Anne Boleyn : fatal attractions – G W Bernard

I’ve lost count of the number of books I’ve read about Anne Boleyn. Including books about Henry VIII & the collective six wives, it must be dozens. I added two more to the tbr shelves just a couple of weeks ago – a reprint of Paul Friedmann’s 19th century standard biography & Antonia Fraser introducing extracts on Anne & Elizabeth I from Agnes Strickland’s Lives of the Queens of England.

Anne is a fascinating woman. She has been hailed as the heroine of the Protestant Reformation, seen as an early feminist ambitiously creating the life she wanted to live & a victim of Henry VIII’s ruthless desire for a male heir. Alternatively, she’s a witch who was executed because she miscarried a deformed child, a woman with no morals who bewitched Henry & set out to poison Queen Catherine & Princess Mary to secure her place on the throne or an adulteress who deserved her fate. G W Bernard’s biography is a sober, detailed re-examination of the sources for Anne’s life & career & an attempt to get past the myths & reveal as much as possible of the real woman.

The sources for Anne’s life are few & most of them have biases of one kind or another. There are very few letters written by Anne. The extraordinary love letters Henry wrote to her are a testament to his overwhelming passion but we don’t have her replies. Most of what we think we know comes from the dispatches of Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial ambassador. He was reporting to Emperor Charles V, nephew of Catherine of Aragon & no friend of the Lady as Chapuys referred to Anne in his reports. Chapuys was reporting gossip & intelligence he received from several sources at Court but although he often reported actual conversations, it’s hard to know how he knew about them in such detail. He was also less likely to report anything favourable to Anne. The most neutral evidence seems to be from the reports of Sir William Kingston, Anne’s gaoler when she was imprisoned in the Tower after her arrest. He & his wife recorded everything Anne said & her reported words are very revealing of her state of mind.

Bernard’s thesis is that there is no actual evidence in the sources for much of what is taken for granted about Anne. He believes that it was Henry, not Anne, who refrained from a full sexual relationship because Henry was determined that if Anne had a son, the child would be born in wedlock. So, rather than Anne as an early feminist, determined not to end up like her sister, Mary, one of Henry’s discarded mistresses, & refusing the King her favours, it was the other way around. Bernard doesn’t see Anne as a committed Lutheran, urging the King towards the break with Rome. That view of Anne as Protestant heroine was fostered by John Foxe’s Actes & Monuments, known as the Book of Martyrs, written in Elizabeth I’s reign to influence the new religious settlement.

Most controversially, Bernard believes that Anne may have been guilty of at least some of the charges of adultery of which she was accused. Anne was accused of adultery with five men. Mark Smeaton, a musician at Court, Sir Henry Norris, Sir William Brereton, Sir Francis Weston, and, most scandalously, her brother, George. It has become conventional wisdom that these charges were fabricated by Henry because he was tired of Anne, feared she couldn’t give him a son & wanted to marry Jane Seymour. Bernard’s reasoning here is very persuasive. Anne’s own comments to Kingston when she was in the Tower show that she had been indiscreet at the very least. For instance, Anne is reported as saying to Norris when she teased him about his reluctance to go through with his marriage,  “You look for dead man’s shoes, for if anything came to the king, you would look to have me.” She also said when she heard of Norris’s arrest, “O Norris, hast thou accused me; thou are in the Tower with me and thou and I shall die together.”

Anyone interested in Tudor history would enjoy this fascinating book. Bernard is not anti-Anne, as he explains in an Epilogue, he just felt that a look at the sources revealed a much more complex picture than is revealed in most biographies of Anne. I found the book fascinating & I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about Anne Boleyn, her life & times.

3 thoughts on “Anne Boleyn : fatal attractions – G W Bernard

  1. This sounds really fascintating – especially Bernard's argument that Anne was probably guilty of some type of adulterous relations! I have always been interested in Anne Boleyn, but haven't got around to reading a biography on her yet.


  2. Lyn,
    I have tickets to see Howard Brenton's play about Anne at the Globe in London in July. I'm not too sure what I shall I make of it. Have you come across it in your reading?


  3. Bookish Space, Eric Ives's biog of Anne is the best, I think. It was updated a few years ago but I have the original published in 1986. Barbara, I hadn't heard of the play but I've just read a review on this blog which sounds fascinating. It was staged just after a production of Shakespeare's Henry VIII with the same actress playing Anne in both plays.
    I hope you enjoy it.


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