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Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession by Alison Weir

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RATING: 3/5

BLURB: “Fresh from the palaces of Burgundy and France, Anne draws attention at the English court, embracing the play of courtly love. But when the King commands, nothing is ever a game. Anne has a spirit worthy of a crown – and the crown is what she seeks. At any price”

REVIEW: I am a huge fan of Alison Weir, and have been to see her give lectures on several occasions; I even have a signed copy of my favourite one of her books, ‘The Lady in the Tower’, a non-fiction book on Anne’s downfall. I have spoken to her about my research and writing ambitions, and she is genuinely a lovely woman. I am also a big Anne Boleyn fan, having written my undergraduate dissertation on how she was portrayed by Catholics and Protestants during the reign of her daughter, Elizabeth I – she is also now forming a large part of my Masters dissertation on how Henry VIII manipulated the treason laws on his descent into tyranny. My interest in Anne means that I am always on the lookout for new books about her, so I was very excited to read this book, the second in Weir’s collection of historical fiction novels from the perspective of Henry VIII’s six wives.

The book was incredibly well-written, as Weir’s always are. It was engaging and considering it amounts to over 500 pages, I read it quickly as I found it difficult to put down. I found Weir’s portrayal of Anne particularly compelling, as it very much fit with my own perspective on what Anne was like as a woman, and what her motivations were for marrying Henry. Weir has Anne marry him not for love, but for her own ambition, although her love for Henry begins to grow throughout their courtship, leading her to eventually become jealous of his relationships with other women and thereby slowly turning him against her. This is very much how I have always seen their relationship, so it was refreshing to read of a historical ficiton point of view that still paints Anne as a good person, motivated by her religious and radical beliefs just as much by ambition, and keen to do good despite lacking popular support; usually, if Anne is portrayed as ambitious, she is often also depicted cruelly. The scenes regarding Anne’s downfall, particularly the final few pages that deal with her execution, are extremely beautifully written and very emotional, allowing the reader to experience the horrific moment of the execution through Anne’s eyes. The sheer amount of historical research was evident, and where many historians tend to skim over writing about politics, for fear of losing the interest of the reader, Weir makes sure the reader is always aware of the political, religious and international context in which the events are taking place. She also uses phrases in the dialogue that have clearly been lifted and adapted from primary texts of the period, which adds an aspect of authenticity.

I loved the book for all of these reasons. I did, however, have two main issues with the novel that has caused me to give it a lower rating. Tbe more minor one of these was the idea of Anne’s secret love for Henry Norris, and even this alone would not have caused me to enjoy the book any less – I just don’t believe that this was a factor in Anne’s time as Queen or, indeed, in her downfall. But Weir explains her choice to write this in the author’s note, and I understand her use of the evidence for artistic licence and can see how, in light of writing the novel, she has shaped the evidence to fit this conclusion; it did add to the novel, and therefore I enjoyed it. My main problem was the way in which Weir chose to portray George Boleyn.

George Boleyn is one of my particular areas of interest and speciality. I am in the very slow process of writing a book on him myself; he also forms a large part of my Masters dissertation, which I am currently writing, and has been a fascination of mine for several years. I have looked at him in depth and, although I acknowledge that he had many flaws, namely his pride and ambition, I admit that as a historical figure I am attracted to him, and wish that he was more widely known. A poem by a Spanish author once accused George of being a rapist. This is a theme that Weir has chosen to use and run with, and she has George confess to Anne that he has ‘forced widows and deflowered maidens’,  a line taken directly from this poem. Yet, in her non-fiction work, Weir cites a poem by the same Spanish author, which accused Anne of being guilty in her adultery and acting as a whore with many men, and states that it is an unreliable piece of evidence. The poetry was written from a point of view which would have been extremely hostile to Anne and the Boleyn family as a whole, coming from both a Catholic perspective and one which would have supported Katherine of Aragon and the Princess Mary, seeing Anne and her daughter as nothing more than a concubine and a bastard. I have always agreed with this assessment of the poem being unreliable, and do not understand how Weir could say this herself and then use a poem by the same author as evidence for writing George as a rapist. The evidence is flimsy at best, and although I appreciate that he has been dead for several hundred years, I feel this is a strong and unfair accusation to make, and as one that has also been mistakenly portrayed in the TV drama ‘The Tudors’, may end up being all that people who focus only on popular fiction end up believing, thereby damaging George’s reputation completely. Weir also has George involved in the poisoning of Bishop Fisher, a rumour which was spread about at the time and one which, with the use of artistic licence, I can understand her using although I may not agree. What I cannot support, however, is her writing that George also poisoned Katherine of Aragon, when it is known full well that she died from cancer. Although I acknowledge the fact that I am protective of George and the way he is portrayed, and therefore am biased, I do believe it is wrong to write of someone as a rapist when the evidence is unreliable, even when taking artistic licence into consideration.

Overall, I would recommend the book very highly to fans of Anne, as I enjoyed the way she was written.

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The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Part biography, part cultural history, The Creation of Anne Boleyn is a fascinating reconstruction of Anne’s life and an illuminating look at her afterlife in the popular imagination. Why is Anne so compelling? Why does she inspire such extreme reactions? And what really was the colour of her hair? And perhaps the most provocative question concerns Anne’s death, more than her life: how could Henry order the execution of his once beloved wife? Drawing on scholarship and popular culture, Bordo probes the complexities of one of history’s most infamous relationships and teases out the woman behind the myths.”

REVIEW: Considering that this book is essentially a book exploring the historiography of Anne Boleyn, and considering the fact that historiography is generally extremely dry, I was not expecting to fall in love with this book as much as I did. In exploring the myths surrounding Anne Boleyn from both during and after her lifetime, and looking closely at her portrayal in media and historical fiction/non-fiction, Bordo dispels many of the legends surrounding in a way that is sometimes ruthless, but always brilliantly researched and often highly amusing. Bordo says many of the things I have often thought myself about some of the portrayals of Anne in popular culture; particularly how she is portrayed in The Other Boleyn Girl, in which her brother George is also depicted terribly. I originally read this book as part of my dissertation research, not for enjoyment; but I found myself liking it so much that I read it too quickly to take notes, and had to go back and go over the relevant sections! I especially enjoyed reading of the interviews Bordo had with various actresses who have played Anne Boleyn, which shows us not only how they feel about Anne, but also how this influenced their enactment of the role. This book is highly informative, witty and brutally honest – and I loved every page. I would highly recommend it.

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The Boleyn Women by Elizabeth Norton

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “The Boleyn family appeared from nowhere at the end of the fourteenth century, moving from peasant to princess in only a few generations. The women of the family brought about its advancement, beginning with the heiresses Alice Bracton Boleyn, Anne Hoo Boleyn and Margaret Butler Boleyn, who brought wealth and aristocratic connections. Then there was Elizabeth Howard Boleyn, who was rumoured to have been the mistress of Henry VIII, along with her daughter Mary and her niece Madge, who certainly were. Anne Boleyn became the King’s second wife and her aunts, Lady Boleyn and Lady Shelton, helped bring her to the block. The infamous Jane Boleyn, the last of her generation, betrayed her husband before dying on the scaffold with Queen Catherine Howard. The next generation was no less turbulent and Catherine Carey, the daughter of Mary Boleyn, fled from England to avoid persecution under Mary Tudor.Her daughter, Lettice, was locked in bitter rivalry with the greatest Boleyn lady of all, Elizabeth I, winning the battle for the affections of Robert Dudley but losing her position in society as a consequence. Finally, another Catherine Carey, the Countess of Nottingham, was so close to her cousin, the Queen, that Elizabeth died of grief following her death. The Boleyn family was the most ambitious dynasty of the sixteenth century, rising dramatically to prominence in the early years of a century that would end with a Boleyn on the throne.”

REVIEW: Elizabeth Norton has written many works on interesting Tudor women, including biographies of all of Henry VIII’s six wives and one of his early mistress Bessie Blount, all of which I have read and thoroughly enjoyed. Her book ‘The Anne Boleyn Papers’ is also one of my favourites, as it works not only as a sourcebook vital to any Anne Boleyn research but also as a fascinating collection of documents for any reader. Therefore, my enjoyment of these previous books meant that I was very excited to receive this one for Christmas and read it at great speed. I thoroughly enjoyed this condensed biography of the amazing Boleyn women – particularly reading about women like Anne Hoo Boleyn, whom I had previously known nothing about. The tracing of the female Boleyn bloodline through over a century of history gives the reader a wide span of knowledge, not only about these women but also about the political and social contexts that shaped their lives individually. It is always enjoyable to read a work of non-fiction that is both easy to read and to understand, and doesn’t make the reader feel as though the work is purely directed towards scholars. I also enjoyed the heavy focus placed on many women that are often ignored by history – for example, Catherine Carey is one of my favourite historical figures but very little ever seems to be written about her. Although there were parts of the book that I sometimes wished had been expanded upon, I understand that this only took place because the author had so much to cover and had to condense this information to make the book more easily accessible; with this in mind, I think the chosen information was extremely well-selected and clearly thoroughly researched, as although the chapters were short readers gain a detailed portrait of each of the chosen women in these chapters. Overall I would highly recommend this book for fans of the Boleyns or those who wish to know more about the lives of Tudor women in general.

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Anne Boleyn: The Queen of Controversy by Lacey Baldwin Smith

 

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “The story of Anne Boleyn goes to the root of all history; what makes an individual or event memorable to later generations? Anne is an exceptional case for her life is a double helix intertwining extraordinary human drama with profound historical crisis. A young lady of no particular importance or talents – she was neither a great beauty nor a captivating charmer – married a man who turned out to be England’s most notorious monarch. and then three years later she was publicly executed for treason, accused of quadruple adultery and incest. Mistress Boleyn was the crucial catalyst for three of the most important events in modern history; the break with Rome and the English Reformation, the advent of the nation state, and the birth of a daughter whose forty-three years on the throne stand as England’s most spectacular literary and political success story. Remove Anne and the Reformation as we know it today would not have taken place; remove Anne and Elizabeth I would not have existed at all. Anne Boleyn stands as a monument to the truth that there is nothing consistent in history except the unexpected.”

REVIEW: It was so nice to dive back into a work of historical nonfiction for pleasure rather than study, especially when this is a work written by a historian whom I greatly admire. Baldwin-Smith’s previous biography of Katherine Howard is one of the rare accounts of the young Queen’s life and is one of my favourite and most useful works of nonfiction. This book, however, is unlike Baldwin-Smith’s usual style – he himself describes it as more of a ‘biographical essay’, giving a relatively detailed account of Anne Boleyn’s life while studying in depth the conclusions that four other eminent historians have drawn about her – Eric Ives, Retha Warnicke, G.W. Bernard and Alison Weir. In this sense, it was unlike the majority of other nonfiction works that I have read. I nonetheless found it to be extremely informative, written with a light and entertaining wit that made the account of Anne’s life all the more fascinating to read. Although I sometimes disagreed on his views of the other historians, on the whole Baldwin-Smith seems convinced of Anne’s innocence, which is something I always warm to in historians. Baldwin-Smith’s research, although seeming minimal in this rather brief and shallow account, is clearly meticulous and by dissecting the work of other historians in the area he clearly demonstrates his skill both as a historian and a historiographer.

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At the Mercy of the Queen by Anne Clinard-Barnhill

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RATING: 3/5

BLURB: “At the innocent age of fifteen, Lady Margaret Shelton arrives at the court of Henry VIII and quickly becomes the confidante of her cousin, Queen Anne Boleyn. But she soon finds herself drawn into the perilous web of Anne’s ambition. Desperate to hold on to the King’s waning affection, Anne schemes to have him take her guileless young cousin as mistress, ensuring her husband’s new paramour will owe her loyalty to the Queen. But Margaret has fallen deeply in love with a handsome young courtier and is faced with a terrible dilemma: give herself to the King and betray the love of her life, or refuse to become his mistress and jeopardise the life of her cousin, Queen Anne.”

REVIEW: This book has been on my shelf for some time and I was really looking forward to reading it. Although I enjoyed the book, I did hold some issues with parts – while I was hugely impressed with Barnhill’s efforts at historical accuracy (the romance between Madge and Arthur Brandon is perhaps a little far-fetched, but it adds a new dimension to the story without taking away anything from the actual facts), I did find that the writing often seemed quite simple, perhaps even a little stilted, with some parts seeming rather rushed; for example, any political elements were dealt with swiftly, and I was upset by the fact that Barnhill did not deal with the deaths of George Boleyn, Mark Smeaton, Francis Weston, Henry Norris and William Brereton for any longer than a sentence – I felt that some detail was needed in order to portray these executions with the sensitivity they deserve. While on such a subject, I was also disappointed with how George Boleyn was portrayed – this may be because I’m rather biased towards him and am currently writing a biography of him myself, but I felt that his character could have played a much more integral role in the story. I did, however, truly enjoy Barnhill’s portrayal of Anne Boleyn. She showed Anne’s ambition, shrewdness and volatile temper, of course, but she also illustrates Anne’s fears, her vulnerability, and most importantly her charitable and educational efforts, which are often overlooked. Madge was also a likeable, if somewhat shallow, character, and I found myself feeling quite fond of her by the end of the book! Although this may not be the best Tudor historical fiction I have ever read, I would definitely recommend it to fans of Tudor history, simply for this refreshing and sensitive take on Anne Boleyn and her personality.

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The Boleyns: The Rise and Fall of a Tudor Family by David Loades

RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “The fall of Anne Boleyn and her brother George is the classic drama of the Tudor era. The Boleyns had long been an influential English family. Sir Edward Boleyn had been Lord Mayor of London. His grandson, Sir Thomas, had inherited wealth and position, and through the sexual adventures of his daughters, Mary and Anne, ascended to the peak of influence at court. The three Boleyn children formed a faction of their own, making many enemies: and when those enemies secured Henry VIII’s ear, they brought down the entire family in blood and disgrace. George, Lord Rochford, left no children. Mary left a son by her husband, William Carey – Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon. Anne left a daughter, Elizabeth I – so like her in many ways and a sexual politician without rival.”

REVIEW: I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is a concise, well-written and highly informative text detailing the lives of the Boleyn family – in the main, Thomas Boleyn, his children Anne, George and Mary, George’s wife Jane, Mary’s son Henry and Anne’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I. Loades deals with each of these individuals in a sensitive way, looking at a variety of interpretations from other historians and contemporaries to create a well-constructed picture of the members of this great family. I did find a few problems within the novel -for example, Loades’ assentation that Mary gave birth to her son Henry before her daughter, Catherine. I have never read of this anywhere before, not even in biographies specifically on Mary Boleyn, and am more than a little intrigued as to where Loades obtained this information. However, the book was extremely well-balanced in its views and interpretations, and Loades seeks to dispel many of the myths surrounding the Boleyn children – he stresses both the unlikelihood of George Boleyn being homosexual (backed up by the emergence of his bastard children during Elizabeth’s reign) and also seems convinced, as I am, of Anne and George’s innocence. Loades also looks closely at how Anne Boleyn’s early death and her genes may have influenced the life of her daughter, who grew up to be, arguably, England’s greatest monarch. Overall, although there were a few points that I hold disagreement with, I would highly recommend this book.