Book Review – Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions by G W Bernard

Posted By on April 28, 2010

There has been lots of controversy over this new Anne Boleyn biography because, unlike other modern historians like Eric Ives, G W Bernard is of the opinion that Anne Boleyn may have been guilty. This theory has had Anne Boleyn fans around the world up in arms but I decided to read Bernard’s book with an open mind and refrain from judging a book by its cover, or rather all of the newspaper articles about it. I was pleasantly surprised and my blood actually did not boil once.

My history teacher used to say that you can argue any point of view in an essay as long as you back it up with evidence and Bernard has made a good use of primary sources in backing up his views.

Here is an overview, rather than a review, of Professor Bernard’s book:-

Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions

List of Illustrations

There are sixteen illustrations in the book, including a photo of Anne’s letter to her father c1513, portraits of Anne Boleyn, Holbein’s “Apollo and the Muses on Parnassus”, one of Anne Boleyn’s Book of Hours and the portrait medal of Anne Boleyn.

Preface

Bernard explains how he was intrigued by Anne Boleyn and her story and that, as an historian, he wanted to test the things he had been taught and the “powerful images” of Anne that we see on the big screen and in novels. He explains that:-

“My approach is rather to ask questions at every turn, always to show where our information comes from… and to share with you my reasoning, and indeed my speculation, albeit I hope informed speculation, on matters on which the evidence alone is tantalisingly inconclusive or frustratingly absent.”

Chapter 1: “These bloody days have broken my heart” The Fall of Anne Boleyn

In this short introductory chapter, Bernard sets the scene for his book. He writes of the arrests of Mark Smeaton, Henry Norris, George Boleyn, William Brereton, Sir Francis Weston, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Sir Richard Page and Anne Boleyn and asks what they did to deserve such treatment. He talks of the allegations against them and the amazement of contemporaries like Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, how present day historians believe that the allegations against Anne and the men are “too preposterous for words” and how it is generally believed that Anne and her alleged lovers were framed, “but maybe that is too hasty a response. Was there rather more substance to the charges for which Anne and her friends paid with their lives” – that is what Bernard explores in the rest of the book.

Chapter 2: Who was Anne Boleyn?

Here, Bernard looks at Anne Boleyn’s background, the Boleyn family’s history, the possible dates of birth of the Boleyn children, Anne’s early life, her time at Margaret of Austria’s court, her time in France with Queen Claude, her links with Marguerite of Angoulême, her return to England, the proposed marriage between Anne and James Butler, Anne’s relationship with Henry Percy and Thomas Wyatt’s love for her.

Chapter 3: “Whose pretty dukkys I trust shortly to kiss” Henry VIII’s Infatuation with Anne

Bernard starts this chapter by exploring what Anne was like – her appearance, her French manner etc – and then he moves on to look at how Henry and Anne became involved and what their relationship was like.

There is an excellent section in this chapter on Henry’s love letters to Anne and this is where Bernard poses an interesting question – was it Henry who held back from sexual relations? Bernard puts forward the idea that Henry did not want Anne to become pregnant while he was seeking an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon because it would then be “obvious that his reason for seeking annulment of his marriage was his passion for Anne, not scruples of conscience over the validity of his marriage to Catherine” and “his moral case for that annulment would be undermined.” Also, once Henry had chosen Anne to be his future queen, it was essential for any child resulting from their union to be legitimate.

Chapter 4: “The King’s Great Matter” Henry’s Divorce and Anne

In this chapter, Bernard argues that apart from being the other woman Anne Boleyn had no role in the divorce proceedings at all and that “Anne’s was the conventional role of the woman who waited, and received less attention and a shorter letter than usual, while her husband-to-be pressed on with the hard work that would make their marriage possible.”

Bernard believes that Henry’s reading of Simon Fish’s tract, “Supplication for the Beggars”, was “all rather accidental”, that Anne and her family were not “the driving force behind policy” and that Anne did not play “a leading part in bringing down Wolsey.” Many people view Anne and Henry as a partnership at this time, working on the divorce proceedings together and with Anne giving Henry the theological ideas he needed to seek the annulment and break with Rome, but Bernard does not agree with this image of Anne or Henry. His Anne is in the background and his Henry is the one taking control of things.

This chapter also covers Anne’s role in the treatment of Catherine and Mary, the start of Anne and Henry’s sexual relationship, their marriage and Anne’s coronation.

Chapter 5: “The most happy” King Henry and Queen Anne

This short chapter looks at Anne and Henry’s marriage, which Bernard describes as “sunshine and showers, showers and sunshine”. It also covers Elizabeth’s birth, Anne’s second pregnancy, the mystery mistress in 1534 and Anne’s precarious position. Bernard concludes by saying that “on the whole, then, Henry and Anne’s marriage was strong; but there were ups and downs, and all was against the backcloth of the annulment of Henry’s first marriage and the consequent break with Rome.”

Chapter 6 She “wore yellow for the mourning” Anne Against Catherine

Here, Bernard explores the reports of Eustace Chapuys regarding Anne’s feelings towards Catherine and Mary, her alleged plots to poison them and how it may actually have been a political move by Henry to blame Anne for Mary’s poor treatment so that he could remain at peace with Charles V and so Mary would not take against her father.

Chapter 7 “I have done so many good deeds in my life” Anne Boleyn’s Religion

If you have read my articles “Anne Boleyn’s Faith” and “Anne Boleyn and the Reformation”, you will already know Bernard’s thought on Anne’s religion. In this chapter, Bernard challenges those who see Anne as a Protestant heroine, an evangelical reformer, a Lutheran or heretic, and concludes that “there is nothing that clinches the case for Anne as evangelical or proto-protestant.”

This is the chapter that I struggled with. It was very well written and Bernard made a great case for his point of view but I didn’t agree with:-

  • Bernard’s use of labels – I think it was far too early at this stage, in the 1530s, to label anyone in England as “Protestant”, “Lutheran” or “Evangelical”. Just because Anne doesn’t clearly fit into the label “Lutheran” it does not mean that she was not reformist in her views or that her faith was not a personal one.
  • Bernard’s views on George Boleyn- Bernard uses evidence from the privy purse expenses to show that George was “so committed a gamer and sportsman” that he would not have had the time to translate the manuscripts he is said to have given Anne. Bernard writes that “Rochford’s interests were more those of a courtier-nobleman than of a scholar” but I cannot see why George cannot be both.
  • Bernard’s views that John Skip’s sermon, Anne’s words in the Tower about “good deeds” and her desire to be shriven after her trial mean that she was not “evangelical” in her outlook.
  • Bernard’s theory that Anne was simply following Henry’s lead as far as religion was concerned.

Chapter 8 Anne’s Miscarriage

Here, Bernard looks at Anne Boleyn’s miscarriage of January 1536, the deformed foetus myth and the idea that Anne was a witch, Henry’s relationship with Jane Seymour and the state of his marriage. He dismisses the deformed foetus theory and the witchcraft idea and ends the chapter by concluding that Anne was secure in Henry’s favour as late as the 25th April 1536 and “right up to the moment of Anne’s arrest, then, there is little to show that Henry was anything but fully committed to his marriage.”

Chapter 9 Conspiracy?

This chapter is a very interesting chapter because it considers the idea that Anne Boleyn was the “victim of factional conspiracy.” Bernard looks at the “factions” at court, he considers Sir Nicholas Carew and his alleged coaching of Jane Seymour and then presents his arguments against the factional conspiracy theory and the idea that Cromwell conspired to bring Anne down. I must say that I still agree with Ives’s arguments regarding faction battles and Cromwell’s role in Anne’s downfall but Bernard backs up his theory well and really makes you think about things.

Chapter 10 “A much higher fault” The Countess of Worcester’s Charge Against Anne

Bernard starts this chapter by making the point that until 1542 it was not considered treason for a queen to commit adultery but that “it was held against Anne that by committing adultery she had compromised the legitimacy of any children she had by the king” and that she and her alleged lovers were also said to have “sought the destruction of the king.” Bernard then goes on to look at the Countess of Worcester’s role in Anne’s downfall, the poem of Lancelot de Carles that tells of the Countess justifying her own behaviour by saying that the Queen had behaved worse and that she had committed adultery and that “her brother has carnal knowledge of her in bed.”

While many modern historians dismiss de Carles’s poem, Bernard writes of how de Carles was a contemporary, that he was serving the French Ambassador at the court of Henry VIII and that there is no reason to doubt his word. He also explains that the Countess was one of Anne’s ladies, that she would have been aware of it if Anne had slept around, that Anne’s ladies could have been complicit in Anne’s affairs and that John Hussee also identifies the Countess as Anne’s principal accuser, giving credence to de Carles’s account. Bernard concludes the chapter by saying that whatever teh truth of the Countess of Worcester’s allegation “it becomes easy to understand how and why Henry should have found the charges against Anne plausible and ordered her arrest.”

Chapter 11 “You would look to have me” Anne’s Lovers?

This is the chapter where you have to put your own strong feelings regarding Anne’s innocence aside and read it with an open mind. In this chapter, Bernard considers one of the sources we have for Anne’s alleged infidelities: Sir William Kingston’s letters. These letters record Anne’s words during her time in the Tower, what she said anout her behaviour and that of her alleged lovers. Bernard says:-

“All in all, what Kingston’s letters revealed about Anne was far from flattering. Such conversation [those with Norris and Weston] were sure to be regarded as inappropriate for any married woman, and a fortiori for a queen. Anne had been behaving like a young lady-in-waiting she had long been, not with the dignity and restraint befitting her new status. What she said does not offer definite or detailed support for the charges of adultery brought against her. But through her indiscretions she made herself look guilty in the eyes of the king.”

Bernard goes on to look at the indictments and dismisses the argument from some historians that the dates of Anne’s alleged adultery do not make sense, and are not even theoretically possible, by making the point that it would be impossible for any witnesses to remember the exact date and that because “lawyers had to set out the charges in due legal form” they had to attach dates to the alleged offences and so had to use “informed guesswork”. He argues that we cannot dismiss the charges against Anne simply because the dates may be wrong.

The rest of the chapter considers Henry VIII’s impotence, the jury and how they surely could not be “party to what, if Anne was innocent, would have been an unimaginably grotesque miscarriage of justice”, Cranmer’s reaction to the trial, Anne’s letter to Henry, her words on the scaffold, the release of Wyatt, Page and Bryan, Mark Smeaton’s confession, the allegation of incest and then he looks at each of Anne’s alleged lovers in turn. A very interesting chapter!

Chapter 12 “Incontinent living so rank and common” Was Anne Guilty?

Although it is very tempting to ignore the rest of the book and just jump to this chapter, please don’t. You really need to read the book in order. Here, Bernard writes of how “there simply is not sufficient evidence to conclude beyond reasonable doubt that Anne, her brother, Norris, Weston, Brereton and Smeaton were guilty” but that this “does not mean that they were all innocent.” Bernard considers Anne’s flirtatious behaviour, her widespread reputation as a “whore”, the climate of “dancing and pastime” in her household, her defiance at Henry’s infidelities and her “foolish and reckless behaviour”. He concludes that everything can be considered as a “series of misunderstandings” due to “unguarded speech and gossip” but that “it remains my own hunch that Anne had indeed committed adultery with Norris, probably with Smeaton, possibly with Weston, and was then the victim of the most appalling bad luck when the countess of Worcester, one of her trusted ladies, contrived in a moment of irritation with her brother to trigger the devastating chain of events that led inexorably to Anne’s downfall.”

Now, I don’t agree with Bernard at all here. I believe Anne Boleyn was innocent but this chapter left me thinking that Anne’s flirtatious nature, her sometimes rather reckless behaviour, may well have led to Henry believing what he was told about her and abandoning her to her fate. It would also explain why the court found her and the five men guilty – gossip, rumour and a climate of fun and flirtation could have sealed their fates.

Epilogue

Bernard finishes his book by saying that the Anne Boleyn he has presented is not the Anne who held Henry off for years, who inspired the break with Rome, who had a leading role in the English Reformation and who was the innocent victim of conspiracy. Instead, he explains how he has tried to “recover the historical Anne Boleyn” by reviewing all of the evidence. Although I do not agree with many of his theories, I have to applaud Bernard for his endeavours and for putting together such a good book. I’m glad to say that I can enjoy a book and respect Bernard’s views without agreeing with him. My Anne is still an innocent Anne and a victim of an awful miscarriage of justice.

Bernard concludes by saying:-

“The Anne that this book seeks to present is not an insignificant and submissive mistress. If the Anne to be found in teh sources, scrutinised and questioned rigorously as they have been here, is neither the Anne of protestant legend, nor Anne as a modern heroine, she nonetheless remains one of the most important figures in Tudor history.”

Appendix: The Portraits of Anne Boleyn

Bernard examines the various representations of Anne – the 1534 medal, two miniatures, the NPG and Hever Castle portraits, Holbein’s sketches, the Chequers locket ring – and also asks whether Holbein may have used Anne in his “Solomon and the Queen of Sheba painting. As there are so many uncertainties, Bernard guesses “that the Hever and NPG portraits, if they are not original (and until dendrochronology offers a definite date it is not clear why they cannot be original), were based on an original painted from the life by Holbein” but that we have to be cautious because we do not know their date or the identity of the sitter.

Notes

Bernard gives full notes and citations for each chapter and is very precise – volumes, page numbers etc.

Bibliography

This is split into Primary Sources: Manuscript, Primary Sources: Printed and Secondary Sources – again, full information is given.

Availability

“Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions” by G W Bernard is published by Yale University Press and has just been released in the UK. Click here to order it from Amazon UK or click here to pre-order it at Amazon.com (available 25th May 2010.

A Comment from Claire

I have been saddened recently by the behaviour of some history fans online. Fortunately, we have a wonderful community of Anne Boleyn fans here who have respect for people and their opinions, but there are some who seek to attack other historians, authors and history fans for their views – so sad. I thank you all for your support of this site, your wonderful comments which I never have to moderate or delete, and your enthusiasm for Anne Boleyn and her story – thank you!

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