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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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George Boleyn by Clare Cherry and Claire Ridgeway

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “George Boleyn has gone down in history as being the brother of the ill-fated Queen Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII, and for being executed for treason, after being found guilty of incest and of conspiring to kill the King. This biography allows George to step out of the shadows and brings him to life as a court poet, royal favourite, keen sportsman, talented diplomat and loyal brother.”

REVIEW: As many of you will not know, but as everyone who knows me well is all too aware, I am completely obsessed with George Boleyn. Much of my academic career so far has been dedicated to research about him and his life, and I am currently planning my Master’s dissertation, in which he will heavily feature. It has always frustrated me that George, despite being such a fascinating and important historical figure is generally overlooked due to the fame of his sister, Anne Boleyn. Although Anne Boleyn is of course worth great admiration –  my undergraduate dissertation was on her, in fact – it is upsetting that George is often relegated to a chapter or a few sentences in books about his sisters. His portrayal in fiction, both in the form of books and TV shows, is also something that I have often found distressing, not to mention based on very little factual evidence, as is pointed out in this book. Therefore I was delighted to receive this biography as a Christmas present from my Mum, who has been a victim of my obsession for several years now and has herself become quite fond of George. This biography brilliantly gathers together the little evidence we have on George from primary documents and cleverly examines what these sources can tell us about George’s life and his career as a courtier, poet and diplomat. The authors’ admiration for George and respect for his talents really shines through in the writing, and it made such an enjoyable change to read something of this nature dedicated entirely to George. This book will be a valuable source to me in the research and writing of my dissertation, and I hope it introduces many more people to the fascinating historical figure that is George Boleyn.

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The Mistresses of Henry VIII by Kelly Hart

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Seventeen-year-old Henry VIII was ‘a youngling, he cares for nothing but girls and hunting’. Over the years, this did not change much. Henry was considered a demi-god by his subjects, so each woman he chose was someone who had managed to stand out in a crowd of stunning ladies. Looking good was not enough (indeed, many of Henry’s lovers were considered unattractive); she also had to have something extra to keep the king’s interest. And Henry’s women were every bit as intriguing as the man himself.”

REVIEW: I’ve had this book sitting on my Amazon wishlist for ages, so when I saw how cheap the second-hand copies were I decided to finally give in and order it. I’ve read  quite a bit on Henry VIII’s more famous mistresses, particularly Mary Boleyn, but I enjoyed learning more about some of his other mistresses, such as Anne Stafford and Bessie Blount, and was fascinated in uncovering those whom I didn’t even know existed. This book was clearly well-researched and the rumours and gossip surrounding possible mistresses of Henry’s was clearly lifted from primary documents, giving it true authenticity. My only criticism of the book, however, is that I feel the title can be a little misleading – the book did, in fact, focus quite heavily on Henry VIII’s wives as well as his mistresses. This is something that Hart explains clearly in the introduction, as she puts forward her intention to focus on all of the women of Henry’s romantic life, which would include his wives as well as his mistresses. In this case, I feel that the title should perhaps have reflected this direction of study more obviously; however, this did not spoil the book for me and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and learning more about the extramarital affairs of Henry VIII.

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Three Sisters, Three Queens by Philippa Gregory

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “When Katherine of Aragon is brought to the Tudor Court as a young bride , the oldest princess, Margaret, takes her measure. With one look, each knows the other for a rival, an ally, a pawn, destined – with Margaret’s younger sister, Mary – to a sisterhood unique in all the world.The three sisters will become the queens of England, Scotland and France. United by family loyalties and affections, the three queens find themselves set against each other. Katherine commands an army against Margaret and kills her husband, James IV of Scotland. But Margaret’s boy becomes heir to the Tudor throne when Katherine loses her son. Mary steals the widowed Margaret’s proposed husband, but when Mary is widowed it is her secret marriage for love that is the envy of the others. As they experience betrayals, dangers, loss and passion, the three sisters find that the only constant in their perilous lives is their special bond, more powerful than any man, even a king.”

REVIEW: I have always been a huge fan of Philippa Gregory, despite the fact that I have been annoyed by some of the theories she chooses to put in her hugely popular historical fiction novels – for example, her ideas surrounding George Boleyn in ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ have led to many a false representation of him and, as I am planning to write my Masters dissertation on him, this has always irked me. I always enjoy reading her books though, and just have to remind myself to take them with a pinch of salt, just like any other historical fiction novel. With ‘Three Sisters, Three Queens’, however, I was a little sceptical of the premise before I even began to read it. ‘Three Sisters, Three Queens’ tells the story of the relationship between Katherine of Aragon, Princess Margaret Tudor, and Princess Mary Tudor, all through the eyes of Margaret. The novel’s description seems to put forward the idea that these women had a loving, unbreakable bond, and considering the fact that Katherine of Aragon was in charge of the Army that killed Margaret’s husband, I was very doubtful of this being true. Upon actually reading the book, however, Gregory creates a much more complex, believeable relationship between these three remarkable women that the one I had been led to expect, and many of my inhibitions were soon pushed aside. Margaret is not always a likeable narrator; she can be selfish, naive, arrogant and competitive. However, she can also be brave, loving and determined, all qualities that I hugely admire, and having read very little about her previously I found myself becoming quite attached to Margaret. Despite my initial misgivings I found myself racing through the book, eager to read more of the sisterly rivalry that took place between the three women, Margaret’s often disastrous love affairs, and the escalating political turmoil that all three women become caught up in. My only criticism upon finishing the book is that I would like to have read more about Mary; she is a fascinating woman in her own right and I have hopes that Gregory might pen a future novel focusing on her in more detail, rather than the reader simply meeting her from afar and only seeing her as a silly, impulsive young girl.

 

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Katherine Howard by Josephine Wilkinson

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Katherine Howard was the fifth wife of Henry VIII and cousin to the executed Anne Boleyn. She first came to court as a young girl of fourteen, but even prior to that her fate had been sealed and she was doomed to die. She was beheaded in 1542 for crimes of adultery and treason, in one of the most sensational scandals of the Tudor age. The traditional story of Henry VIII’s fifth queen dwells on her sexual exploits before she married the king, and her execution is seen as her just dessert for having led an abominable life. However, the true story of Katherine Howard could not be more different. Far from being a dark tale of court factionalism and conspiracy, Katherine’s story is one of child abuse, family ambition, religious conflict and political and sexual intrigue. It is also a tragic love story. A bright, kind and intelligent young woman, Katherine was fond of clothes and dancing, yet she also had a strong sense of duty and tried to be a good wife to Henry. She handled herself with grace and queenly dignity to the end, even as the barge carrying her on her final journey drew up at the Tower of London, where she was to be executed for high treason. Little more than a child in a man’s world, she was the tragic victim of those who held positions of authority over her, and from whose influence she was never able to escape.”

REVIEW: There a very few biographies out there on Katherine Howard, and, more importantly, of the ones that are out there very few of them are actually very good. Wilkinson has done extensive research into Katherine Howard and interpreted the sources in a new and different way, uncovering new findings and creating a fascinating, sensitive and insightful biography that gives the reader a real sense of connection to Katherine herself. Wilkinson’s findings show Katherine to be a young girl whose naivety led to her being used and abused by older and more experienced men, chiefly her childhood music teacher, Henry Mannock, and her famed lover Francis Dereham. Both of these men, in Wilkinson’s eyes, used the pretty and vulnerable Katherine as a kind of plaything, and Dereham at least seems to have held their intimacy over her for her entire life, possibly using it as a form of blackmail when she became Queen, as did many of the women whom she had viewed as her girlhood friends. Wilkinson also shows that although Katherine is believed to have taken Thomas Culpepper as her lover, and indeed this is what it is often believed she and Culpepper were executed for, this may not neccessarily be the case. Wilkinson presents and compelling and believable case, using primary documentation, that suggests that instead Katherine was merely cultivating Culpepper’s friendship and loyalty so that he could report back to her when the King was unwell and unable to see his wife. This would, in turn, extend her influence when apart from the King and, although Wilkinson believes (as did many contemporaries involved in the building of evidence against Katherine) there may have been a intention or desire between Katherine and Culpepper, she does not suggest that the two of them actually engaged in any intimate sexual act; simply that they exchanged letters, were close friends, and held long conversations with Lady Rochford as their chaperone. I found this biography to provide a fascinating and somewhat heartbreaking insight into Katherine’s life and found myself fully convinced by Wilkinson’s presentation of the evidence; the only slight thing in which our opnions differ, however, is that Wilkinson suggests Katherine herself encouraged flirtateousness with the King and was glad to be even considered for the position of Queen – I personally, however, believe that Katherine was instead encouraged by her ambitious family, perhaps even pushed forward, to become Henry’s next Queen. I do believe, however, that Katherine was a good, kind-hearted queen who used her influence to help others and tried to be a good wife to her king. As such, she suffered a tragic fate, and the evidence put forward by Wilkinson which shows how she was used and then later accused of crimes she may not have even committed makes her an even more tragic victim of the tyranny of Henry VIII.

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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 Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “Kateryn Parr, a thirty-year-old widow in a secret affair with a new lover, has no choice when a man old enough to be her father who has buried four wives – King Henry VIII – commands her to marry him. Kateryn has no doubt about the danger she faces: the previous queen lasted sixteen months, the one before barely half a year. But Henry adores his new bride and Kateryn’s trust in him grows as she unites the royal family, creates a radical study circle at the heart of the court, and rules the kingdom as Regent. But is this enough to keep her safe? A leader of religious reform and the first woman to publish in English, Kateryn stands out as an independent woman with a mind of her own. But she cannot save the Protestants, under threat for their faith, and Henry’s dangerous gaze turns on her. The traditional churchmen and rivals for power accuse her of heresy – the punishment is death by fire and the King’s name is on the warrant…”

REVIEW: I have read all of Gregory’s novel and was hugely excited to read this latest novel, which focused on Katherine Parr – my favourite of Henry VIII’s wives after Anne Boleyn. I was lucky enough to hear Gregory give a talk about this book on the day of its publication in the UK, and knowing how much she enjoyed writing it and how connected she felt to Katherine made the experience of reading the book even more enjoyable for me, particularly as Gregory is one of my idols when it comes to writing historical fiction. I mentioned in the review of the last book I read on Katherine Parr how frustrating I have always found it that she so rarely makes an appearance in the work of historical fiction authors, so it was refreshing to be able to read about her once again. I thoroughly enjoyed Gregory’s portrayal of Katherine; she comes into her own as a romantic, stubborn, and highly intelligent woman with a passion for reform that develops throughout the novel, so that the reader is also taken along on her discovery of the latest Protestant ideals. She is also a hugely sympathetic character; her relationship with the tyrannical Henry involves constantly walking on eggshells, just as it does for the rest of the court, and Katherine is perhaps the most successful of all of Henry’s queens at learning to manage the balance of power. She learns, mostly through terrifying trial and error, when to speak her mind and when to stay silent; when to use her body and when to use her mind; and, most importantly, that to keep safe and in the King’s affections, she must be an obedient wife. The extent to which Katherine has to go to protect not just her own life, but also the lives of her friends and beloved sister Nan, will horrify modern readers – particularly during a shocking scene when Henry abuses Katherine and derives huge sexual pleasure from the act. As a woman, I am always sickened to think of the ways in which women were treated and how they had to demean themselves to avoid such treatment in the future, and I feel that this is shown most clearly in this novel, rather than in some of Gregory’s earlier works. I was in triumph with Katherine at the end of the novel when she is bought the news of Henry’s death and can finally move on with her life; even though I knew how the story would end, I still had tears come to my eyes as I truly felt Katherine’s relief and pride that she had been the one to survive – though my sadness was perhaps added to by the fact that, as any historian will know, the rest of her life was certainly not always a happy one. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it.