Good lord! When I said I’d do a Thursday book post, I didn’t realize Thursdays were going to start coming at me so fast and furiously! When did every day become Thursday? I feel like I just did Katherine of Aragon a minute ago.
Katherine was the first of the six wives of Henry VIII. Anne Boleyn was Henry’s second wife and the most famous one. That’s what you get when your husband has your head chopped off: lasting fame. Not much of a consolation for the head thing, is it? Henry was married to Katherine when Anne caught his eye. Generally, anything the king wanted was his for the taking, but Anne decided she wasn’t going to become a king’s mistress like her sister Mary Boleyn. She would be queen or nothing and she managed to fend Henry off for seven years while he tried to divorce Katherine. When the Pope wouldn’t grant a divorce from Katherine, Henry started his own church which, not surprisingly, was more obliging.
Henry finally married Anne in 1533. Her coronation took place that year when she was pregnant with what turned out to be her only surviving child: Princess Elizabeth. Considering that Henry’s main excuse for divorcing Katherine was his need for male heirs, this wasn’t the best outcome for Anne. Anne was only queen for a thousand days before Henry had her executed.
I always wonder why Anne, who cleverly manipulated Henry for so many years, fell apart after her wedding. Maybe it was the cumulative stress of those long years of maneuvering to be queen — years during which she endured harsh criticism from the public and the court. Maybe it was panic over her failure to produce a son (Elizabeth was followed by several miscarriages.) Whatever the reason, Anne seemed not to realize that a royal wife’s role needed to be played differently from a royal mistress’s. When she was pregnant and Henry was ogling another lady in her entourage, for instance, she threw a most un-Katherine-like tantrum. “You would best close your eyes,” Henry said ominously, “as your betters did before you.”
The ultimate Anne biography is The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives. The most popular Anne fiction is The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory (soon to be a movie starring Natalie Portman as Anne). The story is told from the perspective of Anne’s sister and Henry’s ex-mistress, Mary Boleyn. I feel that book really gets Anne’s psychology. However, there is also quite a bit of poetic license, including the portrayal of her brother George as gay/bisexual (not that there is anything wrong with that; it’s just unlikely to be true) and the far more … er … “poetic” plot point of having George committing incest with Anne to give Henry an heir. An accusation of incest did figure prominently in sending both Anne and George to their deaths, but reasonable people have long dismissed the claims as trumped-up by Henry and his advisers, who were desperate to get rid of Wife #2 without the hassle of another long divorce battle.
As far as I know, the non-fiction book that created the “George is gay” theory was one by Retha Warnicke. I was amused by a note in the preface about an unfortunate (for the author) “great minds think alike” moment: “While I was engaged in investigating the life and person of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second queen, Professor E. W. Ives’ monumental biography of her was published and its appearance would seem to call for a justification of this book.” In other words, there was no need for this book unless it offered a big surprise. History is always open to reinterpretation, so I don’t fault the author for making the most of a theory. That doesn’t mean I’m convinced!
There’s still a lot to say about Anne Boleyn and many books to recommend. I will save that for my next book post. In the meantime, you can enjoy Thomas Wyatt’s beautiful poem about the elusive Anne Boleyn.
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