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Review: The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn

Review: The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn

Title: The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn
Author: Eric Ives
Published: 2004
Length: 458 pages (includes image plates, notes, bibliography, and index)

My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ½

Frequently referred to as the “Anne Boleyn bible,” Dr. Ives’ book is the most extensive biographical work dealing with the second wife of King Henry VIII to date. He argues that Anne is “the most influential and important queen consort [England] has ever had” and makes a compelling case, though even his dedicated scholarship has difficulty resurrecting Anne’s personality.  As a result, this biography–while fascinating, enlightening, and very often moving–differs from those of more modern historical figures in that readers won’t come away feeling as though they know Anne very well. But one thing of which they will be certain: Anne Boleyn was “a remarkable woman,” deeply flawed and deeply wronged (by husband and history both) who did indeed “set [the] whole country [of England] in a roar.”

It’s worth mentioning at the outset that Ives, while he admires and respects Anne a great deal, is as objective as one can hope for. His opinion of Henry VIII is quite low, but he does not pretend that his subject was a saint.

Ives begins by piecing together Anne’s earliest years from the sparse evidence remaining; he makes clear that despite later claims to the contrary, she “was born a great lady” and “was better born than Henry VIII’s three other English wives.” He also definitively clears up the question of Anne’s age. Based on his research, it’s a sure bet that she was born in 1501, not 1507.

His in-depth discussion of Anne’s adolescent years in the court of Margaret of Austria was particularly valuable. While Anne is most often associated with France, her time in the Low Countries seems to have been her most formative; according to Ives, she was polished in France but was shaped into a sophisticated continental courtier in Mechelen.

Ives also devotes a great deal of space to Anne’s appearance (i.e., which painting is the closest likeness?) I thought this section dragged on too long. It felt more like fluff than scholarship. Anne was not beautiful, but she was striking. Elizabeth I was known to resemble her mother quite strongly. What more do you need to know?

He also spent a chapter discussing the sources for Anne’s life. Unsurprisingly, much like Richard III, there’s a lot of bias and vitriol to wade through, because Anne was a polarizing figure. Add to this challenge the fact that Anne was–as Ives puts it–a “non-person” for the twenty years between her death and her daughter’s ascension to the throne. Who knows what information was lost or distorted in that time? I only wish he had been a bit more critical of the Spanish ambassador–Chapuys–as a source, since Chapuys was an obvious supporter of Katherine of Aragon and Princess Mary and called Anne “the Concubine.”

He goes on to analyze more myths and misconceptions about Anne, chief among them that she was the cause of Henry’s “Great Matter.” On the contrary, he says:

Two developments were, in fact, at work concurrently–the move to divorce Katherine of Aragon, and Henry’s growing involvement with Anne–and initially and for a long time they were quite separate. The rejection of Katherine had begun in 1524 when Henry gave up sleeping with her, although he had clearly been drifting away for some years. (83)

I thought Ives did an especially good job of arguing that Henry’s feelings for Anne were quite genuine, and while he admits that we really can’t know what Anne’s were for him, he neither paints her as a helpless victim of sexual harassment, nor a conniving and cold-hearted woman driven solely by ambition. The book actually changed my mind in this regard. It seems to me that Anne indeed fell in love as well–at least for a time.

Much of the divorce material felt less like a biography and more like a general history of the time. Given the limited information Ives has on Anne’s personal life, perhaps that’s to be expected, but it made for dry reading–and Ives isn’t a poor writer by any means. Even in the chapter recounting Cardinal Wolsey’s downfall, Anne and her actions failed to stand out.

But after this lull, Ives reminds readers that:

Anne was where she was [betrothed to the king of England] because of her own character and merits, a self-made woman who saw no percentage in bloodless simpering. Submissiveness had not won the king; Anne’s attraction was challenge. (145)

His subject comes back to the fore as Henry and Anne finally consummate their love and wed in secret. Ives gives Anne plenty of agency in this matter–heaps it onto her, in fact–by proposing that going to Henry’s bed at last was Anne’s checkmate; her choice, not his, in order to secure “secure the formal commitment she had always stood out for” and ensure “that she would be the wife in possession whenever the divorce came through.” That’s speculation, of course, but based on Ives’ portrait of Anne as as intelligent and politically savvy, it makes perfect sense. That is the real strength here: Ives may be doing some guesswork, but he only guesses as far as his evidence supports.

He describes Anne’s coronation in lavish detail and makes it clear that, while she was “not universally popular,” there was no open booing or jeering as has often been claimed. It was a ceremony designed to show off the splendor of the monarchy, and indeed:

The magnificent pageant had drawn thousands of excited spectators, and what they had seen was the city oligarchy and the elite of the realm uniting the honor the king’s second wife. … Who could blame the populace for concluding that those who knew agreed with what Henry had done? And who could expect critics … not to look at the banks [of the Thames] as they passed and decide Henry had popular support for his actions? … All apostatized before the king’s command; all had bowed the knee to the new goddess. (175)

Likewise, he dismisses the notion that the birth of Elizabeth in 1533 was a “crushing psychological blow,” merely a “disappointment.” It did make Anne more vulnerable, of course, but not because Henry was suddenly disillusioned.

The next section, “Anne the Queen,” is the most satisfying. Here more than anywhere, Anne comes alive–simply because there is more information to be had. Her were learn more about her as a stepmother (she is notorious for being cruel to Princess Mary, but Ives points out that she made several attempts to show Mary kindness, only to be rudely spurned by Katherine’s daughter), as the mistress of a household, as a wife, and of course, as a renaissance queen.

There is sadly little about Anne’s relationship with her daughter Elizabeth, which Ives attributes–again–to a lack of information. Perhaps Ives’ comments on Anne’s scaffold speech have to suffice in that area:

Once more we feel compelled to ask, ‘How could she not protest her innocence?’ Convention demanded it; religion demanded it, and it would be Elizabeth who would suffer from the luxury of defying he king and his supposed justice. (358, emphasis mine)

All the same, it breaks your heart to know that due to tradition and expectation, Anne had such a short time with her only child, much of it consumed with producing another.

Also fascinating and valuable is are the insights about Anne’s personal religion. Here again, Ives presents her as neither extreme. Rather than the zealous, almost radical reformer–the Protestant martyr–of other texts, his Anne is a moderate. She supported English Bibles and “reform of abuses and superstitions” in the Church, but also believed–for example–in “the sacrifice of the mass” (i.e. the Eucharist). In short, Anne supported the break with the Roman Church; she was a reformer with some heretical notions; but she was still Catholic.

Ives attributes Anne’s fatal falling-out with Thomas Cromwell had its roots in her charity and her commitment to education. Anne wanted the substantial wealth of the dissolved monasteries to go “to education and other charitable causes” instead of into the royal treasury. I found this especially touching considering how unpopular Anne supposedly was with those same people–from whom she, an Englishwoman born, came!

The final section is, in turn, the most enlightening. While Ives plainly doesn’t care for Jane Seymour–for which I suppose he could be criticized, though not by me–he offers interesting insight into both Anne’s marriage and state of mind during her final months in 1536. Her miscarriage in January, for instance, was not her “last chance”. She resented Jane and saw her as a rival because:

[P]ersonal emotion was the basis of his relationship with Anne and hers with him. … Anne was compelled to fight to protect this personal relationship with Henry. … She could not ignore it if her husband had become infatuated with Jane … Though tolerating infidelity would have been the safer course, Anne was forced to put herself on a level with Jane… (303)

But the most surprising revelation in Ives’ book was his argument that Cromwell, not Henry, really doomed Anne. Henry–contrary to popular belief–did not grow tired of his wife of just three years and demand that Cromwell find a way to rid him of her so that he might marry Jane. Rather, Cromwell saw his views diverging from Anne’s and therefore felt that his power and influence with the king were in danger. During “the last week in April [the week prior to Anne’s arrest]…Henry continued to insist on vindicating the Boleyn marriage,” further supporting the idea that Cromwell made his move without the king’s knowledge or even desire.

Never fear: Ives doesn’t write Henry off as completely innocent, either. He quarreled with Anne a few days before her arrest and proceeded to swallow Cromwell’s weak, trumped-up evidence hook, line, and sinker. But it was the very man whose career Anne had made who really brought her down.

So here, too, is Anne at her most sympathetic, her most admirable. Ives holds nothing back. He admits that some of Anne’s behavior as queen could be considered inappropriate–or at least less than regal.  But after closely examining all the charges against her, he states unequivocally:

Under analysis, the case presented by the Crown in 1536 collapses. But one decisive argument for innocence remains–the evidence the Crown was unable to produce. … The queen would normally be attended, day and night. … In no way could she pursue a liaison unaided. … [W]here was Anne Boleyn’s accomplice? How could a queen live a nymphomaniac life without help?  Here is ‘the dog that did not bark’. Indeed, far from being accused or even smeared by association with their disgraced mistress, Anne’s attendants switched their service to Jane Seymour. Anne could simply not have behaved as alleged. (348)

Had I not already fallen in love with Anne long ago, and all over again through reading this book, I would have surely done so in these last few chapters. Likewise, I was already convinced of Anne’s innocence, but I am now more than ever. I’m not ashamed to say that I cried a little as Anne hurtled, defenseless and forsaken, towards her undeserved doom. But as Ives says at the very end, perhaps when Anne was vindicated at last when her unwanted daughter–who wore her face, who shared her love of music and dancing and fashion, and who wore a ring with her image inside it until the day she died–ascended the throne.

Now that this ridiculously long quasi-review has come to an end, I’ll try to sum up my ramblings. Ives was an engaging, if somewhat repetitive, writer. Some sections were still rather dry, but perhaps that can’t be helped. His deep analysis and careful consideration of the evidence were what made the book shine. However, those looking to know Anne intimately will be disappointed. Readers get glimpses of her, but never enough to complete the puzzle in its entirety.

Nevertheless, the picture Ives does paint is of a fascinating and tragic woman well ahead of her time, one who helped change the course of history and whose life was cut unjustly short by the very men who claimed to love and serve her.

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2 responses »

  1. Pingback: Review: For Darkness Shows the Stars | Luthien Reviews

  2. Pingback: (Ranty) Review: The Boleyn King | Luthien Reviews

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