, analyzing very word, seeking to know if she would promise to be his. When he could not determine it, he wrote her what is well-nigh to a command, but only one of the most romantic nature, telling her that it is “absolutely necessary for me to obtain this answer, having been above a whole year stricken avec du dart d’amours” – with the dart of love. My interpretation of the events documented early in their romance leads me to believe this letter was written in the late autumn of 1526.
In response to this ‘command of the heart’, Anne capitulates – its own element in their love story also very touching – and her reply causes Henry to compose a beautiful missive: the letter in which he first inscribes the famous heart. This reply represents the most careful, most beautiful penmanship in the collection. The first letter of the first word, ‘D’ is created almost as an illumination: dark and dramatic, with a flourish intended to set the tone. That first line is exactly inscribed thusly: « De l’estrene si bel que rien plus (notant le toute) je vous en marcy tres cordialement… » ; meaning ‘For a present so beautiful that nothing could be more so (considering the whole of it), I thank you most cordially…’ This letter finishes with a decoration he added to the close: his initials, thoroughly embellished, enclosing the very tiny words “aultre” and “ne cherse” (‘Henry seeks no other’ than AB), and in the middle of all, a long, carefully drawn heart with AB at its core. The whole was clearly intended to present a special visual message, and it is one that cannot be mistaken.
As I turned the leaves of this book, fingers barely making contact with the edges, I literally drew in my breath in shock at the sight of the letter on the tenth page. Splattered with droplets of ink, smudged from his large hand smearing the extraneous drops, and its look in such great contrast to the other entries, I was stunned to see the pained letter Henry wrote in the middle of that night in June 1528 when he learned his love had fallen ill of the sweat. Composed in French, it was plainly written in a state of panic. The quill had been jabbed into the inkwell with every few strokes of the pen. This was apparent because the application of the ink to the page was dark, with a fine surrounding spray as the nib caught at the parchment in haste. It was amazing to see, at close range through my magnifying glass, the marks of his hand as it tracked to the right along the page, smearing what had been spattered in his haste. His message, as the pen attacked the page, is emotional and almost pathetic in its poignancy. He states that he would willingly bear the illness in her place, and bemoans the fact that they are apart at such a terrible time. He is distraught because his primary physician was unavailable, saying that “to obtain one of my chief joys on earth – that is the care of my mistress”, he will instead immediately send William Butts, his second physician in command. He then beseeches her to do as the doctor advises. He closes by telling her that he hopes to see her again, which will be a greater comfort than all the precious jewels in the world. He tells her that he is, and forever will be, her loyal and most assured servant. He then encloses his initials around hers, which he again encases in a heart, drawn with an unsteady hand.
As I sat looking at the whole of this letter, so plainly the work of a man completely and totally in love, I will admit it brought tears to my eyes. The depth of his feeling for her was eminently visible. Reviewing the pattern of the letters, with this particular one representing a decisive moment in their relationship, my view of their love story was reshaped forever. I have no doubt that Anne was the love of Henry’s life, and I felt very privileged to have been able to gain such an insight.
This, and the following letters in the collection, which grow ever more familiar in their tone and their appearance, as did the couple in their affiliation, record one of the most fascinating love stories of all time. The confiscation and delivery of the cache of letters into the hands of Pope Clement VII has been a serendipitous gift to the following generations, since they have been preserved as documentation of this historic love story.
To imagine how we might interpret Anne’s view of the letters, her responses to them, and her reaction to their theft from her personal belongings, read the fictional memoir, Truth Endures: Anne Boleyn's Memoirs.