La Bolaing

Patrick Collinson

  • The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives
    Blackwell, 458 pp, £25.00, July 2004, ISBN 0 631 23479 9

If the past is another country where they do things differently, we may well ask whether we are abroad if we visit the England of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. In September 1528, Henry wrote to Anne: ‘No more to you at this present, mine own darling, for lack of time, but that I would you were in mine arms or I in yours, for I think it long since I kissed you.’ This doesn’t sound much like another country. (There are 17 such love letters, preserved in the Vatican of all places.) Thus Eric Ives writes of ‘perceptible hints of modernity’ in the affair of Henry and Anne. But when Henry passed a note to Anne in the middle of Mass in the Chapel Royal (‘I am yours’), he chose to do it on the leaf of a richly illuminated prayer book. Anne replied on another leaf: ‘By daily proof you shall me find/To be to you both loving and kind.’ This was written below a miniature of the Annunciation. If we find the reference to the expectant Virgin tasteless, even blasphemous, we are missing the pregnant point that Anne’s message was meant to convey. And perhaps we are on the far side of that watershed which Eliot called the dissociation of sensibility. As queen, it would be the merest commonplace to identify Anne with the Virgin Mary or, alternatively, with her mother, St Anne. Yes, another country.

Yet there were many aspects of the Henry/Anne affair which appeared unusual to inhabitants of that same country, and not only in England. Across the Channel they wondered why a king should choose to marry his mistress. (The whole point is, however, that Anne never was Henry’s mistress, whereas her sister Mary was. When Henry was accused of having slept not only with Anne’s sister but with her mother, he disarmingly retorted: ‘Never with the mother.’) When, only eight years after calling her his darling, Henry decapitated Anne, that, too, was thought to be an odd sort of thing to do. Fifty years later, Anne’s daughter did the same to her second cousin Mary Queen of Scots, and there were plenty of people around to draw the parallel; as there were two generations on, when Mary’s grandson was executed. Evidently, England was a piece of the present where they did things differently.

Radically different versions of Anne were peddled as soon as she was dead, and as her posthumous reputation fell into the maelstrom of religious conflict. She was demonised by Catholics as the bad seed who had ruined everything, the bane of virtuous Queen Katherine, virtually the murderer of saintly Thomas More. For Protestants, she was, formally at least, the rootstock of their Reformation, and to be honoured as such. But mud sticks, and, after all, it was not the likes of Thomas More but the sacred monarch himself who had found his wife to have been a whore. So much Protestant appraisal was muted and cautious: ‘a very wilful woman,’ according to George Wyatt, full of ‘devilish devices’; her life was ‘shameful to rehearse’, William Thomas said, defending the reputation of his recently deceased sovereign Henry VIII to an Italian audience.

The story of Anne Boleyn is one which serious historians have tried to get right, according to the normal protocols of historical practice. Sometimes they have looked for the solution by professing to learn the foreign language of that other country. Thus, in The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989), Retha Warnicke, a historian whom Ives again and again finds wanting, first discovered, on the basis of no evidence at all, that in 1536 Queen Anne was delivered of a deformed foetus; and then told us, more plausibly, that at that time such a phenomenon would have been taken as evidence of fault in the mother, even of witchcraft. In 1991 Ives wrote that Cambridge University Press (prompted by Sir Geoffrey Elton) had done a singular disservice to scholarship by publishing such a book. Most historians who have tackled the subject have assumed that more rational grounds have to be posited for Anne’s downfall, things which would make some sort of sense in a modern context. The arguments which fly back and forth concern politics both domestic and foreign, social policy, religion, dynastic strategies, love and hatred, as if these were discrete categories and alternative scenarios, which may in itself be an anachronism. The life and death of Anne Boleyn is not a premonition of modernity but a potential playground for postmodernists.

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