Henry VIII’S seventh wife Antonia Fraser
Antonia Fraser wrote a bestseller about his first six wives. Now she’s composed a comedy about the last one, a ravishing femme fatale
Ever since I read that masterpiece by W C Sellar and R J Yeatman, 1066 and All That, as a child, I have seen the charm of History Light. Who can forget their probing analysis of the English Civil War: the Cavaliers ‘Wrong but Wromantic’, the Roundheads ‘Right but Repulsive’ – and who can be absolutely sure they’ve done better? These two very short plays – from a series of five I have written – are a modest offering in that direction.
Like all five plays, these two feature characters about whom I have written books: The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) and Mary Queen of Scots (1969).
I have chosen to dedicate my History Light to Edward Gibbon. This was the historian who inspired me so long ago with his account of the barefoot monks singing vespers in Rome amid the ruins of the Capitol, which led to him writing The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I hope that he, or at least the monks, would have seen the joke.
The Seventh Wife
Cast Harry a bloated old man in a hospital bed Septima a beautiful young woman Courtier shadowy figure
Scene Majestic scenery, plenty of crimson velvet and gold; in contrast to the stark sight of the hospital bed. Harry Where is she? Where’s Kate? Septima Ssshh, Harry. Kate is not here. Harry What have you done with her, what have you done with Kate?
Beats his fists on the white coverlet.
Septima Sssh, I said. Pause. Harry continues to beat. Anyway, which Kate do you have in mind? You were married to three people called Catherine. You must remember that. Harry My Kate. My little Kate, my sweetie. Septima That’s definitely not that stuck-up Habsburg bitch, so proud of her nephew the Emperor, on and on and on about him until we could all scream. Harry suddenly looks puzzled. But you were too young... Septima My Mum told me. Changes the subject. It’s not the old nurse either,
is it, Katie Parr? How could she have let you get into this state? Just as well she died before you did. It must be the little whore Katie Howard. Enough of that – and her. Harry Begins again. I want Kate. Then changes tune. I want Annie. Where is she? My sweet little Nan – she’s the one I loved. Such fun – I was never too exhausted. Septima Jealously: You mean that fearful German Annie. You told me that you could never do it with her – so you threw her out for being too ugly. You said you were always too exhausted. Harry More beating of fists. No. I mean Annie, my sweet little Nan Boleyn. Her sister was not half bad but Annie was terrific, the best I ever had. Septima She slept with her brother – among others. So you got rid of her. Viciously: You had her executed, actually.
Harry Vaguely: I don’t remember any of that. I’m a lifelong opponent of capital punishment – everyone knows that – except, of course, for reasons of dire necessity, reasons of state... I’m a genuine, heartfelt liberal. Except for reasons of state… Voice trails away.
Septima There, there. Think how much you loved your sweet Jane, the mother of little Eddie.
Harry She wasn’t much fun. Now Annie, little Nan Boleyn...
Septima Who only gave you a daughter, Betsy, that tiresome red-haired child, not pretty enough to get a proper husband. She’ll remain a spinster, I’ll bet you. At least Spanish Molly keeps her mouth shut.
Harry To her quite clearly: Annie, do you know, sometimes I wish I could just die in your arms, just after... you know…
Courtier steps forward from the shadows. He makes a sign to Septima.
Courtier A good note to end on.
Darkness falls on stage, as the crimson velvet curtains fall and hide the bed. When the light goes up, it is invisible.
Septima Declaims: I did it for all us women. And especially for the other six. I did it to make all women free, especially wives.
Courtier Now that you are free, along with all other women, may I have the honour of being your second husband? Septima Looks amused. Oh no, darling. Let’s not rush into things. I’ve booked you for my seventh. Courtier Your seventh husband?
Septima Still amused. Certainly not. I had quite enough of being a woman being married to Harry the Eighth; so I had myself transformed into a man by the doctor. Why don’t you make a move the other way? You will be my seventh wife.
Molly Stuart and Betsy Tudor
Cast Molly Stuart Aka Mary, Queen of Scots Tall, middle-aged, beautiful. Betsy Tudor Queen of England, aka Elizabeth I. Middle-aged woman, shorter, flaming red hair.
Scene Among clouds
Molly and Betsy dressed as schoolgirls, darting about, teasing and daring each other.
Molly Yah, ginger. Betsy Yah, beanpole. Molly Yah, Virgin. Betsy That’s not fair. Molly Why not?
Betsy I thought we agreed not to talk about sex.
Molly That’s because you never did it. Yah, Virgin, Virgin Queen.
Betsy Of course I did it. Bobby Leicester – he was great. The French prince – wow! That silly Essex boy…
Molly Then why did you say we shouldn’t talk about it…
Betsy Airily: Oh, I thought you might be embarrassed.
Molly Embarrassed, moi? I was a femme fatale. Everyone knows that. You can hardly blame me: Darnley was a wimp.
Betsy No, I was thinking about all that
business with the Casket Twitters, Jimmy Bothwell, all the stuff in the Daily Mail.
Molly Nostalgically: Ah, Jimmy Bothwell – that doesn’t count. He was what they used to call Rough Trade before it was made gender neutral, which spoilt everything. All the same, I remember Dunbar, that castle... Hastily: He carried me off by the way, absolutely no consensual sex. Betsy While we’re on the subject of your husbands, how about killing the first one, how about killing Darnley? You can’t kill a man for being a wimp. And poor little Rizzio – you can’t kill a man for being a second-rate musician either. Molly Betsy Tudor! How dare you raise the subject of killing, when, as all the world knows, YOU killed ME!
Clouds blacken and scene goes dark. When the clouds light up, both women are dressed identically as queens. Betsy You’re quite sure, Molly darling, that we want to take part in this Reincarnation Programme? Think of the sort of people one might come across. And worse still, find oneself BEING.
Molly Oh darling, I don’t think you need worry about that. Didn’t I tell you – I’ve arranged a straight swap? You will come back as Queen of Scotland and I will come back as Queen of England. We’re going to rerun the whole thing.
Betsy Uncertainly: Elizabeth, Queen of Scots, sounds good... just one little detail, darling. You’re always so wise about this kind of thing, now we’ve really got to be friends in the clouds. You know what they used to say about the Virgin Queen and all that rubbish. Well, actually, it wasn’t rubbish. It was true. You were right; I never did do it. So could you perhaps explain it all to me. Because I might not get away with the rubbish second time round. Molly Oh sure. Aside. Mary, Queen of England! Just what I’ve always wanted. And this time, I might have to get rid of her if she proved a nuisance, as the Scots so often do. After all, as she pointed out, I’ve got a certain experience in that direction. Now talking to her. Darling Betsy, I’ll do anything for you. But you know what they always say, better show than tell. So I wonder what happened to Jimmy Bothwell...
First there were six: (top) Catherine of Aragon, divorced; Anne Boleyn, beheaded; Jane Seymour, died; (below) Anne of Cleves, divorced; Catherine Howard, beheaded; Catherine Parr, survived