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Book Reviews

Hunting The Falcon: Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and the Marriage that Shook Europe

On this day, at this time in 1536, Anne Boleyn was executed. She was the first ever Queen of England to be executed. Following her, two more Queens of England were executed but we’re not here to discuss them.

King Henry VIII was one of the most powerful, consequential, famous and infamous monarchs in all of history. He went through 6 wives in his lifetime and was to date the only monarch in English history whose every surviving adult child followed him as monarch–Edward, Mary and Elizabeth, although none of them had children and the Tudor monarchy ended. Despite living in a time of monarchial patriarchy, Anne Boleyn’s few years in power have left almost as much as an impact on history.

I am in absolute AWE of how much is revealed by taking the “well known” story of the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn and taking it out of the vacuum it is so often presented in and showing how events in her life were so HUGELY impacted by the political currents of Europe. Not only that, but I actually was really fascinated by the influence of Henry’s childhood on him too and and his brothers early death, his father Henry VII before and after the death and in particular Henry’s relationship with his mother, Elizabeth of York, and how this affected his views on women.

For example, Fox and Guy argues that the question of why Henry didn’t notice Anne for years and then suddenly was obsessed with her is answered by realizing he notices Anne and her French manners, at the same time that his alliance with Spain disintegrates and he is making noises about allying with France. Suddenly, French fashions are getting his notice in a positive way – as well as her knowledge of the French court she brought having served Queen Claude of France.

I was particularly pleased with the deeper dive into Anne’s experiences in the French court and how it debunks the myth that it turned her into some kind of sexual femme fatale who used what she learned in France to entice Henry. Rather, the book focuses on her education in humanist ideas at the feet of Claude of France, who barely gets any credit for her participation in the intellectual sphere, and in the presence of Marguerite of Angoulême.

Learning about Anne’s time in France in the courts of Queen Claude and Marguerite of Angoulême and how this experience informed her later Queenship was equally interesting and heartbreaking. What she saw there, the role models she had there and the way that things worked there had a huge bearing on the queen she became. For example, as Guy and Fox note, when Anne was queen, she didn’t just have ladies socialising in her chambers, men came too, and Guy and Fox described her style of court as a French style court of pleasure and courtly love. Unfortunately, this socialisation of the sexes was a factor in her downfall.

Anne was very much a political animal and I love this about her. When she finally said “yes” to Henry, she didn’t let him and his advisors sort things out, she didn’t take a back seat, she was actually a huge driving force in the Great Matter. Not only did men she acted as patron to act as experts in canon law etc., Anne had her own theological arguments, she came up with ideas herself and was listened to. Anne was an intelligent woman, she’d read theological books, she knew what she was talking about. And Guy and Fox see Anne’s time in the early 1530s, before she became queen, as Anne at her zenith, as far as her influence on the king was concerned. She was very much his partner and more importantly, his equal at this time. But she was also willing and able to speak out when she didn’t agree with the king and/or his advisors, and Guy and Fox look in detail at examples of that, for example, Anne’s views on the dissolution of the monasteries, which weren’t at all in synch with Henry’s or Cromwell’s views.

Guy and Fox see Anne Boleyn as the love of Henry VIII’s life, a passion he had never experienced before and a passion he never experienced again. I completely agree with this. I enjoyed their section on his love letters to her and their courtship, the fact that Henry was not a writer and yet 17 letters still exist to Anne Boleyn and there potentially many many more shows his passion and dedication to her. And Henry, well, they see him as a narcissist, and they conclude that his marriage to Anne left an indelible mark on him, and although their marriage changed England for ever, it did not change him, he changed himself. An interesting assessment, which is well argued.

More than 500 years after her death, Anne Boleyn remains one of the most powerful, influential, impactful, and imfamous women in all of history. Famously, young, intelligent, educated, sophisticated, she seduced the older King Henry VIII after his older wife, Katherine of Aragon, could not provide him with a living male heir in an age when a king’s entire life and legacy existed on having a male son to clearly succeed him. But Anne Boleyn was no mere seducer. In an age when women’s primary role was simply to produce children and be submissive, she had strong political and religious feelings that she challenged Henry with. Before Anne Boleyn, England was in no small part dominated by the Catholic faith and the Pope in Rome; before Anne Boleyn, divorce was limited to rare extreme incidences with only the approval of religious hierarcy; before Anne Boleyn, the Bible in English was largely unavailable to common people; before Anne Boleyn, the Protestant Reformation was now widespread in England.

While Anne’s seduction of Henry VIII never left her popular with the general English people and she was in power for only a few years, her impact would color English history for the next 500 years and continues to this day. While at heart Henry remained a Catholic, her idea that he not the pope was the head of the Church in England would result in the English Anglican church with the monarch as head, that continues to this day. While Henry was more conservative, the Protestant reforms Anne helped push would never be rolled back and would even survive Henry’s eldest daughter, who became Queen Mary, who tried to restore Catholicism and burned heretics. Divorce would become a legal, not religious insitution. And Anne birthed a daughter who would become Queen Elizabeth I, one of the strongest monarchs in history.

Anne’s failure though was twofold: she failed to produce a living son and like Katherine, Henry would toss her aside; and her attempt to be a queen of political and religious authority in a time of patriarchy which Henry exemplified was something he tolerated in a mistress but not in a wife. Henry would have her tried and executed for treason including unfounded allegations of affairs with several courtiers and even her own brother–charges so unfounded even her enemy the French ambassador Eustiace Chapuys–a strong supporter of Catholicism, Mary and Katherine–doubted. Quickly convicted, she was beheaded and Henry went on to marry Jane Seymour who would finally produce a living son though King Edward 6th would die still a teenager and Jane would die of an infection from the childbirth.

Henry knew from experience that there was a large contingent of people who would refuse to recognize his right to give himself an annulment and would consider a subsequent marriage invalid and any children illegitimate.

If he merely gave himself an annulment from Anne, she would still be an incredibly wealthy and powerful woman, a marquess with powerful friends in the reformist movement, and within the church itself. (Six of the nine bishops appointed during her reign had been Anne’s personal selections. They would certainly feel they owed a debt to her. Anne had also seeded the universities with scholars, paying for their educations. Two of those scholarship students would later become tutors of Edward VI.) She had deep connections with the intellectual and political elite of England.

As a wealthy and powerful woman, she would be able to support her daughter’s claim to the throne, even if Henry bastardized her. She could find a similarly wealthy and powerful husband for her who might entertain fantasies of claiming the throne for himself through his wife. With enough backing, they could vanquish Henry and Jane’s children.

The only way to sever those connections was to utterly destroy her reputation and turn her into a traitor. It wasn’t enough to say she’d cheated on him and planned to kill the king to marry one of her lovers. He had to turn Anne Boleyn into a monster of lust, someone who would sleep with her own brother to sate her unholy thirst. Her name had to be so filthy that no one would want to be associated with it.

Henry’s plan worked. Anne’s portraits were destroyed. (Only one is known to have survived the purge, a full-length Holbein in the collection of Lord Lumley, but his possession of it was excused because he collected Holbein’s work.) Her letters were burned. She was a prolific correspondent, but only a tiny handful of her letters survive, those the king’s men felt would help strengthen their case against her.

Some of Anne’s prominent backers in the court had gone to the scaffold with her. Her brother, foremost — one of the most ardent champions of the Reform movement. (Chapuys always said he liked George, except that he wouldn’t shut up about the Reformed faith. George also smuggled banned Reformist books to his sister when he traveled abroad.) Sir Henry Norris, known for being of stout and unimpeachable integrity. (His manservant, George Constantine, who would become an archdeacon under Elizabeth I, had fled England after arrest by Thomas More and would return under Anne Boleyn’s protection.) Weston was extremely rich and so influential that foreign ambassadors were begging for his life to be spared. (Brereton and Smeaton appear to be thrown in as “housekeeping” afterthoughts, just getting pesky problems off Cromwell’s desk.)

After Anne’s fall, there was silence. No one wanted to be publicly associated with her, even though there had been a great deal of open dissent during her trial that she was an innocent woman being put to death to make room for her successor. It was done now, and no one wanted to join her in her fate. The king had shown he didn’t mind killing innocent people to get what he wanted, and so silence was the safest course of action.

Cranmer worried in a letter after Anne’s arrest that the accusations against Anne would taint the church itself because she had been so instrumental in laying its foundations. But the Reformist movement was able to distance itself from Anne. Her work had to die with her. The English Bible she had worked so hard to see translated into the common tongue came out a few months after her death, her name in the dedication hastily replaced with Jane Seymour’s. To this day, Anne Boleyn isn’t seen in her rightful position as one of the mothers of the Anglican faith.

Anne had to die so Elizabeth would be a friendless bastard. That worked, too. Elizabeth’s childhood was bereft of friends. Even Mary Boleyn, her mother’s sister, had no contact with Elizabeth. She was ignored, stigmatized. Her older half-sister, Mary, would sometimes publicly remark that Elizabeth looked like “her father, Mark Smeaton,” bringing up the old scandal, (and choosing the lowest-ranked of the men out of the five accused lovers of Anne, to have fathered her.)

But realizing he’d father no more children, Henry reinstated Elizabeth to the succession, despite never lifting the declaration she was illegitimate. She would end up being the child who brought the most glory to the Tudor name, but Henry did everything he could to try to make her climb to the throne impossible.

The politics between Francis I and Charles, the holy Roman emperor added new insight into Henry’s break with the Church and how fragile it all was. The last chapters covering the arrest, trial and execution did justice to the horror of the situation. Especially the sections chronicling Anne’s manic highs and lows that were reported back to Cromwell.

What I enjoyed about the book was it wasn’t just a biography of Anne Boleyn, it looked at how and why Anne rose to become queen, what her and Henry’s relationship was like, what kind of queen she was, and then what happened, all the while placing this relationship in a much wider context as something that was impacted by and had an impact on Europe.

“The tumultuous events of Henry and Anne’s courtship and marriage had made them the cynosure of all eyes for the best part of a decade and changed England forever. But Anne did not change Henry. He changed himself.”

This book provides a well-balanced view of both Henry and Anne and how they could do so much good but also so much wrong.

The fact that Anne and her framed lover’s liaisons didn’t even line up with where the court was at the time MAKES ME SO MAD. So for instance Cromwell’s record would say that Anne met with her lover on x date in Greenwich when the whole court (Anne included) would have been recorded to be at Eltham instead. The complete disregard for the semblance of truth and accuracy because everyone putting the case together knew it was a sham but still knew Anne would be destroyed by the end so it didn’t matter anyway. Cromwells days would be numbered and soon after the failure of the Kings fourth wife, Cromwell would ascend the scaffold and lose his head.

I knew Cromwell was instrumental in Anne Boleyns downfall but I had no idea how far fetched his lies and fabrications were and how no one questioned them. Fun surprise of the book was George Boleyn and Anne Boleyn defending themselves in court at their trial.

This book is very well written and includes the most current historical research on the love, lust, trials and tribulations of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Whether you’re a casual reader or a student of English Tudor history, you will find this book interesting and informative. Although the book is dauntingly large, (over 600 pages), over 200 of them are appendices and references. So please don’t be put off by that!

My only slight issue with this book is its very end– it just abrubltly stops after Anne’s conviction. Her final speech, execution and burial are presented in less detail than other facets of the story in the book. I just feel that the book would have ended much better if the story just continued sequentially and concluded with details on her final speech, execution, burial and perhaps some information on where her gravesite is.

Until next time,

Keep reading,

D x

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