The meteoric rise and swift fall of Anne Boleyn, she of the thousand days, has gripped the imagination even of sober-minded academic historians, Eric Ives describing it as ‘the most romantic, the most scandalous tragedy in English history’. Much of the fascination derives from the fact that the evidence is confusing, and no explanation appears to reconcile all contradictions. Even her contemporaries could not agree about her. Was she a delicate beauty, as Sir Thomas Wyatt’s poetry suggests, and as she herself insinuated in her allusion to her long slender neck ever so convenient for the headsman? Or was she only moderately attractive, as some foreign diplomats reported in their dispatches home? Did she even have a disfiguring sixth finger or at least some sort of slight deformity on one of her hands? Was she demure and pious, hugely charitable to the poor, as the martyrologist John Foxe would claim in the next generation? Or was she a calculating vixen, no better than Henry’s concubine, as the imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys inevitably called her? Can she be understood apart from her predecessor Catherine of Aragon, and did the final drama play itself out in the reigns of their two daughters Mary and Elizabeth? Is she, in other words, the mother of the English reformed church or the arch-heretic, a modern-day Jezebel, as the English recusants would later view her?
When Eric Ives published his massively researched and carefully documented Anne Boleyn in 1986 one might have assumed that most of the contradictions would have been resolved, or at least the last word would have been spoken. In fact Anne Boleyn initiated what has been described as a kind of trench warfare among Tudor historians. By Ives’s interpretation sexual energy and emotional intensity elevated Anne, and court faction brought her down, a temporary coalescence of the interests of Thomas Cromwell and the conservatives who supported Mary. Nor could Ives find a shred of evidence that any of her putative lovers (including her own brother) ever committed adultery with her, although at least one was betrayed by the flirtatious necessities of the game of courtly love. In direct opposition to Ives, Retha Warnicke argued in The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn, published in 1989, that Anne’s miscarriage of 1536, when she was supposedly delivered of a deformed foetus, fuelled rumours of her witchcraft, confirming the disillusioned Henry’s belief that she had literally bewitched him into marrying her. Using the techniques of feminism and psycho-history Warnicke claimed that her book rescued the real Anne from the iron grip of male hegemony and allowed her to speak for herself.
Although both Ives and Warnicke disagreed on almost every other point, they were united in their belief that Anne was innocent of the charges laid against her. In the early Nineties, George Bernard appeared on the scene and published a series of articles in which he, sounding rather like a witness for the prosecution, argued that Anne was guilty as charged, that she did indeed sleep with at least one, if not more, of the accused. It is at least possible that her reason was a practical one: she needed a male child and Henry was incapable of begetting one, just as her brother would proclaim at his trial in 1536.
What then has happened in the past decade to justify a new biography? Ives still maintains his basic hypothesis: that faction explains Anne’s fall, that if ever there was a villain, if ever a dog bit the hand that fed it, it was Thomas Cromwell, and that Henry was manipulated into Jane Seymour’s arms by those for whom it would be advantageous. Nor has any new group of documents come to light. There have, however, been new developments. First, the post-mortem inventory of Henry VIII’s goods has been published through the enthusiastic efforts of its general editor David Starkey. (It was a monumental task and in overseeing its achievement Starkey brought to fruition an endeavour which had been imminent for some 200 years.) This allows us to get a much more intimate view of the physical world in which Henry and Anne moved and interacted both with each other and their retainers. It was, moreover, a world where there was extraordinary magnificence but almost no personal space. And it was this lack of privacy, so Ives maintains, that makes the charges of adultery completely ludicrous. Privacy, as he observes, occurred only in the privy and that is not where Anne met with her brother and the others.
Another Henrician inventory, that of the Palace of Westminster in 1542, has appeared just this month, too late for Ives to consult (The 1542 Inventory of Whitehall edited by Maria Hayward, two volumes, Illuminata Publishers for the Society of Antiquaries of London, ISBN 0954791606). This contains a list of almost 1,000 books in the Upper Library at Westminster: amongst these is a collection in French issued by Simon Du Bois, the evangelical printer and protégé of the French king’s reformist sister Marguerite of Navarre. An analysis of this cache, published in 1998, showed that it included the copy texts for two of Anne’s grandest manuscripts and that the transformation from print to manuscript, from intimate individual reading matter to public icon — the book as decorative object — provides a key to explain how proto-Lutheranism was permeating English court culture in the early 1530s. Even more dramatically, this material was being translated into English by Anne’s brother George, and was being displayed quite literally under the nose of his notoriously anti-Lutheran brother-in-law. In 1986 Ives had devoted some space to the two manu- scripts in which the Englished versions of Du Bois’ books appeared, and had posited, in opposition to George Bernard and others, that Anne had relatively advanced religious views. He did not at that point, however, realise how compelling the evidence was, nor how instrumental George Boleyn was in its propagation. Although not guilty of incest, Anne’s brother certainly incited religious change and he remained proud of his accomplishments until his dying moments, proclaiming from the scaffold, ‘I was one of those who did most to procure the matter to place the Word of God among the people because of the love and affection which I bear for the Gospel and the truth of Christ’s words.’
What is most exciting about The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn is not just that it has confirmed and solidified Ives’s earlier work and presented it in a more accessible format. (Like John Guy, Ives has discovered that the Starkey model really does work and that popularisation — ‘to place among the people’ — should not be a term of opprobrium.) Rather, it is the development in methodology, the indication that cultural studies and the history of the book have provided us with new ways to evaluate evidence, to interpret the past. Ultimately, we may not be able to understand fully how Anne felt as distinct from what she did — Ives observes that ‘historians see through a glass darkly; they know in part and they pronounce in part’ — but we have a significantly fuller understanding than we did in 1986.
The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn concludes with a rhetorical question: ‘Is it fanciful to feel that after 20 years [ie at Elizabeth’s coronation] the mother in the nearby grave of St Peter was at last vindicated?’ More than a decade ago I saw the distinguished recusant scholar and Oxford librarian David Rogers in Duke Humfrey deeply engaged in a passionate discussion. As I approached him he shook his head and sadly lamented: ‘Who would have thought that woman would live so long?’ I did not have to ask to whom he was referring. Whether Elizabeth’s reign was a vindication of her mother’s life and death or a tragedy for England depends on your religious perspective; but it is virtually impossible, as Ives’s book forcefully reminds us, to
be objective about it even 400 years later.
James P. Carley is a Distinguished Research Professor at York University, Toronto. His forthcoming The Books of King Henry VIII and his Wives will be published by the British Library in the autumn.