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Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions Hardcover – 6 Apr 2010
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`It is brilliantly argued, sometimes exhaustingly so, but it will reward those who come to it with an open mind.' --Linda Porter, History Today, June 2010
`A close-up, fine-focus retelling of dysfunctional royal family history.'
--Patrick Skene Catling, Irish Times, 24th May 2010
`...a book whose accessible style will mean that most readers, like this one, will devour it in a single setting.'
--Alexander Lucie-Smith, Catholic Herald, 14th May 2010
About the Author
George Bernard is Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Southampton, and Editor of the English Historical Review. His most recent book was 'The King's Reformation: Henry VIII and the Remaking of the English Church' (Yale, 2005). His earlier books include 'Power and Politics in Tudor England' (2007) and 'Studying at University' (2003).
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Professor Bernard completely disagrees. His 'Anne' was willing to be Henry's mistress and it was Henry, not her, who pushed for her to become queen. It was Henry not her who held off consummating his relationship with her until she was certain to be queen. He argues that Anne was a much less political figure than we've hitherto thought. He also argues that Anne wasn't the victim of a factional fight at all but quite probably committed adultery with at least two if not more courtiers. This is an argument that Professor Bernard has made before in articles though never as far as I'm aware in a book.
How far should we believe what he is saying. There are some intrinsic difficulties here. The only way of really knowing how the Anne-Henry relationship worked would be to have sat with them through their wooing and listen to their conversations. Bernard's only way to guess at the state of their relationship is to say that some sources reported rumours of arguments, and others said they were 'merry' together- we have no idea of what arguments went on behind closed doors, or how much Henry discussed say religious policy with his wife when they were alone. What we have is snippets of rumour from ambassadors- Bernard makes good use of a poem written by the French diplomat De Carles, letters written about the time and later accounts- often from the reign of Anne's daughter Elizabeth. Bernard puts a different weight on this evidence than other historians like Eric Ives. In some areas, in my opinion, the evidence doesn't bear that weight very well- for example Bernard stresses that it was Henry not Anne who conveyed orders to the court- but one is tempted to wonder whether that means anything. Afterall Henry was King and there is no sense that this was a dual monarchy: it does not tell us whether Anne was influencing him on the side. In other places I found Bernard's arguments more interesting- for example in his elucidation of exactly what Anne's almoner John Skip's speech to the Privy Council tells us about Anne's surprisingly conservative religious attitudes.
Ultimately this is a really useful corrective to the other so well told account. Bernard frequently stresses how different historians are to novelists (this must be a reflection on Hilary Mantel's brilliant recreations of Cromwell) in that they cannot fill in the gaps in the evidence. I think he is absolutely right. In some parts of this book it feels like he is trying to fill in gaps that historians can't fill- so I'd definitely recommend reading this book alongside a more conventional biography of Anne like that of Eric Ives. But I think its important that this book has been written: if only to show that the evidence can be read intelligently in another way. Ultimately we will never really know whether Anne was or was not guilty of adultery (what evidence there was has vanished), whether she or Henry held off from sex and her precise role in influencing Henry at court. Bernard shows us a different Anne to our conventional one and the fact he can suggests that we should as he argues remind ourselves in this case as in so many others of how little not how much we actually can know.
a) that Anne wasn't particularly religious and had little to do with the Reformation;
b) that it was Henry who withheld from a full sexual relationship with Anne for five or so years until they could be decently married;
c) that Anne really did sleep with the five men with whom she was accused of committing adultery, including her brother.
It has to be said that the evidence to support these positions is a little fragile, to say the least, so this book is primarily based in interpretation.
I don't know enough about the religious context to accept or fully reject the first point. But that it was Henry who refused to sleep with Anne for about five years doesn't feel convincing. Bernard suggests that Henry was so concerned about only having sex within marriage so that any children would be free from the stain of illegitimacy - but that assumes that from the moment he saw Anne, Henry knew that he wanted to marry her. His letters to Anne (from the late 20s) as well as his previous and later behaviour with other women don't really support this. Henry, as king of England, doesn't appear to have been a man used to or even wanting to restrain any of his appetites, and on Anne's first arrival at the English court she was just another attractive girl for him to consume. Why would he then hold himself back?
The third proposition that Anne really was stupid enough to commit serial adultery in the face of the public court equally doesn't really stand up, in my view. Bernard's `evidence' here is a single poem written after the events. To believe this, we would also have to believe that Anne took her first lover, Mark Smeaton, just a month after having given birth to Elizabeth in 1533. Apart from the physical issues here, the argument relies on the idea that the marriage was already faulty: but Henry seems to have been delighted with baby Elizabeth, even though she wasn't the male heir he required. Anne was only about 26 or so at this point, and there was no indication that she wouldn't go on to have more children, including the desperately-wanted boy. So why would she, mere weeks after having given birth, sleep with Smeaton?
As for the idea that Anne committed incest with her brother and got pregnant - we're now in Philippa Gregory territory. Bernard suggests that she was so desperate for another child that she slept with her brother, and then the child was spontaneously aborted because of its `unnatural' provenance. No evidence to support this, other than the trial accusations.
So this is worth reading for its revisionary approach: Bernard is, of course, right to assert that we shouldn't take `history' as a given, that we should still interrogate the records. I simply don't find his arguments convincing, lacking, as they do, evidence for his suppositions.
This is a book with `talks back' to previous scholarship, particularly Ives (The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn: The Most Happy), and Warnicke (The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: Family Politics at the Court of Henry VIII), so it's not really a book for anyone wanting to take their first steps into this period: it assumes we know the story and the literature to date.
It's also not a particularly well-written book in terms of prose style; it feels a bit jagged and rough to me, perhaps the result of lots of editing and cutting.
So this is definitely worth a read, but I'm afraid it didn't convince me at all.
Worth reading definitely but not a "groundbreaking biography"
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