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Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession by Alison Weir (2017)

Alison Weir has written numerous popular histories centered around the Tudor era and recently has expanded to writing novels based on the same. While her non-fiction books are dodgy and poorly sourced enough that switching to fiction was probably a wise move, ironically, her fiction suffers greatly from her tendency to cling to the established record (or her take on it, which isn’t always the same thing.) This extremely disappointing novel, which weighs in at a substantial 530 pages, leaves the reader with a frustrating sense of being perpetually stuck in first gear. It’s not that the author doesn’t have intriguing ideas about her characters, she does — but she always backs away at the last moment when faced with the prospect of actually developing them into something substantial. I have read it numerous times over the last few months and each time I am both disappointed and amazed at its dullness, its infuriating lack of emotional follow-up (a close family member died, how tragic! Now let’s never mention him again) and lack of basic accuracy with regard to key facts — this last continuing even into the author’s afterword, where she carefully explains what’s imaginary in some cases and completely fails to mention other dubious if not downright invented “facts” which remain in the novel to trip up the unwary.

The Goldfish Girl


Princess Mary Tudor: No Other Queen But My Mother

On 18 February 1516, at four o’clock in the morning, Queen Catherine gave birth to a daughter who was named Mary…. As at every birth to every royal lady at this time, “a prince” had been confidently expected. The arrival of a princess meant that celebrations were suitably scaled down. For example, messengers who brought the — modified — good news to the University of Cambridge received a mere 28s 6d from the proctors, plus some muscadine wine; whereas the messengers who had broken the news of the birth of the short-lived baby prince in 1511 had received both more money — 40s — and more wine.

— Antonia Fraser, The Wives Of Henry VIII, p. 72

The new princess may not have been quite what her parents wanted, but they could quite reasonably have expected to give her a (living) brother before long; after all, when Mary was born, Henry VIII was only twenty-four years old and Catherine had just turned thirty. Thirty was not exactly the first flower of youth but it usually meant at least ten more years of potential childbearing (and it’s worth remembering that Anne herself most likely did not have her first child until she was past the age when Catherine had her last). But Catherine would have only one more child — another girl, born in 1518, who did not live — and by the time Anne Boleyn came onto the scene around 1526, Princess Mary appeared destined to become the first Queen of England in her own right, and one for whom a great match to the ruler of another country would of course have to be made.

She Is My Death, And I Am Hers

Truth Endures: Je Anne Boleyn, Book Two by Sandra Vasoli (2016)

The long-awaited (by me, at least) sequel to Je Anne Boleyn covers the last three and a half years of Anne’s life, beginning with her pregnancy and secret marriage and ending with — well, I’ll get to that.

Though He Slay Me, Yet Will I Trust In Him

About St. Andrew’s Day

Cardinal Wolsey died on November 29, 1530, and as his servant George Cavendish recounted years later, he was mindful of the church calendar to the end.

And then I went to Master Kingston and gave him warning that, as I thought, [Wolsey] would not live; advertising him that if he had anything to say to him that he should make haste, for he was in great danger …. After [Wolsey] had eaten of a cullis [broth] made of a chicken a spoonful or two, at the last quod he, “whereof was this cullis made?” “Forsooth, sir,” quod I, “of a chicken.” “Why,” quod he, “it is a fasting day and Saint Andrew’s Eve.” “What though, sir,” quod Doctor Palmes, “ye be excused by reason of your sickness.” “Yea,” quod he, “what though? I shall eat no more.” (Two Early Tudor Lives, 186)

Just one year earlier, an altogether livelier scene had taken place on this particular feast day. In The Wives Of Henry VIII, Antonia Fraser recounts the story:

In 1529 a court dinner to celebrate St. Andrew’s Day, 30 November, gave Queen Catherine an opening, as she saw it, to upbraid the King for never supping with her privately …. In a temper, the King rushed from the room, and went to find consolation from his pretty sweetheart elsewhere in the palace. Anne Boleyn however was in no mood to play that particular role. The King found himself in the yet more disagreeable position of a man caught between a nagging wife and a nagging mistress. In her turn Anne Boleyn snapped at King Henry: `Did I not tell you that whenever you disputed with the Queen, she was sure to have the upper hand?’ Then from anger Anne turned to tears, as she lamented her dismal fate. One day the King would go back to the Queen and abandon her, she wailed: `I have been waiting long and might in the meanwhile have contracted some advantageous marriage, out of which I might have had issue, which is the greatest consolation in this world, but alas! Farewell to my time and youth spent to no purpose at all.’ (pp. 168-169)

As with many episodes in Anne Boleyn’s life, the sole source for the story is Eustace Chapuys — or, more precisely, whatever anonymous courtier reported this scene to him, as Chapuys’ direct contact with Anne was extremely limited and, being afflicted with gout, he would have found it hard to spend much time crouching behind an arras while Anne and Henry had their showdown. Since neither the source nor Chapuys were friendly to Anne, the story may well have been touched up a bit, but at the same time there’s nothing inherently ridiculous about it and it may have happened exactly as reported. It certainly paints a lively picture of Henry’s and Anne’s relationship and can make for an equally lively moment in a novel about her. However, until fairly recently this particular episode has tended to be either ignored or rushed past — when it has made a real appearance, it’s often been for the purpose of setting Anne up as a manipulator whose real concerns were far removed from the ones she actually stated. A few possible reasons for this follow (although there are doubtless many more).

The first possibility is the simplest: the late 1520s were an extremely eventful time for Anne and provided enough incident to fill an entire novel in themselves. From Anne’s near-death from the sweating sickness in mid-1528 to the failed Blackfriars trial in mid-1529 to Wolsey’s death on St. Andrew’s Eve near the end of 1530 — there was a lot going on even if you ignore the royal love letters which floating around about this time as well. Although the recent revival of the two and three-volume novel format has eased the pressure somewhat, a novelist trying keep things moving has enough major events to squeeze into that thirty-month period without taking too many detours. I’m not saying that the highlights-only approach is a good one, just that if someone is trying to keep the entire story of Anne’s life under three hundred pages, it’s an understandable one.

The second possibility is a bit more speculative, but I think finds some backing in the fact that, until recently, most of the novelists who emphasized the episode were in the minority who were openly hostile to Anne. Frail Anne Boleyn (1931) and Sow The Tempest (1962) both depict Anne’s distress with extreme cynicism — “the woman of Toledo tempered steel” as Frail Anne Boleyn calls her, coldbloodedly deploys her “passionate, wailing scenes …. over her frustrated love and lost youth and honor” entirely to bring about the arrest of Cardinal Wolsey. Sow The Tempest similarly depicts Anne’s complaints of “losing her youth” as calculated to light a fire under Henry, not because she had any actual fear of losing her chance at marriage and children. Jean Plaidy, more sympathetic, still depicts Anne’s lament as being partially calculated in The Lady In The Tower (1986). She is genuinely distressed at realizing that Henry has been allowing Catherine to influence him — “I thought: we shall never defeat this woman. She will always win” — but composes her speech (and leaves just as she finishes) in order to give Henry plenty of time to stew over the fact that “there were many men at Court who wanted to marry me”. The sympathetic YA novel Doomed Queen Anne (2002) pushes the episode forward a couple of years, to 1531.

The thing which all of these books have in common with each other (not to mention the vast majority of Boleyn-centered novels) is that they all assume that Anne was born sometime in 1507. It’s impossible to blame them for this: almost every history book the authors would have consulted would have told them that this was Anne’s birth year. If this were the case, then Anne’s loss of temper and lament for her lost youth in November of 1529 would have taken place when she was, at most, twenty-two years old. Even by sixteenth-century standards, Anne would not have been anywhere close to leaving her youth and marriageability behind her (although she may well have had the legitimate complaint that even though she was young, other men wouldn’t dare to come near her as long as the king was interested). Hence, Doomed Queen Anne gently pushing the date forward by two years, so that Anne is twenty-four years old and her complaint is marginally less ridiculous.

However, in light of scholarship showing that the 1507 birthdate is almost certainly too late, and that 1500 or 1501 is much more likely, the episode takes on a dramatically different look. If Anne Boleyn was closing in on thirty while the courts, prelates, and Henry himself dithered away while making no apparent progress, she could well have felt exactly what she’s reported as having said: that she had spent most of her twenties waiting for Henry, and received nothing in return.

The story has begun to come into its own in the last ten years, as the number of novels about Anne has exploded. (I still treasure a quote from an academic magazine published in 1951 which lamented the fact that two novels about Anne had been published in a single year and thought that this would saturate the market for the next decade at least). Easier access to the primary sources, combined with a widespread acceptance of the earlier birthdate, has usually led to Anne’s outburst being presented as largely if not completely sincere. Of course, not everyone is sympathetic. In Wolf Hall (2009) Thomas Cromwell is naturally not an eyewitness to the quarrel, but hears of it from Mary Boleyn afterward.

She looks down, glance swiveling away from him. “Worn down. Frayed a little, you might say. Christmas was …”

“They quarreled. So one hears.”

“First he quarreled with Katherine. Then he came here for sympathy. Anne said, what! I told you not to argue with Katherine, you know you always lose. If he were not a king,” she says with relish, “one could pity him. For the dog’s life they lead him.”

Mary goes on to inform Cromwell that there’s no risk of Anne’s being pregnant since she never lets Henry get past second base (I’m paraphrasing). There’s no mention of Anne’s lament for the lost possibilities of a husband and children, presumably because Mary had the opposite problem and very little pity to expend on the sister who has climbed considerably higher up the social ladder than she. (The scene makes an amusing companion piece to the scene in The Other Boleyn Girl in which an exhausted Anne confides in a similarly unsympathetic Mary about how exhausted she is with having to keep Henry dangling, as well as being terrified of growing old and missing out on having a child. Sometimes the reader has to remind herself that the Anne of Wolf Hall is critically certified as three-dimensional and complex, whereas the Anne of The Other Boleyn Girl is a one-dimensional stereotypical witch. Both books seem to forget these facts on a regular basis).

But a more typical modern example is the version of the quarrel in Je Anne Boleyn (2014), in which Anne tells Henry that “If anyone has a legitimate complaint, it is I! I remain loyal to you, love and honour you, when I have no guarantee at all that I shall ever become a wife, or a mother — nay, that I shall ever even have a chance to bear a child!” She leaves the scene not to let Henry fret over the possibility of losing her, as she would have done in a book from fifty years earlier, but because she’s afraid the servants might see her crying and run to the nearest hostile ambassador to tell all. The next day she apologizes to Henry — an apology well-greased with flattery, in which she tells him that she was really angry on his behalf, because Catherine and Wolsey were treating him as “merely another nobleman.” But even this is still her genuine opinion — she’s just so in awe of Henry’s glory that she becomes furious at anyone who would deny him anything.

The story of Anne’s outburst is a simple and intriguing little episode which has been used to illustrate her character in several incompatible ways — it’s been used to show that she was a coldblooded manipulator, that she was sincere in her feelings but nonetheless careful about when to deploy them, and that she was completely sincere and straightforward about her feelings on this subject and in fact suffered from her inability to conceal her feelings. We will never be able to peer into Anne’s mind and see what she was “really” feeling — she may not have been completely sure herself. However, there is one detail about the date on which it occurred which I have never seen mentioned in a novel about Anne and which may be of some relevance to her emotional state. Advent, the beginning of the new liturgical year in the Roman Catholic Church, begins on the Sunday closest to St. Andrew’s Day. Anne’s lament for the passing of time may have been sparked by the fact that the year had just ended — not the calendar year (which wouldn’t technically end for another four months, although the court celebrated the New Year on January 1st) but the liturgical year. Another liturgical year had begun, another Advent season was upon her, and she was no further ahead than she had been twelve months earlier. Hence the cry of “Farewell to my time and youth spent to no purpose at all!” To see another year gone and nothing improved must have been dismal — no wonder both she and Queen Catherine felt quarrelsome that evening.

Moth To The Flame: The Story Of Anne Boleyn by Angela Warwick (2013)

In Florence King’s novel When Sisterhood Was In Flower, the heroine makes a living writing novels for an outfit called Moth and Flame Regency Romances, and while the setting of Moth To The Flame predates the Regency by several centuries, its Anne seems to be continually struggling to figure out whether she’s a intelligent, calculating court player or a naive heroine befuddled by the corruption around her and completely incapable of predicting the results of a single one her own or anyone else’s actions. It’s as if the author is afraid we won’t sympathize with her enough and so keeps jerking Anne back onto the steep and thorny way to heaven every time it looks like she’s going to do something really interesting. The resulting novel ends up with several split personalities, all of them sadly underdeveloped.

I Contain Multitudes

Fictive Kin: Anne Boleyn’s Imaginary Relatives

Anne Boleyn, like almost everyone else at the English court, had a large and not invariably friendly web of relatives, many of whom necessarily make regular appearances in the novels written about her. Although early portrayals tended to be relatively economical with their casts and often gave Anne only one sibling (George) and usually eliminated her parents altogether, by the time Boleyn novels were regularly rolling off the presses in the twentieth century, the standard cast had become much larger and would usually include, at a bare minimum, her parents, both of her siblings along with their spouses, her uncle the Duke of Norfolk, her cousin Madge Shelton and her aunt Lady Shelton. Thanks to Agnes Strickland, she was also given an imaginary and no doubt unwelcome connection to Jane Seymour, who sometimes is described as Anne’s cousin although she was nothing of the sort. It was also due to Agnes Strickland that two of the most enduring fictional members of Anne’s family were created: her stepmother, and Simonette the governess. Novelists can hardly be blamed for treating these characters as real when they had been assured by a historian that they existed, and some of the depictions of these last two have been so good that I can’t in conscience wish Strickland had never made the errors which led to their shadowy existence. However, these two are not the only imaginary relatives with which Anne has been provided over the years — she has been the recipient of invented siblings, aunts, nieces, nephews, and in a few alternative universes, invented children. Who were (or weren’t) they?

Ghostly Brothers

Cold Steel by M.P. Shiel (1899, rev. 1929)

This book features one of the strangest Anne Boleyns I have ever seen in fiction — there have been villainous Annes before, and even a few blonde Annes, but never before have I seen Anne depicted as a blonde, blue-eyed villain who spends a large portion of the story roaming the English countryside in order to capture and lock up another woman so that Henry VIII can have his way with the latter. I’m pretty sure that even by the standards of the sixteenth century, locking someone up in order to force them into sex was considered at least moderately sketchy behavior. Why, you ask, does she do this? Because she’s jealous. Henry has taken a fancy to the other girl, whose name is Laura Ford, and Anne thinks that the best way to extinguish this is to actually make her available as his mistress — once he’s slept with Laura, Anne’s reasoning goes, his interest will burn out pretty quickly and he’ll return to Anne, who at the moment is busy keeping him on a string while she attempts to persuade him into giving her a crown.

A Long Fatal Love Chase