Nonfiction – print. Ballantine Books, 2010. 464 pgs. Purchased.
Subtitled “The Fall of Anne Boleyn”, Weir focuses on how Anne came to lose her head on May 19, 1536 (the first English queen to be executed) and why the same man who broke with Rome in order to start an entirely different church in order to marry her was so quick to sign her death warrant.
Rumors as to why Anne fell from grace abound, and many of them have begun to be taken as fact thanks to Hollywood and popular fiction: an incestuous relationship with her only brother as fictionalized in Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, a miscarriage (Anne’s second) of a deformed but male child as fictionalized by both Gregory and Showtime’s “The Tudors”, a sixth finger as a mark of witchcraft and devil work, and a long list of lovers making her guilty of treason.
Largely maintaining the nineteen day timeline between Henry VIII abruptly leaving the May Day festivities and Anne’s beheading, Weir diligently dismisses each of these rumors in turn laying out a detail case for her rejection of each theory as the basis for Anne’s death. On Anne being guilty of adultery and, therefore, treason, Weir explains how the structure of court would not afford ladies, especially the queen, the opportunity to engage in an affair.
The Tudor court was largely separated by the sexes and, without the help of at least one of her ladies, Anne would not have been able to clandestinely meet another man. (This is also why nonfiction and fictional adaptions of Anne’s life show her (and her sister, Mary) being positioned in front of the King by her father and uncle, the Duke of Norfolk.)
Anne’s former sister-in-law was sentenced to death for helping Henry’s fifth wife (and Anne’s cousin), Katherine Howard, meet with her lover, Thomas Culpepper. Yet while four men were convicted of having an affair with Anne, none of her ladies were suspected, tried, or convicted of helping her. Weir uses this fact to support her argument that the charges on adultery on the part of Anne were without basis.
Furthermore, the incest taboo was very strong in the Tudor court. It is, after all, why Henry annulled his marriage to Katherine of Aragon (his brother’s widow). And as a devout Christian woman, Anne would be very unlikely to participate in a sexual relationship with her brother no matter how strongly she desired a son. Instead, Weir argues, the elevation of Anne to queen had risen the fortune of her family, including her brother, George. Whether or not George’s wife claimed her husband had carnal knowledge of his sister, casting him in a suspicious light would have removed him from the King’s council allowing claims against the queen to go unchecked and reduced the fortune of the Boleyn-Howard family as a whole.
As for the loss of her pregnancy in January 1536, Weir does not dismiss that this fact could have caused Henry to sour towards Anne. While the birth of a healthy girl in 1533 at least demonstrated that the Anne was fertile and capable of giving birth to a healthy infant. However, by 1536, Anne had lost at least two pregnancies; Weir lists four total pregnancies in her genealogical chart at the beginning of the book. Her miscarriage of a male fetus around fifteen weeks occurred within days of the King’s nearly dying during a jousting tournament, and Henry was likely increasingly desperate for a son and heir as a result.
Weir asserts, however, that the child could not have been deformed because of how the fetus was examined in great detail to determine its sex. Not a single record from the time period mentions a deformity – only that the Queen had lost a boy child. Presumably, a noticeable deformity would have damped the King’s rage over the loss of a male child (or, at least shifted it to a suspicion of witchcraft) because the child would not have been the healthy, male heir he longed for, if it had been carried to term. Anne’s supposed sixth finger would have also been mentioned in writings of the time, which leads Weir to suppose that the lack of mention means Anne, at most, had an extra fingernail. Not an extra finger.
Instead, Weir asserts that Anne’s downfall was largely due to the fallout between her and Thomas Cromwell over the latter’s treatment of the former Catholic monasteries. Anne wanted to reform the monasteries; Cromwell wanted to demolish them and allow the Crown to absorb their riches and lands. She publicly rebuked him through a sermon by her religious council, which was an affront due in part because of the expectations of the role of women at the time, and the former allies completely fell out with one another.
Weir explains how Cromwell took Henry’s orders to find a way for Henry to be rid of her and explored multiple avenues to accomplish that task – including investigating rumors of a pre-contract, which would have invalidated her marriage against the King – before finding “evidence” of her adultery. By stacking the jury with people who were known to be against Anne and her family, Cromwell was able to both rid the Queen of her crown and remove the Boleyns as an anti-Cromwell faction at court.
As king, Henry would have had final say in Anne’s fate (hence her attempt to pled for mercy with their daughter in her arms) and no one would have dared engage in a trail without the King’s blessing. Weir does not attempt to excuse his role by placing the blame largely upon Cromwell. In fact, geography and the speed of communication at the time meant Henry would have had to send for the executioner of Cialis (a French swordsman, which meant a kinder more dignified death than by axe) before Anne’s trial thus deciding the outcome of Anne’s trial before it even began. Cromwell may have found the means, but Henry had the will.
(Interestingly, by annulling their marriage before the end of the trial, Henry and Cromwell found an unmarried woman guilty of adultery, which is impossible and thus hints to how rapidly both desired to be rid of the Queen.)
Towards the end of the book, Weir begins to recount the lasting impact Anne had on both history and popular imagination. I often point out that Anne got her revenge through the long and prosperous reign of her daughter, Elizabeth I (also known as Gloriana) so I was particularly interested to read about how Anne’s death affected her daughter. Weir asserts that while the nearly three-year-old child did pick up on her change from a legitimate Princess to a bastard immediately, Elizabeth was probably not informed that her mother had been executed for quite some time.
She takes this to suggest that whatever his feelings towards Anne upon her death, Henry at least loved their daughter and was attempting to shield her from this knowledge. Henry had to have at least one redeeming quality, I suppose. We do know, at least, that Elizabeth never spoke of her mother following her death, but was buried wearing a ring with a portrait of her mother and herself side by side. Her father’s likeness nowhere to be found.
I haven’t really commented on Weir’s writing style, but there is a reason why she continues to be one of my favorite historians despite some of the criticism surrounding her use of primary documents. Criticisms I think do not hold water in this particular case because most of the primary documents for this time period come from Eustace Chapuys, the Spanish diplomat who was unapologetically pro-Katherine of Aragon and Mary I. It is difficult to take the word of a man who consistently referred to Anne as “the Concubine” as fact, and I think Weir does a great job of explaining why certain documents should be valued over others.
Obviously, I found this book to be a fascinating exploration of the events leading up to Anne’s execution. I am an unapologetic fan (for lack of a better word) of Anne Boleyn, and this was the perfect follow-up to Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII, which transitions from the death of Anne to Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour in the rapid fashion that it actually occurred in.