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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Anne Boleyn: A New Life of England's Tragic Queen

Denny, Joanna. Anne Boleyn: A New Life of England's Tragic Queen. The Introduction includes this quote by Samuel Butler: "Though God cannot alter the past, historians can." Truly, that is exactly what has run through my mind on almost every page of this biography. How easy it is to alter history! It has been done so many times.--all that is required is pen to paper. If it is read and repeated often enough it must be true. If the historian or biographer omits this fact, the picture changes drastically. If something else is emphasized, the importance shifts.

Denny's sympathies are obviously with Anne, and frankly, mine are as well. Yet so little of the truth is known. So much is speculation. My preference is that a biographer present information in a more objective fashion.

Most modern historians have taken a much more objective approach to Anne than was the case immediately after her execution. Catholics called her a whore and held her responsible for the Act of Supremacy. At the other extreme, Protestants and advocates of the Reformation began treating her as a sort of martyr for her religious beliefs. Anne certainly supported Church Reform and progressive thought that challenged Catholic orthodoxy, and her enemies certainly included some staunch Catholics, but her execution was, ultimately, to clear the way for Henry's marriage to Jane Seymore.

The charges against her, of adultery and incest, seem extravagant and even Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador who despised her wrote:

"Although everybody rejoices at the execution of the whore there are some who murmur at the mode of procedure against her and the others, and people speak variously of the king; and it will not pacify the world when it is known what has passed and is passing between him and Jane Seymour."
Here are some interesting tidbits from the biography:

  • Henry had his father's ministers Empson and Dudley arrested and executed when he became king. (a preview of things to come; one estimate is that some 50,000 people were executed under his reign)
  • Sir Thomas More was by no means the martyr celebrated in A Man For All Seasons; he was, instead, a persecutor of heretics (Lutherans). His own words are stunningly offensive, so I won't quote them, but p. 102 in the biography gives his own words, which are damning.
  • Chapuys (the Spanish Ambassador) didn't believe that Jane Seymore was either pious or chaste and writes that the King "may marry her on condition she is a maid, and when he wants a divorce there will be plenty of witnesses ready to testify that she was not."
  • Chapuys (who hated Anne and referred to her as "the Whore" or "the Concubine" ) believed that Anne was a victim and condemned "without valid proof or confession."
  • The Lord Mayor of London commented during the trial: "I can only oberve one thing in this trial--the fixed resolution to get rid of the Queen at any price."

  • Denny presents Catherine of Aragon in what I consider an unfair light. She makes judgements about her that may certainly be true, but are presented as fact without evidence. Catherine fought the divorce/annulment. Whether she was a strong and valiant woman or the virago Denny believes is open to question. What woman who is being told that she committed incest and that her daughter is illegitimate is going to happy about it?
  • Every attempt of Catherine to block or delay the divorce, Denny treats as unreasonable, obstinate, and arrogant behavior.
  • She does the same with Anne, in the reverse, presenting her as the leading force in the Reformation. I'd prefer to present her evidence and state her opinion as opinion or possibility, rather than as fact.
(Ex. "From a first reaction of alarm, even repugnance, at becoming the target of the King's unwelcome advances, Anne's feelings now changed dramatically. It was not the barrage of letters and gifts, the pestering attention or songs of love which brought about this sea change. It was not a growing affection for Henry or a desire to become his wife. Least of all was it personal ambition to be lauded as Queen with all the riches and dazzling privileges which Henry could give her. All Anne's ambition was now focused on what she could achive for her faith should be thrust into that exalted position," (132).

The emphasis is mine. This excerpt is an example of interpretation of facts. It may be true, but how can we possibly know?
  • Denny sometimes uses quotes that are not introduced and without indentifying the speaker, using only a footnote. I had to flip back and forth to the Notes section to discover who said what in several cases.

Overall, I enjoyed this biography because there was so much information. I even enjoyed "arguing" with Denny about her obvious prejudice in favor of Anne. In a way, it may me read more closely, question more, research more. Anne Boleyn remains an intriquing figure; many questions can never be answered about how she really felt about Harry Percy, about her relationship with Henry, about her dedication to her faith. Her behavior at her trial and execution, however, is well documented, and the lady died with courage and dignity.

Biography. 327 pages + Notes & Extensive Bibliography. Copyright 2004.


  1. Wow! Very interesting. Its been so long since I've studied any of this in humanities/history that I barely remember anything about it. Love that opening quote...too true! Whether or not it was exactly what you wanted it to be it sounds like you really got alot out of the experience of reading this book.

  2. Carl - Yes, I can recommend this biography with a few caveats. I'm really enjoying the biographies so far. Last year,s biography on Eudora Welty had so much needless information. Reading a social calendar can get boring. Voltaire and Anne were never boring!

  3. I really don't read biographies but I admit I'm a bit fascinated by Anne Boleyn. Did you ever read The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory? I know that's fiction but it was just such a fun read.

  4. For some reason I thought that this was a fiction book. Never realised that it was a biography.

  5. iliana - Gregory has 2 novels that are on my list of fiction that I'd like to read on the subject. I've been compiling a list of fiction and non-fiction about Anne and that period of history!

    Marg - Actually, Denny has written fiction previously; this is her first non-fiction, I believe. One of her ancestors was in the court at the time and is quoted in the biography--she does have a personal interest in the subject!

  6. I've had a lifelong fascination with Anne Boleyn but I would not go so far as to say her overriding goal was church reformation! Sounds like this biographer definitely let her personal feelings get in the way of objectivity.

    The Boleyn Inheritance has some interesting (albeit fictionalized) insight into the aftermath of Anne's death and Henry's other wives. A great followup to The Other Boleyn Girl!

  7. This sounds like an interesting biography. I go in phases with books on this period. I have a whole slew of them! The thing with NF/biographies is you really never know how much is true--even with autobiographies. I imagine, though, the author would have to be really "involved" with their subject to write a biography, and it might be hard to try and stay objective.

  8. Lesley - Yes, Denny's personal feelings are obvious. I enjoy "fictional insights," but would rather a biographer refrain.

    I've a list of fictional accounts in which I'm interested, and Gregory's novels are definitely on it.

    Danielle - Of course, it is difficult for any author to remaind completely unbiased. Generally speaking, I'm more distrusting of autobiographies than any other form, but there is revelation even in these.

    Denny has some excellent information even if she isn't objective.

  9. What a fabulous review. You obviously are well-informed about this time period in England. When I do read this I'm going to come back and reread your review. I have much to learn in this area.