I recently read an interesting post on ‘The Anne Boleyn Files’ (http://www.theanneboleynfiles.com/20907/anne-boleyn-again/) about the interest in Anne Boleyn, and how she seems to be everywhere. As Claire Ridgway quotes from Eric Ives, “Anne Boleyn was so much more important than the circumstances of her execution”. She changed foreign and domestic policy, and made English kings almost unbeatable because they had so much power after the Break with Rome that no one dared to gainsay them.
I think that it is a good thing that there is so much interest in her and the era in which she lives. I do not think that the biography by Lacey Baldwin Smith is “yet another book on Anne Boleyn” which is how some described it when it was released, because each new study that comes out adds something to the historiography. Similarly, with new works on Henry VIII or Thomas Cromwell or Elizabeth I. For example, Henry VIII can be seen as a mindless autocratic tyrant, or an easily manipulated man. Cromwell can be seen as the victim of a ruthless king, or as the architect of his own downfall. Elizabeth I can be seen as the Virgin Queen and engineer of a Golden Age, or a woman easily led by her carnal desires who lost her virginity to her stepfather.
Regarding the biography of Anne by Lacey Baldwin Smith, I just thought it was worth mentioning how interesting her earlier work has been. I really enjoyed her article on ‘Treason Trials in the Sixteenth Century’, which discussed Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard. I have not yet read her biography of Katherine Howard, or her new one of Henry VIII, but they are on my to-read list. Having now read her biography of Anne, I did find it a little disappointing as it was quite short and could not cover the key issues in detail, which was a shame. However, she did offer some interesting insights, particularly on the continuing interest in Anne Boleyn. “Anne is an exceptional case, for her life was a double helix intertwining extraordinary human drama with profound historical crisis”.[i] It is precisely these types of insights that make works on Anne Boleyn so interesting because it allows the reader or historian to gain several different points of view, and apply the facts to the insights.
However, Baldwin Smith’s account is not the most startling. G.W. Bernard has gone completely against the grain and has suggested that the charges against Anne and the others were ‘at least credible, and, quite probably, in part true’.[ii] I disagree emphatically with this argument. I believe that Anne and her so-called ‘accomplices’ were completely innocent of the charges against them. However, I do think that Anne was a little loose in her speech and so that gave rise to some of the rumours and speculation that eventually brought her down.
Another thing about Anne Boleyn which fascinates me is how quickly Henry VIII acted to remove all signs of Anne Boleyn from his life and his palaces. At Hampton Court Palace, workmen attempted to remove all of Anne’s emblems, portraits and initials, although several at least were overlooked and, as Susan Bordo points out ‘even the guides … at Hampton Court are not sure how many there are’ that survive today.[iii] Henry had painted Anne all over everything during their courtship – her badge of the falcon and her emblem of the leopard, and even her initials intertwined with the king. When Anne was executed all of this was removed or adapted to become Jane Seymour’s emblem or badge or initials. It is this erasure of Anne Boleyn that has made her so interesting to historians all over the world.
Like Claire Ridgway on ‘The Anne Boleyn Files’ I am fascinated by Anne Boleyn and research and write about her on a daily basis. Again, I think Claire has the right of it, saying each to their own in their likes and whom they choose to write about. In time, I hope to branch out from Anne Boleyn to the other wives, Mary I and Elizabeth, but I doubt they will exercise as much fascination over me as Anne does, because they are not as controversial, and there are less debates around them than the most controversial of Henry VIII’s wives.
Anne did not save the world, but she did change it. Because of her, England had its first successful female monarch who brought in a Golden Age, and put Spain in her place – Elizabeth I. Without Anne, Elizabeth would not have been born, England would not have broken with Rome, and Henry VIII would not be remembered as vividly as he is today. It is all of these things that make Anne Boleyn such a fascinating woman. I am convinced that interest in her will endure.
[i] Lacey Baldwin Smith, Anne Boleyn: the Queen of Controversy (Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2013), p. 9
[ii] G.W. Bernard, Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2011), p. 193
[iii] Susan Bordo, The Creation of Anne Boleyn: in Search of the Tudors’ Most Notorious Queen (London: Oneworld Publications, 2014), p. x