- The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn
Anne Boleyn's rise and fall at the court of Henry VIII spanned ten momentous years (1526-36) marking the origins of the English Reformation, one of the great revolutions of the early modern era. During this period Anne's fate was bound inseparably to that of the English church and state. The story runs from the first moments of Henry's doubts about the legitimacy of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon through his break with the papacy (1533-34) and attack on the monasteries (1536). Anne helped Henry make this revolution: a woman of charismatic will and political acumen, she stiffened his resolve in facing down Rome, securing his divorce, and asserting the royal supremacy, or headship of the new Church of England.
The fascination with Anne derives from the sensational circumstances of her courtship, marriage, and death — "the most romantic, the most scandalous tragedy in English history" (319). Reviled by many as the concubine who displaced a rightful queen, she was beheaded on outrageous, fabricated charges of treason, witchcraft, and sexual depravity. In the sixteenth-century Catholic world, this legacy of scandal lived on because Anne, the helpmate of religious schism, was also the mother of Elizabeth I, in Catholic eyes a Jezebel-usurper and judicial murderer of Mary Queen of Scots. Perhaps only opera can express most fully the emotional drama of such a life. Well before the first performance of Donizetti's Anna Bolena (1830), Anne Boleyn had become legend, one colored by myth and propaganda.
Eric Ives has cut through the myths and misconceptions. The volume under review here is fundamentally the second edition of his Anne Boleyn, first published in 1986 by Blackwell. During the interim the author took into account several notable contributions to Anne Boleyn studies by Retha Warnicke (1989), Antonia Fraser (1992), and David Starkey (2003). The result surpasses all previous work. For once, a dust-jacket blurb has it right: this is "the finest, most accurate study of Anne Boleyn we are ever likely to possess" (John Guy).
What makes Ives's portrait so persuasive is not merely the depth and breadth of his investigation, but the even-handed way in which he engages nearly five centuries of historical controversy. On the most controversial points of interpretation he cites all of the relevant original sources — for example, including in the case of Anne's likeness, photographs of the most important artistic representations of her — and by presenting in fluid analytical prose what one almost invariably feels must be the most reasonable, sensible conclusions. This is typically accomplished by a process of clear-headed deduction. Consider, for example, historians' [End Page 255] use of the diplomatic reports of Eustace Chapuys, Charles V's ambassador. Chapuys claimed that Anne was deeply involved in the intrigues that destroyed Thomas Cardinal Wolsey in 1529. Warnicke dismissed Chapuys's letters as biased. Ives judiciously weighs the strengths and limitations of Chapuys's dispatches and concludes that "to dismiss them as inherently unreliable is to accept that we shall never know. . . . It certainly does not allow us to assume that if their evidence is rejected, this establishes that she was not involved!" (56-57).
Controversy over Anne's life and downfall will not go away, if only because at crucial points we simply lack hard evidence. Perhaps Henry VIII really did believe that Anne had seduced him to marry her by means of sorcery — hence his conviction that because she had given him no sons, God must have damned their marriage from the start. But even if Henry accepted such a rationale after Anne's miscarriage of a male fetus in January 1536, we still know nothing certain about the origins of the plot to destroy her. Ives makes Thomas Cromwell the Machiavellian architect of a double conspiracy, one designed to bring down both Queen Anne and Cromwell's enemies in the king's privy chamber. Ives's account...