I love Alison Weir's books and have read or purchased most of them. I have a real, enthusiastic love for this period in history and I have always found Weir's books to be eminently easy to read and not too stuffy or academic.
I have always had a fascination for Anne Boleyn and have read many books on her life, rise, fall and death, but this one was really refreshing. It charted the lives of those around her in more detail without going down the route of solely focusing on the Katherine/Henry/Anne triangle which has happened in other books. I liked that this centred on Anne and gave some really interesting detail on her trial, the evidence of the men convicted with her and, most especially, her final days in the Tower and her execution. I felt it really brought her back to life and you could get a palpable sense of her fear and anxiety as you read how she prepared for her execution, only to find it postponed.
I also liked the section on the young Elizabeth as I often think she's a little forgotten in the momentous events surrounding her mother. I always think it's terribly poignant that Elizabeth forever wore a ring with a secret portrait of Anne in it, which was only discovered on Elizabeth's death.
I found the chapter on the Victorians exhuming the bones in the Tower Chapel fascinating and I also liked the 'myth and ghost' section at the end which was different and shows how enduring Anne's story has become.
Anne's was such a meteoric rise and spectacular fall that it makes for eternal fascination. Alison Weir's writing, I think, will make that life so much more accessible and ensure that we don't forget this remarkable woman.
on 1 October 2009
Meticulously researched, pithily written and with creative flair, Alison Weir turns in a wonderful close-up study of Anne Boleyn's fall.
One of Weir's hallmarks is her use of "mini-biographies," diverging from her main storyline to give lifelines and personality traits of the characters. Rather like "Windows" on a computer: a window is opened into another life, as it becomes relevant. There are judicious snapshots of the five men accused of adultery with Anne. George Boleyn (her own brother, Viscounnt Rochford), Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, Sir William Brereton, Mark Smeaton. After filling in their background, Weir indicates how each was involved in some sort of illegality, or corruption, or had managed to arouse the jealousy of Thomas Cromwell, Henry's secretary, who orchestrated the trial against Anne.
Throughout the book, Weir masterfully uncovers motivations, starting at the top with Henry VIII, Cromwell, and the leading contemporary churchmen. She identifies Henry's affair with Jane Seymour as a pivotal element used by Anne's enemies to topple her. Then she also investigates the ready disloyalty of Anne's own ladies-in-waiting.
As with all Anne Boleyn biographies we get the fineries of the trials, though mercifully the bloody details are kept to a minimum as this book is focusing on Anne. However Weir does adduce medical evidence to show, with terrible pathos, that a person may feel pain for several moments after execution.
Some of the most riveting material follows Anne's beheading. In the last third of the book we learn the fates of such participants as Thomas Cromwell (executed a mere four years later), Thomas Wyatt, and Anne's sister-in-law Jane Boleyn (Lady Rochford), who provided damning testimony. Weir deals with the disposition of the estates of the executed men. The preparations for Henry's marriage to Jane Seymour and the erasing of Anne's name and initials on buildings, etc., are recounted. Even more fascinating are the longterm effects of her mother's execution on Queen Elizabeth I. She adopted Anne's motto (Semper Eadem - "always the same") and falcon badge, and showed favour to the Boleyn relatives - notably the Careys, who became the Lords Hunsdon (later patrons of Shakespeare's company, The Lord Chamberlain's Men).
Final chapters chart the exhumation of Anne's headless body in Victorian times, its reburial, and the growth of Anne's reputation over the succeeding centuries. Similarly, the reputation of Henry vis-a-vis Anne is also examined. In her interesting Appendix, "Legends," while refusing to be drawn on the subject of various ghostly hauntings, Weir asserts that Anne "has become a figure of romantic mythology and a symbol of national folk-lore." Every year since the 1960s, for example, on the "instructions of an undisclosed firm of Trustees," a bunch of red roses has been sent anonymously to the Tower and left till withered on her memorial.
This is a superb book in a very overcrowded field. You might think there is nothing new to say on this subject, but Weir forces you to think again. Skilfully done.
on 5 March 2010
Before this book I had never read any of Alison Weir's previous work, though Anne Boleyn's story has captivated me since studying the Tudor period in school, so when I saw a write-up of this book in a national newspaper I knew I had to read it. I wasn't at all disappointed.
I thought I knew quite a bit about Anne Boleyn. The story of her refusal to sleep with Henry VIII until they were married (or until they knew they could marry), to their marriage and then the birth of arguably Britain's greatest Queen, are all well documented via TV documentaries and the like, so I wasn't sure what I would learn from this book, but in focusing on Anne's fall, Weir has cast new light on what has to be one of the darkest periods of English history. Instead of the run-of-the mill 'she was set up' scenario we so often see, Weir examines all the evidence available and delves far below the surface.
There were times when I felt that Weir was implying that Anne was guilty, her refusal to commit to the idea that the charges against Anne were trumped up caused some frustration. On the other hand I found myself asking the very question Weir herself deals with late in the book, i.e. what could Anne have gained from hooking up with any of her co-accused, she was already married to the most powerful man in the country, who, even if his passion had faded, could still protect her from her enemies? That is what I think Weir does so well with this book, she makes the reader think and question everything for themselves rather than blindly following her lead.
The details of the sort men Rochford, Brereton, Weston, Norris and Smeaton were was almost completely new to me, and fascinating. Having now seen the details of the men and understood that they were all considered to be less than whiter-than-white, it is clear how charges of the nature they faced stuck, and seemed (at least at the time) credible. However, it is also quite easy to see how the men could have been targeted to blacken Anne's name beyond redemption.
I do feel that Weir is at times a bit too kind to Henry VIII. Sure, he demanded a thorough investigation into the allegations against Anne, and the trial followed the legal procedures of the day, but whilst the indictment against her was amended, why did Henry allow an indictment to go through that including charges that could not possibly be true because Anne was in other places at the time? Then there is the detail that Anne's executioner was called from France before Anne was condemned. These details, and others, add weight to the idea that rather than almost blindly following Cromwell's lead, Henry was probably a key player in the downfall of Anne Boleyn, or at the very least had convinced himself of her guilt, a notion that Weir plays down.
The part of the book that covers the executions of Anne and her co-accused is harrowing. Weir's writing is so vivid that it becomes almost possible for the reader to become part of events. I have to say that I have never been moved to tears by a history book until now. Then we see the likely effect that Anne's death had on her daughter, who wasn't even three when these events took place. However, again I wondered why Henry's reluctance to have what happened mentioned in front of Elizabeth was purely the act of a loving and protective father (as Weir implies) or the act of a man who had something to feel guilty about. Perhaps we will never really know.
on 21 September 2011
Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII, has long been considered to have been one of the more fascinating figures of English history. She has been the subject of numerous books, paintings and films, moreso in recent times with a renewed fervour and fascination in the wake of the success of the television series "The Tudors" and with bestselling novels like "The Other Boleyn Girl". Boleyn has garnered this fascination since events leading to her death in 1536. Anne was not a popular queen amongst her subjects, great and modest, which had led to Henry's divorce of the popular Spanish princess Catherine and Church being in a state of flux and upheaval.
In the final months of her life, as Henry's feelings for Anne had soured, with his leaving her on May Day following the supposed signs of infidelity displayed between the queen and Sir Henry Norris, displayed in his conduct following her reported dropping of a handkerchief at a joust. Soon thereafter, the queen was imprisoned in the Tower of London, charged with heinous crimes including the plotting of the death of the king, of high treason, and of adultery with five men. Among these five men were Norris, a court musician, and her own brother George, Lord Rochford. The circumstances surrounding these events leading to the trial and eventual execution of Boleyn and the five men has been raised, queried and discussed over the years.
It has been speculated that it might have been Henry who engineered the trial (which he never attended) so as to marry his latest favourite, Jane Seymour, in the hope of an heir after Anne's three unsuccessful pregnancies following the birth of his daughter Elizabeth; or whether it was Thomas Cromwell, Henry's advisor, for his own motives sought to bring down the queen; or even that Anne was in fact truly guilty of those accusations made against her? Prior to the publication of this book, other workshave been dedicated to either the reign of Henry VIII in part or as a whole, or to his wives [as a group or individually]. Amongst these earlier histories one might well include two works by Alison Weir herself, "The Lady in the Tower" being her third book covering this turbulent era of English history. That said, this is the first book to specifically focus on the queen's final months, upon the trial and on the question of Anne's actual guilt.
Once again, Alison Weir has proved herself more than adept in conveying and recounting history modern and more "mainstream" audience of readers. Sources have been selected carefully and their validity discussed without resorting to "shouting from a soapbox" nor including unnecessary and ephemeral detail which might confuse issues. At no point in the book does Weir does not resort to "dumbing down", a frequent accusation one might levy against numerous television documentaries, or the like of late. The book is accessible and well written; an enjoyable and fascinating read. Descriptive, and thought provoking in its content, and treats its intended readership with respect due. Furthermore, it also expects of its readers an acknowledgment of a degree of intelligence and knowledge of previous events, without the need to be either intimidating or condescending.
The book is amply illustrated, opening with a portrait of Anne Boleyn as she may well have looked at this time, not showing the familiar portrait of an attractive young woman with bright eyes, a slight smile and dark auburn hair under her French hood, but that of a disenchanted, sour-faced older woman, hair hidden under a gable hood. Other illustrations included in the first selection are mostly portraits and drawings complete with quotes made by contemporary observers relating to events. The second selection of illustrations show various places and objects connected with the doomed queen's final days and execution, including a ring worn by Elizabeth I with her mother's image as well as her own, and the scorched letter written to the king from "the Lady in the Tower", which has loaned itself to the name of this book.
Alison Weir has once again proved herself to be worthy of recognition as being one of the better, current, popular historians. Her books have proved to be equally accessible, which started with her history of Eleanor of Aquitaine and followed through with histories of Isabella of France, the Wars of the Roses, the heirs to the throne of Henry VIII and an excellent genealogy of the Kings of England and Scotland. Weir discusses her subject matter well in over 300 pages without having to resort to a potted history of events leading up to Anne's downfall which a lazier historian might resort to. The book doesn't resort to laying its cards on the table from the start, as with some other histories of Boleyn, which have used words such as "tragic" in their title, betraying their bias before even turning a page. Weir expresses her opinions (and not bias) as to her beliefs relating to the "guilt" of Anne and the others and successfully backs them up with solid evidence behind them without becoming militant in those views. Following her discussion of trial and execution, the aftermath of Anne's legacy to English history is discussed, and how historians have interpreted Anne since, also an understanding of Elizabeth's possible short-lived relationship with her mother, and even touches about the reported sightings of her ghost without completely dismissing them as fabrication and nonsense. All in all, a highly commended, admirable and well researched piece of work
on 28 June 2011
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this almost investigative style of writing by Alison Weir. When it came to details of Anne's fall, she left no corner or stone unturned, unearthing vivid accounts and details concerning not only Anne herself but also, the men with whom she was accused of commiting adultery with, along with the accusations hurled at her by some of her ladies in waiting such as the Countess of Worcester and Lady Rochford, both of whose motives were revealed to be highly circumspect.
However, what could have been an even greater work still (in my own humble opinion anyway) were sometimes spoilt by her remarkable portrayal of Henry, as an almost benevolent monarch, devoid of nearly any role in Anne's fall. This is the man who had executed two wives (an unprecedented act even in sixteenth century Europe, which attracted suspicion and criticism from some of his contemporaries including the Imperial ambassador and relatives of Francis I and Charles V); threatened at least three more with the same fate; threatened his own daughter with execution should she not relinquish to his demands; executed members of his own family including the aged Margaret Pole; sent highly respected senior members of his government and the clergy to their deaths without qualms because they refused to acknowledge his authority as Head of the English Church (another act which sent shockwaves across Europe and, left England severely isolated and exposed to invasion); encouraged a court where ministers were frequently catapulted from "flavour of the month" to traitors; raided and destroyed abbeys to profit the royal coffeurs; and practically forced his sister to marry a riddled and aged French king to secure an alliance.
While Weir is correct in asserting that he treated the initial stages of the affair, much in the same way as he had done with Katherine Howard, she appears to attribute almost the whole orchestration of Anne's fall to Cromwell, while implying that Henry believed Anne's guilt or was manipulated into doing so by Cromwell (depending on which way one perceives it to be).
By Cromwell's own almost boastful admission, he probably played an instrumental part in her downfall, however Henry is almost abdicated of all responsibility. This, despite the fact that he was known to be feasting with Jane Seymour, whilst Anne and her fellow accused were awaiting trial and as Ives has pointed out, Henry would later indirectly admit to his involvement in her downfall and the real motives behind it when warning Jane Seymour of the dangers of meddling with state affairs. Furthermore, as Ives, Starkey, and Warnicke have previously argued, Cromwell could not have moved against Anne, without at least some implicit approval on his part. It is known that Henry had asked him to investigate grounds for a divorce on more than one occasion previously, but her complete removal by judicial trial and execution would have been quite another matter and was simply unprecedented.
I feel that Weir's failure to explore the role Henry might or might not have played in Anne's demise, may have detracted some credibility from her arguments.
Anne was also I believe, unneccessarily harshly portrayed in other ways throughout the book, rather than the author maintaining an impartial stance. Yes, she was known to have treated Mary callously, however Weir neglected to mention previous attempts by Anne to reconcile herself with Catherine's daughter and almost vindicates any ill treatment caused to her on Henry's part.
When in the course of the book, Henry is said to have praised Mary with "tears in his eyes" in the face of Anne's threats, Weir seemingly forgets that in the reign of Jane Seymour, it would be he and not the deceased Anne, who would be ultimately responsible for forcing Mary to acknowledge her own illegitimacy, with the threat of imprisonment and execution if she did not do so. Indeed, the events following Anne's removal from power highlight that far from being returned to stable and religious conservative government, the country would continue to be plunged into ever worse religious turmoil, which should indicate that the events of 1533 - 1536, may too easily have been attributed to Anne rather than the real perpetrator, Henry - a sentiment also echoed by David Loades.
Finally, my last criticism of this book is her almost contradictory stance on Anne's guilt throughout the entire book. For instance, at some points she appears to imply that Anne is guilty, for when Anne arrives at the Tower and declares that her appartment is "too good" for her. Such a statement need not necessarily be corroborative proof of guilt but merely indicative of a woman on the brink of what may well have been a nervous collapse, as well we may expect her to have been bearing her circumstances. Also, her nervous babbling whilst imprisoned in the Tower is sometimes implied to be indications of guilt, yet once again we can hardly imagine that a woman in Anne's unprecedented circumstances, untold of what was unfolding in the outside world, was necessarily of sound mind, and as Starkey has explained, her daily revelations were part of a quest to vindicate her, although we can see how this may have been twisted to serve the ends of others.
Weir also downplays the growing London support which Anne began to receive in her final throes which downcasts the theory that most of the city believed in her complicity.
Alison Weir openly admits in this book that her interest in history began with the dramatic story of Anne Boleyn’s fall. This was the first account that was not a biography of Anne Boleyn, but concentrated just on her arrest and execution – a period of just four months, which would see not only Anne Boleyn beheaded, but also her brother and four other men, accused with her.
This fascinating, and detailed, account, begins with a May Day joust in 1536 at Greenwich. Although Anne had obviously had concerns, and had heard rumours – that Henry was possibly thinking of replacing her with Jane Seymour, for example, it is doubtful that she realised how serious the plots against her were. She could not have imagined, when Henry left the joust, that she would never see him again…
Three months earlier, on the 29th January, Anne had a miscarriage. Her seeming inability to give Henry the son he craved, the King’s infatuation with Jane Seymour, the enemies she made within the Court, especially with Cromwell and the Duke of Norfolk, her unpopularity with the people and numerous other events all helped lead to her downfall. Alison Weir goes through every possible reason that led to the unprecedented events that followed – the arrest, trial and beheading of a Queen.
Whatever your own views on what happened and whether the Queen was the victim of a plot, or that there were possible charges to answer, Weir takes you through all the evidence used against the Queen. It was certain that Anne Boleyn herself realised that she had been indiscreet and that her behaviour had made her vulnerable to accusations of impropriety. It is also clear that the King was determined to get a guilty verdict against her, regardless of the evidence.
Even though you, as the reader, are perfectly aware of the ending that faced Anne Boleyn, Lord Rochford, Norris, Brereton, Weston and Mark Smeaton; still the trials and executions read almost like a thriller. George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, is certainly to be admired for his witty and intelligent responses in court and Anne Boleyn herself was dignified and immeasurably brave. The latter part of this book looks at how the executions were viewed in England and in Europe; and also how Henry’s behaviour, and his unseemly swift marriage to Jane Seymour, was seen.
Ironically, Anne Boleyn’s great legacy was not in the male heir that she failed to give to Henry, but in the daughter she bore him. This book looks at the consequences to Elizabeth and of how she, herself, viewed the mother who still fascinates and captivates us today.
on 19 June 2010
I'm pretty much in love with Alison Weir's writing and when I saw that she was writing a book dedicated to the fall of Queen Anne Boleyn, I might have gotten a little too excited. Out of all of Henry VIII's queens, she interests me most and so little is truly known about her downfall. Was it Cromwell's machinations that led to her being executed or Henry's patience ending? I couldn't wait to know more!
The book is incredibly detailed with Weir using as many primary sources as possible. She goes over several theories whilst she tells the story and really gives the impression of having as much breadth and depth as possible whilst remaining true to the facts.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book and even though I know - as do most people who are reading it - what happens, I still found it very interesting and couldn't put it down. Well done, Alison. It's a truly brilliant read.
on 28 October 2009
Once I started, I couldn't wait to read the next chapter! Having already studied the executed Queen I didn't expect to be surprised, but this book changed my mind with regard to Henry's involvement in her fall, and the legacy left to their daughter, Elizabeth. Whilst Anne's removal was timely for Henry he was probably not the instigator of her destruction and he believed, as did almost everyone at the time, that she was actually capable of treason, incest, witchcraft etc. Indeed, Anne's reputation was so tarnished that it makes Elizabeth's survival and eventual succession even more astonishing. Whatever Anne's faults, we still can't help but pity her in those last anxious weeks, leading up to a beheading where `Death is not instantaneous: every element survives decapitation. It is a savage vivisection'.
Alison Weir has a wonderful talent to tell a story in a way which is both academic and highly accessible. She re-creates the factions and intrigues of the Tudor Court, so that meticulously researched history reads like a novel. Even if you think you know about the fall of Anne Boleyn there is something new to find here!
Alison Weir's deeply researched, thorough and unsensational examination of the last 4 dramatic months in Queen Anne Boleyn's life is a page turning, illuminating and highly anxiety inducing read, even though we know the inevitable outcome.
There are 3 major players in this drama, and the innocence and guilt of all are under question by posterity - and two of them, at the time, were not being judged in a court of law.
Anne Boleyn, now Queen, was the woman Henry VIII had broken with the powerful Church of Rome for, in order to get his first marriage to Katherine of Aragon annulled.
King Henry was an absolute monarch, and a million miles away from being any kind of benevolent dictator, though benevolence and dictatorship are an uneasy set of bedfellows anyway. Henry was far less dictator, in the end, than he was despot. At least, that is posterity's verdict.
Thomas Cromwell, son of a blacksmith, rather than of noble birth, Henry's `Master Secretary' was at this point the second most powerful person in the Kingdom, at least in a shadowy, behind the scenes, pulling the threads kind of way. Even, perhaps as much the puppet master as the ostensible real holder of the reins of power. However, holding the reins of power when the real ruler is as terrifying and at times as wilful a figure as Henry, is not a secure position. He that elevates those to power - particularly when they are not with the force of a noble family behind them - can as easily remove them from that position. And indeed, that did happen for Cromwell a few short years later.
In a totalitarian state - and this was, many will be jostling to get close to the supremely powerful figure, and in this particular version of totalitarianism, that of absolute monarchy, the King is not only monarch, but is also Divine - so there is an extra layer of fear and superstition, that of offending against God, the risking of the immortal soul, if the highest of all has his will and majesty flouted. For those who jostle to climb the slippery pole of preferment, mainly through kicking and clawing and stabbing in the back those beneath you, or greasing the palms of those above you, there must always be the knowledge that today's friend may join forces with yesterday's enemy and be the one who kicks, claws and stabs you, because new and better alliances will always present themselves. The fickle finger of fate creates new martyrs and new figures to embody power and prestige.
Much has been written of this horrific story. One of the many interesting facets of Weir's book is her analysis of the changing viewpoints of culpability over the centuries. Anne, vilified as a combination of she-devil and whore at the time, later was seen as almost someone worthy of hagiography - a woman sinned against, not sinning, a woman who fell foul of a stitched -up court, a woman framed, and victim of injustice cynically carried out by the highest in the land. Later generations have seen her almost as a feminist martyr. She was, for sure, a powerful and intelligent woman, one outspoken, and by all accounts opinionated. She was certainly not content to play the role of passive, I-know-my-place-is-under-the-foot-of-my-lord-and-master wifey which society expected. Such independence of spirit alone would be dangerous, whether or not the infidelities she was accused of were true or false, when her husband bore a fairly strong resemblance to that ogre of fairy-tale - Bluebeard. In fact, I did find myself wondering when that compelling and terrifying story originated, and from where.
Anne was later seen as a kind of martyr for religious Reformism, as she was indeed, in the developing religious schisms between Rome and England, a Reformist, and championed the cause of reform.
Whether Anne was, or was not guilty of the crimes as charged she was certainly not an unspotted open-hearted innocent. She, along with her family, like her replacement, Jane Seymour, along with her family, appeared to have an eye to the main chance. She showed little mercy to the rather more popular (with the people) Katherine of Aragon and her daughter Mary, and perhaps should not have been surprised that her husband, who had demonstrated all too readily little loyalty to a previous wife, was once again making space for a new venture into matrimony with one of the Queen's ladies in waiting. Becoming a lady in waiting must almost have seemed like a sure route to becoming Queen, in Henry's court - a kind of horizontal finishing school, perhaps! Jane Seymour, in her turn, played the main chance, though as she was fortunate enough to die in childbirth having given birth to a son she never had to face the possible demotion and vilification that might well have happened when Henry's desires moved elsewhere.
Anne was of course accused of adultery with 5 men and plotting the death of the king. Weir performs an elegant and persuasive analysis to show the charges were, at least in part, manufactured. The charges were very specific in terms of dates, places and times with the specific, named, individuals. Certainly some of the stated dates, places and partners were complete fabrications, as either Anne, or the accused lover, according to documentary evidence, were not at those places on those days, but documented as being elsewhere. She doesn't say though that inappropriate behaviour and conversation by a Queen (according to the mores of the times) of some kind was definitely NOT occurring, but that evidence itself can show that some of the specified events could not have occurred as charged.
What I particularly appreciated in this book is that she is very clear that to analyse the past by the ideas, mores and manners of the present is an activity which is fraught with danger. For example, some of the language used in some of Anne's letters to those accused with her, and some of the language apparently used on the scaffold by her have been used to `prove' her guilt - for example, the fact that in all her scaffold speeches the king is praised. There were courtly modes of address which would have been adhered to - and indeed, would have been recorded, whether or not they were uttered. And, as far as the speeches which any of the accused uttered before axes (in the case of the 5 men) or the sword (in Anne's case) were wielded - it's important to remember that totalitarian societies do not only punish those individuals it deems to have done wrong. You might know that whatever you say, you are about to face a brutal, painful death - there will be no reprieve from that - but what about those you leave behind, what about friends and family? Make too passionate a deathbed speech and you may very well be lining up those you love for savage punishment to come.
The major, culpable figures are of course the two men, Cromwell and Henry. Again, different historians (given the fact that much documentary evidence from the time no longer exists) draw different conjectures as to which of the two was MOST guilty. Weir certainly deduces Cromwell was absolutely the one who created and faked, or merely deduced and collated the evidence, but the fact that he was responding to the way the wind was blowing, as far as Henry's desires went. Henry was clearly tired of his wife and her inability to give him the necessary male heir to secure his kingdom, and as Cromwell had been a major player in securing Henry's desired release from his first wife, no doubt Anne Boleyn's fall from grace served both men well.
We all see and hear what we want to hear and what we want to see. Neither Henry - nor any of the peers sitting in judgement on Anne and the men accused with her picked apart the holes in evidence. As one of those peers was Anne's own father and another was her uncle, the dangers of coming to decisions which are not those the King desires, must be obvious. Particularly in the case of Anne's father - he was condemning not only his daughter, but his son, as Anne's brother Rochford was also one of those accused of adultery with her.
How far all this suited Henry was shown by the fact that a mere 10 days after Anne's execution he had married Jane Seymour.
I have read some reviews where the reviewer feels that Weir castigates Cromwell for too much, and that she `whitewashes' Henry. I must say I did not get any sense of a Henry `whitewash' - Weir does however try to think herself into people in their time. In that Tudor court, the terrible events of The Wars Of The Roses and an insecure succession were not that long ago. Succession happened through sons, not daughters, so the importance of a male heir felt paramount. And this was also still a highly superstitious age. Credulity existed for sure, and could also be no doubt evoked to dupe oneself as well as others. Henry was out of love with a woman he had been mad for. She was getting older and other than her first born, seemed unable to carry a child to term. Rather than looking at your own libidinous, greedy and fickle nature to explain the dreadful mistake made in your marriage choices, `being bewitched' might have seemed an explanation which had a logic which would not wash today, but probably did in those times.
Something I found absolutely fascinating in this book is that Weir lays out for us the enormously conflicting evidence which is available from eyewitnesses, over-hearers and those who were onlookers or participants. This really indicates the huge difficulties in historical research and deduction - which, the further back in time one travels, gets even harder.
Even something as theoretically simple as what Anne was wearing at her public execution is differently described by those who were there to see it all - sometimes, even disparities in the colour, never mind the fabric and decoration of her death dress.
And as for the very very different transcriptions of what she said in her `from the scaffold' speech - extraordinary! Of course, in an age where not only were there no recording devices, but no microphones, and crucially, not even any system of shorthand notation, it would be nigh on impossible to note down verbatim what someone was saying. Not to mention the fact that the high emotional anxiety of Anne, not to mention any listeners close enough to properly hear what she was saying, would have rendered memory and observation extremely suspect. No doubt acceptable spin was as active in Tudor times as it is today.
I recommend this book most highly. It combines obviously exhaustive research with clarity about rationale for interpretation, which has to be done as so little documentation actually exists about the lead up and the planning and what went on behind closed doors, obviously in secret. Weir is neither dry in her laying out of research, nor is she sensationalist - she leaves the truly sensationalist events themselves to create the jaw-dropping, gut-sickening responses which any reader of any kind of empathy and imagination will have. I was so, so pleased that her recording of what actually happened in those dreadful, savage executions was delivered sparely and un-emotively, without overblown descriptors designed to titivate a kind of delight-in-horror entertainment. The events themselves are far more horrific, and bring it all to enough life, without the cheapness of creating revved-up fiction
I'm left uneasily feeling that though on one level we are far far away from the savagery and terror of that Tudor court, in some ways, it seems uncomfortably close, in a world where women can still be the recipients of savage double-standard sentences for transgressing the mores of their society, and where totalitarian states, whether espousing religious or political ideology despotism, dispense savage punishment against individuals and groups who dare to dissent.
Weir gave me pause to think about much more than the last four months of Anne Boleyn's life
The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn
This is a well written and closely argued account of the last few months of the life of Anne Boleyn. The author agrees with the majority view that Anne was a victim of a miscarriage of justice and that there is little or no evidence to substantiate any of the charges laid against her. However, she does go to considerable lengths to analyse how Henry and contemporary society would have seen it, and thinks that Henry must himself have believed, or been able to plausibly convince himself, that the charges were or might be true, based on what he knew or believed to be traits in Anne's personality. I felt that Weir rather bent over backwards to make this point, but I was not convinced by her assertion of Henry's essential rationality. I think that Henry's reign was rather more like a modern totalitarian regime than a Medieval monarchy, and that the best comparison with the charges against and trial of Anne Boleyn is with Stalin's show trials. Like with the victims of those travesties, the charges were presented suddenly and starkly, designed to cause maximum shock in the light of the mores of the society in question and were partly backed by confessions obtained under duress; the evidence presented contained numerous factual discrepancies that would not have stood up in a court properly subject to the rule of law; and the judicial system and public opinion (to the extent that the concept existed in Tudor England) were softened for and overwhelmingly accepted the shocking outcome. To my mind, the worst that Anne might reasonably be accused of in relation to the subject matter of the charges is a certain reckless naivety and flirtatiousness beyond the then acceptable morality; but the notion of her risking adultery with anyone, let alone with five men including her brother; or of plotting to overthrow Henry is grotesquely unbelievable. The book brings across very clearly the shocking suddeness of Anne's fall in a very short period of time indeed, a feature of modern totalitarian regimes. 4.5/5