Anne Boleyn G. W. Bernard

Yale, pp.237, 20

‘His cursed concubine.’ That was the imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys’ judgment on Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn.

‘His cursed concubine.’ That was the imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys’ judgment on Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. And that was mild. The abbot of Whitby called Anne a ‘common stud whore’. The judge Sir John Spelman noted during her trial that ‘there never was such a whore in the realm’. And, of course, Henry VIII beheaded her.

Anne, rather like our own Diana, caught some heavy flak for having a sexy reputation. She was gossiped about as the court bike long before she shacked up with the king, and was convicted by a jury of the greatest nobles in the land (including the Duke of Suffolk, the Marquess of Exeter, and the Earls of Arundel, Oxford, Westmoreland, Derby, Worcester, Rutland, Sussex and Huntingdon) on charges of quintuple adultery while married to him. The most monstrous of the charges was that of incest committed with her brother, George Boleyn, Lord Rochford.

To most Tudor historians, the adultery stuff has sounded pretty rum. As G. W. Bernard puts it in this book, they have decided that ‘the very notion that a queen could have committed adultery, and with five men, is so preposterous that it is hardly worth considering’. But Bernard thinks it may have if not the smack of truth then at least the pong of plausibility about it.

Historiographical orthodoxy offers three main arguments about Anne. First, she was a flirty girl-about-court whose pheromones drove Henry bonkers. She knew it, too. Since Henry was unable to distinguish between thinking with his codpiece and his crown, and since Anne refused to put out for six years, queenship became the price for her affections and her childbearing potential. In other words, she finagled the divorce and the break with Rome by keeping her knickers on.

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The second argument is that, once queen, Anne became the focus for religious reformers at court. If not the sort of hot Protestant that was around in her daughter Elizabeth I’s reign, she was what has been loosely called an ‘evangelical’. She pushed her religious politics onto Henry and thus played an important role in advancing the break with Rome into a fully-fledged Henrician Reformation.

Third, Anne was destroyed because she fell foul of court faction and Thomas Cromwell. Impotent Henry, the sad clown with his pecker drooping, was still hankering for a son. Eventually he was prepared to be led into destroying his second marriage, and Anne was framed on the adultery charges.

Bernard takes issue with all three of these narrative strands. First, he argues that it was Henry, not Anne, who held back in the bedroom and who pushed forward in the papal politicking. Bernard’s Anne is a passive recipient of royal affection and policy. ‘Anne did not, as is so often thought, play a leading role in Henry’s campaign for his divorce,’ he writes.

Once queen, says Bernard, Anne was actually rather religiously orthodox. Her hot-Prod creds were puffed up during Elizabeth’s reign by William Latymer and John Foxe, both of whom had good reason: they wanted to push Elizabeth into further religious reform. Yet the reality, says Bernard, is that Anne did not even grasp the concept of justification by faith — a basic tenet of Lutheranism.

Finally, Bernard’s Anne was destroyed in a large part by her own misadventure. Frustrated by Henry’s uniquely trying combination of impotence and priapism, she was careless about public perception of her relationships with other men. Bernard shrewdly stops just short of pronouncing Anne guilty of the adultery charges, but employs the Scots lawyers’ verdict of ‘not proven’ — which is a different matter altogether.

Lawyerly would be a good word to describe this book. It is not really a biography in the style of Eric Ives’s great work or the relevant bit of David Starkey’s Six Wives (Bernard has plenty to say in his footnotes about both).Rather, it is a series of evidence reviews-cum-lectures on Anne’s life.

But Bernard has worked his fingers deep into the greasy corners of the sources, like a man picking a chicken carcass for one last oyster of meat. And his book is pleasantly written, since any book about Anne that is not digestible to a broad audience is missing a trick.

If occasionally the advocacy feels a little too forced — particularly in the chapter on Anne’s religion — then the book is certainly an attention grabber. But I wouldn’t bet on Ives or Starkey taking this one very calmly. ‘Woah Nelly!’ as they say across the Pond — I think I can smell a fight brewing.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Biography, History, Monarchy, Non-fiction, Sex