The Henry Sessions

by Tammy Gilbert


Maggie was a Tudor buff too. That’s how we met. She saw me reading David Starkey’s bio of Elizabeth I in the library and approached me. We ended up having coffee and sharing a chocolate chip muffin in the cafeteria, talking until our next classes started. That day we focused on the first two of Henry VIII’s wives.

“Anne had so much power, so briefly,” I said, for once not feeling ashamed of my enthusiasm: showing it like a newly requited love. “But Catherine had within her the blood and strength of kings!”

“Do you remember what Anne said of Mary?” Maggie asked, moving in so close to me that her herbal shampoo warmed my nostrils. “She is my death and I am hers…”

Her eyes sparkled with fluorescent cafeteria light and she leaned back in her chair and held her notebook to her heart with pride, as if she had conceived the words herself.

It was the first time I had encountered anyone who felt as strongly as I did about anything. I knew I had a friend, a comrade; it was as if we had fought side by side in battle and I could trust her with my life.

Maggie’s hair was blonde and fine, with her bangs cut sharply to square off her face. Her skin had a pale, northern-European iridescence. And she was thin as a twig. I felt large and clumsy around her, like Henry must have felt with little Catherine Howard; like he could break her in two if he wanted. But I also felt like her protector, like I could block anything that came toward her, and that somehow I would be ready, even if taken by surprise. I’d watch her hair, the wisps around her face, sometimes getting caught up in her lip-balmed mouth while we waited for the bus, after one of our long talks.

The Henry Sessions didn’t start until months later, near the start of our second year, when we realized someone else was hooked. Ade was in Maggie’s Shakespeare class. He was tall and thin, and seemed to be in a constant hunch as he leaned to speak with everyone. His interests lay in genealogy, and he was in fact a science major taking an elective. He was quick to catch on to the history itself – but that was around the same time that The Tudors television series aired, and I was suspicious that his interests were not purely academic.

Still, I was really happy to have another person to help make it like a real group, and by the time we had moved the meetings to the evening, beginning at the library and continuing at a nearby pub, I enjoyed his male perspective on the panel. Anyway, as a genealogist, I thought he might help me with the family tree I was working on following Henry’s Welsh lineage.

I did notice Maggie change when he started joining our conversations. She seemed less ready to express strong opinion. In fact, she was too agreeable with him, something she had never been with me. She didn’t scold him at all when he referred to Mary Boleyn as the King of France’s English Mare: “…because he rode her so often!” And she would often flutter her hands to her neck while talking, stretching her head forward, tilting her face in a perfect angle: a little Holbein portrait.

Finally, there was Mary-Grace. She and I had knocked heads in our Medieval History class; a debate had begun about the Beaufort inheritance and Mary-Grace pointed to their legitimization by John of Gaunt as the real spark that ignited the Cousins’ War. Although obviously a Plantagenet faithful, out of interest in the novelty of our group, she accepted my offer to join us for our Thursday night sessions. She had already proclaimed during class her fully paid up membership in The Richard III Society, but agreed that as long as we were willing to hear her side of the story then she would let us give ours.

“If the Tudor propaganda gets to be too much, then I’m out of here!” she said and her dark brown eyes held me for a moment until I agreed.

She was sometimes apologetic about her loudness, and I did find her brusque, and blushed when heads turned our way in the otherwise quiet library. She blamed her Spanish grandmother, who had emigrated from Madrid after their civil war, and she had the dark, sun-raised complexion to support this. Nonetheless, she turned out to be an excellent balance with the others, and was able to provide an indispensable Catholic point of view into our investigation of Henry’s divorces and his relationship with Rome.

Thursday nights worked well. None of us had early class the next day and we were still far enough from the weekend not to feel the pressure of any Monday due-dates. We felt comfortable and unrestrained; we felt important. And after we had been at the pub for a certain amount of time there was no doubt that we felt allied by the ale we had consumed.

XJF377226I was a staunch admirer of Anne of Cleves and remained, week after week, extolling her virtues. The others accepted my perspective, but I was disappointed when they would not take a bite, go with my theories, expand. Anne, who was happy to turn away from a man she had known would only do her harm, could not illicit much interest from these three. For me, she was the quiet heroine of this story: her softly rounded, Germanic chin, her heavy, modest eyes and her wisdom in the face of omnipotent patriarchy. After all, blood and death awaited women at every turn, not only at the scaffold but in the birthing bed too. Better to remain untouched and in perpetual sisterhood.

Then came the week where I decided to pull out my Welsh ancestry chart, to show to Ade: perhaps get some help with the ancient matrilineal lineage, therefore pinpointing on paper the direct royal links of Henry Tudor. I predicted Mary-Grace was the only one who would care to give me a fight and my heart had begun to race in anticipation. Ade was distracted, though: he had been trying for at least twenty minutes to have us accept his wild theory that the king had a homosexual relationship with Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. No matter how many times I shot him down over this, he would bring it up again. I had to remind him that he must be seeing something in the actors’ portrayals in the miniseries and that a soap-opera perspective had no place in this group.

“But he loved Suffolk. You cannot deny that he loved him.”

“That kind of love – between a king and his man – it was a bond, brought through survival, through trust, through battle. As usual, you are sexualizing everything.”

At the word “sexualizing” Maggie tilted her head and with her fingers drew a line from under her chin down the middle of her neck.

Mary-Grace interjected with references to the relationships that Edward II had with his favourites at court: common men to whom he would gift titles and power.

“He was deposed and murdered by his own queen and her lover – with a red hot poker up his ass,” she says, slamming her beer glass down on the table like an angry drunk.

“I am not saying that homosexual love did not exist throughout English history!” I didn’t want this conversation to get side-tracked. We had started the evening with Anne of Cleves and that’s what tweaked Abe’s theory, thinking that maybe Henry had no interest in Anne because he was having it off with Charles at the time, and that Charles wanted Cromwell gone and that’s why he fell out of favour so quickly.

I sighed loudly and rolled up my chart.

“Why don’t we take a little break? It’s your round, anyway,” I told Ade, and he stood to dig in his pocket for cash.

“All right,” he said, and bent down to speak directly into my face. “Let’s get back to your Flanders Mare when I return!”

Disgusted both with this ugly moniker and by the smell of onion rings on his breath, I had to tuck my nose into the cuff of my sweater.

“Here, I’ll get this one, don’t worry,” said Maggie. She pulled out a twenty from her purse which Ade took happily. As he turned to leave, Mary-Grace stood up.

“I’ll help you at the bar,” she said. Her words carried a delicate inflection that I had not heard from her before. Then she placed her hand against his lower back to push him on.

Maggie looked a little stunned. Her slim hands wrapped around her still full beer glass and her face grew long and ghost-like. Trying to get the conversation back on track, I attempted to dissect the first meeting of Henry and Cleves: his reaction, her surprise (possibly disgust).

She responded adamantly, as if she could conclude the issue once and for all. “Henry just did not love Anne of Cleves, that’s all. He didn’t choose her. Cromwell chose her. And he couldn’t love her.”

“He didn’t choose Catherine of Aragon either…but he loved her…at least for a time.”

Maggie put her head in her hands. Her hair curtained her face and I heard her light wince. The air was so thick with emotion that I felt it difficult to breathe. I needed to cut a line through it.

“Interesting that Anne, in her retirement, eschewed men altogether. She was not asked to go to a nunnery, like Aragon had been. She could have remarried. She had become ‘Sister to The King’: she could have remarried well, in fact.”

I could hear the shakiness in my voice and was aware of my uneven breathing, but I had to keep on.

“Now, in light of the discussion on homosexuality in medieval and Tudor life, I wonder if we should consider…”

“I’ve got to go.” Maggie stood and grabbed her bag. She looked at me apologetically and then over to the bar, where Ade and Mary-Grace were standing, with the pitcher of beer and a tray of glasses, heavily in conversation and showing no signs of coming back to us.

I grabbed her hand, just as she was about to walk away. I felt the threat of this all falling apart. I didn’t want to lose our Henry Sessions; I didn’t want Maggie to leave.

“Even if I were to suffer a thousand deaths, my love for you will not abate one jot.” I said, quoting Boleyn herself; wooing with another woman’s words.

Maggie said nothing. In her eyes I could see the working-out of this methodology; the consideration of her retort. I twisted my hand within hers. It felt familiar but softer; a feeling I’d thought about often. I tried to breathe more slowly, taking this silence as a comfort, using it to sedate my passion.

She shook herself free and folded her arms across her chest, holding closed her unzipped coat. She then looked at me like we barely had known each other, like we had not discussed these ancient lives as if they were our own; moved inside each figure as one; trying to become their spirit, or their very soul.

After turning away to briefly check the situation at the bar again, she left the pub, without a single word, not even a goodbye. Deserted, the lively conversations of strangers surrounded me and roared like an angry invasion. I was at my weakest point. I was defeated.

When Mary-Grace and Ade finally returned I retreated modestly, making no excuses. I knew I was not a part of this group.

The following Thursday night I waited patiently, reading and making notes at the library until the hour we usually moved on. But by the time I finished scanning the unfamiliar faces throughout the pub, the theories and knowledge that had excited my head had sunk heavily to the very bottom of my heart.

I walked home alone and felt through my thin coat the early winter air. I thought of Anne of Cleves, how she never returned home to her native Rhineland, how she settled quietly in the English countryside in a fine property; not feeling scorned, not feeling unloved. She did not consider the king’s rejection a disappointment. There was something else that she wanted. She found something else to fill her days. Henry could not hurt her. No one could.


Tammy Gilbert studied Creative Writing at The University of North London in London, England. She received a Bachelor’s Degree in Combined Humanities in 2001, when she was also awarded the Sandra Ashman Prize for Short Fiction. She met and married a Brit while in the UK and moved back to the “other” London shortly afterward.

She lives with her husband and two children in the historically designated Wortley Village in south London, Ontario and works at the local library. She cares for her family, travels with them as often as she can and squeezes in her passion for history, literature and short story writing every single day.