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The Boleyn King by Laura Andersen (2013)

June 29, 2013

First of a trilogy which poses the question “What if Henry only ever had two wives and Anne’s son, not Jane Seymour’s, became King of England? And what if, in the end, Elizabeth Tudor still became queen?” It’s a fascinating premise, rendered considerably less fascinating when the numerous fictional characters keep elbowing aside the historical ones. Positing a non-miscarried healthy boy for Anne is one thing, but having four or five imaginary contemporaries tag along with him is quite another. Throw in a half-French Marie Sue and this novel, while it has its moments, is the literary equivalent of trying to watch an interesting movie while audience members are continually standing up in front and blocking most of it.

We begin with a prologue on June 28th, 1536, with Anne giving birth to a baby boy just as some shooting stars are seen in the sky. The midwife takes it as a good sign, but Anne is too exhausted even to care. “Henry will be pleased,” she thinks “And I … I will remain queen.”

We then jump seventeen years into the future, where it transpires that Henry VIII has died on schedule in January of 1547, George Boleyn has become Lord Protector, and Anne and Henry’s son Henry IX is quickly closing in his majority. For reasons left totally opaque, young Henry IX is known to his friends and family as William, and always referred to as such. William spends a lot of time swaggering and pouting and attempting to demonstrate how mature he is; for one thing, he takes a mistress, the distractingly-named Eleanor Percy (who doesn’t seem to be related to the Percys) and begins contemplating making war on France in order to negotiate a possible marriage with the young Mary Queen of Scots, who is of course betrothed to the Dauphin but not yet actually married. However, he is also battling against his fondness for one Genevieve Antoinette Wyatt (not related to the Wyatts), an orphan ward of his mother’s. She was born on the same day as William and they’ve been like brother and sister growing up, with an additional sister in Elizabeth – who as a toddler gave Genevieve Wyatt her nickname of Minuette when trying and failing to pronounce mignonette.

Minuette is a restrained but still fairly obvious Sue. First of all, although disclaiming any beauty or merit on her own account, she’s obviously quite pretty – she’s described as “like a colt – all eyes and legs and spirit” by one of her less pleasant suitors (Giles Howard, imaginary son of the real Duke of Norfolk). She’s also supposed to be very charming, although most of her charm seems to lie in the fact that she holds opinions sympathetic to a modern-day reader – in a later scene when she’s sent to the Lady Mary’s household as a spy, she can’t understand why wars should be fought over “this small matter of form.” Additionally, all the other characters love her; even the stubborn if oddly innocent Mary takes a liking to her, and Henry VIII is briefly remembered for a visit he paid to Elizabeth’s and Minuette’s schoolroom shortly before he died. “Though he’d complimented Elizabeth’s mind, it was nine-year-old Minuette who had disarmed him. When the formidable, enormous King Henry had left, it had been Minuette whom he’d hugged goodbye.” Of course, part of it is the sympathy factor; her own parents were both dead by the time she was eight, and as her mother was Anne’s favorite lady-in-waiting from days past, Anne took her into her own household.

So what is Minuette up to while William is showing his “sulky” Boleyn good looks, palling around with Dominic Courtenay (imaginary nephew of the Marquess of Exeter), feeling reluctant to arrange a marriage for Minuette for some strange reason, and making successful war on France? She’s trying to solve a mystery, of course – one of her fellow maids of honour, Alyce de Clare, has just fallen fatally down the stairs whilst four months pregnant by a mystery man, and in a letter sent just before her death she told Minuette that she was in trouble and enclosed some ciphers. The ciphers being translated, it transpires that Minuette’s own mother supposedly confessed on her deathbed that Anne had committed incest with George in order to conceive William, and that broadsides which are popping up proclaiming that “England Will Not Have A Boleyn King” are resurrecting the smear in the old confesion. Said “confession” is currently in safekeeping in a home known as a Catholic stronghold. Hmmm, where could that possibly be? Off Minuette goes to visit the Lady Mary’s household, where after some (literal) cloak-and-dagger business, the false confession is unearthed in … well, this is a rare Anne Boleyn novel where you don’t already know the ending, so I won’t tell you. I will say that in the course of hunting up the spurious confession, she receives declarations from love and proposals of marriage from an assortment of young men, including Dominic Courtenay, Jonathan Percy, Giles Howard, and of course William (though he doesn’t offer to marry her).

Interspersed with all of these are scenes of Anne aging and becoming ill, George Boleyn’s care for her and extreme care for politics – he’s always going off for secret meetings and constantly thinking two or three steps of everyone else; there’s a strong resemblance between him and Elizabeth in this case. At the end of the book, we learn that the retrieval of the false “confession” was in fact only part of a much more tangled situation, and one of the chief players in it is – well, surely you remember another famous case of a woman who fell down a staircase and broke her neck very conveniently? The same man is involved here, and that’s where the book ends and leaves us hanging until next October, when Volume 2 comes out.

SEX OR POLITICS? Intermittent stabs at politics are taken, what with William’s campaign against the French, but unfortunately sex takes over in a big way what with Minuette’s parade of suitors.

WHEN BORN? Not stated explicitly, but Anne is said to be in her early fifties, so presumably around 1501. George’s age isn’t clear, neither is Mary’s (who also died in 1543 in this universe, so she’s only mentioned briefly).

THE EARLY LOVE: Almost too many to count for Minuette, who can’t be around a young man for ten seconds without having him either crushing her to his bosom (if evil) writing sonnets (if good). She’s a lot like Bess in The Black Pearl that way. Anyway, her total at the end of this volume consists of Giles Howard (imaginary son of Norfolk) who is fortunately married off to William’s weirdly colourless mistress Eleanor Percy, Jonathan Percy (twin brother of Eleanor) who’s a sort of Mark Smeaton Lite, longing to prove himself by feats of arms, Dominic Courtenay, imaginary nephew of the real Marquess Exeter and eventually made the new Marquess himself, and of course William himself. Elizabeth has Robert Dudley – still married to Amy Robsart in this universe, and generally unscrupulous with the ladies. Anne’s comment on her own intrigue with Percy is to say that “Youth is made for hopeless romance,” and saying that it taught her never to entrust her heart to any man.

THE QUEEN’S BEES: Minuette herself, of course, and Minuette’s late mother was one to Anne – a Frenchwoman named Marie-Hilaire who came to England for her out of friendship (and was, in fact, one of her very few female friends). Alyce de Clare, the pregnant maid of honour who falls down the stairs, is one of Elizabeth’s attendants, and Eleanor Percy has some sort of vague equivalent position before being married off to Giles Howard so as to go on being William’s mistress more conveniently.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Minuette to Elizabeth, and a maid named Carrie to Minuette – “She insists she is my servant, but I say she is my friend,” says Minuette of her.

THE PROPHECY: None that I could see, unless you count the “England Will Not Have A Boleyn King” broadsides.

IT’S A GIRL! Not described, although since there’s a scene where George tensely remembers the possibilities if a prince hadn’t been born, it’s safe to say that Elizabeth’s birth wasn’t greeted with too many hosannas.

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? No.

FAMILY AFFAIRS: Mary Boleyn is dead at the beginning of the story – as in real life, she died in 1543 and virtually nothing is said about her except that, much like other Marys, she could never quite keep up with the games that Anne and George played as children. Curiously, although Mary dies on schedule, Elizabeth Boleyn lives much longer; William remembers how, at the time of his father’s death in 1547, he was staying at the home of “grandmother Boleyn.” (Of course, this grandmother Boleyn would have been under considerably less stress than the real one was). George is the Lord Protector, Duke of Rochford (I’m not sure if that was a mistake or if his title had been upgraded, though if it’s the latter he shouldn’t still be called Lord Rochford). Poor Lady Rochford is reduced to a walk-on role, and as of old, she has “the eyes and tongue of a snake.” George will sleep with any willing woman except her; unsurprisingly, they are still childless.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No, but the forgers of the Penitents’ Confession would like people to think that she did.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: Nothing purple at all – it’s clear, serviceable prose, clear as water.

ERRATA: Since this is an alt history novel, it wouldn’t be fair to count things as errors which really boil down to “I wanted the author to write it differently.” There are some basic mistakes, though – William’s name being the most obvious. Why on earth is Henry IX called by another name in private life? He’s the son of Henry VIII, not Queen Victoria – the era of royals who had thirty-five given names apiece was far in the future. Furthermore, the “Catholic party’s” intention to overthrow the “illegitimate” William and install Mary on the throne in his place just doesn’t ring true to the era. To overthrow a young, male king in favour of a woman who was pushing forty would have been incomprehensible. Even Edward VI, it should be remembered, was technically illegitimate by Rome’s standards, as Henry had married Jane Seymour while excommunicate and using his own service instead of the standard one. No Catholics seriously objected to his coming to the throne, much less tried to get Mary to take it from him.

WORTH A READ? I had mixed feelings about this book. I loved the premise, and I very much enjoyed the scenes with Anne and George – I thought they were drawn very well, not idealized figures and not witchy caricatures either. Anne, in her fifties, is bright, sharp-witted, and very much used to having her own way (it’s a sore point with her that George was made Regent, and not her). She has a gimlet eye for clothing and we see the young Elizabeth primping herself just before a meeting with her mother, so that Anne won’t make a few brief, devastating remarks about her. George was a little over the top (he is meeting late-Henrician men in secret tunnels to discuss the unmasking of sinister plans, after all) but on the whole George’s portrayal as the fearsomely capable, intelligence-gathering regent worked well. You could see the resemblance to Elizabeth. Elizabeth is rather similar to her usual fictional portrayal – cool, levelheaded, able to argue circles around people if necessary. Even Lady Mary gets a bit of nice characterization when she isn’t going on about how the Mass shouldn’t have any English in it.

The chief problem is that we don’t see enough of them, or even a fraction enough of the other real people who walk through the story, some surviving beyond their real time and some not (I should mention that I’m not criticizing this approach – after all, who’s to say that Elizabeth Boleyn might not have lived a bit longer had she not outlived four-fifths of her children?) We see the Duke of Norfolk doing a bit of plotting, but most of the villainy falls on his imaginary son Giles. Cranmer and Cromwell are barely mentioned, and while Thomas Seymour gets a brief, lustful look in, we certainly never hear about his sister, or in fact any of the real ladies-in-waiting whom Anne had. Surely some of them would have still been around, or their children would have been? Worst of all, we never find out what happened to most of them! Cromwell isn’t there any more, that’s clear, but what his ultimate fate was in this timeline is left a mystery. Did he lose a struggle with Anne over monastery monies in April of 1536? Did he die naturally? Beheaded for something not related to Anne of Cleves? We never find out. Nor do we find out exactly how Mary ended up in a situation very similar to what she had in the days of Edward VI, when in this timeline she refused ever to honour Anne or acknowledge her as queen. What we do find out, in excess, is exactly how all of the imaginary company of young men felt about Minuette and how wonderful and special she is. The imaginary characters are all tediously modern when it comes to matters of romance, as well — Dominic, who’s about twenty, is revolted at the idea of marrying (and doing other things with) a fourteen-year-old, Minuette wonders at Eleanor Percy’s marriage since she can’t believe that she really cares for the groom, and so forth.

I did enjoy it as a light read and plan to get the second from the library when it comes out. Hopefully the new one will have more of the older, real people in it – or at the very least we can find out what happened to Cromwell.

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11 Comments
  1. Clare permalink

    This is one of the very few historical fiction books that I’ve read, and I only did so because it was recommended to me by someone I trust and who told me the depiction of George was worth a read.
    I quite liked it, and actually gave it 4 stars on Amazon. It did read a bit like a young adult book though, which may say something for me if I enjoyed it!
    I loved the premise of this book, but I agree with you that I think there was a missed opportunity due to the fact that Anne and George were used so little. Seeing them as aging personalities were my favourite parts of the book, but they were few and far between.
    That said I loved that George, even though he was the usual womaniser, wasn’t treated as he usually is in fiction. That was such a breath of fresh air. I do wish that he could have been made a little more human though. He was so extreme that he was hard to recognise as the George who I’ve researched. Yes he was intelligent and capable, and yes I’m sure he could be ruthless, but he was also endearingly human. That side of him was entirely absent.
    Great review.

    • sonetka permalink

      I think one problem is that there isn’t a whole of easily-accessible detailed information on George — I mean, there’s L&P, of course, and you’ve put some great stuff on the AB Files, but there’s no standard biography in the bookstores, a lot of sources aren’t online, and those that are can be really hard to sift — ever try the Search function in the online L&P? Worse than useless.

      There is something to be said for the older version of George being more hardened and ruthless than his younger self — it was a natural trajectory for a lot of people, especially those who managed to survive Henry’s court! And for the womanizing, I thought it was very period-appropriate that it was just a casual aside and not used to paint him as automatically villainous; after all, even if he did get around a lot, it would hardly have been shocking or unusual behavior for a man in his position, and most wives of such would have expected it (as long as he stayed in the boundaries of polite behavior, of course). Really, my main issue with the book was that it didn’t posit just one change in Anne’s world — the survival of her last pregnancy — but rather several changes and several imaginary children being born about that time or even earlier. I mean, there was no Marie-Hilaire to begin with, and there never would have been a Minuette or any of the others, even had the real Anne’s baby survived. I get alt history, where you see what real people might have done with one or two tweaked circumstances, and I get the romantic fiction device of inserting imaginary characters into a real place; they both work under the right circumstances. But inserting imaginary characters into an already-imaginary historical scenario is a little too alt for me.

      • Clare permalink

        L&P isn’t too bad when it’s got an index, but many of the volumes are indexless, which just means a hard slog.
        I think without doubt that had George been in the position of Lord Protector he would have been a hardened man. He would of had to be to survive. But I felt he was a little too ruthless, hard and devious to be believable. It didn’t make him a reounded figure. I kept expecting someone to say, ‘he’s behind you’. He would still have retained some aspects of personality even as the most powerful man in England. A missed opportunity I felt.
        I think that George probably was a womaniser, although no worse than most men in Henry’s court. It’s just the constant assertion that he would sleep with anyone which gets a bit tiring.
        I could live with the imaginary characters, but wish they had been played down, and the real characters given more of a role. That would have been far more interesting.
        As for a biography of George, I’m sure it will happen one day.

      • sonetka permalink

        I really think you should. It wouldn’t even have to be full-scale; a shortish study would be really welcome and it’s certainly needed if the number of Tudor novels is any indication. If Mary Boleyn can get TWO biographies, George is more than overdue for one.

  2. I only heard about this quite recently but since then I’m seeing it everywhere! It’s next on my to read list, but I’m not optimistic. I was afraid from reading a description that Minuette would turn into our friend Sue :/

    • sonetka permalink

      Yes, the description definitely set off the alarm bells for me as well. I really think there should be a moratorium on fictional orphan wards of anyone famous — talk about a setup ripe for a Sue!

  3. Jane Seymour permalink

    I fail to understand how in your mind Minuette is a Mary Sue. The term has been woefully overused of late, and many have come to forget what the term actually means. I suggest you take a look before responding. I’m sorry if this sounds condescending, I’m not trying to be.

    Also, in regard to Edward’s legitimacy versus William’s, one of the things Anderson points out as part of the explanation is that William was conceived when Catherine of Aragon was still alive. Life for Catholics begins at conception, so by their standards William was basically alive when Anne was still just the mistress and Catherine was the true wife. Edward on the other hand, was born and conceived after Catherine’s death. Thus, the Catholics would have less of an issue with his legitimacy.

    Also, do you plan to review the Boleyn Deceit and the Boleyn Reckoning? I’d like to see those. I really do like your reviews, even if the above portion seems to bely my words.

    • sonetka permalink

      I’ve read both of them and enjoyed them quite a bit — I really think Anderson ought to invent her own imaginary kingdom (a la Westeros) and start writing about the royal intrigues there, because I’d certainly read it. I don’t think I’ll do full reviews but will probably include them in a roundup when I have the time to do it — since Anne is dead by the end of the first book and this blog is about her, I don’t want to give two full reviews to books which include her only passively. I’m glad you like reading, by the way :).

      About Minuette as Mary Sue — it’s true that there are about ten thousand competing definitions floating around and that some people seem to think that any character with vaguely attractive qualities is a Sue. However, to me the essence of a Sue is the fact that they compel the attention/adoration of the other characters (especially canon characters) without having done anything especially compelling to deserve it, and that their presence will wrench a story off-course as a result. Minuette is a tragic orphan, somehow managing to remain innocent and devoted in spite of where she’s been raised. All the men want to have her and the woman are compelled to admire her (except for flat-out villains like Lady Rochford). She’s Elizabeth’s confidante, and that passage about how when King Henry visited Elizabeth and Minuette, Minuette was the one he kissed showed how the character was taking over the story to the detriment of history — or alt-history, even. The fact that huge portions of the story are propelled by the king of England’s love for (more properly, obsession with) a woman who never existed and would not have existed even if Anne had carried her pregnancy to term was something I found very frustrating, especially since real, interesting people whose fates might have been very different in this world were shoved into the background.

      William’s time of conception was certainly murkier than Edward’s, but I tend towards the view that a male heir was so much wanted that the vast majority of the population wouldn’t have been worried about it eighteen years later. After all, Edward VI was born to parents who had not — by Catholic standards — been properly married either, and nobody was seriously proposing to revolt against him. (Though I can definitely see Mary Tudor having a MUCH harder time with the new king being Anne Boleyn’s child).

      • Jane Seymour permalink

        (To the last paragraph) True enough, but I feel the need to bring up another point. (Sorry is this seems argumentative. I enjoy a good debate with someone who knows what they’re talking about). A male heir was certainly important, but not necessarily the end all beat all. Don’t forget about Bessie Blount’s boy, Henry Fitzroy. I know he died young, but this is for argument’s sake. There was a time close to the beginning where Henry was seriously considering allowing Fitzroy to be king because he was a boy. Some people have written that there was even talk of having him marry Mary to seal it all up nice and tidy (with a papal dispension to allow the marriage of course 😉 However, people would not have stood for a bastard on the throne, male or no. So yes, even though William and Edward’s parents were not necessarily married in the eyes of the Catholic church, they were at least married in the eyes of the English church and for the most of the country that was good enough. And again with Edward, Catherine was dead by then so the Catholics had less to raise a stink about.
        In regards to Minuette, while I agree that I would have liked to see much more of the actual historical figures (I loved Elizabeth, I would have liked to see more of Anne and Rochford, and I’m curious about what happened to the Seymours) I understand why her character is there and commands attention. In the later two books she’s the catalyst for William’s descent from decent guy to crazy coo-coo bird ruler. If nothing else, she helped allow for Laura Anderson to kill off the much longed for male heir without causing too many tears. I for one wasn’t sad to see him die.

      • sonetka permalink

        Henry Fitzroy is an interesting subject for speculation — it’s easy in hindsight to say that a bastard could never have succeeded but what the various marryings and annullings and legitimizations it might not have seemed too clear at the time. There was more than one ruler of England whose claim stood on much shakier ground than Fitzroy’s, but they all succeeded (or ended) violently, which of course is what Henry would have been desperate to avoid. I’m trying to think of parallel instances for a royal baby conceived in the lifetime of a former wife and am coming up with nothing. Once I’ve had some sleep I’ll try to think it out in a little more detail.

        William’s descent was fascinating to watch (and more than little terrifying — hence my mention of Westeros earlier. By the end, he would have fit right in there!) But I don’t see why Minuette had to be the catalyst — there are flocks of poorly-documented but real girls-about-court, any one of whom would have served the role of “known to William but not elevated enough to be his queen, nonetheless becomes his obsession” just as well. Even Jane Grey might have worked out in that role — remember how she wasn’t considered quite good enough for Edward in the end. I wasn’t sad to see William go, either — at the end I could see how Anne dying in the first book was the most merciful ending for her after all.

  4. Jane Seymour permalink

    I agree about Anne’s time of death. I thought that was well done. She got eighteen extra years to be queen, though we are not privy to those years, which I was unhappy about. I would have liked to see more of Henry and Anne’s relationship in the twilight years. The little blurb at the end of The Boleyn Reckoning where we had a brief glimpse of Anne and Henry’s later marriage was wonderful, but I digress. I’m glad Anne wasn’t around to see her son go bonkers, but I’m curious as to how she would have reacted. William obviously loved his mother, and I’m curious as to whether he would have turned on her in the end as he did Elizabeth.
    On the other hand, I would also have enjoyed seeing where Anne would have stood on the Minuette issue. She of all women would understand the whole being raised up by the king, but would she have approved? She experienced first hand how loving a king tears a person and country apart. If she didn’t, I’d be interested to see if she’d have been able to talk William down from it. That alone would be a worth while conversation, if nothing else just to see if William would turn back on his mother and bring up her own past rise (I certainly would).
    Overall my big wish for this book would be more page time for Anne and her relationship with her children. I’d have also enjoyed more time with her and George. They were so close in their younger years, but they barely interact when they’re older. The only really look we got was after Anne died and George was mourning her.
    I do remember Jane not being considered good enough for Edward. I don’t think she would have worked out quite as well just given her pedigree. From the first book it’s noted that there are people pushing for her to be queen because of her blood and religion. There wouldn’t have been the dramatic upheaval for her that there was for Minuette. You are right about there being other undocumented girls out there who could have sufficed.
    Did you find the fact that Eleanor Percy wasn’t actually one of THE (sorry I can’t to italics for some reason) Percys confusing/annoying? Same with Minuette being a Wyatt. I also found the introduction of so many fictional Howards annoying, though I loved the way Stephan died in book three.
    I’m sorry, I just really liked talking about the Tudors. None of my friends have an interest in the period/the background knowledge.

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