There were more than a million women in early 16th-century England, yet we remain obsessively interested in the life and death of just one. The usual, if sensational, explanation is that Anne Boleyn was a woman of unconventional but irresistible charm, with exceptional wit and charisma, who brought the most powerful man in the country to his knees: as John Guy and Julia Fox describe her, ‘the confident, highly articulate woman with the dark flashing eyes’. It was the tempestuous love between Henry VIII and Anne, it’s said, that managed to topple papal power in England, and turn the country from Catholic to Protestant, before ending in heartbreak, betrayal and judicial murder. This is undeniably a good story, with all the right ingredients: lovers who defy convention, ideology that brooks no opposition and a political scandal that nobody saw coming. It’s a story that has sold countless books, many of a wildly inaccurate nature, and inspired an array of often unconvincing TV and film versions of Anne’s stormy existence. It’s a perspective on Tudor history to which we seem deeply attached.
This narrative can be demoralising, since it takes a fascinating piece of history only to smother it in sentimentality and disinformation. A more historically grounded account of Anne’s life will always be more complicated, and perhaps more interesting. Hunting the Falcon, faced with the choice, is not always entirely sure where its allegiance lies. It strives for academic credibility but can’t completely resist the allure of the more seductive story. The consequence is that while much of the history is rooted in extensive archival work, it is at points overlaid with so many layers of speculation and invention that the woman at the heart of the story becomes elusive. There are places where the reader comes close to appreciating Anne’s intentions and aspirations, her ideas and her friendships, her political vision and her religious faith, drawn from a close reading of the surviving sources. But there are others where so many emotions and motivations are asserted with such confidence, and without any basis in evidence, that we are back in the realm of make-believe.
Guy and Fox are at their best when not trying to focus too unrelentingly on Anne and her marriage. In the fascination with her untimely end – beheaded along with a slew of men alleged to be her lovers – her early years are often overlooked. This book corrects that omission, giving a compelling account of the Burgundian and French contexts in which Anne was raised to be a lady of the court. Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands, described Anne at the age of thirteen as ‘so bright and pleasant for her young age’. Margaret’s court was full of art and literature: she owned tapestries, sculptures, paintings (including Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait) and a library of nearly four hundred books. Her maids of honour came from all over Europe. In a letter to her father, the young Anne wrote of her determination to learn French, and turn herself into the kind of ‘entirely virtuous woman’ who would be welcome at court. This was an extraordinary education, and a very particular ambition.
After her time in the Netherlands, Anne moved to the French court to wait on Queen Claude, wife of Francis I. Claude surrounded herself with an educated, cultured community of women. She owned pictures by Raphael and Sebastiano del Piombo, and encouraged her husband’s patronage of Leonardo da Vinci. Claude’s security came from the seven children she bore, as well as her lands and status, but she directed her energies to religious and artistic patronage as well as the intricate patterns of daily life at court. What Anne derived from her experiences among such powerful, informed women we can’t know for sure, but it was a striking environment in which to grow to adulthood.
As Anne’s life story unfolds, however, the lure of the sensational proves irresistible to Guy and Fox. Lavish amounts of strong emotion are ascribed to historical actors about whose feelings we can know very little. The handful of details that survive about Henry VIII’s childhood are spun into assertions about his longing for his dead mother; apparently his first marriage took place in her oratory because he ‘still needed to feel her presence’. His encounter with his godfather, Philip, duke of Burgundy, forced to take refuge in England after a storm in the Channel, saw Henry ‘treating him as the father he had always really wanted’. We learn that Paris ‘made a deep impression’ on Anne when she arrived there. Katherine of Aragon ‘watched with delight’ as her husband was joined by her nephew Charles V in the tournament yard; at around the same time, Anne met the eldest son of the earl of Northumberland, and ‘the couple fell deeply in love.’ There is no reliable evidence for any of this. When Anne was crowned in the summer of 1533, she was six months pregnant, and it is not unreasonable to think that she may have found the lengthy and elaborate ceremonies exhausting, but we’re told that ‘never had she loved life so much.’
It is frustrating, too, that Hunting the Falcon doesn’t make more space for a consideration of the historical debate. There has been lengthy academic discussion of Anne’s historical significance, with some widely divergent opinions, but you don’t get much sense of that here. It is taken for granted that she used her chastity as a bargaining chip, refusing to sleep with Henry until he had committed to marriage. Yet some scholars have suggested that the two began their relationship by sleeping together, only for Henry to insist on chastity once he became convinced that it was divine displeasure that was denying him a son, punishment for his first (and in his eyes incestuous) marriage. If it was God’s will that he should make Anne his queen, then he should behave in an appropriately godly manner until they were married. Guy and Fox make another assumption: that enormous power and influence was wielded first by Cardinal Wolsey, and then by Thomas Cromwell, leaving Henry as a kind of wilful but malleable presence in the background of the political process, riding out to hunt or joust while, in darkened rooms, factional rivalries decided policy. This view – too reliant on the self-congratulatory accounts of diplomats, who always believe they are closer to the workings of power than they really are – has been vigorously challenged by any number of historians.
Hunting the Falcon is written as though it’s indisputable that the rise and fall of Henry’s wives was directly linked to foreign policy, and that the competition between court factions was the driving force behind political developments. This is an oversimplification. There were many influences at work shaping the politics of the 1530s: personal rivalries and international alliances were two of them, but they need to be set alongside Henry’s own authority, and the initiatives he instigated. To dismiss the king as ‘a narcissist who saw exercising control as his birthright’ is to ignore the workings of his shrewd and ambitious mind. The king was no idiot, and he rarely ceded control to others. Guy and Fox suggest that Anne was brought down by Cromwell’s scheming, and that as her security at court was undermined ‘the principal secretary moved in for the kill.’ There is a danger here of leaving the central figure out of the picture: Cromwell, with his usual skill, may have facilitated what the king wanted to happen, but it was Henry’s conviction of Anne’s guilt that brought about her downfall. Nor were fluctuations in religious policy dictated by factional triumph or disaster alone. Guy and Fox assert that Henry ‘reverted to more traditionally Catholic theological opinions’ only after Cromwell’s death in 1540, but the Act of Six Articles that imposed those opinions – known to the Protestants as ‘the bloody whip with six strings’ – had been passed a year before Cromwell’s fall.
In particular, the emphasis on faction risks understating how serious Henry VIII was about his religion. It was more than just a question of which side to pick in the international league of confessionally inflected rivalries. It has often been hard for commentators to grasp that this most self-serving and intermittently tyrannical of rulers nevertheless had a religious faith that was deeply held, if idiosyncratic. His detailed scrutiny of religious formulations and energetic participation in religious debate indicate how solemnly he undertook his role as supreme head of the Church in England. This was the lens through which he saw much of the world around him, including his relationships with women.
One of the most interesting things about Anne was her religion. It was also one of the things that drew her and Henry together: we know that they talked about it over dinner, and shared evangelical texts. As queen, she was active in her patronage of clerics who shared her views. Classifying those views is not straightforward, however. Guy and Fox evade the problem by using the label ‘Lefèvrist’ when discussing her faith. This is a puzzling choice, not only because it inadvertently echoes the modern-day movement with a similar name. It is meant to indicate that Anne’s religion was rooted in a commitment to the Gospel, and that she endorsed the idea of the Bible in the vernacular; the name is taken from Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, the French reformer whose Bible translations and religious treatises Anne and those around her knew well. Her brother George would attest his dedication to the Gospel on the scaffold; not wanting to bring evangelicalism into disrepute, he confessed that ‘I read the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but I did not follow it.’ To say that Anne, her brother, her husband and her circle were dedicated to the Gospel doesn’t get us very far, however. A great many people who were serious about their faith in the 1520s and 1530s were excited about the new emphasis on Bible learning, and the availability of scripture in the vernacular.
It used to be thought that Anne’s evangelicalism was a precursor of the Protestantism that would be institutionalised by her daughter, Elizabeth I. She was therefore seen as a key figure in promoting the Protestant Reformation. There is no evidence, however, that she was anything other than orthodox in her doctrinal views or religious practice. She attended Mass, gave alms and – to Henry’s annoyance – defended the monasteries. In her last days she sought to confess and receive absolution, and took communion in the chapel of the Tower. Her evangelicalism was part of the wider European movement of reform that ran through many distinct if sometimes interconnected channels, arising from the devotional as well as intellectual energies of the late medieval church, and revivifying Catholicism as much as laying the foundation for Protestantism. Anne was a contemporary of Jean Calvin but also of reforming Catholics such as Reginald Pole. Exposed as she was to the reforming currents in French intellectual culture, cherishing her friendship with Marguerite of Navarre, Anne’s experience exemplifies the vibrant but fluid enthusiasms of an evangelicalism which – not unlike Henry VIII’s own church – brought together the radicalism of biblical revival and the certainties of Catholic belief and practice.
For Guy and Fox , the religion isn’t nearly as interesting as the sex. They begin with the scene everyone remembers: the doomed queen carefully choosing her costume for her last performance on the scaffold. There’s a voyeuristic quality to so many of the discussions of Anne’s rise and fall, since it was allegedly her sexual allure that made her queen and her sexual licence that led to her death. The charge of incest with her brother is a particularly lurid feature. Again, the compulsion to clothe the bare facts of historical evidence in sumptuous layers of invented emotion frequently brings the descriptions close to caricature. The young Henry, escorting Katherine of Aragon to her marriage with his older brother, Arthur, is ‘a needy extrovert striding across his brother’s stage’. There is a bold sketch of this self-obsessed king, ‘overindulged by a doting mother and overprotected by an autocratic father’. Such blithe judgments can be unkind. When Henry VIII took Mary Boleyn as his mistress, there are no signs that her husband, William Carey, protested. We can’t be sure whether this was a consequence of cynicism, ambition, fear, or something else, but this book tells us rather sneeringly that ‘he willingly laid down his wife for his king.’ This is more than a bad pun. It is easy to treat figures from history as parodic, or symbolic, or just irrelevant. But they were real people who struggled to achieve their aspirations, who suffered loss and pain, and who deserve more than the automatic condescension of their descendants.
This is particularly true when it comes to women whose historical role isn’t always easy to discern – those who can’t as readily be traced through the surviving sources. There is a broader narrative that Guy and Fox could have explored about women and their role in early modern society. Anne’s interventions in political negotiations, her patronage and her scholarship, are all portrayed as somehow dangerously edgy and progressive. It might be more interesting to ask whether we may be misguided in assuming that ‘patriarchy’ in this era means the same as we take it to mean today. Sixteenth-century women may not have chaired board meetings or performed brain surgery (in any case, fewer than 10 per cent of CEOs in the UK today are women), but they could exert great political influence, run businesses, write books, shape religious belief and practice – and, in the case of Anne’s daughter, rule the country. The most disquieting moment in this book is when we’re assured that Anne was ‘an extraordinarily modern woman’. The idea that intelligence, eloquence, conviction, dynamism and influence are the preserve of modernity, and that any woman exercising them before the modern era must necessarily have been a maverick figure, at odds with their own culture, is a troubling assumption.
The first writers who attempted to tell the story of Anne’s life and death were eager either to idealise or to demonise her. From the Protestant commentators of Elizabeth I’s reign we get a reverent and sympathetic account of a pious woman with a biblical faith and unbesmirched morals, cruelly done to death through the machinations of court faction. From the Catholic commentators we get the ‘goggle-eyed whore’, the ‘concubine’, concealing her residual sixth finger with her long sleeves and the wen on her neck with ropes of pearls, seducing Henry with her sexual allure only to fall victim to her own concupiscence. A woman so easily becomes the target of either adulation or blame, and there is still some way to go before we escape the unwholesome preoccupation with Anne and her sexual allure. She was a complex, gifted, spirited woman in an extraordinary chapter in England’s history – yet sex, scandal and brutality continue to dominate our accounts of her. There is a greater story waiting to be told.
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