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.

Ives is no postmodernist. Reared, like myself, in the austerity of A.F. Pollard and J.E. Neale’s London school of Tudor history in the early 1950s (we enrolled at the Institute of Historical Research on the same day), he is as far removed from all that as one could hope to get. What Ives doesn’t know, on good grounds, about the high politics and court life of Henry VIII’s England will either never be known or is not worth knowing. If there is a truth about Anne Boleyn’s rise and fall, he will tell it to us. Perhaps a tincture of postmodernism has rubbed off. If Ives is surprisingly tolerant of imaginative treatments of the subject, that is because he knows that they are only ‘statements about ourselves’, which in some measure is true of all biographies. But his own relative immunity to such solipsism or excessive imagination is demonstrated above all in his persistently critical interrogation of the sources, especially the stories told in late, partial and therefore suspect sources. ‘In history, evidence matters, not invention.’

This is Ives’s second go at the subject: the original version of his biography was published in 1986. We are on the first page of this new version when we read that ‘only a decade ago’ (some years after the first book was published) Ives discovered the reason Anne Boleyn ‘had to die’. He doesn’t even say ‘the real reason’. So old as well as new readers should start here. New readers will find a stylist, a compelling historical writer.

Much of the recent debate has centred on that ‘reason’. But unlike Catherine Howard, the other Henrician wife to get the chop, and Jane Seymour, who died giving birth to the badly needed male heir which this whole story, at one level, was about, Anne Boleyn was no Tudor bimbo, no mindless cipher. Rather, she was ‘the most influential and important queen consort this country has ever had’, almost the only one to break through the glass ceiling ‘by sheer character and initiative’, that rarity for her age, a self-made woman. She was a mature 26 when she agreed to marry Henry, over 30 when the marriage was consummated, well beyond the normal age of first wedlock for aristocratic women. Her mind, her religion, her tastes, are all subjects with some depth to them, and the other reason for Ives having a second try is that in the last two decades our knowledge of what formed and occupied her life in those dimensions has been greatly extended, not least by the work of James Carley and others who have looked at the books which Anne and other members of her circle, including her brother George Boleyn, owned and, presumably, read. This makes up in some measure for what is irretrievable. Anne left no diary, few letters. We have to guess what she may or may not have said to her husband in bed. Sixteenth-century pillow talk (bedtime conversation with wives was chauvinistically called talk with ‘the night crow’) is totally inaccessible, which means that, with Donald Rumsfeld, we need to know what we do not know.

In establishing who Anne Boleyn was, in appearance, behaviour and allure, Ives has little to add to the penetrating detective work which he carried out in the 1980s. Several alleged portraits are found not to be authentic and ‘the real Anne Boleyn’ is traced back to the image on a portrait medal of 1534 and a tiny piece of enamel concealed inside an early Elizabethan ring which once belonged to Winston Churchill. It was Sir Philip Sidney who said (not with Anne in mind but her daughter), ‘she was a queen and therefore beautiful,’ and much diplomatic comment on her exquisite good looks can be dismissed along with the misattributed portraits. There seems little doubt that she had a small deformity on one hand, almost amounting to a sixth finger, and that her appearance was marred, according to taste, by one or two prominent moles. A relatively honest description makes her reasonably good looking (‘competement belle’). But her dark hair and almost black eyes were something else. Over and above these particular attributes, it is clear from her power to attract men, including Henry Percy, later Earl of Northumberland, and Thomas Wyatt the poet – the usual question: did she or didn’t she? Answer: probably not – that she ‘radiated sex’. Ives is able to say this where Victorian and some post-Victorian historians suggested that Henry’s interest in this captivating specimen was limited to ensuring the perpetuation of his Tudor dynasty. And it was part of that sexual magnetism that Anne, having spent most of her life in French-speaking courts, in Brussels and Paris, was to all intents and purposes French. Lancelot de Carles wrote that ‘no one would ever have taken her to be English by her manners, but a native-born Frenchwoman.’ She was ‘La Bolaing’.

So far so good. But how it was that Anne held out for marriage rather than a more conventional relationship, and why Henry allowed her to dictate her terms when his original intention was to make her his mistress, are other questions altogether. Henry was already trying to free himself from the unproductive and now loveless Aragon marriage. At first, and for some time, that ‘great matter’ and his interest in Anne Boleyn were separate. But by April 1527, when he applied to the pope for a dispensation to enable him to marry again, they were not. Henry had found that he could not live without Anne, and Anne would only live with him on one condition. J.J. Scarisbrick, Henry’s biographer, puts these developments a year or two earlier, which would make Anne the scheming agent of his estrangement from his wife, not something that resulted from it. In this Scarisbrick follows contemporary Catholic opinion, and David Starkey has adopted a similar position. Either way, the couple were in for a very long engagement, something almost unknown in the 16th century. It was not until November 1532 that their relationship was consummated, the delays dictated by a most complicated politics. But Ives strongly suspects that the denouement, leading rapidly to pregnancy, was the result of a calculating Anne putting on the pressure. In the regulation of their affairs she in many ways had the upper hand, at least before she became Henry’s wife.

The reader must prepare for nearly a hundred pages before reaching the marriage, the coronation (splendidly described), the birth of Elizabeth. Along this road, Cardinal Wolsey falls by the wayside, the victim of his own honest miscalculation (he, too, could hardly believe what was happening) and Anne’s ruthlessness. An obscure bureaucrat called Thomas Cromwell appears on the scene. Eventually, Cromwell (and others) found a solution to the king’s great matter, which the pope had assumed was for him to judge, and which was even more unimaginably radical: UDI, Anglicanism. In these pages, Ives deals robustly and knowledgably with the phenomenon of court faction (‘the form politics habitually takes when its focus is the will of one man’), which historians with whom he disagrees have played down.

Let’s pass over what Ives calls a ‘diplomatic maze’, the opening moves on the chessboard of the English Reformation, and come to Queen Anne. There was indeed more to her than a pair of sparkling eyes and sex appeal. Although much of the political influence of queens consort, as with other wives, could only be revealed by the pillow, there is no doubt that Anne was a powerful political player. She was also rich, with one of the highest incomes of the time, perhaps £7000 a year. The Inventory of Henry VIII, published by Starkey in 1998, reveals how many precious things were made for her, in the latest taste and fashion (a distinctive taste for ‘the antique’), which, no doubt on account of their quality, survived in the royal vaults even after her fall. Anne was an accomplished musician, and it may be that the instrument known to the V&A as ‘Queen Elizabeth’s Virginals’ was in fact hers.

The artists whom Anne is known to have patronised include Holbein. Ives’s reading of the much discussed painting The Ambassadors links it exactly with her recognition as queen and with her coronation. The figures of Jean de Dinteville and George de Selve are shown standing not on a carpet but on a distinctive cosmati pavement. The only example of such a pavement in England was the floor of the sanctuary in Westminster Abbey, where Anne was anointed, witnessed by Dinteville, who was wearing, Ives suggests, the very costume in which he was painted.

Art historians will for ever discuss the symbolic meaning of the various objects which make up the syllabus of The Ambassadors. But it is almost central to Ives’s reading of Anne Boleyn that the message they convey has to do with the kind of religious reform which she, along with both artist and sitter (Dinteville), favoured: a not yet Protestant but evangelical religion of a French character: the pré-réforme. It is certain, Ives says, that in her years in France Anne had become ‘infected’ with the new reformism, and it is an odd thought that to this extent the English Reformation was the result of catching a French disease. When the next generation credited Anne with being almost the principal promoter of religious reform in what was soon a fully Protestant sense, Ives cannot fault them. The reforming bishops still in office at the end of Henry VIII’s reign, including Thomas Cranmer, were all her clients. And she shared her religion with her brother, Lord Rochford, who on the scaffold confessed: ‘I was . . . one of those who most favoured the gospel of Jesus Christ.’ For all that her preferred reading was in French, Anne’s own copy of William Tyndale’s English New Testament (1534) still survives. Ives has included a new chapter entitled ‘Personal Religion’. Other well-qualified Tudor historians disagree about that religion. For George Bernard, Anne’s religious tastes were no more than ‘radical chic’. Anne Boleyn a champagne Protestant? Ives, supported by Carley in his bibliographical scholarship, has the better of this debate. It has been convincingly shown that the martyrologist John Foxe’s admiring account was based on good evidence.

In less than a fortnight of the spring of 1536, and almost in two days, the world of Anne Boleyn fell apart. The queen was charged and found guilty of multiple adultery, and all too soon she, together with her alleged lovers and accomplices, was dead. And now we are so far lost in that other country without a reliable map that we can never hope to find our way out with a wholly coherent and convincing account of what it was that happened. How can we explain the fact that on Sunday 30 April, Henry VIII watched a May Day joust in which competed his closest friend, Henry Norris, the groom of the stool, whose formal office was to attend to the king’s most private bodily functions; then rode with Norris back to Whitehall, only to send him to the Tower at dawn 36 hours later? Whatever they said to each other on that ride presumably concerned the queen’s sexual conduct.

Simple answers will get us nowhere. Forget about the deformed foetus, a story which has unfortunately found its way into a standard textbook on the period. And, Ives tells us, forget about all the allegations of adultery, with Norris, with Francis Weston, with Anne’s own brother Rochford, with William Brereton, the ultimate fall-guy from Cheshire whose story first drew Ives into a study of the Henrician court, with poor Mark Smeton the musician, the only one to confess (why?), his confession the ‘catalyst’ for the entire process. The detailed particulars of Anne’s adultery were all fiction. They had to be. She could never have done what she was alleged to have done without the collusion of the women of her bedchamber, and none of these was ever implicated, whereas when Katherine Howard was executed for the same offence her closest attendant went to the block with her. And, as a matter of legal fact, for a woman, even a queen, to be a willing participant in illicit sex was not a capital crime. But readers of tabloid newspapers have no need to visit that other country to learn that the grosser the alleged gross moral turpitude, the more outrageous the charges of sexual misconduct, the more likely they are to stick. Among modern historians, Bernard is more than half convinced, along the lines of no smoke without fire, although, to be fair, there is more to his argument than that.

So when, on the first page of this book, Ives claims to have found the reason Anne Boleyn had to die, what has he found? The machinations of Thomas Cromwell. (I thought he had discovered that in 1986; the argument is now heightened, not changed.) Anne and Cromwell were at odds as to what should be done with the rich pickings from the dissolution of the monasteries, Anne favouring their application to desirable social and charitable ends. And they differed over matters of foreign policy which were of comparable magnitude to disagreeing about Iraq today. Beyond that, by April 1536 Anne was a major threat to Cromwell and his position in the state; and so, even more, was Jane Seymour, in whom Henry was now taking an interest, and her backers. Only this can, and according to Ives does, explain a series of highly risky moves of exceptional ruthlessness and cynicism. For their success depended on the connivance of Anne’s longstanding enemies, the supporters of the late Queen Katherine and her daughter, Mary. Cromwell knew that he would have to deal with them after Anne’s death, and he did.

There were, of course, contributory factors. Anne’s failure to provide Henry with a male heir made her vulnerable. If Elizabeth had been a boy, no one could have touched the queen. Her miscarriage early in 1536 was ‘the turning point to tragedy’. And it is clear that if Anne was honest with her body, she was incautious with her tongue, gossiping in the French manner about her husband, and, very probably, about the inadequacy of his sexual performance. More certainly, what provoked the whole affair was some loose talk by Elizabeth Browne, the Countess of Worcester. These were the mores of the court, and of courtly love, gone sadly wrong. But for Ives they are incidentals, grist to the unjust judicial mill. Anne was the victim of a power struggle.

It is unlikely that the college of Tudor historians will line up as one behind this verdict. Was Cromwell really that desperate? Did he need to be? It was not Cromwell who set the whole thing in motion. His behaviour may have been reactive rather than proactive. I am left with the impression that Ives, who believes in ‘faction’ as the motivating force in Tudor politics, is bound to indict Cromwell; Bernard, who downplays faction, to find Anne in some measure guilty as charged. Greg Walker talks sensibly when he suggests that what the evidence points to is neither obvious guilt nor a politically motivated coup but a confused ‘and therefore more terrifying’ situation.

Behind the remaining uncertainties about Anne Boleyn’s rise and fall there is the enigma of her husband’s mentality. It may even have been in advance of her trial that Henry arranged for an executioner to come over from Calais to execute his wife with a heavy sword, her head erect, rather than with an axe on a block, which is how such things were done in France. (In 1587 Mary Stuart, another Francophone queen, expected the same treatment until the very moment when she stepped onto the scaffold at Fotheringhay.) Ives comments: ‘One can only wonder at a psychology which transmutes doubt about the guilt of a loved one into a loving concern about the way to kill her.’