Book Reviews Non-Fiction
The Lady in the Tower - The Fall of Anne Boleyn, McClellan & Stewart, hardcover, 343 pages, includes illustrations, $34.99, ISBN 978-0-7710-8766-0
By Alidė Kohlhaas
Anne Boleyn had as her greatest asset her daughter Elizabeth I. Yet, she never witnessed the Virgin Queen's ascent to the throne of England, the third monarch to do so after Henry VIII's death. Neither she nor Henry probably would have thought it possible that their child would ever reign, and that the daughter would exceed the father's greatness as monarch. That through this greatness she somewhat erased the shadow that fell over the Tudor Rose because of her parent's affairs. Anne may also have been the catalyst that propelled England toward Protestantism. Well read and influenced by Protestant ideals, Anne sympathized with the men around Henry VIII, who wanted not only to reform the Church, but also bring about England's separation from Rome's dominance.
Married a mere three years to Henry, Anne became pregnant four times in that brief time, a physical and mental strain that must have played havoc with her health. Besides being weakened from these frequent pregnancies, several historians have put forward that she may have been Rhesus negative, a blood condition no one would have understood in the 16th century. It may have been the reason she produced no living male heir for Henry after Elizabeth's birth. And this, just as it had for Katherine of Aragon, who had failed in this task in six pregnancies, spelled her doom. Neither woman had been able to satisfy Henry's obsession to have a son to ensure future succession of the Tudor line.
This obsession derived partly from his desire to avoid more internal civil strife, the kind that caused the War of the Roses. It only concluded when his father became Henry VII, the first of the Tudor monarchs. Henry VII, representing the House of Lancasterits symbol a Red Rosesolved the problem admirably by marrying Elizabeth, daughter of Edward IV from the House of Yorkrepresented by a White Rosethe best surviving Yorkist claimant to rule England. He thereby reunited the two royal houses. These historic notes are placed here to give a brief background to The Lady in the Tower - The Fall of Anne Boleyn by Alison Weir.
Anne's infamy had two reasons. Her marriage to Henry VIII, the result of an annulment of his marriage to Katharine of Aragon, caused the split of the English Church from the Roman Church and Henry's excommunication and that of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. This, in itself, had nothing to do with the influence Anne's Protestant notions may have had on Henry's thoughts. But she became known as the King's concubine among her enemies. We should keep in mind, however, that had she died from an illness or in childbirth, we would hardly be discussing her. The second reason is more salacious. She was tried and executed for high treason for allegedly having had sexual relationships with five men, including her brother George. This latter fact has made her the kind of subject that is hard to resist. I am using the world alleged to describe the accusations because Weir makes a pretty good case in her latest book that the charges against Anne and the accused men were trumped-up charges. But even if she had not written so convincingly, women who have undergone childbirth, most likely will wonder how Anne would have had the energy or the time, given all of her pregnancies, to carry on with the alleged affairs. In this book Weir then confirms what many have always suspected because of the bizarre aspects of this trial. Yet, we will really never know the truth other than forming opinions and conjectures based on a few available documents.
Weir is a respected historian who has written a number of well-researched non-fiction books, several of which dealt with the Tudors, including The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1991), Children of England: The Heirs of King Henry VIII (1996, later reissued as The Children of Henry VIII), Elizabeth, The Queen (1998), and Henry VIII: The King and His Court (2001). She is also the author of several historic fiction novels.
In The Lady in the Tower, the title taken from a letter that may or may not have been written by Anne during her brief incarceration in the Tower of London, Weir focuses on just four months in the Queen's life. They begin on January 8, 1536, the day Katherine of Aragon dies (referred to by Henry as the Dowager Princess of Wales, widow of his brother Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales, a title re-conferred on her after Henry had summarily annulled their marriage so he could marry Anne). The news of Katherine's death at Kimbolton Castle in Huntingdonshire, where she had been exiled once the seven-year battle for the annulment began, apparently caused joy in the royal household.
Weir writes, 'Anne crowed in triumph, "Now I am indeed a queen!"' Both she and Henry are said to have worn yellow for their mourning apparel. Weir surmises that it had nothing to do with honoring Katherine for being a member of the Spanish royals as it is a misconception that yellow was Spanish color for mourning. She also reveals that '. . .the King was "like transported with joy" and expressed relief at her death, praising God for freeing his realm from the threat of war with the Emperor (Charles V).'
It seems, however, from various reports, that Anne's joy masked her anxiety that Henry might banish her as he had Katherine. If so, it may have been because Anne realized that now her enemies, who never accepted her marriage as legal, may see Henry as a widower who is free to take another wife. She had more than an inkling that this wife was already waiting in the wings. The seemingly demure Jane Seymour had been openly courted by Henry. Anne's only hope of staying in favor was that her new pregnancy resulted in the long-awaited son.
Two events seem to have, at least in Anne's eyes, caused the miscarriage of this child after about 15 weeks gestation. Henry fell off his horse and for a brief time was thought to have died. The news greatly upset Anne and five days later she had her miscarriage. But, to add insult to injury, on the morning of her personal misfortune, she had come across Henry with Jane Seymour on his knees. Anne had become hysterical, and soon after miscarried a fetus that appeared to have been yet another male. When later on angry words passed between Anne and Henry about the 'wench Seymour', he apparently told his grieving wife, "he would have no more boys by her."
Still, for a while, they outwardly carried on as if nothing had happened. It appears, however, that various ideas were bandied about between Henry and his chief advisor, Thomas Cromwell, on how to best dissolve this now unwanted marriage. Cromwell had once been Anne's champion, but by 1536 the Boleyns seemed to have been in his way. From Weir's observations one gets a sense that he was the central cog of a conspiracy that included his own opponents, namely those who championed the very Catholic Mary, Henry's daughter by Katherine. Others who appeared to be part to this conspiracy, were those who had political motives, including her own uncle, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk. He presided over Anne's trial, the outcome of which had clearly been decided before it began. Weir brings out evidence to that fact through documented evidence and through adding up dates and time.
No one claims that Anne was an innocent prior to being courted by Henry. At the French court her flirtatious nature had been well known. Her father had sent her to France, as he had earlier his daughter Mary, to be 'finished'. There she had acquired manners and form of dress very foreign to the English. But, clever girl that she was, Anne kept Henry at bay, refusing to be his mistress, as her older sister Mary had been. As is so often the case when one wants something very badly, the more it appears impossible to obtain, the more one wants it. So, Henry fought for over six years to bed Anne. Only when she was sure that she would be queen, did she acquiesce. The result was the pregnancy, which produced Elizabeth. A hasty, secret marriage ensued that was then repeated openly once Henry had annulled his marriage to Katherine with the support of Cranmer and Cromwell.
Weir begins the book on May 2, 1536, the all important May Day Festival and the royal 'solemn joust' held in the tiltyard at Greenwich Castle, Henry's birthplace. Weir described it as an 'outwardly' happy occasion and Henry apparently "gave himself up to enjoyment." Among the jousters were Anne's brother, Georgethe leading challengerand several other young men who all would soon be accused of having consorted with the Queen.
A message passed to Henry halfway through the jousts caused him to leave for Westminster, "having not above six persons with him." While it appears that Anne had either known or sensed for several days at least that something was afoot against her, she could hardly have known that when the King left, it was the last time she saw him. As Weir put it, " . . . that she herself and those gallant contestants in the jousts were about to be annihilated. . ." They would all be dead within 17 days of the jousting event. Very swift justice, indeed.
While Weir elegantly moves toward the final end, the moment when Anne's head falls to the French sword, she also looks back and sideways in this story to give us an amazing picture of 16th century intrigue. Her father distanced himself from Anne and George to save himself; George's own wife, Jane, is a prosecution witness to their supposed incestuous relationship. There is the strange manner in which Anne is accused of adultery, yet at the same time her marriage is annulled and Elizabeth declared a bastard, just as her older half-sister Mary had been when Katharine's marriage had been annulled. The contradictions here are obvious to us, but seem to not have occurred to the trial judge and the multitude of nobles serving as jury.
The more Weir answers questions the more we also want to ask more. She based her book, in part, on various reports by ambassadors to Spain, France, and the emissary of the Pope. Observers all, from the distance. Yet, we also know that court documents about her case seem to have been deliberately destroyed or never really existed. What remains to us is that Weir has written a very fine book that keeps one reading right to the very end even if now and then it is more scholarly investigation than ribald revelation.
Interestingly, Weir suggests that Henry, who was quite superstitious as well as religious, was also easily influenced. The is why she placed Cromwell in the center of the plot to get rid of Anne. This contradicts historian David Starkey's idea about the two men. He called Cromwell the "jackal to Henry's lion." Yet, recently I saw Starkey narrating his series on Henry VIII in which he tells us about Henry VII's death. The soon to be Henry VIII had been raised mostly by his Yorkist mother as a scholar rather than a statesman because of his second place in a future succession. The heir-apparent was Arthur, the Prince of Wales. Once placed in the top spot when Arthur died suddenly, Henry agreed to keep Henry VII's death secret for four days to make it possible for the Yorkists to get rid of his father's Lancastrians advisors. One doubts that the then 18-year-old would have had enough political acumen to think of the idea himself. So, Starkey has given us a reason to believe that Henry could have been influenced by the wily Cromwell, thereby contradicting himself. So, we are left where we started. We have to come to our own conclusions. This, to me, makes The Lady In the Tower even more worth reading than any ordinary historic investigation.
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