Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn remains an intriguing figure, even after nearly 500 years. Because interpretations of a historical person’s life turn on the documents available to work with, the scanty evidence for Anne’s life makes it difficult for historians to write the sort of rich and complex biography modern readers expect. There is much we simply do not know about Anne and, while novelists and filmmakers are free to fill in the gaps imaginatively, historians must control the urge to speculate. When they do speculate, they must employ sound arguments, clear and careful analysis of evidence, balanced discussion of other views and a rigorous avoidance of conclusions based on personal opinion or on present-day values.

Indictments from Anne’s trial still exist but there are no transcripts of the court proceedings or information about witnesses and not many other official documents. We have few writings by Anne. If she kept a diary or corresponded extensively with anyone the evidence has been lost to time. Many people have written about Anne for one reason or another; but few were true contemporaries and many were clearly biased, misinformed, or both. While bias does not make a report untrue, it surely adds to the challenge facing a historian. In his new book, Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions, George Bernard is not always equal to that challenge. Some eclectic speculations and his apparent confusion regarding a poem written by the French ambassador’s secretary, a document he relies on heavily, combine to weaken his reinterpretation of Anne.

Fatal Attractions joins books by Eric Ives (The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Blackwell, 2004) and Retha M. Warnicke (The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn, Cambridge University Press, 1989), and a long running-debate in the pages of the English Historical Review and the Historical Journal, as some of the crucial reading for a study of Anne Boleyn. These three historians do agree on several important points: that Anne did not raise herself from humble origins, but was the daughter of a reasonably well-to-do and successful ‘courtier-administrator’; that Anne is an important figure in her own right, worthy of scholarly study and deserving of a more nuanced analysis than she has received in the past; that evidence for Anne’s life is scanty and sometimes contradictory or suspect; and, finally, each admits engaging in informed speculation when evidence is unclear or lacking.

Anne Boleyn was born between circa 1501 and circa 1507; historians do not agree on the specific date or on which of the Boleyn properties was her birthplace. She had a living brother and sister, but because their birth dates are also unknown, so, too, is their birth order. Informed speculation on all these questions has led to contradictory conclusions among the historians, and a reader must keep in mind that later conclusions about Anne’s behaviour may be affected by historians’ perception of her age and the expected behaviour for someone of that age in the sixteenth century.

In 1513, Anne’s father secured a place for her at the court of the archduchess Margaret, regent of the Low Countries, where Anne was to learn courtly skills and French. She arrived there in summer 1513. Since historians disagree on her birth date, they also disagree to some extent on what she was doing while at Margaret’s court. Knowing her birth date could tell us whether she was twelve years old and ‘one of eighteen ladies and maids of honor … [who] were both companions and servants, keeping their mistress company and running errands’, as Bernard argues (p. 7); or, whether she was a seven-year-old ‘who was incapable of performing the chores of a maid of honor properly … [and] must have resided with the regent’s wards … and share[d] in their schoolroom lessons’, as Warnicke postulates (p. 13).

Anne remained in the Low Countries somewhat over a year before going to France in 1514 at the time of the marriage of Henry VIII’s sister, Mary, to the French king, Louis XII. Louis died not long after and Mary returned to England, but Anne remained in France at the court of the new king’s young wife, Claude, and did not return to England until the end of 1521. It is generally accepted that while there she perfected her French and her courtly manners and skills, including music and dancing, and she would have been exposed to the fashions and ideas circulating at the French court.

After her return to England a possible marriage to James Butler (whose family, like the Boleyns, held a claim to the earldom of Ormond) was explored but did not come to pass. Henry Percy, later sixth earl of Northumberland, pursued Anne, but as marrying her would have required breaking a prior engagement, this was apparently prevented by both his father and Cardinal Wolsey. Ives, among others, has suggested this could have contributed to a long-standing dislike of Wolsey by Anne. Anne has also been romantically linked with the poet Thomas Wyatt, but the evidence for this is far more speculative and historians disagree on its likelihood.

At some point, possibly in 1526, Anne captured the attention of Henry VIII and thus began the long and famous courtship that spanned the years until January 1533. Henry’s passion for Anne is evident in letters he wrote to her during this time, but historians, and novelists, do not agree on whether this passion was truly love or a lust-filled infatuation. Bernard uses the terms ‘love’, ‘infatuation’ and ‘passion’ interchangeably, and by emphasising the ‘depth of his passion’ and the length of the courtship he seems to be trying to argue both sides at once. Either way, since Henry was married to Catherine of Aragon, he likely perceived Anne as simply another potential mistress. Some historians have argued that Anne kept Henry at bay by insisting she must be his wife before sexual relations would be acceptable. Bernard argues precisely the opposite, believing that it was Henry who developed the idea of marriage and that he was holding Anne’s carnal desires in check so as not to jeopardise the possibility of wedlock. Bernard devotes an entire chapter to an analysis of the wording in Henry’s love letters, which he believes supports this conclusion.

In order to extricate himself from marriage to Catherine, Henry pursued a course of action that ultimately separated the English church from Rome and allowed Henry to procure a divorce from Catherine, thus legitimising his marriage to Anne and any subsequent children. Henry argued that his lack of a male heir highlighted the religious invalidity of his marriage to Catherine. Much ink has been spilled over the sincerity of Henry’s religious concerns, his love of Anne and Anne’s role in the lengthy and complex proceedings, which involved the rise and fall of several ministers and churchmen and provide an ongoing subtext for the story of Anne and Henry. Historians find many points of contention in the process and Bernard argues that, while love of Anne was the catalyst, the actions taken were fully Henry’s. He believes that, while they may have ‘egged each other on’ (p. 90) from time to time, Anne did not ever play the roles other historians have suggested for her, including that she engaged in court politics and intrigue, discussed religious and intellectual ideas with Henry, and may have pressed for some kind of religious reform.

Anne was made marchioness of Pembroke in September 1532 and in October she accompanied Henry on a trip to meet Francis I near Calais. Both of these events signalled to the world her growing stature. Anne and Henry are believed to have married at the end of January 1533. Later that year, in May, Archbishop Cranmer pronounced Henry’s marriage to Catherine invalid, and on June 1 Anne was crowned queen. Elizabeth was born on 7 September 1533, suggesting that Anne and Henry had begun sharing a bed some time prior to their marriage. This is generally agreed upon although the date and details are not, and it has also been suggested that Elizabeth was born prematurely. After Elizabeth’s birth, Anne was believed to be pregnant again by late winter 1534, although at the expected time no baby arrived. Whether she had a stillborn child, miscarried, or suffered a false pregnancy is not known with certainty. Bernard, Ives and Warnicke each posit a different scenario, with Bernard favoring the phantom pregnancy.

Anne’s behaviour as queen depends on whom one consults. Eustace Chapuys, imperial ambassador to Henry’s court and a source for all our historians, presents an odious picture of a mean-spirited woman with great personal power over Henry who was intent on having her way and getting rid of Catherine of Aragon and her daughter Mary. The Protestant martyrologist John Foxe, writing later in the sixteenth century, presents her as a good Christian woman who insisted on proper behaviour from her ladies and attendants, while from the Catholic perspective Nicholas Sander (1585) offers an opposite and much more scandalous view of her, and this dichotomy has persisted among writers ever since. As common sense tells us that people are seldom solely good or evil, few writers on Anne are wholly believable.

Anne became pregnant again in late 1535, but miscarried in January 1536. In April 1536 Anne was accused of committing adultery with five men, including her brother, George. All six were arrested, indicted, tried, found guilty and executed in short order, with Anne and her brother last, on 15 May 1536.

One wants to ask immediately: Why would Anne have become an adulteress? In a curiously presentist observation Bernard would have us believe that because of Princess Diana, moderns may not find it so hard to believe a queen would commit adultery (p. 156). Presentism occurs when we allow ourselves to interpret past people or events based only on our modern values and concepts. Granted, it is difficult to avoid; after all, the present is what we know best, but a historian simply must not fall into this trap. What an increasingly unhappy princess in the twentieth century did cannot automatically tell us anything about what a not necessarily unhappy queen in the sixteenth century might have done. Although there were some suggestions that Henry had a mistress while married to Anne, what she might have done in response must be understood in sixteenth-century terms, not those of today.

Every historian of Anne has formed a belief about Anne’s personality and whether or not it was likely she committed adultery. Neither Ives nor Warnicke believes she did, although Ives favours a complex factional scenario at court that led to Anne’s downfall, while Warnicke argues the miscarriage in January 1536 was of a deformed foetus thus feeding Henry’s belief that Anne had bewitched him. Bernard addresses both theories, arguing that neither is correct. He believes not only that Anne had a much less important role in court politics than other historians contend, but also that Anne did commit adultery with at least some of the five men, although he thinks the accusation involving her brother the ‘least probable’.

Bernard often cites as evidence material from a 1,318-line poem dated two weeks after Anne’s death and written by Lancelot de Carle, secretary to the French ambassador to England. The poem is a summary of Anne’s life and death, focusing especially on the later years and her trial and execution. Early in Fatal Attractions Bernard refers to Carle as Anne’s ‘biographer’ and he often frames quotations from the poem in a way that lends an authority to it, and to Carle himself, that arguably neither has. Carle intended the poem to be read by only one person, clearly a superior, and he prepared it as a poem in hopes it would be more pleasant to read; so, despite its format, it likely had been intended as a report for Francis I. He makes clear at the outset that he is repeating what he has heard from a variety of sources during the time he has been in England, but he does not name his sources, address the truth of his information, correct a number of factual errors he could have checked, or claim to have witnessed any of the events he recounts. These circumstances combine to make it reasonable to question the reliability of the poem’s content, making it surely unwise to give this source too much credibility, especially without a greater understanding of the poem and its author.

There are thirteen extant copies of Carle’s poem—two printed and eleven manuscripts—in the British Library, the Royal Library of Belgium, the Bibliothèque Nationale and in departmental archives in Bordeaux, Soissons and Valenciennes. Except for the two printed copies, which are identical to each other, none is identical to any of the others. There are questions about the history of some of the versions, and there is no documentary evidence to suggest that any of them is Carle’s original. Perhaps most importantly, there is no indication one way or the other that Carle approved, or even knew about, the published version, which did not appear until 1545. In 1920 George Ascoli, a French literary scholar, examined most of the extant versions of the poem and chose the one he thought most likely closest to Carle’s original. Although Bernard uses Ascoli for his citations to Carle, he is mistaken when he describes it as an edited copy of the printed version (pp. 202, 224). It is rather a verbatim transcript of the manuscript version in the Bibliothèque Nationale known as f. fr. 12795. The transcript in Ascoli is accompanied by a line-by-line listing of all the variations between 12795 and the other versions, along with some explanatory notes on historical facts and language use. Most English-speaking historians of Anne make their own translation of lines they wish to quote or use the translation in the Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, which is incomplete and, like any translation, open to interpretation. Scholarly editing and translation are complex and evolving fields and much that has been learned recently needs to be applied to the evaluation and translation of this poem. Any one of these concerns could affect the accuracy and usefulness of the poem as a source, yet Bernard discusses none of them. His bibliography lists only Ascoli and the printed version of the poem and includes no works on Carle.

In order to understand events and people in the past, historians collect as much evidence as they can, to which they apply various analytical techniques. When evidence is lacking they may feel speculation is warranted and so employ everything else they know about the time and the subject to arrive at logical possibilities. In the process, they usually come to believe certain things about the thoughts and actions of historical figures, and then, in scholarly articles and books, they present a set of arguments to readers who they hope will come to share their beliefs.

The historian of Anne Boleyn must draw from a complex body of information: English and French social and political history; court structure, function and politics; social mores and gender relations; diplomacy; and religion and its changing nature. In addition, the methods and meanings of translation, the processes of scholarly editing, and the history of books, printing and publishing in the transitional sixteenth century, are all relevant to how we understand and use written sources for this period. As more and more scholars contribute new knowledge in these areas, historians must widen their perspective to be sure that what has been learned from new historical research, the work of translators and scholarly editors and book history, has been taken into consideration when crafting their arguments and conclusions.

Fatal Attractions is not the book to read as an introduction to Anne Boleyn’s life. However, historians of Anne should become familiar with Bernard’s sometimes intriguing arguments, if only to understand their weak points. He is the first biographer of Anne to use Lancelot de Carle’s poem across a broad range of events in Anne’s life, but he disappoints by not demonstrating a thorough knowledge of the context of the poem and thus sound reasons why we should believe it as evidence. An important part of Bernard’s argument that Anne may very well have committed adultery rests on a charge supposed to have been levelled by the Countess of Worcester. He cites the poem as if it were an independent corroboration of the story, but as Carle never names the woman making the charge and we already know that he is only repeating what he has heard from unnamed others, it loses much of its value. It is not so much that Bernard’s speculations are all impossible, but that his discussions are often convoluted, give short shrift to other historians’ speculations and too often include comments such as the one about Princess Diana, or another made in regard to the effect on Henry of the possible birth of a deformed baby: ‘In my view any man would regard his impotence and his wife’s adulteries as far more humiliating than any deformed foetus’ (p. 129). While this may be true for many twenty-first century men, Bernard makes no convincing argument why it would be the thinking of a sixteenth- century king.

Dr Susan Walters Schmid is an independent scholar and freelance editor living in Nevada.

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