Thursday, September 8, 2016

Deciphering Mysteries Hidden in Original Documents

by Sandra Vasoli

While researching my two novels of Anne Boleyn’s tumultuous relationship with her husband, Henry VIII of England, I became enthralled with the idea of viewing the extant documents which they had written or signed with their own hands. How amazing it would be to have a page inscribed by Anne or Henry, almost 500 years ago, right before my own eyes!

I was compellingly drawn to see anything and everything which has been preserved, and set out to do so with determination. My wish was first granted during a visit to the British Library Manuscripts Room, where, after successfully completing admission requirements, I requested to see the Book of Hours in which Anne and Henry wrote inscriptions of love to one another. My heart pounded as I waited, fully expecting to be told that it would be impossible to view this priceless treasure. When I was summoned to the librarians’ window, a small box was handed to me, and in response to my inquiring glance, the archivist nodded and smiled. Sliding out of its protective case was a stunning, leather bound volume. I could not believe my fortune, and held my breath as I returned to my assigned study carol. Once I opened the book, overwhelmed by its brilliant illuminations gracing almost every page, I felt myself transported to 1530 – surrounded by the dark, quiet beauty of a chapel in Greenwich Palace, turning smooth pages of vellum, piously reading the chronology of prayers inscribed within by devoted monks of 15th century Bruges.

This Book of Hours is accompanied by a legend. As the tale goes, it was owned by Anne. At Mass one day Henry took the book from her, and wrote a message to his lady love within: 'Si silon mon affection la sufvenance sera en voz prieres ne seray gers oblie car vostre suis Henry R. a jammays'  ('If you remember my love in your prayers as strongly as I adore you, I shall hardly be forgotten, for I am yours. Henry R. forever'). .  

He returned the book to Anne, and she inspected his entry, replying on the page illustrated with the Archangel delivering the message to the Virgin Mary of her expected Son. This is the phrase she wrote:  'Be daly prove you shalle me fynde to be to you bothe lovynge and kynde' .

How delighted Henry must have been upon reading her commitment! 

It is a lovely story and one that is repeated by historians and authors alike. However, as I paged through this jewel, extravagantly expensive illustrations gracing every page, it came clear to me that the book must only have belonged to royalty, and could not possibly have been Anne’s before she became Queen. There are two Books of Hours identified as having belonged to Anne prior to her elevation to the peerage as Marquess, or her coronation as Queen. Both are now housed and on display at Hever Castle. While beautiful, and very special due to inscriptions which Anne left in the books, neither compare in quality or gorgeousness of illumination to the Book at the British Library. 

This is evidence that the British Library Book of Hours must have been a part of Henry’s collection; one that he selected in which to send a message to Anne, and perhaps gift to her later. Further examination of the Book’s inscriptions, as viewed through a magnifier, inform the reader that the phrases and writing were not done quickly or spontaneously, and probably not at Mass (Books of Hours were typically referred to throughout the day for regular devotions, as opposed to Missals, which were used at Mass). The phrases were thoughtfully composed and placed with great care upon specific pages in the devotional. I believe that its story is different from the accepted tradition, and I found, with profound surprise, that such significant relics will actually whisper to us to reveal their past if given a chance.

Greatly moved and inspired by that remarkable experience, I was emboldened to gain admission to the Vatican Archives with the hope of being permitted to see the 17 love letters which Henry wrote to Anne between approximately 1526 and 1529. Maintained in the Archives after having been stolen from Anne and transported to Rome before 1533, they likely had been purloined in order to provide evidence to the Pope that Henry sought a divorce from Katherine of Aragon so he could marry the object of his great desire, Anne Boleyn. Requirements to gain access to the Manuscripts Room are stringent, and I discovered that prior to my request, there had only been one individual who had recently viewed the letters during the full tenure of the current Library Prefect. Prior to then, they may not have been studied for well over 100 years!  Having mustered all my resources, with tenacity and luck, I was allowed to enter the Ancient Manuscripts room.

I then was required to wait for several hours until my request was assessed. At last, my disbelief turned to joy as I was given the small book in which the letters had been placed centuries ago. Upon opening it and seeing Henry’s inscription: “Ma Mestres et Amie”, tears came to my eyes, and I was literally awestruck. I spent the rest of that afternoon studying the letters through a strong magnifying glass, examining every scratched out word, every speck of ink smudged by Henry’s big hand as he poured out his heart and soul to Anne, professing his great love for her. Such an intense level of scrutiny prompted me to drastically change my thinking about the relationship Anne and Henry shared; their visible intimacy spoke volumes. I came to believe, without any doubt, that Anne loved Henry, and from early on, she loved him deeply. I had no indication at all that she purposely kept him at arm’s length simply to manoeuvre his feelings for her. One can clearly read a loving accord which built quickly between them - from the growing familiarity of his handwriting as well as his endearing way of addressing her. Reviewing the progression of his writing and terms of affection also advised me that the dates typically ascribed to the undated letters are unlikely. Touching these letters, witnessing the strokes of the pen which Henry, King of England meant only for the eyes of his beloved was an indescribable experience. The letters literally sing…and viewing them in the original provides a completely different interpretation to merely reading his words transcribed and written out in a modern-era book.

As my research progressed for the second novel, I became fascinated by the mysterious letter, dated 6 May 1536, and signed ‘Anne Boleyn’ from her prison in the Tower, which  has been the subject of heated debate for hundreds of years. I longed to see it in the hope that it might reveal its truth. So I visited the British Library where the very helpful research experts told me that it is not handled by anyone due to its incredibly fragile state. (The document was one of the thousands in the large Cotton collection damaged by the fire at Ashburnam House Library in 1731). It now remains as merely a portion of the original, its sides having been scorched and burned away. This original letter, today carefully preserved by the British Library, is not written in Anne’s hand; thus the controversy over its source.

I was so inspired by the highly personal message it delivers to Anne’s husband the King, that I embarked on a thorough study of it and other original documents related to it. I read and reread a digitised copy of the original, and pored through original chronicles penned by esteemed antiquarians who shared emphatic opinions on its origin and veracity. Reviewing the journals of scholars like Bishop Gilbert Burnet, Henry Ellis, Agnes Strickland, and Bishop White Kennett, I was able to piece together what I believe to be the provenance of this now-delicate fragment; and what an interesting history it has had! I came to feel confident that the letter – her mother’s last words to her father – was known to, and probably owned by Anne’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I. I was also able to discern with some certainty that this last expression of love and guiltlessness was secretly kept from Henry by his secretary, Thomas Cromwell.  Once again, an original document longs to tell its story, and will reveal much if given a chance.

Perhaps the most startling discovery came when I was studying the accounts written by Bishop Kennett. An obscure entry noted that a Franciscan Friar by the name of Thevét, who lived contemporaneously to Henry VIII, had been told by several nobles that, on his deathbed, Henry deeply regretted injuries he had done to both Anne and their daughter Elizabeth.

I was stunned by this statement. Preliminary research points to the distinct possibility that the statement is true. More digging  is required in the hope that additional information will come to light. If indeed true, the view history holds of the tyrant Henry who remorselessly had his beloved wife beheaded will be altered. 

What other secrets might be revealed if only we look closely? The question is tantalising, indeed! 

Photo #1 ©The British Library Board  Kings MS 9 f231v
Photo #2  ©The British Library Board   Kings MS 9 f066v
Photo #3  © Biblioteca Apostolica
Photo #4  © Biblioteca Apostolica
Photo #5  © The British Library Board, Cotton Otho CX f232v
Photo #6  © The British Library Board, Lansdowne 979 f122r


Sandra Vasoli, author of Anne Boleyn’s Letter from the Tower, Struck with the Dart of Love and Truth Endures, earned a Bachelor’s degree in English and biology from Villanova University before embarking on a thirty-five-year career in human resources for a large international company.

Having written essays, stories, and articles all her life, Vasoli was prompted by her overwhelming fascination with the Tudor dynasty to try her hand at writing both historical fiction and non-fiction. While researching what eventually became the Je Anne Boleyn series, Vasoli was granted unprecedented access to the Papal Library. There, she was able to read the original love letters from Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn—an event that contributed greatly to her research and writing.

Vasoli currently lives in Gwynedd Valley, Pennsylvania, with her husband and two greyhounds.

Sandra is also giving away a paperback copy of each of her books all week from Mon 5th - Sun 11th September 2016. For a chance to win, click HERE and leave your contact details

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