To understand Anne Boleyn, we have to know about her world first. Her roots, going back to the very beginning, tracing her family story, her role in the shifting religious climate of the Tudor era and finally, the differing views on women. When it comes to giving these women’s a voice, nobody is more suited for this task than renowned women’s historian, Amy Licence. The past comes alive in her new biography on Henry VIII’s second consort, and the mother to one of the world’s greatest female leaders who ruled England the longest out of all her dynasty, Elizabeth I.
Anne Boleyn lived during a time when many changes were going on. Nobody could have predicted her fall, or how far Henry VIII would have gone to have her. Nevertheless, looking back further, some things about her character start to make more sense.
Like her previous biography on Catherine of Aragon, this is a very detailed book. Highlighting the difference in status and the ever-changing cultural norms regarding gender, religion, and ceremony, she pulls the reader in to the 15th and 16th century eras. Another thing that I enjoyed from this book is that she did not shy away from the brutality and prejudices that characterized these time periods.
We often forget that these were people, subject to the same emotional and physical pain, although the later was augmented two-fold given the time and place they lived in, and the large gamble many of the up-and-coming families like the Boleyns took; nevertheless, something set them apart. They viewed the world through dark-colored lens.
The courts where Anne Boleyn served women like the archduchess Margaret of Austria and Queens Mary (her future husband’s youngest sister when she married Louis XII) and Claude of France, and later Henry’s first queen, Catherine of Aragon, valued order above all else. Decorum and class were everything for these people. Everything had to be structured, otherwise, society would come crumbling down and with it, chaos would reign.
Anne Boleyn was aware of this so she chose to follow the rules unlike her spirited sister Mary. But Anne was spirited in her own way. Instead of giving herself freely to men, be it through pressure or for passion, she preferred to shine by showing off her intellectual attributes. Her etiquette, her subtle playful and comely behavior, her occasional defiance, her passion for the new learning and indulging others, including Henry Percy and later the king, in harmless games of courtly love is what made her into one of the most alluring and interesting women at the Tudor court.
But, and this is something that historians still ask (and will likely continue to ask in the many years to come), is this what she intended? Was Anne Boleyn responsible for her fall? Was she a victim, pawn, or villain, homewrecker, or all of these things neatly wrapped together? Amy Licence doesn’t pretend to know the answer and as the book progresses, she is not about to give a definite answer but merely what she believed happened given what we know so far, and leave the rest for the reader to decide.
This is what a good historian. He or she gives the reader as much information as it is available, separates fact from fiction, primary from secondary sources and explaining the why, what, where, and when of the latter- letting the reader come to his own conclusion.
Anne Boleyn was a woman of many faces. She was a woman who might not have started out as the ambitious and unique ‘it’ girl from fiction, but as things got out of hand, she saw no other way but to play the waiting game and indulge the King. Having a strong moral compass -and another one of self-preservation- she did not let him take her virtue just like that. If the two of them were going to be together, he had to propose something grander. And ultimately that was marriage.
The road to the marriage bed was paved with obstacles, and it didn’t become any easier after she was crowned Queen of England. Anne was the first and only consort ever to be crowned with the crown of St. Edward the confessor -meant only for kings and queen regnants. Henry’s choice for this was not merely because of his passion and adoration for her, it was to symbolize something greater. He was not going to let anybody question their unborn child’s legitimacy, hence, his wife was going to have a coronation unlike something that hadn’t been seen before.
This is what the monarchy meant. Displays of force and splendor -and if there was something that Henry loved most of all, was wasting no expense on the latter.
But things turned sour and the rest as they say is history. Anne Boleyn’s story plays out like a Greek tragedy. A woman who chose to take the reins of her own destiny like her ancestors before her and navigate dangerous waters. Her gamble paid off (in the beginning). But she ended up losing everything. Yet, something of her remained, something which has catapulted her to fame. Her daughter. Elizabeth I is remembered as one of England’s greatest rulers. “Good Queen Bess”, “Virgin Queen” “Glorianna”, there is no shortage of titles that history has bestowed on her. But when it comes to Anne, people are still divided.
How do we view her? How do we judge a woman whose moral ambiguity still troubles many? The answer is simple and sometimes the simplest answer is the best: We view her as a woman of her times, a woman of her status, who rose too high and who was brought down by various factors. Some of them her doing, many of them not. Once we do this, a new picture of Anne starts to emerge -the same one which Amy Licence brings back to life in this stunning biography of one of England’s infamous femme-fatale.
Those of you interested in learning more about women’s lives, the struggles they faced, and how they used their different strengths to survive and fight against the rising tide, will devour this book.
Few historians choose to focus on women’s lives, and on the harsh realities that others had to face. And even fewer historians choose not to shy away from the less than flamboyant details that these people had to face, and this includes women’s hygiene, their ordeals during pregnancy, widowhood, and general views regarding these by the old and new church.
Ultimately, this biography is a great addition to our Tudor history bookshelves and more importantly to women’s history as it reminds us why Anne Boleyn is still relevant, and how easy it is for her story to be misappropriated or distorted. It is a product of the ever changing times just as she was a product of hers.