Entering the Labyrinth
All novels begin with an idea, a response to living life. The idea for my first published novel was seeded when, as a teenager, I first read one of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s poems, the poem I will always think of as Dear Heart, How Like You This? Many years went by before I felt brave enough to marry this poem with my heart and mind to discover it enabled me to tell Anne Boleyn’s story through the voice of Sir Thomas Wyatt, which ended up becoming my first Tudor novel.
The idea for The Light in the Labyrinth, my first young adult Tudor novel, arrived close to a decade after the publication of that novel. In late December 2008, one of my writing friends asked me to accompany her to the Melbourne Short and Sweet Festival, a ten-minute play competition. We spent an inspiring afternoon watching the performances of the ten finalists, so inspired that we challenged ourselves to write our own ten-minute plays and see if we could write something good enough to enter into the 2009 Short and Sweet Festival. I wanted to do it because I hadn’t written a play since high school—too long ago to count.
Weeks went by and I realised my first idea for a funny play was proving not funny at all, Facing the fact that writing comedy is something I still needed to conquer and with my summer holidays fast disappearing on me, I tried to think of another idea for a play; I picked up a copy of Dear Heart, How Like You This? and pondered once more the beautiful painting used as its cover. Edouard Cibot’s Anne Boleyn in the Tower (painted in 1835) helped to inspire my first novel; now it inspired me anew.
I feel absolutely certain that the weeping woman in the background is the artist’s depiction of Anne Boleyn. But who was the girl in the foreground—the girl so desolate, so still with despair, that she can only hold the hand of the older woman?
That summer day, my years of research ignited my imagination, I asked myself the question asked by all fiction writers: What if? What if, I asked myself, the girl depicted Anne Boleyn’s teenage niece, Katherine Carey?
I mulled over what I knew about Katherine Carey. During my research about Anne Boleyn, I had also been tantalised by tidbits of information regarding Kate. A number of historians suggest she may have accompanied her aunt to the Tower. They also suggested she stayed with her during the long nineteen days of her imprisonment and witnessed her death. But most historians generally put forward the year 1524 for Katherine’s birth, some even claim as late as 1527. If one accepted 1524, that means she was no more than twelve at the time of Anne Boleyn’s execution.
In the past I asked myself: would Anne ask an untried twelve-year-old to support her on this dreadful day? A girl she would have to trust to keep calm on the scaffold and help deal with her decapitated body afterwards? I could not give it credence. Even sixty-seven years in the future, a thirteen-year-old was “held too young” to sit by the body of Elizabeth I during the nights and days of Watching over the Dead (Cressy 1997, p. 428).
I also asked myself one further question: Would this be Anne Boleyn’s desire, that her twelve-year-old niece accompany her to the scaffold and witness her death? No, I thought. Anne Boleyn would have chosen only witnesses of proven maturity; witnesses who were not only capable of speaking of her end but also understood their duty to bear witness to her “good death.”
I have no doubt that Anne would have been utterly determined to make a good death. Her culture believed the innocent died well, not the guilty. By achieving a good death, she left behind a legacy of doubt about her guilt. Considering how important these witnesses were to her, choosing a twelve-year-old to number amongst them, a girl who might break under the strain of watching her aunt’s final moments and also possibly undermine Anne’s fortitude to achieve a good death, made no sense to me.
Then I read Varlow’s “Sir Francis Knollys’s Latin dictionary: New evidence for Katherine Carey.” This article added more weight to the uncertainty of Katherine’s birth year. An argument for a fourteen-year-old Kate, a girl mature enough to be with her aunt on the last day of her life, strengthened—enough for me to imagine her with her aunt on Anne’s final night in my play Before Dawn Breaks.
My play first gave Kate a voice, but she wouldn’t leave my imagination. Tugged by what I already knew, I wanted to know more. I asked myself, could she be a good subject for my next historical novel? A character I could construct through novel writing and, by doing so, would also help me understand and gain meaning about life? For writing has always been one of the ways I achieve growth as a human being. I want to build a bridge of empathy between my text and my reader, but more than that; my own empathy grows by building that bridge.
My next step was to study the portraits of Katherine Carey. Kate’s friendly face made it easy to imagine why Anne would have wanted her with her in the Tower, and until the very end. Until the end…. I thought about that. Anne Boleyn’s witnesses also had the duty to oversee proper burial of her remains. Religion narrates the context of the Tudor period; the majority of men and women whole-heartedly believed in the resurrection of bodies on Judgement Day. Thus, it was very important to them that all body parts be buried together, for the “bodies of the faithful shall be ‘quickened and raised up, their souls restored to them again’” (Cressy 1997, p. 385).
Who took up these final duties of caring for Anne Boleyn’s body? While history does not tell us their names, we can easily guess their gender. Women, just as they gathered together to bring life into the world, prepared the dead for burial. As also in childbirth, the women who took on these duties were, in most cases, kin or close friends of the dead. If Kate had been there for her aunt’s death, then it follows she was also one of those committed to care for Anne’s body afterwards.
My research for my first published novel, Dear Heart, How Like You This?, concentrated only on what was necessary for the point of view of my character Sir Thomas Wyatt. Now, thinking about Kate, I could not remember reading a detailed account of what happened to Anne Boleyn’s body afterwards—besides noting the fact that they were forced to use an empty arrow box for her interment because no one had readied a proper coffin. Did they expect the King to send a last minute reprieve? Wondering about that, I also reminded myself that their lack of preparation could be easily explained: no one had ever written before the script for the execution of a crowned queen of England.
I also wondered who provided the necessary burial winding cloth. Man or woman, in this time and place, to be buried unclothed was to be treated like a beast (Cressy 1997, p. 430). Two biographies about Anne Boleyn: Denny (2007, p. 315) and Ives (2004, p. 359) provided identical accounts. One of her ladies covered and then carried her head while the others wrapped her body. Unaided, they carried her remains to St Peter ad Vincula. Once in the chapel, they removed Anne’s blood-soaked clothes and placed her in an emptied arrow box. My imagination placed my Kate in the chapel, painting her as a grief stricken young girl who now helped ready her aunt for burial.
Hoping to find out more, I soon added another book to my Tudor library: Geoffrey Abbott’s Severed Heads, British Beheadings through Ages. Abbot (p. 42) includes the account of the historian Crispin, who lived during these times. Crispin describes the understandable anguish of Anne’s women, bracing themselves for the duty of carrying her body from the scaffold for burial. One of Anne Boleyn’s chaplains, Father Thirlwall, blessed Anne’s makeshift coffin before it was interred in the vault near the altar. Already in this vault lay the remains of Anne Boleyn’s brother, George (Abbot 2003, p. 43).
They interred her with the brother she supposedly committed incest with? Why? The more I thought about that, the more it felt an act of appeasement.
Katherine Carey presented, I thought, the perfect voice for the Young Adult historical novel I wanted to write, a vehicle I also hoped, as a writer, would help me reach a better understanding as to why Henry VIII chose to bloody his hands with the death of Anne Boleyn through revisiting the last months of her life. But of course it is more than this. My concerns about Kate Carey’s age were at last put to rest through thorough research, The Light in the Labyrinth, also my PhD artefact, became a story of a young girl forced to grow up fast in the adult world ruled over by Henry VIII.
First published at THE HISTORICAL NOVEL SOCIETY Blog:
Abbott, G. 2003 Severed Heads: British Beheadings through the Ages. London, Carlton Publishing Group.
Cressy, D. 1997. Birth, Marriage, And Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England. Oxford [Eng.]; New York, Oxford University Press.
Denny, J. 2007. Anne Boleyn: A New Life of England’s Tragic Queen. Cambridge, MA, Da Capo Press.
Dunn, W. J. 2002. Dear Heart, How Like You This? Yarnell, AZ, Metropolis Ink.
Hutcheon, L. 1989. Historiographic Metafiction. https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/bitstream/1807/10252/1/ TSpace0167.pdf (accessed 29/07/09).
Ives, E. W. 2004. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn: “The Most Happy”. Malden, MA, Blackwell Pub.
Varlow, S. 2007. “Sir Francis Knollys’s Latin dictionary: New evidence for Katherine Carey.” Historical Research 80 (209): 315–323.