- Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions
G.W. Bernard's Anne Boleyn is Anne Boleyn as we have never known her. Despite the claim of the inside cover, it is not really a biography. It is a book about interpretation—a series of intricate arguments unpicking previous interpretations of a historical character whose role and importance have always been contested. Interpretation is everything, because, in Anne's case, the surviving evidence is regrettably incomplete and impressionistic. Indeed, much of the evidence comes down to little more than early interpretations. Even Bernard's favorite source, Lancelot de Carles's contemporary poem on the queen's unhappy fall and fate, was originally drawn up as an object lesson in mutability, an exploration of patience and providence, and not in any sense a simple history or testimony. The scantiness of the sources gives the book an inevitably unbalanced structure. Anne's reign as queen—her last three years—takes up two-thirds of the book, and half of that focuses on her fall, her last three months. Yet the book is both entertaining and instructive. Bernard is nothing if not argumentative, and the reader is always drawn into the debate, applauding as the author slaughters another sacred cow or else raising an eyebrow at some dubious move in the argument.
The absence of evidence is Bernard's stock in trade, and it is in negative mode that he is at his best. His book is an extraordinarily successful demonstration of how much less we know of Anne than we had thought. A shrewd critical eye is turned on the circumstances and motives of those who created the historical record on which our limited knowledge depends; and an even sharper eye distinguishes between evidence and interpretation or opinion. Thus he points out that there is simply no contemporary evidence for the almost universally shared opinion that Anne resisted Henry's advances for years, making marriage the price of sexual surrender—although there is no more evidence for his own theory that it was Henry, not Anne, who wanted marriage rather than an affair. Bernard's insistent skepticism has many triumphs along the way. The notion that Anne's final and miscarried pregnancy delivered a deformed foetus is decisively swept away, as is the equally curious notion that accusations of witchcraft were overshadowing the queen in her final months. The idea that Cromwell orchestrated a fiendish plot to bring about Anne's destruction is shown to rest on nothing more than a somewhat ambiguous remark of Cromwell's, hearsay evidence after the event. Bernard's skepticism, however, is not entirely consistent. His most eye-catching, albeit tentative, claim is that maybe Anne really was guilty of at least some of the charges of adultery on which she was convicted. Yet the evidence here is thin [End Page 793] and for the most part goes no further than the charges formally brought in court. These charges, as Bernard himself acknowledges, contain some striking inconsistencies and hardly constitute evidence in their own right.
In other directions his skepticism can go too far. There is rather more evidence for Anne's religious interests than for most other aspects of her life and character. Yet Bernard is so determined to brush aside any idea of "Lutheran" or "evangelical" sympathies on her part that this evidence is neither fully presented nor always fairly handled. Thus his discussion of Anne's ornate vellum copy of the 1534 edition of Tyndale's New Testament veers into special pleading. The significance of this artifact is not adequately dismissed with the comments that it was "sent to her as a present" and that it does not "offer convincing proof that Anne herself was a Lutheran" (p. 97). There can, moreover, be a surprising lack of sensitivity in Bernard's assessment of religious issues, evident for example in his claim on the same page that Thomas Gascoigne's Mirror of Our Lady, by providing English translations of the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Creed, "in some respects anticipated...