Review of Alison Weir’s ‘The Lady in the Tower: the Fall of Anne Boleyn’

Alison Weir's 'The Lady in the Tower: the Fall of Anne Boleyn' (2009).
Alison Weir’s ‘The Lady in the Tower: the Fall of Anne Boleyn’ (2009).

Alison Weir, ‘The Lady in the Tower: the Fall of Anne Boleyn’ (London: Random House, 2009) Hardback, ISBN 978-0-224-06319-7

Title: A lot of biographies of Anne Boleyn are simply called ‘Anne Boleyn’ but Weir tries to set herself away from the pack. However, the title also suggests popular history rather than scholarly, and Weir is definitely a more ‘popular’ historian.

Preface: I think that Weir sets herself up too much in the Preface – she doesn’t live up to what she promises in the majority of the book. Weir herself refers in the preface to her section on ‘Notes on the Sources’, but this was confusing and didn’t really add much useful information.

Citations: Alison Weir is probably my least favourite historian for citations. They are often unclear, and don’t always give page references, which is a must to allow others to ratify her findings. When referencing the ‘Letters and Papers’ she simply puts ‘LP’, not including the volume number, or in fact whether it’s a letter, or official document and who it pertains to.

Contents: I did like the contents page, and how each chapter is titled by a famous quote linked to the period. However, I think she could have put subtitles as well, in order to aid understanding for those less familiar with the topic.

Genre/Audience: The book is historical fact but, as mentioned previously, it does veer away from scholarly history, and into the realms of ‘popular’ history, which detracts from its usefulness. This, and the unclear footnotes, makes the book probably more useful for someone relatively new to the topic, and just looking for an introduction rather than any in depth discussion of the sources.

Concepts: The concepts that Weir discusses sometimes come across as a bit half-hearted. For example, the survival of (or lack of) evidence and the depositions (pp. 210-1) seems confusing, and Weir doesn’t seem to have researched it very thoroughly, or looked at a variety of opinions. Weir mentions the importance of factional politics at several points, but fails to fully explain it, obviously thinking that historians would understand what she was talking about. However, the fact that this book seems a more ‘popular’ history, means a discussion of the wider importance of factional politics would have been politic (example of vagueness on p. 31).

Sources: She focuses on David Starkey when looking at the lack of surviving evidence, and quotes “several writers”, though she fails to name them. This casts aspersions on her evidence base, which her footnotes do nothing to dispel. Weir continues this vague notion of quoting historians without naming them in various other sections of her work, including a discussion of Lady Wingfield’s evidence where she looks at the writing of “some historians” and “various writers” (p. 78).

Illustrations: I do find illustrations helpful in historical works. Because my work is on perception and image they are particularly useful to me. It is also interesting to see which images historians choose to include in their works – are they popular ones? Unusual ones? In Weir’s case, the images she chooses are unusual. She chooses not the portrait people would recognise as Anne, but a dubious one which has been seen as both Jane Seymour and Anne Boleyn (between pages 144-5). She chooses similar images of Mary I and Jane Seymour – ones that we wouldn’t recognise as them, and only a pencil sketch of Mary (same pages as above). What is interesting about Weir’s choice of images to include is that she chooses an overwhelmingly large number of artistic drawings, including romanticised ones, and stained glass window effigies.

Alison Weir
Alison Weir

Other works: This isn’t Weir’s first work on Anne Boleyn. In the introduction she acknowledges her previous work in Henry VIII: King and Court as well as The Six Wives of Henry VIII. The citations in these were no better. Personally, I preferred works on Anne by David Starkey (Six Wives: the Queens of Henry VIII) and Eric Ives (The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn). I felt that Starkey and Ives had a better contextual grasp of what they were talking about, and they seemed to have done more research into the sources they were discussing. Weir’s work was lacking in this area.

My Rating: 13 / 20


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